Book Review-The Culture Puzzle: Harnessing the Forces That Drive Your Organization’s Success

It truly is a puzzle.  What makes some organizations stellar and others barely able to keep their doors open?  How do you fit the pieces of an organization together to survive in this VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world?  These are the questions that The Culture Puzzle: Harnessing the Forces that Drive Your Organization’s Success wants to answer.

Tribes

Seth Godin wrote a whole book on tribes, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, which explains how tribes form and what it takes to get them moving.  However, another key concern for organizations is just how many tribes they have inside their walls.  Organizations, particularly those that grew through acquisition, find that they have different tribes in their organization, each with their own goals, rather than one big tribe in which everyone in the organization is a member.

When the Skunk Works was started at Lockheed, it was intentionally separated from the main organization.  What Kelley Johnson was trying to do needed to be different to succeed.  He intentionally created a new culture to replace the fragmented cultures that existed in the main organization.  Inside of the Lockheed walls were multiple cultures.  Engineers and machinists all had their own tribes – and they didn’t really get along with the other tribe.  Kelley Johnson wanted something different.  He wanted one Skunk Works tribe that had a singular mission, not competing tribes.  (See Skunk Works for more.)

Shared Vision

The challenge of multiple tribes inside an organization can be the result of different histories and training, or it can be a failure for the leadership to establish a shared vision.  It can be that, in the absence of a compelling shared vision, individuals and teams have been forced to define their own visions – and that results in different tribes.

It’s like a climb up a mountain to find a guru.  Leadership teams head out to strategic retreats where they believe with the help of their skillful facilitator, they’ll discover the hidden meaning for the organization.  With this knowledge firmly placed in their brains, they believe – incorrectly – that they need just to share the epiphany, and all will be good.  Everyone will instantly share their vision.

There are numerous problems with this shared delusion.  In fact, the delusion is shared more than the sense of the shared vision of the strategy.  Too often, strategies devolve into platitudes that mean nothing.  (See The Fifth Discipline for the challenges of using platitudes.)  It turns out that everyone has a slightly different view of the strategy that was created, and the result is that when the message is communicated to the rest of the organization, these differences in understanding are amplified.

Absolutely Necessary

Instead of the shared behaviors that the organization desires, we are left with behaviors that are perceived to be minimally necessary instead of those of an engaged team striving for the same goals.  The behaviors that drove the Skunk Works’ stunning success are noticeably absent as sharing is only done when it’s believed that there is no other alternative.

Trading is one of the keys to organizational life.  Influence Without Authority explains that no one ever has enough authority to accomplish everything they want to accomplish, so they have to do it through influence, and one of the best ways to do that is to capitalize on the law of reciprocity.  Quid pro quo is the law of the land, and it means that to encourage success, you’ve got to encourage cooperation.

Robert Axelrod ran a contest of computer programs to see which strategy would achieve the best outcomes.  It was patterned on the prisoner’s dilemma: two criminals are captured, and if they rat out their compatriot, they’ll get a shorter sentence – unless their compatriot rats them out, too.  Clearly the best case is for both parties to cooperate, but there’s always the risk that the other party will defect.  The results of his contest showed that tit-for-tat was the winner.  Starting by cooperating and then doing whatever the other program did on the last turn yielded the best result.  In short, if we want to be successful, we need to cooperate.  (See The Evolution of Cooperation for more.)

Francis Fukuyama expresses the same need for sharing in Trust: The Social Virtues and The Creation of Prosperity from the lens of our need to trust one another.  If we can’t trust each other to be cooperative, then we aren’t going to be as agile or as effective.

Never An Open Office in the Mind

I shared my concerns about the open office concept when Richard Sheridan promoted it in his book Joy, Inc.  I shared in my review of How Buildings Learn that many others, including Steward Brand, were concerned about open offices as well.  It turns out that open offices aren’t really what people want.  Even Les Nessman in the classic WKRP in Cincinnati knew the value of having a space with walls.

What we know about open office spaces is that people attempt to construct walls in their minds to compensate for the walls that are missing in their environment.  They work to create a safe space where they can work uninterrupted.  Sometimes they’re successful and can enter flow – and sometimes they’re not.  (See Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman for more on flow.)

Cooperation and Competition

When I was younger, Jack Welch, and his meteoric leadership of GE, was all the rage.  He recommended placing groups and even individuals in competition with each other.  The competition for ranking and resources was a part of the game.  The problem is we’ve seen that this strategy no longer works today.  Employees want to feel safe.  (See The Fearless Organization for more.)  The management strategies that Welch used left him with the nickname Neutron Jack (after the neutron bomb, which kills living things and leaves infrastructure intact).  As Fredrick LaLoux explains in Reinventing Organizations, organizations are changing in the way they’re led and the way they’re managed.

Today, few people would recommend having people or groups internal to an organization competing with another.  Some haven’t made a full transition to cooperating and have stopped at a sort of midpoint – coopetition – which is a mixture of both cooperation and competition.  However, the research points to cooperation being more effective than competition in most situations.

Inspiration and Work

Inspiration has a lore surrounding it.  The idea is that the best works that have ever been created have been the result of inspiration.  Inspiration is certainly a positive feeling.  It drops someone into flow and gets them to create some of their best work.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  Inspiration is a definite part of the creation of great works.  However, the problem is that inspiration is few, fleeting, and fickle.

Pasteur said that “chance favors the prepared.”  In short, things that look like luck and inspiration come most frequently to those who have put in the work to take advantage of these opportunities.  Work for a better culture, work to collaborate, and just work in general increases the chances that you and your organization will be able to assemble The Culture Puzzle.

Book Review-Definition of Suicide

It’s hard to address something that you don’t have a clear definition of.  That’s why Edwin Schneidman wrote Definition of Suicide.  He’s not the only person to tackle this definitional challenge, but he may be the person with the most experience.

A Rainbow of Colors

There have been numerous taxonomic approaches to suicide that often describe the lethality of the method chosen and the degree to which the suicide was intended.  The Neuroscience of Suicidal Behavior tackles the problem with these as well as the degree of planning involved.  However, as was highlighted there, there is invariably a continuum that things fall on that are difficult to distinguish.  For instance, what differentiates a parasuicide from a suicide?

More frustratingly, intent is very hard to infer and is therefore a dimension of great question, as Assessment and Prediction of Suicide reveals.  Schneidman’s own The Suicidal Mind explains that he believes communication of intent is a part of suicide.  (Since then, several others have questioned the percentage of people who do communicate their intent.  In particular, see Rethinking Suicide.)

Durkheim

Emile Durkheim is at the root of suicide research – but sort of accidentally.  His primary interest, it seems, was the application of statistics to public health concerns.  It turns out that one of the examples that he used was suicide.  As the first work of its sort, it is something that everyone comes back to – and unfortunately replicates.

Bacon’s Idols

Francis Bacon, whose scientific method helped to crystalize science, also wrote of philosophical works.  One aspect of those works that Schneidman calls out is the concept of idols – or sources of bias in our thinking.  Bacon’s idols, as explained by Schneidman, are:

  • Idols of the Tribe (Idola Tribus). These are fallacies that accrue to humanity in general.
  • Idols of the Cave (Idola Specus). These are errors peculiar to the particular mental makeup of each individual.
  • Idols of the Market Place (Idola Fori). These are errors arising in the mind from the influence of words, especially words that are names for such non-existent things as “mind” or “soul.”
  • Idols of the Theater (Idola Theatri). These are erroneous modes of thinking resulting from uncritically accepting whole systems of philosophy or from fallacious methods of demonstrating empirical proof.

 

These are perhaps some of the earliest views on cognitive biases.  It’s how we see things differently than they really (or objectively) are.  (See Why Are We Yelling and Thinking, Fast and Slow for more about cognitive biases.)

A Time for Dreaming

Death and sleep are often compared as relatives – sometimes as close cousins, and other times as siblings.  Sleep brings us relief, a chance to stall our pain and dream of happier times – either in the future or the past.  With the close relationship between death and sleep, it’s possible to see how some might desire death as both an ending of their current pain and, in a warped sense, how it might give them a chance to live the life of their dreams.  It’s possible to see how it seems more desirable.

The overlooked item, in the cognitive constriction of suicide, is that sleep returns to wake where death does not return to life.  While a decision to sleep is temporary, a decision to die is irreversible.

Not Quite Human

A challenge with some who die by suicide (or attempt) is that they feel somehow less than human and therefore undeserving of the grace and love that all mankind should show to one another.  In Moral Disengagement, Albert Bandura explains the need to make people less human to be able to inflict harm on them.  Phillip Zimbardo expresses a similar perspective in The Lucifer Effect.  What if suicide isn’t murder in the 180 degree, as Menninger suggests in Man Against Himself?  What if the thing that’s turned against someone is their belief in their humanity?  Schneidman shares one example where someone describes herself as an “it” or a “thing.”  Those sorts of descriptors minimize her own humanness.

The situation that created those feelings were stories I’ve heard before.  Pregnancies that were initially twins where one died in utero, and the parents told the surviving daughter that she killed her sister.  Another case where a father openly told his son that he should have peed inside his mother.  The list of these harmful parental responses to children is long, and unfortunately, the outcomes aren’t good.

Who Needs the Afterlife?

Sidestepping the topic of who God is, what our purpose is, and all of the religiously entangled parts, there’s an interesting question about who needs an afterlife if the life here is better.  Of course, whether you believe you’re coming back as a cow or you’re going to heaven, there’s no need to dislodge that belief.  But a more interesting question is one about what we can do now, regardless of our beliefs about afterlife.  What can we do to improve how we treat other humans such that we want them less harm?

Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind proposes that we all have the same foundations of morality, the first of which is care/harm.  In short, we believe in more care and less harm.  However, despite this framework and the work of Robert Axelrod that confirms our cooperation isn’t an accident, and in fact is part of the Evolution of Cooperation, we find that too many people are suffering.

Improving someone’s condition even a little bit will help them make a different decision than suicide.  Instead of feeling hopeless, the improvement switches on The Hope Circuit and allows them to see that things can get better – since their degree of cognitive constriction may prevent that without a spark of hope.

Loneliness

In The Psychology of Hope, C.R. Snyder explains that hope is composed of two components: willpower and waypower.  There’s an aspect of this that he doesn’t address directly, which is the degree to which you believe the rest of the world is friendly or hostile.  In a hostile world, someone is always trying to prevent your success, while a helpful world is constantly trying to help you achieve your goals.  (This is the work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, and you can find more in The Secret Lives of Adults.)

However, even with a helpful view, you can get stuck in feelings of loneliness, which prevent the connection necessary to expect the world is helpful.  In Loneliness, it’s explained that loneliness is different than the state of being alone.  It’s about that sense of connection – and it can be critical.

The more we can help people who are feeling lonely feel more connected, the better off we all are – whether they’re suicidal or not.

Bankruptcy

Another way to envision suicide is that it’s declaring bankruptcy on life.  It’s the decision that you can’t make it better and you want to give up.  While this is tragic from the person’s point of view, it’s more complicated from the point of view of the others their life impacts.  Specifically, it means that people who knew the person feel as if their memories and experience with the suicidal person are somehow less important – at least less important to them.  They may even believe that the suicide invalidates their beliefs.

It’s easy to speak of the logical pieces of the situation.  Their pain.  The cognitive constriction that prevented them from seeing these memories.  However, that doesn’t help the hurting survivor who wonders what they could have done or why their perception of things was so different.

In the end, there may not be a suitable Definition of Suicide, it turns out we each may need to understand it in our own way.

Book Review-Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body

For the most part, popular psychology isn’t exactly positive on your ability to really change your core personality, your default way of being.  Sure, it accepts that you can learn new coping skills and occasionally better ways of responding emotionally, but for the most part, the assumption is that your core personality is set.  This runs in stark contrast to the research about neural plasticity.  Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body explains – with science – how our perception of things that are unchangeable may be changeable after all.

It’s a Mindset

In mainstream psychology, there are some acceptable conversations.  Carol Dweck explains that a difference in Mindset results in a difference in performance and the way that people respond to setbacks.  Anders Ericsson explains in Peak how the top of many professions got there through purposeful practice and how their brains are different because of their work.  Because this work is founded on traditional psychological and performance principles, there is relatively little push-back.  Even the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on flow, despite his observations of 5x performance and lasting effects, isn’t all that controversial.  (See Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman for more on flow.)  Again, coming from a Western point of view, it’s largely accepted, like the medical machines that make the observations of the brain possible.

However, when it comes to the topic of meditation and mindfulness, there’s skepticism.  That’s particularly true if we rewind the clock 50 years or so and see how these ideas were shunned in the United States.  To be fair, there were charlatans and “snake oil salesmen” who sought to make money with no proof that anything they were selling actually worked and, perhaps in more than a few cases, a dim awareness that it didn’t.  Altered Traits is a walk through the research about how different forms of meditation and mindfulness have demonstrated efficacy in clinical trials and how the effects may be lasting – or even mind-altering.

Mindfulness and Meditation

In the interest of providing a framework for the remainder of the conversation, it’s important that I pause to say that “meditation” is a catch-all word for a variety of contemplative practices.  One of those is mindfulness – that is, the process of observing whatever comes to mind without any reactivity.  They’re observed and let go.  Other forms of contemplative practices are designed to focus on something – including a process like a body scan or breathing.  In those times focus is lost, the distracting thought is acknowledged and let go.

Because there are different forms of meditation, each of them seems to have different results in impacting our neural patterns.  That’s why research into the impact of these practices is often focused on a specific technique, so it’s possible to measure the impacts of that specific process.

That’s complicated somewhat by the fact that the techniques used by meditators varies with experience.  More advanced techniques are used by the meditators with the most experience, making it difficult to compare the results of the more fundamental forms over long periods of time.

After Enlightenment, Chop Wood

Collaborating with the Enemy quotes an ancient proverb: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.  After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”  The point is that while enlightenment may be a desirable goal, you return to the same life you left.  Or do you?  Heraclitus said that “no man ever steps in the same river twice.”  Meaning the river has changed and the man has changed – but changed how?

Those who had the experience of peace – or the high — that can come from a retreat or focused practice still realize that “after the high goes, you’re still the same schmuck you were before.”  But the research in Altered Traits seems to show that that’s not entirely true.  Much like Heraclitus’ man and river, it can be that the changes are so subtle that they don’t even register – but over time, they can make a big difference.

The After Is the Before for the Next During

The continued cycle of improvement is what the complicated statement “the after is the before for the next during” means.  Said differently, whatever skills, experience, and capabilities you developed during this meditation you bring with you to the next one, making it possible for it to be easier, deeper, or better.  Of course, there’s no straight-line improvement, but repetition makes it easier.

One of the key skills of the advanced meditators is the capacity to settle their minds quickly – on demand.  While average or moderate experience meditators may take a few minutes to settle down, the expert meditators seem to flow into it as quickly an easily as stepping into the next room.  I can’t share this experience with meditation – but I can share it with flow.

Most of my career has been built on the need to get into flow – in different situations.  Sometimes, it’s writing code.  Sometimes, it’s writing books, articles, or blog posts.  Sometimes, it’s presenting in front of thousands of people or facilitating a group of ten leaders.  They’re all different environments where I must get into flow to be effective.  In The Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler brushes the way that various athletes push themselves into flow.  For me, it’s a sort of mental trick normally accompanied by very familiar and very loud music.  Once I’ve dropped into flow, I instinctively turn the music down.  I’ve had to drive myself into flow so frequently that it generally – but not always – comes easily.

Eudaimonia

It was Aristotle’s word for flourishing, fulfillment, accomplishment, or well-being.  It’s the positive in positive psychology.  (See Positive Psychotherapy: Clinician Manual, The Hope Circuit, or Flourish for more.)  The aims of positive psychology and the spiritual-philosophical roots of meditation are well aligned.  The aim to move beyond human suffering to compassion or loving-kindness.

There are many nudges in the Eastern tradition that the goal of enlightenment or even fruits of meditation shouldn’t be for yourself.  The goal of the practice shouldn’t be because you’ll benefit yourself but rather the benefits should be something positive for humanity.  In other words, not just flourishing for oneself but flourishing for all mankind.

Focus on Others’ Suffering to Forget your Troubles

When you help others – when you care for others – you forget your own troubles and concerns.  Atul Gawande in Being Mortal explains that something as simple as a plant can reduce mortality of those living in senior centers.  Twelve-step groups have known for some time that the best way to get someone through their addiction is to get them serving others quickly.  Like in meditative practices, you’re encouraged to find a coach with more experience than you – in twelve-step terminology, a sponsor.  However, twelve-step groups take it further when they encourage you to take on a mentee.

Aaron T. Beck, whose work on cognitive behavior therapy and depression is the cornerstone of treatments today, is credited with first saying that when you focus on someone else’s suffering, you forget your own troubles.  This is true – but with the caveat that this may not always be the best answer.

Sometimes, people use their focus on others’ problems to look down on them – or to avoid dealing with the issues at the heart of their troubles, and this can ultimately cause more pain and suffering than had they just dealt with their own issues first.  It’s a delicate balance.

The First Person to Benefit from Compassion

Who is the first person to benefit from your compassion?  The answer is you, according to the Dalai Lama.  It’s the opposite of harboring anger for someone else.  In The Road Less Travelled, Scott Peck explains that harboring anger is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die.  Harboring compassion, however, is hoping that others benefit from you taking vitamins.  We develop compassion for others’ benefit and in turn reap some of the rewards.

They Are All One

When Neem Karoli was asked which path (approach to meditation) was best, his answer was “Sub ek!” – Hindi for “They are all one.”  Though various approaches differ and have aspects that are more focused in one direction or another, ultimately, all the roads lead to the same place.  It’s a place where people are better people.  That’s probably the best way to think about Altered Traits – better people.

Book Review-The Long Interview: Qualitative Research Methods

It’s easy to get wrapped up in big data, AI, and quantitative approaches to research and forget that there’s another dimension to research that is just as important as – if not more important than – the numbers that we seem to be driven by.  The Long Interview (part of the Qualitative Research Methods Series) is one approach to qualitative research that can provide a semi-structured approach leading to important answers.

Qualitative Methods

Quantitative methods use large numbers and provide calculations and statistical formula to produce results that can quantify what is happening – but they’re unable to explain why.  Qualitative research methods flank the quantitative methods, being used both before quantifying metrics to define what to capture and after quantitative results are seen when there’s a need to explain them.

In the pre-quantitative mode, qualitative methods like ethnographic interviews (see The Ethnographic Interview), participant observations, focus groups, or in-depth interviews – and to some extent The Long Interview – can create an understanding of a topic area, which can be used to structure questions and collection of data that should be meaningful.  In these cases, qualitative methods ensure that what is captured and analyzed is relevant – it matters – and is accurate – it’s free of unnecessary ambiguity.

Conversely, the same methods can be focused on a specific result or situation for the purposes of exposing why the results are what they are.  Can’t explain why you can’t convert leads?  Qualitative approaches can help you figure out why.  You’re seeing a spike in sales in one region and want to replicate it?  Qualitative approaches can help you identify why sales are spiking to see if it can be replicated.

Where quantitative methods involve rows and columns of numbers, qualitative approaches ultimately center around conversations, many of which may be one-on-one.  Ultimately, it’s a short-term relationship between an interviewer and a respondent.

Waterfall and Iterative

There has been an ongoing discussion in the software development profession for three decades now – not quite half the lifetime of the profession.  Should software be designed in one big pass, like bridges are built, or should they be built bit-by-bit over time, like a pearl?  The iterative, like-a-pearl approach is generally perceived to be slower and more expensive, but in real life, we find that it often works better – in some circumstances.

The critical difference between bridges and software was – and often still is – that the mechanical characteristics of the materials of a bridge are well known.  There are many previous bridge building plans that can be reused or at least adapted to the purpose of building a new bridge.  In short, the details don’t change, and they’re well known in advance.  Software rarely – but occasionally – fits this definition.  There are some projects that can be built in one fell swoop – and should be.

The alternate end of the spectrum are projects where the technology is unproven, and the user expectations aren’t set, so anything can happen.  In those cases, the degree of uncertainty justifies a slower, more iterative approach.  The point of the iterative approach is to create more learning about the situation so that the investments aren’t so large.

Qualitative research is the kind of iterative, we don’t know the territory, investigation.  It’s what we do when we don’t know how we’re going to get to the answers.  Driving down a well-known road with quantitative research and big data is certainly faster – but someone has to know where people need the road to go and build it.  It’s important to realize that research isn’t an “either-or” proposition but an “and” proposition where qualitative makes quantitative more effective.

Respondents

In the context of social or anthropological research, there’s a challenge that respondents “lead hectic, deeply segmented, and privacy-centered lives.”  That makes it difficult for them to dedicate time to the qualitative interview process – and less likely to share when they’re in the interview.  It’s not easy to get people to reveal deep insights into their world because they don’t see them – and if they did, you’d need to build sufficient trust quickly to earn the right to hear their story.

Therefore, techniques like those shared in The Ethnographic Interview, lessons from Motivational Interviewing, and developing a deeper level of trust is essential for qualitative research success.  (See Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited for more on developing trust.)  While qualitative research doesn’t require as many people, it does require the rapid development of a deeper understanding of those people.

Qualitative research takes time and can be perceived to be expensive, but it’s an important component to ultimately understanding the overall picture.

Nine Issues

McCracken outlines nine issues that relate to qualitative research:

  1. The Social Scientific Research Community – How should qualitative research fit in with other methods?
  2. The Donor Social Science – How do we bring the various qualitative research into a coherent conversation?
  3. The Qualitative / Quantitative Difference – As we described above, qualitative and quantitative work together – they are not competitors.
  4. Investigator as Instrument – Quantitative research can be scaled because it doesn’t require a human. Qualitative research requires and is influenced by the investigators – for better or worse.
  5. The Obtrusive / Unobtrusive Balance – There’s a need to push the respondent – and there’s a need for the investigator to step-back and listen. Finding the balance isn’t always easy.
  6. Manufacturing Distance – McCracken uses distance as a term for detachment and actively minimizing assumptions. (See The HeartMath Solution for more on detachment.)
  7. The Questionnaire – The point of the questionnaire in the long interview is to provide some structure to the conversations.
  8. The Investigator / Respondent Relationship – Here, McCracken is focused on the level of formality / informality in the relationship between the investigator and respondent.
  9. Multimethod Approaches – Here, McCracken is illuminating the need for multiple approaches.

Rummaging

The messy bit about qualitative research is that it draws from the investigator’s personality, experiences, beliefs, and skills.  There’s no one direct path to the answer.  Marcia Bates speaks about what we’ve learned by means of active-passive and direct-indirect.  She estimates we get 80% of our knowledge in a passive and indirect way.  In short, most of what we know we didn’t seek to know.  When we’re working with respondents, their experience of their lives isn’t directed, and therefore we shouldn’t expect it to be a single, straightforward set of questions that will lead to a clear understanding.

Knowledge Management

Knowledge management concerns itself with explicit – contextless – information and the kinds of implicit or tacit knowledge that are hard to describe.  What’s wonderful about qualitative approaches is that they are a process through which some implicit information becomes explicit.  The investigator is the process through which the information is converted.  The investigator uses the long interview and other qualitative techniques to sense make what they’re hearing from the respondent and to elicit those things that the respondent rarely thinks about directly.

Four Steps

The Long Interview is four steps:

  1. Review of Analytic Categories – This is the orientation phase where the investigator begins to understand the overall landscape and the way that things appear – on the outside – to relate.
  2. Review of Cultural Categories – This is preparation for how to ask the questions. It includes the development of a questionnaire and any materials that may be necessary to support the interview.
  3. Discovery of Cultural Categories – This is the interview.
  4. Discovery of Analytic Categories – This is the post-interview analysis.

The Analysis

The analysis is itself broken into stages:

  1. Transcript / Utterance
  2. Observation
  3. Expanded Observation
  4. [Connected] Observation
  5. Theme
  6. Interview Thesis

In Sum

The process laid out provides structure to what might normally be addressed as an ethnographic interview.  While it’s more efficient than a less structured process (or can be), McCracken still cautions that you should not use qualitative methods unless you cannot use quantitative ones.  I’d soften that a bit to say you should only use qualitative approaches to the extent that they’re required.  The irony is that the great benefit of The Long Interview is to avoid the longer interview.

Book Review-The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles

Resilience is a common term these days.  Everyone wants to build resilience.  Everyone wants to know how to make people recover rather than crumble from challenges.  I picked up The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles, because I was looking for secrets that would have given Alex what he needed to be more resilient.  Life hit him with the loss of a former shipmate, and he couldn’t recover from it.  In the end, I didn’t find what I was looking for – but that doesn’t mean that you can’t.

Seven Skills

The summary of the seven skills the book teaches are:

  • LEARNING YOUR ABCs: When confronted with a problem or challenge, are you ever surprised by how you react or wish you could respond differently? Do you ever assume that you know the facts of a situation, only to find out later that you misinterpreted them?
  • AVOIDING THINKING TRAPS: When things go wrong, do you automatically blame yourself? Do you blame others? Do you jump to conclusions? Do you assume that you know what another person is thinking?
  • DETECTING ICEBERGS: Everyone has deeply held beliefs about how people and the world should operate and who they are and want to be. We call these iceberg beliefs because they often “float” beneath the surface of our consciousness so we’re not even aware of them.
  • CHALLENGING BELIEFS: A key component of resilience is problem solving. How effective are you at solving the problems that you encounter day to day? Do you waste time pursuing solutions that don’t work? Do you feel helpless to change situations? Do you persist on one problem-solving path even when you see that it’s not getting you where you want to be?
  • PUTTING IT IN PERSPECTIVE: Do you get caught in what-if thinking in which you turn every failure or problem into a catastrophe? Do you waste valuable time and energy worrying yourself into a state of paralyzing anxiety about events that have not even occurred?
  • CALMING AND FOCUSING: Do you feel overwhelmed by stress? Do your emotions sometimes come on so quickly and fiercely that you can’t seem to think straight? Do “off-task” thoughts make it hard for you to concentrate?
  • REAL-TIME RESILIENCE: Are there times when counterproductive thoughts make it hard for you to stay engaged and in the moment? Do certain negative thoughts tend to recur over and over again?

Personal, Permanent, and Pervasive

Three dimensions clearly indicate how well someone will respond to a situation.  Will they be resilient or are they likely to become hopeless?  The dimensions are:

  • Personal – Is this situation about me or not about me?
  • Permanent – Is this situation permanent or temporary?
  • Pervasive – Is this globally applicable or only in this situation?

The more that things are viewed as being not about me (not personal), temporary (not permanent), and situational (not pervasive), the more likely it is that someone will shrug off the situation and continue working.  The more that the opposite is true, the more likely it is that someone will get stuck.

Realistic Optimism

Optimism – as long as it’s grounded in reality – is a good thing.  Barbara Ehrenreich criticizes it in Bright-Sided for deliberately ignoring things and self-deception.  However, I argue that we all have a bit of self-deception happening – and it’s not all bad.  It’s when our optimism diverges too far from reality that it’s a problem.  After all, as The Hope Circuit explains, learned helplessness was re-understood, with the capabilities of an fMRI machine and a map of the brain, to be the failure to learn control – even if we rarely truly have control.  It turns out that depressed people more accurately assess their skills – but that isn’t a good thing.

As Viktor Frankl explains in Man’s Search for Meaning, some optimism that is unfounded can be more harmful when the beliefs about what will be happening fail to occur.  As a result, the real trick is to find ways to look at the glass as half-full without deluding yourself into the belief that it’s completely full.

Self-Efficacy

Related to optimism is your beliefs about yourself.  Do you believe that you can get things done, or do you believe that you’re incapable of doing anything right?  Do you believe that you have skills, strength, and value, or do you believe that you’re weak, useless, and without value?  The greater degree to which you believe you have self-efficacy, the better you’ll be able to maintain hope and thereby be more resilient.  Rick Snyder in The Psychology of Hope explains that hope is a cognitive process built on waypower (knowing how) and willpower (the will to continue).  Self-efficacy is about maintaining the power to get things done.

Cognitions Don’t Cause Emotions

Despite what The Resilience Factor says, cognitions don’t cause emotions.  They’re related and they influence emotions, but they don’t cause them.  Lisa Feldman Barrett explains in How Emotions are Made that they’re guided by physical reactions and then are shaped by our experiences and expectations.  A better understanding of how emotions are formed is found in Emotion and Adaptation, where Richard Lazarus decomposes the process and helps us to understand the mechanisms that are in place.

Daniel Kahneman explains in Thinking, Fast and Slow that most of our cognitive is spent in a basic pattern matching system he calls System 1.  In this mode, we look for patterns in our environment and do the actions that we did last time – if they were successful.  In this pattern matching mode, it’s hard to say that there’s cognitions happening.

So, while we know that how we feel about something, especially our previous experiences, shape our emotions about it, previous negative experiences in similar situations will unfairly cloud our perception of current reality.

It’s All in the Interpretation

If we break things down, our emotions and our resilience is in how we interpret a situation.  While there are stressors in the environment, it’s our reaction to those stressors that matters.  If we interpret negative outcomes of the stressor as high probability and high impact and judge that our ability to cope is low, we’ll be stressed.  The greater degree to which we’re able to perceive the stressor’s impact as improbable, small, and within our ability to cope, the less likely we’ll feel stressed.

Stress has serious long-term negative consequences that are well explained in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.  Suffice to say, the more we can avoid chronic stress, the better off we’ll be.

So, while it may seem like self-delusion and self-deception, when we ground our assessments in reality and evaluate things from the perspective of truth rather than fear, we are more likely to make accurate assessments and less likely to be emotionally triggered.

Visions of the Future

One key aspect of perspective that is useful is a perspective about a positive future.  In The Time Paradox, Philip Zimbardo shares how we all see time differently from past negative and positive to present fatalistic and present hedonistic – and to a future focused view.  When we have a positive future view of time, we expect that things will get better in time.

I often share that time has a very long arc, and things that appear to be intractable today may someday be solved.  Problems that we believe are unchangeable are all washed away in the sands of time.  Even the well-built pyramids of Egypt are fading over time – and statues like the Sphinx are in serious need of a nose job.  Nothing is forever.

Guilt is Garbage

Guilt has an evolutionary benefit of helping us to change our beliefs and behaviors based on negative outcomes.  However, our negative bias can get us stuck in processing and reliving our guilt repeatedly.  This approach to guilt – constantly reliving it – is bad for us and for everyone.  Once we’ve apologized, learned from the event, and hopefully changed our behavior, we need to learn to let it go.

Guilt that is internalized too much moves from being that we’ve done something bad to shame, which is the assessment that we are bad.  Shame is a sticky substance that is hard to free our psyche from and one that serves no purpose.

Analyzing Anxiety

Most people don’t have a clear definition of anxiety, particularly in terms of how it relates to fear.  Fear is a specific concern about a specific possible occurrence.  Anxiety is a fear based in the idea that we can’t even tell where the threat will come from.  Anxiety is therefore more challenging to eliminate in our beliefs, because we’ve got very little to put our fingers on.

Anxiety at its core is the belief that we’ll encounter a stressor suddenly and that it will overwhelm our capacity to cope.  If we want to reduce anxiety, we need to focus on how we can authentically build a person’s sense of self-efficacy – or, said differently, their personal agency.

Many people with anxiety believe that they feel powerful and able to take on life’s challenges but generally there’s something buried deep inside that prevents them from fully believing in their value and ability to overcome.

Personal Agency, Self-Efficacy by Any Other Name

When speaking about people’s ability to get things done, I most frequently use “personal agency” rather than self-efficacy, because personal agency is inclusive of the availability of time and resources that go beyond someone’s sense of skills.  Personal agency is the heart of resilience.  The more personal agency you have, the more resilience you have.  (We speak a lot about personal agency in our work on burnout, which you can find at https://ExtinguishBurnout.com)

Underlying Beliefs

Our underlying beliefs can sometimes prevent us from accessing our personal agency.  We believe that we shouldn’t show our strength or that it’s not the right time or place.  Sometimes, our underlying beliefs about ourselves and about the world are so hidden that we can’t see them ourselves – even when we try.  Sometimes, they’re the echoes of the voices that we heard in our childhood that we now believe are our own.

Finding these beliefs is often about asking why, despite our desire to change, we’re not changing.  Immunity to Change is a helpful framework for discovering what limiting beliefs are holding us back.

Catastrophizing

The anti-power to resilience is catastrophizing.  That is, the propensity to evaluate things in the most negative possible light.  The stressor is certain, and its impact overwhelming.  A friend and comedian has a routine where he speaks about how his mom was a master at catastrophizing.  She went from he couldn’t take care of a dog to he couldn’t take care of a baby and he’d be arrested for child neglect – all in the space of a single breath.

We can dampen catastrophizing by attempting to ground our thoughts in reality.  Asking questions like, “Has this ever happened?  What was the result last time?  And what’s different?” can sometimes break us free from the grips of an overwhelming prediction.  Other times, it’s the question “So what?” that allows us to see the resources at our disposal.

If you want to be resilient, you’ll have to rewire away from catastrophizing, and Hardwiring Happiness can help with that.

Denying Existence of the Problem

The real limiting factor is our ability to believe that we’re understood, and sometimes in their attempts to help us, other people minimize our problems to the point of denying their existence.  If you’ve never ridden on a plane before and are frightened, someone saying that it’s the safest form of travel isn’t just useless, it’s invalidating your concerns without hearing them.

So, on the one hand, we can acknowledge that our catastrophizing isn’t reality –but on the other hand, we want others to follow our path and understand how we got there.  We need to be understood even if the perspective we’re taking isn’t objectively real.

Changing the Perspective

When we’re looking at our resilience, it’s as simple and complex as looking for different alternatives, evidence, and implications.  It’s simple in that they’re just a few things to be done – but saying them is much easier than doing them.  Perhaps in that gap is The Resilience Factor.

Book Review-Seven Stories Every Salesperson Must Tell

Stories are narratives that help others put pieces together, and while many of the stories we encounter in the media and in the movies are fictional, the kinds of stories you’re implored to tell in Seven Stories Every Salesperson Must Tell are non-fictional.  They’re the stories that allow you to connect, differentiate, and ultimately close the deal.

Story Design

Of course, there’s content to a story.  There’s the “who.”  There’s the “what.”  There’s the “when.”  However, these components by themselves aren’t a story any more than flour, water, sugar, salt, and yeast are a bread.  There are plenty of guides to help you learn how to craft a story.  I’ve reviewed Wired for Story, Story Genius, and Building a StoryBrand, all of which can help you craft your experiences into a telling story.

Mike Adams is not focused on the development of the story itself, rather he’s walking us through what stories are important, why they’re important, and when they’re needed.  He does, however, offers a simple, four-step story design:

  • Setting: By convention, the setting includes time and place markers. It flags the start of the story, sending the audience a subliminal signal that a story is beginning. Failing to start a story effectively is a common way to lose and confuse your audience.
  • Complications: It’s a boring story if nothing unexpected happens to the “hero.”
  • Turning point: Something happens that shows the hero a way out. Although vulnerability and failure are the grist of good stories, we have a strong preference for stories that end on a positive note.
  • Resolution: The complications have been resolved. The hero is transformed, having learned something of value, and the business point is made. Tension and suspense are resolved

Who Closes the Deal

Before delving into the stories, it’s important to recognize that it’s not our reason that closes the deal.  The rational rider on top of the emotional elephant has the role of press secretary – not chief executive officer.  Jonathan Haidt developed an Elephant-Rider-Path model in The Happiness Hypothesis that Dan and Chip Heath picked up for their book, Switch.  The short version is the rider is our reason, rationale, and consciousness.  The elephant is our feelings – and they always win when they want to.  In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt clarifies that our rider acts much like a press secretary – making up plausible sounding reasons for whatever the elephant decides.

This is an important point because stories engage us emotionally as well as rationally and can therefore persuade us to act.

Prediction Engines

Adams makes the same point that was made in The Body Keeps the Score that we are fundamentally prediction engines.  It’s the primary purpose of consciousness.  He further makes the assertion that we update our world model when our predictions fail.  I’d qualify this with “sometimes.”  Sometimes, people deny reality and ignore the truth.  Sometimes, the corrections come in the form of laughter.  Inside Jokes explains that we laugh because our expectations were violated – and we detected it.  We’re rewarded with dopamine for correcting our mistake – without getting hurt.

The fact that we’re prediction machines that are constantly making corrections is important, because it means ideas that we submit to others, which are too outlandish or divergent from their beliefs, may be rejected as bad data rather than causing us to update our model.  When we’re communicating with clients, we’re constantly pushing the envelope so that we’re inside their acceptable range and far enough out that they might move it.

Selling Archetypes

Adams also explains that there are five selling archetypes:

  • The Authority — a sharp, confident voice tone
  • The Friend — a warm, easy, melodious voice tone
  • The Custodian — a low-pitched, furtive, secretive tone
  • The Investigator — a curious, questioning tone, used in exploratory conversation
  • The Negotiator — a reasoning, persuasive tone, used when negotiating

Of course, there are other models, like those found in The Challenger Sale; however, the models here work just fine too.

Hook Stories

There three stories that are designed to get customers to want to know more about you:

  • Your personal story
  • Key staff story
  • Company creation story

These stories provide a way for the customer to connect and identify with you, your staff, or the company itself.  These stories are designed to get people comfortable with who you are.

Fight Stories

The two kinds of fight stories are:

  • Insight stories
  • Success stores

These show why you’re the right people to work with.  They differentiate you from your competition and from the rest of the world.  These stories are critical, because insiders often place too much emphasis on small differences.  Clients want to know why we’re the only people that should be helping them.

Land Stories

There are two land stories:

  • Values stories
  • Teaching stories

These stories are to help you land – or close – the deal.  They share that you’re aligned with their values and that you’re going to be a partner with their development – as well as solving the specific problem.

Guides and Heros

The key thing that you need to remember when telling all the stories to your customers is that they are the hero – not you.  Your goal as a product or service provider is to act as their guide so that they can be successful.  That’s the point of Seven Stories Every Salesperson Must Tell.

Book Review-Marketing Made Simple: A Step-by-Step StoryBrand Guide for Any Business

It’s sat in the backlog for a while now.  Read but not written.  Pondered but not shared.  Marketing Made Simple: A Step-by-Step StoryBrand Guide for Any Business was recommended by a marketing consultant I was working with.  I appreciated the promise of the title but was skeptical of it as well.  Having sat on the implementation of the recommendations of the book (and the consultant) for just shy of a year, I’m not sure that the book lives up to its title – but, like George Box said, “All models are wrong, some are useful.”  I think you may find that there’s something for you in this work.

Building a StoryBrand

I’ve got to start with the fact that this isn’t the first book by Donald Miller that I’ve read.  I started with Building a StoryBrand.  It encourages you to use a framework – Campbell’s Hero’s Journey – to create a story about how your consumers can succeed with your help.  Miller calls this a BrandScript.  It’s what your brand says to the market and comes in various forms to communicate clarity in any space that you may find yourself in.

Marketing Made Simple translates that BrandScript into a website – which presumably sells your products or services.

Relationship: It’s Complicated

I’d love to say that you can follow the formula that Miller lays out and the result will be money beyond your wildest dreams.  However, it’s not that easy.  It’s complicated.  From my point of view, you must have the right offering – something that you’ll need to look for other books for.  Simon Sinek implores you to Start with Why, while Clayton Christensen encourages you to ask How Will You Measure Your Life? while Competing Against Luck and after having looked through the lens of The Innovator’s DNA.  Christensen believes that the core product question is what are the “jobs to be done” that your product or service offers?  He believes that it’s critical to get to clarity about what these jobs are, so you can communicate value to people that want these jobs done.  It’s like the old saying: “Consumers don’t want ¼” drill bits, they want ¼” holes.”

With the right offering, you then must connect to the right market.  Books like Duct Tape Marketing, The New Rules of Marketing and PR, Guerrilla Marketing, Launch!, Traction, Launch, and This is Marketing all try to help you connect with the market.

Once you’ve found the right product and the right market – and you know how to reach them – then and only then can Miller’s guide help you.  The problem is, of course, that you can’t know whether you have the right product or whether you can reach the “right” market.  So, what you get from Marketing Made Simple is a recipe for a website that presumably brings business.

What concerns me is that this leads to the easy out, “well, your product wasn’t right,” or “you didn’t connect with the right market audience” answers that aren’t helpful to entrepreneurs who are struggling to bring their ideas to life without killing themselves financially in the process.

That’s why the relationship with the book is complicated.  You’ll never know if the formula doesn’t work because it doesn’t work or because you implemented it wrong, you have the wrong product, or you aren’t able to connect with the right market.  That being said, there are two recommendations with a little additional support that Miller does offer – so it’s probably uncharitable to suggest that it’s just about the website.

Lead Generation and Email

Miller does briefly suggest that you need a lead-generating PDF – something that people want and are willing to exchange their email address for.  From there, he recommends a drip email campaign to keep people connected to your brand.

These are both fine ideas and can be very powerful.  The problem is neither does – or can – explain what works.  Having created dozens of lead generation resources, I can tell you that I never know what will generate interest – and what will not.  Sometimes, a tiny, crazy thing drives tons of leads.  Other times, the most beautifully crafted resource that was targeted at what people were telling me they needed flopped.  It’s about repetition and perseverance.  It’s what Brené Brown calls gold-plating grit (see Rising Strong).

The other side is equally challenging.  Email series that people have signed up for have much higher open rates than things like newsletters, which in turn have much higher open rates than SPAM.  However, what Miller fails to share is that many email campaigns fall flat.  They’re too short, don’t build enough trust, don’t transition people to the final product, and more.  It’s not just that you have to have an email campaign, but you must also get the right messages in – with the right timing that varies by audience – and you’ve got to have the right calls to action embedded.

Results are better than not having an email campaign, but it’s not like an email campaign magically converts prospects into customers – even when your website is amazing.  Getting email campaigns right takes time, perseverance, and a willingness to try, to be wrong, and to try again.  It may be simple – but that unfortunately doesn’t make it easy.

Relationship Stages

Miller suggests that consumers go through three stages of relationship with your brand:

  1. Curiosity
  2. Enlightenment
  3. Commitment

This is a good high-level overview; however, enlightenment and commitment are not a single thing.  There are degrees in both.  Often, customers only know a part of what you do, and step-by-step they learn more and become more committed to your organization.

He does clarify that people aren’t curious about you – rather, they’re curious about how they will solve their problem.  You will need to convert that curiosity about how to solve their problem into curiosity about how you might solve their problem.  However, care must be taken to minimize confusion about your offerings, because confusion is a vulnerable state – and one they won’t want to enter until they feel safe enough.

Miller further shares that intimacy and trust take time.  The need for time to elapse is one of the reasons why drip email campaigns are effective.

The Structure

Miller suggests that your website should be structured with a main page setup like this:

  • The Header: The very top of your website, in which you use very few words to let people know what you offer.
  • The Stakes: The section of the website in which you explain what you are saving customers from.
  • The Value Proposition: The section of a website in which you add value to your product or service by listing its benefits.
  • The Guide: The section of the website in which you introduce yourself as the brand or person who can solve your customer’s problem.
  • The Plan: The part where you reveal the path a customer must take to do business with you and solve their problem.
  • The Explanatory Paragraph: A long-form BrandScript in which you invite your customers into a story.
  • The Video: A video in which you reiterate much of what was on the website in more dynamic form.
  • Price Choices: The divisions of your company or your list of products.
  • Junk Drawer: The most important part of your website, because it’s where you’re going to list everything you previously thought was important

Tone

The overall tone you’re going for is empathetic – that you understand the customer – and authoritative – you know how to solve their problems.  Your goal is to do this in a way that anyone – even a caveman – could understand.  It’s not dumbing down the language or making the problems too simple, but it is using language that will resonate with the customer.

I’m not 100% sure that there is anything that can take marketing and make it simple, but at least Marketing Made Simple makes the attempt.

Book Review-When It Is Darkest: Why People Die by Suicide and What We Can Do to Prevent It

You never know how fate is going to deal a hand.  In the case of Rory O’Conner, he was going to be led towards suicide research only to find that the person who led him there would die by his own hand.  O’Conner wrote When It Is Darkest: Why People Die by Suicide and What We Can Do to Prevent It to share his research and life journey around the topic of suicide.  In it, he covers some familiar ground – and some ground unfamiliar.

A Plane Full of People

It was said that the average number of people impacted by a suicide was six.  This ignores Robin Dunbar’s work, as I discussed in my post High Orbit – Respecting Grieving.  The research of Julie Cerel in 2018 places the number of people impacted by a suicide at about 135.  With this, we’ve moved from those who are most devastated to also include those impacted by the death.  However, everyone in this list will feel the impact of the death.

One hundred thirty-five people fit on a Boeing 737 aircraft with a little room to spare – but not much.  Every suicide impacts the equivalent of a plane full of people, people who are all in some way grieving the loss of someone who they feel died needlessly.

Trapped

Feeling trapped is one of the key indicators that someone may be suicidal.  Hopelessness, to express this another way, has a higher correlation to suicide than depression.  The tricky part is navigating the waters where someone feels trapped to understand whether the reason they feel trapped is real or simply perception.  Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning explains the situations in the Nazi concentration camps.  He speaks of the atrocities that were committed and how simple things like the way that people approached their imprisonment and impending death has a remarkable impact on their outcome.

It turns out in suicide research that there is a difference between externalities and feeling trapped compared to an internal feeling of entrapment, which may or may not have external factors.  It seems that the walls that we build ourselves are more likely to trap us and lead us towards suicide.

Hope and Trust

Feeling trapped is the absence of hope.  That absence of hope leads to the conclusion that the pain will never end, and things will never get better.  (See The Psychology of Hope for more on what hope is, and The Hope Circuit for more on why it’s important.)  One of the aspects of hope that is interesting is not only our belief in our own personal agency and how we can power through what is necessary to change our results but also the impact of the relative benevolence of the world.

The more that we can believe the world will help us, the more hope we can maintain.  Our belief in a benevolent world in which we trust in others is a protective factor for suicide in a world of challenges.

Perfectionism

Perfectionism seems to lead to suicides – particularly the socially-prescribed perfectionism where we believe that others expect more from us than we’re capable of giving.  This is, for better or worse, a perception, and that perception may or may not match reality.  We can find that our boss really is demanding – or we can find that we perceive our boss as demanding.  From a psychological view, there is no difference.

At an organizational level, we create safety, like Amy Edmondson lays out in The Fearless Organization, by accepting people as they are – including their faults.  (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on accepting.)

The tricky thing with perfectionism is teasing out whether it’s the environment that expects perfection or whether the person themselves is projecting their perfectionism on the environment.

Poor Sleep

One of the most overlooked aspects of daily life is the need for sleep.  It’s the time when our brains perform needed maintenance.  When we don’t get it, things start to fall apart.  Sleep is an undercurrent that flows through Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers and How We Learn and is key to The Organized Mind.  It’s the driver for PTSD – in that disrupted sleep prevents the integration and sense-making of the events.  Opening Up and Transformed by Trauma both speak to the need to make sense of our traumatic experiences, and that’s what sleep does: it allows us to make sense of our world.

The negative impacts of sleep deprivation have been used as torture and hazing rituals.  Unfortunately, when you just can’t sleep and no one is forcing it on you, it’s harder to resolve.  People often feel powerless to build better sleep if they only know that when they close their eyes, they’re failing to get rest.

In the context of this conversation, sleep disturbances seem to be correlated with higher rates of suicide.

The Power of Connection

We do know that there are things which help reduce the burdens and appear to reduce suicide rates.  Perhaps the simplest of these is to try to understand and accept another person.  Many stories exist about people who were yearning for a connection they couldn’t find, and therefore they decided to die by suicide.

As simple and powerful as connection is, it isn’t always that simple.  Learning to just listen for understanding and not try to problem-solve is a skill that must be learned and relearned repeatedly.  Even if you don’t connect with someone well, their decision to die by suicide isn’t your fault.  As I explained in The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable, you can’t be responsible for something you can’t control – and you don’t control others.

Not Escaping but Accepting

Ultimately, the ability to cope with the slings and arrows of life is more about finding ways to accept yourself rather than trying to escape yourself.  Certainly, there’s always room for all of us to grow, but that doesn’t mean we’re wrong, broken, or unworthy.  Finding the narrow path with being happy for where you are today while being willing to continue to grow is what Carol Dweck explained in Mindset.  The fact that you’re not perfect or the best isn’t a sentence, it’s an opportunity.  In a way, it’s a way to accept life’s unfolding.

It allows us to have positive future thoughts about the relationships and experiences as well as the prosperity and joy we’ll have.  We know that positive future thoughts are associated with lower suicide rates.

Low Effort, High Results

Some of the most promising aspects of our world are our ability to find low-cost, low-effort interventions that can have a profound effect.  Simple letters mailed on a predictable interval may be systematized and not very personal, but it’s a signal to the person who is struggling that someone cares about them and will notice when they’re gone.

It seems like these letters provide just enough time for people to ponder how much people care during the brief windows when suicide seems like an option – or the only option.  The tragedy and opportunity in suicidal moments is that they tend to be quick and fleeting.  If we can only find strategies that allow them to pause for a bit, we’re likely to help them When It Is Darkest.

Book Review-The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind

Catalysts are different.  They make chemical reactions happen faster – but they’re not consumed in the process.  For those who are driving change, being a catalyst is what you want: better results without being used up.  The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind is a journey through the techniques that allow people accomplish change without being used up.

Immunity to Change

The key question is “Why hasn’t that person changed already?  What is blocking them?”  This is the precise question that Immunity to Change tries to answer.  Whether it’s a gap between espoused and in-practice beliefs or something as simple as not being aware of the need to change, before we look to coerce or push someone towards change, we should ask why they’re not changing already.  Influencer describes ways that you can encourage people to change using six different approaches.

Principles

The Catalyst proposes that there are five principles of change:

  1. Reactance – When pushed, people push back.
  2. Endowment – If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
  3. Distance – People don’t want to be persuaded.
  4. Uncertainty – Change often involves uncertainty.
  5. Corroborating Evidence – Sometimes one person, no matter how knowledgeable, is not enough.

These principles are echoes of things said by others.  For instance, in Diffusion of Innovations, Everett Rogers explains that people need to understand the relative advantage (endowment), that people change their attitudes through people they connect with (distance), and that the changes need to be compatible and trialable (to reduce uncertainty).  Compelled to Control explains that while we all want to control others, none of us really wants to be controlled (reactance).  In Changing Minds, it covers the idea of “storm the castle” (corroborating evidence).

Rebellion

If you tell jurors to ignore testimony, they may unconsciously weight it more heavily.  When you tell people they have to do something, they often resist it more vehemently than they would have had they not been told to do it.  We’ve tapped into what Fascinate would call rebellion.  It’s what Steven Reiss in his 16 motivators would call independence.  (See Who Am I?)  Jonathan Haidt, in the foundations of morality, calls it liberty.  (See The Righteous Mind.)  When people feel as if their freedom and independence is threatened, they sometimes experience a boomerang effect – they more strongly defend their right to not do what they’re being asked to do.  (See Decision Making for more on the boomerang effect.)

Paradox of Choice

Specific calls to action result in higher rates of response.  However, they can trigger resistance.  Giving people options helps them feel like they’re in control.  However, too many options will lead to anxiety, as The Paradox of Choice explains.  The goal is to offer a set of options – but not too many options.  The narrow road between these two points leads to others being willing to change.

Coherence

As humans, we seek apparent coherence between our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.  This need for apparent coherence is addressed in The Joy of Burnout with the idea that the incoherence is friction that stops us from achieving our goals.  Opening Up looks at the need for coherence of the story of our lives as fundamental.  A failure to achieve coherence in a story is therefore disruptive to our psyche.

Angry with the Help

One of the consistent ways to help endear yourself to others is to remain consistent in your intention to help others – and to repeatedly communicate that intention.  When people believe that you’re trying to help them, it’s difficult for them to get – or remain – angry with you.

In Destructive Emotions, the Dalai Lama explains that in Eastern philosophies, anger is disappointment directed.  Disappointment is judgement based, and it’s hard to judge that someone should be doing more to help you.  This perspective is shared by books like Humble Inquiry and Getting to Yes.

Zones of Acceptance and Rejection

Some messages people accept from anyone, and others they only accept when they feel they have no other answers.  Thomas Gilovich explains in How We Know What Isn’t So how we switch the question from “Can I believe this?” to “Must I believe this?” when we move outside of our acceptable zone.  The switch in questions is critical, because the standards for the first question are substantially lower than the second.

When working with others, it can be hard to tease out where their zone of acceptability is and where we’ll cross over into the land of rejection.  This distinction is important, because we want to deliver messages just inside the edge of acceptability to continue to open them up to further and further zones of acceptance.

Motivational Interviewing does this by first establishing rapport and then beginning to elicit information from the person about their addiction (or reason for counseling) with the ultimate goal of focusing them in on a specific aspect of the problem that is solvable and a strategy to address that area.  If we want to change people’s behaviors, we have to know where they’re starting from.

Vitamins and Painkillers

Medicine and pills of all kinds are an essential part of our everyday life, but they’re fundamentally different in the kinds of demands they create.  Vitamins are preventative, long-term pills designed to ensure success over the long term.  An antibiotic doesn’t resolve any immediate problem but provides medium-term relief for a specific problem.  Painkillers, however, solve a specific immediate and important problem.

When you’re describing your change, are you describing it in the language of vitamins – or painkillers?  Must the person make this change, or is it just a good idea?  Only half of the United States population takes vitamins – but nearly everyone will take a painkiller when they need it.

Unsticking

Ultimately, our goal in creating change is to remove the barriers between the person and the new, desirable behaviors.  That means removing small barriers – even if they seem trivial to us – because, as the book Demand explains, small barriers often have a disproportionate blocking capability to their size.  Sometimes, the key thing that needs to be unstuck is the aversion to the things they’ll lose and the uncertainty that comes with the change.  William Bridges in Managing Transitions focuses on these key problems, indicating that they’re the real barrier to change.

Sometimes, unsticking means backing up and taking a broader view.  In others, it means temporarily accepting some untenable premise so that you can hear the other person’s perspective.  Maybe when you’re done, and you understand, you can propose a solution that will make you seem like The Catalyst.

Book Review-Rethinking Suicide: Why Prevention Fails, and How We Can Do Better

When you read a lot, you start to realize that many books fall into a common pattern.  They offer small enhancements on what you already know – that is, until you find the book that causes you to rethink what you know.  That’s what Rethinking Suicide: Why Prevention Fails, and How We Can Do Better does.  It questions what we know about preventing suicide, including how we identify those at risk and what we do to treat those who we believe are at risk.  Taking a slightly heretical view, Craig Bryan walks through what we know – and what we don’t but assume we know.

Heresy

I have no problem with heresy.  I know that sometimes it’s necessary to move forward.  As Thomas Gilovich explains in How We Know What Isn’t So, we often believe things that aren’t true, and those beliefs hold us back.  More recently, Adam Grant expresses the same sentiment in Think Again.  My friend Paul Culmsee and Kailash Awati wrote two books that are intentionally heretical – The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices and The Heretic’s Guide to Management.

The need for heresy comes from our desire to think of the world as simple and predictable.  However, reality doesn’t cooperate with our desires.  The Halo Effect explains that we live in a probabilistic world – not a deterministic world.  That means we can’t expect that A+B=C – we can only expect that A+B often leads to C, but occasionally leads to D, E, or F.  Certainty is an illusion, and a rudimentary understanding of statistics is essential.

Douglas Hubbard explains the basics of statistics in How to Measure Anything in a way that is sufficient for most people to realize how their beliefs about the world may be wrong – and what to do to adjust them to more closely match reality.  Nate Silver in The Signal and the Noise gives more complex examples in the context of global issues.  Despite good resources, statistics are hard, and few people believe that the world is anything other than deterministic – and therefore believe understanding statistics isn’t important.

Suicide is Wicked

Wicked problems were first described by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber in 1973.  I speak about it in my review of Dialogue Mapping, which explains the process that Rittel designed, Issue Based Information System (IBIS), to help minimize the negatives when working with wicked problems.  (I’ve also got a summary of wicked problems in the change models library.)  One of the ten criteria of a wicked problem is that there is no definitive formulation of the problem.  We have that with suicide, as we struggle to measure intent and categorize behaviors as suicidal, para-suicidal, or non-suicidal.

The conflicts in the space of suicidology are seemingly limitless.  Some believe that we must prevent all suicides – but others recognize that some lives aren’t worth living.  We struggle with the sense that people believe they are burdens, but we fail to accept that, for some people, they may be right.

Because suicide is a wicked problem, our objective can’t be to “solve” or “resolve” it.  Instead, we’ve got to treat it like a dilemma, seeking to find the place of least harm.

Misdirection

One of common attributes of science is the accidental discovery of correlations that don’t mean causation.  In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explains the difference and how we often confuse them.  The first step to finding causation – or, more accurately, factors influencing the causation of the negative outcome – is to identify which things are correlated to the negative outcome.

We’ve got a long list of things we know are correlated to suicidality: low cholesterol, low serotonin, high cortisol, toxoplasma gondii infection, brain activation patterns as measure by an fMRI, and many more.  (See The Neuroscience of Suicidal Behavior for more on toxoplasma gondii.)  In most cases, the correlation rates are too low to be a possible causal factor.  However, they may point to the right answer that we’ve not yet found.

In Bryan’s studies, he considered that suicidal ideation might correlate with deployments.  However, it seems that this may not be the root issue, as he also identified other factors – including age and belongingness – that seemed to be important.  It’s possible, as others have suggested, that belongingness – not deployments – may be driving the suicide rates.  (See Why People Die by Suicide for support about belongingness and other ideas.)

Sometimes the misdirection that we find in suicide research is self-induced.  Confirmation bias causes us to interpret what we see in ways that are positive to our point of view.  I cover confirmation bias at length in my review of Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate  (The first post of the two-part review covers more from the book.)  The short version is that you’ll find what you look for, and you won’t see important things when your mind is distracted trying to justify your decisions or process other information – as The Invisible Gorilla explains.

Which Way Do We Go?

Bryan raises an important philosophical question with, “If something isn’t working, doing more of that same thing probably won’t work either.”  Of course, as a probabilistic statement, he’s right.  If we have lots of experience that demonstrates that something doesn’t work, we probably don’t need to do more of it.  However, this is countered with the fact that many things need to build pressure, power, and energy to overcome inertia.  This leads to the key question about whether we should keep doing the same thing – or try something different.

I’ve struggled with this question for years.  Jim Collins in Good to Great calls it the Stockdale paradox.  It comes up repeatedly.  Entrepreneurs wonder when they should give up.  There are plenty of stories about how they had to hang on to the very last before they could succeed – however, we don’t hear the stories of the entrepreneurs who held on too long and lost everything.  Those aren’t the stories that “make it into print.”

So, I fundamentally agree that we’re doing things in suicidology that are proven to not work, and we need to stop doing them.  However, I’m cautious about giving up on unproven, new approaches that may not have had the opportunity to prove themselves yet.

With No Warning

Conventional thinking about suicide is that people send out warning signals – or at least we can devise some sort of assessment that results in a clear risk/no-risk determination for people.  However, it appears that this isn’t reality – and it’s certainly not true in every case.  Bryan walks through the math that indicates for every person who speaks about suicidal ideation and later dies by suicide, 17 discuss it but die by something other than suicide instead.  We pursue universal screening with the idea that if people describe themselves as struggling with suicidal ideation, they need to be treated immediately.  Best case, this will generate roughly 20 times the number of “false positives.”  In short, even the signals that we believe are the most compelling may be so buried by noise that they cause as much harm to system capacity as they do good.

But that’s people who indicate in some way that they have suicidal thoughts – what about the people who don’t indicate?  Surely, we should be able to determine their risk for suicide.  Surely, we’d be wrong.  First, the facts: there aren’t any tools that have demonstrated sufficient discriminatory capabilities.  Second, the statistics are heavily against the probability that we’ll be able to accomplish the goal.  With a suicide rate at roughly 1:7,000, the event is just too infrequent for our tools to detect it – even if it were persistent, but it doesn’t seem like it is.

There are countless cases where people had spent nearly no time considering suicide before attempting.  With the benefit of someone to interview, it’s possible to get direct answers about the timeline – as opposed to psychological autopsies that can only guess at what happened.  Clearly, there are some biases in self-reports, but too many cases of too many people who have nothing to lose by describing their planning indicates there was no – or very little – time spent planning.

If this is true, it makes the possibility of assessment accuracy even less likely.  In short, there’s no warning – and that makes it impossible to predict.  (Joiner expressed similar concerns about the lack of indication and planning in Myths about Suicide.)

Jumping

From the outside looking in, it appears that people jump from a normal state to a suicidal state without any warning.  This may be a strobe-light-type effect because we’re not sampling frequently enough, or it can be a literal truth that the transition between states is almost instantaneous.  In The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb explains improbable events and how things can move from one state to another rapidly.

Bryan’s view of this is expressed best in a figure:

Here, the risk of suicide can transition rapidly from low to high-risk – and vice versa.  Bryan makes the point that the velocity of and mechanisms for the transition need not be the same in both directions.  It’s possible to transition quickly in one direction but to have the opposite transition be much different.  Consider inertia.  An object in motion gives up very little of its momentum to friction until it stops.  Once it stops, it takes a considerable force to break inertia.

A different, less known, example would be the transition in a plane between lift occurring over the wings and a stall.  In a stall, the wings generate substantially less lift than the same forward motion not in stall.  Most folks think of a stall as the aircraft falling out of the sky, but in reality, the flow of air over the wings has been disrupted and is no longer generating the low-pressure region that creates lift.  I share this example because very small changes in the surface of the wing – or its leading edge – can create stall conditions in situations that would normally not be a problem.  Pilots pay attention to the angle-of-attack of the air moving across the wing, as they know that this is the most easily controllable factor that can lead to – or avoid – a stall.  When the angle of attack exceeds the tolerance, the resulting stall can be somewhat dramatic.

Bryan’s work here is reminiscent of Lewin’s work in Principles of Topological Psychology, where he created a map of psychological regions with boundaries.  Bryan’s work extends this to 3-dimensional space.

Sucking My Will to Live

Often, suicide is conceptualized as ambivalence.  It’s the struggle between the desire to live and the desire to die.  Unsurprisingly, those with a desire to die had a higher suicide rate.  Those with the highest desire to die and the lowest levels of wishing to live were six times more likely to die than everyone else.  However, even a small reason for living was often enough to hold off the suicidal instinct.

The problem is, what happens when the reasons for living collapse – even temporarily?  Consider that the reasons for living are a very powerful drive, as explained in The Worm at the Core.  Perhaps even low levels are powerful enough to hold off a desire for death.  But our desire for living and our desire for death are not fixed points.  Rather, they’re constantly ebbing and flowing as we travel through life.  The greater the normal state of reasons for living, the less likely that the value will ever reach zero.  Perhaps reaching zero reason for living requires hopelessness.  Marty Seligman has spent his career researching learned helplessness and our ability to feel control, influence, or agency in our world.  In his book, The Hope Circuit, he shares about his journey and the power of hope.

Certainly, there are life events and circumstances that invoke pain and lead us towards a desire for death.  When we experience loss and how we grieve that loss are important factors for ensuring that we don’t feel so much pain that our desire to die overwhelms our reasons for living.  The Grief Recovery Handbook explains that we all grieve differently, and it pushes back against Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ perspectives that we all experience – to a greater or lesser degree – the same emotions.  In On Death and Dying, she records her perspectives on the patients that she saw in the process of dying.  In summary, the process of grief is the processing of loss – and we all do it differently.

Marshmallows and Man

When Walter Mischel first tested children at the Stanford Preschool, he had no idea that he’d find that the ability to delay gratification would predict long-term success in life.  His work recorded in The Marshmallow Test offered a variety of sweets – including marshmallows – which children could eat then, or they could wait while the investigator was out of the room for an indeterminate amount of time and get double the reward.  It’s a high rate of return, but only if you can defer the temptation long enough.  Those that did have self-control did better in life.

It comes up because, in Bryan’s map, one of the dimensions is risky decision-making.  Those who can defer gratification are less likely to make risky decisions.  Whether it’s the Iowa Gambling Task or other tasks, we can see that being able to be patient for small wins and identify winning strategies leads us to believe we can get more in the future – and seems to reduce our chances that we’ll take the suicide exit.  Evidence seems to show that tasks that are particularly difficult are those where the rules change in the middle and the things that worked before no longer work.

The research seems to say that those who are at increased risk for suicide may recognize that the rules have changed and therefore they should be using a different strategy – they just don’t seem to do it.  It’s not just that they don’t recognize the rule changes, they try to apply the old rules to the new situation, and it doesn’t work.

Rules for Life

Two key things can help people survive suicide.  First is just finding a way to slow down decision making to allow for things to recover and building braking systems to halt downward spirals.  Slowing decision making is familiar to anyone who has heard how to deal with anger.  The common refrain is count to ten, take a walk, and give it time.  Building braking systems to stop spiraling self-talk is trickier but is possible.

There are three proven effective strategies for suicide prevention – Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Suicide Prevention (CBT-SP), and Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality (CAMS).  All the other strategies are unproven or disproven despite their prevalence.  As was discussed in Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, people do a lot of therapies that aren’t proven and continue to hold on to therapies that have been disproven.  Tests like the Rorschach inkblot tests and Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) fail to meet the standard for federal evidence but are still routinely used.  The Cult of Personality Testing explains the fascination with these sorts of disproven (or mixed results) methods.

Changing the Game

The thing is, the message isn’t that all hope is lost and there’s nothing to be done.  There are a lot of things that can be done to reduce the prevalence of suicide – it’s just not the things we think or even the things that we’ve been doing.  Simple approaches like blocking paths by adding anti-suicide fences to bridges or adding locks to guns make a difference.  Rarely do people change their preferred method, and frequently it only takes enough time to unlock a gun for the feelings of suicidality to pass.  (Judged by the fact that the suicide rate decreases in the presence of gun locks.)

We may have to start thinking of suicide like we think of traffic accidents.  We know that they occur at a relative frequency, but we can’t say who will – or won’t – be involved.  The result is that we must work to make things safer through eliminating threats or instituting barriers.  Maybe the best way to make a change with suicide is to start by Rethinking Suicide.