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-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.

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

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

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

Grit

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

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

Stable Core

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

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

Mindfulness

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

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

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

Reality

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

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

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

Detachment

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

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

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

Second Darts (and Neo)

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

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

Finding Fear

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

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

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

Compassion for Yourself

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

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

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

Why and How 12-Step Groups Work

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

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

Building Safety

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

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

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

Community

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

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

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

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

Accountability Partners

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

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

Sponsors

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

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

Taking a Step

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

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

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

Non-Addictive Escapes

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

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

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

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

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

Fearlessly Looking

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

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

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

Courageous

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

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

Warped Perspectives

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

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

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

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

Painful Before It’s Peaceful

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

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

Feeling our Feelings

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

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

Marshmallows

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

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

Trusting in the Future

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

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

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

Good is the Enemy of Great

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

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

Constructive Destruction

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

Acts of Service

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

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

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

Humility

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

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

Value-based Happiness

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

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

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

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

Stable Core

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

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

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

Footnote

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

The Marshmallow Test: Why Self Control Is the Engine of Success

Book Review-The Marshmallow Test: Why Self Control Is the Engine of Success

It was a wintery night, and I found myself in the emergency room with my son. I was madder than I remember ever being. I felt like someone who was supposed to protect him had failed him. They had failed to do what they knew would keep him safe and were forcing to him to endure needless pain. The battle for control in my mind was palpable. On the one hand, I wanted to yell, scream, and much worse, and on the other, I realized that I had to not do this, because releasing my frustration would only cause my son more – admittedly psychological – pain. My solution was odd – to say the least. To occupy my mind, to keep my executive function firmly engaged, I designed a home security system based on Raspberry Pi devices. I never intended to build it for real, but it was a sufficiently rich and complex puzzle that my executive function could remain fully engaged. I credit this exercise with my ability to – relatively speaking – retain my cool in an awful situation.

Miles away and years ago, Walter Mischel evaluated how children could hold out for two treats instead of the one that was visible to them. His test became known as the “marshmallow test” (since marshmallows were sometimes used as treats). Investigating the factors and strategies employed that would lead to gratification was interesting research – until it became instructive. Following up on the children, he discovered the paths of the children who delayed vs. those who couldn’t wait were radically different. This simple test had predictive powers for SAT scores and wages years downstream. Explaining the background, the findings, and what to do about them is what The Marshmallow Test is all about.

The Power of Self-Control

Imagine for a moment that I told you a simple genetic test could tell you what your weight would be like as an adult. Better yet, what if I could tell you how happy you would be as an adult? Would you be interested in taking the test – or having the test done for your children? Ignoring the concern for getting bad results, who wouldn’t want to be able to get a reasonably accurate idea of where our children will end up? Most of us would. That’s what the marshmallow test tells us. It points towards whether we’ll have a healthy, well-adapted life or a maladaptive one.

It’s important to say that the marshmallow test – or genetic tests for that matter – are indicative of a probable path. They’re predictive, not prescriptive. If you fail the marshmallow test, you’re not doomed. There are things that can be done to shape your future no matter what the test says – but we’ll get to that later.

It turns out that much of what we see as success in life is the result of good self-control. Our ability to appropriately manage our weight is numerous decisions about the right foods and the right amount of exercise. Our SAT score reflects our effort more than any inherent intelligence. (See Mindset for more.) The outcomes that the marshmallow test predicts are the outcomes from our ability to control our self and plan for the long term results we want for our life. Often this self-control is called willpower. (See Willpower for more on this view of self-control.)

The Influence of Trust

The invisible presence in the room that silently tipped the scales from right now into the future was trust. The more that the children trusted they would get the extra treat, the more they would be willing to wait. Their trust influenced their ability to wait – but what influenced their trust?

Some of the protocols for the tests were intentionally designed to create trust. Creating the opportunity for the child to call the researcher back in at any time was a simple indication that they would keep their word. However, the primary factors for whether or not they would trust the researcher reached well beyond the room. Fundamentally, children had different perspectives on trust. Those from one home – with both parents – might find that their world is filled with adults that keep their commitments. Those from single-parent homes have too much experience with adults who don’t keep their word to just blindly accept that adults will keep their word.

Trust – which leads to perceived safety – is what it takes to be vulnerable, but it is also what it takes to make a long-term bet, even if the long-term bet is 15 minutes. (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy for more.) Trust and the way that it is expressed has substantial impact on organizations, cultures, and societies. (See Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order for more.) It’s not that surprising that it might have a profound impact on children facing tough decisions about what to do about their sugary pleasures and how they viewed them.

Shake It Like a Polaroid Picture

In the age of digital cameras, the idea of shaking a Polaroid picture is just ancient history for most. In the world of instant gratification, the Polaroid camera had the market locked in for pictures. The photo lab in a box was the staple when the pictures were needed right now – until digital cameras far outstripped them in ease of use, lower costs, and better image quality. While most people didn’t frame their polaroid pictures, changing a frame of reference can be powerful when you’re a child.

One of the powerful strategies used by children to allow them to delay their gratification was to think of the treat in front of them like it was only a picture of a treat. As one study child so aptly put it, “You can’t eat a picture.” The cognitive reframing from a treat that can be devoured to a simple abstract representation of what you’ll get was enough to cool their jets and help them wait it out until the researcher came back with their reward.

Changing the way of thinking about something – changing the frame – is enough to dramatically change the outcomes. Just as Milgram found in his experiments using adults to administer seemingly lethal shocks, small changes in the framing or power dynamics can change whether people are willing to seemingly kill someone they don’t know – or not. (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) and Influencer for more on Milgram’s work.) One way to control the framing is to ask yourself: what would someone else do?

What Would Jesus Do?

In the 1990s, bracelets and other items started popping up with the initials WWJD on them. It was a sort of inside joke and club handshake that Christians had. Without explanation, the WWJD bracelets looked like membership in a secret cult. With explanation, it was a simple – and effective – way to change behavior. WWJD was the reminder of the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” If there were a Bible story about this specific point in my life, how would Jesus respond? The idea is that if you’re a follower of Jesus, then you should do the same behavior. If he’s the moral compass by which you evaluate your decisions, then why not make it more direct and just ask what would he do?

As a tool, it’s effective. You remove the emotional component, and you simply make a pre-decision about how you’ll respond. In this case, you’ll do whatever Jesus would do. However, pre-decisions can be more than just a decision to follow what someone else would do. They can be about how you want to respond and how you identify yourself.

Pre-Decisions

The battle that rages between our basial brain and our neocortex is one that is described by Kahneman as System 1 and System 2 in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Johnathan Haidt explains it as the battle of wills between a rider and an elephant in The Happiness Hypothesis. Many people have been caught up in what has been termed “temporary insanity,” as their emotional brain grabs ahold of the controls and causes them to do things that they normally wouldn’t. (For more in the ethical and legal tangling of this idea check out The Lucifer Effect and Moral Disengagement.)

One powerful way to head the fight off at the pass is to make a commitment to a course of action before you’re in the heat of the moment. It’s a pre-decision. It’s a standard response to an if-then decision. It’s a way to get the emotional brain that’s effective at pattern matching to blindly connect the pattern to the if-then decision and execute that decision without a second thought. The result is that you’re not stuck in the moment of struggle trying to decide the right course of action, because the decision has already been made.

Who Am I?

Another way to short circuit the decision-making process is to decide what people like me do when they’re confronted with the choice. Made to Stick encourages us that people can make good decisions when they view the decision from the context of how people like them decide. If people like them are the ones who make the good long-term decision, then that’s what they’ll likely do. If, instead, they’re likely to live for the moment, their decision will be decidedly more focused on the current.

Helping to shape a self-image that is consistent with long-term values and high degrees of self-control will cause more decisions to be made in that way. An important corollary here is that who we are, our identity, is malleable. Dweck points out in Mindset that our way of thinking can lead us to understanding that we can fundamentally grow and change – or to decide that we’re not able to escape the orbit of our family, our environment, and our genetics. The research is clear that we can change the way we see ourselves and what we’re capable of.

Genes and Environments

The battle has raged on for century as to whether we are controlled by our genes or our environment. Judith Harris Rich exhaustively searched through the research to develop her theories about how much of what we are is from our genetics and how much is from our environment. Citing dozens of studies in her books The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike, she settles on the conclusion that roughly 50% is genes and roughly 50% is non-genetic. She teases out issues with what would traditionally be called environment, recognizing that there is too much to environment to neatly fit categories. Small differences in opportunity may yield vastly different people. Glasser speaks of inner, quality worlds, and how they shape how people see their world. Argyris uses a ladder metaphor, with the lowest rung of the ladder being how we choose what data we see with the implication that this filtering changes everything else about our experiences. (See Choice Theory for more on Glasser’s perspective and for more on Argyris’ ladder of inference.)

We’ve discovered that the environment can activate and deactivate our genes. While we may have a predisposition to something, it can be that this tendency never gets activated in our environment.

Tabula Rasa

It was philosopher John Locke who proposed that we’re a blank slate, and it’s only our environment that shapes us. His radical idea pushed the pendulum into a more middle state today than it was in his time, when people believed that folks were determined by their heritage. (This was before genes were discovered and understood.) This idea has been the basis for many things, including the book by Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate. It’s at the heart of the questions that Judith Harris Rich asks in The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike.

In reality, what we’ve discovered is that the slate is far from blank, but rather, to use Mischel’s words, it’s “encrypted” in a way that we don’t understand. My computer science background takes slight issue with his choice of words, because though we share most of the same genes as a mouse, we are quite different. Small differences making large ones, to me, is compression – not encryption. The understanding is no less opaque between encryption and compression, but it’s compression that yields a large change in output.

Combining the compressed genetic triggers with an environment that’s necessarily personal and nuanced explains why people become such unique adults. Each adult has the things that they’re interested in and their own triggers.

Triggers

Everyone has their own “hot buttons.” These are the things that will set them off, get them angry, or cause them emotional harm. For some people, it’s a negative comment about their appearance; for others, they’re particularly sensitive about feeling stupid. Others still are triggered by feeling like they’re not being heard. These triggers cause an emotional reaction that can generally be felt by anyone in the room. What Mischel’s research on self-control teaches us is that sometimes we can – and need to – put covers over our triggers so they’re harder to get to.

We’ve all seen the movie with the self-destruct button that’s covered by clear plastic, that the hero (or villain) must lift before they can slam their fist into the button itself. In old airplane dogfight movies, there are the switches that must first be flipped up before they can be activated. These are the kinds of covers we install over our emotional triggers as well.

Instead of the button sitting out in the open where anyone can hit it, the cover provides some buffer. Perhaps we’ll only react to comments about our appearance from our family or only respond to being made to feel stupid with our friends. We can contextualize our sensitivities and provide that extra layer of protection to being triggered. We need this to protect us from the often poor results that come from our poor decisions.

Consequences

To have self-control, we must know and internalize the idea that there are consequences for our choices. This is the lesson that we teach and reinforce to children to help them become productive members of society. We help them first build an understanding that there are consequences – both positive and negative – to their choices in certain realms, and then we help them generalize this concept, so they know that every choice they make has consequences.

Without this solid awareness of consequences, they cannot make decisions now that lead to better outcomes in the future. It’s consequences that provides the bridge from today to tomorrow.

Our Need for Control

We all have a desire to control. We want to control the things that we get in our life. We want to say that we did this, or we created that. Most people want to control other people while simultaneously not wanting to be controlled. We are obsessed with our need to be causal in our outcomes. Our need for the illusion of control blinds us to the fact that we’re never in control of the outcomes, we’re only in control of the conditions we can create that lead to the outcome. (See Compelled to Control for more on the topic of control.)

Change or Die acknowledges our psychological need to believe we have more control than we do just to avoid the thought that all our hard work can be wiped out in an instant. We can’t think about the fact that we may be crushed by an asteroid tomorrow, or we’ll never get any work done today. We must believe that our control is greater than it is. We must believe that, where we only have influence, we actually have control.

Most people recognize that they can’t force a plant to grow. You can’t say that, if I give it soil, air, and sunlight, it must grow. Instead, we create the conditions that influence a plant to grow in the right way, and we hope that the plant will grow. We don’t control the plant into growing. By creating the right conditions for growth, we influence the outcome.

This is the advanced lesson for consequences. What we do only sometimes has the consequences we expect. Because we don’t have control, sometimes the consequences don’t come as we would expect – positive or negative.

The Value of Optimism

It’s not that depressed people see the world in a distorted negative way. It’s that people with depression see the world more accurately. Instead of sugar-coating their capabilities and resources, they view the world as it actually is – and that’s a bad thing. It’s no secret that the world we have in our heads isn’t the actual world. It’s a construction that our minds have made up based on the data it has – and a whole lot of assumptions. (See Incognito for more one how our minds make things up.)

Generally speaking, the advice is to see things as they really are and to accept reality instead of denying its truth. This may be one exception, however. The presence of optimism makes us more creative, more innovative, more able to cope with life – while at the same time distorting our view of the world. Optimism is layered on our awareness that we don’t have control to help us believe that we’ll have enough influence to be OK.

Patience and Perseverance

What optimism gives you is the ability to be patient. Patience is at the heart of the marshmallow test. Can I be patient enough to wait for the good things to come? Even when trust is low and when we don’t know for sure, optimism allows us to hold out hope. (See The Psychology of Hope for more about hope.) Over time, we learn that, though we don’t have control, eventually if you try enough, things will work. We live in a probabilistic world, where we influence the probability of success – not guarantee it. (See The Halo Effect for more on the probabilistic world in which we live.)

Being persistently patient, persevering in our attempts to make our lives better, eventually means they’ll become that way. Grit is the way Angela Duckworth describes a set of skills that work together towards our eventual success. Optimism helps fuel the engine that allows us to stay afloat long enough to persevere, even when things aren’t going our way.

Changes in Attitude, Changes in Latitude

Jimmy Buffet sings a song, “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” – but I think he has it backwards. Moving down to warmer climates may allow you to change your attitude easier – but you can change your attitude no matter where you are. The heart of changing the results in the marshmallow test – and in life – is to change your attitude. Changing your attitude from the world being a cruel place that you must fight and claw at and take what’s available now to a world of reliability and ultimate success can make all the difference in whether you’re willing to make investments in your future.

Sometimes those investments are waiting a few minutes as a researcher leaves the room. Sometimes those investments are hours spent studying. Sometimes those investments are more traditional, like a 401k. However, you make the investments, you’ll want to make them, so you can pass the test of life. You might just get some help along the way by looking at this cheat sheet to improving your score on The Marshmallow Test.

Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life

Book Review-Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life

We’ve all seen the video. It’s a dog that has a toy he won’t let go of. He’s flinging his head back and forth trying to wring the life out of the lifeless toy in his mouth. At some level, we’ve all felt like the toy. We’re being tossed around with no control of our fate. We’ve felt helpless and broken.

And we’ve seen the video where someone does the seemingly impossible. They make the perfect shot. They leap to the top of the heap with apparent effortlessness. The ratio between the number – not the depth – of these two experiences defines our positive to negative ratio, and it’s the heart of Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life.

The Power of Positive

Our positive thoughts, feelings, and emotions have an unseen and powerful impact on our lives. It changes the way we see the world in subtle and abstract ways. Positive feelings expand our world view. We look to the corners of our consciousness and we look for larger patterns in life. Positive thinking quite literally expands our view – where negative thoughts have us focusing on the narrow and on our ability to survive.

Creative Confidence doesn’t directly state that positive thoughts lead to greater creativity, but the implication was there. The safer you feel, the more creative you become, and those thoughts are positive, life-giving thoughts. Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman all describe the psychological state of flow as a genuinely positive state – one that is both productive and engaging. There is exhaustion at the end, but the lingering positive effects of having spent time in flow can last for days.

Positive thoughts and feelings need not be larger than life to give life. They need only occur with relative frequency. They need not be a positive feeling like the birth of a child to matter in your overall mental – and physical – health. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more on the physical impacts of mental health.)

The Need for Negativity

If positive thoughts are good for us, then surely, we should eliminate negative thoughts. Surely negative takes the wind out of our positive sails. However, this does not seem to be the case. If we only have positive thoughts, we can’t see the world as it really is. We can’t see things accurately. Negative thoughts are like the keel on a boat, keeping things steady and grounded. The keel is what allows the boat’s sail (positivity) to catch the wind and propel the boat forward.

Negativity isn’t something that you can abolish from your life. Every life must have negativity to stay connected, grounded and rooted. The goal isn’t to eliminate negativity but to eliminate needless negativity that further disconnects us from reality and other people.

Needless Negativity

We’ve all been to the pity party of the century. We feel not good enough. We feel like we can’t get anything right. The end result is our negativity dredging up every bad thing that we’ve done in our entire lives and trying to heap it up on the counter of today.

Certainly, we must accept negativity as a part of life. However, we need not ruminate and turn over our faults, making them bigger than they really are. The closer you get to something, the larger it appears. However large problems may seem, they’re rarely fatal and rarely consistent all the time. Instead we, like all other humans, make mistakes. We shouldn’t magnify them to be larger than they really are if we want to flourish.

How to Flourish

What’s the big deal with managing our positive emotions and our negative emotions? In short, those of us who can achieve higher honest ratios of positive to negative emotions are more likely to flourish. That is, our positivity helps to drive our success in life. We begin to feel better, then do better, and then get better.

Seligman in Flourish talks about the power of positive psychology to transform your life – and Fredrickson’s work on finding the ratio of 3 to 1 where the magic happens. Drive speaks of discontinuities, places where on one side the results are almost nothing, and on the other side the results are incredible. When it comes to positive to negative ratios, that number is 3:1

Flourishing is that magical state of being more than you think you could be. It’s the enjoyment of nearly every aspect of life and a positive energy that radiates through you. It is, at its core, a change in perspective.

Perspective

Have you ever wondered how someone could like something? Perhaps it’s a food that you don’t like, but others “would die for.” Perhaps it’s the pain you feel in your legs and the racing of your heart when thinking about sky diving, and your best friend does everything they can to get in just one more jump.

That’s perspective. It’s the ability to see things differently, and we all have our perspective. Getting to positivity – or flourishing – is all about subtly changing our perspective. It’s about amplifying our opportunity for positive experiences and dampening down the chances for negative experiences.

Few people would say that getting stuck at an airport is a positive experience. Few would say that they would love to be sitting in Ronald Regan Airport for eight hours just to get home. I can’t say that either; however, I can say that I had a positive experience while stranded. That was the day I picked up and read Stumbling on Happiness. I didn’t want to be there, and at some level, it was a negative experience, but my perspective on the situation allowed me to get a positive out of it.

To some degree, we all can shape our experiences, whether they’re positive or negative. We get to choose how we perceive things, what our perspective is, and then respond accordingly.

Projecting Positivity

We’ve all met that person. It feels like they’ve had so much Botox that their face is permanently in a smiling situation. They look like the criminal Joker from Batman. There’s no telling how they really feel, because their face doesn’t show it. Surely these people, the permanent smile people, should be positive and happy. They should be living the benefits of a positive life.

Well, unfortunately, their bodies know the difference between projecting an image and being something. You can’t be positive all the time. 100% positive isn’t real, and maintaining the illusion is exhausting. In my post How to Be Yourself, I speak of the effort necessary to hold a gallon of milk to your side – and how exhausting it can be. People who are permanently positive aren’t real. The stress of projecting this illusion eventually catches up with them. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more on the impacts of stress on the body.)

Meditation

Changing our perspective isn’t something that is typically done directly. We can’t will ourselves into positive thinking. That sort of attempt to control our emotions generally backfires and leads to the projection of falsehood that creates stress. One of the time-honored ways of reducing stress and becoming more at peace with ourselves and our situation is meditation.

This powerful practice is used by different religions and different cultures to bring about mindfulness, awareness, and acceptance. This awareness, in turn, creates a greater gratitude for the world and levitates us out of the pit of negativity and positions us in a better place to be positive.

Loving Kindness

If you were to ask a Buddhist about meditation, it’s likely they would talk about their meditation on loving kindness in their desire to cultivate these feelings. These meditations are designed not just to broaden our mindfulness but to bring about positive feelings of love, kindness, and compassion for other living beings. This taps into more positive emotions and allows us to abide in these feelings. By soaking them in, we create the opportunity to radiate them later.

It’s important to note that you don’t have to meditate – with or without the focus of loving kindness – to be positive. I don’t routinely meditate. For me, the still-quiet space is reading, reflecting, and writing about what I’ve read and experienced. This isn’t what most people would consider meditation, but it works for me. I enter flow, and the results are similar to meditation.

Positively Social

On the one hand, meditation is an intensely individual and isolated exercise. Its definition means that you’re not interacting with others, you’re being mindful of yourself and your own inner states. While this is one tool to become more positive, it’s not the only tool. In fact, a better lift for positivity may be interacting with others.

Much of our negativity is about our fear of being disconnected from others. Much of what is positive is in our assurance that we belong, that others care, and that we’re a part of a group. (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for more.) Making deep connections with other people can create positive experiences and perspectives.

Positive Portfolio

Not all positive emotions are created the same. Each of us has our own mixture of how we perceive the world positively. One way for us to see our positive – and reinforce it – is to create a positive portfolio. Like an artist, we create mini-portfolios of each style or medium and we assemble those into the master portfolio of our work on being positive. Positivity suggests these categories for our positive portfolio:

  • Joy
  • Gratitude
  • Serenity
  • Interest
  • Hope
  • Pride
  • Amusement
  • Inspiration
  • Awe
  • Love

More Love

It’s important to dwell on love for a moment. Love is such a powerful amplifier of each of the other foundations for positivity that it’s important to realize its ability to transform people and experiences into positive experiences. Many boyfriends and husbands will watch a “chick flick” and enjoy it because the woman that they love is there. More than trying to score, they may genuinely enjoy sharing the reaction of their significant other. Similarly, girlfriends and wives may not choose to watch a baseball game on their own, but in doing so with the person they love, they might find it exhilarating to share the experience and find it positive (or they may not).

Whether you’re generally happy and thriving, or stuck in a negative loop, you can probably use a bit more Positivity in your life. In my opinion, what the world needs is more love and ultimately more Positivity – for all our sakes.