Book Review-Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities

I’ve been a part of or have led many groups in my time. Each one had a unique “feel.” Some were hyper focused, and others generally organized around a topic. Some were high technology and others decidedly not so. Developing communities has always been interesting, since some communities flourish and others languish. Understanding how communities are formed – particularly communities that exist, at least in part, in the ethereal space of our digital age – is what Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities is all about.

The Way Back Machine

Before getting to the content, it’s necessary to explain that this isn’t a new book. It was published in 2009. I was first introduced to it through a book by Michael Sampson called User Adoption Strategies, which I read all the way back in 2011. Back at that time, my note-taking was substantially more primitive. I wasn’t writing reviews on a regular basis. I was working on some user adoption content for a client and stumbled across the reference – and the desire to revisit some of the sources that shaped my thinking about user adoption strategies.

Reviewing a 9-year-old technology book feels like dusting off dinosaur bones in the space of communities and digital collaboration – but though many of the examples cited in the book have been lost to the sands of time, the underlying principles of how communities come together and stay together haven’t changed. While myspace lost to Facebook, and some of the thriving communities from 10 years ago are all but gone, the need for humans to connect hasn’t changed in a few thousand years.

Alone and Together

Alone Together takes a negative view of how technology is driving us further from one another. Bowling Alone speaks of our continued abandonment of physical communities. There is a certain component of destruction in new creation. Digital Habitats is focused on the creation part of the process. It speaks of how communities are drawn together – whether in person or online – and how technologies can enable and support that process.

While it’s possible to create technologies that isolate us from one another, it’s equally possible to create connections.

Rhythms and Interactions

Digital Habitats speaks of our connection with others in communities in two parts. First, there are the rhythms – that is, the patterns of being together and apart. Second is interactions, which is described as participation and rectification. Rectification means “making into object.” In this context, I’d adjust this to say that it’s consensus building – whether written and formalized or not.

Rhythms of connection – and disconnection – are important. They form the basis of our ability to merge with the group identity and separate to regain our own standalone identity – or merge ourselves into other groups. (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for more on the identification process.)

Interactions are the part of communities that most of us consider when thinking of the community – but from the narrow perspective of the episodes of interactions rather than the outcome of those interactions. Interactions can divide; but more frequently within a community, they build our understanding and create consensus. We learn about different perspectives and nuances about the thing that we’re in the community to learn about. Sometimes members of communities convert the consensus into an artifact that can be leveraged by others to speed their learning about the topic. (For instance, take a look at my posts about the Indy CIO Network and my summary of those conversations, like Marketing Information Technology to the Organization or Effective IT Steering Committees.)

At an individual level, we gain knowledge through our communities. At an aggregate level, the artifacts created from the interactions of those passionate about a topic – whether expert or not – creates value to the world as those artifacts are available to others.

Orientations

Digital Habitats asserts that there are different orientations to every community, and those orientations shape the needs of the community. The orientations and their key needs are listed here:

  • Meetings – Emphasis on regularly scheduled meetings
  • Open-ended conversations – Emphasis is on the ability to reach out and connect in a conversation at a time
  • Projects – The desire to work together to complete specific projects
  • Content – The desire to create content
    • Library – Providing an organized set of documents
    • Structured self-publishing – A forum for participants to publish information using a consistent format and metadata
    • Open self-publishing – Participants contribute but in a format and structure that suits them
    • Content integration – Participants build a network of links that connect information available publicly into a consumable structure
  • Access to expertise – The community forms so that the members can have access to expertise that they don’t possess
    • Access via questions and requests – Questions are broadcast in a way that experts can respond
    • Direct access to explicitly designated experts – Specific folks are identified as the experts that others seek to get access to
    • Shared problem solving – Group members help individuals solve problems
    • Knowledge validation – Artifacts are routed to members until they’re fully vetted
    • Apprenticeship and mentoring – Learning of the individual takes place through the mentorship of a skilled practitioner
  • Relationships – Connecting with other people on a common interest
    • Connecting – Networking with people who are likely to be useful
    • Knowing about people – Getting to know others at a professional and personal level
    • Interacting informally – Interacting one-on-one and in small groups
  • Individual participation – Creating opportunities for individuals to engage
    • Varying and selective participation – Various forms of participation are offered as ways to engage
    • Personalization – Members can individualize their experience of the community
    • Individual development – The community helps the development of individual members
    • Multimembership – Coordinating access across multiple communities
  • Community cultivation – Focused on the creation of the community itself – or the broader community
    • Democratic governance – Self-governing structures of self-management
    • Strong core group – A caring group of people take a nurturing role in the community
    • Internal coordination – A small group takes the role of coordinating the community
    • External facilitation – An external facilitator who is typically not a subject matter expert is responsible for managing the community
  • Serving a context – Orientation to the member’s point of view
    • Organization as context – The community is seen in its relationship to the host organization
    • Cross-organizational context – The community as seen as serving multiple organizations in a larger community
    • Constellation of related communities – The community sees itself in terms of the related communities that it serves
    • Public mission – The community sees itself in terms of the public mission it’s moving forward

While the ability to distinguish between multiple goals of different communities is important, I find this taxonomy unwieldy. Because this is a multiple selection-type organization, every community falls within every category to some degree or another, making it difficult to put your finger on exactly what the goals are.

More troubling than that, it seems as if, rather than being one set of categories, what we have are a few dimensions. I’d propose that there are a set of dimensions for communities as follows:

  • Context – Self-serving or other serving
  • Organizational approach – Completely democratic and free-form to completely bureaucratic
  • Expected Participation – From the “lurker” who never posts to the highly engaged
  • Relational – Is the objective casual professional talk or deep relationships that transfer outside of the group as well?
  • Intent – Meetings (ritualized gatherings), open-ended conversations, access to expertise, projects, and content creation

Technology Stewards

Ultimately, Digital Habitats seeks to empower technology stewards. That is, to take the caretaker for the habitat and enable them to make intelligent technology decisions to help the membership to get out of the group what they desire. In this, the book explains some categorizations and selection criteria that didn’t survive the test of time very well but provides a focus on the needs of the community, which will always be relevant.

Every digital habitat needs a caretaker, someone who will look after their Digital Habitats.

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.

Straddling Multiple Worlds

To some degree, everyone straddles multiple worlds. We have our personal world. We have our work world. Never the two should meet – except for the Christmas party and company picnic. However, most of us find ourselves walking between more than just two worlds. On the personal side, we have our childhood friends. There are our college friends. There are our church friends. There are the neighborhood friends. Mixing of these friends is strangely rare. The college friends and the church friends just wouldn’t get along, we tell ourselves. They wouldn’t have anything in common.

Too many people find their work worlds filled with the sterile, hospital-cafeteria-type conversations. No one wants to get personal. No one wants to get too aware of the coworker who is struggling with divorce or addiction. Those aren’t the polite conversations about the weekend that are sanctioned in the corporate world. The correct answer to “How are you?” is always “Fine.” We aren’t expected to share our whole selves. We’re expected to keep our professional world separate from our personal world.

Facets of Identity

Somehow, we’re expected to keep our wholeness separate. We’re expect to expose one facet of who we are to our church friends and a different facet to our drinking buddies. Even absent the explicit call to be fragmented, we’re conditioned to expect that people don’t really want to know about our struggles and our pride. How many jokes are there about how everyone’s grandchild is the most amazing child in the universe?

As a result, we keep the part of us that matches others positioned towards them, like how sunflowers position themselves towards sunlight. We are careful to not let them see parts of us that don’t fit the idealistic view of the parts they’re interested in.

Emerging Parts

However, the careful positioning in relationship to those we are near creates a gap. It takes the parts of our personality – the very growth that we crave and need – and makes it unacceptable to share with others. Because it’s precious and fragile, we can’t afford the risk to show it to anyone. We can’t share it with those that we trust, because it doesn’t match the part of us that they expect.

So we starve the sunlight from the places of our growth, because we can’t share it with those we trust, and simultaneously it’s too fragile to share with those we don’t trust.

They Don’t Know Me

All this leads us to the position that no one really knows us. We’re always positioning the image of ourselves to the people that we’re with, and we don’t get a chance to share our vulnerable parts. It leads to a profound sense of disconnection. We don’t believe that anyone understands us – and that’s the truth, because we’ve never allowed anyone to see an accurate picture of our real selves – including our blemishes, weakness, and flaws.

Stranger in a Foreign Land

Even if we can get past the need to show people only what they want to see, we’re forced to realize that, in our contemporary world, our interests and the interests of the others we interact with – including family, friends, and acquaintances – isn’t going to match completely. Even if we’re able to share the places of ourselves that are growing, it may not be that those people are interested in that part of us. They may not can help us to grow in that aspect of our reality.

It’s like that part of us is a foreigner in a strange land where they speak a different language. There’s no way to connect and communicate.

Straddling

Perhaps the most challenging concern that any human faces is that their different worlds and interests will diverge to the point where they’re no longer able to keep themselves whole. For me, I know that I’m a father, husband, developer, technologist, speaker, organizational development advocate, psychology and neurology student, and the list continues. There are times when these worlds fit together like a continent with different temperate climates. There are other times when I feel like the gaps between them place me on a twister mat, where the dots drift farther and farther apart, making it harder for me to stay up.

Living and Letting Go

The trick to living in a world where we’re straddling these multiple worlds is that we need to learn when to let go of aspects of ourselves – at least for a while. We need to accept that, for a time, these parts of our soul will be separate from us. For me, there are several aspects that are missing from the core of who I am today. I’m a professionally-trained comedian – yet I don’t practice either stand up or improv comedy. I’m a pilot who loves flying but can’t find the time and money to stay current. These are just two small parts of my world that I’ve let go of for now. I’ve picked my hand up off the twister dot and have let it drift off – for now.

Sometimes the aspects that you let go of are done consciously, and sometimes it’s just an aspect of yourself that gets lost for a while. Sometimes we fight to hold on to more of our true selves than we can realistically contain at any one time. That’s when we can really feel the pain of straddling multiple worlds. The secret, if there is one, is to know that letting worlds go for a while doesn’t mean that they leave your core forever.

No Two Alike

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

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

The Consistency Fallacy

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

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

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

Not Knowing and Not Questioning

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

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

More Alike

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

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

Microenvironments and Mutations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Academic Investigation

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

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

Amateurs

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

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

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

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

European Orphanages

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

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

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

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

Children Teaching Children

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

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

Self-Categorization

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

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

Bad Fit Stereotypes

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

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

Battle of Three Systems

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

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

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

Parental Influence

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

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

The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do

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

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

Birth Order

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

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

Situational Personality

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

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

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

Generalization of Learning

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

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

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

Just Showing Up

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

Outside of Bounds

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

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

Groups and Gangs

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

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

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

Peer Pressure

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

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

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

Majority Rules

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

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

Self-Identification

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

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

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

Parent-Child Effects

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

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

Working, Death, and Divorce

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

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

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

Sidebar: Public Figures

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

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

Circuitous Routes

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

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

The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do

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

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

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

The Grandma from New Jersey

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

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

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

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

Setting the Stage

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

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

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

Human Development and the Art of Mindreading

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

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

Guilt and Shame

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

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

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

Culture

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

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

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

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

Too Hard, Too Soft, Just Right

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

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

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

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

Correlation and Causation

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

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

Environment and Nurture

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

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

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

The Studies

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

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

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

Who and What?

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

The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships

Book Review-The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships

I don’t know anyone who has ever lived that has described relationships as easy. Rewarding, absolutely. However, I don’t know anyone who has said that relationships – good relationships – are easy. Relationships are necessarily difficult, messy, dynamic – and worth it. When you look at John Gottman’s work, you see a body of knowledge that pierces the veil of complexity in relationships and lays out the key factors that lead to good and lasting friendships and marriages. While there is some hyperbole in The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships, the core of what is being said is useful to anyone who struggles with how to make their relationships better. That is, everyone.

The Need to be Connected

Before we can get to how to make relationships better, we must first acknowledge that we need them. Not that relationships are nice, they make us feel better, or that it’s a good idea. We need to accept that relationships have helped us survive (See The Righteous Mind), that they reduce our illness (see Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers), and that they increase the span of our lives. (See Change or Die.)

In short, we need to get over ourselves and start getting close to others. This isn’t small. This is meaning of life stuff.

Auctioning Off Our Love

Gottman’s language for people’s desire to connect is a “bid.” (See The Science of Trust for more discussion on this.) We bid for connection with other people by asking a question, giving them a look, snuggling up with them, and in a multitude of ways. How others respond to our bids – and how we respond to their bids – is the basic transaction set in a relationship.

When we turn towards someone’s bid, we increase our capital in our emotional bank account. When we ignore others’ bids, we lose ground – think of it as the impact of service fees on our account. We really reduce our balance when we turn away from someone’s bid. Sometimes when we turn away, we make heavy withdrawals from the relationship.

Interest happens on our emotional bank accounts driving us to ever higher levels of satisfaction – or ever escalating conflict. (See Choice Theory as a starting point for a discussion on confirmation bias.) When our balance is high we can accept or avoid service fees. Our positive affinity for the other person carries us through small withdraws.

The challenge in relationships is recognizing the bids – and having the capacity to respond in a meaningful way.

Recognizing Bids

“Did you lock the door?” can be a simple transactional question or a question saturated with meaning. It can be a simple check to see if I need to go lock the door or whether it’s already done. It can be an accusatory question that contains in its sub-context, “You never do anything around here to help keep us safe!” It can also be an offer to go lock the door, so the other party doesn’t have to. One question with three – or many more – meanings. How can we, as humans, know which question is really being asked and whether there’s an embedded bid in it? In short, we don’t know. We must guess or try our hand at mind-reading (see Mindreading).

Where’s the embedded bid in the preceding question? The answer lies in the basic need for safety. The bid may be a desire for you to reflect your concern through demonstrating a desire to keep the other person safe. We often get to see these bids through knowing the other person and recognizing where and how they’ll make these bids.

Relational Capacity

It’s one thing to know that someone is asking for a connection with you – remember that’s what a bid is – and quite another thing to have the capacity to respond appropriately. No one can respond positively to every single bid that is laid out in front of them. That would be exhausting and enabling. However, safe, healthy people need to have the relational capacity to respond positively to some bids. (See Safe People and How to Be an Adult in Relationships.)

The true problem with relational capacity is that very rarely does someone retry a bid once it’s rejected. Gottman’s research suggests that, even in very good relationships, the retry rate is only 20%. That’s problematic, because it means that, even if someone is only rejecting one percent of the bids they receive, over time, there will be a substantial number of pathways for emotional connection that will be closed off.

Emotional Command Systems

Gottman refers to the work of Jaak Panksepp in his work at identifying seven emotional command systems. These are like the different personalities of the elephant in Jonathan Haitdt’s Rider-Elephant-Path model (see The Happiness Hypothesis). They’re the different ways that people are activated.

  • The Commander-in-Chief – This system is responsible for control, dominance and power. It’s engaged when there’s a need for control.
  • The Explorer – Adventure is the name of the game for the explorer. It wants new experiences. The explorer is always learning and growing.
  • The Sensualist – Sexual gratification and reproduction are the drivers for the sensualist.
  • The Energy Czar – There’s only so much capacity that people have for doing things. The Energy Czar is on the lookout for things that drain energy and the risk that the “battery” might get completely depleted.
  • The Jester – All work and no play make Jack a very dull boy. The jester is about lightening the mood and enjoying the moment.
  • The Sentry – Safety is the sentry’s job. The sentry responds to fear. The sentry tends to want to put everything on lockdown, much to the chagrin of the explorer and the commander-in-chief.
  • The Nest-Builder – This emotional command system is focused on preparing the way, connecting, bonding, and being social.

All except the jester systems map interestingly to Reiss’ 16 motivators (see Who Am I?):

  • Commander-in-Chief => Power
  • Explorer => Curiosity
  • Sensualist => Romance
  • Energy Czar => Tranquility
  • Sentry => Vengeance
  • Nest-Builder => Saving, Family, Social Contact

It’s important to note that Jaak Panksepp doesn’t refer to these command systems with the labels that Gottman applied; however, instead he uses a model of seeking, rage, fear, lust, care, grief, and play. I’ll be digging into some of his more recent work soon to see if his research diverges with Gottman’s assessment – or not.

Know Thy Bids

Most couples would admit that their fights aren’t about important topics – or at least they don’t seem to start out that way. Whether it’s a pass-the-milk kind of conversation or how to raise the children, the hidden messages are the important ones. Learning how to see the bids that aren’t made is an art form, and it takes willingness. There are tools and techniques (like those used in Motivational Interviewing) that can help you discover what the conversation is really about instead of just the context of the conversation.

To get a better relationship, we should be clearer about the bids we make, so we understand them and can make them clearer. Additionally, we should be more attentive when looking for the hidden bids. In a sense, we need to look past what we see to the feeling, power, and meaning of the conversation. (See Dialogue for more.) The topics that we use to discover the needs and desires of those we interact with are only tools for gaining a better relationship – or barriers in our way.

Will the Real Men Step Up?

One of the interesting bits of Gottman’s research is that women tend to turn towards their partner at about the same rate whether they’re in a good relationship or not. It’s the men that change their bid responsiveness to the environment – or to create the environment they want to communicate. From this, Gottman concludes that it’s men’s ability to turn towards during bids that has a substantial impact on the overall health of the relationship.

Raising Emotional Children

The impact of relational health in a family system extends beyond the spouses and impacts the children. Research shows that couples that have less conflict have more emotionally-adjusted children. However, there’s more to it than that. Gottman believes that families’ emotional philosophy falls into four general categories:

  • Coaching – Emotions are expected, welcomed, and harnessed. Children are taught productive behaviors to address their feelings.
  • Dismissing – Emotions aren’t given much “air time.” They’re acknowledged, but not much is made of them.
  • Laissez-Faire – These families ignore emotions and hope they’ll go away.
  • Disapproving – Emotions are taboo. You can’t have them, you can’t talk about them, and you don’t admit if you have had them.

Obviously, the best approach is coaching. That’s giving children tools that they can use to manage their emotions. After all, all emotions are acceptable, but not all behaviors are.

People Reading

Gottman quotes Ekman’s research on microexpressions (see Telling Lies and Cracking the Code for more on Ekman’s work). He also speaks about reading people’s body language to peer into how they’re feeling. Basically, The Relationship Cure is teaching basic Emotional Intelligence for social monitoring. A better source for this is Trust Me: Four Steps to Authenticity and Charisma.

Unresolvable Conflict

Most people believe that, if there is a happy couple, they don’t have any conflict they can’t get through. However, Gottman’s research indicates that this isn’t the case. Every couple finds irresolvable issues, but they choose to deal with them differently. A healthy couple will acknowledge the disagreement and accept their spouse’s position, even if they don’t agree with it. They lean on their respect, love, and appreciation of the other person to allow the conflict to remain without causing harm.

The trick to a good relationship isn’t necessarily resolving every single conflict in a relationship – it’s learning how to more completely accept the conflicts that do arise.

Rituals

One of the tent poles that effective relationships hang on are positive rituals. These rituals become a welcome reminder of the other person’s love and concern for you. For Terri and I, we sit on the bedroom floor of a morning while we’re getting ready. We call this “puppy love,” because we invite the dogs over to be loved. This is our ritual for every day that we’re both home. We follow this up with me making Terri a cup of coffee. It’s a simple thing, but it’s done so consistently that it is a daily tangible reminder that we love each other and that we’re “for” each other.

Rituals don’t have to be big things. They don’t have to be completely consistent. They just have to be repeated, and they have to be imbued with the meaning of love.

I don’t know that anything in the book individually will save a broken relationship. However, I know that many of the things – including rituals – will make a relationship better, even if it’s not The Relationship Cure.

The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies

Book Review-The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies

In America, we’re supposed to appreciate the value of diversity, but this runs in conflict to the way that we actually behave. We associate only with people who are like us. We fill our organizations with people who are like us, because we’re more comfortable that way. However, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies encourages us to consider how diversity can create better answers than we can accomplish with a set of same-minded individuals.

Group Think and the Wisdom of Crowds

Janus Irving first coined the term “group think” as a way of describing the dynamics of a group that coalesce around an answer – but the wrong one. There’s no one around to say, “The emperor has no clothes,” because everyone is too close to the problem and things in too much the same way. This is the opposite of the wisdom of crowds . (See my review of The Wisdom of Crowds.) That is that crowds, by their nature, can be wise. They can find solutions that no single person can.

Not all crowds are wise, however. There are Fermi’s “crowds” (a.k.a. students in a class) that can accurately predict the number of piano tuners in Chicago. Given a reasonable number of people with useful information, it’s possible to come to reasonable conclusions that yield a highly accurate result (see How to Measure Anything). It’s equally likely that someone will come up with a Drake equation – where there are no reasonable answers, and as a result, the outcome is completely unpredictable.

Defining Diversity

We can’t get too far without being clear what is meant by “diversity.” The word has been subsumed by corporate technobabble to mean race and, occasionally, gender diversity. However, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Race and gender diversity are important issues, but they’re not the kind of diversity that Page is discussing. He’s talking about how individuals see the world, categorize its components, and understand its interactions and meanings, and how they believe that they need to go about the process of improving it – or deciding not to.

Page explains that there are four kinds of diversity that are important:

  • Diverse Perspectives: ways of representing situations and problems
  • Diverse Interpretations: ways of categorizing or partitioning perspectives
  • Diverse Heuristics: ways of generating solutions to problems
  • Diverse Predictive Models: ways of inferring cause and effect

Diversity is about thought. It’s diversity in the internal language that individuals use to encode the world around them. It’s about the tools and techniques – the heuristics and “rules of thumb” – that they use to survive in this crazy world. At the core of understanding diversity is understanding the value of it.

Consider the old cliché that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you have a full toolbox with different perspectives and approaches, you can see everything as it is – or nearly as it is – rather than accepting a single-dimensional and necessarily inaccurate view.

I Am Large, I Contain Multitudes

One of the reasons that I spend so much time reading and researching is so that I can expose myself to different perspectives and approaches. Consider personality profiling. Whether it’s Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) , DISC, Enneagram (see Personality Types: Using Enneagram for Self-Discovery), Reiss’ Basic Motivators (see Who Am I? and The Normal Personality), StrengthsFinders (see Strengths Finder 2.0), the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory (see The Time Paradox), etc., they’re all ways to look at other people to seek to understand them better.

While I often fall back to using MBTI as a way to learn how to communicate better with people, because I do it automatically, I find that having different perspectives creates opportunities to look at folks using different lenses to see different things. Even if I find that some of my views are contradictory, that’s OK, because I get to learn from the conflicts – and I get to explore with another person where their unique strengths lie.

I am trying to become the man that Walt Whitman described himself to be when he wrote, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” The more tools I can put in my toolbox, the more internal diversity of thought I can generate.

Optima, Games, and Math

When reading The Science of Trust by John Gottman, I was surprised at the amount of game theory that the book contains. Gottman is known for his work with couples and discovering their propensity for divorce. The subtitle of the book is “Emotional Attunement for Couples.” However, much of the time, he talks about game theory, John Nash, and how game theory predicts some of the behaviors we see. You can imagine my surprise when The Difference had a degree of mathematical, game theory, and logic that isn’t standard fare for business books. It’s not like Theory U, Coachbook, Organizational Traps, or Reinventing Organizations had any hard science or even hard logic.

At some level, it seemed out of place to be speaking of soft topics like diversity and then transition into mathematical/logical proofs, in which diversity must trump non-diversity given a set of restrictions (which I’ll cover shortly). Simple equations like

Net Benefits of Diversity = Gross Benefits of Diverse Tools – Costs of Diversity

demonstrate a level of thinking about not just the positive effects of diversity but also its costs. Few things in life are all good or all bad. Diversity can have a demonstrable positive impact, but these impacts come at a cost. When the costs outweigh the benefits, then diversity isn’t helping you.

One for One and One for All

Before diving into the specific conditions for which diversity can be of great advantage, it’s important to pause and acknowledge that diversity conveys no benefit in some scenarios. When the work to be done is routine or procedural, there’s no added value to diversity. Diversity helps when there are problems to be solved or predictions to be made.

More specifically, diversity helps when problems can be structured so that the contribution of any member can help all the members. Though not a golfer myself, I’m familiar with a style of play where groups can play from the best ball of any of the players in the group. Thus, their diversity of styles and abilities can benefit the entire group. This differs from traditional golf play, where each person must play their ball and their weaknesses may substantially hamper them.

Converting tasks from conjunctive tasks – where everyone’s contribution is critical – to disjunctive – where only one person needs to be successful for the group to be successful – is one of the great challenges in creating organizational systems for success. (See Thinking in Systems for more on systems design.)

An Army of Diverse Monkeys

The power of diversity isn’t to say that the individual members don’t need some ability. It’s not like you can gather an army of diverse monkeys and expect great things to emerge. Fundamentally, diversity requires intelligent actors. This isn’t an either-or decision about whether to find more diverse thinkers or whether to hire good thinkers. The argument is for both, where possible.

Page acknowledges that there may be times when the superstar approach is the right approach. The benefits to be had with a top-notch person are substantially more than can be achieved by diversity – and there are times when it’s not. (See Who: The “A” Method for Hiring if you’re looking for superstars.)

Rules for Diversity Triumph

For diversity to trump individual ability, there are four conditions to be met:

  1. The problem must be difficult – It must be sufficiently difficult that most individuals can’t solve it on their own.
  2. The perspectives and heuristics that the problem solvers possess must be diverse – If there’s no diversity of thinking, there are no benefits.
  3. The set of problem solvers from which we choose our collections must be large – You must have enough different perspectives to make a difference.
  4. The collections of problem solvers must not be too small –You must apply multiple diverse groups against the problem so that the solutions themselves are diverse.

The Quest for a Problem

According to The Paradox of Choice, if you want to be happy you should be a satisficer. Just do what is minimally necessary to make it ok. According to Peak and The Rise of Superman, the truly amazing feats that we witness are about people who have decided to obsess on the relatively modest gains that they can make – and do it day after day, and then year after year. In other words, they’re not satisfied. They’re perfectionists – or near perfectionists – on a quest to see what they can do to get just a little bit better.

There is effectively nothing that we as humans can’t do to develop better skills if we’re willing to commit ourselves to the purposeful practice to achieve it. Our diverse army needs to not simply be intelligent, they must be willing to engage in the problem.

Well, Obviously

If you want to show the power of diversity, you see it in the invention (or discovery) of the wheel. You see it in the discovery of fire. It seems obvious that you want to use round wheels to transport goods now that we know about it. How else would you heat something except with fire? These are absolutely obvious solutions – now that we’ve all seen them. They may – or may not – have been equally obvious when the solutions were first proposed. The genius of diversity is that it finds the solutions that aren’t complicated but are beyond the reach of every man. Once the answer has been discovered, everyone should say “well, obviously.” Solutions produced by diversity don’t typically require complex layering or difficult-to-follow approaches. Once the solution is known, it will have seemed obvious the whole time.

Hills and Valleys

Breaking into game theory for a moment, consider a game where you have a simple rule. From a given starting point, an evaluation is made as to whether one of the neighboring spots has a higher value. If this is true, the starting point is set to the neighbor with the higher value. It’s possible that, if the data is ordered correctly, this simple algorithm will find the highest peak. However, it’s also possible that the algorithm will get caught in a local optimum – rather than the global optima. That is, using this heuristic may result in a good solution, but frequently not the best one. The approach gets caught at good and can never arrive at great. (See Good to Great.)

If you take several actors and insert them into different places, you’ll get multiple different answers – which can be compared against one another. The best one is likely to be discovered using this approach.

Consider a different scenario where there are multiple factors, and some of the actors look for kinds of optimal solutions and others look at other factors. By comparing the end solution, it’s possible to get the same kind of diversity as inserting actors into random parts of the data.

Combining the perspectives from multiple actors – with multiple approaches – allows you to create better solutions for finding the best answer.

Simplifying Life

The power of diversity lies in the ability to simplify our complex world in a way that’s useful. Some perspectives eliminate information that is necessary, where others keep it. We all need ways to simplify the world we live in, because we can’t take everything that is coming in. The trick is that sometimes we stumble upon a particularly effective way of simplifying the world.

We’ve all learned mnemonic abbreviations for important things. We remember SMART for setting our goals and SWAT for evaluating our competitive position in a situation. These are simplifications – they allow us to memorize one thing that we can expand into more things. They make some aspects of life easier by using a tool. Diversity offers a limitless number of these potential lenses through which we can view the world – and through which we can eliminate the non-essential.

Synergy

In the late 80s and into the 90s, the management buzzword was “synergy.” Everything needed to be synergistic. We had to have mergers that would create more than what either of the organizations could accomplish on their own. (Ignoring the fact that most organizations that merged did worse than the effects of both companies individually.) The idea was that when you added one plus one, you would get three – not two.

Diversity fulfills this promise, as tools are added to one another and do increase the overall effect, like the team of golfers who are able to use the best ball as a place to launch their next swing from. The more cognitive tools you have, the more chances you get at having a set of tools fit together in ways that are more powerful than any tool could possibly accomplish on its own.

The Cost of Diversity

The cost of diversity is conflict. Not necessarily the knock-down, drag-down fights, but certainly conflict. When I teach conflict resolution, I say that all conflict comes from only two sources. The first source is a difference in perspective. The second source is a difference in values. Conflict arises from the very source of diversity. Without a difference in values or perspectives, there is no conflict – but that means there’s no diversity.

The negative impacts of diversity can be minimized by teaching everyone effective conflict resolution skills and attitudes of acceptance. However, these, too, are training costs that fit into the overall costs and benefits of diversity.

Tools in the Toolbox

Often, diversity is viewed from the lens of multiple people who come together to solve a problem. Certainly, this is one of the meanings. It’s also one of the things that Hackman considered when he wrote Collaborative Intelligence. However, there’s another option. The other option is when a single person develops a larger set of tools and approaches themselves. They build a toolbox so large that they can have the tools necessary to generate synergy without the involvement of others.

Diversity has a cost – particularly when multiple people are involved. Diverse perspectives create conflict and conflict is a cost. You can avoid that cost by gathering the tools into a single person.

Fundamental and Instrumental Preferences

Diversity has another dark side. When the ends aren’t the same – when there’s a fundamental difference in preferences – there are problems. If not everyone can agree upon the same end point, there’s very little chance you’ll actually get anywhere. Organizations where the fundamental preferences aren’t fixed through the vision-casting, strategic planning, and employee engagement processes are doomed to struggle.

Instrumental preferences, however, aren’t about a different goal, but are instead about how to achieve the goals that are set out. In other words, we agree upon the ends, but we don’t agree upon the means to get there. We all agree we want lower crime, better health, more inclusion, less oppression, etc., but we don’t necessarily agree on how we accomplish those goals. In truth, we have the same foundations of our morality (see The Righteous Mind), but how we believe that we become – and stay – moral are different because of instrumental preferences.

Nash and the Tragedy of Commons

One of the challenges facing the journeymen and -women who seek better outcomes through diversity is the tendency to look only at our own outcomes – and not the outcomes of the larger group. The ability to look to how we can all win together – ala Nash – is an important step to ensuring that everyone’s needs of diversity are met. (See The Science of Trust.)

By considering Nash, we can look at solutions that provide sufficient common resources, in which all may draw appropriately from common goods. If we generate more goodwill, capacity, and growth, than we collectively consume – even if some consume more than their “fair share” – we end up driving an engine of economic growth. This is the power of diversity to find Nash-like solutions, which leave everyone with a bit more.

Different Identities

One of the interesting observations about diversity is how it exists inside of individuals. It exists both in their training to be able to apply diverse perspectives, but it also shows up as individuals respond differently to the same situation in different contexts. The way that someone responds to a situation as a father is different than how they respond as a club leader, and that’s different from how they respond as a manager.

Sometimes unlocking the diversity inside a person is encouraging them to evaluate the situation from multiple perspectives that they already incorporate inside themselves. Creating the freedom to explore how someone might think about something in different contexts unlocks these perspectives. Even with diverse perspectives, sometimes the environmental context can be so strong that it aligns everyone to the same perspective – eliminating the effects of diversity. (See The Lucifer Effect for more on situational influence.)

Small Changes, Compounded

Ultimately, the impact of diversity aren’t hundreds of percentage points. The net value of diversity might be a few percentage points of improvement – making it difficult to distinguish from the noise. However, the power of compounding can operate on diversity like it operates on professionals trying to make incremental performance (see Peak), and, ultimately, that compounding makes The Difference.

Safe People: How to Find Relationships That Are Good for You and Avoid Those That Aren't

Book Review-Safe People: How to Find Relationships That Are Good for You and Avoid Those That Aren’t

Growing up, my family was dysfunctional. I realize that this is redundant. No family system is completely healthy. There are always portions of the family that will be irresponsible. There are parts of everyone’s family that will try to control others. There will be the placaters, who can’t confront issues even if they’re glaring. From this environment, I grew up, and I learned, imperfectly, how to find safe people – people who I could share my burdens with. Finding the right kinds of people – and becoming the right kind of person – to be safe is what Safe People: How to Find Relationships That Are Good for You and Avoid Those That Aren’t is all about.

Beyond our family, most of us have experienced relationships that aren’t healthy. We’ve stumbled into unsafe people and have let them into our inner worlds, only to discover that they’re not the kind of people that you should be close to. (See Choice Theory for more on our inner worlds.)

Types of Unsafe People

Cloud and Townsend believe there are three types of unsafe people:

  • The Abandoners – Those who can start a relationship but can’t finish it. That is, they get going when the going gets tough.
  • The Critics – Always critical, they often end up in one-up/one-down relationships with their friends.
  • The Irresponsibles – They can’t take care of themselves – and therefore they can’t take care of others either.

People who fall into these types aren’t safe to be with. They’ll not be there when you need a friend, or they’ll confront you with truth when what you really need is love and grace.

Perhaps the greatest “trick” to this life is finding people who are safe, and therefore can help you grow, instead of people who are unsafe and will only serve to harm you and your growth. This requires discernment.

Discernment

Discernment is the winnowing process. It’s sorting folks into safe and unsafe, and we believe that we should be better at it. Some of us should be. Some of us make the same mistakes with the same kind of person over and over again. However, for many folks, we connect with someone without realizing the character deficiencies that might make them unsafe.

We must start with understanding discernment and realizing that we’re trying to practice a kind of mindreading trick that can’t be accurate all the time. (See Mindreading for more on this cool evolutionary trick.) Most people who have had to hire others for a job realize that an hour in an interview isn’t enough to know whether someone will be good at a job or not. (See Who: The “A” Method for Hiring for more on the hiring process.)

We can’t use the same tactics and tools for interviewing people to be in a relationship with. We must try things over time to get to know people and whether they’ll be safe. We must accept that we’re going to be wrong sometimes. We’re going to stumble into unsafe people. The real discernment is whether we can avoid the same mistakes next time.

Consistency

In some ways, the fundamental question about finding safe people or not is a bit of a misdirection. We’re all unsafe people – at times. We’re all less than perfect when it comes to coping with this world and being in mutually beneficial relationships with other people. We can gauge how safe – or unsafe – a person is only by observing their behavior over a long period of time.

We need to see them under stress and see how they express their needs. We need to see how they choose to behave when “the chips are down” to know how safe they really are. What we desire most in our relationships with other people is consistency. We want to know that they’ll be there for us when we need them.

Unfortunately, consistency necessarily means “over time” and because of that we’ll have a substantial investment in a relationship before we can know for sure.

Must Be Seen As

Real relationships require that people be real. Real people are people with faults, foibles, and weaknesses. People who are in positions that require they “be seen as” perfect are in the wrong position. Anyone with “must be seen as” is necessarily denying a part of themselves and is subject to the potential harm that comes from not being yourself. (See The Anatomy of Peace for more on “must be seen as”.)

Relationships have a degree of safety and a degree of vulnerability. (See Trust => Vulnerability =>Intimacy for more about why this is required.) Those people who can’t be vulnerable aren’t able to be in a complete relationship with others – the kind of relationship that improves health. Wherever we can’t let others in to see the real us, we deny our true relationships with others, and as a result, we remain separate and disconnected.

Being Comfortable in Your Own Skin

Sometimes it’s easier than others to identify safe and not-safe people. Safe people are comfortable in their own skin. (For more on this, see What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.) They know who they are and who they are in relationship with other people.

There is a great deal of power and invulnerability by knowing who you are. When you hear things that you know are not true about yourself, you can reject them – or find the kernel of truth in what is you and remove what is not from the feedback. You can expose yourself to more vulnerability without worry of being overcome by it.

Being comfortable in your own skin – for most people – takes a great deal of work. It takes studying, reflecting, meditating, and patience. There’s no one formula for becoming comfortable with who you are – but it’s something that other people will see when you get there.

Humility

One of the challenges with being comfortable in your own skin is that sometimes you can come off as arrogant. Someone once explained to me that the line between confidence and arrogance is razor-thin, and it’s drawn in the eye of the beholder. In other words, those who are comfortable in their own skin are often identified as being arrogant because of their self-confidence. John Dickson in Humilitas said, “One of the failings of contemporary Western culture is to confuse conviction with arrogance.” We’re so used to the fragile, broken images that people project to others, that when someone has the capacity to send an image that is their real self, warts and all, we’re confused and taken aback by it.

It’s surprising, therefore, to realize that another one of the markers of a safe person is a level of humility. The best definition of humility that I’ve heard also comes from Humilitas, and it’s “power held in service to others.” That is, humble people are servants. (See Servant Leadership as an example.) Most people who have become safe (or safer) are people who have found themselves and who’ve found their need to be in relationship with others.

Servant leaders – or the humble people who serve – don’t do so to make themselves feel better about their lives or what they’re doing. They serve, because it’s the image of themselves they want to imprint upon the world.

Conflict is Not Bad

Despite popular opinion, conflict is not bad. Only poorly handled or poorly initiated conflict is bad. It’s bad, because it causes damage to the relationship. In our culture, we’ve developed a belief that if there is conflict, it’s a bad thing. However, in my experience, a lack of conflict is a much more concerning statement. It generally means that people aren’t being real. Sometimes it’s truth, but often it means someone is sugar-coating things.

For the first few years of our relationship, my wife and I would say that we didn’t have any conflict. Our friends, who are particularly well-trained in psychology and relationships, were concerned with this statement – appropriately so.

However, what we began to realize is that we had disagreements, but we were both so focused on our relationship that rarely did our disagreements elevate to the position of conflict. For those few that did, we addressed them so quickly that we didn’t even remember we were having them. Imagine having a friend remind you of a conflict that you wouldn’t have remembered without the reminder. This was the world we were living in. Conflict was being managed so well we didn’t remember it.

That’s the willingness to be wrong, to accept and learn from the perspectives of others. Safe people know that conflict should be avoided when appropriate and confronted where necessary. Safe people neither relish conflict nor run from it. I like to say that safe people are conflict apathetic. They are no more concerned by conflict than by preparing a meal. It’s something that needs to be done from time to time, and it’s something that is best done well.

The Need for Feedback

Safe people need conflict. People who are comfortable in their own skin and are humble know that they’re not perfect, and they’re constantly looking for safe people to push, prod, nudge, and needle them in directions that are helpful to their growth as humans. Safe people eat feedback for breakfast. Unsafe people run from feedback. Feedback is often in conflict with our perception of ourselves. (See Change or Die for the ego and its defenses.)

Peer-to-Peer Relationships

However, conflict shouldn’t be a tool that creates a power differential between people. For most relationships – with the notable exception of parent-child, and manager-employee – relationships should be peer-to-peer. One person shouldn’t wield unnecessary power over another person.

In healthy relationships, people take ownership for their own faults and foibles. (The opposite of Mistakes Were Made.)

Secrets Shared

There’s a saying in 12-step groups that you’re only as sick as your secrets. However, that really means secrets that no one else knows. You’re expected to share your secrets with a few safe people. These safe people can keep your deepest, darkest secrets, and they won’t share them or gossip about you. That’s real safety. We need to share our secrets to be healthy – but we also need to know that those secrets will remain with the people that we shared them with.

Safe Relationships with Unsafe People

Cloud and Townsend leave off before what I consider to be the most important part of this topic. The book assumes that there’s a completely safe person. It frames the problem in the context of finding the right person to be in a relationship with. I believe this misses a fundamental point. We’re all some degree of safe and some degree of unsafe. None of us are perfect, and we can’t expect that from others. As a result, we need to learn how to be in safe relationships with unsafe people.

Learning how to draw boundaries allows us to prevent an aspect of someone else’s unsafe-ness from harming us. (See Boundaries and Beyond Boundaries for more.) Knowing ourselves and having a stable – but flexible – self-image allows us to weather the storms of conflict and abandonment.

For me, the real mastery isn’t discerning how to find only totally safe people to be in a relationship with, but instead is learning how to become a safe person so that you can attract more Safe People.