Book Review-The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist’s Journey from Helplessness to Optimism

Martin Seligman is the father of positive psychology. In The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist’s Journey from Helplessness to Optimism, he chronicles his life and the life of positive psychology. While I’m not generally prone to reading biographies or autobiographies, The Hope Circuit isn’t exactly that. Instead, it’s a view into the world that led to one of the most important course corrections in psychology.

Academia

Academia, on the one hand, represents the potential for intensely mind-expanding experiences, where your life is altered in positive ways. On the other hand, academia can be a backbreaking slog through the submission of grant proposals and articles.

Seligman describes his mind-expanding experiences with conversations that weren’t in a classroom but instead in the Wilson Lodge at Princeton. He explains that he has spent much of his career trying to replicate these conversations, since he believes that they’re the heart of what university is about. Universities can concentrate scholars who think and care deeply about topics. Bringing them together has the capacity to change their lives and the lives of everyone. After all, we owe a great deal to the Medici family in Venice for bringing together a diverse set of masters to ignite what we would call the Renaissance. (See The Medici Effect for more.) These experiences are inherently life-expanding and life-giving.

Conversely, Seligman admits that his “batting average” with grants and articles getting published is around one in three. It’s quite easy to see how someone could – and would – become disenchanted when they realize that much of their best work would go undiscovered, unrecognized, and unfunded. Seligman even shares one of the loose ends from his professional career around our sexual development, which hasn’t ever been followed up on.

Learned Helplessness

Seligman is perhaps most well known for his work with Steve Maier and the discovery of learned helplessness. That is, animals will learn that they can’t control their circumstances and will just lie down and “take it” instead of trying to escape the pain.

From the outside looking in, it should be obvious that the dogs could escape the pain. They simply jump over the barrier, and they’re safe. But it wasn’t obvious to the dogs. They had learned that nothing they did changed their circumstances, so they just accepted the shocks without any attempt to flee.

Interestingly, Seligman distinguishes his life from the dogs that were in the experiment by saying that he never gave up, even when he got depressed.

Depression

The newly-arrived assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Jim Geer, walked into Seligman’s lab and said, “Those dogs are depressed.” Seligman then spent much of the next 10 years trying to understand to what depression is – and, more importantly for the rest of us, what psychological factors might make people more or less immune to depression.

While far from having a single answer, Seligman’s path took a turn from helpless to optimistic, and he continued to look for factors. Optimism might hold the key to preventing depression from grabbing ahold of someone and bringing them down.

The prevailing understanding of depressives is that they’re afflicted by an inaccurate perception of the world and their lack of control. However, research shows that depressives’ perceptions are more accurate when they have no control. They believe they have no control. It’s the optimists that are wrong in that they believe they have substantially more control when they have none – their average estimate was 35% control. Control – or perceived control – it seems was a component of depression.

Control

Seligman and Maier were wrong. Helplessness wasn’t learned. Belief of control was. The default operating mode of the brain is to assume that things outside of oneself aren’t controllable. It’s a part of our control network that manages the how we feel about our situation.

The default mode when facing pain is the activation of dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN), which releases serotonin (5-HT), which causes a series of releases that produce passivity and panic. That happens whether an animal is trained with “learned helplessness” or not. However, Maier himself identified that the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) creates a set of new proteins that shuts down the DRN.

So, while they were wrong about helplessness being learned, they had the fundamental actions right: the lack of control produced helplessness. It turns out that our perception of control is the hope we can do something about our struggles.

Hope

In my opinion, hope is the most powerful force in the universe. It allows us to reach for the stars and dig into the depths. Hope is what powers us through difficult – seemingly impossible – situations. And hope is based on the idea that things can or will change. For most of us, the perception of the change agent in hope is ourselves. In those with learned helplessness, they’ve not learned the illusion of control. (See Compelled to Control for more on the illusion.) Those with learned helplessness believe that things will always remain the same, because they can’t see anything that will change their situation and have no belief that they can have any impact.

C.R. Snyder in The Psychology of Hope broke hope into willpower (see Willpower) and “waypower.” Willpower is our belief that we can change things – and the courage to try. Waypower is our belief that we know how to change things – or the belief that it’s a solvable problem.

Though much of psychology has been focused on the past (and the hurts you acquired there) and the present (how you feel), hope moves us in the direction of the future. It’s a worthy goal when you’re looking to find a way for people to live out happy lives. It turns out that the way you think about your setbacks and the perception you have of your future makes a great deal of difference.

Attribution

The way that we attribute our failures along three dimensions dramatically influences their impact on us – and our ability to remain hopeful.

The first dimension is the internal vs. external dimension. Do I believe that I’m responsible for the problem or someone else is? Is the problem about me or the environment? Believing that I am responsible indicates an internal “locus of control.” In other words, I can – but may not choose to – change or address the problem. (My review of What Got You here Won’t Get You There speaks about the value of internal “locus of control.”)

The second dimension is whether the situation is temporary or permanent. There is a big difference between “I failed to make the three-point shot” and “I always miss three-point shots.” This is an area where Carol Dweck’s work in Mindset can be helpful.

The third, and final, dimension is whether the situation is specific or global. “I’m bad at geometric proofs” is different than “I’m bad at math.” The specific may be true but the global can almost never be true.

Viewing things as external, permanent, and global is a recipe for depression. Optimists tend to see problems as internal, temporary, and specific – expecting to get better the next time. While no one is an optimist or a pessimist at everything, each of us tends towards one of these directions.

Internal and External Validity

Controlled experiments hold a great deal of allure. It’s like a mathematical proof showing what causes what. Done correctly, you can seemingly answer a question completely. The problem is that the question is often very tiny. If the question is too large, it’s too hard to hold all the control variables in check and keep the experiment under control. Controlled experiments that answer tiny questions can be replicated by others and thereby validated. That’s the internal validity – they prove that, in these circumstances, X causes Y. In other words, they’re replicable. That’s the intrinsic beauty of them.

The problem with internal validity is that the real world isn’t neat, orderly, and controlled. Instead, the real world has complex problems and messy solutions. You can’t keep a fence around the real world to keep it out of your experiment. You can’t isolate all the variables with enough controls. However, what you can do is prove that something works in many (but not necessarily all) environments. You get the external validity that it works in the “real world” while accepting that the results aren’t as consistent or clear.

Both are absolutely necessary. You need the seeds of an idea to be created before it can be planted in the fertile soil of the world. However, no seed that isn’t planted becomes the plant it’s destined to be. Seligman, over his life, did both kinds of research but admits that external validity holds more interest now than internal validity. Perhaps that’s why he speaks of the Values in Action work that Chris Peterson did with reverence.

Values in Action

There are numerous personality type tests. I mentioned the Values in Action (ViA) test, available at www.authentichappiness.org for free, in my review of Seligman’s book Flourish. The test standard is largely alone in helping people find and leverage their greatest personality strengths – with the notable exception of the Clifton Strengths Finder test. (See Strengths Finder 2.0 for more on that test.) Tests like the Enneagram (see Personality Types), Reiss Motivation Profile (see The Normal Personality), Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, DiSC, etc. are all other ways to view personalities. There are also a host of other tests that are used more as weapons than ways to help. (See The Cult of Personality Testing for more.)

ViA allows you to focus on the values that are the most important to you and, in doing so, find ways to enjoy yourself and the life you’re creating with those around you in a more meaningful way.

Gross Domestic Happiness

Everyone has seen reports with the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on it, but the problem is that this measure doesn’t account for any of the things that make life worth living. It doesn’t account for friends and colleagues and relationships that enrich our lives. It values suffering, as those who are suffering consume products and services to alleviate their pain, while making no allowance for the loss of joy.

Maybe we need a new measure with components that we don’t yet know how to measure. Maybe instead of measuring the GDP, we should be measuring the Gross Domestic Happiness (GDH)– maybe then we can find a way to see how the things we’re doing to ourselves and others are making the world a better or a worse place. Maybe if we were focused on GDH, we’d all be in search of our own happiness and read The Hope Circuit.

Book Review-How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain

It’s sort of like sausage-making. You know what emotions are, but you’re not sure you want to know what goes in them. How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain takes you through the journey where emotions aren’t consistent across cultures – or even people. The journey, if you’re willing to believe it, flies in the face of the thoughts of dozens of researchers. I’m not convinced that Lisa Barrett has all the right answers with How Emotions Are Made – but at least there are some things to think about.

Ekman FACS

I’ve been a fan of Paul Ekman’s work for some time. (See Emotional Awareness, Telling Lies, and Nonverbal Messages: Cracking the Code.) Even the Pixar movie Inside Out is a brilliant story around emotions and how our rational and emotional selves co-inhabit the same body. Fundamental to Ekman’s work is the belief that microexpressions reveal what someone is thinking very quickly and briefly. The premise of his work is that the microexpressions response is a recognizable pattern that happens before your conscious mind has the ability to stop it.

From a neurological point of view, there are some reasons to support this thinking. There are separate sensory pathways that get differing levels of processing, some of which allow you to trigger fight or flight reactions very quickly. However, Barrett says that the research doesn’t support Ekman and his perspective that microexpressions are real and consistent.

The problem is that I’ve looked at the research – including the research cited by Barrett – and though it identifies a set of problems with the theory, including the problem of emotions not being distinct, the research is far from saying that the entire model is bad. Even research that was unable to replicate the findings of microexpressions universally across the face indicates that there is something happening.

Ekman himself says that you must exercise caution in that, even if you feel strongly that a microexpression indicates the presence of an emotion, you can’t determine why that emotion was triggered. There may be reasons why other experiments partially replicated the findings. It can be that microexpressions aren’t sufficiently distinct or that the experimental controls didn’t contain unexpected variables.

There are training programs that have been created from Ekman’s work on microexpressions – including his Facial Action Coding System (FACS) and training programs created for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The criticisms Barrett levels seem squarely pointed at the lack of efficacy of the training program for DHS. Having created training programs for many years, I know that there is a winding road between the lab and the lieutenant. Who knows whether the concept is bad, or the training wasn’t effective?

System 1 and System 2

Daniel Kahneman’s work Thinking, Fast and Slow is a powerful explanation of how we think. He uses an idea of System 1 and System 2: System 1 takes the most common, everyday tasks and refers to the more calorically more expensive System 2 when it can’t handle the job. Once something is habitualized, it ends up in System 1. It’s automatic. System 2 is deep and rational thought.

Kahneman is careful to say that he views these as mental models rather than specific indications of brain regions, but many have said that System 1 is the basal brain, including the amygdala, and System 2 is the prefrontal cortex. Barrett asserts that this localization isn’t true, that emotions are composed from all over the brain, and that the lack of an amygdala isn’t enough to suppress emotion.

Here, there are many pieces. Kahneman’s work is based off earlier work of researchers who have moved on to a three-part model instead of a two-part model. My friend Paul Culmsee finds this distinction particularly interesting while I do not. For me it’s just a refinement of a model.

What’s more interesting to me is the nuanced nature of our learning of the brain. Barrett speaks about how Broca’s area isn’t the only component of the brain necessary for speech. As luck would have it, I just recently finished The Tell-Tale Brain, which speaks extensively about how speech works from a neurological point of view. At one level, Barrett is correct that speech isn’t exclusively processed in Broca’s area. However, syntactic structure does appear to be centered in Broca’s area – and that is most commonly used in the creation of speech.

Because there is still so much that we don’t know about the brain, I think it would be premature to indicate that there isn’t a space where emotions are rooted or triggered.

Degeneracy

Many neurons can create the same outcomes. It’s a process that builds redundancy into our brains. For instance, there may be multiple pathways today that can trigger the same fear response. It’s the principle of degeneracy – multiple paths leading to the same result. This concept seems to be inefficient; however, the inefficiency results in resiliency, something that evolution may have needed more. Donella Meadows cautions in Thinking in Systems about over-optimization and the lack of resiliency. Nassim Taleb is slightly more direct in his criticisms of over-optimizing the system in The Black Swan and Antifragile.

The degeneracy and plasticity of our brains allow us to recover from seemingly unrecoverable brain damage. Neuroscience has found that brains will rewire themselves to support the needs of the individual, whether it’s the larger hippocampus for London cab drivers (who need more spatial memory), or it’s how the normal workload of a damaged portion of the brain is taken up by other parts of the brain.

Simulations

Barrett notes that one of the brain’s primary purposes – if not the primary purpose – is prediction. It makes models of the world around us and then uses those models to predict what will happen next. In the book Incognito, it is made clear that we’re not perceiving reality. We’re perceiving some made-up idea that our brains have concocted.

We use these concoctions as models and run simulations – what Barrett calls predictions. Gary Klein was clear in his belief that we develop these models unconsciously, and we use them to provide predictions. (See Sources of Power for more.) Ultimately, we adjust our predictions when we perceive that our predictions are incorrect.

The problem is that sometimes our ego prevents us from accepting the mismatch between reality and our predictions, because it’s unwilling to give up its grip on the perceptions that it holds. Sometimes we become blinded to the discrepancies in the world and our beliefs. This sometimes manifests in disorders like schizophrenia. In these situations, it’s difficult for the person to continue to realign themselves to reality and to prevent their perceptions from drifting too far. Somehow the mechanisms, like humor, aren’t sufficiently effective to hold perception and reality into relative alignment. (See Inside Jokes for more on humor as a correction mechanism for predictions.)

Interpreting Interoception

Most people can describe bodily sensations which match their moods. Before taking a test or performing on stage someone might discover they have “butterflies in their stomach.” This is perceived as an indicator of anxiety. If you ask someone how they felt the first time they were kissed or when preparing for a special date, they may report the same feelings. In fact, you’ll infer the emotion that I’m trying to convey with “butterflies in my stomach” based on the context. You’ll assume I’m excited or anxious depending upon the context. We have learned to listen to our bodies and evaluate how we feel about something based on the way that our bodies are reacting. Our heart rate quickening may be a result of a spark of fear.

The problem that Barrett raises is that we can – and do – interpret our bodies signals incorrectly. We believe that we’re becoming attracted to someone – when we really have the flu. (Her example from the book.) Sometimes the things that we interpret as coming from our mental state are just side effects of our body doing its normal processing.

Our brain can and does make wild predictions about what is happening to our bodies on very little evidence.

Affect, Arousal and Valence

Affect, as described by Barrett, is a general sense of feeling – not an emotion, but simply a feeling. Other definitions say that affect is the expression of emotion. Affect is described as having two dimensions – arousal and valence. Arousal is how alert or relaxed you are – effectively, the relative state of the competing sympathetic (aroused) and parasympathetic (non-aroused) systems. Valence is how pleasant or unpleasant you feel.

I can say that I use an exercise in my information architecture workshops where I hand folks emotion words and ask them to categorize them. The intent is to indicate the degree of difficulty that sometimes occurs with content that you’re unfamiliar with. One of the most common dimensions that students attempt to categorize emotions into are positive and negative. Interestingly, Buddhists believe that emotions are afflictive or non-afflictive rather than positive or negative. (See Emotional Awareness.) Their point is that anger, for instance, can be non-afflictive if it motivates you to address the disappointment (anger is disappointment directed) and afflictive if it paralyzes you or causes you to ruminate.

Categorization

Barrett points out that, when we create categories, we’re not discovering similarities in the world, but rather we’re creating them. When my students are categorizing, they’re creating mental structures that allow them to simplify objects into categories that they can work with. These categories don’t objectively exist in the world, but they exist inside the heads of my students.

For each category, there’s a representative prototype. That is, for “furniture,” you’ll see a specific object. For most folks, it’s a chair, a couch, or a table. (I’ve done this exercise a few times.) If you put rugs into the furniture category, it will be difficult for other folks to find it there because the specific item looks and “feels” nothing like the prototype. Therefore, developing information architecture is difficult. You must recognize that not everyone sees things the same way, and there will be some items that don’t fit the prototype. Once you’ve created a category, you’ll fall into the trap of the curse of knowledge (see The Art of Explanation) and be unable to think that others don’t know about the category.

Concept Development and Prediction

It’s a simpler model to think about information being processed linearly, from individual sensations up through concepts and into our perception. However, the reality is that the process isn’t linear. Things don’t flow only in one direction, from the many sensory neurons to the neuron clusters making up concepts. Instead, as we learned in The Tell-Tale Brain, the path is bidirectional. The information is fed upward, and as concepts are formed and predictions are made, that information is fed back into the neurons that are working on less-processed data.

We push data back from our concept into what we see, in some sense distorting it by amplifying the attributes that match our expectations. This isn’t a desirable situation but rather an adaptation. It is how evolution allowed us to be successful with so little processing power. We swing the spotlight of attention to the areas that are the most interesting. We identify ways of recognizing things that don’t require further processing and ways of identifying those that do.

We like to believe that the concepts we see are independent of our beliefs or predictions, but this isn’t the case. We see, as Chris Aryris said, what we expect to see. (See Organizational Traps.)

Words, Collective Intentionality, and Emotions

Barrett argues that emotions are social realities. They are, in a sense, a way of communicating our inner state to others. She further argues that having a word – or a name for the emotion — makes this substantially easier than having an emotion for which we have no word. (Actually, in some places, she implies it can’t be done, and in others, concedes it’s possible, just difficult.)

So, I’ll concede that our emotions are more complex than we’d like to believe. There’s more going on than a simple amygdala hijack. (See Emotional Intelligence.) There are ways of reducing sensitivity to amygdala hijack. There are factors – like adverse childhood events (ACE) that make it more likely. (See How Children Succeed.) So are our emotions constructed from our previous experience and our skills? Yes. However, I’m not convinced that this means that we have to “throw out the baby with the bathwater.”

I often think of Jonathan Haidt’s Elephant-Rider-Path model. (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch.) The rider can’t control the elephant when the elephant really wants something. However, I think of the rider-elephant relationship, and how your emotions can be calmed when the elephant (emotion) trusts that the rider (rational reason) will respect it and keep both the rider and the elephant safe. Building that metaphoric trust is the way that I believe we get better at managing our emotions.

I still don’t believe that I’ve figured out How Emotions are Made – and though I’ve got dozens of issues with Barrett’s sometimes skewed data and logic, the challenge of our assumptions about how emotions work makes it worth the time. Who knows, maybe you’ll figure out How Emotions Are Made.

Book Review-Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life

Depression is a deeply personal thing. Each person confronts the demon differently. Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life is the story of one woman’s journey through suicide, depression, and, particularly, acedia. I got drawn into the story by the distinction between acedia and depression.

I wanted to understand if what we were seeing in our world today was not depression but was instead something called “acedia.” Along the twisting road that Acedia & Me follows, I had to solidify my understanding of depression.

What is Depression?

Depressive disorders get their own section inside of the DSM-5. The DSM-5 is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is published by the American Psychiatric Association. In the previous edition, depressive disorders were lumped in with bipolar disorders; but the prevalence and importance warranted additional space, attention, and focus. DSM-5 considers depression a cluster of disorders but says, “The common feature of all of these disorders is the presence of sad, empty, or irritable mood, accompanied by somatic and cognitive changes that significantly affect the individual’s capacity to function” (p. 155). A key distinguishing factor for depression isn’t found in the mainline text but is instead buried in a footnote on page 161 – “In distinguishing grief from a major depressive episode (MDE), it is useful to consider that in grief the predominant affect is feelings of emptiness and loss, while in an MDE it is a persistent depressed mood and the inability to anticipate happiness or pleasure.” Depression is the presence of a depressed mood, but, more critically, it’s an inability to feel pleasure.

Here though we see the problem with the diagnosis of depression and the associated definitions. It’s too broad. It includes too much. Someone who feels the need to get out and contribute to the world but simultaneously feels like the weight of doing so is too heavy fits the criteria. So, too, does someone who is sad. The guidelines in DSM-5 calls the duration of the mood two weeks or longer to qualify as depression – with a few exceptions – so there is established a time component to distinguish it from grief, but the qualifications are still needed to be clear.

Depression and Suicide

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers has something important to say about the relation of depression to suicide: “The psychomotor retardation accounts for one of the important clinical features of depressions, which is that severely, profoundly depressed people rarely attempt suicide.” Despite this direct inverse correlation, depression is often associated with suicide.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t an incidence of suicide and depression together – it happens, Acedia & Me explains, as Kathleen Norris discusses her husband’s struggles with a suicide attempt. It’s to say that though depression and suicidal ideation are often assessed together – and indeed DSM-5 calls out suicidal ideation as one of several diagnostic criteria for depression – there seems to be pointers that make depression and suicidal thoughts different.

Choosing Depression

Making things even more complicated is that Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers predicts depression will be the largest medical reason for disability by the year 2020. William Glassier directly warns against the ills of believing in the change of brain chemistry, including the use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) in Warning: Psychiatry May Be Hazardous to Your Health. With SSRI effectiveness in the range of 50-60% and placebo effects in the 47-50% range, it’s easy to see why there may not be much effect. This is a part of broader thoughts that some folks need to realize that they can choose something other than their depression as expressed in Choice Theory. This aligns well with Carol Dweck’s work in Mindset, where she explains that a growth (or malleable) mindset is more valuable than a fixed one.

For my own perspective, I accept that there are some people with neurochemical deficiencies in the brain that impact their ability to avoid depression. In those cases, drugs like SSRIs can be helpful. However, the research seems to say that cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) should be used. Only if that’s ineffective should SSRIs be added – and only for as long as necessary to allow the CBT to be effective. (See Redirect for more about CBT.) The long-term consequences of SSRIs (and other psychotropic drugs) are still being discovered. Recently a friend was published with a link between dementia and SSRI use.

Whatever you or I might believe about depression, acedia is something different. It’s something that gets swooped up into the broad definition of depression, yet it has a different mark on the person who is afflicted.

How is Acedia Different from Depression?

The definitions for acedia vary but often contain the words “apathy,” “boredom,” and “torpor.” At its Greek root, it means “absence of care.” Acedia & Me spends much of the book trying to precisely define what it is. The problem with the definition is that much of what acedia is has been swallowed up into the idea of depression. Depression has picked up more than sadness or lack of joy but also is diagnosed with “fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day.” The criteria for depression may inadvertently be picking up folks afflicted by something different – acedia.

Acedia misses the other symptoms of depression, unless you take a path through burnout.

Bridging through Burnout

In the review of Burnout: The Cost of Caring, I discussed how the classic definitions of burnout include being overwhelmed, cynical, or having a reduced personal efficacy. The outcomes of burnout are quite often depression. A cynical attitude sounds depressing to me. The road to depression from acedia may only have one stop – and that stop is burnout.

However, when defined in the context of a perceived lack of personal efficacy and therefore a lack of ability to control outcomes, we may find that acedia is caused by burnout. After all, if you’re feeling like there’s nothing you can do to control your life or your outcomes, what’s the point in caring about them?

The causality of the arrow isn’t clear. Does burnout cause acedia, or does acedia cause burnout – or neither? What is clear is that there is a relationship between burnout, acedia, and depression. So, while acedia may be something separate, because it is so often followed closely by depression, it makes sense that it might get misdiagnosed that way.

Misdiagnosis aside, how do you avoid the trio of conditions: burnout, acedia, and depression? How do you hold onto that idea that you are effective at moving towards your goals – particularly when you don’t know what your goals are?

Finding Life’s Purpose

In reading Acedia & Me, I was struck by the twists and turns that Norris’ life followed and the quest to find what mattered most to her. Writing was a part of who she was and what she wanted to do, but the stories conveyed that this was just one part of her world, that there remained an inner turmoil which couldn’t quite be tamed. In explaining her fears of having children and her time running the family farm, she exposed the lack of articulated goals. It wasn’t that she wouldn’t have a great impact on the world – she has. It wasn’t that she wasn’t learning deeply her faith, something that so few people even try. Instead, there was this yearning for something that was missing or wasn’t quite set right.

Most people wander through life never really pondering the mark they want to make. For some, there are unconscious answers, like having kids and raising them to be “fine upstanding citizens.” They want to teach children to help them be better prepared to contribute to the world. For others, their careers are important. The scientists want to make the next big discovery that will change the course of humankind – even if only slightly.

Few have had the patience and persistence to really understand what they want to leave the world with. Simon Sinek suggests that we Start with Why as we seek to motivate others – and that’s good advice we should accept for ourselves. However, it was the earliest monks who first described acedia. Didn’t they have their big why – to devote their lives to God?

In a sense, yes. They knew whom they were serving, but I suspect they may have had trouble articulating how they were going to make their unique contribution. What good can an individual monk in a monastery make? It turns out quite a lot, if you read the writings of some of the more famous monks. However, it’s hard to articulate a specific goal. It’s easier to answer with the platitude to know more about God or to be more Christ-like.

Perhaps they had their “why”, but they didn’t have Clayton Christensen’s insight to ask, “How Will You Measure Your Life?” The question is subtly different, but that subtlety matters. If you ask how you’ll measure your life, you’re asking a question that helps you know if you’re making progress. The monotony of the life of a monk is legendary. If you have nothing to measure your progress with, how will you keep from not caring and simply going through the motions – or not even doing that?

In the end, Acedia & Me seems to draw no firm conclusions. There’s no redemptive end to acedia for Norris (that she shares in the book, at least). There is, however, a chronicle of how she experienced it, lived through it, and learned to persevere. Perhaps that’s all we can ask for. I’d prefer to think that there’s a resilience from burnout and acedia in shaping our perceptions about what we want to do in the world – and how we think we’re doing. (See Hardwiring Happiness for changing our perspective.) Generation X – of which I am a member – was supposed to have lost their faith (see America’s Generations). I, however, continue to hold on to the belief that the world is getting better, and I’m doing my part to change it for the better. I hope to say that I never have to walk such that I feel it’s just Acedia & Me.

Book Review-Burn-out: The High Cost of High Achievement

I like tracking back to the beginning of a topic. I want to know where things started. That’s what I found in Burn-out: The High Cost of High Achievement. I had previously reviewed some of Christina Maslach’s work – Burnout: The Cost of Caring – but her work started after or near the same time as Herbert Freudenberger. The writing is very different. Freudenberger’s perspective is down in the trenches and real.

As a working therapist – and someone who had personally experienced burnout by trying too hard to save the world without recognizing limitations – Freudenberger’s work is real and, in some places, raw.

Something is Missing

Have you ever struggled with something that was at the far edge of your consciousness? Maybe it’s song lyrics that you just can’t quite place. Maybe it’s a someone you saw, but you can’t remember their name – or where you know them from. Most people have experienced the sensation of knowing that something is there, but they just cannot get to it.

That’s one of the ways that Freudenberger describes his experience. His patients kept looking for that something missing in their world. They felt like their lives would be complete with their next accomplishment. The next rung on the ladder is all they had to reach to make themselves whole. However, the problem is, as Oscar Wilde put it, “In this world there are two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, the other is getting it.”

If you do get what you want, then what next? On the other side, not getting what you want leaves you with a longing. That longing, properly modulated, provides the pull forward into the future. However, improperly managed, it can cause stress that you’re not enough – or that you’re never going to make it.

For high achievers, who were Freudenberger’s clients, there’s always that something missing. Those who learned to manage it well found a way to leave his office whole. Those who couldn’t figure out how to modulate that pull continued to struggle.

Not Whole

There are two ways to look at our strivings. First, we’re looking to fill a hole in our soul. It’s that something missing that Freudenberger’s clients struggled with. This is working from the perspective of a deficit that must be redeemed. Second, you can approach the struggle as a way to build upon a firm foundation. You can view the strivings as a “+1” to everyone’s life.

For those who are struggling in the pit of burnout, it’s the first – deficient –perspective that they hold. It’s that things are not enough. It’s that, individually, they are not enough. This is the trap of burnout. You begin to feel like you’re not enough. Instead of your strivings being life-giving, being a way that you can share your light with the world, it becomes more and more proof that you’re not enough.

Like the burnt-out shells of buildings, burned out people feel like they’re empty, hollow, and missing something. They feel as if they’re not whole.

Blindness

In every case of burnout, there’s some element of blindness. There’s a blindness to the person’s truth about themselves, including their completeness as a rational and emotional being, or about the world around them. The blindness results in a misalignment with themselves or the world. This misalignment makes it difficult for someone to function effectively.

Blindness to oneself and your own identity is tragic. It’s like never getting to know the only person you’ll never get away from – yourself. You never find out who the person really is, because you can’t see some aspect of them. This kind of blindness leads us to doing things in ways that deny part of ourselves.

Blindness to the world prevents us from seeing how the world really is. In doing so, we can’t adapt and function in ways that are harmonious. It’s like walking through the dark and constantly stubbing our toes on furniture, because we just don’t know it’s there. It’s much easier to walk across the room safely when you can see where to step – and where not to. You can expect to make it across the room quickly and without injury only when you can see the room completely.

Expectation Management

With blindness, we land in a world where our expectations – of ourselves and our world – are out of whack. This leads us to believe that we’re incapable of our goals – or that our goals are too easy and should be within our grasp too soon.

Both perspectives lead us to burnout. One because we can’t see the path that leads us to success, and the other because we become frustrated and disillusioned that we’re not seeing the results we expect. Reality keeps leaking in around our blindness to make us aware that we’re not achieving the goals we set for ourselves.

Instead of finding ways to adjust our expectations into the appropriate range, we find ourselves disturbed by the experience and looking for escapes. We find ourselves looking to coping skills to ease the pain that our reality doesn’t match our perceptions.

Luxury to Necessity

The path to addiction isn’t one step. One drink of alcohol does not afflict you with alcoholism. The path to disfunction, and addiction, is converting a coping skill from a luxury or occasional indulgence into a necessity. An addiction counselor colleague said that it’s not that the alcoholic wants a drink, it’s that they feel this overwhelming, visceral need to have a drink.

What may have started as a luxury to help them cope in a difficult time has become for them the only way they know how to survive. It’s no different to them than eating, drinking water, or breathing. To use Freudenberger’s words, their luxury had become a necessity.

The burned-out person is susceptible to addiction, because they need the coping strategy to function. Instead of the coping helping them deal with life, they’ve transitioned to the coping being required for life.

Staring into the Darkness

Because burnout is, in Freudenberger’s perspective, somewhat about the blindness, it’s important to find that blindness. Finding the blindness about ourselves and our perspectives on the world is not easy. Our views of the world are deeply held, and our brains work diligently to reinforce their beliefs, so disconfirming data is difficult to see. However, seeing the world as it truly is – seeing past the blind spots for the outside world – is relatively speaking easy.

Looking into the blind spots inside ourselves is substantially harder. It’s harder for people to peer into the darkness of their own soul to see the parts of themselves that they want to deny and ignore. It’s hard to accept that the perfect image they’ve been projecting isn’t the real person.

Finding the blindness inside of oneself is much like staring into the darkness and waiting for the light to emerge. It takes courage to stand and face the darkness for a long period of time. Physiologically, our eyes become more sensitive to light the longer we’re exposed to low levels. Thus, the more that we stare into darkness, the more we can see. However, it’s difficult to be willing to avoid looking at the light for long enough for this to happen.

Psychologically staring into the darkness is similarly difficult and similarly we get more clarity the more we’re willing to stare into the darkness of ourselves the more likely it is that we can cure – or partially cure – the blindness that we have about ourselves as a whole person.

False Cures

The darkness is easy to turn away from with something that’s new and exciting. Taking up SCUBA diving or skydiving gives a momentary thrill that is capable of making someone feel more alive at a time when they’re burned out and empty inside. These kinds of thrills – and thrills like doing illegal things – provide a momentary high that make it appear that everything is alright. It’s possible to feel once again and the feelings are good. However, the suppression of feelings that is caused by burnout returns soon enough.

When Freudenberger wrote his book, self-harm “wasn’t a thing.” However, today it’s a challenge that counselors deal with as children and adults seek to feel something by inflicting pain on themselves. These poor folks, as I understand it, have suppressed their feelings to such a degree that the only way for them to feel is to cut. Sure, it’s pain, but it’s something. They’ve denied feelings to such an extent that nothing else cuts through the blockade. They’ve literally got to find a way to inflict pain to be able to feel anything again. This too is, of course, a false cure. It’s only temporarily relieving the core problem that they have – which is their lack of feeling.

It’s easier to fall into the trap of a false cure rather than stare into the darkness and develop a sensitivity to how we feel and to let those feelings out – no matter how scary that may be initially. By externalizing the solution to the problem, we’re looking outside for relief from the disharmony that exists inside.

Being Content

Freudenberger makes the point that our reality is subjective by saying that one man may be perfectly content making $20,000 per year. (You may need to adjust his numbers, since they’re from a few decades ago.) Another man may be unhappy making $100,000. Our expectations drive our acceptance of our reality, but there’s something more.

There is an aspect of being content. That is, there’s a tension between accepting things as they really are and, at the same time, the desire to make them better. Instead of feeling like it’s broken, incomplete, or not enough, you can feel like it can be improved, that there’s a better answer, and that there’s more that can be done.

Successes Amply Balance Out Failures

Evolution favors the organism that pays attention to their failures. (See Hardwiring Happiness for more.) As a result, we’re predisposed to ruminate more on our failures than to celebrate our accomplishments. Over time, this imbalance of attention leads us to believe that our failures outweigh our successes. We gloss over the accolades that we receive and instead see only the negative feedback – constructive or otherwise.

One of the difficulties that leads to burnout is the belief that we are a failure – or that our failures mean we won’t ultimately be successful in our goals. We believe that we aren’t enough, because we see the ledger with more red ink than black. However, we neglect the fundamental understanding that we are human beings with both faults and function. All of us can do great things – and fail at others.

You Are Not What You Do

High achievers tend to see their value in terms of how they’re able to accomplish things. They’ve grown accustomed to constant reinforcement that they are valuable or interesting or special because of the things that they do. What happens when the accomplishments temporarily falter? It’s like breaking the surface tension of a bubble. The bubble falls apart when a small break occurs in the surface tension.

There will be breaks in the feedback and accolades coming in. The random nature of our world ensures this will be a reality. One of the ways that high achievers can avoid burnout is to avoid building a dependence on these accolades – and perhaps by reading Burn-out: The High Cost of High Achievement.

Book Review-Burnout: The Cost of Caring

It’s been many years now since I first experienced burnout – and since I have written about it. I was not – and am not – in the kind of professions that Christina Maslach focuses on in her book Burnout: The Cost of Caring, but I experienced burnout just the same. My works were Tips for Identifying Burnout in Yourself and Your Staff (June 23, 2003) and Breaking Out of Burnout Mode at Work (June 30, 2003). They were part of a weekly column I was writing at the time. I expressed a general sense of what burnout is and some useful tips for getting out of it, but I didn’t have the clarity on the topic that I now have. Unfortunately, Burnout: The Cost of Caring doesn’t seem to offer any more clarity than my articles so many years ago. However, there some nuggets to be gained.

Compassion Fatigue

Most people in IT aren’t labeled with compassion fatigue. They’re assumed to have no compassion to begin with. However, in professions such as nursing, psychiatric counseling, and others, the people who start out with a great deal of compassion for others seem to have lost their way and become burdened by that same compassion. What once was the primary gift they wanted to give the world has become the burden that they can’t lift.

To some degree, it can be that no one ever bothered to look to see what compassion really was. It felt good to take care of others and receive that recognition that you were being a good girl or boy. As people grow up, they continue to look for that same recognition and find roles or professions where that is designed to be the case. You can go into nursing, teaching, or counseling to be told what a great job you’re doing with patients – or what a noble cause it is.

However, compassion is the awareness of desire to alleviate the suffering of another human being. (See the post Sympathy, Empathy, Compassion and Altruism for more.) This is not the benefit that people want from compassion-focused professions. They want a result that involves being recognized for their compassion.

Lack of Recognition

The problem with doing compassionate professions in a way that meets expectations is that there is generally no recognition. While working on productions – whether church services or plays – if the technical team did their jobs right, no one noticed. That’s the point. We’d serve in a way that removed the distractions from the performance. When meeting expectations in compassion-based professions, you rarely hear any feedback or praise.

Perhaps it’s because there is so little recognition for a job done well, even if the role is vital, that it has made getting meaningful feedback from managers, peers, and subordinates such a big factor in whether people stay in their jobs or leave. However, the larger issue is not whether they stay with a company but whether they stay happy and engaged.

Burnout Basics

I disagree with Maslach about the basics of burnout and how it functions, more in sequence and severity rather than the observations of its results. Maslach says that burnout is defined by exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. However, I believe that the root that allows burnout to grow is perceived inefficacy. That is, observationally in myself and others, I find that burnout has nothing – or little – to do with hard work. Attitude influences whether someone believes that they’re being effective or not – but it’s an influence on the perception of efficacy.

So, while burnout – according to Maslach – seems to have three roots, I believe the real root cause is the belief in personal efficacy.

Nothing Ever Happens

There’s a Del Amitri song titled “Nothing Ever Happens.” It’s about the continual monotony of life and our struggle to make it better. The truth is that life is monotony. Wake up, eat, do some work, and, ultimately, go to sleep again. The cycle repeats endlessly.

There is, however, inside of us a desire to make our world or our society something better. That desire to make things better distorts our expectations such that we expect that each day will be just a little bit brighter, a little bit less work, and a little easier. So, while we repeat the same patterns, we long to make them different – better.

Mind the Gap

Ultimately, our perceived lack of personal efficacy is the gap between what we expect that we can and should do and the results we see. Change or Die explains that we’re all slightly delusional. We all think we’re more powerful than we are. We believe that we’re better than other people, and we ultimately have more control than we do. Consider that depressed people aren’t viewing the world negatively, they’re viewing it realistically. They have more realistic perspectives on their power and capabilities than their non-depressed contemporaries.

So the problem with personal efficacy is to set the bar high enough that we strive to reach it – and not so high that we’re disappointed in ourselves when we don’t reach it. The mental state of flow and the research around it suggests that we should have the right balance between skills and challenge – and that gap might be around 4%. (See The Rise of Superman for more.)

Our ego is a powerful thing capable of bending our perception of reality. (See Incognito for more about how our perceptions are important, not objective reality.) However, at some point, even the ego feels the strain of repeatedly having one expectation and not being able to meet those expectations. Burnout is the perception that things won’t get better – because we’re not seeing the results that we expect.

Perception

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether we’re objectively making progress. What does matter is the perception of whether we’re making progress. Given the “What you see is all there is” bias, it’s easy to believe that not seeing immediate progress means there isn’t any progress. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more about this bias.)

Even folks for whom the outside measures appear to be going well don’t necessarily feel like they’re making progress – or making enough progress. We can ride over these moments of feeling like we’re not getting anything accomplished if they don’t occur for too long or come too frequently. In effect, we can say, “I know it doesn’t look like we’re making progress now, but overall we are.”

The problem when the impacts come too strongly or too frequently is that we’re not able to smooth over the rough patches, and all we end up with is rough times trying to reach our goals.

Find Your Why

To figure out whether you’re making progress or not, it’s necessary to understand your goals – or not. One of the challenges that face most humans is that they’re not clear about their goals. Their goals are uninspiring and unarticulated like “just to survive another day;” or they’re lofty, poorly-formed, and unrealistic such as “end world hunger.” In both cases, the lack of clarity has a negative impact on the ability to see progress towards the goal.

Simon Sinek wrote Start with Why, which explains that we as humans need to know why we’re doing something before we’ll want to do it. Clayton Christensen, James Allworth, and Karen Dillon wrote How Will You Measure Your Life? In it, they seek to focus readers on the things that are important to them in the long term. Books like these – and others – encourage self-reflection to understand what we’re doing and why. It’s these “why” questions that focus us on the ways that we measure progress. Whether we know our why or not, we’ll still measure everything on its ability to move us towards that why.

Framework not Foundation

A word of caution about finding your why and articulating it exactly. Robert Pozen shares dozens of life tips in Extreme Productivity, including the expected tips about having a plan and executing against that plan. However, as he closes the book, he admits that the greatest opportunities and successes in his life didn’t come from the well-measured and planned activities. They came from the random things that chance and life brought him.

Most of the great people I’ve known didn’t set out to be exactly who they are. Often times, the contributions that people make to society are in the general field that they intended to be in but not exactly where they left their mark.

How to Measure

Nebulous things like where you want to go in life, your why, are often difficult to nail down. They’re not the kinds of goals that can be defined as SMART. SMART goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. The goals of our life aren’t like that. There aren’t any stopping rules. (Which would make them a wicked problem, as defined by Dialogue Mapping.)

Despite their nebulous nature, you can seek to find indicators that help you know you’re making progress along the path. Sometimes you can define specific components of the goal that you can measure. For instance, if you want to feel like you’re making a difference in people’s lives, you might have a specific goal like: “I’ll receive more written compliments this year than last.” As long as you don’t try to manipulate the system to get more written compliments, this can be a good measure of whether you’re making progress. (If you want to understand how interference may have negative long-term effects, you might look at Thinking in Systems.)

Ultimately, nothing is impossible to get more information about by measurement; it’s just that some measurements are easier than others to make. Some are more accurate – or indicative – than others. Douglas Hubbard explains in How to Measure Anything, well, how to measure anything. If you’re struggling to find a way to measure progress towards your goals, it’s worth a look.

Burnout Doesn’t Require Clarity

Though finding your why and understanding how you’re making progress towards your life goals, it’s important to recognize that whether you can articulate your goals or not, they’re still there. And much like the framework suggested in The ONE Thing, there is generally a why at the heart of each area of your life. Collectively these “whys” make you who you are.

Equally important to recognize is that progress in one area of your life may discourage burnout in another area. If you’re seeing great rewards and progress with your children, you may find it possible to withstand soul-crushing work experiences without the slightest hint of burnout.

Burnout Is Not Your Fault

It used to be that employers expected employees to leave their personal problems at home. They were aware that employees were humans with lives outside of work, but that wasn’t what they were being paid for – so it shouldn’t interfere with work. A part of this attitude included that burnout, whatever it might be, is a personal problem – a defect of character – and shouldn’t enter the workplace. This led burnout to be treated in silence and shame rather than being viewed as a business problem.

Times have changed. The way that businesses run has changed, because they’ve had to. Employees want to bring their whole selves to whatever they do. They expect organizations to accept and embrace the fact that they’ve got personal lives outside of work. Organizations have learned that employee engagement is a problem that’s sucking productivity out of employees. They’ve learned – some begrudgingly – that an employee’s problem is their problem.

Employee assistance programs were developed to allow employees to seek counseling and other services. These kinds of problems were once considered outside of the corporate purview, but the issues addressed by these programs are seen as causing performance problems at work – and thus worthy of employer concern.

So we’ve moved from a place where burnout wasn’t talked about or accepted to a world where burnout is a part of the larger problem of a lack of engagement, and it’s something that organizations want to address – cheaply and easily, of course.

This is good news for the employee who doesn’t have to feel isolated and alone in their experience of burnout. The bad news is that few people still understand its causes and what to do about them.

Personal Efficacy

The heart of burnout is, as stated above, the lack of belief in personal efficacy. However, this is a fine line. There is a level of self-agency that’s required – the belief in the ability to impact the outcomes in your life. However, too much self-agency leads to the belief that you control the outcomes, and therefore when you don’t get the outcomes you want or expect, you’ve somehow failed.

Too little self-agency, and you’ll feel learned helplessness. You’ll feel like what you do doesn’t matter. Too much and you’ll be a narcissist who believes that you can get the outcomes that you want in the face of insurmountable odds.

To manage burnout well, it’s necessary to manage the perception of personal efficacy such that you believe you have influence on the outcome – but not control.

Detachment

Learning to detach from the outcome – that is, to accept that you can only do what you can do, and the outcome will be whatever it is – is critical to mitigating the risk of burnout. When you realize that you don’t control the outcome – that you only influence it – you don’t have to accept that a failure to get the desired result means you’re a failure. (The Happiness Hypothesis has a more detailed conversation about detachment and it’s importance.)

But Wait, There’s More

Through a set of unusual circumstances, we’ve decided to put together a new training program titled “Burnout: Prevention and Recovery.” It picks up where this review leaves off – and where Burnout: The Cost of Caring couldn’t go. If you believe that we’re on the right track with this thinking that builds on the work of others but also converts it into something more tangible, real, and addressable, reach out and let us know, so we can keep you up to date on our progress.

Book Review-Collaborative Intelligence: Thinking with People Who Think Differently

No one is as smart as all of us – sometimes that’s very true and sometimes not. What makes people work together in a way where all their talents are expanded instead of diminished? That’s the idea behind Collaborative Intelligence: Thinking with People Who Think Differently. It’s another tome in the quest to find the best way to work with one another.

[Note: In the short form, the title Collaborative Intelligence collides with another book by Richard Hackman called Collaborative Intelligence. In fairness, Hackman’s book does a better job of helping folks understand collaboration.]

Thinking Differently

At the heart of working with others is the capacity to leverage their strengths to make your weaknesses irrelevant. Much of that is understanding how to identify the best ways to work with others and to leverage their strengths. This is the same kind of idea that Liz Wiseman applies to Multipliers, those managers who bring out the best in others. However, it applies to team members as well as managers.

Much of being effective at working with others is in figuring out how they think differently and how to communicate across the void.

Kinesthetic, Auditory, and Visual

I had challenges with Collaborative Intelligence because much of the “research” that they claimed to have done was either built on myth or not done at all. The fundamentals behind different learning styles – as the kinesthetic, auditory, and visual – come from Edgar Dale’s “cone of experience.” Originally proposed as a framework, it was given some false retention percentages and became dubbed official. However, Dale never put percentages down – everything that’s here is false. (See our white paper “Measuring Learning Effectiveness” for more.)

Even though this breakdown is on such an insecure foundation, there does seem to be some evidence that people do have preferential learning styles. However, it’s unclear whether these are differences in cognitive approaches or if they’re just preferred learning styles.

I found the sorting that Collaborative Intelligence tried to do between these styles not helpful. The questions misidentified me as a kinesthetic thinker, when I’m – in actuality – a very highly visual learner.

Strengths Finders

The second breakdown are what Collaborative Intelligence calls “thinking patterns”. The book admits to adapting the strengths from Gallup’s Strengths Finder and using them in their model. They put in much from Gallup and a bit from a guy named Ned Herrmann.

Generally, I found the Gallup approach to be more clear and useful, but in one way, these thinking patterns were useful. Gallup communicates from strengths and misses – I feel – how these strengths can become liabilities. Collaborative Intelligence makes a point of saying what these strengths look like when viewed as weaknesses.

This is reminiscent of the Enneagram (see Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery), in that the Enneagram speaks of levels of effectiveness. You can be wired in a way and be highly functional – or you can be very dysfunctional. Knowing how to identify strengths in yourself and others and then realizing when those strengths aren’t being used effectively is powerful in building relationships.

Diversity of Thought

People who think differently are diverse people. They’re different. While Collaborative Intelligence seeks to create ways to allow people who think differently to work together, The Difference provides a better foundation.

While the subtitle conveys that the book will teach skills to work with people who think differently than you, the reality is that the book stops well and truly short of giving you useful strategies. It does communicate differences, but not what to do about them. Dialogue points to the three languages that people use – power, meaning, feeling – which is practical, because you can choose to communicate in a way that addresses all three of these primary communication needs.

Burn Out

At some level, I’m sure that folks are going to feel like I’m nit-picking with Collaborative Intelligence by mentioning this, but it’s important to me that we use the right terms to speak about things. The book shares the things that positively and negatively influence folks with various thinking styles. Over simplifying – and using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator – if you approach a feeling person with thinking or vice-versa, there’s bound to be some friction. That’s negative influence. Conversely, when you encounter others with your thinking style, it’s frequently a very positive experience.

My issue comes from the language. For positive, they use “lights you up,” and for negative, they use “burns you out.” Except it doesn’t burn you out. Burnout is feeling like nothing is ever changing, that your situation won’t improve, and the resistance you’re currently seeing will be the same resistance you’ll get forever. It was 2003 when I wrote the article Tips for identifying burnout in yourself and your staff. The same year, I wrote Talking Shop: Breaking out of burnout mode at work.

In those articles I lay out what burnout is, how to identify it, and what to do about it. It frustrates me when there’s a whole language (a non-trivial amount of the content) that is delivered with language that isn’t consistent with the message they’re trying to send.

Connecting Communication

By now, it’s probably clear that Collaborative Intelligence wasn’t my favorite book. There are too many places where it’s sloppy, built on poor foundation, or uses the wrong terminology. However, there is one hidden gem that I think everyone needs to know about. That is, you should choose a communication strategy that addresses the needs of everyone in the room. I often find myself doing one to two sentences in my responses that are targeted at different people in the room – to ensure to them that I did hear them, and I appreciate their concerns.

So while I can’t necessarily recommend that people read Collaborative Intelligence, there are many places where I believe the concepts are the right concepts to think about – they’re just not always delivered “right.”

Special Event: Burnout: Prevention and Recovery

We (Rob and Terri) will be delivering a workshop titled Burnout: Prevention and Recovery at the Medical Academic Center at 13225 North Meridian St, Carmel, IN 46032 on November 15th from 6PM-8PM. A light dinner will be provided. Registration is free and open to everyone.

Burnout strikes without warning. It leaves you, your co-workers, or your loved ones feeling empty, hollow, and hopeless. More than 50% of physicians and 30% of nurses are reporting signs of burnout. If you’re not experiencing burnout, the odds are someone close to you is.

In this interactive session, you’ll learn the drivers that cause and sustain burnout. You’ll discover simple techniques to make yourself and those around you more resilient to burnout and prevent it from happening in the first place. Pulling research and writings from many disciplines, we’ll help you learn what you can do – without much additional effort – to prevent and recover from burnout.

Register Today

Book Review-The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human

Life is chaos. It’s the million-billion random connections that make life interesting. All art and all science seek to understand us. We try to understand the connections in our own minds that make us, well, us. By understanding ourselves, we will have completed a quest that is as old as humanity and gained access to the keys that unlock productivity and happiness. The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human is less of a solution and more of a treasure map, leading us to landmarks that help us understand who we are.

Making the Invisible Visible

It was the early 1800s, before we understood about space travel, computers, internal combustion, or even incandescent lighting. Magnets were strange things, but no one really understood how they worked, until a man by the name of Michael Faraday dropped iron filings onto a sheet of paper over a magnet, and the filings aligned themselves into beautiful arcs. He wasn’t the traditional, well-educated gentleman. He was self-educated man whose work underlies much of what we take for granted today.

His discovery can be simplified to that simple demonstration of a paper, a magnet, and some iron filings. However, the genius in this is that something utterly inexplicable became “knowable” for the first time. Like how organizing the elements into the periodic table increased awareness of the inherent order in chemistry, so, too, did Faraday’s simple experiment explain electromagnetism.

All exploration, whether it’s into space or into the mind, is designed to illuminate the dark corners where we cannot see. In our sight – in our understanding – we can view the world and ourselves differently and can improve. V.S. Ramachandran’s work in The Tell-Tale Brain seeks to illuminate the darkness of how we think.

Hacking and Engineering

Francis Crick is quoted as once saying, “God is a hacker, not an engineer.” No matter where your faith lies, one cannot deny the evidence that the things that make us human evolved. Ears came from jaw bones. Our brain itself evolved by starting with basic functions and the ability to find food to its current capacity. These functions were eventually adapted to other purposes.

The more we understand about our physiology and neurology, the more we recognize that we are adapted from earlier animals. Our stress responses trace back to the Serengeti and avoiding lions, even if we’ve adapted how we experience stress. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more.) We have become successful because of our high-brain power position, which has allowed us to develop the social adaption. (See Flourish for our adaptation and Mindreading for how this works.) That has only worked because we were able to get the number of calories we needed. Our brain today consumes 20-30% of all our energy with only 2-3% of our body mass. The hummingbird developed a hyper metabolism, and we developed hyper intellect.

Vision

If you want to see, you obviously need eyes. However, in truth, little of what we consider to be vision happens with our eyes. Our brains progressively build a model based on the information that we have streaming in from our eyes. It’s the model that we see, not literally what our eyes are taking in. The exercise in Incognito proves this concretely. Our eyes contain a blind spot, where the retina attaches to the optic nerve – yet even with only one eye open, we perceive no blind spot. Our brain quietly makes up the missing information to give us the complete picture – whether it’s truth or simply fiction.

Our brain uses many different cues to try to figure out what the eyes are telling it. By carefully shading objects, it’s possible to make them appear to be raised – or lowered. This is the brain considering the heuristics of what an object should look like when it’s a solid color and is then raised or lowered.

Bending Back to Oneself

Mirror neurons allow us to simulate and sense what another person or animal is likely thinking. This socialization mechanism may have allowed us to coordinate better and therefore become the dominant animal on the planet. (The Righteous Mind calls this capacity “shared intentionality.”) However, it may be possible that the increased capacity of mirror neurons may have allowed our consciousness to emerge by bending back on ourselves. Introspection is trying to peer through the veils held by the unconscious to understand what we ourselves are thinking. It’s not too wild an idea that this is possible only through our enhanced mirror neurons. In Leading from the Emerging Future, Otto Scharmer speaks of consciously bending the beam of observation back onto oneself.

The strange twist is found in patients with amputations who have phantom limbs.

Phantom Limbs and Our Skin

What do you do if you’ve got an itch you just can’t scratch? In fact, no one can scratch it. The itch is on a phantom limb. After an amputation, some patients find themselves with pain or sensations in the limb that was amputated. From a purely physical point of view, this can’t be the case; but try telling someone they don’t feel something they do and see how far that gets you.

What if someone placed another arm in your field of view such that your eyes – and brain – could perceive it as yours and someone scratched it? There’s absolutely no reason why this should stop the itch on a phantom limb – but it does. What if you optically shrunk an image that you could believe was your phantom limb? It shouldn’t make the pain smaller – but it does.

Stranger still, take a normal person and anesthetize their brachial plexus, which connects the nerves in the arm to the spinal cord, then rub the arm of an accomplice set up in a way to make the patient believe it’s their own arm. The patient will feel whatever is done to the accomplice’s arm. It’s like the mirror neurons see the action and expect the result. Normally the “vote” from the arm itself would veto the mirror neurons’ perception of what’s happening – but without the input from the arm, the result is the perception of touch when there is none.

In effect, it’s only the fact that our skin transmits a more powerful message than our mirror neurons that we don’t feel what is happening to other people. This might explain why we wince when we see others get harmed.

Learning the Language

Take a pidgin – a sort of partial language that’s secondary to two peoples who don’t share a common language. It’s useful only for rudimentary communication. However, if you let children be raised in an environment where there is a pidgin, they will spontaneously start speaking a creole – a language that is a blend of the original language but may conform to its own grammatical rules. In a single generation, the children will learn enough to build a solid underpinning of a fully-fledged language. This is an amazing feat that seems to indicate that our brains are intrinsically wired to work with language.

It’s more than something we’re capable of doing. It seems that our unique adaptations make language particularly easy for us to acquire – and to use with our mirror neurons to coordinate.

Art and Aesthetics

How can a caricature of someone look more like them than their original picture? The answer is buried in our processing and surfaces through art. We identify people by the characteristics that differentiate them from the rest of the population. If we exaggerate these features in a caricature, then we make someone look even more like how we imagine them to be than they are in real life.

This is an example of one of Ramachandran’s nine laws of aesthetics, “peak shifting.” The nine laws, Ramachandran believes, drives our interest in art. The complete list is:

  • Grouping – The grouping of individual features into a whole. This may have been created to help us defeat camouflage.
  • Peak shift – The potential for a higher degree of response from an exaggerated differentiating feature.
  • Contrast – The degree of difference in luminance or hue.
  • Isolation – Downplay of distracting elements leaving the intended message clearer.
  • Peekaboo
    Principle – Making something more attractive by making it less visible or obscuring some parts.
  • Abhorrence of coincidences – Our brains try to find plausible alternates, generic interpretations to avoid coincidence.
  • Orderliness – The expectations of how things should be.
  • Symmetry – A marker or flag of good health which is a proxy for desirability.
  • Metaphor – The inclusion of one object that is related metaphorically to another to convey a combined message.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the list is how each has a rational explanation of how it’s possible that evolution might have created us to be biased towards these factors. It turns out that our tastes and beliefs may not be as much ours as we think.

Meta Meets Physics

Metaphysics is dismissed as mumbo-jumbo by traditional scientists. There have been charlatans and fakes who have taken advantage of people looking for answers that Western medicine can’t provide. Eastern medicine has demonstrated its efficacy in some cases – even when there’s no explanation for how it’s working. There’s a spooky quality to some of the metaphysical and Eastern medicine. Metaphysical concepts in particular seem to indicate that we’re all connected.

What’s strange is scientists are beginning to find that we may be. Bohm spoke of our connectedness to one another – and across time – in On Dialogue. But spookier is the world of quarks, where things are literally connected. Quarks and subatomic particles are literally able to connect across space in ways that we don’t understand. Maybe that’s why there are no clear answers in The Tell-Tale Brain – and maybe it’s why you should look for answers there anyway.

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

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

Keystone Habits

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

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

Defining Habits

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

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

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

The Marshmallow Test

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

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

Interrupting the Cue

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

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

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

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

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

Finding the Cue

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

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

Breaking the Routing

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

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

Feedback

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Feedback and Rewards Differ

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

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

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

Creating the Craving

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

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

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

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

Open Loop

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

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

12-Steps

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

Expectations

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

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

Making It Visible

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

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

The Value of Failure

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

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

Hope

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

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

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

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

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

Shame Researcher

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

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

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

Connection

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

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

Fear

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

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

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

Courage

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

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

Vulnerability

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

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

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

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

Perceived Safety

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

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

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

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

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

Sympathy Suckers, Empathy Engagement, and Compassionate Connection

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

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

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

Bad Labels

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

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

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

Caregiving

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

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

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

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

Peak Perfection

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

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

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

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

Need for Learning

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

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

Multifaceted

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

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

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

Disconnected from Ourselves

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

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

Strength from Weakness

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