When You Should Not Get the COVID-19 Vaccine

There are valid reasons to not get the COVID-19 vaccine, and there are valid reasons to recommend caution to those you care about. Before getting into those, let’s walk through where we are so we’re all on the same page.

COVID-19 is Real

At this point, almost everyone knows someone who has had COVID-19. A year or more ago, that wasn’t the case. It was possible to say that it’s not real or it’s like the common cold. In fact, the likelihood is that if someone we knew had the disease, they got better. For some, it was no worse than a cold. For others, it was more severe – more like a bad case of the flu.

So, while we accept that it’s real, it’s harder to accept the real impacts of it. When we hear that more than half a million people in the United States have died because of COVID-19, it’s hard to wrap our head around if we don’t know anyone personally. The truth is that the chances of someone who is infected with COVID-19 dying is less than 1% (~0.6%).

Of course, the next belief is that those people who do die from COVID-19 are all feeble and, in some cases, “were going to die anyway.” We’re all going to die at some point. That doesn’t stop us from convicting a murderer for bringing on the outcome sooner. Much has been made of inflating the COVID-19 mortality numbers by including people with “comorbidities.” That is, they were already compromised by something else.

Maybe that’s true, but the unfortunate fact of American life is that most of us have some form of comorbidity – something that’s hastening our path towards the grave. Whether it’s cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, asthma, hypertension, and/or cancer, slightly less than half of Americans (45.4%) have something. It’s not so easy to dismiss that the people dying were going to die already when you realize how many of us have chronic conditions that would put us in that category.

With all these statistics, it’s no wonder that few of us have seen people die of COVID-19. We’d have to know 100 people with COVID-19 to see one death. Personally, I’ve lost a brother-in-law, a high school friend was hospitalized for five months, and my daughter wasn’t able to work for five months. I clearly must know more than 100 people. If we shift the focus to hospitalization for COVID-19, the rate goes up. If you are in your fifties, it’s about 5%; by the time you’re in your eighties, it’s about 33%. Clearly, the older you are, the higher the chances you’ll be hospitalized or die.

I’m Okay

Many younger people think to themselves, rightly so, that their chances of getting the disease and needing to be hospitalized are low. For them, that’s fine; however, the real problem is not the person themselves but those they come in contact with. Some losses are just unacceptable. When you go to see your beloved grandmother and infect her without realizing it, you’ll feel terrible. What about that older man or woman who has always looked out for you, whose wise counsel you’ll dearly miss when it’s gone? What happens if they get sick?

If too many of them end up in the hospital, the hospital will fill up and won’t be able to accept more patients. It’s tragic enough to get the disease and need to go to the hospital. It’s even worse when you’re told there are no beds available at the hospital, and you’ll have to figure out something else. Most people have never experienced being turned away at a hospital, so the idea that it could happen doesn’t feel like a possibility.

Being Careful

The challenge isn’t just that you can be careful and not infect folks. Even if you isolate yourself as soon as you feel symptoms coming on, it’s too late. You’re contagious and potentially infecting others up to two days before you feel symptoms personally. That’s one of the reasons that so many people are being infected. With the original COVID-19 disease, each infected person on average infected 1-2 people. With the Delta variant, the number is 5-8 people – in that way, it’s like chicken pox.

While there are current discussions about when to wear a mask and when it’s not necessary, there’s a broader question about the efficacy. There are a number of variables involved when people are wearing homemade masks and when the masks are made of varying materials. Getting to well-researched numbers is difficult. What we do know is that the particles that transport COVID-19 are slowed by masks – in both directions.

Excuse the crude example, but if you spit at someone, your chances are much better of hitting them if there’s not a screen door between you – and even less if there are two screen doors. Sure, the COVID-19 virus itself is small, but it needs something to ride on to get to someone else, and those “somethings” are collectively larger. Any sort of barrier will reduce what makes it through.

Vaccine Safety

As a general statement, vaccines are safe and effective. We’ve all had vaccines since we were children. These vaccines have eradicated polio and have substantially reduced the incidence of measles, mumps, and rubella. We’ve pushed back tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis. The problems with the vaccines have generally been very rare.

In fact, the government stepped in to create the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. It’s a small fee with each vaccine dose that’s collected automatically and is held to compensate those who do have an issue with a vaccine. The current cost per vaccine is $0.75. Clearly, the number of people harmed by vaccines is very small, because the fund could not operate with those kind of fee rates if the incidence of claims was very high.


The other major concern regarding vaccines comes in the form of a single article published in the prestigious Lancet journal. In the article, the lead investigator, Andrew Wakefield, claimed that children developed autism after receiving the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine. As a direct result of that article, the physician lost his license to practice medicine. The Lancet published a very public retraction. What wasn’t known at the time was the conflict of interest that Dr. Wakefield had in the publishing of the article.

The loss of a medical license is a serious issue – particularly when no patients were directly harmed. It’s a powerful statement about how grievous the community felt Dr. Wakefield’s ethical problems were. Despite the public condemnation of his behavior, many are still concerned about the potential of causing autism in their children with vaccines.

It’s hard to think that something you’re doing – authorizing to have your child receive a vaccine – could be harming them. It’s easier to think that you did nothing and take your chances with the diseases that the vaccine is designed to prevent. However, there is no scientifically validated link between autism and vaccines – it’s just not there.

COVID-19 Vaccines

The most widely studied vaccines in the history of mankind are the COVID-19 vaccines. It’s counter-intuitive, but it’s true. While studies aren’t complete, and there is still more to learn, the communications and information technologies have made it possible to use much larger study sizes and to more precisely track the symptoms after receiving the vaccine.

The two different approaches are used in the development of COVID-19 vaccines. The first approach involves messenger RNA that’s been used since the 1980s. The messenger RNA (mRNA) approach used by both Pfizer and Moderna tricks some cells into creating the characteristic protein spike for the COVID-19 virus that the immune system needs to learn how to identify.

The second approach, used by J&J (Johnson & Johnson) uses a modified version of a different virus to deliver important instructions to the cells. The cells then produce the spike protein that our immune system learns to defend against. Both result in the production of a harmless spike protein that is found on the surface of the COVID-19 virus.

For both approaches, these protein spikes don’t do anything on their own: the immune system recognizes them as foreign and gets an opportunity to learn to attack and contain them without the threat of the virus.

We can’t know the long-term impacts of this vaccine, but we do know that the technologies used are well known and well used. Much of the vaccine development was already done but not tested because of other outbreaks, including SARS in Canada, and MERS. The coronavirus has been with us for a long time, and we’ve previously seen mutations of the virus that became more impactful to humans. COVID-19 (and the Delta variant) is simply the latest set of mutations of this virus, which happened to have unlocked a pattern that’s more deadly to humans.

What We Know Without Vaccines

Much has been made of the unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 virus. However, we do have another analog. Just over 100 years ago, influenza, known as the Spanish Flu (only because the Spaniards were willing to openly discuss it), infected roughly a third of the world population (~500 million people) in four waves with a death toll between 20-100 million of those infected.

Without the benefits of vaccines and other tools of modern healthcare, that pandemic took somewhere between 1.5 to 6 percent of the population.

Vaccine Reactions

There are, in fact, reactions to vaccines in general. There are people who are allergic to any of the ingredients in a COVID-19 vaccine who should not get that vaccine. If you have had a severe or immediate allergic reaction to any ingredient in the mRNA vaccine, you should not get either of the currently available mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. On the other hand, people who have underlying medical conditions, including immunosuppressed individuals, are at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 and are recommended to receive the COVID-19 vaccination. For those who do receive the vaccine, the rate of reaction is very low. The most typical response is some pain or redness around the location of the shot itself followed by headache or fever.

There are more serious reactions, such as a specific form of blood clots, which occurred at a rate of about 120 per billion doses. To put that in perspective, you’re about 60 times more likely to be struck by lightning. Reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome happened at the rate of about 1 in 100,000 for the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. Which is still very, very unlikely. Guillain-Barre Syndrome is also associated with the COVID-19 virus itself. It’s unclear whether the patients affected would have been impacted the same way with the virus or at the same rate. There’s just not enough data to make a firm conclusion. While Guillain-Barre Syndrome doesn’t frequently cause death, it can have a serious impact on quality of life.

The final complication that is being tracked as a possible side effect of the mRNA vaccines is an inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis or pericarditis), which happened at a rate of about 2 per million. Putting this in perspective, you’re about 5.5 times more likely to die of dog attack in your life.

So, while there are reasons to not get the vaccine, do they apply to you? If they do, maybe you can pass this along to those in your world who believe that they shouldn’t get the vaccine.

Western Governors University, Master of Science, Management and Leadership

That was it. I’d had it. There was a conference that Terri and I were doing together. We were teaching burnout to nurses. We love working together, and it was an opportunity to teach folks the skills that we had to learn the hard way. The problem is that I couldn’t be listed as an instructor. I could be listed as an assistant and the conference would still pay us the same – but they couldn’t list me as an instructor because of rules for continuing education credits.

Continuing Education

Many professions have associations that are responsible for certifying that their members who have earned professional credentials are keeping up with their continuing learning. Lawyers and doctors are a good example of the kinds of professionals that need to keep current. In some states, nurses fall into the same category. (Not in Indiana, where we live, but it’s sort of an anomaly.) The rules for issuing continuing nursing education vary by the issuing body; but in California, if you’re not a nurse, to teach, you must have an advanced degree in the topic you’re teaching on – and I didn’t have one. (See my post on my BS.)

It would trigger me to go back to WGU for a master’s degree and continuing my academic education – though I didn’t have many gaps in my learning. When I shared with a friend of mine that I’d gone back to do it, he explained that I could teach it. Maybe he was right but either way, I went back.

Sideways Entry

I applied, was admitted to the program, and started doing what I did for my BS: completing courses at a faster than normal pace. However, for relatively different reasons. For the past seven years or so, I’ve read a book each week and posted a book review. Goodreads says that I’ve read 522 books – and I don’t read fiction. I’ve got a large library to pull from.

In the end, I’d pull 74 references across the program to use in my papers and my capstone. I read zero of them for the program. They were all references that I had previously read and reviewed. I could have probably referred to more, but I met the criteria and then some, so I stopped.

I totally accept that this isn’t the way that most people enter the program. I recognize that the fact that I write like I’m running out of time (apparently like Alexander Hamilton). Papers that would normally take people weeks to do I could knock out in a few hours.

It’s for that reason that I feel like I need to say, “Your mileage may vary.”

Master of Business Administration, IT Management

A natural progression might have been to get an MBA – or an MBA with an IT management concentration. Both are offered in the WGU catalog. However, I don’t believe that the critical need that organizations – IT or corporately – have is a lack of administration. Nor do I believe that my strengths are in the administration of businesses. I believe strongly that my strengths are in leading and managing. I believe that administration leads to bureaucracy, which has its place but is not where I believe that organizations of the future are going.

I’m much more interested in motivating people to follow a new direction than I’m interested in counting the number of paperclips they’re using or trying to predict the unpredictable future.


With that said, it’s not that I’m not interested in efficiency. I just don’t try to extract it by minimizing the amount of office supplies. I relentlessly seek to optimize processes, and that’s part of what led me to WGU in the first place. What I didn’t say when I wrote my post about my BS was that I researched my options and ended at WGU because of the efficiency with which I could get my degree.

I’ve got to be careful lest people believe that either the BS or the MS degrees were easy – that’s absolutely not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that it was an efficient way to get the degrees. Efficiency isn’t always easy.

For me, efficiency allowed me to progress in my educational journey when I had time. For the most part, I didn’t have to wait to be able to do more work, demonstrate some competency, or add another class to my schedule. My schedule is highly variable. Being able to accelerate when I had time and to slow down when my work schedule increased was the difference. It cut my time to completion at least in half – if not more.

Healthcare Administration

I mentioned in my post about my BS degree that this whole process was kicked off by a desire to get a master of science in healthcare administration. So what gives? The short answer is that I became more aware that what every organization needs is better leadership, and the healthcare administration degree doesn’t offer that. Will I go back and pick up a master of science in healthcare administration? It’s unlikely, but it could happen.

Western Governors University, Bachelor of Computer Science Graduate

I graduated. I never expected to go back and get a second Bachelor of Computer Science degree, but I did. The reasoning is a bit strange – even by my standards – and the path is even stranger. Those who know me would never question or wonder whether I had a bachelor’s degree or not. Dozens of books written, editor on a hundred more, and countless articles and presentations. Why would anyone question whether I had a degree or not?

My First Bachelor’s Degree

I was sitting on the leather couch next to a mentor and friend of mine in front of a fire at his house when he asked, “Why haven’t you bought one of those degrees yet?” “What?” I stammered. He was a lifelong educator teaching high school and college and eventually ending up on the school board. I couldn’t understand what he was saying. It turns out he was paying me one of the biggest complements of my life.

He, more than most, knew I was a lifelong learner. I hungered for it. I was editing about 16,000 pages a year at that point, and I was always discovering something new. But he actually asked that question. He explained that I already knew the things I needed to know, I just didn’t have the paper.

It wasn’t too long after that when an email crossed my desk. A degree for life experience. It was a few hundred dollars, and you had to produce documentation of your experience – which was easy to do, since I kept records of my work on book projects and Amazon was just starting out so people could verify the books that I had worked on.

For my money, I got a very official looking package from Concordia University. It came with grades, transcripts, etc. Accredited in one country, operated in a second, with web servers in a third. It was a paper mill diploma factory, and everyone knew it, but it would pass any employment screen test for a bachelor’s degree.

Why I Didn’t Go to College

Backing up the bus for a bit, one might ask the important question of how I found myself in a position where I didn’t have a college degree already. For that, you must look past the good grades in high school, the decent scores on the ACT, and the acceptance to Purdue with honors. The short version was money. Yea, FAFSA was a thing even back then, so in theory, I should have been able to get aid and student loans to help pay for it.

The problem was that if a parent was uncooperative, if they refused to provide their tax return information, well, you couldn’t fill out the forms, and you couldn’t get the aid you needed to make it work. I tried putting together budgets but none of them worked. In the end, I resigned myself to the idea that I’d settle for night school at IUPUI while I worked. It wasn’t ideal, but I could do half time at night and work full time and the math would work out.

I had taken as many as ten credit hours at the community college while going to high school and working 20 hours a week. I knew I could find a way to make night school work, because I was willing to work hard.

The Siren Song of Technical Editing

Mike Groh was a quirky character when I met him. He was married to the marketing director for the company I was working at. I was at their house to help them get connected to the corporate email system. Back then, it was modems and store and forward email, and it was my job to make sure that the directors were successful. Mike was working for New Riders Publishing – then an imprint of McMillian and, ultimately, Pearson.

He asked me if I would be interested in technical editing books. I explained that grammar and I weren’t on the best of terms; we had a strained relationship. Then he explained that they needed someone to read the material and make sure it worked. It was an ideal job. I got paid to learn.

I had been grousing about having to take assessments at IUPUI even though I had passed the AP tests and had college credits. It was a part of the procedure, and I was caught up in the machine. It wasn’t long before Mike came through with some work. I started technical editing with Inside Paradox and Inside Microsoft Access, the two competing database technologies of the day. I loved it. It made money instead of consuming it.

I resolved to defer college until the technical editing thing had run its course and I had saved some money.

I Got Hooked

Like an addict, I picked up more technical editing. I was, for several years, doing about 16,000 pages a year after my full-time job. It was fun. I loved learning and only occasionally got too overwhelmed. I was sometimes offered development editing opportunities, which paid better and really amounted to what I was doing plus talking about how to explain the concepts better. I even got a few authoring opportunities.

Authoring wasn’t my favorite thing. It took a long time and the rewards were less than editing. However, it felt like it was the thing to do. Before I knew it, I lifted my head, and years had gone by. Eventually I realized that I’d never go back to traditional college. I’d be bored to tears. That’s when the conversation came and when I bought the degree.

The Master’s Degree Trigger

I didn’t find Western Governors University (WGU) because I wanted to get a bachelor’s degree – at least, not directly. I started out investigating a master’s degree in healthcare administration. It’s a place that I’m passionate about. I want to make healthcare better. I figured the bachelor’s degree I had worked well enough for background checks. It should work as a prerequisite degree for a masters.

I was wrong. In the years since I had gotten it, almost every school had gone electronic. Now, it was easy for one school to validate the credentials of another – and there was a master database of universities that were accredited – by accrediting bodies that mattered.

I wanted to move on the healthcare administration journey, but that meant going backwards to get the bachelor’s degree.

Hits and Misses

I decided to find a solution that would be the easiest for me to do. That was computer science. My first semester at WGU, I completed 60 credits. WGU uses an “all you can eat” plan for your tuition. You pay a fixed amount per six months no matter how many classes you take. I tested out of a lot. I could have even tested out of more, but I wanted to save a few easy classes for later semesters.

It’s been a year and a half since then. During that time Terri (my wife) got very sick for a while, and it was all I could do to keep the wheels on the cart. Juggling kids, the business, and WGU was more than I could do. I met my requirement to do at least 12 credit hours and kept everything afloat through a semester where Terri was ill for three of the six months.

The last nine months of my journey, I’ve been only working on my capstone. Most of that has honestly been a waiting game. I decided that I wanted to prove that I can improve environmental services workers’ training so they’ll clean better using augmented reality, and Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 was announced but seriously unavailable.

For reference, I don’t think that I do things the way others do. While I was getting my degree, Terri and I wrote a book together (Extinguish Burnout), and I created a comprehensive course on change management (Confident Change Management). I was busy. I’m looking forward to the opportunity that things can slow down a bit, and it can resume just normal crazy.

My capstone completion would mark 2 years since I started. Great time for college as a part-time thing – but easily a year longer than it needed to be due to delays and capacity problems.

The Program Itself

Having three children currently in traditional colleges and a wife with a master’s degree, I have an interesting perspective on the process. WGU taught me when that’s what I needed. (Calculus isn’t necessarily easy.) It also allowed me to test out of those things I already knew. For the most part, it stripped the stupidity from the college experience, and it dropped all the participation awards.

I’m comfortable saying that if I needed to learn a topic, it taught it to me. It seems on par with the education that the children are getting – with a lower price tag and a much better schedule.

I would have never survived going to classes each week for 15 weeks. As it was, I shook the cages at WGU rather hard for the handful of courses that had rough edges. (I was bound and determined to leave the program better off than I found it – even if I had to explain instructional design to people with master’s degrees in instructional design.)

All in all, I’d recommend it. I’d recommend it for adults who want to go back for a degree – and even for high-performing students who want to get their basic degrees out of the way so they can get to what they really love.

What’s Next

As for what’s next for me, I don’t know. I may go back and get the master’s degree in healthcare administration. However, I won’t start that right away. I am also considering a master’s degree in psychology, but I’d do that more for me than for than any earning potential.

The Cold War Experience

Vacations for us are often about the experiences. It’s about sharing with our now adult children what things were like in the past or what they are like in the present for different people. Our recent vacation was anchored around “The Bunker.” It’s a relic of the Cold War situated in the Allegheny mountains, and it’s a secret that was kept successfully for 30 years. As we went through the facility, I realized that our children couldn’t connect the experience to what it was like in the Cold War. This post is an attempt to weave together enough context that everyone can understand what might make the government secretly pour 50,000 tons of concrete into a facility that wasn’t designed to sustain a direct nuclear attack.

From Allies to Enemies

The transition from allies in World War II to enemies in the Cold War was predictable. The United States was capitalistic and independent. The Soviet Union was based in Marxist ideas of communism, central planning, and obedience. From an ideological standpoint, it would have been hard to draw to more divisive positions. With a common enemy, we could side-step our ideological differences, but without that, we would eventually begin to vilify the other. We’d find a new enemy to hate where we once saw an ally.

This presented a nuclear problem. The United States initiated the world to the atomic age with the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended World War II in the Pacific. Shortly thereafter, Russia developed their own atomic bombs; after that, both sides developed even more powerful hydrogen bombs. Suddenly, there was enough power to cause major havoc.

The Escalation

The Cold War escalated through numerous microaggressions on each side. A game of nuclear one-upmanship started and just kept going. While we know now that capitalism was more effective economically than the Lennon-Marxist approach that the Soviet Union was based on, back then, both sides were posturing to have the upper hand. The world agrees that the closest that we ever came to nuclear war was the discovery of missiles in Cuba.

The United States had medium range ballistic missiles deployed in Turkey – a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) country – that would reach Moscow. It was about 1,200 miles – the same distance between Cuba and Washington, DC. However, for the United States and John F. Kennedy, it felt more personal. The event was called the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it’s cataloged in One Minute to Midnight (among other books). It’s the closest we ever came to activating the project that eventually became named “Greek Island.”

Escaping Fallout

The Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles of the time weren’t very accurate, and, little did we know, there weren’t very many of them. However, the threat of attack was real. The Soviets could launch an attack that would require the evacuation of Washington, DC, and there would be at least some warning of the attack. There was no question in anyone’s mind that Washington, DC was on the “hot list” for the Soviet Union. It was expected that Washington, DC would see a nuclear missile. The idea was that if Congress could survive the initial attack, they’d need a place to go to continue the operation of the government – and that was “Greek Island.”

The government needed a facility that was close enough to Washington, DC to be reachable, yet far enough away that the fallout from the radiation wouldn’t be a problem. The result was a small town in the middle of the Allegheny mountains, 240 miles from Washington and relatively protected from airborne attack – the kind of attack assumed to be the most likely way that a secondary location might be targeted.

Duck and Cover

Meanwhile, school students were being taught to duck and cover under their desks in the event of an air raid. Somehow, the London bombings from World War II had become lodged in the hearts and minds of the planners and was coupled with the fact that we used planes to deliver our atomic arsenal on Japan. The assumption was that, if war ever did break out with the Soviet Union, it would come in the form of an aerial attack.

The student desks at the time were neither impervious to conventional bombs nor nuclear ones, but somehow these drills helped reinforce both the ability to take some action and a trust in a government that was there to protect you.

At the same time, fallout and bomb shelters were being constructed by individuals of means and communities of concerned citizens. The threat of bombings and nuclear war was perceived to be eminent for decades. The argument was that one of the skirmishes that the United States and The Soviet Union had been supporting would eventually spill over into an all-out attack, and everyone wanted to be ready for it.

While the fallout and bomb shelter business may have been commercially profitable for some construction companies, relatively few community shelters were developed and stocked. However, it reinforced the idea that the country had a plan and we were ready.

The Greenbrier

Located in the Allegheny mountains about 240 miles away from Washington, DC, accessible by railroad, car, and airplane, The Greenbrier hotel was an ideal place for Congress to go in the event of a nuclear emergency. However, the hotel’s luxurious amenities weren’t what Congress was going to need. They needed something a bit more primitive but much more concealed and self-contained. They needed a bunker that could protect Congress from the fallout of a nuclear war even if the facility couldn’t sustain a direct hit.

The facility was owned by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway, an organization that the government was already in the habit of writing large checks to. Adding some additional funding for a secret underground bunker wouldn’t be that difficult.

The Construction

You can’t hide the construction of a bunker, even in the late 1950s. People were going to know that something was up. So, a cover story was created. The cover story was the expansion of the hotel with subterranean event space. The construction was divided up to different people with the idea that, if the work were divided sufficiently, few people would be able to put together the true scope. Those who worked more closely were given “the talk” about national security, secrecy, and ultimately a non-disclosure agreement to sign.

Construction was completed in 1962 – the same year of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the only time in its history that the bunker was almost used.

Operational Status

For 30 years, until its existence was revealed in 1992, the bunker was kept operational ready by a government contractor, Forsythe, whose cover story was that they would repair the TVs and communications at The Greenbrier. They did this in addition to their real duties maintaining the infrastructure that would hum to life in the event that a confidential lease was activated.

With a phone call indicating that the government was activating their lease, The Greenbrier would provide three days’ worth of food to supplement the non-perishable and semi-perishable food that would already be in the facility – stocked by government contractors. In the hours that followed, members of both houses of Congress would arrive, and once the Congressmen and their staff had arrived, the doors would be sealed, and the bunker would be isolated except for communications.

The Reveal

The secret was safe for 30 years, until, in 1992, the existence was revealed in The Washington Post. Arguments are still had today about whether its disclosure was a good or bad thing. The original mission as a Cold War bunker for Congress no longer held. First, attacks had warning times of minutes, not hours any longer. Second, in December of 1991, the Soviet Union had officially fallen apart. Russia and several other states were going to have to go it on their own. The Russian threat was gone.

The details of Project Greek Island were so secret that even the very members of Congress, who were to be protected in the bunker, were unaware of its existence. Suddenly, what was a secret to even those whom it was designed to protect was revealed, and because its safety was now compromised, it was decommissioned.

The Greenbrier operates tours now, taking people to places to parts of the bunker that remained hidden for 30 years. However, you’ll need to leave your camera and cell phones behind. No electronic devices are allowed – but not because of the government, at least not directly.


We were told on the tour that the reason we can’t have cameras, phones, or any electronic devices was because of the company operating in the space, CSX-IP. They were described as a company that secures data for Fortune 500 companies. However, there are some oddities in the story that just don’t add-up.

The C & O Railway, which owned The Greenbrier, was gobbled up by the rail giant, CSX. CSX-IP makes some sense in that they were some data spin-off or subsidiary of CSX. Except the official paperwork files with the state of Florida lists CSC as the corporate parent. CSC eventually became DXC. DXC doesn’t list CSX-IP as a subsidiary. Neither does CSX, by the way.

So, where do their clients find them? CSX-IP doesn’t have a web site. They’re an IT company running data services for Fortune 500 – but they don’t have a calling card on the internet.

If there were a data center operating in The Greenbrier, it would justify the diesel tanks and electrical generators that are maintained. It wouldn’t justify the water tanks that are maintained as well – though that’s attributed to the culinary school that is in operation. (Which wouldn’t justify this amount of water.)

Space Saving

If you had a data center operating in the bunker, it would justify blocking off space. On the tour, we didn’t get to see much space. There were the rooms for decontamination, the cafeteria, and the meeting room for the House of Representatives – but not the meeting room for the Senate. Nor did we see any of the dormitory rooms. In short, we saw a small fraction of the space that we should have seen. No explanation was given for the huge amount of space that we weren’t seeing.

However, what’s more interesting to me is that there’s a power and cooling problem that wasn’t addressed.

Power and Cooling

The real problem with data center design is power and cooling. As computer density has gone up, so have the power and cooling requirements per square foot. So, a single rack will consume between 7kVA to 60kVA of power. The net result is an expectation of 200 watts per square foot to as much as 400 watts per square foot. Compared to an office, that would have power consumption at about 1/10th of those numbers.

All that power gets converted into heat, and that heat must be cooled by something. That’s generally done with air conditioners that have heat exchangers outside the serviced area. That’s 10 times as much cooling as initially planned – and I didn’t see anything approaching that.

Conspiracies and Psychology

Perhaps the most interesting thing about all this together is that The Bunker was designed from the outset with psychology in mind. From the blast doors hidden behind “noisy” wallpaper to discourage loitering to the colors and patterns, everything was designed to obscure what was really going on.

At the end of the day, wouldn’t it be amazing if The Bunker hadn’t really been shut down in 1992 as was officially reported? What if it were still being maintained today not for its original Cold War purposes but for purposes like protecting Congress in the event of a terrorist threat – or maybe even a global pandemic?

If you want to see for yourself, schedule a tour of The Bunker.

Book Review-Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love

Hollywood makes it look easy, whether it’s jumping from a building to a rope ladder hanging from a helicopter or it’s building and sustaining a lifelong love – at least as much of the love as you can fit into a two-hour movie. Just because they make it look easy doesn’t mean it is. Having a high-quality and deeply intimate relationship takes work. That’s something that the Gottmans know about – not only personally but in their work as well. Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love is a roadmap for building and maintaining a lifetime of love.

At its heart, the book shows a way to prioritize each other and hold the eight conversations every couple should have at least once – if not on a regular basis.

Requiring Vulnerability

Identifying what keeps people together and what drives them apart is what John Gottman has been doing for decades. As I mentioned in my review of The Science of Trust, Gottman is distinguished by his capacity to predict divorce after a short few minutes of argument. His criteria for the way couples manage their conflicts are very predictive of how likely it is they’ll be able to stay together. So, when he says that vulnerability is required for a lifelong relationship, it’s worth perking up your ears.

To get to vulnerability, we’ve got to make two stops first. The first step is trust. I’ve written about trust and its relationship to vulnerability extensively. The most recent coverage is in Trust=>Vulnerability=> Intimacy, Revisited. The short version, for our context, is that trust is the belief that we can predict someone’s behavior enough that the chances of betrayal are low. When we predict that the other person will have our best interests at heart, we develop a perception of safety. This perception of safety allows us to become vulnerable. So, the stops on our way to vulnerability are trust and safety.

Requiring Effort

John Gottman calls the moments when you can make the choice to lean into your love or be selfish “sliding door” moments. In the response for a bid for affection, you have the choice to make to do what you want – or respond to the bid and pour into your relationship. Sliding door moments are the choice between what we want in the moment and the long-term health of the relationship. That isn’t to say that we should, or even could, make the decision for love every time. It’s always possible that we’re too tired, too sore, or too distracted. However, it’s the effort it takes to make these choices routinely that builds relationships up.

Making the decision to turn into your relationship isn’t always natural. It’s not the easiest choice. It’s a decision to put your relationship first, because you know that good relationships nurture and sustain you when things get difficult.

Whenever you’re putting effort into anything, there’s a background accounting happening. Is the effort I’m putting in worth the results I’m seeing? While we can defer seeing results, ultimately, the calculus that happens is deciding whether the results are worth the effort. (See Relationship Calculus for more.)


The Gottmans share six characteristics that seem to be found more often when successful couples are speaking of their marriage:

  • Fondness
  • Affection
  • Admiration
  • We-ness (vs. separateness)
  • Expansiveness (vs. withdraw)
  • Glorifying the struggle

I know plenty of couples whose marriages work for them but in which there is very little “we” and a lot of “I” space. They enjoy their time together, but that time is small and secondary to their individual lives. While it seems to work for them, it doesn’t work well for Terri and me – and the Gottmans seem to believe it’s not the best approach.

For the record, Terri and I get to work together, both literally and figuratively. Her desk is right next to mine. We speak together. We write together. We dream together. It seems like that is important.

Expansiveness is an interesting aspect – it’s “Yes, and…” It’s amplifying each other’s perspectives rather than negating them. It’s an attempt to build the other person up rather than tear them down. Our jobs are to help the other person become the best person they can be, and that means supporting them. (See my review of Group Genius for more on improvisation and “Yes, and…”)

Finally, I can say, personally, that Terri and I feel like we’re on a mission together. We’re struggling – to have a great marriage, to raise children, to build a business, to eliminate healthcare-associated infections. Through all of it, we’re in it together.

The Dates

The eight dates are:

  1. Lean on Me: Trust and Commitment
  2. Agree to Disagree: Addressing Conflict
  3. Let’s Get It On: Sex and Intimacy
  4. The Cost of Love: Work and Money
  5. Room to Grow: Family
  6. Play with Me: Fun and Adventure
  7. Something to Believe In: Growth and Spirituality
  8. A Lifetime of Love: Dreams

Each date is laid out with a guide to how to be successful. Everything from where you should be and what to bring are included in the guide to give you the best chances of success. There’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to successfully navigate the sometimes difficult conversations, but at least with the guide, you’ll handle some of the big things that trip people up and create barriers.

For Love of Money

While I have great respect for Gottman and agree with most of what he shares, there’s one area where I’ll disagree about the root cause. The research says that money is one of the top five reasons couples fight. I’ll agree that it shows up this way, it feels this way, and it may even be the content of the conversation. However, I believe that couples disagree about money because of a difference in values.

It’s not that they’re in a conflict about money. They both want more income for the family, less expenses, more play time, a more stable nest egg for rainy days or retirement, and so on. They’re quite aligned on all these things. Where they’re not aligned is in their values about each of these in relation to one another. Should we save more money or have more vacations? Should we take stressful jobs with higher salaries – or live simpler lives with a less stressful job?

Those are the real questions at the heart of the fights. The husband wants to buy a new car, because he thinks he deserves it. The wife is concerned about the kid’s college fund, or the fact that they can barely meet their current commitments, or whatever. Similarly, the husband may not understand the new dress that helps the wife feel more attractive.

So, while money is the surface level-issue that’s seen, in my experience, it’s rarely the root cause.

Conflict Apathy

I’ve developed conflict apathy. I don’t go looking for fights. However, I’m no longer afraid of them, either. I don’t worry that there will be hurt feelings or permanent damage. I speak my truth in love and expect that Terri will do the same. That’s not to say we don’t hurt each other – we do. However, we don’t run away from the conflicts because we’re afraid of getting hurt.

We walk through the conflicts, because the view on the other side is better. We walk through the conflicts, because we know if we’re willing to do that, we’ll stay on the same side and work together.

I don’t know if you can build what Terri and I have, but Eight Dates might be a good start.

The Progression of Parental Alienation

I was recently in a conversation about the toxic effects of parental alienation and how it tears apart relationships and harms children. The folks I was discussing it with didn’t have answers either. They practiced family reconciliation therapy, but that didn’t always address the root of the problem. After the conversation, I sat to ponder what causes parental alienation and came up with this model for stages the parental alienation process follows. I don’t offer a solution. I offer up this framework, so that it may be better understood from the point of view of the parent who is doing the alienating.

Phase 1: Self-Justification

The parent who will ultimately be the alienating parent needs to justify their decision to divorce the other parent. Most of the social constructs don’t allow for a parent to divorce for their own needs/desires when children are involved. There’s the “we stayed in it for the children” expectation. So, if they split from their spouse, they must justify it somehow. They could use generally accepted reasons to divorce: adultery, abuse, or abandonment. Of course, if there’s no adultery to cite, and it doesn’t seem easy to manufacture, they can’t use that excuse. Similarly, when the other parent is actively seeking custody, trying to interact with the children, and even win custody, the abandonment story won’t play. They’re left with abuse as the only acceptable reason to divorce – one that’s hard to disprove.

After all, abuse can be emotional abuse. It can be threats. It can be anything. So, as their ego works to justify their decision, it progressively transforms normal memories into memories of alleged abuse. This is just stage one. My guess is that this actually happens pre-divorce filing, because, again, it’s the justification for the action.

Phase 2: Hypervigilance

OK, now you have a parent who has decided the other is abusive based on their recollection and no evidence. They become hypervigilant about abuse of the children, even with no previous evidence. In their mind, the other parent is now abusive – and the abuse had to include the children, because that only further justifies their decision. Now the parent isn’t telling the children the other parent is dangerous or abusive, but they behave as if they are. They’re unreasonably fearful of the other party. They become protective of the children. They ask the children about what happened with the other parent – and may even go to places where the other parent is likely to take the children, because they feel as if they’re protecting the children by watching out for them. By this time, the parent doing the alienating might reach levels of paranoia. They have a belief that’s ungrounded on facts. Therefore, it’s nothing for that belief to continue to unreasonable proportions. At this point, the parent doing the alienation may seek to engage the court system in a protective order (baseless or not) o,r they may seek counseling support for their position.

Phase 3: The Children Becomes Hypervigilant

Phase three is when the children pick up on this. Divorce for children is a traumatic and unsettling experience, so their defenses go up immediately. They become hyper-sensitive to their parents and their emotions. They seek to minimize the risk to themselves. When a parent acts like a victim and engages in behavior that leads them to believe they’re fearful, they’ll pick up on it and mimic it. They believe that the right and normal behavior is to fear the other parent. At this point, alienation has set in – and it may be that the parent causing the alienation never said a single word to that effect to the children. The children “caught it” from the environment.

Phase 4: Reinforcement

Stage four is reinforcement. The parent now sees the children acting defensive and fearful – at least in their presence. They expect that this is the behavior the parent expects, so they give it to them. After all, they just got rid of the other parent – what’s to stop them from getting rid of the children? (I’m not suggesting that any of this is conscious, just that it fits patterns of thought.) So now the parent has the justification they need. It’s not built on “facts” that are solid – it’s built on the echo chamber created between the children and the parent. The system is feeding itself at this point.

Rigidity and Reunification

While this process isn’t grounded by facts, it becomes sufficiently powerful that the parent who is doing the alienatingare unlikely to listen to reason. Professionals ask questions like: “Has the other parent ever done anything to give you cause for concern?” The alienating parent responds with vague answers – and sometimes completely fabricated answers that seem true to them. In the absence of evidence, it’s prudent for everyone involved – lawyers, counselors, judges, etc., to consider it. There’s no way to know if it’s real or imagined. It’s apparent that no amount of reality or logic is enough to dissuade the alienating parent from their perception. It is self-protecting. Anyone who doesn’t agree with their version of the facts is now out to get them.

Standard reunification therapy involves children having a good time with the alienated parent. It’s designed to create a progressively more positive environment – but, interestingly, this would necessarily create a discontinuity. They must behave one way with the parent doing the alienation – even if they’re OK with the parent that is being alienated. I think the therapy is right… but it’s interesting to me what it must cause.

A Possible Path

I think, in some cases, it might be possible to get the alienating parent to see the fact that they’re not remembering reality correctly. I think it would require interviews with their family (people they’d expect to be loyal to them) and get them to admit that they didn’t have serious concerns about the other parent – presuming that they’ve not joined in the justification process already. They have their own reputations to protect as a family after all. Maybe the parent doing the alienation could be asked for photographic or video evidence of the concerning behaviors. Even if you can get them to realize that it’s not true, it would cause the secondary problem of causing their justification to evaporate – and I’m not clear what they might do in that situation.

I don’t have answers. I was just trying to think through the systems to see what might be happening. I think that, for the mental health of the children, it’s necessary to break the cycle, and just working on their perception may not be enough.

Book Review-Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success

I’m no stranger to books about change, whether that change is focused on an organizational or a personal result. It turns out that changes occurring at either a personal level or an organizational level still require a personal change. That is, organizational changes come through changing individuals. That’s why Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success can be a powerful tool, both personally and professionally.


The authors of Change Anything previously wrote Influencer, in which they lay out their framework for change targeted at other individuals. In Influencer, the question is how to motivate others rather than how to motivate yourself. Influencer addresses the same perspectives and approaches from the lens that the change needed to happen is “out there” rather than “in here.” The truth is that most change is “in here.”

Consider Dave Ramsey’s quote: “Winning at money is 80 percent behavior and 20 percent head knowledge… Most of us know what to do, but we just don’t do it.” Most of the time, we know what the right answers are, we just fail to do them.

Elephant Paths

My favorite mental model of all time comes from Jonathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis, which was picked up by Dan and Chip Heath in Switch. The rational rider sits on top of the emotional elephant, who wanders down the path. Our conscious, rational rider isn’t in control – the elephant is. However, more frequently, neither the elephant nor the rider care that much, and therefore we take the default answers.

Nudge focuses on how we can change the path – the default answers – thereby impacting great change. Making healthier choices easier and unhealthy choices harder has a profound impact on how many people eat healthy, because, all too often, we’ll choose the easy answer.

White Knuckle Change

In twelve-step programs, they call it “white-knuckling it.” They’re talking about the addict who goes “cold turkey” and commits to never using again. Old-timers wait patiently for this to fail, because they know that no one has the kind of willpower to sustain that forever. (See Willpower for more.) Central to Change Anything is the awareness that willpower isn’t the only solution to change – and, as solutions go, it’s lousy, because it’s so prone to failure. We forget that willpower is a precious and exhaustible resource that we should protect.

It’s not that we shouldn’t be determined to make the change, it’s that we should create systems for our success rather than our failure. A lot of that is about changing our environment.

Dulaney Street

As criminal rehabilitation programs go, Dulaney Street is one of the best. Despite the average recidivism rate of 66.5% after three years, 90% of Dulaney Street participants aren’t reconvicted. The program isn’t perfect, but the results are impressive. (See Change or Die for extensive writing about this program.)

The way it works is that it changes the environment. Ex-convicts realize they’re all in it together. Dulaney Street only works if they continue to make it work. Their peers and friends all want everyone to succeed. They’re allies instead of enablers. The new members of the program are assigned someone to look after them, and, shortly after their arrival, they’re assigned someone to look after. This pulls them out of their own heads and helps them make decisions that are about the greater good rather than just their pleasure. (Being Mortal explains how the need to care for someone or something impacts life spans in long-term care facilities – so the effects of this approach are far-reaching.)

Deliberate Practice

To make a change in your life, you’re most frequently going to need to learn some sort of a new skill. The skill may be tiny, but it will take deliberate practice to get good at it. A long time ago, I treated myself to the purchase of a pinball machine. For years I played it and made only marginal improvements. One day, I decided to be very deliberate about my playing. I started practicing one shot until I could get it with almost certainty. I then moved on to a different shot and practiced it until I got really good at it. The result was that, overall, my performance shot up. I had stumbled onto the idea of deliberate practice. In Peak, Anders Ericsson explains that deliberate practice is what makes top performers the best at what they do.

In the context of change, deliberate practice is the deliberate attempt to develop skills that lead to the change. Deliberate practice breaks down large changes into small skills, and then practices those small skills with feedback from a coach until they’re almost automatic. Here, the value of a coach who can provide objective feedback about performance can be invaluable.

Carefully Crafted Ignorance

It’s not that we don’t know, as was illustrated by Ramsey’s quote above, it’s that we choose not to be aware. We carefully construct a field of ignorance around ourselves so that the negative consequences of our behaviors are blinded from us. If we smoke, we think that the Surgeon General is a quack (or all of the supporting research is phony – or, better yet, we don’t believe it actually exists). If we’re overweight, we ignore the long-term healthcare costs.

The process of our ignorance may be unconscious, but it’s not passive. (Passive ignorance is also a possibility. See Incognito for how our mind passively lies to us/itself.) It is an active decision by our ego to allow us to maintain our bad habits despite the evidence that these bad habits are often literally killing us.

How to Eat an Elephant?

Big goals are hard. You can’t see if you’re really making progress, and you’re not sure how you’ll possibly accomplish everything. The way to make a big change is to make many smaller changes. You can’t expect everything to change all at once. You’ve got to be able to make many smaller changes that, when added together, accomplish big things.

One challenge, even after big goals are broken down into little goals, is in tracking to ensure that you can feel like you’re making progress. If you can’t point to something and say definitively that your small changes are working, you’re not likely to persist long enough to make the big changes.

Redefining Normal

What’s normal for one person at one time is different for another person. Though we treat normal as a fixed point, it moves. Consider the habits of two different families for the holidays – or how your normal changes in your own world. It may be normal for you to go visit your parents until you have your first child, when normal suddenly becomes staying home and snuggling around a fire.

By consciously redefining what normal is, you can shift your behavior without requiring huge amounts of willpower. Once you’ve redefined what normal is, it no longer requires willpower or commitment to maintain that new normal. Being intentional about what the new normal is can make the process of defining a new normal happen quicker.

Where We Fail

There’s a fear that we’ll struggle with a change for a long period of time only to fail at the end. However, the road of failures isn’t littered at the end but instead is jammed up at the beginning. It’s rare that we get all the way to the end and realize we’ve failed. It’s more often that we abandon a change very early.

Are there activities that you started that you thought were going to be a part of your life forever? Maybe it’s a passion for scuba diving, a new fascination with martial arts, or learning to become a private pilot? For most of us, we get started with this new hobby and get sucked into it for a while. But then, relatively early, something happens, it breaks the magical spell, and we stop the activity all together.

We don’t need to fear that we’ll fail at the end. We need to consider how we can make a change and make it stick for a few months, and we’ll be much more likely to succeed in our changes.

Finding the Levers

The way we accomplish change in our lives and in the worlds around us isn’t by finding one approach or pulling one lever that magically makes our lives take a turn. Instead, the magic is in finding the right set of things that we can use in concert with one another to make changes easier. While the change process may rely upon the firm commitment to make the change, it is just the beginning.

It takes using tools for change to make the process more manageable. We can’t white-knuckle change, and we can’t expect that one small thing helps us change a major part of our lives. However, someday, if we’re willing to keep trying, we may find that one small thing – or a few small things – makes it possible for us to Change Anything in our lives.

Book Review-The Four Loves

I’ve for some time recognized the three words in Greek used to describe love – eros, philos, and agape. C.S. Lewis’ count of The Four Loves, therefore, was interesting and confusing. Effectively to the three above, Lewis adds storge, which is somewhere between liking and the kind of love and concern you have for someone who happens to be related to you – like family.

Liking and Loving

Early on, Lewis points out that, while Greek has several words for love, English at least has retained two words – like and love – where French must function with only one – aimer. While I appreciate the sentiment that English retains greater precision then French for this area, I’m equally concerned that liking and loving are not the same thing, and though they may be on the same continuum, they’re still miles apart.

If the degree to which you love someone were simply liking them, then storge doesn’t quite fit. In this context, you may seriously dislike a family member, but they are, of course, family. There are still things you’ll do for them. It seems like there’s a chasm between liking and loving. Perhaps it’s the degree to which you’re willing to do something for someone.

What is Love?

I suppose that, before we can get to describing different kinds of love, it’s important to understand what we mean by love. In my review of How Dogs Love Us, I summarized love as the choice to do something for someone else. In this context, perhaps, then, liking and loving are not all that different. Storge is a measure of connection and our willingness to do something for another person.

In my post The Deep Water of Affinity Groups, I explain how the willingness to do things for others takes many forms and has many levels, including a willingness to do for others what you wouldn’t do for yourself.

Gift-Love and Need-Love

The first distinction that Lewis makes is between gift-love and need-love. Gift-love is the desire to do for others. It’s for someone else’s benefit. It might be viewed as compassion (see My Spiritual Journey and Sympathy, Empathy, Compassion, and Altruism for more on compassion). Need-love is, in Lewis’ description, the drive that pulls someone who is needy into the arms of someone who can fulfil that need.

I’m not so sure of this distinction, as it seems like need-love is not love at all but rather dependency disguised as love. It’s incredibly difficult to infer intent. That may be why the armed forces now included the commander’s intent with the detailed instructions given to troops. (See Competing Against Luck.) Kahneman calls it “fundamental attribution error” when speaking our propensity for inferring intent from another person’s actions. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow.)

Despite the difficulty in inferring intent, it seems like intention is the first criteria that Lewis uses to separate love into different types. If we’re less inclined to punish those who we believe have no malintent in their actions, shouldn’t we be less inclined to accept love from those whom we believe are “loving” us based on their own selfish needs? (See The Blank Slate for more on our disinterest in punishing when we can’t infer intent.)

Fair-Weather Friends

No one wants fair-weather friends. What’s the point of feeling loved and cared for if it disappears when you need it? We’ve all experienced people who come to us when they think that they can get something from us but disappear when we’re in need.

We judge intent – correctly or not – when we meet others. We silently assess whether these people will be with us when we’re crushed and unable to provide anything to them. Sometimes we get the judgement right, and the friends are there when you need them – and sometimes we get it wrong.

My big problem with need-love as Lewis describes it is that, if it comes solely out of weakness and dependence, I wouldn’t call it love at all.

Friends and Lovers

There are obvious differences between friends and lovers. (At least there are if you’re willing to exclude “friends with benefits.”) While lovers can – and should – be friends as well, there are differences. A curious difference is that lovers tend to talk about their love for one another, where friends rarely speak about how they feel about each other. We place friendship in a completely different category than our feelings for our lover (eros). So, while we may greatly value – and need – friends, we’re less likely to communicate this with them. (See High Orbit – Respecting Grieving for more on our need for friends.)

Performance-Based Love

Though most of us don’t want fair-weather friends, many of us have learned performance-based love. We believe that those who love us won’t love us if we fail to be the star athlete, powerful CEO, or amazing musician. Somehow, when we fall short of perfect, we’re left in the situation of being unlovable.

When you shine the light on the discrepancy between our aversion to being a fair-weather friend and our belief that others in our lives will treat us this way, we must either accept that the world is filled with unethical, amoral people – or the more likely solution that performance-based love fear isn’t well-founded. Certainly, some people may have a performance-based love for us that will evaporate when we’re no longer performing, but surely most people will continue to care for us, even if we falter.

In the end, we may find that The Four Loves helps us understand that we can be loved simply for being ourselves, not because of the ways we help others or how we perform.

Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revisited

It was October of 2013 when I wrote the post Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy. While the post is an anchor post, there are a few things that deserve some clarification. (If you’ve not read it yet, now would be a good time, since the rest of this post builds on what is there.)

First, I failed to adequately express that trust leads to perceived safety that allows vulnerability. It was one of the places where I had the curse of knowledge (see The Art of Explanation for more). To be vulnerable, we need to feel safe. This is the primary concern that I have about Amy Edmonson’s work as described in The Fearless Organization. The premise is that you can make a psychologically safe organization, and therefore everyone will be courageous and bring their whole selves. There are so many external factors that influence your feeling of safety that I can’t accept this conclusion. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t make our organizations more psychologically safe. I am saying I think it’s not enough. I believe that Brown’s work on helping individuals to be more whole themselves is also required. (See I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, and Braving the Wilderness for more.)

Second, though the post explains that trust isn’t a single thing and that trust and trustworthiness are often confused, it doesn’t go far enough to explain the nuances of trust. Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order goes further in explaining how the focus of trust can both be shaped and itself shape entire societies.

Third, in my discussion of vulnerability, there was an underlying current of appropriate vulnerability. But I never clearly articulated that, when it comes to psychological vulnerability, there are some who’ve not earned the right to hear your story. Vulnerability needs to be earned through trust built on the backs of smaller disclosures. John Gottman in The Science of Trust explains that there are bids for attention, and these bids make a big difference. The way we make ourselves vulnerable to others is with small bids for them to build trust. They’re an opportunity for us to take an appropriate risk to see if the other person is worthy of trust.

The Relationship Between Trust and Vulnerability

It’s a catch-22. You must have trust to be vulnerable. You must be vulnerable to build trust. From a single, causal perspective, there’s no good solution. One requires the other. The trick is that it’s a systems thinking problem, not direct line causality. We’re taught to think in a single-iteration causal kind of way. We’re not taught to think about things that influence success. (See The Halo Effect for more.) We fail to realize that we don’t have positive control, we have degrees of influence on the outcome. Trust leads to more vulnerability and vulnerability leads to more trust – in the general sense.

Systems thinking gives us the second part of the solution for this conundrum. Systems are iterative. They keep going, and the outputs feed back into the inputs. The language of systems thinking is stocks and flows. We have a storehouse (stock) of trust that can cause us to be more vulnerable (a flow), and the outcome of that vulnerability – when it’s honored – is greater trust. If you want to learn more about systems thinking, see Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Though The Fifth Discipline popularized the idea of systems thinking, Thinking in Systems is more complete coverage.

Bringing these concepts together is Gary Klein’s work about the mental models that we use to make decisions – including decisions like whether we should be vulnerable or not. What Klein discovered was that people build mental models in their heads. They simulate situations and decide on courses of actions based on those simulations. (See Seeing What Others Don’t and Sources of Power for more.)

When we make the decision to be vulnerable, we make that decision based on the probability that our vulnerability, and therefore trust, will be rewarded or we will be betrayed. The more that our trust is rewarded with a correct prediction – and we’re not betrayed – the more our model will predict that trust is the right answer.

Building Trust with Ourselves

An important aspect of trust is how we trust ourselves. The degree to which we trust ourselves influences how much we trust others and the degree of safety that we feel and therefore how willing we are to be vulnerable. Everyone has some degree of mistrust of themselves. Some trust themselves more and some less, but everyone has some level of doubt.

Like any form of trust, trust is contextual. You may trust yourself to get to work on time, but you may not trust yourself to forgo the chocolate cake for dessert. Your trust – or lack of trust – for yourself will influence how you trust others. It’s often been observed that we get the most frustrated with others for the things that we ourselves struggle with. Our goal is to increase trust with ourselves so that we don’t burden our trust of others with our lack of trust for ourselves.


The way to build trust is to create and meet – or renegotiate – commitments. This applies to our relationships with others and with ourselves. If we find that we’re not meeting our commitments to ourselves, we’ll begin to trust ourselves less. (See Building Trust: Make, Renegotiate, Meet for more.) It may seem odd to be making commitments to ourselves, but we do it all the time – we just don’t do it formally.

We say, “I’ll take the trash out in the morning” or “I’ll find time for me (self-care) tomorrow.” When we don’t do these things, we reduce our self-trust. It’s natural to have some degree of forgetfulness, and that’s why self-acceptance is important. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on acceptance.) However, you can’t put all the cards in the acceptance basket. We must find ways to improve our ability to meet our commitments to ourselves (and to others as well).

For probably a decade now, I’ve had a reminder on my phone to take out the trash Wednesday at 6:30 AM. Generally speaking, I know I’ll be awake, and I know the trashmen don’t come until at least 8AM. The result is that I don’t have to worry about meeting my commitment to take the trash out. In fact, I don’t even make this commitment to myself anymore. It doesn’t even come up, because I’ve got a system to support it.

I don’t have a reminder system to support my self-care. However, with exceptions for temporary situations, I generally make time for self-care. I’ll forgo it to support a sick child or if I need to help a friend. However, since I typically meet the commitments that I make to myself, I’ve got more than enough acceptance to believe that I’ll resume my self-care soon. Often, I’ll renegotiate to “I’ll find some time for me (self-care) next week.” Given the level of trust I already have, it’s easy enough to accept the renegotiation.

Bad Commitments

I’ve worked with some friends who have struggled with a self-trust that is very low. Many have come from the depths of addiction and have made so many commitments to themselves about what they’ll abstain from – and they find they cannot – so they relapse. The most challenging issue isn’t that others have lost their trust of a friend or loved one impacted by the relapse. The most challenging issue is the fact that they’ve lost trust in themselves. They’ve developed learned helplessness, or they’ve lost their sense of control (or hope). (See The Hope Circuit for more.)

The climb out of this spot is long and hard. Twelve-step programs start by admitting there is a problem, admitting that the person is not capable of saving themselves, and, more importantly, that someone can. (See Why and How 12-Step Groups Work for more.) The first two steps seem like they’re tearing down the person’s sense of hope – and, to some extent, that’s true. They’re there to ensure that the person is ready to address their addiction. The third step externalizes the hope that things will get better. This transfers the weight of correcting the situation externally and allows the addict to focus on being themselves. By believing that someone or something else can help you, you can regain the hope you’ve lost.

For an addict to claim that they’re not going to relapse, without support, is wishful thinking. At the point that they’ve identified themselves as an addict, they’ve already demonstrated it doesn’t work. When they make that commitment, they’re making one they’ll miss – and further erode their trust. That’s one reason why addicts make commitments for the day. “Today, I won’t drink” is a powerful commitment. It is more likely to work, because it’s not forever. Even when there is a relapse, the addict can retain some level of trust, effectively saying, “Of the 365 commitments I’ve made not to drink over the last year, I’ve only missed the commitment twice.”

Still some commitments are bad commitments to make. Commitments made from reason – like New Year’s Resolutions – that must be carried out by our emotions and willpower aren’t the best choices. You can frame this from the point of view that our willpower is an exhaustible resource, which frequently fails when we’re tired or hungry, or from the idea that our emotions are in control. (See Willpower for more on willpower and The Happiness Hypothesis for the fact that our emotions are in control). Either way, making commitments to yourself that you’re likely to not meet won’t help to build self-trust.

Commitments and Trust

To proceed through trust, vulnerability, and intimacy, we must first practice with ourselves. We must trust ourselves – and that means meeting our commitments to ourselves, whether they’re made explicitly or implicitly. We must learn to accept ourselves and recognize and accept our vulnerability, because we’re all vulnerable in one way or another. All of this is so that we can know ourselves more and more. (For more on knowing ourselves, see my thoughts on integrated self-image in Rising Strong, Schools without Failure, Compelled to Control, and Beyond Boundaries. Also, see my thoughts on stable core in How to Be Yourself, Dialogue, and Resilient.)

Ultimately, as social creatures, we yearn for connection to others. To connect with others, we need to first connect with ourselves. The path that we use to find our way to others is one that we must first travel alone.

Are Your Children Living Their Lives – or Yours?

Jane always wanted to be on the cheerleading squad. However, Jane’s mother was working two jobs, barely keeping things together for Jane and her brother. It just wasn’t possible. Bill was an all-state football star in high school. He made it through most of college on a scholarship until he was injured and had to stop playing.

Jane’s successful in her marketing career, and she and her husband have two children. They can afford for them to be in sports and activities – and they’re insisting their children do them. Bill’s son has just started junior varsity football, and Bill’s already pushing for another generation of football stars in the family.

There’s no problem with wanting your children to succeed – all parents do that. There’s no problem in supporting them in the things they’re interested in and encouraging them to do their best. However, parents need to be cautious that their goals for their children aren’t about reliving their glory days or living a life they never got to live.

Never Lived

If you ask people about their regrets in life, it’s rare that they speak of something they’ve done. More frequently, you hear about a chance to be courageous or try something new that they decided against. Those missed opportunities carry a special weight and pain for most of us. (See The Top Five Regrets of the Dying for more.) It’s no wonder why Jane might feel a longing that she never got to be the cheerleader she dreamed of because of the circumstances.

It seems harmless at first. Jane starts to see her daughter becoming a cheerleader and revives a dream within herself that she had long decided would never happen. Most of the time when watching her daughter cheer for the team, Jane feels pride. However, every now and then, she slips into a moment where she feels like she’s watching a movie of herself being out on that field cheering for the team.

That’s not a problem though. It’s reasonable to want to dream about something that you missed. It turns sideways when it stops being about what the daughter wants.

Living Vicariously

Over time, it’s possible for Jane to integrate a part of her ideal life through her daughter’s activities. She brings cheerleading back not through herself directly but through her daughter. Jane’s identity as a person starts to include “mother of a cheerleader.” It’s not quite the same as “former cheerleader,” but it’s close enough. It’s enough to make her believe that something she thought she had lost is now regained.

Slowly, every win for her daughter is a win for Jane. When the team makes it to the state championships, it’s like Jane has done something good, that she’s a part of it. She leans in and helps make costumes for the team or organizes transportation for the meets. She becomes an integral part of the cheerleading team’s support – and thus the team itself.

Momma Knows Best

Anyone who has had children in activities knows that there’s going to be a time when they complain. They’ll find it’s hard and decide they want to quit. It might be a long practice, getting corrected by the coach, or just exhaustion from too many practices and not enough sleep. Parents have learned how to address this with caution by first understanding and then helping the child understand the implications of their choices about their feelings. It’s a good opportunity to teach delayed gratification – offering up that they’ll enjoy the win with the team if they can stick to it. (See The Marshmallow Test for more about delayed gratification.)

But what happens if the threat of leaving cheerleading threatens Jane’s identity? She’s a part of the team. She’s got friends wrapped up in the other team moms. She’d no longer be a “mother of a cheerleader.” She’ll lose her identity – again.

As a result, instead of a supportive parent exploring how this will impact her daughter’s life, she’s threatened, and lashes out that her daughter “must continue” with cheerleading whether she likes it or not. After all, momma knows best.

Family Failure

Failures are impossibly hard, too. When Jane’s daughter makes a mistake, it’s like Jane made it. Somehow, if Jane had done something different, then her daughter wouldn’t have made a mistake. Somehow, it’s Jane’s fault. The problem is, Jane’s equally sure that she knows it’s her fault, and she doesn’t know how to solve it.

There are at least two things wrong with this. The first is that mistakes are a normal and expected part of life. Beating yourself – or your daughter – up over a mistake isn’t the right answer. Trying to learn from mistakes is great. However, you can’t learn from something if you’re not the one doing it.

The second point is that Jane does not have control of her daughter. She’s not responsible for what her daughter does – good or bad. She can take pride in her daughter’s successes and comfort her in the mistakes and failures, but she’s not responsible. (See Compelled to Control for more about controlling others.)

The Message of Love

It doesn’t take Jane’s daughter long to feel like she’s more loved when she’s cheering – and doing it well. After all, Jane’s entire demeanor changes based how her daughter is doing. As a result, Jane’s daughter learns that love is conditional. Love is performance-based. (See The Road Less Traveled for more about performance-based love.) To her, people are loved when they’re doing well, and aren’t lovable when they’re failing.

A belief that we’re loved just because we are who we are provides some degree of inoculation against the momentary struggles that might overwhelm us. When love isn’t intrinsic and is instead a result of performance, there is no such inoculation. As a result, a child can feel fear, loneliness, and sometimes hopelessness.

Life on Repeat

Bill’s son was football star at his high school. He wasn’t all-state like Bill, but he was a star player, and Bill knew it. Football had become for Bill a bit of a tradition. After all, it felt like it was in the genes. He had a bloodline that knew how to play the game and play to win. Bill figured that if he could be all-state, then perhaps his son could play professionally. He remembered his dreams of making it and how they were smashed by the bad hit during college.

Bill longs for those glory days. He felt powerful and important. Bill feels like, in some ways, his best years are behind him. He’s got a good enough job, and he likes his wife, but somehow he doesn’t feel as alive as he once did.

Old Movies

When Bill’s son suits up, he remembers his early games and triumphant victories, the friends that he had – or at least he thought he had. For a moment, Bill gets to play the old movies in his head where he was the star and he gets to forget a little bit about how his life is today.

In one sense, Bill’s watching his son play. In quite another sense, he’s watching himself play in an old movie. He needs to keep watching the movie to feel a bit more alive.

But Tradition

Bill’s son has never been the rough and tumble type. He’s more of a bookworm who would be just fine burying his head in books for hours – or days – at a time. He knows that his dad is pleased when he plays, so he does it. His heart’s not in it, though, and it shows. He feels a sense of obligation to fulfil the family tradition – even if it’s not what he wants for his own life.

Bill’s son is caught between the person that he wants to be and the person that his family expects him to be. He cannot form his own identity and learn to be himself because he was always fighting off his family expectations.

Falling Out

What happens to Bill’s identity when his son finally reaches the point where he can say that he doesn’t want football to be a part of his identity? Bill has become wrapped in his son’s success much like his own. He’s sacrificed both in terms of time and money to ensure that his son had all the resources he needed to become the best football star. There were training camps and individual coaching and equipment. It all had to come from somewhere.

But now that’s all gone. It’s like a part of Bill is removed. It’s like his son is ripping out his heart – though that’s not the intent. Bill’s son wants his own identity, and that means taking it away from his father.

How could Bill react when he’s losing a part of himself? Clearly, not well. The problem isn’t with the reaction when he loses his identity. The problem is taking on his son’s identity in the first place. The conversation, depending upon whether Bill’s son is in high school or college, can cause a real family feud.

Driving the Wedge

It just seemed like an argument to Bill. He said how it was going to be and expected his son to toe the line. The problem is that Bill was miles away. His son got a scholarship at a university in another state with a great coach and a winning team. It meant that he really had a shot.

That is, until after the argument, when Bill’s son really shut down. He went from initial lineup to being benched most games. The coach decided that the scholarship wouldn’t be renewed next year, but no one told Bill. Bill’s son decides to take a break. He tells his dad he’d going to live off-campus and then finds a job at a coffee shop and doesn’t go to school at all.

The end is an unfinished college degree, a set of lies that Bill’s son tells him, and a life in a state that Bill’s son may never come back from. Tragically, it’s because Bill’s identity was wrapped up in his son’s successes. He was reliving the life he had through his son, and his son had finally had enough. He stood up to Bill, but Bill couldn’t hear it.


Both stories are tragedies, where children are deprived of their own dreams and identities in service of their parents. It’s not that every football star or cheerleader has these stories. For many, they are their own dreams – which may or may not be shared by their parents. However, in these cases, where the children want one thing and the parents are trying to live through them, the results are devastating.

Sometimes the result is a suicide, but, more frequently, it’s a distance in the relationship as the parents feel as if their child has betrayed them – all because they wanted to live their life, not their parent’s life.

When you’re cheering for your child, rooting for their success, and reveling in their triumphs, it’s hard to not take on a bit of that in your identity – but it’s absolutely necessary for your mental health and for theirs.