Drivers for Conformity and Originality

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

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

It’s All About the Safety

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

Perception of Safety

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

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

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

Need for Safety

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

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

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

Acceptable Level

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

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

Mind the Gap

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

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

Originality is Creativity

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

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

Mistakes and Mortals

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

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

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

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

We’re All Original – In Our Own Minds

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

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

Manipulating the Results

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

Faith in You

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

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

Importance

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

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

Passion

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

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

Trust

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

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

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

Safety is an Abstraction

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

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

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

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

Safety Net

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

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

Polymath

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

Quick Tip: Microsoft Word: Paragraph Markers

When drafting a formal document, formatting is often a key challenge. Maybe your organization always uses two spaces after a sentence instead of one, or you’re not sure why a table looks the way it does. In this quick tip, I’ll show you how to turn on the paragraph markers so you can see how Word is formatting a document.

See more quick tips here: Quick Tips for Microsoft Office Applications.

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

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

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

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

Conformity and Originality

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

Changing Systems

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

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

Vuja De

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

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

Bearer of Risk

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

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

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

Idea Selection

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

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

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

Entrenched in Our Ideas

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

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

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

Playing the Portfolio

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

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

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

Playing the Field

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

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

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

Pitch Imperfect

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

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

Procrastination

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

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

The Secret to Success is Timing

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

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

Friends and Frenemies

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

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

The Gilded Frame

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

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

The Logic of Appropriateness

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

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

Order of Originality

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

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

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

Character Praise, Skill Praise

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

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

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

Cohesion, Collaboration, and Conformity

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

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

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

Thoughtful Disagreements

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

Article: The Actors in Training Development: Author

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

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

Quick Tip: Microsoft Word: Styles

Whether you’re writing a book, an opinion article, or even a grant proposal, you want your document to look professional. When you have different headers and sub-headers, sections and lists, it can get tricky stay consistent – did you use 24 pt font, or 28 for that header, and why is there a random indent in that paragraph? In this quick tip, I’ll show you how to use Word’s built-in styles, making it easier to navigate your document and helping your text look clean and professional.

See more quick tips here: Quick Tips for Microsoft Office Applications.

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

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

Friends and Facebook Friends

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

Reason, Season, or a Lifetime

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

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

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

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

Frenemies

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

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

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

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

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

Intimacy

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

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

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

Impulse Control and Delayed Gratification

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

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

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

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

Information Architecture

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

Neurology of Sleep

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

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

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

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

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

More Failures to Succeed

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

Cost Effective Training

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

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

Efficacy

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

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

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

Build vs. Buy

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

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

Buy and Customize

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

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

Quick Tip: Microsoft PowerPoint: Slide Sorter

Have you ever realized that a number of slides in your PowerPoint presentation would actually do much better all the way at the end, or the entire structure of the presentation just feels off? Rearranging the slides in your presentation using just the side pane can be a pain. Thankfully, the Slide Sorter view lets you not only click and drag slides from one spot to another, but rearrange section order as well, as I’ll show you in this quick tip.

See more quick tips here: Quick Tips for Microsoft Office Applications.

developer

Article: SharePoint Development in 2017

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

Full article at developer.com. Read more…

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

There’s a sort of irony in the fact that the first thing I have to say about the book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload is that it seems unorganized. To be fair, I think that whenever you’re bringing together multiple areas of expertise and you’re trying to synthesize THE answer as compared to solving some specific problem in a well-defined area, you’re going to struggle. That’s part of the organization process. You try things, some work – and some don’t.

Despite my criticism that The Organized Mind makes it hard to see the organizing theme for the book throughout its pages, there is a great deal of material there. It’s not a short read, but if you’re interested in organizing information, how people think, or you just want to understand yourself better, there are pieces of the puzzle in its pages. I’ve split my review into two pieces. This review will focus on the problem of information overload. The second will focus on the impact to friendships.

Highly Successful People (HSP)

Before going on a journey – whether in life or in learning – you must know where your destination is. You’ve got to put that one spot on the map that says where you want to go or at least get a good idea of where you’re headed. One option for looking for a place to land in life is to look at highly successful people and seek to join them wherever they are.

When looking for highly successful people, the challenge becomes how you define “highly successful people.” It’s got to be more than money and material success. Shouldn’t the ultimate measure of a successful person be their happiness or the impact they leave on the world? In a word, yes.

The good news when finding a place to go with our quest is that highly successful people tend to be people who are getting things done, who are making an impact on their world, and who are happy. It’s not that these things occur individually. They tend to occur as a cluster of characteristics in the folks that are the most successful.

Financial wealth can be measured easily. Simply look at a bank account or watch as the buildings named after someone pile up – because buildings tend to be named after the people who give the most money. Financial success, while easy to measure, may not be the best measure to define a successful person. After all, what about those who care more about family and community than they do material things and the status that they bring? (See The Normal Personality for more on Reiss’ 16 motivating factors.)

A better measure might be how folks are making their impact in the world. Daniel Pink in Drive describes how to motivate people. The three tools are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. It is purpose that drives us to make an impact in the world. Purpose need not be a Mother Theresa kind of change the world or the peaceful resistance of Gandhi. Purpose can be to lead a family or to raise a child. Your purpose may even be to spread happiness. That could be done with a simple smile delivered with a meal. Because purpose – or impact on the world – is so varied and so unique to each individual, it’s immeasurable. (Even if Douglas Hubbard would disagree, as the title of his book How to Measure Anything implies.)

Happiness is similarly difficult to measure. Many scholars, philosophers and authors have sought to find the secret to happiness. Titles like Stumbling on Happiness, The Happiness Hypothesis, and Hardwiring Happiness may hold clues on what happiness looks, like but they offer little help in finding it in others other than trite remarks about people having a smile on their face. Happiness too is hard to measure and therefore is often ignored in the quest to find highly successful people.

Because we perceive impact and happiness to be immeasurable, we often ignore this factor. We focus on what is easy and use the heuristic “what you see is all there is.” (See Incognito and Thinking: Fast, and Slow for more on WYSIATI.) We settle on this, because we’re all in a state of information overload. We settle on measuring wealth because it’s easy, and when we’re overwhelmed we want easy.

Information Overload

It’s hard to escape information overload. In 1976, there were roughly 9,000 unique products in your local supermarket. The aisles were tight and the lights were dim. Today, the typical store is larger, brighter, with wider aisles and 40,000 products. Consider that most people get 80-85% of our needs met with only 150 items, and you might wonder why our stores have exploded with products.

This overwhelming number of options reoccurs in nearly every aspect of our life. In 2011, Americans – on average – took in five times as much information every day as they did in 1986, a fivefold increase in just 25 years. Science has discovered more in the last 20 years than all the discoveries prior to that, all the way back to the beginning of language. Information is a tsunami, and we’re standing on the beach.

The problem of overload is even more pervasive when it comes to news and information. The Information Diet encourages us to think more responsibly about the information that we consume; but how can you do that when the amount of information vehicles, including blogs and YouTube, continue exploding? In my post The Rise and Fall of a Blog, I shared some of my statistics and global statistics on the number of blogs and blog posts. By the end of 2013, WordPress had over 50 million posts and 16 billion reads of articles, and both posts and reads are continuing to climb.

Our brains were simply not designed to come with the sheer amount of information that we’re being confronted with every single day. Evolution takes time. For the first 99% of our history, all we did was procreate and survive. In the last 1%, we’ve begun to accumulate knowledge and generate diversity of thought. We’re caught in the explosion of information. Barry Schwartz explains in The Paradox of Choice how paralyzing it can be to have so many choices, and so much information.

The Impact of Information Overload

At first glance, choice is good. More information leads to better decisions. More information is less uncertainty. However, this is the view of the economist, who believes that we make rational decisions. What we’ve found out is that we’re not at all rational like we want to believe, and few of us behave as the “econs” that economists believe we are. (See Nudge for more about the economist view of the human as an econ.)

We are, as we have come to find out, irrational creatures who behave in odd ways. Sometimes we’re Predictably Irrational, and sometimes we ignore our blind spots, as Incognito points out. However, more important, our rationality is a small rider sitting on a large, emotional elephant. (See Switch and The Happiness Hypothesis for the Rider-Elephant-Path model.) Our rationality gets tired and the elephant begins to wander aimlessly. Instead of information freeing us, it imprisons us. Our riders can’t keep up, and exhaustion has us turning over the reins. We literally fatigue of making decisions, forcing ourselves to adhere to our commitments, and other rational decisions. (See Willpower for more.)

Odd consequences come from information overload. Daniel Gilbert (of Stumbling on Happiness) says that the fundamental attribution error is amplified by information overload. That is, our belief that others’ behaviors are a result of their character becomes more impactful when we’re overloaded. (See The Advantage for more on the fundamental attribution error.)

Focus

In this world, where information overload is the norm, we have few options to help us cope. One option is to work on our focus, as The Information Diet suggests. This is a set of strategies, including walling ourselves off from media that we don’t find valuable. “News” and “journalism” like the National Enquirer, and even magazines like People, add little value to our personal lives. I’ve chosen these magazines from hundreds that I might be able to select, because unless you’re a celebrity, they’re unlikely to be speaking about people you know personally and rarely deal with topics which are of global importance – unless you’re particularly concerned about alien abductions.

For most of us, focus is more than just avoiding a few magazines. Focus is more than just avoiding the avoidable situations. Like an alcoholic, just avoiding bars won’t make you not be an alcoholic. Alcohol is everywhere and so is information. We’ve got to learn how to focus our attention on relevant information wherever we are. Our reticular activating system (RAS) regulates attention (see Change or Die for more on the RAS), but it’s overwhelmed with the information that’s coming at us. (If you’re looking for a way to share communications that focus an organization, you may want to look at our white paper, Effective Internal Communication Channels.)

Focus may be a limited coping mechanism. Just like too much focus would have been a threat to our ancestors since they would not be able to monitor for threats in the environment, we may find that hyper focus leaves us vulnerable as well. (The evolutionary dance of flow is an interesting topic for another day.) Today, it’s not just managing the information that we’re exposed to and trying to shape it to enrich our lives, it’s perhaps more important to manage the information that we have seen. That requires a strategy for externalization.

Externalization

Externalization is the process of getting things out of your head and into supporting systems that we can leverage when we need them. We instinctively do this. Couples partition off responsibilities for certain things – like a social calendar – to one of the partners. This allows the other partner to focus on something else. It’s this externalization of processing, information, and skills that leads widows and widowers to honestly not know how to do things. Perhaps their spouse paid the bills. Perhaps they did the grocery shopping. Whatever it was that their spouse managed, they’ve almost literally lost a part of their brain when they’ve lost their spouse. They must reintegrate these skills.

In a professional world, the externalization to other people is much less dramatic. In my SharePoint work, I know there are certain specific questions that I can ask of specific people. I’ve got people to talk to about the latest software development options, search, profiles, HTTP throttling, etc. These are all things that I know something about – but I know the person who knows more about it than I do. I know the person I can ask the details so I don’t have to remember them. This allows me to focus on other things.

Most of us rely on people more than electronic systems. Though there have been many attempts to build knowledge management systems, many of them fail. They find that it’s incredibly difficult to convert the tacit knowledge that’s in someone’s head into explicit knowledge that can be coded into a system. Gary Klein’s study of firefighters and their ability to just “know” how a fire was going to behave lead to his book Sources of Power and the awareness that tacit knowledge is something based on a lifetime of experience, which is difficult to codify. While I rely on a deep – and extensive – system of notes and blog posts for all the books that I’ve read, I recognize that there are some things which are simply difficult to capture. (See Research in the age of electrons for more about my systems.)

Back to Success

Coming back to highly successful people (HSPs) for a moment, what do they do to be successful? They seem to focus and externalize. HSPs have “people” to take care of trivial, mundane, or out-of-focus things for them. From the simple externalization like hiring out housekeeping or lawn maintenance to the more complicated administrative support, HSPs work to minimize the things that they must focus on and leverage both people and systems to do it.

Whether it’s an administrative assistant or living by their calendar, HSPs don’t worry about where they need to be next. They assume their calendar will remind them when it’s time, or their administrative assistant will come get them for their next appointment. They don’t have to pay any attention to time. (Which is good if they are trying to get into flow; see The Rise of Superman for more.)

HSPs leverage people and systems to have answers that they don’t have. Whether it’s a network of colleagues that they can depend on to have answers they don’t have, extensive notes from the work that they’ve done in the past, or some other solution, HSPs work hard to build systems around them to make it possible for them to be successful.

Not that I’m a HSP, but I can say that I write these blog posts to help me integrate my thoughts about what I’m reading. I write blog posts with the detailed technical things and the random stuff I experience so that I can find it later. I’m not going to remember the specific TCP/IP packet sequence when an SSL certificate is bad – but I can refer back to my blog post to find out what it is, if I need to. It’s a behavior of HSPs that I’ve been adopting for years.

Satisficing

Herbert Simon coined the term “satisficing,” but I was introduced to it by Barry Schwartz’s book The Paradox of Choice. It’s all about doing just enough. It’s not obsessing about something, just doing what it takes to make the problem or situation go away. It’s a coping skill and an unconscious strategy to deal with the problem of information overload. It’s a great idea for some things but a horrible idea for the things that we desire to be experts in. For that, we need the opposite strategy: “maximizing.” Peak explains that, to be the best at something, we’ve got to be continually trying to be better through deliberate practice. This deliberate practice is maximizing. It’s the quest to achieve more than we can achieve today.

However, satisficing has a place in the quest to become highly successful. Satisficing is the strategy to deal with everything that’s not our goal so that we can maximize our energies to the areas in our life that we want to be at the peak of our game.

Attention Switching

Multitasking is one of the new plagues of our information crazed society. Folks have Twitter, Facebook, three chat programs, and a newsfeed going on their computer, a TV on in the background, and they believe that they’re able to effectively multitask across all these channels of media. However, the research says something different. Multitasking decreases IQ. Multitasking causes information to be stored in the wrong place in our brains. Multitasking is rapid task switching, which reduces our overall efficiency and at the same time leads to our feeling exhausted.

Despite this, we’re designing our lives around the idea that we can be constantly overstimulated and multitasking. A simple example is simply email notifications. We believe we can stay focused on what we’re doing while watching an email notification come in. In truth, we can’t stay focused when an attention-grabbing subject line comes through. We switch our attention to the email and back to what we were doing, and it costs us productivity. Despite this, too few of us turn off our notifications. (Here’s how to turn off your notifications in Outlook if you’re interested.)

Our ability to focus our attention on something is a limited capacity. Like willpower, it can be exhausted. We need our ability to switch our attention at times to take care of truly urgent things – or in some roles where picking a single instrument out of a crowd. (I mentioned how audio engineers need to do this in my review on Hardwiring Happiness.)

I Have It on Good Authority

It used to be that when you read something in the newspaper or in a book, you had it on good authority. Journalists adhered to standards. Book publishers made sure that authors were experts before working with them on a book project – because to not do so was too financially risky. However, times have changed.

Many of us don’t get our news and article content from journalists any longer. Despite blogs being passé, we find answers on blogs. We leverage search to find the information we want and don’t bother to check the credentials of the person who wrote it. We find a journal article and don’t have any idea whether it’s been peer-reviewed or not. Even if we presumed for a moment that all journalists were reputable and upheld high standards of reporting, it wouldn’t matter because we just don’t get our information that way any longer.

Books are no better. Today, anyone who has an idea and a few hundred dollars can publish a book and have it show up in distribution just like any other book. I wrote about my self-publishing experience in 2009 in my post Self-Publishing with Lulu. While I’ve got over a dozen books published with traditional publishers, many of my more recent works are self-published. There’s not anything special about my ability to self-publish. Anyone can do it – and that’s the problem. How do you know whether the person you’re reading really knows what they’re talking about? You don’t. You assume, because they’ve written a book that they do.

In some circles, exploiting the instant credibility that comes with having written a book is leveraged to people’s advantage. Speakers and consultants pay to have folks help them write their book in the form of writing coaches, vanity presses, and the like. It’s worth it to them. It’s a marketing expense to be perceived as the expert.

On the consumer side, this means you never really know the authority of the sources of information that you’re reading. Before the internet became popular in the 1990s, if you wanted information you had to work hard to find it. Now the challenge is not finding the information. Now the challenge is validating that the information is correct and comes from a reputable source. We use comments and reviews as a proxy, but the technique of astroturfing has become so popular that we don’t know if the comments that we’re reading to validate something are real or if they’re sponsored. (See Analyzing the Social Web for more.)

Losing One’s Mind

Until the 1600s, families lived in one-room houses – with most of their relatives huddling around the stove in the center of the room to keep warm. Now we have so many things that we can’t remember where we put them. The average person today owns thousands of times more things than our hunter-gather ancestors. We buy duplicates of things so we don’t have to carry them from place to place. Now three out of four Americans admit to having so much stuff in their garages that they couldn’t put their car in them.

It’s little wonder that we can’t find things. It’s little wonder that we have no idea where we left our keys or our glasses – that is, unless, of course, we have purchased something to create a place for those things to go. These “affordances,” as they’re called, create places for things. By spending money on the affordances – thereby further increasing the things we have – we can sometimes create a place for the other things that we keep losing. If it seems like we’re losing our mind to buy things to have a place for other things, you’ve just discovered the container store market.

Facebook Friends

In the next installment of The Organized Mind, I’ll talk about our relationships with other people.