Skunk Works Leadership

I finished writing my review of Skunk Works and I realized that beyond the amazing aircraft that they created, they developed a culture that managed to side-step the government bureaucracy and get things done. Somehow during the mountain of paperwork, they managed to be as agile as a gazelle. This is something that large organizations aspire to today. They feel the pressure to be more competitive, adaptive, and agile because of the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world that we find ourselves in.

The hope here is to find a few nuggets of how the Skunk Works was successful, so that other organizations trying to mimic the results have a blueprint they can use.

No Blueprints

The irony of trying to build a blueprint is that, often, the blueprints came after the part was made at the Skunk Works. There were many times when designers would work with machinists and assembly personnel to figure out how to make something work. They’d mock something up on cardboard, the machinist would make it, and then return the cardboard or part to the designer to get it drawn up.

From most perspectives, this is backwards. However, at Skunk Works, that’s just how things worked. The team worked together to address the need or solve the problem, and then they’d make sure that their individual commitments to the rest of the organization were met. Agile software development would take a page out of this book decades later in deciding that ceremony wasn’t important, people and interactions were important.

You Can’t Contract Your Way Out of Conflict

Own your own business for a while, and you’ll make friends with an attorney or two. It happens because they’ll save your bacon at some point – and because you’re going to be talking to a lot of them. A wise friend of mine explained that contracts are funny things. You write a contract, so it’s clear what should happen when things go wrong – and then you hope nothing goes wrong. You write a contract so you can trust what the other party will do – and you know that you can’t write a contract with someone you don’t trust. It just won’t ever work.

The point of this is that, at Skunk Works, the relationships people had mattered. It wasn’t position, power, or prestige. If you weren’t working together to solve the problem, you weren’t working.

Clear and Present Danger

The Soviets at the time Skunk Works was created represented a clear and present danger to the United States. What we didn’t know was the degree or aspects of the danger. That’s what Skunk Works would eventually end up solving for the US. They’d level the playing field with advanced jet fighters and reconnaissance aircraft that provided the best understanding about what was really happening inside the Iron Curtain.

Skunk Works always had clear targets. At the largest level, it was to be able to protect the United States’ interests. At the micro level, the targets for the aircraft could be specific. The SR-71 Blackbird project was targeted to fly at over 80,000 feet and Mach 3. (For more see, The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird.) They achieved these goals, in part, because they were specific. They had something that the team could shoot for and desire to be a part of.

Secret Handshakes

Being a part of Skunk Works was something special. It was something that few people could say – and to some degree, it was something that even the people inside couldn’t say except to each other. It created a special sense of community inside that circus tent. This was the crack team. They were going to save the US from foreign interests. Everything was riding on them.

There may not have been any secret handshakes, but the secrecy of their projects bonded everyone together in a way that not every organization can accomplish. There was something to being a part of the group – it meant something. (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for more.)

The Fewer the Better

While they weren’t many people, they were handpicked to be the best at their jobs. What was assembled became a testimony to Margaret Mead’s quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” The model that the Skunk Works operated under didn’t require more people. In fact, Johnson recognized early on that Skunk Works raises and promotions had to be different, because there wouldn’t be as many people for them to lead. The group wouldn’t require leadership in the same way that the rest of the organization thought about it.

Rather than focusing on empire-building by collecting the most people working for them, Skunk Works managers would focus on output and results. Instead of worrying about competing with others, they’d be focused on how to collaborate with their peers – and compete with the enemy. (This is a lesson that Richard Hackman would drive home in Collaborative Intelligence years later.)

Lessons for Today

It’s great that Johnson and Rich were able to build and maintain a culture at Skunk Works with such amazing characteristics. But how do the leaders of today leverage this wisdom to create a culture of their own that’s capable of incredible results? Here’s a few ways.

Start with Why

Simon Sinek explains, in Start with Why, that people need a shared purpose. While most organizations today don’t have an enemy the size of Russia to target, they can target a change they want to see in the world. This change provides a central theme for everything that the organization does. Organizing principles make it easier to work together towards the common good.

Clear, Compelling Goals

It may start with “why,” but it doesn’t end there. It ends with the specific goals that individuals and teams need to accomplish to allow the organization’s mission to be successful. The specific goals – sometimes very difficult goals – drove the engine forward. The SR-71 Blackbird was only 84% efficient at burning fuel, leaked like a sieve on the ground, and had a horrible habit of the jet engines “unstarting” during flight. Because the goals were clear, these “annoyances” were acceptable. When you’re building something that’s generations ahead of anything anyone else can do, there are going to be drawbacks.

In your organization, clear goals allow you to focus on the requirements, the “must haves,” and allow some of the other things to land wherever they need to.

Compete Outside, Collaborate Inside

Too many organizations have managers pitted against each other in a struggle for resources and power. The real enemy should always be outside the organization. Hackman’s Collaborative Intelligence makes it clear that internal competition doesn’t create well-performing teams. Of all the things that we can learn from Skunk Works, I feel like this is the one we forget most often.


Skunk Works wasn’t easy. It was hard, demanding work, and people didn’t “pussyfoot around” when there was a problem. Results – the ability to get things done – was always at the forefront of mind.


In Johnson’s rules for Skunk Works, he made a point that evaluations (budget reporting) had to be timely – and problems needed to be disclosed as quickly as possible. Knowing bad news late does you no good. You need to know bad news as soon as possible, so you can mitigate the risks caused by it. If there was one thing about Skunk Works, it was communication – for better and for worse.


For the first time, the people who needed to work together to get things done actually worked in the same space. Instead of designers lobbing designs over the wall and machinists handing them off to assembly, everyone worked together because they were close together. Agile software development learned the value of the product owner and the software development team being close together. It improves the measurable communication – and it builds bonds of trust that allow you to transcend the normal rules for working together.


Too few people in organizations trust each other or the organization. At Skunk Works, everyone knew that if you did your job to the best of your ability – even if you failed – Johnson (and then Rich) would have your back. You trusted the people you worked for and with. That makes all the difference. (See Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order for more.)


It seems odd that failure should be a part of success. However, it is perhaps the most important part of success. Without the ability to fail safely, you won’t know about failures until too late, and the organization won’t be able to learn from the failures. So, paradoxically, failure allows you to succeed – when you’re willing to accept and acknowledge it.

Back to Skunk Works

According to the current literature few organizations have matched Skunk Works’ level of functioning. Books like An Everyone Culture and Reinventing Organizations make it clear that our organizations are falling far short of their aspirations. Perhaps if we’re willing to take a look back to the Skunk Works, we can see just some of the ways that we can make our organizations more powerful.

AKA – Writing for Purpose

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Book Review-The Globalization of Addiction: A Study in Poverty of the Spirit

Why is addiction of all types on the rise in our society today? If the pharmacological theory of addiction is true – that demon drugs take over the minds of users after only one use – then why is it that there are other, non-drug addictions? How does that explain alcohol enslaving some people but not others? The answers, according to Bruce Alexander, are found in the fact that society is increasingly psychologically dislocated. In The Globalization of Addiction: A Study in Poverty of the Spirit, Alexander convincingly explains how we’re more disconnected from each other and our communities than we’ve ever been and how the chief actor in this play is the free market capitalism that most of the world has adopted.

Return to Rat Park

I called out, in Chasing the Scream, how a set of studies illuminated that rats would not overuse morphine added to a water dispenser if those rats had other rats and playthings to make their environment comfortable. That research, called “Rat Park,” was by Alexander and his team. They found that, even in rats, there was a big contrast between happy rats with the socialization and stimulation they needed and rats that didn’t.

This is a big part of the mystery. If morphine is inherently addictive, then how should the cage the rat is in matter? It shouldn’t, but it does. To answer the question of what the factors are that cause addiction, Alexander researched history, including the views of addiction.

Addiction as Illness or Moral Defect

Throughout modern history, addiction in its various forms has been viewed from either the lens that it is an illness – a disease – that should be treated, or from the perspective that it’s a moral defect, and the person should develop a greater constitution. Sometimes addiction seemed to take both forms at once.

There are several reasons to view addiction as an illness. Twelve-step groups teach that it’s not a moral defect but an illness that can be managed but not solved. (See Why and How 12-Step Groups Work for more.) It doesn’t help that DSM-V (the manual for psychological dysfunction) lists various forms of substance addiction as official diagnoses. It seems as if established psychological care groups and addicts themselves have accepted the labeling of addiction as a disease.

At the same time, society has frequently shunned those with addiction for fear that they might somehow draw more people into their downward spiral. It’s as if the addict has the capacity to create a whirlpool that will bring down others.

However, before we get too deeply into Alexander’s research and how addiction has manifested itself across history, we’ve got to stop to define what we mean by addiction.

Alexander’s Four Definitions of Addiction

Robert Palmer sang the song “Addicted to Love,” and in doing so compared love to an addiction. The truth is that neuroimaging confirms infatuation-type love and addiction are virtually indistinguishable. But, in drawing this connection, he illuminated the problem we have with the word addiction. It doesn’t mean one thing; it means multiple. Alexander defines four types of addiction:

  • Addiction1 – Overwhelming involvement with drugs or alcohol that is harmful to the addicted person, to society, or both.
  • Addiction2 – Encompasses Addiction1
    and non-overwhelming involvements with drugs or alcohol that are problematic to the addicted person, society, or both.
  • Addiction3 – Overwhelming involvement with any pursuit whatsoever (including, but not limited to, drugs or alcohol) that is harmful to the addicted person, society, or both.
  • Addiction4 – Overwhelming involvement with any pursuit whatsoever that is not harmful to the addicted person or society.

The problem with these four definitions of addiction is that it becomes unclear what we mean when we’re speaking of addiction. While, sometimes, people are speaking of drug and alcohol use (Addiction1 and Addiction2), they could just as easily be speaking of dependence on a substance or activity (Addiction3 or Addiction4). While we socially make a difference between those addictions that are good for society (Addiction4) and those that are harmful (Addiction3), these distinctions are largely arbitrary.


Using the above definitions, it might be easy to categorize workaholics into category 4. After all, famous workaholics are great creators and people who have moved society forward. However, as you peer through the whitewashed veneer placed on their historical accounts, you often find places of inner turmoil and struggle that reveal a more complex existence. While, on the whole, workaholics may benefit society, the impact to their lives and the lives of those they love may be only slightly better than if they have a more recognized drug or alcohol problem.

An important underpinning of Alexander’s discussion is the need to recognize every addicted person as first a person. Trying to sort people and situations into differing kinds of addiction is necessary for discussion, but it runs the risk of failing to recognize the reality of the individual people who are suffering in ways that are both small and large.


Another translation for the original Greek word from which we get addiction is “devoted.” In our modern use of the word, we fail to capture the attachment that exists between the person and the object of their devotion. While understanding addiction as devotion makes the neurological scans make sense, it does little in the way of helping us to sort through addiction and help those that are suffering.

A different definition of addiction, and one that I am particularly fond of, is a coping skill that someone becomes enslaved to. Instead of the coping skill being useful to cope with life, it becomes necessary for survival. Instead of the position of helper, this new behavior or substance becomes the jail master. It’s that transition that isn’t captured well in addiction or devoted. However, it can be captured in another word: slavery.

Voluntary Slavery

Another way to think of addiction, one which probably comes the closest to capturing the mechanisms at work, is to think of addiction as voluntary slavery. This is paradoxical. Why would someone become a slave to someone or something else? The answer is that what the person gets seems more valuable than their freedom.

Consider for a moment the biblical story of the prodigal son. While the ending is well known to us now, it wasn’t for the son. He had disgraced his father by asking for his inheritance in advance and then blown it. He was scavenging for food and knew that his father took care of his hired hands well. His decision to come back wasn’t to come back into slavery but a difficult decision to walk back to the things he had done and suffer any consequences his father might dole out.

In short, he was willing to accept whatever the consequences were for the promise of regular food and shelter. This would be the same story if the father had taken the son as a slave. While slavery is an awful concept and demoralizes the slaves, it can provide some stability.

The Bargain

So, what’s the bargain that would lead someone to believe that slavery is the right answer? In the case of addiction, it’s the quelling of the pain. Though Alexander is very focused on psychosocial dislocation, in my experience, it’s broader than that. Psychosocial integration is the antidote to addiction, but the lack of it doesn’t cause addiction. Alexander himself acknowledges that the greatest limitation in his theory is the lack of ability to predict those who will become addicted and those who will not.

If you look at psychosocial integration as the way to smooth all the hurts and pains that we naturally get through life, a more complete story emerges. Psychosocial integration then functions like the antibodies that we produce. The lack of antibodies isn’t the direct cause of death. The lack of antibodies allows us to succumb to the bacteria that we encounter in going through life.

The addiction is a replacement for the psychosocial integration. It temporarily stands in for the connection that we all need. However, the object of the addiction is a poor stand-in for what we really need – connection to others.

The Pain

The pains that lead to addiction are many. It could be not being accepted by your family. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on the role of acceptance.) It could be feelings of fear. (See Find Your Courage is a good place to start to work on overcoming fear.) It could be a confusion between shame and guilt – and believing you are bad when you’ve only done something bad. (See I Thought It Was Just Me as a start on the journey for differentiating these two.) It can be the harmful things that were done to you. Whether you believe you should have “known better,” prevented them, or just realized that bad things happen, these hurts can become wedged in our minds and bring back repeated trauma.

Addiction makes the pain go away – at least for a while. Medications like ibuprofen (Advil), acetaminophen (Tylenol), and aspirin can help you relieve a hurt for a while, but, ultimately, the effects wear off, and you need more. Addictions quiet the pain for a time, but they ultimately don’t provide healing.


What Alexander is describing with psychosocial integration isn’t just covering up the pain but providing real healing for the hurting. While the temporary relief from the pain may be appropriate, without the work to protect the broken bone and realign it so it can heal over time, the pain will simply continue – and will probably get worse over time, requiring pain medication in greater doses. That’s addiction. It’s failing to recognize and resolve the root problem and instead focusing on pain symptom relief.

From the Scottish Highlands

It’s an interesting theory, but where’s the support for the idea that dislocation leads to addiction? Let’s start in the Highlands of Scotland. In the early 1700s, Scotland was relatively isolated from Great Britain and the benefits of modern English society. They lived together in relatively stable communities. However, transformation began in the latter half of the 18th century, as the Scottish could no longer ignore the growing influence of the English. Cattle and grain were replaced with hearty sheep that were more profitable to the landholders. They needed fewer people to tend the lands, and their communities ruptured. There was great displacement of people who no longer had roles in the community.

It was at this point that the Scottish discovered the alcohol that Christian monks brought with them three centuries prior. While alcoholism was relatively unheard of in their communities prior to the second half of the 1700s, it seemed to explode overnight.

To China’s Opium Dens

China had access to opium since the Ming Dynasty, and it managed to remain relatively productive until the losses in 1839 and 1858 to the British Empire. Suddenly, Chinese ports were open to the full commerce of the Empire, and the Chinese market was radically changed. As with the Scottish Highlands, the disruption in the market from a relatively stable communal relationship to a more free-market approach displaced members of communities whose services were no longer effective or necessary.

It’s here that it starts to become apparent that there is a cause of psychosocial dislocation. The free market system seems to destabilize communities and countries as it marches on towards efficiency, production, and, in some cases, greed. However, any kind of dislocation has the same impact.

To Native American Indian Displacement

A little closer to home in the United States (where I live) and Canada (where Alexander lives) is the displacement of Native American Indians as their lands were taken as property. Whether it was seized or negotiated for as a part of as a treaty makes little difference to the outcome. Natives, whose ancestors had always roamed the same land, were forced to move, and the disruption of their culture could not be more profound.

Children were trained only in English and were “encouraged” to forget their heritage. The resulting disintegration of culture left many adrift. Firewater, or alcohol, was an all-too-easy way to forget the suffering of having lost their way of life.

Warnings from Australia

Alexander didn’t mention the challenges of introducing change that Everett Rogers uses as a cautionary tone at the end of his work, Diffusion of Innovations. The real problem with change – any change – is that you cannot predict all the effects. In Rogers’ case, he referred to the impact of missionaries on aboriginal Australian people. In a culture where stone axe heads were a prized tool owned by the elders and lent through a ceremonial request, the missionaries introduced steel axe heads. The steel axe heads were, of course, more efficient than the traditional stone axe heads. However, more critically, the axe heads were given without the cultural underpinnings of respect. Missionaries offered them to women and young men who would never be able to own a stone axe head.

The intended result was, of course, to elevate the people and improve their standard of living. It seemed obvious that the introduction of the improved axe heads should increase the capacity of the tribe to create value for its members. However, the unraveling of society that came from the introduction couldn’t be predicted. Instead of greater productivity, the Aborigines slept more. The desire for the new power of the steel axe head caused at least some cases of husbands prostituting their wife to near total strangers in return for a steel axe head.

A simple introduction of one good – the steel axe head – seemed capable of collapsing an entire culture to near ruin. To be fair, the source article that Rogers refers to, “Steel Axes for Stone-Age Australians,” admits that, while the axe heads had primary influence, there were other influences coming in from Europeans. There was no way to say that the steel axe heads by themselves were causal for the breakdown. However, in the context here of explaining the introduction of free market and how it impacts the stabilization of a community, it makes little difference whether it was the axe head or some other disruptive, free market influence.

Poverty of the Spirit

The subtitle explains that Alexander’s work is a study in the poverty of the spirit. However, what does that mean? What does it mean to be poor in spirit? Reviewing the beatitudes from Mathew 5:3 in the New Testament of the Christian Bible doesn’t help. Alexander only says that he believes that dislocation is a poverty of spirit. He contrasts this with a material poverty.

It’s an important distinction. Is material poverty a mitigating factor for addiction directly, or is dislocation, or poverty of the spirit, the mitigating factor? Looking at celebrity addiction, it’s relatively easy to isolate material poverty as not being a mitigating factor. And so, it seems that, though those with addiction often find themselves in material poverty, this is more the outcome than the cause.

A deeper look into what it means to be poor of spirit is, however, warranted.

Poor in Spirit

There are context clues scattered throughout, which lead to an image of the emptiness and feeling of being lost or set adrift that are at the heart of the poverty of the spirit. To be full of spirit is to be full of life and zest. A compelling purpose sucks a person forward into the vastness of their potential impact. To be poor in spirit it to be without this light.

For some, it is possible that the light never shone. It’s possible that their very earliest memories had nothing lighthearted or fun. For most, however, there would be some light that burned or at least flickered before being snuffed out by life’s circumstances. Without the psychological integration that can nurture this flame and even relight it if necessary, those who are poor in spirit must remain this way.

Need for Purpose

Atul Gawande explains in Being Mortal that seniors in living facilities live longer if they have something to take care of – even if that something is simply a plant. It seems that we’re hardwired to need to take care of something. When we become disconnected from others, we have nothing to care for except ourselves. This is not a natural state for us as humans, and most find this to be a painful experience.

Stopping Addiction

While there may not be any sure-fire way of preventing the spread of addiction or helping those recover from addiction, it’s possible that we can learn more about the factors that increase the likelihood of addiction and try to understand what we might do to make things better. We can’t stop The Globalization of Addiction individually, but perhaps we can work together to make it better.

The Evolution of Leadership

It’s impossible to really understand what things were like a generation ago. We apply our perspective from today and come up with a distorted version of the past. We can’t imagine how leadership worked at the turn of the last century, with authoritative leaders creating a group of employees only slightly removed from slavery. We look at a new generation of workers and wonder why they behave differently than us when we were starting our careers – and fail to recognize that this is both true and untrue at the same time.

It’s time we hopped a ride in the way-back machine to get a better picture of what things used to be like, so we can understand the changes that are happening – and what it means to us.

Safety and Fear

The common thread that we’ll find as we walk through the changes in society, and therefore leadership, is the prevalence of safety and its relationship to fear, both physical and psychological. Human behavior is shaped by fear and safety in large and small ways. When looking from the leadership lens we see that we need to lead in ways that are more aspirational and less authoritarian. Why is that case? As it turns out, there’s a reason that drives this change in leadership styles.

Physical Safety

Our ancestors primarily considered their physical safety. Given their mortality and the struggle for water, food, and shelter, they didn’t have much room to consider how they felt. The introduction of “the pursuit of happiness” to the Declaration of Independence was, at the time, a foreign concept. Most people were locked in the struggle for mere survival, and happiness wasn’t a concept that was worthy of consideration for all but a select few.

The driver when it came to safety was our physical well-being and the well-being of our families – because they were a part of our safety net.

Driving Safety

It’s 1926, and Route 66 is becoming the experience of a lifetime for many travelers. It’s a call to adventure and an opportunity to explore the country in ways that hadn’t been possible before. The road was a continuous stretch from Chicago to California – but it was just that: a stretch. Automobiles had been made practical through Ford’s innovations of mass production, and since 1908, they were an affordable way to travel. Ironically, Ford shut down manufacture of the Model T shortly after Route 66 was completed. (Source

Reliability of the automobile isn’t what it is today. The first Indianapolis 500 in 1911 wasn’t initially a race as much as it was an endurance test. Getting automobiles that could travel 500 miles without breaking down was a challenge. Sure, there was a winner, and the goal was to cross the line with the highest average speed; but of the initial field of 40 cars, only 12 finished. Another 14 still had engines running, but flagged out when they were disqualified – the remaining 14 cars weren’t functional by the end of the race. (Source

These were the top automobiles of their time, and fewer than a third finished 500 miles. Route 66 was roughly 2,500 miles. Breakdown wasn’t so much of a possibility as a probability. If you did break down, you had a toolbox on board to try to resolve the problems yourself, because, in this world, there weren’t cell phones, and the service stations weren’t close together. You’d also expect to have food and a tent in case you needed to camp out along the route. (Source

It is difficult for us to conceive of a time when traveling was so hazardous and error-prone. Today, we punch in an address in our GPS receiver and wait for turn-by-turn directions to our location. Just a generation ago, we taught map skills to children because it was important to understand how to route ourselves. We expect that cellular signals will reach mobile phones so that, even in the rare case of a problem with our car, we can call someone to help us with a repair, a meal, a room, or directions.

We feel safer in many different directions. We believe that problems happen much less frequently, with lower severity, and we believe that we’re able to recover more rapidly. Few of us keep stable food in our cars today, much less camping equipment or tools in case we need to plan on camping out or repairing the car ourselves.

Food Costs

The truth is that we were able to take risks like traveling the “mother road” of Route 66, because our discretionary income was increasing. Sure, the 1930s were marred by the Great Depression, but there were other factors that were moving towards greater affluence. Consider that, in 1900, the average American family spent approximately 40% of their income on food. By 1950, that number was down to 30%. Today, our cost for food is less than 15% of our income (on average). (Source: In the space of 100 years, we freed up 25% of our income.

Reducing the cost of food means that fewer people were at risk of starvation. That isn’t to say that there aren’t still families struggling today to keep enough food available, but the number of families for which this is a problem is substantially lower than it was a century ago. The problem of food safety (enough food) is still an important social issue, but the prevalence of families for whom this is a consistent struggle is decreasing.

House Sizes

Many families took their new-found discretionary income and poured it into their houses. In 1950, the average home size was less than 1,000 feet. By 1973, the size ballooned to about 1,500 square feet. (Source: From 1973 to 2015, the average size of homes ballooned another 1,000 feet, while the number of people living in each home went down. The net effect was a near doubling of space per person in the space of about 40 years. (Source:

The perceived financial safety transferred to Americans making larger investments in their houses. In 1950, the average house price was $7,354. The average home price today is $236,400. Even adjusted for inflation, the cost of a 1950s home would only be $44,600. That’s nearly a 5-fold increase in the last 70 years. We’re feeling safer about our financial futures and we’re turning homes into castles – almost literally.


It may be frustrating to not get to our destination, but it’s more challenging to realize that we’re not going to live to see our grandchildren. In the 1800s, the average life expectancy was 35 years. Today, the life expectancy is around 70 years. In the last 200 years, we’ve doubled the life expectancy of humans across the planet. (Source: Measured differently, in 1900, about 2,500 people of every 100,000 would perish each year. Today, that number is approximately 750 people – roughly one-quarter. (Source: Our fear of death is real – but it is waning because we know that the average lifespan keeps climbing.

Instead of a persistent fear of death and injury, we’ve quelled our hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis.

Hyperactive Fear

The landmark study on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) taught us that a tumultuous childhood has long-range impacts. (See a wealth of resources about the ACE study at The primary stress response system is the HPA, and activating it too much causes a predisposition of continued activation. That is, once you create a high degree of fear in a child (or an adult), you’re likely to see them be sensitive to fear in the future. They’ll respond with fear more readily than someone who hasn’t been similarly primed. (See How Children Succeed for more on the impact of the ACE study on children.) It turns out that the clock winds back even into the womb, as David Barker discovered in his research around the fetal origins of adult disease (FOAD). Some adult diseases can be predicted based on the stressors to the mother during pregnancy. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more on ACE, HPA, and FOAD.)

In short, the impacts of stress on children – even before they’re born – have long-term consequences for their ability to control themselves and their long-term health. Walter Mischel and his colleagues showed that the ability to delay gratification has substantial long-term impacts for a child’s life through their “marshmallow test.” (See The Marshmallow Test.) When we reduce the fear that children feel and the stresses placed on them in utero, we can place them in a position of being more able to regulate their own emotions and quiet their fears and desires. As the societal stressors are reduced one by one, we’re literally changing the wiring of our brains and making them more thoughtful and less fear-based.

Psychological Safety

Amy Edmonson is responsible for crystalizing the term “psychological safety” as a representation of how safe members of a team feel about the team itself. In some teams, there is a real belief that they can be themselves – their whole selves – and in other teams there exists a perception that you must only do what is expected of you, and you shouldn’t share your all.

Bodies and Minds

It used to be that people hired the bodies, and the minds were just along for the ride. However, with today’s more taxing requirements for creativity and innovation, it could be said that we hire the minds, and it’s just the body that transports the mind to work – even if that’s just across the hall to the home office.

It’s hard to understand that, before the extreme automation that we’ve developed today, we really did need people performing backbreaking work. It was necessary for people to do many of the jobs that today are handled by robots or other kinds of automation. Today, not everyone even sweeps their floors any longer. A robotic vacuum does scheduled cleanings, makes a map of the places it’s cleaned, and notifies you when it needs its bin emptied or if it’s gotten stuck. It’s no surprise then that the physical aspects of work are no longer key. Today when we lead, we need to do more than just command other people’s bodies where to be. We must inspire them to think in ways that are useful.

Minds Aren’t Easy to Manage

We all love to believe we’re in rational control of our faculties. It’s a convenient lie to believe that we can command ourselves to do things. However, few New Year’s Resolutions are kept: dieters, on average, gain back 107% of the weight they’ve lost. Clearly, our conscious decisions don’t always work.

Drive shares how a small amount of stress – time pressure – can change the degree to which people can be creative about their solutions. Getting the best work out of the people you work with is something that takes a Multiplier, but that guidance isn’t particularly clear about how you lead every day by getting the most out of others.

Making of Managers and Not Leaders

Until the last two decades or so, it was enough to lead by directing, or managing, people. However, this is no longer the case. Today, we must find ways to inspire the hearts and minds of people. This is substantially more challenging than just bossing them around. However, that’s how leadership has evolved.

Offline with OneDrive

Going offline can make you feel like you’re in the dark. When the internet isn’t available (or reliable), it can seem like you’re twiddling your thumbs until you can do something. OneDrive lets you take your files offline, so you can take your work with you, as we explain in this engagement video.

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Book Review-Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed

I’m still in awe. I’m in awe of the organization that was the Lockheed Skunk Works. Ben Rich – who took the helm after Clarence “Kelly” Johnson – mixes personal stories of triumph and frustration into a compelling read in Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed. I’ve made no secret of my love for the SR-71 Blackbird. (See my review of The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird.) However, what I couldn’t fully convey is my appreciation of the organization that created it – and much of the technical wizardry that moved us from late to the game to generations ahead of the competition. What Johnson and Rich accomplished at Skunk Works is simply remarkable by any measure.

Kelly Johnson

The stories of Kelly Johnson are remarkable. He was willing – sometimes too willing – to go toe-to-toe with generals and as quiet as a jet engine about getting what he felt he needed – and only what he needed – to be successful. With credits for the first US Jet fighter, the first super-sonic jet fighter, the U2 Spy plane, and the SR-71 Blackbird, he was the preeminent aerospace engineer and businessman of his era. No one could touch his results – and it’s a good thing, because he needed the results to keep people working with him.

The Skunk Works started without its nickname in a rented circus tent next to a plastics company, whose noxious smell would keep the undedicated but curious away. It was about that time that cartoonist Al Capp named an outdoor still in one of his comics “the Skonk Works.” The cartoon made its way to the tent, and it led to the new name for the secret team working on America’s first jet fighter.

Ben Rich recounts the technical skill of his predecessor and friend. Kelly, it seems, intuitively knew how things would end up. He’d estimate the results of complex calculations that would take Rich or the team hours to do. The world before computers, the calculations were done by hand, and that took time. Armed with his trusty slide rule but rarely bringing it out, Kelly had developed a feel for how things worked. (This is the kind of experience that Gary Klein would discover in fire commanders and other experts. Find out more in Seeing What Others Don’t.)

U-2 (Not the Band)

Before Johnson left the helm in Rich’s capable hands, the U-2 spy plane was already flying. Its advantage as an aerial reconnaissance plane was the fact that it had a service ceiling (maximum flight altitude) of 70,000 feet. None of the airplanes or surface-to-air missiles at the time could reach it at that height. It gave the United States the ability to spy on the activities of Russia with impunity until a fateful day in 1960, when Russia was finally able to down the U-2 piloted by Gary Powers. In the four years since its first flight, the U-2 had revealed the true scope of the Soviet threat and invaluable intelligence on what they were up to.

Shortly after the U-2 entered service, it was clear that it was just a matter of time before the Soviets would be able to shoot it down. It was at that time that the push came from Kelly to create an aircraft with an even higher service ceiling and, more importantly, was much faster. Where the U-2 cruised sub-sonic, the aircraft that would eventually become named the Blackbird would travel at three times the speed of sound.

Rich the Technician

While a substantial portion of Skunk Works is dedicated to his time as a leader of the organization, he had to prove his technical chops, and the place where this really shone was in propulsion. In the end, he was able to create the engines and engine control systems that allowed the Blackbird to fly. They weren’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, only being 84% fuel efficient – however, that was 10% better than any other design at the time, and it was good enough. The pilots hated the unstarts that happened when the engines stalled, the fuel special to only the Blackbird, and all sorts of the other special requirements, but the engines could maintain Mach 3 at 80,000 feet. It’s something that we’ve never repeated in any other aircraft. (See The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird for more on this amazing aircraft.)

The Age of Stealth

The Blackbird was already a stealthy airplane. Its radar signature was more akin to a Piper Cub than the 140,000-pound, 108-foot behemoth that it was. It was bigger than it looked on radar, but radar could still see it. (Besides, Piper Cubs don’t fly at 80,000 feet!) The next challenge was to make an airplane that was effectively invisible to radar. For that, the Skunk Works got a bit of accidental help from Moscow. Pyotr Ufimtsev, the chief scientist at the Moscow Institute of Radio Engineering, authored a paper titled “Method of Edge Waves in the Physical Theory of Diffraction.” It held the secrets to stealth with a set of equations that predicted the amount of energy that would be reflected to the source based on the shape of the object.

This was the second time that Russia had helped our efforts. Through much misdirection, the CIA had managed to acquire most of the titanium needed for the Blackbird from Russian suppliers when the US supplier couldn’t produce enough.

These advances in stealth technology were easily as important as the advances that the Blackbird brought to aviation. It would take a great deal of risk, immense courage, and determination, but the results would be worth it.

Hopeless Diamond

Armed with a primitive computer and equations, Denys Overholser would come up with the shape that would be called “the Hopeless Diamond.” It looked nothing like something that would fly, and the fellow engineers at the Skunk Works were quick to point that out. However, in the end, the team knew that stealth would be the name of the game, and they reluctantly agreed to make it work – if the predicted radar signatures could be produced.

In test after test, the design met the radar signature goals. From wooden models on poles making it clear that the poles had a higher radar signature to actual flight tests where radar technicians couldn’t find the aircraft at all – even when they were told where to look – the Hopeless Diamond became the aircraft named “Have Blue” and eventually the F-117 Nighthawk Stealth Fighter.

In the end, the stealth work was so effective that the helmet that the pilot wore had a bigger radar signature than the aircraft itself.

Have Blue (F-117)

It was eight years after initial operating capability that the F-117 would prove its worth. It was still an ugly aircraft to most people. Even though Johnson pushed Rich away from the aircraft for some time before finally being convinced, Johnson and the aircraft had something in common. They both delivered results and, in the end, that’s what mattered. It took the Gulf War in 1991 to demonstrate the power of a stealth aircraft with precision bombs.

Until then everyone had to rely on tests and the dead bats in the hangars. That’s right, the bats were running directly into the F-117 and falling dead. The aircraft was difficult to see, even to bats’ echolocation system.

Air Superiority in Baghdad

At the beginning of the war, Baghdad had more protection than Moscow, with some 16,000 missiles and 3,000 antiaircraft emplacements. It was designed to be a fortress. The generals planning for the gulf war had to wonder how long it would take to grind down the air defenses such that the full stage air combat and domination could begin. The planners worried about what the losses of aircraft and personnel would be to acquire the air dominance they needed to win the war. They didn’t have to wait long.

At 3AM local time on January 17, 1991, the power of the F-117 was clear. The first wave of ten F-117 arrived at Baghdad to blind firing of the antiaircraft emplacements. They were blind firing because they knew something was coming, but they couldn’t tell where it was. The second wave of twelve fighters came in an hour later. With the support of a handful of Tomahawk missiles, Iraq was out of the war on the first night. Their communications centers were in rubble, and major strategic targets like power generation were already offline.

Through the entire course of the war not one F-117 aircraft was hit by enemy fire. When you expect to lose 5-10% of your aircraft in the first month, losing none sends a powerful message. The combination of stealth and smart bombs could not only hold their own, they could make it safe for the rest of the air force to fly.


The video of bombs destroying their targets made for great public relations and great television. Small delays might have been required to let the Iraq anti-air defenses to overheat their guns and become vulnerable, but eventually they all did. They all succumbed to the precision bombs that the American public would watch with their evening news. Pilots would brag that commanders could tell them whether they wanted a bomb in the men’s room or the lady’s room, and they’d oblige. Sure, they were confident, but with their success, you couldn’t blame them.

The Challenges of Success

The Skunk Works had done it. They had demonstrated air superiority time and time again. However, this set the stage for some startling losses – not from our enemies overseas but from our own politicians.

It pains me to say that the SR-71 is no longer in operation. It was the victim of politics. Though it was described as too expensive and unnecessary, it filled an operational niche that hasn’t been filled. If you want to get a picture of an enemy position at a specific time of day, you could have it. While satellites provide reconnaissance, they don’t give you the ability to pick the time. You have to wait for the next overpass – and hope that there isn’t a cloud over the one piece of real estate you really care about.

There were other projects that were scuttled because they didn’t seem to make sense. The stealth direction was great, but the move towards unmanned drones continues. Even failed projects like Tagboard, which was designed to use drones to spy on enemies, leave a legacy.

The problem when you build technology so substantially superior to your competitors is that you don’t have anything left to innovate on, so the teams that created such amazing airplanes are forced to look to other ways of keeping in business. The things that make stealth so amazing also don’t help your career if you’re looking for the next star on your lapel. It’s better to command more people and equipment – that you can talk about – than it is to own the program that will allow you to own a war.

Projects like stealthy ships never made it to be a substantial part of the arsenal. Instead of working on the strategically important projects, people at all levels chose projects that would provide some level of advancement while being much more visible. The result is that the operations at the Skunk Works aren’t what they once were. While I’m sure there are classified projects going on at Skunk Works that weren’t discussed in the book, Rich makes an important point that the things that were classified in 1964 probably aren’t worth knowing about in 1994.

The Skunk Works was an amazing place at the time. While I’m sure it’s still great, I can’t help but think that, without challenges to address, it won’t be the same.

Extinguish Burnout Launch!

Terri and I are excited to announce the launch of our brand new website, to support our forthcoming book, Extinguish Burnout: A Practical Guide to Prevention and Recovery. While the book doesn’t publish until June 21st, the site and online course are available today.

Burnout is pervasive. As we speak about this topic and ask who has experienced it, nearly every hand goes up. When we ask how many people feel as if they’re actively in burnout during our talk, a sheepish 20% or more of the hands are raised. Burnout isn’t new, but its prevalence is increasing. An estimated 50% of physicians and 30% of nurses are currently experiencing burnout. I first wrote about burnout in 2003, and it’s been a recurring theme over the years as I worked with clients and led teams.

There’s some literature on burnout, but the problem was that it either blamed the individual – that they’re not strong enough – or the organization – that they’re not taking care of their employees. The problem is that neither view resolves the burnout, it just assigns blame.

We set out to identify the key causes for burnout and find strategies for preventing burnout or recovering from it if you’re already stuck in it. We found the answers were hidden in the research. All the clues necessary to find the answers were already available – they were just hard to find through all the misdirection.

The book is roughly 200 pages, with chapters that can be read in 5-10 minutes. The online course has an average module length of 13 minutes. The point was to keep them short and easy to consume if you are already in – or near – burnout.

We’re honored to have already received a substantial amount of positive feedback about the book and the materials. Some of those comments are available on the home page of the website. If you’re struggling with burnout – or you know someone who is – we’d like to invite you join us at, where you can preorder the book for shipment on June 21st (when it publishes) or order the course and start today. If you’re just interested, you can sign up for our newsletter, and we’ll keep you up to date.

Campbell’s Journey

Campbell proposed that each story follows a similar path. From your favorite sci-fi flick to the latest young adult novel, there are observable archetypes that heroes follow in their journeys. But what do these fictional stories have to do with your corporate communications? We’ll explain in this video.

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Book Review-Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Innovation

Creativity seems to have some mystical property to it. It seems like some people are creative and others are not. It’s like someone is born to be an artist, and another person is born to be an accountant. In Creativity, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi dispels the notion that creativity is something that you’re born with and begins a journey with us about how creativity might be encouraged or discouraged. Creativity, it seems, is a pretty difficult thing to pin down, because it means different things to different people.

The real story of creativity is (as Csikszentmihalyi explains) “more difficult and strange than overly optimistic accounts have claimed.” Creativity is context-sensitive and sensitive to subtle environmental factors that are hard to detect and, in some cases, even harder to create. We’ve learned that creativity is hard to predict.

On Becoming Creator

When the first creation myths arose, we were primitive apes that could barely survive except through our work with one another, and even then with haltingly high numbers of casualties. However, over time, we’ve taken over the role of creator as we began to shape and control our world.

Our creativity wasn’t a thing when we were struggling for survival, but now that we’ve placed ourselves in the creator role, we feel the need to ensure that we’re always creating.

Catching Creative

Some of the most creative ideas ever thought have been lost to the sands of time. It’s not enough to have a really good idea. Every truly creative thought can only be defined as such once someone has decided that it’s creative. Everett Rogers, in Diffusion of Innovations, explains how an innovation can be spread in a community. He, at the same, time tacitly acknowledges that even a good idea might not diffuse its way into a community without the right conditions.

It takes more than just the next creative idea. It takes a recognition that the idea is creative and useful for it to possibly catch on. Creativity is validated by the domain that it’s creative in. That requires the right mix of different and the same – or at least acceptable.

Defining a Domain

Sometimes, new domains are created by creativity, but, much more frequently, creativity exists inside of a domain. A domain is defined by the symbols and routines that define it. That is, a domain is a set of agreements about how things will operate. There’s a language that is used, a way problems are approached, and a set of rituals.

A domain is the space, and a field is the people in that space. The people in the field understand the domain, including its rules, and choose to operate in it – at least sometimes. By operating in a domain and learning the semantic rules, the field has developed an enhanced schema for the information in the domain. (For more about schemas see Efficiency in Learning.)

A side effect of the enhanced internalized schema for the domain is that it can make it difficult for outsiders to penetrate the domain. Developing the baseline understanding or schema for the domain is difficult, because those in the field have “the curse of knowledge” and cannot – typically – understand what it’s like to not know the field. (See The Art of Explanation for more on “the curse of knowledge.”)

Crossing Boundaries

Creativity often is the crossing of boundaries in domains. Sometimes the boundary is the division between the domain and another domain. Simply leveraging marketing concepts in communication can be creative. So, too, can the person who brings manufacturing insights to creating websites. The point is that the creative person often has experiences beyond the domain and brings those experiences with them as they come back to participate in the domain again.

When we think of Edison, we think of electricity and the lightbulb. Few people recognize that Edison’s experience and expertise expanded well beyond these two simple things. He did substantial investigation into rubber in his later years and even created a failed voting machine in his early life. For the lightbulb, he employed and consulted with dozens of experts on gas lighting, metallurgy, and other topics to intentionally bring together different domains to try to infuse creativity into the very nature of his work. (Find out more in Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.)

The Medici family – whether intentionally or unintentionally – did the same thing in Florence. They brought together experts and masters and caused them to interact. (See The Medici Effect for more.) The result was the spawn of the Renaissance period. It was the crossing of boundaries that fueled this period.

The ONE Thing

The ONE Thing, by Gary Keller, suggests that we should focus on only one thing and ignore the rest. Well, actually, you’re encouraged to find one thing in each area of your life – but focus is the key goal. Jim Collins, in Good to Great, encourages focus through the analogy of the fox and the hedgehog. Robert Pozen, in Extreme Productivity, explains how focus can help you get more results – and simultaneously acknowledges that much of his own life has been driven by serendipity – happy accidents.

The road to mastery of a domain seems to be driven by Anders Ericsson’s research on peak performance – as explained in Peak. It encourages the focused, purposeful practice that takes time – though he doesn’t simplify it to the level that Malcolm Gladwell does in Outliers with 10,000 hours. Whether it’s more or less than 10,000 hours, the point is the time investment required. The problem with this is that these kinds of time investments can’t often be made in multiple areas.

The draw of this research and approach is the simplicity of getting good at one thing. However, as the canal conductors learned, sometimes outside forces – like the railroad – can transform or eliminate your industry nearly overnight.

Lean Agility

An often-overlooked aspect of both agile software development and lean manufacturing is in the way that you make decisions. You’re encouraged to make reversable decisions where possible and, when not possible, delay decisions as much as possible. While lean is focused on the elimination of waste, it acknowledges that making decisions – particularly irreversible ones – too early yields more waste. (There’s more about lean in my review of The Heretic’s Guide to Management.)

Agile development is focused differently, towards a better end product, but the results are the same: you’re expected to explore, discover, and make investments that will yield the information necessary to make better decisions. Necessarily when you’re exploring, you’re going to backtrack and find new paths – you’ll be focused on more than one thing.

Creating Confidence

Tom and David Kelley have nurtured creativity in many through their company IDEO, the Stanford d.School (design school), and their books. Creative Confidence focuses on the barriers that prevent us from believing we’re creative – the lies we’ve been told that it’s not a part of us. The Art of Innovation instead focuses on the factors that help creativity (and therefore innovation) to grow. In it, Tom Kelley shares the idea of a Tech Box, which contains a set of random things that may be useful in building a prototype or just sparking an idea. The Tech Box contains a random set of things from many different industries. They’re just interesting objects.

If we want creativity to be driven from inside of us, we can’t drag along a Tech Box with us wherever we go. Instead, we must collect a set of experiences and learnings that we can draw upon as we’re confronted with new, novel, and interesting challenges.

Not in a Person

Creativity isn’t, Csikszentmihalyi explains, “an individual phenomenon.” Instead, it’s the environment that a person finds themselves in, including all the resources and barriers in the system. (If you need a primer on systems, Thinking in Systems is a good place to start.) The Difference pointed out that the diversity of thinking that comes from different backgrounds can sometimes propel groups to greater levels of productivity, creativity, and, ultimately, performance.

The environment itself can create opportunities for the creative person to decide to explore ideas further – or limit their ability to learn and grow in new directions that might be transformative in their domains.


Boiled down to a single word, creative people are complex. They exhibit characteristics that shouldn’t be compatible. They find ways to exist in the world by holding onto opposite ends of multiple spectrums and experience this without internal conflict. They can be at home in any environment, creative or not, because they can themselves exist across so many different places. The ten key dimensions that Csikszentmihalyi exposes are:

  1. Creative individuals have a great deal of physical energy, but they are also often quiet and at rest.
  2. Creative individuals tend to be smart, yet also naive at the same time.
  3. A third paradoxical trait refers to the related combination of playfulness and discipline, or responsibility and irresponsibility.
  4. Creative individuals alternate between imagination and fantasy at one end and a rooted sense of reality at the other.
  5. Creative people seem to harbor opposite tendencies on the continuum between extroversion and introversion.
  6. Creative individuals are also remarkably humble and proud at the same time.
  7. In all cultures, men are brought up to be “masculine” and to disregard and repress those aspects of their temperament that the culture regards as “feminine,” whereas women are expected to do the opposite. Creative individuals, to a certain extent, escape this rigid gender role stereotyping.
  8. Generally, creative people are thought to be rebellious and independent. Yet it is impossible to be creative without having first internalized a domain of culture.
  9. Most creative persons are very passionate about their work, yet they can be extremely objective about it as well.
  10. Finally, the openness and sensitivity of creative individuals often exposes them to suffering and pain yet also a great deal of enjoyment.

Tipping Scales

The question of what makes someone interested in something is a perplexing one. It doesn’t seem like an initial skill in something makes much difference. This is something that Carol Dweck’s work (in Mindset) and Angela Duckworth’s work (in Grit) would agree upon. The initial conditions aren’t nearly as interesting as the desire to work towards being better, but what causes someone to want to do better?

The answer may be found in looking at Judith Rich Harris’ work, No Two Alike. In it, she explains why no two children are alike. Even identical twins don’t always develop an interest in the same things. Sometimes, the advantage that one of the siblings has prevents the other from even trying. There’s a randomization to things and how one child may develop in one direction and the other child in a completely different direction.

Creativity has a similar aspect, it seems. You may develop an interest in a topic when your relative – but not absolute – skill is better. When you start to receive praise, recognition, and results, you’ll invest more and become better skilled. This process begins to feed back upon itself, and the changes can be substantial. Being able to get into and sustain the psychological state of flow can have huge impacts on long-term skill growth. (See Flow and Finding Flow for more on this.)

Inner Strength

There’s an understated theme that runs throughout Creativity. It echoes through the quotes and descriptions of creative people. There’s an inner strength to do what’s right – for them. Somewhere born out of a small advantage and hard work, there has developed an assurance that, in their chosen passion, being themselves and doing what they believe to be right and true is the only way to go.

In the description of E.O. Wilson, there’s a note about his favorite movie, High Noon, followed by, “I don’t mind a shoot-out, and I don’t mind throwing the badge down and walking away.” It’s a statement of confidence and inner strength that the person still retains the responsibility to do what they need to do. This does not, however, eliminate the need for compassion.


Csikszentmihalyi explains, “Creative individuals are often considered odd—or even arrogant, selfish, and ruthless.” However, as was explained in the tension section above, there are often great tensions inside of creative folks. Sometimes, other people can’t quite figure out how these tensions can be resolved inside of someone else. Like looking at one of Escher’s works that looks fine in two dimensions but could never exist in the real world, they have trouble making the care and concern that a creative person often feels for his fellow man make sense.

Compassion is simply the awareness of the suffering of another and the desire to alleviate it. I’ve written about compassion repeatedly, but perhaps the best way to understand it better is to contrast it with related, but different, words as explained in Sympathy, Empathy, Compassion, and Altruism.

Creative people often become wrapped up in their awareness of the plight of humanity and the suffering of others and seek to leave their indelible mark on society by changing some corner of the world. They do this with a passion for the change and a detachment from whether they’ll ever accomplish the goal or not.


To many members of the Western world, detachment is a bad thing. We’ve been conditioned that secure attachment is a good thing. However, our attachment to outcomes – particularly outcomes that we don’t control – is challenging. It leads us down a road of suffering, because we’re constantly shaken by the impermanence of life. Buddhists are taught that it’s attachment to our impermanent world that causes the cycle of reincarnation and suffering. (You can find a longer discussion of detachment in my review of Resilient.)

Creative people are able to stay compassionate about their world and detached enough to recognize that they won’t always succeed in alleviating the suffering of others – but that’s not the point. The point is that they should try. Maybe the thing that you should do is try to be a bit more Creative, whether you’re successful or not.

The Psychology of Recognizing and Rewarding Children

There are as many ways to raise children as there are grains of sand on the beach. Each child is an individual, and each situation is different. Despite these differences, we can apply what we’ve learned from psychology and neurology to inform our opinions about what our parents did right and what they did wrong – so we can make our choices about how we’re going to try to raise our children.

The practical implications of the challenges face parents every day. Should I say yes to that sweet request for some candy before dinner? Where’s the line between helping and enabling, and which side of the line does the act of bringing their forgotten homework to school fall? How does any parent navigate the difficult waters of supporting their children and giving them the right amount of struggle and consequences?

The answers aren’t easy, but there are paths towards less struggle and more success.

Participation Trophies

It’s painful to not win. It’s difficult to accept that we didn’t win. We didn’t get the slot or the trophy. It’s a natural extension, then, to want to – as both a parent and a leader of children – reward participation. After all, didn’t Woody Allen say that 80% of life is just showing up? Shouldn’t we reward that? According to the research, no.

If everyone is going to get a trophy in the end, then why should I even try? Intrinsic motivation is a powerful force for getting things done, but it’s too easy to disturb. By providing everyone with the same or similarly-valued reward, there’s no drive to perform well, to study and strive. It turns out, if we make the decision that everyone gets the same result, we destroy intrinsic motivation. (Learn more in Drive.)

Consider that communism failed not just because of corruption but because of the lack of drive resulting from removing the incentive to do better. If your performance doesn’t impact what you’re going to get, why try?

In raising our children, we should strive to show them results from their hard work – so they’ll want to do more hard work. We don’t want to reward just showing up when our children didn’t really put their all into it.

The Need for Struggle in the Animal Kingdom

It’s an act of kindness to help a chick out of its shell as it struggles to break free from the bonds that protected it for its first few days of life. After all, the shell is now holding back the chick from experiencing the broader world. There’s a problem with this act of kindness, however. In many cases, it dooms the chick to death. The reasons given for the “poor outcomes” (the convenient euphemism for death that is often used) are varied, from failure to allow the chick to properly separate from the egg, to not enough time to absorb nutritional materials, to not developing strong enough muscles. Whatever the cause, interfering with the process of the chick hatching has relatively universal poor outcomes.

Of course, chicks are not children. One might reason that nature made an exception, and it’s normally a good thing to help animals (and children) out of their struggles. The look into the reptile world doesn’t add much hope to this idea. Consider coming across sea turtles hatching on the beach. It seems tragic that the baby sea turtles struggle to find their way to the sea. Shouldn’t you help them? The simple answer is, again, no. Sea turtles have a sophisticated magnetic orientation system that needs to develop. Interfering with their process of getting to the sea as babies somehow disturbs the development of this system. (I’ve not found any coherent explanation of exactly why this is the case.) The result is that the “helped” sea turtles will end up dying as they swim in circles. Their location system doesn’t work, so they can’t figure out where they are – or how to get to where they need to be. (Whether you accept this story or not, stay well clear of sea turtles. They’re a protected species and you should not interfere with them, because the law says you shouldn’t.)

Struggle in Humans

I understand skepticism. I can hear the voice saying that this may be appropriate for the rest of the animal kingdom, but surely it’s not the same for children. To combat this thought, we head to a nursery school associated with Stanford University and the work of Walter Mischel. The experiment wasn’t particularly profound. Tell the children you’re going to walk out of the room while a tempting treat sits in the center of the table. If they leave the treat until you come back, they’ll get that treat plus another. The experiment was designed to test how long the children would wait before consuming the treat.

It wasn’t until years later when the children were enrolled in school and in their careers that the real value of the experiment began to appear. The children who were able to wait until the researcher returned had measurably better lives across several scales. How is it that a simple test about how long someone could wait for a treat could have such profound consequences to their lives?

It seems that the ability to delay gratification is a keystone skill. This skill can be applied to a variety of life situations and improve their outcomes. If this is an important skill, how can we teach it to our children? Would you believe we need to make them struggle – and succeed with it? That’s the central message of The Marshmallow Test – so named because marshmallows were one of the sugary treats that his team offered to the children.

By creating opportunities for children to try to delay gratification – and succeed – we improve their ability not just in delaying gratification but in life as well.


The kind of self-control and delayed gratification that some children in Mischel’s experiment were able to demonstrate might also be called willpower. That is, the ability of their wills to overcome their desires. It turns out that willpower is an exhaustible resource, and it’s intensely taxing to the brain. Roy Baumeister and John Tierney in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength make the point that willpower is like a muscle in many ways.

Exercising literally tears down our muscles until they’re incapable of doing the things that they’d normally do. After a day of squats, walking up the stairs might be replaced with an embarrassing but necessary crawl. However, what we know about muscles is that they repair and rebuild themselves in a way that leaves them stronger. Nassim Nicholas Taleb would say that muscles are Antifragile. That is, the struggle and setbacks make the muscles stronger. Taleb is clear in his warnings that systems need challenges to increase their strength.

Willpower is like muscles in that the more you exercise it, the more capacity you build. It’s not that you ever get past the fact that it has limits. However, with work, you can build your capacity to the point where you rarely see the edge of your capacity.

When we deprive our children of the kinds of challenges that they need to develop their self-control, self-restraint, and willpower, we are necessarily limiting their potential.

The Story of Struggle

If you’re not yet convinced that our children need struggle, let me tell you another story. This story is the story of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It’s the life’s work of Joseph Campbell, as he researched the hero stories and myths from cultures across the globe. In the end, Campbell discovered an underlying pattern in every hero story. It wasn’t the ability to fly, or magical powers, or strength, or any of the expected results. The pattern was one of struggle, as the hero started from their ordinary world and were compelled to face a challenge. Every hero struggled. Every hero was transformed into their future state through this struggle.

Without the struggle, there was no hero. There was only some lost person who didn’t know their path or their capabilities. The struggle and transformation take two dimensions: the outer dimension and the inner dimension. If you’ve seen the Star Wars movie series, you’ll recognize the struggle and transformation of Luke Skywalker as he wrestles with who he is.

I’m not suggesting that your child needs to be a hero in the classic, mythical sense, but the same forces forge the character of children as create heroes. If we deprive our children of struggle, we make it harder to find themselves.

It’s a Matter of Mindset

I was about eight or ten years old when I stumbled onto a secret of mazes. I loved them. I’d solve books of them. I wasn’t particularly good at them, I just enjoyed them. One day I accidentally solved a maze backwards and I discovered it was so much easier than trying to solve the maze from the front. Over time, I realized that mazes are designed to present their challenges to those approaching from the start. The traps aren’t designed for those coming at the problem from the end to the beginning.

Consider a major problem of a truck stuck under an overpass on a busy road. The traffic is snarled, and experts in the structural engineering of the bridge are brought in to evaluate if would be possible to raise the bridge. The manufacturer of the truck is called to engage the truck’s engineers and see if there is a way to reduce the height without destroying the structure of the truck. In the end, a child stuck in the traffic snarl wonders why they don’t let the air out of the tires. The way we think about problems shapes the kind of solutions we can consider. In Drive, Daniel Pink explains how “functional fixedness” prevents us from seeing things in ways other than the way they are initially framed or we expect.

Our children can become stuck, too. They can believe that they’re good at math or writing or art – or whatever we’ve told them they’re good at. The problem is that this just isn’t so – at least from the perspective of being fixed in time. If they’re good at something and invest more time in purposeful practice, they’ll get better. If they leave the skill alone, it will atrophy. We as humans aren’t really born with skills that make us talented. We may have subtle interests or advantages that cause us to invest more attention, and the compounding of this upward spiral of improvement makes it seem like people have some inborn talent.

Carol Dweck explains in Mindset that we should avoid fixed mindset – thinking that someone is good or bad or something – and instead replace it with a growth mindset, which recognizes that anything that we will become better at anything we work at. This aligns with the work of Anders Ericsson as explained in Peak. It turns out that purposeful practice makes us better. Steven Kotler explains in The Rise of Superman that we’ve all got the potential to do something “superhuman” if we’re willing to work at it enough.

Overcorrection and Opponent Processes

Sometimes the ways that we find greatness is through struggle. Einstein was no “Einstein” in school. He struggled. He ascribes his prominence not to his gifted talents but rather to his persistence. Somehow, in his struggle, he found a way to overcorrect and become very, very good at what he did. In psychological terms, this is called “opponent processes,” and it describes what happens when we apply a pressure on someone.

The key to coaching and mentoring is finding the place where struggles can be created in ways that cause the opponent processes to kick in. We endure a short-term pain to accomplish the long-term goal of gradually improving. In too many cases, we’re unwilling to allow our children to experience pain and too quick to reward them on the other side.

This attempt to provide them some struggle can break down, however, if they don’t feel safe.

Psychological Safety

There’s something special about some rats. Some of them were licked and groomed just a bit more by their mothers – just enough to change the way they responded to the world. As Paul Tough explains in How Children Succeed, the research showed that the rat pups were more adventuresome and appeared to be less stressed.

Children, in order to learn from their stresses and not be crippled by them, need to understand that they are safe. Failure isn’t just an option, it’s a certainty. When children know that failure is OK if they try again, they learn that they can learn – and that changes them permanently. Any change in a person is hard; just ask someone who works with addicts.

Motivational Interviewing

It was an odd collection of folks. Some well-meaning church people, a few addiction recovery folks that work with teens, and some parents concerned that their children, if not yet addicted to anything, seem to be slipping away from them. The children have reached the critical teenage years, and their conflict with their parents is growing.

The traditional ways of thinking about the problem don’t work, according to one of the addiction counselors. He suggests a book called Motivational Interviewing. The short version is to create space for the addict to question their own situation and outcomes and ponder how things might be different. The set of techniques and approaches build psychological safety with the addict, which is a key issue – if not the key issue – with helping an addict understand the damage they’re doing to their lives.

Somewhere deep inside, the addict realizes the painful outcomes they’re creating, and at least a part of them wants to change. That piece needs a chance to surface and expose what the addict already knows with the rest of the consciousness. Motivational Interviewing helps to build the skills necessary to create the psychological safety to change – or attempt change. It does this, in part, by recognizing the value of individuals and helping to even the scales of psychological value.

Psychological Value

Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues discovered that humans are more focused on negatives than positives. As he relates in Thinking, Fast and Slow, losing $100 is more impactful than a $100 windfall. Understanding this allows people who care to counter the ego’s defenses that want to not admit that you are a slave to something – which is what addiction is. By helping the addict learn how to dwell in the negative outcomes, the scales become a bit more balanced or even shifted, hopefully to help the recovering teen.

Not an Addict

You may be saying that your child isn’t an addict. I hope that’s true. However, the same factors that drive addiction are present in weaker forms in the rest of our lives. We can’t wait to have the new car, so we buy it on credit. We want to get the grade without doing the work, so we cheat the system. Your child isn’t a bad child, but they may be getting caught up in bad patterns. To counter that, we need to accept a few basic principles:

  • Pain and struggle are necessary – It’s not nice to have, but it’s a necessity to grow up properly.
  • Delayed gratification is critical – As a keystone skill, it makes so many other things possible. Where you can, it should be taught and coached into children.
  • Mindset – Children must know that their results are most strongly influenced by the work they put into things.
  • Psychological Safety – Failure is essential and so is trying again. Children must know it’s OK to fail.
  • Psychological Value – Children must be able to see their intrinsic value and understand how to leverage the pain of poor choices to make better choices next time.

If they can get these, then they’re headed down the right path.