Skip to content

Robert Bogue

Book Review-The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression

If you’re going to be navigating something, it’s helpful to have a map – or even multiple maps.  For navigating depression, Andrew Solomon gives us The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.  A depression sufferer himself, he walks us through his personal experience, the experiences of those he interviewed, as well as a selection of the research on the topic of depression.  At times, the experiences and research appear to differ.  Even two people’s stories seem to point to different ways of experiencing depression.  In the end, Solomon exposes that what we call depression may be a cluster of similar maladies with a variety of factors leading towards them.

What is Depression?

It’s a good place to start.  Defining what depression is – and isn’t.  Of course, the DSM-5 has a definition for a major depressive disorder.  However, for most, including psychologists, this definition fails to capture the state well.  It leaves lots of gray areas between what’s “normal” and what’s “abnormal.”  Solomon describes depression as a flaw in love.  “To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair.”  He clarifies later, “Grief is depression in proportion to circumstance; depression is grief out of proportion to circumstance.”

Herein lies the rub of depression: assessing the circumstances.  We’ve learned that some of the best ways to combat depression don’t change the circumstances.  We find that the best treatments for depression change the way we view the same circumstances.  What’s proportional to one may not be proportional to another.

Later he admits, “Depression? It’s like trying to come up with clinical parameters for hunger, which affects us all several times a day, but which in its extreme version is a tragedy that kills its victims.”  We can map out the extremes of hunger – malnutrition – and the extremes of depression – major depressive disorder – but separating the normal from the abnormal or the proportional from the non-proportional is much, much harder.

The Impact

Depression is bad in that it prevents people from feeling good.  One of the preeminent markers is an inability to experience happiness or joy (anhedonia).  However, what’s the real impact of depression beyond the loss of happiness and joy?  It’s the leading cause of disability for persons in the United States over the age of five.  Fifteen percent of people who are depressed will eventually die by suicide – compared to 14.5 per 100,000 overall.  (Thus, this is 1,000 times increase in probability of suicide).

The How of Happiness quotes the World Health Organization as believing that depression will be the second leading cause of mortality and impacting 30% of all adults by 2020.  (Obviously, this was prior to 2020.)  Some place the estimated impact of depression through lost work and treatment at over $200 billion dollars annually.  It has a real impact on economies across the globe.

The Cause – Biology?

With the advent of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), it seems like depression might be caused by a lack of enough serotonin in the brain.  Supplements seek to increase the levels of 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), a key precursor to serotonin.  There is some research that shows that these have impacts.  However, some are still appropriately concerned and critical of the impact of changing brain chemistry, including William Glassier in Warning: Psychiatry May Be Hazardous to Your Health.

Work continues to find genetic markers that lead to depression.  Research seeks to separate genetics from environment in an effort to focus on the key factors that lead to depression.  Meanwhile, we’ve begun to discover that genes don’t work on their own.  In The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubornsky explains that roughly 50% of our happiness comes from a genetic “set point.”  This is consistent with others, including Judith Rich Harris, who explains that our children’s behavior may be similarly influenced by genetics at a level of about 50% in her books No Two Alike and The Nurture Assumption.  In short, biology is not destiny.  Certainly, we see genetic factors in everything, but we are beginning to realize that many of our genes require activation from the environment.

The Cause – Environment?

It was a landmark study.  It coded childhood experiences – adverse childhood experiences – and tallied them.  The results were striking.  Those adults whose childhood was wrought with more adverse experiences had worse health.  In How Children Succeed, Paul Tough explains that the higher the score, the worse the outcomes.  However, that’s not the end of the story.  The trauma that leads to poorer health can precede birth.

In Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky highlights the work of David Barker, who was able to show that long-term health could be impacted by the stresses that a mother felt during pregnancy.  His research seemed to indicate that if the mother was stressed, the child would be predisposed to perceiving the world as stressful rather than safe.

Other research seems to indicate that if we constantly trigger the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is our response to stress, it may get stuck “on.”  In other words, exposure to stress can make us more likely to see stressful things – even when they don’t exist.  This is somewhat mediated by Richard Lazarus’ work as chronicled in Emotion and Adaptation.  (Lisa Feldmen Barrett in How Emotions Are Made expresses similar experiences).  The point of Lazarus’ work is that we see stressors and then we evaluate the stressor in comparison to the possible outcomes, their probability, and the impact.  This is divided by our capacity to cope.  The result is the degree to which we’ll feel stress in the situation.  Even in stress the way that we think about it – our controllable cognition – plays a huge role.  It may not eliminate the stressor, but it can change the impact it has on us.

Perhaps depression isn’t about our genetics – or our environment – but rather is some interaction between the genetics, our environment, and how we perceive it.

Relating to PTSD and Post Traumatic Growth

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is fairly-well known now.  However, the function isn’t as well understood.  PTSD comes from a traumatic experience that an individual has been unable to fully process.  PTSD is subjective.  What is traumatic and cannot be processed by one might be processed by someone else just fine.  It’s not a failing, it’s a mismatch between the developed skills and the perception of the events.  The secret to PTSD recovery is helping the person learn how to process their experience more completely.

Post-traumatic growth (PTG) is another option for situations where trauma has occurred.  It’s processed, and the person is changed, for the better, as a result of having gone through the trauma.  It doesn’t mean that they’d want to incur the trauma again or that it was pleasant, just that they’ve found a way to become better through it.

Solomon explains depression in this way for him.  He’s found that he’s grown through his experiences with depression, no matter how much he may have wished not to have had to suffer.


When I reviewed Loneliness, I shared the dance that loneliness and depression are in.  Solomon agrees.  He sees depression as causing loneliness and vice versa.  Those in depression find themselves separated from others by an invisible wall.  They can see that there are others around, but at the same time, they feel separate and apart.  When you find loneliness, look, and you’ll find depression.  Where you find depression, look, and you’ll find loneliness.


As a goal, perfect isn’t bad.  It’s perfection that Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool were talking about in Peak: purposeful practice in the pursuit of perfection.  The problem is what Barry Swartz in The Paradox of Choice explains drives people to be less happy.  Maximizers – those who must have perfection – are less happy than those who are more likely to satisfice – settle for “good enough.”  We all have some times when we maximize, we’ve got to have it perfect.  The trick is that when we expect we must be perfect, we will invariably fall short, so we’ll be disappointed in our performance, and that is one step away from depression.

Burnout and Depression

It’s time for a slight side-step from Solomon’s work to explain an important relationship between burnout and depression.  Research shows that burnout screening is an early indicator for future depression.  They’re not fundamentally different – but they’re different.  Both are driven by feelings of inefficacy.  The difference with depression is a sense of futility.  In short, “What does it matter?”  This is not something that we typically see with burnout but is present when people are depressed.  (For more burnout/depression resources, see everything that we’ve got available at – almost all of which is completely free.)

Like most things in mental health, there are probably those who are burned out who are wondering about the futility of it all, and those who are depressed who understand the meaning of life.  However, as a general rule, a quick way to separate the two is futility.


At the heart of both burnout and depression is a sense of hopelessness – that it can’t get better.  It will never be any better than the current moment.  The situation is permanent.  It’s pervasive throughout someone’s life, not just the current situation.  It’s also personal.  It’s not caused by other factors, it’s a result of the person that someone is.  The problem is that these views aren’t right.  (See The Resilience Factor for more.)  The problem is that things do change, it’s not permanent.  No situation is universally pervasive, and it’s rarely as personal as we believe.

C. Rick Snyder in The Psychology of Hope explains that hope isn’t a feeling, it’s a cognitive process made of waypower – knowing how – and willpower – desire or commitment. (For more on willpower, see Willpower.) When we see people who are hopeless, we often find they don’t know “how” things could get better.  Some degree of cognitive constriction may lead people to overlook the ways that things may get better on their own, what they may be able to do to make it better, or simply how the situation can be changed.  It’s this same cognitive constriction that can lead to suicide, as The Suicidal Mind points out.

Suicide by HIV

Solomon admits that his intent was to die via AIDS.  He was trying to commit suicide but in a way that made it seem not like suicide.  This is at the heart of the challenge with identifying suicidal behavior.  Inferring intent – when someone doesn’t write a book about it – is hard.  (Only ~1/4 of people even write suicide notes; the odds of writing a book on depression are substantially smaller.)  In some cases, intent is clear, but in many others – like Solomon’s attempt – intent is very unclear.  (See Suicide: Understanding and Responding for more.)

We don’t track statistics – even if we could confer intent – on rare forms of suicide.  Instead, we must realize that there are many, many ways to kill oneself if someone wants to – and it makes stopping someone from committing suicide very difficult.  (See Suicide: Inside and Out for more on how difficult suicide can be to prevent.)

Weakness of Character

Depression, suicide attempts, and mental health issues are often seen not as illnesses but rather weakness of character.  It’s as if others believe that what’s lacking is willpower – not that there’s something wrong for which someone can’t be held accountable.  In Willpower, Roy Baumeister explains that it’s an exhaustible resource – something that everyone has limits on.  The introduction of SSRIs may have strengthened the medical model for depression, but as we saw above, it’s not enough, and people know it.

Never has someone said that it’s a weakness of bone when someone walked in with their arm flapping after a break.  We don’t call people weak-hearted as they’re having a heart attack.  Yet somehow, we believe that we should be able to control our mental health in ways that we can’t manage our physical health.  It’s been a long time since we believed that illness was a plague brought upon us by God.  Instead, we follow a biological germ theory of disease that says we were infected – not that God is inflicting suffering on us through physical illness.

There’s a serious schism of accountability and responsibility for mental health when compared to physical health.  In short, we don’t give people who struggle with mental health a fair shake.

Low Side Effects

Treatment with SSRIs isn’t because of their overwhelming efficacy.  They have low double-digit margins of efficacy over a placebo.  Solomon makes the valid point that they do help some – but that doesn’t excuse dispensing them via a PEZ dispenser.  We prescribe SSRIs with very little concern – in part because they have a relatively low side-effect profile.  Sure, there are sexual dysfunction concerns, but 99% of people with acute major depression report sexual dysfunction anyway.

At some level, SSRIs and other potentially addictive drugs are something to try.  If you can’t mitigate the pain, you’ll have trouble getting to a point where anything else will help.  Often, a pill is quick and easy.  Treatments like ECT (Electro Convulsive Therapy) and its newer cousins offer quick relief but there are still some concerns about side effects.  Talk therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), have been shown to be effective – but they take a long time.  In many ways, SSRIs and other medications are “the easy button.”

Substance Abuse

Chasing the Scream and The Globalization of Addiction do a good job at fighting back the pharmacological theory of addiction – that is, the substances make you do it.  Growing up in the 1980s, I was told that just one hit could start an addiction.  Nancy Regan told us to “Just Say No” to drugs – and it didn’t work.  The uncomfortable truth – for everyone – is that substance abuse is a solution to a different problem.  It’s quite obviously a bad solution – but it’s a solution nonetheless.  Something that started out as a coping mechanism to numb or distract from pain in someone’s life gradually took control of them until they could no longer stop.  Solomon says, “Every addict had a honeymoon, during which they could control their use.”  In short, it was a coping mechanism, but eventually the coping mechanism took control.

Depression and substance use disorder (SUD) – which is the preferred terminology now – are related.  When you’re depressed, you’ve got a part of your life you want to numb, and substances do that.  When it’s become an addiction, you start to lose connections with others, financial resources, stability, and sometimes even dignity.  That triggers depression.  They feed each other until they’re stopped.

Another view is that substance abuse is the substitution of a “comfortable and comprehensible pain” – the consequences of the addiction – for an “uncomfortable and incomprehensible pain.”  The uncomfortable and incomprehensible pain may not even be conscious.  It may be something that we’ve never been equipped to find or deal with.  If the substance takes away the pain from that, then it seems like its pains are a good bargain.

Time of Decide

One of the most effective interventions for suicide prevention is restriction to means.  (See Rethinking Suicide for more.)  People won’t often change their tool of choice from guns to drugs to bridges.  When you prevent access, you often prevent death.  We see it in suicide fences on bridges – which prevent people from jumping to their death.  We see it when gun locks are introduced into a population.  We see it wherever we work to block an avenue of death.

Seen differently, thoughts of suicide and the cognitive constriction that comes with it are often fleeting.  One moment, suicide seems like the only option, and the next moment, you’re left wondering how you could have possibly thought that – that is, of course, if you didn’t have access to the means you needed to carry the thought out.

When we’re considering how to decrease suicide, delaying is our friend.  Knowing that you don’t have to decide right this moment whether you want to die by suicide – you can defer that decision until later – may be helpful.  It’s not ideal.  We want people to cross it off the list of possible options – but for some people, that it is not possible or realistic.

Suicide and the Survivors of Concentration Camps

Victor Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning as a way of chronicling the conditions of concentration camps but more importantly, to give hope that even in the worst of conditions humanity perseveres.  The problem is that too many of those rescued from concentration camps would later come to die by suicide.  The specific reasons aren’t clear.

Maybe they survived the camp only to have taken on too much mental anguish to continue forward on their own.  Maybe their hopes that their loved ones were still alive were dashed when they were freed, and they no longer felt as if they had anything to live for.

Whatever the reason, those who walked or rode out of the camps didn’t seem to have the tools they needed to free themselves from the memory of the camps and the tragedies they were forced to live among.

Proactive vs. Reactive

One of the challenges with depression, like all of healthcare, is that we often look towards solving things once they’ve become problems.  We don’t look for ways to prevent problems from occurring in the first place.  The old saying is “A stitch in time saves nine.”  Yet, we continue to battle depression and suicidal ideation after it’s formed rather than looking for ways to create mental health – rather than avoiding mental illness.  If we can be proactive, we’ll spend less – but that takes time and isn’t always in the politicians’ best reelection interests.

Mental Illness, the Family Secret Everyone Has

The thing is that every family has mental illness somewhere.  We ignore it, avoid it, and dare not discuss it, because it’s somehow shameful.  It’s sort of like passing gas – everyone does it, but no one wants to admit it.  The net effect is that we push mental health into the shadows and only want to address it when we see the next mass shooting.  We address mental health when it becomes visible, and someone demands that we put an end to the tragedies that those with untreated mental illnesses inflict on others – but by then, it’s too late.


One of the most overlooked and undervalued aspects of our human existence is the need for good, quality sleep.  It’s the brain’s way of rejuvenating, cleaning, and processing the day, yet we’re chronically sleep deprived.  We’re constantly trying to shave off a few minutes of sleep to get one more thing done – but in the process we’re making ourselves more depressed, more likely to attempt suicide, and generally miserable.  Prioritizing sleep is one thing that we can all do to reduce depression – and too few of us can make this a priority.

The opposite of depression is life.  Maybe you can find your way by studying the maps in The Noonday Demon.

Book Review-The Disruption Mindset: Why Some Organizations Transform While Others Fail

Disruption isn’t the goal.  Growth and success are.  However, the path to growth often leads through disruption.  Charlene Li explains in The Disruption Mindset: Why Some Organizations Transform While Others Fail how to navigate the disruption and even encourage the right disruption to lead to the desired exponential growth.

Anyone can be disruptive; it takes a powerful person to be the right kind of disruptive at the right time to achieve the exponential results which investors often expect – whether you’re a startup or a large organization.

Unmet Needs

The fuel that drives disruption is the willingness to find and address the unmet needs of the customer.  Whether you’re disrupting the home movie business like Netflix or you’re a wireless carrier trying to capture new subscribers like T-Mobile, you’ve got to find the needs the customer has that you can meet and your competitors can’t.  If you do it right, you can leapfrog the competition.

There are lots of ways that people pursue understanding the unmet customer needs.  For instance, Business Model Generation proposes a business model canvas.  Clayton Christensen in Competing Against Luck proposes a model of jobs to be done.  Tom Kelley’s The Art of Innovation proposes a human-centered design process that is also a discovery process.

My experience is that this process of discovering the unmet needs of the customer is the most prone to error and ultimately failure.  Time and time again, I’ve seen technology companies propose that they know what the customer’s needs are only to discover that they didn’t really understand the problems – but no one else in the process could see the failure to fully understand before it became a problem.  The future planners, focus group leaders, researchers, and marketers weren’t able to make a coherent picture from the signals they were receiving, and as a result, they made something up that they thought would be “cool” or interesting, and no one else realized that it was fiction until way too late.

Make a Manifesto

If you’re going to disrupt an organization, you need a rallying cry.  You need something that people can get behind.  There’s a shared delusion that many corporate leaders subscribe to.  They believe they can control a disruption or transformation.  They believe it’s possible to architect, design, and deploy a plan that’s so perfect that it will fit every member of the organization in every situation.  Since the Agile Manifesto, we’ve realized that this isn’t truth, but it’s comforting to believe that we’re in control.  (See Compelled to Control for more about the illusion of control.)  Li suggests that anyone can write a manifesto to inspire the disruption that the organization wants and needs.  It has these components:

  • Start with a rant
  • Flip the rant into a belief
  • Add what you are going to do to act on that belief
  • Use a collective and active voice
  • Write a blog post about each statement
  • Test with customers
  • Keep it to a page

The key is to help everyone believe that the leader isn’t thinking about the disruption alone.  They’ve got an inclusive approach where everyone will benefit from the changes.  In Li’s words, “leadership is a mindset, not a title.”  Joseph Rost in Leadership for the Twenty-First Century agrees.  He even goes further to say that it’s a relationship towards the end of meaningful change.  In short, you can’t be a leader if you don’t intend to change – and improve – with others.

Consensus and Trust

Many organizations have fallen into the trap that they need consensus.  Thomas and Kilmann created a conflict mode instrument that places five options: avoiding, accommodating, competing, collaborating, and compromising on two dimensions: assertive and cooperative.  The interesting aspect of their instrument is that the best answer isn’t in the upper-right corner, as one might expect.  Collaborating to the extreme is consensus.  Their model (and research) focuses on the best answer as compromising.  They don’t mean it in a pejorative way; instead, it’s a recognition that consensus-driven approaches often take too long.  Sometimes, we have to just trust others even when we can’t defend the decision.

We see this echoed in the work of Patrick Lencioni in The Advantage, in Crucial Conversations, and in William Issacs’ work, Dialogue.  Consensus can take too long.  We need to build and reinforce trust when we can so that we can lean on it when it’s necessary to move faster than a consensus-based approach would allow.  (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revisited for more.)

Cultivating Constructive Criticism

Some cultures invite constructive criticism.  Some even require it.  On the outside, the cultures may seem harsh.  In Radical Candor, Kim Scott explains that “it’s not cruel, it’s clear” when speaking directly to other people.  Cultivating these conversations requires work.  It’s a step beyond the psychological safety that Amy Edmondson proposes in The Fearless Organization.  It’s imperative to share concerns and to speak up.  Back in 1977, Irving Janis and Leon Mann first wrote about “groupthink” and the challenges that occur in groups in their book Decision Making.  Since then, Richard Hackman revisited the challenges of sharing the truth in Collaborative Intelligence.  They recommend that someone be assigned the role of the devil’s advocate – that is, someone should be tasked (temporarily) with trying to poke holes in the proposed direction.  Even John F. Kennedy took this approach with the Cuban Missile Crisis after the fiasco that was the Bay of Pigs invasion.  In One Minute to Midnight, there are details about how dissent wasn’t a problem, it was required.

Dave Snowden, of Cynefin fame, describes this process as ritualized dissent, something that he often teaches at workshops.  By making it an explicit part of the process, it’s often possible to avoid someone being singled out as the naysayer.

Structure and Lore

Organizational charts and organizational structure aren’t something new or interesting to anyone involved in a corporation.  The tree-view charts, with who reports to whom, have been a part of the corporate landscape for decades.  Structure is part and parcel for corporate life.

Organizational policies, procedures, and processes are common as well as everything that can be done can be turned into a collection of policies, procedures, and processes.  It’s standard corporate fare – that startups often sidestep in the interest of expediency.  However, there’s another component that’s important to organizational health: the lore.

Li describes organizational structure as the spine, process the lifeblood, and lore as the soul of organizational culture.  Lore are the stories that are told.  They can be the origin stories – stories that are about how the organization was formed or transformed.  These stories form employee opinions about how the organization is to behave.  They’re stories of heroic customer service.  They’re stories of how the organization treats employees.

If you want to radically disrupt the culture of an organization, you need the stories to be different.  It means replacing the stories that no longer match the desired culture and supplementing the stories in places where the culture won’t grow as you desire it to.  While this can be tricky, confusing work, it’s work that needs to be done if you want to change the hearts and not just the minds of everyone involved.

To make the kinds of changes that our world needs today, you may just find that it takes The Disruption Mindset.

Book Review-Uncaring: How the Culture of Medicine Kills Doctors and Patients

It is not that they set out to be uncaring.  Quite the opposite.  Doctors, most of them anyway, got into medicine because of their concern for others.  That’s what makes the fact that modern medicine, particularly in the United States, isn’t as good as it could or even should be for patients or doctors.  In Uncaring: How the Culture of Medicine Kills Doctors and Patients, Robert Pearl pulls back the covers on the systems that drive our modern healthcare industry and what’s wrong with them.

I’ve read and reviewed Pearl’s previous work, Mistreated, and have fallen into the awareness that he and I can correspond from time to time on the problems with healthcare and the associated public health issues.  I deeply respect Pearl’s perspective and wisdom about how the systems work – and how they don’t.  Uncaring is no exception to this general regard I have for his work – it provides a clarity into what ails the system – even if he cannot offer any specific remedies.

The Long History of Bad Practices

It was Ignas Semmelweis who is credited with the beginnings of our awareness that would ultimately become germ theory.  What’s not commonly known is that Semmelweis was dismissed and nearly unemployable.  He died alone in a mental institution.  So much for the embrace of new and improved techniques to move forward the practice of medicine.  Unfortunately, his experience was far from unique.

The process of bloodletting involves removing blood from an infected individual with the thought that the four humors are out of balance.  It’s believed that this killed George Washington – yes, that one.  Of course, he was already suffering from some ailment, but the degree of blood loss due to the bloodletting could not have helped.  And still, bloodletting remained an acceptable medical practice even through 1923, when it became a published practice.  This is nearly 100 years after the harmful effects were established.

What’s important here isn’t that there were practices in medicine that were ultimately discovered to be harmful – there’s a long list of them.  The point is really the time between when a practice is determined to be bad and the time it takes for that information to permeate the practice.  Pearl cites the often-mentioned statistic that the average time for a medical innovation to reach practice today is 17 years – this is, I suppose, better than our history, but a far cry from what we can and should do.

What You See Is All There Is

Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow describes it as What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI).  Pearl describes it as a cultural insistence that doctors must follow their instincts in their practice rather than the data.  From the very beginning, they’ve been taught that they’re special, and it’s their powers of observation that save patients.  However, the problem is the data doesn’t support this conclusion.

Atul Gawande proposed bringing checklists to the operating room in The Checklist Manifesto.  This was in part to neutralize the power dynamics of the operating room so that staff could speak up, but in another way, it was the application of a proven practice to medicine that has struggled with reliability.  Gawande’s book was published in 2009, and to my anecdotal knowledge most operating rooms do not use checklists – and some that do use them do in a rather perfunctory way.

The data can tell you whether something works or not – if people are willing to look at the data.  Ivermectin, a veterinary anti-parasitical, was recommended by some as a solution to improving outcomes for those with COVID-19 – except it’s wrong.  There’s no data.  What people said is that 100% of the people they treated with Ivermectin got better.

The problem with this thinking is that it ignores base-rate.  The base rate of mortality – and even hospitalization – with infections from SARS-CoV-2 is relatively low.  (I’m not going to quote them here because the rates keep changing with each new variant.)  The highest probability for a small clinic that treats as few hundred patients is that all their infections will get better – working treatment or not.  Similar arguments were made about former President Trump’s suggestion that hydroxychloroquine sulfate (HCQ) and chloroquine phosphate (CQ) would be effective at improving COVID-19 outcomes.  These anti-malarial drugs were proven ineffective – but not before many people tried them – many of whom were written prescriptions by their family physicians.  (Ivermectin wasn’t approved for human use, so it wasn’t the physicians enabling this behavior, even if they were encouraging it.)

The problem is that, when there’s a low base rate of mortality, if you try something – and no one dies – you assume it was effective when it wasn’t.  Similar problems happen when people start thinking about surgeons.

Practice Makes Perfect

Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool explain in Peak that the best in every world of performance get better by purposeful practice.  Whether you simplify this to 10,000 hours, as Malcolm Gladwell does in Outliers, the point is that more purposeful practice is better.  With dedicated surgical centers performing the most common surgeries repeatedly, you get better results.  That’s easy to see in the data about outcomes.  However, that doesn’t fit with the surgeon’s ego that says they get the best results.  They systemically discount their bad outcomes, ignoring them or explaining them away.  It’s what Thomas Gilovich explains in How We Know What Isn’t So.  When you know that more than 50% of surgeons believe they’re better than average, as professors and high school students did, someone has to be wrong.

What does this mean?  It means that physicians need practice and experience with a procedure to get good – and to remain good.  As a pilot, I must do so many take offs and landings in a given period of time before I can carry passengers.  Surgeons don’t have to do any specific number of appendectomies to be able to do one – but I’m not recommending they operate on themselves.  Specialization of surgeries to surgical centers allows for better outcomes.  Specialization among practice members for different kinds of surgery allows better outcomes for the entire practice.

Hope, At Any Cost

Nearly a decade ago now, I got to play a role in a drama at a pediatric hospital M&M (Morbidity & Mortality) session.  It was centered around “everything possible.”  It is a phrase that parents of children often use when speaking with the care team about what they should do to protect the lives of their children.  It’s also wrong.  The point was that there are some things that only extend pain and torment without adding any potential value to a child’s life – but are sometimes done anyway.  The point was to teach those in attendance that it wasn’t a literal plea but was rather a starting point for a discussion.  In pediatric and non-pediatric situations, people are often willing to give up more than they should for more time, because they can’t bear the loss.

Doctors are encouraged to provide hope when it’s not impossible and to offer ever life-extending options even when those options don’t increase the quality of the additional life but instead spread the misery longer.  They’re supposed to be the consummate professionals, being unwavering in their faith in new treatment options and their own skills.  However, the unfortunate truth is that, too often, we extend lives and try procedures that we would have been better off not doing.  “Everything possible” isn’t the right standard, but it’s the one that is often used.

The Care Guide

It was the late 1990s, and we did something revolutionary for a clinical study.  I played a small part in bringing best practice diabetes care to a primary care setting.  The program took in data and from it made recommendations about patient care based on the best practice standards at the time.  Spearheaded by a visionary endocrinologist and paid for by Roche (then Behringer-Mannheim), the program made a real difference.  The key difference, though, was the way that the recommendations were provided to the physician.  We gave them broad categories, and they either filled in the details or used the research and recommendations provided to them by the trained nurses – nurses they trusted.

The result was a success because we weren’t telling them exactly what to do, we were nudging them into the right direction and allowing them a bit of choice.  (See Nudge for more about this idea.)  We built trust with the providers.  We made the system work by playing into the culture instead of trying to work against it.  However, too often today, doctors feel like the systems are dictating care – and they’re no longer able to be doctors.


It’s a rather derogatory way of referring to the nurse practitioners and physicians’ assistants who offer up care in pharmacies and standalone urgent care clinics.  It refers to their need to follow the rules and do basic urgent care.  Come in with a cough, and leave with a prescription for antibiotics.  It’s the extreme form of what physicians fear.  The responses are largely scripted.  Nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants in most states work in a collaborative practice agreement with a physician who supervises the care they provide – and who is presumably their backup for problems that they can’t handle.

This has dramatically improved healthcare access in many ways – and it’s led to the over-prescription of antibiotics and, by extension, the emergence of multi-drug resistant bacteria.  People expect they can have treatment if they go to a doctor – even a doc-in-a-box.  As a result, many people leave with prescriptions that will do them no good.  Additionally, because they’re only taking prescriptions to feel better, they’ll often stop taking them before the infection is fully under control and will rebound with an infection that is mostly of variants of the infection that are least susceptible to the antibiotic – thus furthering the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Bias Toward Action

Built into our human psyche is a bias towards action.  There’s a bias towards doing “something” – even if that something ultimately turns out to be harmful.  Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains this in Antifragile, and it resurfaces everywhere.  We’re notoriously bad about waiting for things to play out.  As a result, we prescribe medications that do no good.  But more than that, surgeons can take an old saying to heart.  “A chance to cut is a chance to cure” is a common refrain from surgeons that exposes the belief that surgery is always an option to cure – even when it isn’t.  It may help the surgeon feel good that they’ve done “everything possible,” but that doesn’t mean it’s right.

Doctors Disconnected from the System

For most of us, we’ve got a positive view of our personal doctor.  We believe they’re competent above their peers, and we’re lucky to have them.  We also simultaneously believe that the healthcare system is broken.  We accept the gap between these two, even though our doctor is a part of the system.  The truth is that we treat our doctors like they’re separate and apart from the system they operate in, but that’s neither real nor reasonable.

Primary or Specialty?

It’s a simple pyramid.  There are lots of people at the bottom and few people at the top.  Fewer physicians/specialists and fewer patients.  If you want to make a big impact, where should you focus your energies?  Most people realize that the answer is the bottom of the pyramid.  It’s the day-to-day interactions with healthcare that are the opportunities to improve preventative care – but that’s not the way most healthcare systems prioritize investments.  Investments are made with specialists because they can charge premium rates and generate premium revenue.

Of course, working on the primary care isn’t fun or sexy.  It doesn’t necessarily feel like you’re making that much of a difference.  It’s small, incremental improvements, but those improvements are multiplied across many physicians and can make a huge impact.  The point isn’t the impact, the point is that it doesn’t “sell well,” either internally or externally.  There’s no marketing message to most efficient primary care – because patients don’t care about that.  There are messages to be sent about cutting edge procedures – that most people will never need.

Equal Treatment

In medicine, like justice, we expect that everyone gets the same treatment – that there are no biases.  However, the data says otherwise.  Just like we know that judges aren’t impartial, physicians aren’t either.  This is particularly true for physicians in ER settings, where triage is an expected part of the job.  In law, numerous sources (including Thinking, Fast and Slow, Complications, When, and Pre-Suasion) speak to the fact that judges are less likely to grant parole right before lunch, and, often, the more you appear like the judge, the more likely you are to be treated more leniently.  We like to believe that physicians are different, but the data says differently.


One of the central problems with the spiraling healthcare costs is the lack of a focus on prevention.  In a fee for service model, you get paid for doing more, and therefore there’s a negative incentive to work on preventative medicine.  This was a problem in the 1930s, when the Committee on the Costs of Medical Care (CCMC) met to discuss solutions.  They proposed capitation.  That is, they’d give physicians or medical systems a fixed fee per patient per year.  With large enough populations, the extreme cases are weighed out by people with little or no need in a year.  The incentives would then shift strongly to physicians doing preventative care, which is generally less expensive in the long run.  They’d make more money when they managed their patient population health well.

The problem is that nobody wanted it.  The physicians didn’t want their income tied to the behaviors of patients.  As we learned in Change or Die, as much as 80% of healthcare costs have behavioral roots, and changing behaviors isn’t something that physicians were trained for.  The resulting compromise was the Social Security Act – a far cry from what was intended but a win for citizens nonetheless.

When you create cultures and set up systems such that people are incentivized for the wrong things, you create bad outcomes.  It’s not that you’re getting the law of unintended consequences, as explained in Diffusion of Innovations, rather it’s that you’ve designed the system for bad outcomes.  Sometimes, those outcomes are a system that seems Uncaring.

Book Review-Understanding Beliefs

Why do we believe what we believe?  How do we know that the beliefs we hold are true – or that they’re held by others?  This fundamental philosophical problem of our existence is the one that’s addressed in Understanding Beliefs.  It’s a walk through the land of what beliefs are, how they’re connected to what we know, and how they can sometimes be distorted.

Procedural and Declarative Knowledge

We start by recognizing that there are two different kinds of knowledge.  The first kind, procedural, is know-how.  That is, how is it done?  It’s the kind of knowledge that Kate Pugh explains how to capture in her book, Sharing Hidden Know-How.  The second kind, declarative, is knowing that something is.  We know that the Earth orbits the Sun – at least we do now.

A large volume of our knowledge is in the form of our beliefs.  If we were to rewind the clock a few hundred years, we might be an outsider for expressing a view that the Earth orbits the Sun.  The Church might have us locked up for these beliefs as they did Galileo.  However, this represents a key problem.  Not only can we not articulate all our knowledge, as Michael Polanyi explained, but further we can hold conflicting beliefs.  (For more on Polanyi, see The New Edge in Knowledge and Incognito.)

While we expect that the beliefs of others should be thoroughly evaluated, our own beliefs remain largely unvalidated.  Much of what we “know” about the world will change given a few decades, but we have no systemic way of reevaluating our beliefs to ensure they match our current understanding of the world.  Consider the belief that atoms were the smallest unit possible against our emerging knowledge of electrons, quarks, and subatomic particles.  Our beliefs, due to the nature of our expanding understanding of the world, should change – but sometimes the process of changing beliefs gets stuck or slowed.

Runaway Beliefs

One of the other challenges with beliefs is that they’re formed by our experiences.  When engaged with others who hold similar beliefs, the degree of certainty in the beliefs can self-reinforce – and that can make even the false seem real.  Consider the Flat Earth Society, who believe that the Earth is flat.  Collected with others of the same mindset, they genuinely believe that the Earth is flat. even though it’s possible to demonstrate the curvature of the Earth easily.  From visual inspection mechanisms to the inability to explain satellites, it’s hard to believe the Earth is flat – but they do because it is continually reinforced to them.

Cults follow the same reinforcing dynamics.  Even those whose beliefs aren’t initially that strong are drawn to stronger beliefs through reinforcement.  This is just one explanation of why peer groups have such a strong influence on children – if their beliefs are close enough, and they’re spending much time together, they’ll coalesce and amplify.  (For more, see No Two Alike and The Nurture Assumption.)

Scientific Grounding

One of the hallmarks of good science is that it can be validated by others as true.  This, in turn, means that any hypothesis must also be falsifiable.  That is, there must be a test that could prove it false.  The hallmark of a scientist is that they’re willing to change their beliefs when the data doesn’t support their conclusions.  In a sense, scientists ground their beliefs in reality.  If they can’t prove something right or wrong, then the belief is suspect.

Principle of Parsimony and Occam’s Razor

All things being equal, the simplest explanation is generally better.  It’s called the principle of parsimony, or alternatively Occam’s Razor, and it’s been demonstratable.  Certainly, it’s not perfect, and some simple explanations are wrong; but time and time again, when people come up with complex explanations, it’s because they don’t really understand what’s going on.  In returning to Galileo’s case, there were numerous complicated calculations that were designed to explain the motion of the planets, because they believed in a geocentric model that placed Earth at the center of the Solar System.  We know now that this model was wrong, which is why they kept having to try to find ways to adjust for the errors that were invariable given an incorrect model.

This principle is often overlooked by conspiracy theorists.  They often posit that the entire world – or just the wealthy and powerful – are in on a scheme to convince us of a false truth.  Which is simpler: that the world is round, or that people for centuries have conspired to keep the truth of the Earth’s flatness from the general population?  I’ve seen too many cases of secrets getting out to believe that people can keep something that big a secret.  The Greenbrier Hotel’s secret bunker for Congress was kept secret for roughly 30 years.  (See The Cold War Experience for more.)  How can we believe that bigger and more complex secrets are being kept for more than ten times as long?

Black Swans

One important consideration about beliefs is that we often fail to recognize that logical reversals require reversing both parts.  The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  The Black Swan makes this point well.  Just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.  In the end, you may find that you’re better prepared to navigate conversations, conflicts, and life if you can start better Understanding Beliefs.

Book Review-Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy

Option A isn’t available.  You can’t have what you want.  Whether you want a loved one back or you want something in your life that can no longer happen, you’ll have to do something different.  Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy is what you do when you can’t have what you want.

The Backstory

The backstory for the book is that Sheryl Sandberg’s husband, David Goldberg, died.  She had to learn to deal with it.  Sheryl is (and was) the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, and David was the CEO of Survey Monkey.  David had hired Adam Grant for a talk at Survey Monkey, and the couple had formed a friendship with Adam.  (For more of Adam Grant’s work, please see Originals, Give and Take, and Think Again.)

Though they’re listed as co-authors and despite the co-writing, the perspective is intentionally Sheryl’s.  This was done to create a consistency of story and to improve the flow of the book.  It must have been successful, because the book is a great path through the grieving of Sheryl and the children that she and David shared.

Meaning Reset

Five minutes into a meeting, you look up from your thoughts and wonder what everyone is talking about and, more importantly, “Why does it matter?”  Losing a loved one can have the effect of radically restructuring your perception of life and, as a consequence, what is important.  We all live by a set of expectations about how the future will be.  Couples expect to grow old together to watch their children’s children.  We don’t necessarily have a picture of the car we’ll drive or even the house we’ll live in.  We do, however, expect life to follow a somewhat orderly, forward progression.  If you lose a spouse or other loved one unexpectedly, the result is that your predictions of the future are invalidated in a moment – and that is disruptive.

Simple problems that needed no thought before consume you, because without the anchors you relied on, you feel compelled to consider every possibility and to look for ways that your perspectives may be wrong.  We’re suddenly launched into a world of doubt unlike any that you might have experienced before.

With our perceptions torn down and every decision requiring more thought, it’s no wonder that we’ll reprioritize things that previously would have fallen into the background.  Looking in, people are sometimes confused by the seemingly radical readjustment of priorities and meaning in someone’s life after a loss – but in the context of having to evaluate the guilt you have about the loss, it can make sense.


It’s hard to sidestep the “what if” game.  What if I had come home earlier, in enough time to help them?  What if I hadn’t told the girls I’d go to the movies with them?  What if the gun was locked up?  These games are instinctive after a loss.  Could I have visited more frequently?  Did I call them enough?  Did I tell them I loved them enough?

The problem is that there is no “enough.”  At the extreme, you could tell the other person you love them to the point where they couldn’t get a word in edgewise.  Certainly, that would be “enough” – or would it?  What if they didn’t hear it?  Wouldn’t they get annoyed that they couldn’t get a word in?  So how much telling them would be “enough?”  There is, of course, no answer to this question.

Guilt is practically unavoidable, and at the same time, it’s rarely deserved.

Waves of Sadness

The Grief Recovery Handbook is a good book on addressing our grief.  Though it – inappropriately – criticizes Kubler-Ross’ work On Death and Dying, it effectively makes the point that the emotions we feel after a loss aren’t linear, distinct, or prescribed.  We each experience grief in our own way.  However, what it doesn’t cover are the “deadly sneaker waves” of sadness.  In Iceland, there’s a magical beach where visitors turn their back on the ocean to their own peril.  What they call deadly sneaker waves wash onto the beach and pull people down and into the water.  Sadness can feel like this.

It comes seemingly out of nowhere, and it can knock us off our feet and tumble us in the surf.  We believe ourselves to be rational creatures in charge of our emotions.  We believe that we carefully regulate what we feel, and we’re rudely awakened when sadness washes over us.

Fortress of Solitude

Sometimes, the waves of sadness lead us to a fortress of solitude.  We push or block others out so that we don’t have to burden them with our sorrow.  Instead of allowing those around us to support us, we make a point to not be anywhere that they’ll be.  We create (or try to create) our fortress of solitude before we realize that we’re creating our own prison.

It might surprise you to know that many people will choose to self-administer a shock rather than to sit in solitude – for 15 minutes.  Being alone with one’s own thoughts is so painful that we’ll take a physical pain to distract us.  So, as we seek to be alone, we are inflicting pain upon ourselves.  Good friends will gently but firmly push us to continue to engage.  They won’t let us be alone.  Sheryl relates a small way that two of her friends went to a game for her son – after she said she didn’t need them to come.

Perceived Control

One of the chief issues with losing someone is that you recognize that whatever sense of control you had was just an illusion.  The belief that the world was orderly and safe came crashing in – and there was nothing you could do about it.  One of the ways that we cope with the slings and arrows of everyday life is our perception that we could – if we chose – change some of them.  We could deflect them or return fire in a way that would prevent them from happening in the future.  However, the death of someone close reminds us that nothing can be done.

Imagine, for a moment, there’s an annoying noise.  In one condition, there’s nothing you can do.  In the other you can press a button to make it stop – but it comes at a cost, one that you’re not willing to pay.  Which condition is more tragic?  The answer is the first.  The belief that we can stop something is more important than actually stopping it.


One of the odd things that happens when someone loses another is that their friends can end up distancing themselves.  As I explained in What If I Say the Wrong Thing?, there is no wrong thing to say – except nothing.  Sheryl explains that she considered carrying a stuffed elephant with her but decided against it, because she suspected that others wouldn’t get the hint.  There’s an elephant in the room when you’re not comfortable talking about it.  The truth is that some friends will move into the loss and hold you up when you can’t stand.  Others will step back and believe that they have no way of helping.  They don’t realize that often it’s their presence that is the help that those who are grieving crave.

The unfortunate reality is that people who lose someone close to them often simultaneously lose closeness with people with whom they had relationships but who couldn’t bring themselves to step into the space enough to be uncomfortable with the other person.  The best friends you’ll find can’t imagine being anyplace else except by a friend’s side who is hurting.

Principle of Non-Abandonment

Whether it makes sense or not to the outside world, one of the feelings that those closest to the loss will feel is that the person who has died has abandoned them.  It’s natural to feel a loneliness that they caused, and therefore they have, in some sense, abandoned you.  Parents whose spouse has died wonder how their spouse could have abandoned them to raise the kids.  That wasn’t the way it was supposed to be.  That wasn’t the deal.  The deal was together – but now the deal has been broken.

As friends and family move in and stay even in the midst of uncontrollable emotions, it helps to recognize that not everyone will abandon us.  The people who stay prove that abandonment by everyone isn’t inevitable – it’s not even possible.  The whole process of feeling abandoned doesn’t happen at an intellectual level.  It’s a sense of comfort to know that, even though you may be walking without your partner, you still won’t be completely walking alone.


Sheryl relates an approach from Susan Silk where you draw circles of proximity to the person who has died.  The closest people surrounded by the next closest and so on.  The key is that you offer comfort to the inner circles, and you seek comfort from those in the outer circles.  It’s a simple model for ensuring that the people who are closest receive the most support and receive it from the people who are close enough to be relevant.

It recognizes Megan Devine’s observation that some things can’t be fixed.  They can only be carried.  No one can fix the problem undo what has been done.  All we can do is carry the burden – ourselves – and as much of the burden as possible for those who were closer to the person who is gone.

Gratitude and Contributions

Even though some people find gratitude journaling helpful, not everyone does.  (For instance, I don’t.)  However, recognizing our power to help others is almost always helpful.  Twelve-step programs are big on service and helping others – encouraging everyone to get people to sponsor rather quickly.  They do this in part because there’s a straight line between self-esteem or self-image and the work that you do to support others.  Where gratitude is passive – and happens to you – contributions are active and are how you respond to the world.

Contributions don’t have to be large per se.  Small contributions are still contributions, and recognizing that anything that you can do to help others as you’re struggling can be amazing.  It’s when your capacity is least that the value of those contributions is greatest.

Change How

After an event of such proportions, you’ve entered a new world.  You’ve walked through a one-way portal.  The question isn’t whether you’ll change or not.  The question is how you’ll change and what you’ll change to.  You can choose to change in a way that shrinks your life, becomes trapped in victimhood, or you can choose to build your resilience, capacity, and contribution to others.

There’s no shame in whatever decision you might make.  Some battle with survivor guilt more than others – that is, the feeling that they should have died rather than the person who did and that somehow the world would be better off.  Guilt (believing that you did something wrong) and shame (believing that you are bad) inhibit recovery, and sometimes it takes a while to work through them.  (See I Thought it Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) for more on shame and guilt.)

Take It Back

Since our tragedy, Terri and I have met many others who have lost their child or children.  Some of them have chosen the path of shrinking their lives.  They’ve decided that since Christmas can’t be with their loved one, they just won’t have it any longer.  Whatever the special occasions are, they hide from them as if not celebrating them prevents them from happening without their loved ones.

For us, we have chosen the path that Sheryl describes as “we take it back” – their way of embracing those moments rather than hiding from them.  For us, we bought a new Christmas tree and new lights.  It was one of those things that we’d been talking about for years, but it was never important enough.  However, there was significance.  We could acknowledge and honor our memories of Christmas’ past and recognize that we’d be doing things a bit differently from here on out.

Our decisions didn’t stop there, but it’s the one that best represents the attitude.  We still struggle with our feelings as the waves of sadness crash over us, but at the same time, we can remember the good memories and recognize that different can still be good – well, at least okay.

Normalizing Struggle

Brene Brown calls it “gold-plating grit” in Rising Strong.  It’s the tendency to minimize the struggle aspects of life.  Sheryl and Adam recognize the need to normalize the struggle.  Kids of all ages need to understand that life is struggle.  Buddha taught all of us that.  However, struggle isn’t bad.  Struggle is necessary for growth.  (See The Psychology of Recognizing and Rewarding Children for more.)

What we need to recognize is that it’s not that we won’t have struggles but rather the results of the struggle will be worth it.  We can accept that we struggle if we know there’s a reason for it and the reason is a better life.  Sure, we wanted whatever Option A meant – that our loved one was still with us.  However, in the end, we may find that there’s a lot of good to be had in Option B.

Book Review-The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want

Life.  Liberty.  And the pursuit of happiness.  Our founding fathers placed it third, but Aristotle and most others would have placed it first.  Happiness is a central consideration in life, yet we’re notoriously bad at finding it.  The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want was written to try to fix that.  Research-backed practices are the path towards happiness – or at least one of them.


Before delving into Sonya Lyubomirsky’s work, it’s important to recognize that we’ve been struggling with the problem of cultivating happiness for centuries.  I first wrote my review of Stumbling on Happiness in 2007.  Since then, more than a dozen books have sought to cover happiness, including: Happiness, Hardwiring Happiness, The Dalai Lama’s Big Book of Happiness, and The Happiness Hypothesis.  The simple fact is that many people have tried to find the path to happiness that would reduce the misery of the masses.  However, none of them seem to have solved the core problem.  From approaches of philosophy, religion, and psychology – they failed to unlock the path for most of us.

The proof is in the fact that we’re some of the most medicated people in the history of the planet – and leading those medications are those designed to combat depression.  Depression (in some ways, the opposite of happiness) is at epidemic proportions despite all the work that we’ve done to try to understand how to address it – and to cultivate happiness.

Reconstructing a Moment

For some, we feel as if we’ve found happiness, and we’ve lost it.  Much like the movie Medicine Man, we feel like it’s possible to find happiness – if we can just recreate the circumstances.  What we must realize is that it’s not about finding happiness, it’s about creating it.  Research says that the things we believe will bring us happiness rarely do in a persistent way.  From increases in pay to awards, they may elevate us to happiness for a moment, but rarely will they hold us in a new heightened level of happiness.  They’re like a mirage that seems real in the moment – but that ultimately fade as we arrive.

Rather than trying to find happiness, we’re forced to find ways to construct it.  We construct it through the mental habits that we develop.  We find and maintain happiness not because of our external circumstances but sometimes despite them.

Happiness is a State of Mind

What makes two people in nearly identical circumstances diverge so widely in their degree of happiness?  While laying bricks in the hot sun, what is it that makes the worker on the left whistle a tune, and the one on the right grumbles and moans the whole time?  The answer isn’t their material circumstances; invariably, the answer is their perspective on their circumstances.

During the Great Depression, many people flocked to the public works projects as a part of the New Deal.  The work was hard – and competition for even these physically demanding jobs was fierce.  In the Depression, having any work was a blessing – even if it was hard.  Contrast that with today, with historic low unemployment rates, and people whose conditions are materially better than those on the public works projects who are grumbling about their job, their lot in life, or the fact that their employer is oppressive.  Better work with a worse attitude – because the expectations and perspectives were different.

The most important thing to know about happiness is that it doesn’t – and can’t – come from external things in a sustainable way.  Sure, a raise, a vacation, or an award can shift your happiness for a moment, but to get to a sustainable change, we’ll have to change our attitude about the circumstances we have.  Our attitude towards our circumstances is substantially more important than the “reality” of them.

Creeping Normalcy

When our happiness is changed by a change in circumstances, we acclimatize to the changes and return to our previous state of happiness.  Want to know how much money it takes to be happy?  It’s about 20% more than you currently make.  If you get that 20% raise, you’ll be okay for a while before returning to the belief that 20% more will finally make you happy.  The problem is that this is a mirage.  The closer you get to it, the further it moves away.

That isn’t to minimize the situation of those who are struggling in abject poverty.  However, that’s not the case for most of us reading the book or reading this blog.  Our basic needs aren’t substantially at threat.  There are many safety systems that help to ensure that we’ll have food or a place to rest.  (Again, not minimizing that these systems aren’t perfect and sometimes fail.)  Once a family is making $75,000 per year, the degree to which the 20% extra improves happiness drops substantially.

When I was growing up, I had a friend whose family literally didn’t have a phone in their home.  A government program eventually made it possible for them to get a phone.  However, the point is that something that nearly everyone today would perceive as a necessity wasn’t something that they had.  Today, we walk around with smart phones and expect that we will have them.  Our standards both at an individual and societal level creeps up.

Sensemaking via Writing

It was a friendly gathering at a breakfast restaurant.  I shared that I read a book each week and had for roughly 10 years with another avid reader.  His nearly immediate question was how I kept all the ideas straight in my head.  I explained that it was this process – writing book reviews – that made it possible.  It’s a sense-making and connecting process that allows me to connect ideas from one work to another and in the process helps me remember where something was discussed.

That being said, I must say that there’s tons that I have trouble remembering and finding the source for.  I frequently refer to these posts and to the notes from which they’re based.  I search books in Kindle (and in OCRed PDFs when the Kindle book isn’t available).  I work at connecting and keeping this information in the same way that those who are insistent on their happiness must work at the techniques that lead to happiness.

James Pennebaker’s work, which is referred to from The How of Happiness, makes it clear that this story writing and sense-making is critical to people’s ability to recover from trauma – and to be happier.  Rick Hanson goes further in his book, Hardwiring Happiness, where he focuses on some of the same techniques but by savoring positive images and making them more present in your life today – thus increasing happiness.

Envious or Happy – Pick One

One of the quips that I use in our presentations is that social media isn’t “real.”  After a pause, I explain that it’s a highlight reel.  Most people post the things they’re doing that are interesting and exciting.  They don’t often share their failures and the struggles of life.  While it happens, it doesn’t happen often.  As a result, social media leaves us believing that everyone else’s world doesn’t have times of struggle and sadness.  (See also Alone Together for this effect.)  Our fascination with cooking shows, reality television, and even home renovation shows exacerbates this.  All of them skip the boring parts.  The waiting isn’t worth watching, so it’s figuratively left on the cutting room floor.

The problem is that this can lead to a sense of envy of others that we barely know.  A friend shares their amazing photos from Hawaii or Iceland, and suddenly we want to go.  We’re envious for a moment – or longer – as we begin to evaluate whether we’ll be able to go or whether we’ll have to skip it this year or even this decade.  We envy their experiences even if we’ve had some amazing experiences this year ourselves.

The problem with this is not that we can’t have these experiences.  The problem is that we envy others, and envy blocks happiness.  It prevents us from accepting what we have and moving forward with ways that we can enjoy what we have.

Happiness Activities

The book shares 12 activities that have research support.  These are the things that, if you do them, you’ll be able to change your degree of happiness.

  1. Expressing Gratitude
  2. Cultivating Optimism
  3. Avoiding Overthinking and Social Comparison
  4. Practicing Acts of Kindness
  5. Nurturing Social Relationships
  6. Developing Strategies for Coping
  7. Learning to Forgive
  8. Increasing Flow Experiences
  9. Savoring Life’s Joys
  10. Committing to Your Goals
  11. Practicing Religion and Spirituality
  12. Taking Care of Your Body: Meditation, Physical Activity, & Acting Like a Happy Person

Fixed and Variable

It’s important to acknowledge that some degree of our happiness is inborn – it’s genetics.  However, there’s a substantial percentage, perhaps 40%, which is under our control (or influence).  This is the same sort of split we see whenever genetics are discussed in the human condition.  (See The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike for more.)

There are some people who will have lost the cortical lottery and will struggle with happiness their entire lives.  However, most people have the capacity for happiness which is well under their control – if they’re willing to work at it.  It’s those people – most of us – who could use to learn more about The How of Happiness.


Book Review-I’m Your Huckleberry: A Memoir

Most people don’t think of Val Kilmer’s role in Real Genius as a defining moment.  They’d pick something else, like Top Gun, The Saint, or The Doors.  However, I’ve always been impressed with the capacity for range and the ability to embrace a character.  I’m Your Huckleberry: A Memoir walks through Val’s life in career and in love.

Val Kilmer’s movie credits are impressive, his recent medical challenges tragic.  The ride between the two – and the journey he’s still on – are worth following.


One of the most entertaining quotes from the book is “Imagine going to sleep knowing that one neighbor had hanged himself and the other had stuffed two of his three costars.”  The other neighbor was Roy Rogers, who had Bullet the dog and Trigger – his horse – stuffed.  It was definitely different than the life that most of us knew growing up.

Val’s experience of childhood created an awareness of things that people had, and repeatedly through his memoir, he shares his longing to find places where it didn’t matter how many backhoes you owned.

Success and Failure

“It was tough telling the down-and-out homeless from the down-and-out musicians.”  It is one thing to love your art, whether it’s on canvas, in sculpture, in music, or on stage.  It’s quite another to make a living of it.  There’s a sense of dumb luck mixed in with the hard work and dedication that makes it impossible to tell those who are good and those who aren’t simply by their appearance.  Success on stage could also mean living a meager life if your roles weren’t great and the stage wasn’t popular.

Somehow the rewards of great performance had a random connection to the talent that was wielded from within.  This was a frustrating truth about acting – and all art.  Those who make it big may have less – or more – talent than the others who strive in obscurity, but there’s no way to know.

Side Trips

“[S]ide trips have been as important to my life as the main voyages.”  There’s a sense that we should have some straight arrow that points out the paths we have in life.  We should know what we want and take it.  However, that’s almost never the case, as we take side trips, the road ahead of us turns in unexpected ways, and we just experience life rather than pursuing the false belief that we can plan out our lives.  Even Robert Pozen in Extreme Productivity acknowledges that as planned and directed as his life seems in retrospect, it was never really that.  It was always adjusting to the reality around him.

At some level, Val is sharing the side trips as failures – but more broadly, they’re ways of gaining experience and perspective.  They’re things that may not have been commercially viable or recognized for their quality, but they were nonetheless a way for one to develop wisdom.

Post-Launch Blues

“Artists can become severely depressed when they’re not performing.”  Can’t we all?  We push to complete a project, and we await the results.  We are caught in a limbo between our past efforts and our future fears.  What if they don’t like it?  More importantly, what will I do next?  For those who are driven, the idea that we don’t know what to do next is one of the most terrifying things – and if you work on projects, the feeling comes with irregular regularity.  The title, I’m Your Huckleberry, Val confesses, comes both from the love of Mark Twain and from the idea that pallbearers used to be called Huckleberries.  In a sense, Val mirrors the winding road all our lives can take.

Not Saving a Child

Val lost his brother, Wesley.  He saw how this crushed his father.  Francis Ford Coppola lost his son, and Val saw the torture it inflicted upon him.  “He explained that parents, no matter the circumstances, are never free from the guilt of not being able to save their child.”  Parents are supposed to protect their children.  This is the way it’s supposed to be – even if that’s not realistic.  We can’t prevent tragedy from striking – even for our children.

Coppola and Val are right.  You never really accept that you can’t always save your children.  There’s a part that stays with you.  Whether it’s guilt or something else, it won’t let go.  It becomes a part of you, and, too often, it clouds your judgement or chokes off reason.  It can all too easily strangle the desire to live in the ways that you once did.

The Day You Find Out Why

“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”  It’s funny, because I’m not sure that Val has found his “why” yet.  At least, I’m not sure that I saw it in the book.  I say this as someone who doesn’t believe has found his why yet.  I don’t believe that I know what is truly in store for me or what I’m to do.  I am looking forward to the day that I find out what it is that I’m supposed to do.

Cancer and Art

Val contracted throat cancer, and it’s limited his acting roles.  He’s now doing artwork and trying to find what’s next.  For me, I deeply respect the work and the journey.  I appreciate the opportunity to glimpse into his world and to learn from what he’s learned.

Maybe Val has found his why, and I couldn’t see it.  Maybe he didn’t write it down.  Either way, I hope that he finds his and I find mine before someone comes to me and says, “I’m Your Huckleberry.”

Book Review-The Art of Insubordination: How to Dissent and Defy Effectively

Insubordination gets a bad reputation – perhaps deservedly so.  However, there are times when insubordination is what we want.  The Art of Insubordination: How to Dissent and Defy Effectively is designed for those times.  We want people to be insubordinate when they’re instructed to do something that’s morally wrong.

In The Lucifer Effect, Philip Zimbardo shares his experience with how people will follow along even when given bad instructions.  (If you believe the flap, this even extends to Zimbardo’s instructions to the “guards” in the Stanford Prison Experiment.)  In Moral Disengagement, Albert Bandura shares his lifetime of work learning why people do what they do and how people can disengage their moral imperatives through perceived authority, the breakdown of tasks, and a lack of awareness.  Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind explains that morality is based on six pillars: the foundations of morality.  One of those is care/harm, and while overriding this moral foundation is possible, it’s thankfully not always easy.

We want insubordination in the face of the immoral and amoral.  However, how do we get it?

Principled Insubordination

Todd Kashdan defines principled insubordination as insubordination designed to improve society with a minimal amount of secondary harm.  This is an important recognition that many of the situations we face are wicked problems.  That is to say, they’re complex systems that are difficult to predict the results of the change and difficult to even define in a way that everyone would agree.

The formula he uses multiplies the degree of deviance from the status quo by the combination of authenticity and contribution – all divided by social pressure.  Authenticity comes from deeply held convictions, contribution is the degree to which it creates social value, and social pressure is the degree to which the system tries to maintain the status quo.

Take the Free Throw Shot

What if I told you that I could increase the accuracy of every basketball player’s free throws?  It doesn’t matter whether the person being helped is an amateur or a professional.  All it takes it to do the “granny” throw – underhanded.  Statistics back up my assertion.  It’s a better way to shoot free throws.  However, almost no one does it.  Why?  The answer is in the perception of the approach.  It’s not seen as cool – and the social pressure to use the overhand approach is too much to break away from.

Sometimes, it’s not the evidence that keeps people using one approach or another.  Sometimes, the point isn’t efficacy.  Sometimes, the point is the appearance.  This makes it difficult to be appropriately disruptive, because even if the data supports your point of view, it can be that people will continue the old, less effective behavior simply because it looks better.

Consider how we put catsup in refrigerators at home but have no qualms about it being on the table at a restaurant or how in the United States we refrigerate our eggs while they’re left out in many other parts of the world.  It would feel wrong to leave the eggs out – even if we know that there is no reason to refrigerate them.  (Don’t do this with eggs purchased in US supermarkets, because the protective cuticle has been washed away.  But if you’re getting your own eggs from your own chickens, it’s safe.)

Old Comfortable Shoes

Most people have the pair of shoes that they know are past their prime.  They’ve served us well but now they’re struggling because of loose stitching, worn soles, or other minor calamities that clearly call for their retirement.  However, if they were comfortable in the past, we’re more likely to hold on to them – whether we wear them or not.  We talk of having them repaired – or we simply ignore their deficiencies.  Their nostalgic value is just too large.

People hold on to their existing, long-standing, nostalgic ways of doing things because of the psychological comfort it offers.  We know what to expect, and we know how to predict the results.  We’re aware that new approaches may lead to better results – or they may lead to worse results, and the chances of a worse outcome are generally just not worth the effort.

Necessary but Not Sufficient

Amy Edmondson has made a lot out of Google’s Project Aristotle, which sought to understand what makes project teams successful – and what prevents teams from success.  The single factor that seemed to be the answer was the idea of psychological safety – that is, the ability to share your thoughts without retribution.  In my review of Edmondson’s book, The Fearless Organization, I was critical of the idea that you could create such an organization, because people would bring their own fears in from home.  In my review of Find Your Courage, I hinted at a reason that The Art of Insubordination drives home.  Studies after Project Aristotle revealed that there was another important ingredient and that is principled insubordination.

Said differently, people needed the courage to do what they felt was right – despite their fear.  Reducing fear by increasing psychological safety was a good start, but it still required that people be willing to stand up for what they felt was important – and that required people have the internal sense of safety as well as the tools to be able to stand up effectively.

It Takes Time

You turn water on for the shower and jump in.  It’s freezing cold despite the fact you have it set to 100% hot.  You jump out frustrated and wondering what’s wrong with your hot-water heater – or do you?  Nearly everyone is used to the fact that the hot water takes a moment to get from the hot-water heater to the shower.  We instinctively reach our hands in and turn the water on before jumping in for this very reason. However, for some reason we expect that just because we’ve shared a better model or some heresy about the current state that people should instantly change.

Heliocentrism – that the Earth revolves around the Sun – first was proposed in the 5th century B.C. by Greek philosophers Philolaus and Hicetas.  Aristarchus of Samos in the 3rd century B.C. codified what we’d call the heliocentric model today.  Nicholas of Cusa started arguing for heliocentrism by 1444.  Leonardo da Vinci observed that “the Sun does not move” before his death in 1519, in direct contrast to the prevailing geocentric model.  Heliocentrism didn’t gain much ground until Copernicus’ publications in 1543.  Galileo Galilei observed the model to be correct in 1610 and was sentenced to house arrest after he made the statements publicly.  It’d take another century and a half before heliocentrism and the Copernican system would be accepted.

Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of being disruptive is the process of waiting for opinions to change, accepting the condemnation of a world that doesn’t understand.  Throughout history, we’ve seen the time frame for important discoveries’ acceptance measured in centuries and decades.  Semmelweis discovered germs in 1847 when the introduction of handwashing began to save lives of mothers and babies.  Though the work of others and the discovery of the specific “particles” that Semmelweis was suggesting, we finally began seeing acceptance of germ theory around the early 1900s.

Consistently Flexible

Much like the Stockdale Paradox, the best way to move the change forward is to balance to opposing ideas.  (See Good to Great for more on the Stockdale Paradox.)  If we want to be successful in winning over the majority, we must be consistent in our explanations and perspectives – without seeming overly inflexible.  We must be open to new ideas and revisions while maintaining the core principles of our beliefs.  This is substantially easier to say than to do.

One tool for maintaining consistency while being open is to start with curiosity.  By remaining curious about the objections, problems, and considerations of what we’re proposing, we show interest, which is helpful in and of itself.  It also allows us to see how small changes might make the suggestions better.

Be an Insider – If You Can

People accept more from insiders than outsiders.  The tricky part is how to be perceived as an insider.  Simple changes like using inclusive pronouns – we vs. I – are a good start, but, more broadly, learning to speak in the language that’s more consistent with the group is helpful as well.  Learning the lexicon in use helps people know that you at least want to be a part of their group – even if you can’t ever be fully in the group.

There’s a problem when people adapt to become different with each group that they’re with.  That’s not what we’re proposing here.  We’re not proposing that you change who you are – just how you communicate.  We use subtle clues to indicate in and out groups with people, so by changing language to match in-group language, we can often subtly change how people perceive us.

Curiosity Not Fear

Any sort of change to the status quo has the potential for negative consequences and therefore fear.  While there are opportunities in change, they’re often lost in the fear.  Our goal for effective change is in creating a sense of curiosity rather than fear.  Creating curiosity can be done in a variety of ways.

Perhaps the simplest approach to generating curiosity is to state the proposal in an odd way.  This often triggers a desire for the person to ensure that they understand what you’re saying, and that curiosity helps them become a co-creator in the new reality rather than a passive recipient of new information – and that creates better reception.

Rebel Lives Can Suck

Just because it’s hard doesn’t make it wrong – but it doesn’t make it right either.  The life of a rebel is hard.  Unlike a paranoid person who believes the world is out to get them, the life of the rebel can often be that people are against you – even if they’re not out to get you.

The lives of explorers are risky.  Some will die.  Some will fail.  Some will see their own people turn against them.  The lives of explorers aren’t the easy path, but many people throughout the course of history have chosen this path either for fame or because of the call towards the unknown is too strong.

For the explorer hacking their way through the forest, it’s slow going and difficult.  For those of us decades or centuries later who are zooming along the roads that are paved along the same paths the explorers traveled, we’re making faster and easier progress.  It’s definitely easier to go with the flow to proceed upon the paved path and the leave the exploring to others.

In the end, we can see the explorers as heroic risk takers – something that we hope that others see when we extend ourselves into the rebel lives.  While they may respect or even revere our efforts, that doesn’t mean that they’ll like us.  Just like we’re unlikely to know the scout or surveyor who laid out the roads that we travel, people traveling the well-worn path aren’t likely to understand those who pave the roads they drive on.

Playing the Long Game

It was a marshmallow that sang the siren song of delayed gratification.  In The Marshmallow Test, Walter Mischell explained how his experiment with preschoolers led to an awareness that delayed gratification could be a life skill that would give them better long-term life prospects.  These children were able to instinctively play the long game when they were offered two marshmallows if they’d just wait for Mischell or his colleagues to return to the room.

Albert Einstein described compound interest as the eighth wonder of the world.  He knew that if you invested a little bit of money and allowed the interest to compound over time, it would become a large sum.  In short, a willingness to accept the long game can be immensely rewarding.  If you’re able to save some rather than spending it, you’ll end up with many times as much as you started with.

We find the world littered with examples of how if we’re able to play the long game, we’ll end up ahead.  That’s what we’re doing when we’re being a rebel.  We’re intentionally working on long-term benefits at the expense of our short-term enjoyment.

Hills to Die On

It’s the World Series of Poker, and you’ve been struggling to draw the cards that you need.  You manage to pull three aces, but there’s the possibility that someone else might have drawn an ace-high straight.  You’ve got four choices.  You can fold assuming the other player got the straight, you can stand pat just letting the pot be driven by others, you can push the pot yourself, or you can push everything you’ve got in.  If you go all-in, you’re either going to win a big pot or you’re going to go home.  The question is – should you go all-in or not?

I’ve not given you enough information to know from the real probabilities about the right answer.  You’ll have to make a gut call.  This is the situation we find ourselves in all the time.  We’ve got insufficient information and an important decision to make.  In life and business, it may not be worth the risk.

The other form of challenges that we face are those for which we have a strong belief or moral value attached.  In these cases, despite the odds, we may find that we need to go all-in and make this a hill to die on – even if it becomes the reason that we’re asked to leave the organization or group.

Forming a Coalition

At the heart of The Art of Insubordination is an unsolvable problem.  That is the problem of forming a coalition.  While there are many works that try to address this problem – they’re incapable of solving it completely.  Digital Habitats speaks about creating digital spaces where communities can form.  Team Genius speaks of the power of teams.  Buy-In offers tips for working those who would resist your changes.

Dating sites compete for people offering low/no-cost membership, research-backed algorithms, and flashy websites and apps.  Yet many people remain single.  Despite being on one or more of the applications, they find themselves unable to find that special person they want to spend the rest of their lives with.  (Statistically, it won’t likely be the rest of their life as Anatomy of Love and Divorce point out.)

Certainly, building a coalition of people willing to rally behind a disruptive change isn’t as difficult as finding a life partner, but the challenge remains the same.  It’s not as easy as it might appear or as people would like it to be.  It’s hard standing alone, so we need others willing to stand with us – but finding them doesn’t have a formula, process, or even a plan.

Vulnerability First, Trust Second

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?  The cheater’s answer is the egg, since reptiles are born from eggs, and they predate the chicken.  However, the core question is, in a cycle that feeds back on itself, where do you start?  The answer is wherever you can.

You can’t start building trust and vulnerability by demanding trust of the other party.  Instead, you’ve got to start with the pieces that you can control.  You start by trusting others knowing that trust is reciprocal.  You become vulnerable, because this leads both to their vulnerability and increasing levels of trust.  You have the power to trust others and to be vulnerable – not (directly) control their trust in you.  (For more on the cycle, see Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revisited.)

False Testimony, Evidence, and Morality

What would you do if you called someone out for their immoral and unethical behavior and their result was to attack you?  This isn’t a rare case.  This is what happens when unethical people are attacked.  Rather than admitting they were wrong, they seek to defend their behaviors.  Change or Die exposes us to the ego’s defenses.  We learned through Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) how people will avoid taking responsibility.  Mastering Logical Fallacies walks through the techniques that people are likely to use to seem logical and rational and at the same time really be basely attacking a person.

Whether you follow Rebels at Work, seek to be one of the Originals, or believe that you should have better Range, there is support for being counter-cultural and an awareness that so many people will resist the change because it makes them uncomfortable.

If you’re going to chose the path of being a disruptor, you might want to do a bit of study to get good at The Art of Insubordination.

Book Review-Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gang

How is it that one boy becomes a Boy Scout Eagle Scout and the other finds their way into a criminal gang?  This is the fundamental question that Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gang seeks to answer.  Parents of children wonder these questions before their children grow up and after their children have sorted their ways into different paths.  Other, more contemporary works, like those of Judith Rich Harris in No Two Alike and The Nurture Assumption, have described their view on the sorting process.  It was Ronald Marris’ Social Forces in Urban Suicide that caused me to pick up the book (published in 1955) to see what we might have lost in our understanding of how people end up dedicating their life to a disruptive counter-culture – and how others do not.

Delinquency Definition

Delinquency is, at its core, counter cultural.  It eschews the standards of “social convention.”  (See Choosing Civility, The Righteous Mind, and Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order for more about social conventions and their influence.)  Cohen in Delinquent Boys describes the subculture as “non-utilitarian, malicious, and negativistic.”  That is, the behaviors seem to have no utility, are seen by the traditional culture as malicious, and generally have a negative view.

In so much as delinquency is counter-cultural and malicious it is seen by most as amoral.  (See The Righteous Mind and Moral Disengagement for more on morality.)  However, it would be more accurate to say that it operates on a different set of moral values.

The Desire for Status

Delinquents have not or cannot find status in the traditional culture.  They don’t fall into a category or class that has the kind of recognition and status that they desire.  They’re not the jocks.  They’re not the nerds.  They’re not the kind of kids that go to college.  Their frustrated attempts to find a way to achieve status leads them to a group where their willingness to be malicious is enough to earn them that status.  (See Who Am I? and The Normal Personality for more about 16 different motivators, including status.)

In this context, rules aren’t just to be ignored or even evaded.  Rules are to be flouted.  It’s the fact that they’re willing to openly defy rules that creates their status in the eyes of others.  Being just ornery is ordinary; they’ve got to do something to stand out from their delinquent friends.

Here and Now

Another characteristic of delinquents is their prepotency of short-run hedonism.  That is, they are focused on their current desires for pleasures with little interest in long-term consequences.  (See The Time Paradox for more on different ways of viewing time.)  This can easily be caused by a lack of belief that they’ll be able to reap the rewards of any long-term planning.  For those who have had too many adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), it may be difficult for them to see the stability necessary for long-term rewards.  (See How Children Succeed for more on ACEs.)

Delinquent Psychology

Let’s cut to the chase.  What are they thinking?  That’s what everyone wants to know.  There isn’t a single answer but instead there are a few generalizations that we can make.

First, their sense of self-esteem is unstable.  That is, they’re always struggling for status and approval.  Because of this, when their self-esteem is threatened, their ego’s defenses are automatically engaged.  (See Change or Die for more about The Ego and Its Defenses.)  A typical reaction is anger.  Anger, in Eastern traditions, is disappointment directed.  Disappointment is a judgement of something that missed the prediction or the standard.  (You can find more about this in my post, Conflict: Anger.)

However, anger isn’t the only outward sign of the struggle to maintain the façade of a positive self-esteem.  I explained in my post How to Be Yourself how projecting one image is difficult to maintain, like holding a gallon of milk out to your side.  Coupled with an inability to admit vulnerability, this creates a situation where the “boy” continuously struggles to be or do something that isn’t naturally possible.

While Delinquent Boys put on the airs of being immune to the kinds of hurts that others readily acknowledge, the truth is that they are often cut more deeply by them.  They believe that showing reaction to these hurts means they’re weak, and their culture won’t accept that.  We know that, for physical healing to occur, we need to provide the right conditions.  In many cases, that means either avoiding use or specifically targeting use of the injured part of our body.  We apply casts and define exercise regimens.  However, in the case of the hurts that occur in the Delinquent Boys, they can’t acknowledge the hurts or shape the way they move forward and grow.  (See Antifragile for more about how to recover better from hurts.)

Red vs. Blue

It is a common game.  Red teams are the aggressors, and blue teams are the defenders.  Whether the game is one of cyberwarfare or not, the teams are set up in direct conflict, and Richard Hackman’s work says that the red teams – whether they are less experienced or not – are more likely to be successful.  In Collaborative Intelligence, he explains both the situational and team dynamics that influence the success of each group.  Red teams are effective in part because they define themselves with an objective, where blue teams can only define themselves by not failing.  It turns out that defining yourself with what you’re not isn’t effective.

Delinquent boys are defining themselves with the idea that they’re not something.  They’re not the norm.  They’re not the establishment.  They’re not the suburban preppy kids.  They’re not going to be the hardworking folks that others step all over.  They’re different.  This has some utilitarian value.  It means that, if they fail, it’s trivial for their ego to deflect by saying whatever they failed at wasn’t important anyway.  However, because they can’t define themselves with a single thing, it’s hard to be successful at anything.

What does a motorcycle manufacturer with a poor track record in just about every aspect that one would want in a motorcycle company do to salvage its business?  Associate its brand with a culture of rebels.  Our desire to address under-addressed aspects of our personality is a powerful force.  Accountants and businessmen wanted to express their inner rebel, and Harley Davidson was there to help them do just that.  Instead of fixing reliability, they fixed their image in everyone’s mind that to own a Harley Davidson was to signal to the rest of the world that you’re a rebel.

The problem is that while “rebel” can be a part of your personality, it fails as a core part of a personality.  Being contrary to just be contrary doesn’t work in the long run.  You can’t anchor your identity to the idea of having no anchors.  So, Delinquent Boys are left adrift without anything to hold on to.

Counting “Nots”

A counselor once told me that you could tell when someone wasn’t saying anything real by counting the number of “nots” in their conversation.  Broadening this slightly to include other forms of negation, I realized that when someone says they want something, but they keep explaining it by providing negative examples, they either don’t clearly understand what it is they want – or they’re actively trying to prevent the person who they’re talking to from getting there.  This subtle form of manipulation is shame-inducing.

The person who is receiving the negative-laden explanation has no model to work from and therefore must continue trying random (or semi-random) approaches to address the need – only to be told that this, too, isn’t right.  The result is often demoralization and the feeling that you’ll never get things right.  In fact, in some cases this may be the point.

This is just one example of how trying to define in the negative doesn’t work – whether it’s intentional manipulation or simply because of attempts to define oneself by what we are not.

Unique – But Not Too Unique (Optimal Distinctiveness Theory)

We have inherent need to be accepted by others.  It’s wired into our evolution.  Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, explains that we survived to become the dominant biomass on the planet not from strength but from our ability to be social.  We know that when we’re standing on our own – rather than as a part of a group – we’re at substantially greater risk.  In historic times, being expelled from a community was likely a death sentence.  Individually, we’re weak.  Together, we’re strong, and that leads to our strong desire to be accepted by others.  However, that’s not the only force deep in our psyche that struggles to bubble up into our feelings, beliefs, and behaviors.

The other engine that drives us is our need for uniqueness.  We believe that we must be different – and ideally better—than others.  We don’t want to feel like we could be replaced by someone else.  That’s why it stings to hear that a former employer or a former lover has replaced you too quickly.  It’s the loss of our feelings of uniqueness.  However, uniqueness requires difference – and too much difference means that we can’t be accepted.

We know that people accept others that are like themselves.  If you become too different, and distinguishable from them, you threaten the ability to be accepted.  The result is that we try to find the narrow path between acceptance and uniqueness.  This has been called “optimal distinctiveness.”

The key problem with optimal distinctiveness is that it necessitates that the problem is a wicked problem.  No two people will define the need for and the appropriate degree of individualization the same way.  (See Dialogue Mapping for more.)  Ultimately, there is no solution to how to be optimally unique and at the same time conforming.  It’s one of the key challenges of life for all of us.

School Shootings

It was Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado.  It ignited a series of school shooting massacres.  It was also not the first time the perpetrators had made themselves known as delinquents.  Eric Harris’ blog had detailed his interest in harming others and some of his escapades with Dylan Klebold.  Both pled guilty to felony theft and were sent to a juvenile diversion program.  That was 16 months before the massacre.

Numerous others have followed in Eric and Dylan’s infamous footsteps, and more than we know have tried and were thwarted.  No Easy Answers walks through the Columbine Massacre and seeks to help us understand how bullying and a desire to feel strong created a situation that left Eric and Dylan believing their only option was to become powerful through a massacre.

Shifting the Blame

Delinquents have gotten quite fully into what Leadership and Self-Deception and The Anatomy of Peace would describe as a box.  Inside the box, people’s vulnerability drives them to behaviors that are inconsistent with their beliefs and harmful to others.  Eric and Dylan weren’t from bad families.  On the outside, their values would seem to be that of any other child.  However, it turns out that they found ways to do the unspeakable.  They managed to disengage their morality.  (See Moral Disengagement for more.)

Following the Columbine Massacre, both Eric and Dylan were vilified, a reasonable response to people having lost their children or friends as a result of the rage.  What they didn’t effectively do is ask what conditions were in place which allowed these boys to become this way.  Certainly, there is the role of the parents, the community, and the school.  However, what about the environment is key such that so many copycats have followed them?  Perhaps it’s their feelings of shame at the hands of unchecked bullies.  Perhaps it’s something else.

We know that people resist accepting the blame for the situations that they create.  Delinquent Boys are no exception.  Without granting innocence or shifting the blame, how can we look back into their past to see what conditions preceded their delinquency?  Maybe you can find the answer in a nearly 70-year-old book about Delinquent Boys.

Book Review-No Easy Answers: The Truth Behind Death at Columbine High School

It has been identified as the sentinel event.  The book No Easy Answers: The Truth Behind Death at Columbine High School is an exposition and review of the events leading up to the Columbine Massacre as well as the aftermath of the event.  I started reading the book not because of the latest school shooting but instead because it offered potential clues to explaining unexplainable behaviors.  In the more than 20 years that have followed the event, much has been written and considered – perhaps among the tragedy, there might be some value.

No Easy Answers

In the wake of the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas, some were calling for finding resolutions to the school shooting epidemic.  Depending upon their particular political beliefs, the focus of the call to action was on mental health, gun control, or better school safety.  What troubled me quite quickly was the look for an easy answer.

At Columbine, it would be easy to dismiss Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as deranged psychopaths, products of a hostile environment and poor upbringing.  However, having been to the Denver, Colorado suburb of Littleton that surrounds Columbine, the environment is anything but hostile.  By all accounts, both Eric and Dylan’s parents weren’t cruel or neglectful.  In fact, their parents would easily be considered above par in terms of creating home environments and engaging with their children.  Clearly, Eric and Dylan’s actions betray psychopathy – but how did this happen?

It’s not the case that they were just two “bad apples.”  Instead, we’ve got to look more carefully at the environment, the situation, the signs, and the gaps that allowed them to slip through.  As I explain in Fractal Along the Edges, things aren’t what they first appear.

The Environment

Judith Rich Harris, in The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike, walks through the mechanisms that can cause two children born to the same parents and in the same environment to differ in the trajectories of their lives.  To blame the parents ignores the external factors over which the parents have no control.  To blame the parents either burdens them with having produced genetically damaged offspring – which isn’t truth – or to distort their home lives to fit a freakish version of the truth.

But if we absolve the parents of responsibility – which I’m not completely advocating – who is left?  What in the environment might contribute to the awful tragedy?


The news is littered with the tragedy of students who take their own life because of the bullying that they receive – both physical and emotional.  Often, the bullying that these lost souls experienced went unreported.  Somewhere, they’d learned that they’d be blamed for the bullying.  They’d be told they’re weak, and they needed to just “suck it up.”  The authorities weren’t going to do anything about it anyway.  They’d only make things worse.  Whether these perceptions are true or only fears given inappropriate legitimacy, they exist in the minds of many of those who found themselves at the hands of bullies.

The same forces that drive some to give up and take their own life can drive the desire for revenge and rampage.  (See The Suicidal Mind for more on the connection.)  The forces that make someone feel weak and unprotected cause them to find their way towards strength and self-protection.

At the heart of bullying lies two concepts.  First is that someone is better than another.  That is, their position in the society grants them special privileges.  The second is that “might makes right.”

Social Hierarchy

The animal kingdom is practically built on social hierarchy.  We find that some animals are perceived as leaders, and they are therefore granted special privileges.  The interesting question is what leads us to the coveted top of the hierarchy and what are the rewards that come with this social status.  In the animal kingdom, this is mostly strength and ability to fight.  However, as humans, we’re not the strongest, nor do we have the fiercest set of natural attacks, as Jonathan Haidt points out in The Righteous Mind.  What we do have is the ability to work together and our intelligence.  However, when you’re fighting your way to the top of the social hierarchy, how does this work?

In high schools like Columbine, the social hierarchy is driven in part by the kind of athletics you participate in.  The better your position and performance in a respected sport, the better your reputation, both with the other students and with the staff.  Football quarterbacks and starting centers get the highest spots in the hierarchy, where the captains of the chess and the debate team are less highly regarded.

This isn’t all bad, as Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers explains that stress can accompany not knowing your place in the social hierarchy.  However, it also explains that when those on the top of the hierarchy aren’t happy, they tend to take out their frustrations on those who are lower in the hierarchy than they are.

Might Makes Right

Historically, at the micro-level, physical prowess provided a mechanism for extracting pleasure from the infliction of shame and pain on the unfortunate souls who happen to be within range of the wrath.  The goal of this superficially is pleasure.  However, if Jonathan Haidt is right, this goes against one of the most powerful foundations of our morality: care vs. harm.  He explains in The Righteous Mind that there are six foundations of morality, including care/harm and authority/subversion, and we each value the foundations differently.

It’s challenging, because it’s necessary to practice Moral Disengagement in order to feel safe.  The capricious nature of the harm caused to others is intended to instill sufficient fear that people don’t – or rarely – directly challenge you.  It’s much easier to portray the illusion of strength when others are afraid to challenge you – constantly battling others can drain even the strongest.

I should be careful to say that I’m not condoning the behavior of attacking those lower on the social hierarchy – far from it.  I am saying that this is the normal order of things in the animal kingdom and unfortunately in “polite society” – it’s just the approaches changed.  In Reinventing Organizations, Fredrick LaLoux explains the evolution of organizations, from those only a half-step removed from physically beating people into submission to the more enlightened environments designed to encourage everyone.

Historically, history was written by the victors.  They were in power and controlled the narrative around what happened.  Thus, those who had the power shaped the way they were seen in the eyes of the populace.  While the world has now changed, as movements like Arab Spring have shown, we still must accept that much in our history books is near fiction.


When we speak about burnout, we explain that it has three defining characteristics: exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.  (See Extinguish Burnout for free resources on burnout.)  What’s important here is that cynicism is an outcome.  It’s the outcome of feeling like you can no longer make a difference.  It’s a sort of resignation that all you can do is complain.

Some people reach this conclusion through a feeling of powerlessness.  They believe that they’re not strong enough to do anything.  These are the same sorts of people that become the best in their fields.  Anders Ericsson explains in Peak that people become motivated to get better, do the work, and focus on getting better.  In The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin explains his rise to the top of both the chess and martial arts worlds – including his psychological struggles.  Being the best is hard.  For some, giving up is never an answer; for too many others, it seems like the only option.

Direct competition isn’t the only way that people are confronted with reasons why they’re powerless.  In America’s Generations, Chuck Underwood explains how Generation X grew up with a growing awareness of how the world systems that we should trust were broken and corrupted.  From the Oval Office to the board room, the system was rigged against us – and there was nothing we could do about it.  It’s no wonder Generation X is one of the most cynical.

When you mix a deep sense that the system is rigged against you, constant bullying and belittling, a pressure from others to change the world, and the power that can be found in the form of guns and explosions, you’ve got the recipe for a massacre.


In the United States, we believe in the right to bear arms.  We believe that we can enhance our power by wielding a gun.  It’s the way that we see our heroes in movies overcome their enemies, and it’s an accepted part of our lives as well.  Many of those who enter the debate hold a strong opinion about guns.  Either they believe that the government is slowly out to erode or minimize these rights to have guns, or they believe that guns are the root of all evil and should be banned from existence.

The sparring goes back and forth between statistics that show more lax gun laws result in more gun-related deaths.  The opposition counters that this is only true when suicide isn’t factored out.  They recognize that suicide is the most common death due to guns, not murder.  They also counter that many guns are obtained illegally – as those used in the Columbine massacre were.  Albert Bandura shares his point of view in Moral Disengagement, where he comes down on the side of more gun control and less violence on TV.

Entertaining Violence

Another of the easy targets for the cause of violence was the entertainment industry: movies, music, and monstrous games.  Eric had been fascinated with the movie, Natural Born Killers, music by Insane Clown Posse, and created levels for the computer game, Doom.  Surely one of the was to blame for the massacre.  It’s a short distance from seeing violence and performing violence, right?  Not exactly.  Bandura is famous for his Bobo doll experiment, which proved that children could learn social norms by watching others.

However, the work of Erik Erikson in Childhood and Society explains that children should have developed the ability to discern fantasy from the real world well before Eric and Dylan were exposed to violence in the media.  No Easy Answers explains how the Klebold family intentionally shielded their children from violence, including the uneasiness about the children purchasing the game Mortal Kombat.  (For more about why Bandura’s perspective may not be right, check out The Blank Slate.)

The Reality of Television

While television was blamed as a part of the concern for the entertainment industry’s part, what was overlooked was the actual factual news that was being reported.  It’s one thing to look at movies and television shows and see actors portraying violence.  It’s another to realize that your president had oral sex in the Oval Office with an intern and got away with it.  It’s more than the fantasy violence that contributes to the situation.  It’s the real events that we see are allowing people to escape justice.  In America’s Generations, Chuck Underwood explains how there are milestones that shape each generation.  Generation X was shaped by mistrust of people, politicians, and the power of corporations.

We didn’t have reality television to the extent that it’s prevalent today, but television was still a mirror of our culture.  Where the television didn’t intrude was into the homes of those families where children were abused, and that, too, we discovered.  We saw that people who should protect children weren’t – they were the villains in the story, not the heroes – and it confused everything.

Bottled Emotion

When it comes to emotions, the illusion that we can ignore them is fading.  We’re beginning to realize that we can’t bottle emotions up.  We can’t turn them off.  We’re as much emotional beings as we are rational beings – if not more.  Jonathan Haidt explains in his Elephant-Rider-Path model that reason is a tiny human on top of a massive elephant.  (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch.)  Lisa Feldman Barrett in How Emotions Are Made explains some of the hidden processes that we go through to form emotions – and the power they hold on us after they’re formed.

The challenge was that Eric and Dylan were bottling those emotions – painful emotions – up.  As a result, they were emotional pressure vessels that were just waiting to explode.  When Eric’s grip on the difference between fantasy and reality waned just a little, it was all that was necessary to ignite the explosion.

Doing the Right Thing

What’s the right answer?  Certainly, not allowing others to be victimized and bullied is a good start.  However, at the heart of the matter is a complex interaction between dozens of forces, only some of which are visible.  This leads us back to the reality that there are No Easy Answers.  We may never know the real “truth” about Columbine.

Recent Posts

Public Speaking