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Book Review-The Outward Mindset: Seeing Beyond Ourselves

My journey into the material from the Arbinger Institute started in 2012. The book Bonds that Make Us Free was recommended by a counselor. That led me to reading Leadership and Self-Deception and The Anatomy of Peace. That was all the content of theirs that I had access to, until in June they released another book titled The Outward Mindset: Seeing Beyond Ourselves. One might think that with a reading pace of one book a week that I should not have much left to read; however, nothing could be farther from the truth. However, this jumped to the top.

Much of what I read feels tactical. It feels like it’s what you need to know to execute business, marketing, life, etc. While this may make sense and is definitely necessary, it frequently feels to me like it is hollow and misses the core of the matter. It misses the world view or centralized approach that leads to a different way of thinking that makes all the difference. That’s what we have here.

I and Thou

I mentioned in my review of The Anatomy of Peace that much of the genesis for the work seemed to come from Martin Burber’s book I and Thou. I’ve still not completed reading it. It’s difficult to process and understand – but I’ve read enough to realize that we’re all in relationship to one another. How we tend to that relationship makes the difference. If we treat other people as objects – like rocks – we deny their soul and wound our relationship with them. We must seek to recognize the essential nature of others and how we might become more connected to them.

One of the challenges in our relationships with others is the desire to put people into a category of “us” vs. “them” based on whatever criteria we can get our hands on. (See Mistakes Were Made for more.) This thought pattern separates us from others by creating psychological distance that didn’t exist before. With “them” we can ascribe all sorts of bad motives and evil intent. With the “us” group we’re unlikely to leap to such conclusions.

Put Out the Fire

Facing Outward

Fundamentally, the “outward mindset” is being aware of others and their needs. It’s about being focused on how you add value to their lives, instead of gathering up the limited resources available for your consumption. It’s not an abundant mindset vs. a scarcity mindset – it’s more than that. It’s believing that if you continue to do good that it will all work out in the end. It’s not necessarily Karma, that the good (or bad) you do flows back to you. It’s not an accounting of plusses and minuses. It’s a perspective that looking out for others is the best way to be.

John Gottman mentioned his love of game theory in The Science of Trust. His passion for it sparked me to investigate Nash, who famously came up with the Nash Equilibrium as opposed to the von Neumann-Morgenstern equilibrium. Gottman points out that tit-for-tat is an effective strategy for dealing with games. In essence this is whatever you do, I’ll do back to you – or the old, “eye-for-an-eye” saying. The von Neumann-Morgenstern equilibrium is the best possible outcome when both parties are primarily interested in their own gain. The Nash equilibrium is possible when the parties trust each other and are willing to work cooperatively towards the greater good. In this case, everyone may be able to get more than if they had acted solely in their own best interests.

This is the heart of facing outward. That is, when you’re willing to work with others for the greater good, you’ll get more out of life than had you acted only for your own selfish motives.

Behavior Drives Results

I loved the show MythBusters when it was in regular production. I watch very little TV but this was a show that I watched. Admittedly, watching them create new and interesting ways to blow things up was a part of it – but also there was a certain sense of mystery about how a small kernel of truth turns into a myth. That’s the case with the statement that behavior drives results. There is truth to this statement. However, it’s also true that it’s incomplete.

First, the truth. If you refuse to change your behavior, the results won’t change. At some point you have to actually change the behaviors that lead to the results – but the question is whether changing the behaviors is the right place to start.

People believe that their attitudes are formed, then they do behaviors, and then they get results. Certainly you will only get results from your behaviors. That’s truth. However, it’s also true that it’s not a simple linear sequence. First, your results – the intrinsic results of the behavior – will drive attitude. So if we’re trying to help a depressed person choose to be not-depressed (see Choice Theory) we’ll often encourage them to go take a walk or do anything. The biochemical changes help to lift them out of depression. (Your mileage may vary.) So in this, we see that sometimes the flow of causality runs backwards. Sometimes it’s the doing that leads to the thinking.

However, it’s also possible for resentment to build instead of peace flowing over you. It’s entirely possible to play a victim tape in your mind the entire time you’re doing something only to come out angrier after the behavior than when you started. (See Boundaries, Beyond Boundaries, Daring Greatly, and Change or Die for more on victimhood.) Holding on to the resentment about being “forced” to do something can negate any benefits that might naturally flow from doing it. Neslon Mandela wrote, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” Having the behavior which is underwritten by anger and resentment does you no good.

Behavior Doesn’t Drive Results

The idea that behavior drives results misses the fact that our behaviors are only part of the equation for results. Results are in fact frequently the results of our inner condition, our behaviors, and the circumstances in the world. When I was in junior high school, we had a warehouse club membership, and I could buy candy in bulk. It’s the same place that many convenience stores were buying candy. I could buy a box of candy that worked out to seven cents apiece. I could sell it at school for 25 cents each. I recruited some other folks to sell candy for me too and made decent money (for a kid) by selling candy – until the kids got tired of the one candy I was selling. All of my behaviors stayed the same, but the results changed radically. I was sitting on inventory that I was unable to move.

I’ve watched comedians practicing their craft deliver nearly identical performances with radically different results. One night the crowd was “hot” and laughed at everything. The next night they were “cold” and they couldn’t laugh at anything. The behavior of the comedian didn’t change. His performance wasn’t substantially better or worse one night to the next but the crowd and therefore the result was different.

The problem with the statement that behavior drives results is that it presumes that behavior is the only thing that drives results. That’s sort of like saying that the flour makes the cake. While it’s an essential ingredient, it’s not the only ingredient in a cake. Though there may not be the same volume of eggs in a cake as there is flour, try baking a cake without them and see what happens.

This is the limitation to the statement that behavior drives results. Sometimes little things – little important things – make the difference between something that works and something that doesn’t. This is why researchers attempt to replicate other researcher’s results. They’re seeking to figure out if the first researcher captured all of the variables that were responsible for the change in outcome. Sometimes the second researcher is able to confirm the results and sometimes they’re not. If not, then clearly those factors described in the research study didn’t drive the behaviors.

Back to Boxes

Despite the lack of mention of boxes which dominated the conversation in Leadership and Self-Deception and The Anatomy of Peace, The Outward Mindset retains the core awareness of our desire to blame others when we’re not right with ourselves. One of the stories was particularly compelling.

A young man had issues with his father and the way that he was treated. He internalized this and blamed his father for his challenges. He built a house in victimhood. His father was long gone but he retained his victim stance. Even in his dreams he couldn’t confront his father for the harm that his father had caused to his life. Until a woman helped him know two truths about the situation:

  1. He was responsible for his current problems, not his father. His father was dead and gone.
  2. Even in his dreams he refused to face his father to confront him as he said he wanted to because he didn’t want to add to his father’s pain – he was aware that his father lived a life of pain but was blocked from this awareness by his own pain.

Sometimes our ability to look beyond ourselves is the box that we’re living in. It doesn’t have to be a victim box. It can be an entitlement box that prevents us from being aware of the pain and suffering of others.

Responsibility and Responsiveness

One of the most difficult topics to explain to someone is the difference between being responsive to someone else and being responsible for them. The language here is difficult to decipher. Responsible is being the primary cause their behavior or action. Or it’s about having control or care of someone or something. Responsive is about responding to the environment and to others.

Boundaries and Beyond Boundaries talked about how to define boundaries between yourself and other people in such a way that you’re not unduly influenced by them. In other words, so that you’re not swept up into their needs and desires, and you can experience life yourself. However, there’s a reason to not define too many boundaries. Too many boundaries and you live an isolated life. Learning the right balance with boundaries is understanding yourself well enough to know which boundaries can’t be crossed. In other words, to understand who you really are.

The Outward Mindset uses the word “responsible” for the success of others – I disagree with the word choice here. I believe that we need to be responsive to others’ needs. We need to get to the Nash equilibrium, where we work in everyone’s best interests and try to create the best overall situation rather than being focused on our own myopic needs.

In my work with software development teams, we often do some form of agile development which leverages a standup meeting. A standup meeting is an intentionally short meeting where everyone traditionally stands (to prevent it from taking too long). Everyone does a check in. The check in consists of what they did last period (typically a day), what they’re doing in the next period, and what barriers are in their way.

The psychology behind this meeting is sound. It requires people to make and report on their commitments, which drives the right behaviors. However, the component of sharing barriers is substantially more interesting. It allows developers to set aside their commitments and help others. The manager isn’t responsible for fixing these problems that developers have – the developers themselves are responsible for helping their team out.

Being a responsible member of the team means being responsive to the needs – as they are expressed – of the other team members. It means being willing to set aside personal success in the pursuit of better productivity for the team.

The language is difficult because in order to define your responsibility to the team, we use the word “responsible”, which typically implies control. However, in this context it’s internally focused towards control of oneself and living out the defining boundaries that “make the man.” To be the person we want to be, we’re being responsive to the needs of others without blindly accepting them or taking ultimate responsibility for them.

The difference is subtle but appropriately self-focused. It’s not about others but how I relate to others, and the kind of person that I want to be in relationship with others.

An interesting dimension of this is that, in order for the developer to allow us to be responsive in a healthy way, they have to show vulnerability towards us, and the belief that we’ll help rather than attack them. (See Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy for more.)

Doing It for Me

Perhaps the hardest thing for developing the outward mindset is understanding the flip that happens. At some point, the actions that you do aren’t because you’re wanting the results personally, but instead because you want the results for the other person.

There’s a person in my life that I send an email to every week. She is invited into my life both through my writings and in more direct ways, and despite this she almost never responds. I want a relationship with her. It’s not because I need the relationship, or that the relationship is for me. Instead it’s my wish that she could be mentally healthier. I want her to be able to find more joy in her life.

I’ve fought hard over the past several years to bring more joy into my life. I’ve fought hard to unwind old programming about who I am and who I have to be. I enjoy hard conversations (some would call these Crucial Conversations) not because they’re hard, but because of the change they produce in me and the others with whom I’m willing to enter into them with. I’d love to give this gift to her.

If I send messages every week for the rest of her life without a response, it will still be OK. The messages are for her; I don’t need the relationship. However, they’re simultaneously for me. They’re about me being true to the person I want to be. That is, I want to be the person who desires to share joy and love to everyone. The point isn’t whether she responds or not. The point is that I’m who I want to be.

The person I want to be has The Outward Mindset – what kind of person do you want to be?

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