The Power of the Other: The Startling Effect Other People Have on You, from the Boardroom to the Bedroom and Beyond - and What to Do About It

Book Review-The Power of the Other

When I found out that Dr. Cloud was releasing a new book, The Power of the Other, I put it at the top of my reading stack. Why? Well, I’ve been a big fan of his work. Having read and reviewed Boundaries, and Changes that Heal, I appreciate Dr. Cloud’s ability to distill complex topics. His work here on explaining how we relate to others and how to generate better connections with others is no exception.

Connection is Core

In order to understand the framework that Dr. Cloud lays out, we have to accept that connection is essential for humans. We have to accept that we’ve been hard-wired through our DNA to need connection to others just as much as we need air, water, and food. Though connection is not as high a priority as air, it appears in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs right after safety. Spiritual Evolution introduced me to the study of baboons, whose offspring were more likely to succeed based on the social network of the mother. Others, like Brene Brown in her book Daring Greatly assert the same importance of connection.

Dr. Cloud relates that in his studies he hit an inflection point. As a student of psychology, he eagerly sought the tool, technique, framework, or approach that would help him alleviate the pain and suffering of his clients. His instructor informed him that the key factor in the efficacy of psychological assistance was simply the relationship between the therapist and the patient – something that The Heart and Soul of Change called “alliance”. How could it be, given all the great minds that had been trying to learn how to improve folks’ lives, that the answer was as simple as a relationship?

Dr. Cloud wondered whether his professor was saying, “my fraternity is basically a treatment center.” Um, yep. That’s the way we’re created. We want to find someone who will understand us and who will connect with us. Somewhere buried deep within our DNA is the bias toward staying connected so that we can protect and support each other.

Limits, The Mind, and The Invisible

Elephants at the circus are tied to a stake with a large rope or chain when they’re young. As they grow, the rope that they’re tied with gets smaller. That’s because the elephants have learned that the rope isn’t something they can move, so no matter how small the rope becomes, they won’t try to break it. This results in the elephant equivalent of “the Bannister effect”, where the limits are psychological and aren’t physical limits. (See The Rise of Superman for more on the Bannister effect.) Whether it’s a high-performance athletic trick or running a sub-four-minute mile, we sometimes psych ourselves out and create the false belief that we can’t do something personally – or as a human – that we really can.

All of us face limits in our life. Some of them are real, hard boundaries. They’re true limits to what we can and cannot do. However, more frequently, the limits that we have are the result of mental constructs and false limiting beliefs. (See Sources of Power for more on mental models/constructs and The Success Principles for more on limiting beliefs.) The relationship between our mind and our well-being is well accepted but not well understood. (See Change or Die and Thinking, Fast and Slow for more about how our mind and body interact.)

The difficulty in our understanding of this phenomenon may be due in part to our limited psychological knowledge. While psychology isn’t a new discipline, it hasn’t had the benefit of the scientific rigor that other areas of science have had. As a result, we may know quite a bit about the neurology of the brain, but relatively little about the psychology. Think of it this way: we understand the hardware of the brain but we don’t understand the software. (See Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology for more about the limits of our knowledge in psychology.)

The problem with psychology (and software) is that it’s invisible. We can typically only measure the effects, behaviors, and outcomes. While we can inspect software source code line-by-line, we can’t do the same with psychology. While we have potentially helpful models of viewing people, (See The Normal Personality and Personality Types: Using The Enneagram for Self-Discovery) we’ve also had more than a few unhelpful models. (See The Cult of Personality Testing.)

Self and Others

The self-help movement has been around since the publishing of The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952 – or since Benjamin Franklin depending upon your point of view. No matter where you believe it started, it’s become big business. It’s defined by the “self” term. That’s appropriate in that we’re only really in control of our own lives. We can’t truly change other people – they have to decide to change themselves. If you look at Everett Roger’s work in Diffusion of Innovations, we see that people change their knowledge through mass media, their attitudes through close relationships, and their behavior through personal choice. Ultimately, it all comes down to personal choice, what we do. It’s our self-agency. (See Change or Die for more on how infrequently people change, even under the pressure of overwhelming evidence.)

However, along the way we’ve lost our ability to see beyond the self. We’ve lost the ability to see that the formula for behavior includes what Kurt Lewin called “person and environment”. The environment is less about the physical trappings that surround us, and is more about the influence of other people. Consider the Holocaust, which was a tragedy, and the part that people played in it. (See Man’s Search for Meaning for more on the Holocaust and the psychology of it.) What’s more disturbing was Milgram’s research, that showed that most humans can be coerced into doing immoral and harmful things. (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) for more on this disturbing research.)

We have forgotten that, while we have to be ultimately responsible for who we are and the actions that we take, we equally must accept that the others around us influence our behavior very strongly. Malcom Gladwell made this point in his books The Tipping Point and Blink. We react to broken windows. We make snap decisions about the situation based on the context.

That’s what The Power of Other is all about. It’s about the environment that we find ourselves in as individuals, and how we can be attentive to our relationships to improve happiness.

Four Corners

If you accept that we’re here for connections, then there are four potential places you can find yourself in relative to connecting to others – something that Dr. Cloud calls the “four corners”. They are:

  1. Disconnected – This is the state of trying to be alone. We’ve basically concluded through adverse childhood events (ACE) that connections are bad, much like some people struggle with the life-giving need for food. (See How Children Succeed for more about ACE).
  2. Bad Connection – This is the state of being harmed. We’re connected, but the connection is life-draining rather than life-giving as it should be. This is like exposure to carbon monoxide, which prevents us from taking in life-giving oxygen.
  3. Pseudo-Good Connection – This is the state of being worshipped. While the relationship seems to build us up, it’s all positive and no (or little) reality. We all need others to reinforce reality since we have blind spots and only our own perspective. (See Incognito for more blind spots.) The Pseudo-Good connection means that someone will eventually yell that the emperor has no clothes.
  4. True Connection – This is the state of being real. Real connections are ultimately positive, but don’t avoid the negative when it’s necessary to help both of the parties grow. True connections are difficult because of the need for communication skills and internal integrity, but it’s the kind of connection that we’re all designed to make.

These are the places that we can be in relationship with others. The reality is that we’re not in a single relationship with others. We have multiple situations and those situations can result in different kinds of connections. At work we can be in a bad relationship (i.e. we need to change our job), while at home we’re in a fourth-corner, or true connection, relationship with our spouse. We can – and do – have places in our life where we’re not interested or able to connect.

In How to Be an Adult in Relationships, David Richo implores us to not get more than 25% of our nurturance from any one partner. He encourages us to seek out multiple connections so that we’re able to grow more fully through the true connections with others. Gary Keller, in The One Thing, tries to focus us in on the one thing that we can do in each area of our lives. In other words, we need multiple fourth-corner connections to become the person we’re capable of becoming.

Corner One: Disconnected

It’s easiest to think about the disconnected person as the hermit sitting in a cave or on some solitary ranch in Wyoming. However, the truth is that being disconnected has very little to do with the presence of other people. In today’s world, the remotest areas of the planet can be reached with emails, voice conversations, and even video chat. I routinely chat with my friend Paul Culmsee in Perth, Australia – just about as close to the opposite side of the planet as you can get from me. Disconnected is an internal state, not a representation of the physical world.

There are folks that have trouble connecting with others in a meaningful way. This is most painfully expressed in marriage relationships as what Doug Weiss calls Intimacy Anorexia. This illustrates the point that the problem is an inner condition and not an outer observable one. From the outside point of view, one could assume that a married person isn’t in Corner One (Disconnected), but Weiss’ work with clients indicates that this external perspective isn’t right.

I mentioned in my post High Orbit- Respecting Grieving that we’re flooded with Facebook friends that aren’t really friends at all. They’re people that we’re watching like voyeurs. While we’re wired for connection, we have a maximum number of ports, and that maximum number isn’t the thousands of Facebook friends that some have. Facebook, and other technologies, have actually made it much easier to appear to be connected, when in reality we’re quite disconnected on the inside. (See Alone Together for more.)

Corner Two: Bad Connection

Why would you be in a relationship that is bad for you? Well, there are two reasons. First, you don’t realize that it’s bad for you. Second, you are getting some good things from it, and you believe that you’re getting more from it than you’re losing.

It’s like drinking salt water from the ocean when you’re at sea. You know you need the water but don’t realize that you’re getting so much salt that it’s doing more harm than good. Or it’s like eating candy – and only candy – all day long. Your brain rewards you with dopamine because it recognizes the calorie content in the sugar. However, what your reward system doesn’t realize is that the vitamins, minerals, proteins, etc., are also all essential to your survival. You seek out the candy because of the sugar – but at the same time too much of it will create long-term problems.

Ultimately, Dr. Cloud’s previous work on Boundaries and his co-author John Townsend’s Beyond Boundaries is about removing these bad connections from your world – or causing the connections to heal and become good (Corner Four) connections. While I personally don’t have many bad connections left in my life (though there are always some), and my bad connections tend to not be of the extreme variety, I do come in contact with others who are in relationships which are bad for them. They’re relationships that I call “toxic”, because the longer the person is in them, the worse the person is.

Corner Three: Pseudo-Good Connection

We all need friends who are willing to pick us up and help us realize that things are going to be alright. Dr. Cloud describes a bad business decision where his mentor called him and told him that, “We’ve all been there.” This normalized the situation and lifted up Dr. Cloud into the brotherhood of humans who occasionally make mistakes. We absolutely need our relationships to try to build us up and to help us become the best people that we can be. However, sometimes building someone up means giving them hard feedback. This is precisely what the Pseudo-Good third-corner connection doesn’t do. They’re too afraid of damage to the relationship, the way the other person will feel, or are wrapped up in their own insecurities to the degree that they’re unwilling or unable to have the hard conversations.

Anyone who has had the privilege of the platform – that is, anyone who has done public speaking – has had to develop an approach to these sorts of would-be connections. It’s still strange to me that people have “groupies”, but I’ll admit to having a few myself. The challenge with making space for these relationships is recognizing that they’re relational candy. They’re nice occasionally but they can’t be my steady diet of relationships.

Corner Four: True Connection

Being in corner four connections – true connections – is hard work. It requires balancing grace and truth. It requires being forthright with your feelings, perspectives, and awareness, while tempering that with your love for the other person. Love in this context is more akin to the Buddhist belief of compassion or the Greek word agape than anything else. When you can do that, you can be right with your intent for the relationship and the other person, and provide them the feedback they need to grow. Just as importantly, they’ve got the strength of character to do the same for you.

For me, the prerequisite to be in a true connection is a stable core. I wrote about this in my post How to Be Yourself. It’s about knowing who you are and having a stable and integrated self-image which can survive the outside world. (You can find more about my thoughts for integrated self-images in Rising Strong Part 1, Schools Without Failure, Compelled to Control, and Beyond Boundaries.)

Corner four connections can powerfully propel you to becoming a greater person, but they’re very difficult to find.


How do you get corner four connections? It starts with trust. For me, trust is the path that leads to our ability to be vulnerable, and this leads to the opportunity to be intimate with one another. In my post Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy I lay out this path along with references for the various concepts.

Trust exists exclusively in corner four (true) connections. In corner one, you trust no one. In corner two, you can’t trust the person who is harming you. In corner three, you can’t trust that you’ll hear honest answers, and your connection can’t trust how you’ll respond if they’re honest and real. It’s only in corner four – where trust exists – that we can choose to be honest and caring to the level necessary to form truly intimate, and therefore powerful, relationships.

Bermuda Triangles

The Bermuda Triangle is where strange things happen. Ships disappear. Planes disappear. In general, there’s just a wackiness that can’t be explained. This same situation can occur when a relationship which is designed for two people expands to three people. Instead of people having hard, but life-giving corner four relationships, the triangle drains energy from all.

The triangle works like this. There’s a victim – let’s call him Victor. A victim feels like there is someone out to get them, to persecute him. Let’s called the persecutor Paul. (If you’re up on your Old Testament Saul would be better, but it’s not an alliteration.) So Victor, rather than talking to Paul, talks to Robbie the rescuer. The problem with this drama triangle is that Robbie isn’t even involved in whatever supposed affront that Victor (the victim) feels. Instead, he’s getting a one-sided view of the story and begins to think negatively of Paul (the persecutor) when Paul may have done nothing wrong.

This triangle creates drama and heartache where there is none to start with. It maligns Paul (the persecutor) unfairly. It may be that he was persecuting Victor (the victim), but it’s still not fair because Paul’s voice can’t be heard – he’s not a part of the conversation.

Triangles happen all the time, even when well-meaning people are involved. It starts out as seeking advice on how to handle a situation and turns into an opportunity to extract sympathy and rescuing. The net effect is the destruction of trust and the erosion of connections, so a hard line needs to be taken to prevent the triangles from forming. This means outlawing gossip and encouraging direct and candid conversations.

Growing to Connect

Ultimately, the power of others to influence our lives is driven by our ability to interact with them in positive, life-giving ways. That means first seeking out connections. You can’t have healthy relationships if you don’t have any relationships at all. Second, it means limiting the number of bad connections you make and/or limiting your interactions inside of those relationships. Third, it means moving past the mutual appreciation club to a point where you can candidly support and provide candid feedback. All of this takes growth on our part to be the kind of person that not only recognizes the qualities of ourselves but also the qualities of our relationships.

If we want to transform the power of others in our lives, we have to transform ourselves so that we can be the best connection possible for them as well as for ourselves. The irony is that, by working on ourselves, we’ll transform the power of others in our lives. If you want to have better relationships and a happier existence, it’s time to transform The Power of the Other.

Rest Assured: A Recovery Plan for Weary Souls

Book Review-Rest Assured: A Recovery Plan for Weary Souls

Sometimes my reading list is influenced by my friends and family. I read not so much because they tell me to read something or even that they suggest it. Instead I read things to be more connected with them. It’s true that my wife mentioned that I might like to read Rest Assured but it’s because it was helpful to her and she wanted to be able to have a conversation about it. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that she also has access to my private notes on the book so she doesn’t have to write as much for herself. We can thus lean on each other’s work to allow us to both learn more from it.

The Busyness Badge

In a world where every site, game, and interaction seems to want to give you a gold star or some sort of a badge for doing something, the one that most people seem to covet the most is the busyness badge. When I speak with my fellow speakers at a conference they speak of their burgeoning schedules and platinum status on airlines and with hotels. They seem simultaneously run down by the schedule and proud that they have it.

On a more personal level, if you read Christmas letters you find out all of the things that families of your friends have been doing. Each event which was previously chronicled on Facebook for others to envy is relived and amplified as a way of extracting admiration – or in some cases just to catch you up on what they’re doing. Catching up is certainly the feeling that you can get as you have to figure out where you left the story and what has changed.

In our own lives we want the busyness badge because it means that we’ve arrived. We’re productive. We matter. We make an impact. However, in all of this we fail to ask if what we’re busy with really matters. Does the trip to Africa matter – or does it matter how it’s given you a heart for the struggling people. Certainly we need experiences but at the same time we need the ability to process the results of these events and activities, an opportunity that we don’t often allow for ourselves.

Minding the Margins

One of the lessons from systems thinking is that efficiency and optimizations necessarily reduce resiliency. (See The Fifth Discipline and especially Thinking in Systems for more.) The extra performance you get comes from somewhere and that place is the set of checks and balances that keep the system running even when the variables change.

I also learned the lesson from flying. Planes are created with what is called dynamic stability. That is like sitting on the bottom of a rod extended from a ball. You’ll always default back to a center position. This is opposed to dynamic instability which is like trying to balance yourself on the top of a long rod attached to the top of a ball. Instead of being able to rest like you can on the bottom, on the top you have to be ever vigilant and constantly making adjustments to stay in balance.

On the bottom there is lots of room for margin. Your mind can wander. You can release control. On the top there’s no margin. You have to remain engaged at all times.

In our lives we sometimes create dynamic instability where we must be ever vigilant and never take a break – or at least think that we can never take a break. This is living a life without margins. It’s living a life where there’s no inherent stability. If we were to let go and relax for a while the whole thing seems like it will fall apart.

We weren’t designed to live like this. As we learned in How Children Succeed, our fight or flight system was never meant to be left in the on position. It was only supposed to be switched on for a while. Some of us live in a constant fight or flight mode never able to stop and relax.

Margin is the space between our load and our limits. It’s expressed by the slack or gap that we have between our load and our limits. There are times when each of us has been at our limit. The load we were carrying was all we could bare. However, this isn’t designed to be our normal state. We’re designed to need margin in our lives.

Subverting Slothfulness

Ever since sloth made its way to the list of seven deadly sins we’ve been avoiding the perception of being slothful. In the process we’ve confused the natural need for rest with a persistent state of slothfulness. Rest isn’t a reward, it’s a requirement.

When we rest we’re not necessarily lazy. Resting is recharging. It’s rebuilding our strength to face the next battle, to climb the next hill, and to take the next risk. In our culture the idea that you would take a “lazy day” seems sacrilegious – even on a vacation. Most of us take our work with us on vacation. Forty percent of Americans don’t even use all of the vacation time that they are given each year.

In our attempt to avoid being perceived as slothful, we’ve become overworked, overstressed, and overwhelmed.

Serving Others

I believe strongly that you cannot give what you don’t have. Despite this I see many people trying to give healing and support to others when they’re emotionally run down and when they have nothing left to offer. Instead of doing self-care they seek to care for others. My eldest daughter is a nurse and we hear stories all the time of her and her coworkers not taking a lunch break because they’re too busy or they’re too concerned that the other nurses can’t take care of their patients as well as they can.

We’ve come to believe that taking time for ourselves is a sin and that solitude is loneliness. Instead of recognizing the Sabbath we run like we’re fleeing a sabretooth tiger. We’ve learned – incorrectly – that it’s greedy and rude to take care of our own needs. Instead of investing a little time to get centered and ready to share our gifts with the world we try to share what we don’t have.

Consider the Dalai Lama. The gifts of compassion that he offers the world are life giving. However, as a Buddhist monk he makes substantial time each day for meditative prayer so that he has the inner fortitude to share with others. If the Dalai Lama still needs daily meditation and prayer – don’t we?

The Fault of Future Focused

I’m a future focused person (See The Time Paradox for more.) That means that I tend to live in the future. I look forward to a day when the struggle is less and that I’ve achieved my goals – whatever that means. This is good in that it allows me to plan for the future and keep positive that no matter how bad things are at the moment they’ll get better someday.

However, the negative to this perspective is that I’ll sometimes forget to recognize the blessings in my life today. I spend so much time living for tomorrow I forget to live in the here and now. Sometimes stopping to smell the roses is important – even for those trying to grow rose bushes.

Luxurious Leisure

It’s not that we get less time than other people. The Earth rotates at the same speed for you and me as those people who are highly productive and those who are recharged by their rest. However, the way that we spend our time is important. We can spend our time lounging in front of the next situation comedy (sitcom) from Hollywood or we can spend it talking with friends. What we spend our time on will depend how rested we feel.

As was mentioned in Alone Together, we’re wired for connection with other humans. When we spend our time connecting with others – when we’re just relaxing and enjoying their company – we become restored. When we spend our leisure time watching TV or playing video games we’re not getting the most benefit from our leisure. Without trying to turn our rest and relaxation into another opportunity for “productivity”, there are things that we can choose to do which will more thoroughly and quickly restore our souls.

While each of us enjoys a different kind of rest, a different kind of leisure, we can accidentally choose leisure time which isn’t rewarding or fulfilling – or we can choose to turn our rest into a competition. Play mentioned a Runner’s World Article which divided runners into four categories: the exerciser, the competitor, the enthusiast, and the socializer. Each one experienced running differently. The exerciser experienced the physical activity. The competitor experienced the power of competition. The enthusiast experiences the moment – the leisure. The socializers experience the connection. (See Who Am I? for 16 different motivational factors.) Experiencing the moment or the leisure and experiencing the connection with others will powerfully restore the runners. Those who are running for physical activity may be restored if their need for physical activity isn’t being met. Those who are, however, competing may not receive any rest from running at all.

Technology Tethered

I do a talk on converting an email culture into a SharePoint culture. In that talk I assess the level of addiction that we have with email. When I started giving the talk few people – maybe a third of the room – would admit to having an addiction with email and our phones. When I give the talk these days more than 80% of the hands go up when I asked if they’re addicted to email.

We’ve become too tethered to our technology and not tethered enough to each other. (See Alone Together
for more on this central concept.) We’ve become the dog tethered in the back yard to a stake. We never get to experience what it’s like to be inside each other’s houses – or lives. What we need for rest is to spend more time with each other connecting about things that matter and less time trying to follow Facebook. Rest Assured, if we do that we’ll find a way to slow down our crazy pace and feel more peace.

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are

Book Review-The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are

Reading Brown’s work in a non-sequential order makes me think of Star Wars with its episodes and prequels. In some ways it’s more like the movie Premonition which is a magnificent film and also magnificently hard to follow. The premise of the movie is that the star character is experiencing time out of order. Despite this, The Gifts of Imperfection filled in gaps in the story told by Browns subsequent works Daring Greatly and Rising Strong (Part 1 and Part 2 of my review).

The Gifts of Imperfection covers a variety of the same topics in Brown’s other works. I won’t readdress them here. Instead I’ll focus on some of the topics that aren’t in her other works.

Separately Together

One of the challenges that Terri and I’ve seen is that people are literally together but they’re not really connecting. Whether it’s the family out to dinner each with their phone firmly planted at the end of their noses banging out something to someone who is presumably not at the table or it’s the family sitting together in the hospital – it is tragic that we can be together but separate. (We started Kin-to-Kid Connection to help with this challenge.) This is the paradox of the world we live in.

We’re the most technologically connected society. We’ve got WiFi internet in our homes, coffee shops, churches, offices, and nearly everywhere that we might go. We’ve even got WiFi available on airplanes. Our cell phones have data access allowing us to connect with the Internet and the various messaging and social sites. Today we’re able to communicate on live video with our friends half a world away. From a technical aspect of communication perspective, the Pony Express is a distant memory along with any belief that we can’t communicate with anyone at any time.

Yet, we’re not able to connect with the people that are right in front of us. Instead of real friends we have Facebook friends. (See my post High Orbit – Respecting Grieving for more on the limits of Facebook friends.) Instead of conversation or dialogue we text each other – sitting at the same table. (See Dialogue for more on the art of thinking together.)

Hope is Not an Emotion

If you had asked me, I would have said that hope was an emotion – it’s a way that you feel. As I’ve spoken about hope that’s the context that I’ve held. (See Faith, Hope, and Love and The Heart and Soul of Change for two examples.) However, hope isn’t an emotion. It’s a cognitive process. C.R. Snyder a researcher at the University of Kansas believes that hope is: 1) The ability to set realistic goals, 2) ability to meet those goals – including through alternative routes, and 3) belief in ourselves. The good news here is that hope can be learned. (See Mindset for malleability of our mindset.)

I’ve ordered Snyder’s book but I think that he (and Brown) are speaking of a special kind of hope. It’s not hope that the world will be better tomorrow. It’s not hope that someone will get the job. It’s a variant of self-confidence that you can do what you set out to do.

Despite my disagreement with the specifics of Snyder’s work – the idea that you can instill and give rise to hope is important. Hope is sometimes the thing that carries people through serious losses (See On Death and Dying.) Hope may come easier to those who have a future focus (See The Time Paradox for more.)


In The Paradox of Choice we learned of Maximizers, Schwartz’s code word for perfectionists, and their struggle to be happy in life. This intersects with Brown’s world as it relates to shame. Though she says that shame is the birthplace of perfectionism, the opposite is more likely true. Where we feel shame we feel that we are bad – thus that we failed to measure up to a standard. When that standard is perfectionism shame will always exist.

Perfectionism is a liar. Perfectionism says that you can only be accepted when you are perfect. This challenges our fundamental need for connection. The idea that we are unlovable when we’re not perfect isn’t true as we learned in God Loves You.

Connection and Relationship

The idea of the human need for connection is a recurring topic in my research. Numerous articles talk about healthier living for folks in a marriage – and that those who are in relationships in general are happier and healthier. The Science of Trust discussed immigrant groups with better health when they had trusting communities and trusting family ties. It’s not just the quantity of these relationships. It’s the quality – so Facebook friends don’t count.

Spiritual Evolution shared that social bonds in Baboons improved the survival rate of their offspring. So even in our primate cousins we see that connections and relationships matter. If you want to be happy you want relationships. You need connections with other people. Connecting with others means loving them – a special kind of universal love.

Agape Love

The Greek word Agape is one of three Greek words translated to mean love in the English language. In Buddhism the word is compassion. Buried in this is the meaning that we are all connected to one another. Compassion is cultivated because we know that we are all one. We can’t survive without one another. The bubble that we call Earth is a delicate balance of one set of interconnected ecosystems.

This kind of global love is an irreducible need of all humans. We’re wired to need connection with one another because it was necessary for us to band together to form communities and care – so that we could survive.

Digging Deep

Brown shares the acronym DIG for considering our condition and living wholeheartedly. The letters stand for:

  • Deliberate – thoughts and behaviors
  • Inspired – making new and different choices
  • Going – take action

By taking these steps – by looking into ourselves and digging deep we can become more wholehearted and along the way better understand our defining boundaries.

Wholehearted Through Boundaries

If you were looking for a marker to find wholehearted people – to find the people who are really experiencing life what would you look for? It turns out looking for someone who is clear about their boundaries might be the best way to find wholehearted people. Though it seems paradoxical that the most open people might be people who are the most boundary conscious – it isn’t when you dig in. (See Boundaries and Beyond Boundaries for more about what boundaries are.)

Wholehearted people know themselves. They’re comfortable in their own skins. They know what they do well and they know what they don’t do well. They know what they want and what they don’t want. They know these things because they’ve looked deeply into themselves to really understand themselves. They know what they are willing to accept and those things that they’re not willing to accept.

Knowing these answers frees them up to be who they truly are all the time. They don’t have to lament over each decision. They can just respond as themselves. They’ve gotten out of the boxes that define them and as a result they’re no longer trapped by their boundaries though they may be defined by them. (See The Anatomy of Peace for more on boxes.)

Science and Religion

The great irony of our societies is that in science we’ve accepted that there’s a lot that we don’t know. We’ve learned time and time again that we were wrong or at least incomplete in our understanding of something. As a result science has become malleable to the idea of errors of thinking. Faith, on the other hand, insists in one true and correct answer without any acceptance that there might be other answers or that we might be incorrect.

It’s odd that faith has come to mean that we’re certain even when we have no evidence. Shouldn’t faith be bent according to what we learn to be true? The Dalai Lama commented that Buddhism must change to the truths discovered through science – that is what the Buddha said must happen. (See Emotional Awareness for more.)

Shut Up and Dance

One of my favorite songs over the last few months has been Shut Up and Dance by Walk the Moon on their Talking is Hard album. Part of the lyrics are “Oh don’t you dare look back Just keep your eyes on me I said you’re holding back She said shut up and dance with me.” For me the lyrics are a reminder to focus on where you are – not what other folks are thinking. To focus on the present in the moment and to no worry how others think you are. I was reminded of this as Brown speaks of a moment with her daughter where she focused exclusively on her – and not what the others around them might be thinking.

We’re all imperfect creatures. The trick is to recognize The Gift of [Our] Imperfection[s].

My Spiritual Journey

Book Review-My Spiritual Journey

While I’m firm in my faith as a Christian, I’m comfortable with my Buddhist brothers. I’m mindful of my Muslim friends. I say this knowing that in America there is still uneasy tension about the acts of a few Muslim extremists. In truth, I have a deep respect for anyone who has the capacity to live out their faith fully. It’s in this context that I read My Spiritual Journey which is a “self-portrait” of the Dalai Lama.

This isn’t the first time I’ve read about the Dalai Lama’s work. Having read both Emotional Awareness and listened to Destructive Emotions as an audio book, I was familiar with the Dalai Lama’s beliefs but in truth I had very little perspective on how he came to be so wise.


Tibet is an interesting place – at least in my mind. I imagine it as a place of untold beauty at the top of the world, with mountains, animals, and monasteries. It seems like my mental image isn’t too different than what it really is – except that nature may be less forgiving and harsher than the idealized version in my head. The plight of the Tibetan people is also less ideal than I would have imagined.

I can remember incidents where the Chinese government suppressed and put down revolts. Perhaps the most familiar to me was described simply as Tiananmen Square. This is a location where many events have happened over the years where protesters clashed with the Chinese government. While the details are disputed some of the videos that have surfaced from the incidents are hard to ignore.

So when the Dalai Lama describes the forceful nature with which China invaded Tibet and the subsequent massacres of Tibetan people through waves of trying to “gain control.” I have little doubt that the events actually happened. While falling short of saying that every claim that has been made is absolute truth, I’m comfortable in saying that there are clearly ways that China could have behaved better.

I’d love to some day visit Tibet and learn more about the culture and the ecology of the country (or province if you believe China’s claims to authority.)


Christianity doesn’t believe in reincarnation. We believe that you’ve got one life on Earth so you should make the most of the time that you’ve given. Not making the most of it from the point of view of hedonism and having the most fun. Rather, making the most of it to bring heaven to Earth. Equating it loosely to my poor understanding of Buddhism, Christians are supposedly bringing Nirvana to Earth for all people – though we clearly fall way short of this bar.

In Buddhism the belief of reincarnation is core to the beliefs. There are most lineages that can have only one living member at a time – and others like the Dalai Lama’s lineage where it’s possible (but rare) to have two instances of the same spirit living in two bodies at once.

The benefit of this belief system is that in reincarnation there’s an awareness that you need to take care of the Earth so that your next incarnation will be in a better spot – or to have the resources of mother nature. In this way the end goals – of making the world a better place – of Buddhism and Christianity seem aligned – though they approach the journey differently.

Human Needs

We all need to be loved. Humans have the longest child rearing of any animal – that is we’re more fragile for a longer time than any other animal. It’s necessary then for us to be cared for by others for a very long time. From a biological point of view humans need social connections to function. We need the love of our parents as well as the support of our communities. (See Our Kids for more on the impact to our children of parenting.)

The need for love surfaces everywhere in literature from the preoccupation in popular music to the need for healing in books like A Hunger for Healing, God Loves You, How Children Succeed, How to Be An Adult in Relationships, and Love, Acceptance and Forgiveness.


What the Buddhists refer to as compassion seems most closely related to the Greek word Agape. In its translation to English in the New Testament the word is one of three translated to love. The other words that translate to love are Eros – Erotic or romantic love and Philos – brotherly or familial love. Agape then is a universal form of love. In the New Testament translation it refers to God’s love. However, it is also used as an instruction for us to love one another. (John 13:34)

As the Dalai Lama is considered to be a reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion – so one could easily assume he’s an expert. He’s frequently described as having infinite compassion. However, what is compassion? The Dalai Lama has sometimes referred to compassion as human affection –thus love.

Here I struggle with the Dalai Lama’s perception as he sometimes describes compassion as a mixture of desire and attachment as in a parent’s compassion for a child. Here I believe that the Greek’s separation of philos for this sort of love is a better match. In this way we can separate universal compassion from compassion associated with families – or those whom you decide to treat as family. (See High Orbit – Respecting Grieving for more on how familial relationships differ.)

Barriers to Commitment

There are barriers to commitment – things which make it difficult to feel compassions for others. The Anatomy of Peace would call these boxes. Anger and hatred are described as the barriers to compassion.

One of my favorite learnings from Destructive Emotions was that anger is disappointment directed. This is such a simple and profound statement. I use it all the time to stop-time when I’m angry and ask what it is that I’m disappointed in. Is it the circumstances? The other people involved? Or am I disappointed in myself?

I do get angry. As I mentioned in my post The Inner Game of Dialogue it’s not that a master doesn’t get off center. It’s that they discover it sooner and recover faster. I’ve still got much to learn about accepting others as they are and releasing my anger sooner. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on acceptance.)

Hatred is a stronger and longer emotion. It’s a sustained anger – a sustained desire for vengeance or retribution. (See Who Am I? for more on vengeance as a motivator.) It’s hard to love something that you hate. It’s hard to show compassion when your heart is filled with hatred.

Compassion as Commitment

I described love as a decision in my review of Love, Acceptance and Forgiveness. Given my belief that love and compassion are the same thing, it’s no surprise that I believe compassion is a decision – or a commitment as well. The Dalai Lama describes compassion as a firm, thought-out commitment. That is, compassion isn’t a passing fancy or something that you do when the mood strikes but rather is a decision that you implement whether you “feel like it” or not.

It’s in this context that you can begin to see the commitment to compassion. A desire to live the life that you’re called to live.

Enemies as Teachers

I’m not a highly competitive person. In general, I prefer to not compete with others. I find my own path to doing things. However, there are times where there is little avoiding being in competition with other people. In these circumstances I find that I’m driven to be better in ways that I wouldn’t normally refine my work. I’m more frequently focused on innovation and individualism than I am on refining my ability.

Enemies – or people with whom you have conflict – can help us to improve even more than competition. Conflict is a step up – or a step above competition. In competition you’re competing but not necessarily conflicting with another person. The Bible says that “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17) – it finishes with “so one person sharpens another.” Our best teachers, those who help us to grow and become better are often those enemies who are matched to us and our unique strengths and weaknesses.

Happiness and Suffering

One of the basic aspirations of mankind is the pursuit of happiness. Though revolutionary when stated in the declaration of independence, we now accept that happiness is something that everyone strives for. We seek happiness and seek to avoid suffering. In fact, in Thinking, Fast and Slow we learned that we avoid loss (or suffering) more intensely than we seek out happiness.

Once we pass our ability to avoid suffering and move past the stress of everyday life we find that we need to figure out how to be living. That is how we move from striving to thriving. Thriving is happiness. We learned in Change or Die the intense impact our point of view can have on our health. We learned how much of our health care costs are really outcomes of behavioral issues.

Happiness is a frequent theme in reading and writing books as my reviews for Stumbling on Happiness, The Happiness Hypothesis, and Hardwiring Happiness can demonstrate.

Non-Violent Determination

In the end, the Dalai Lama’s message is simple. Compassion is a powerful non-violent force that isn’t impotent but rather needs determination and persistence to show its impact. Gandhi had a big impact with his non-violent protests. Hopefully the Tibetans will have the same opportunity for revolution. In the mean time learning a bit more about the Dalai Lama and the life of a simple Tibetan monk may just start you on your own [My] Spiritual Journey.

LED worklight

My $2,000 Mistake in Ordering from China

I’ve mentioned before that I make mistakes and I fail even though from the outside this may not seem to be the case. I wanted to take apart one of my more recent failures and share it with the world in part to remind myself and in part to offer others the opportunity to learn as well.

My mistake was in an attempt to order 1,000 UV (Black light) “pen-type” lights. The objective was to have enough for 500 of our handwashing kits that we’re working on for Kin-to-Kid Connection. The thinking was that even if I had some failures I’d have more than enough for 400 kits. However, in the end I’ve wasted around $2,000 on a set of LED “pen-type” lights that I won’t be able to use in the kits.

Let me explain some background and how I got off track.


Many moons ago in a land not too far away from where I am now, I worked for Woods Industries. They made extension cords but we also sourced a great deal of product from China and other countries. While at Woods I worked with the direct import business, did special projects for the CEO, and helped with the computer, audio, and telephone products in product management.

While I was there I learned that it was important to ask questions where the correct answer was “No.” This was simple. Culturally it’s hard to say “No” to your customer (or buyer). When people don’t understand completely they’re likely to say “Yes.” So in order to ensure you’re getting what you expect, you should ask questions where the correct answer is “No.” I know this but I didn’t implement it like I should.

The Web

The world is different today than it was when I worked for Woods. Chinese manufacturers and their agents have – at least in some ways – made it easier to import from China at a personal level. Sites like make it easy for consumers to buy direct from China one piece at a time. The delivery takes weeks but the prices are good. You’ll even see direct from China operations on EBay and Amazon.

Interestingly these sites don’t scale well when you want to buy a hundred or more of an item. There aren’t quantity discounts and at those quantities the individual shipping charges start to matter. As a result you look for other options like In these marketplaces you’re working business-to-business and minimum quantities often range from 1,000 to several thousand or even tens of thousands.


Alibaba is a marketplace where manufacturers can post the products that they can produce and businesses like mine can locate what they want. I was looking for a unique LED based UV Light to include in our kit. You can buy 9 LED UV flashlights inexpensively but they feel wrong for the high-quality kit we were creating. I ended up finding “pen-type” lights that take three AAA batteries and have seven LEDs on one side of the “pen” – they’re perfect for illuminating the hands of little children learning to wash their hands.

I started a conversation with a supplier and settled on a price. $0.88 USD each at a quantity of 1,000. So $880 USD in total. They would have the items FOB (Freight On Board) Ningbo China 30 days after payment. As I tried to complete the transaction things started breaking down and I didn’t realize it.

The supplier sent me a proforma invoice to sign with wiring instructions on it on October 5th. The invoice specified the product which matched the listing on Alibaba except that it failed to indicate that the LEDs were UV and it failed to indicate that we could have a one color logo printed on them. I followed up and indicated that the product on Alibaba indicated UV lights and confirmed what I was requesting on October 6th. They agreed to update the proforma invoice but never did.

Here’s where it went wrong. I signed the proforma invoice and wired them the money. I knew at the time I was risking the $880 – but I felt like this was a reasonable risk. Alibaba didn’t lay out for me that once the supplier confirmed the order – which apparently they hadn’t been doing – I could send the payment through Alibaba and thereby get a “Trade assurance” protection. It was after I paid for the order that they flagged the order as OK in Alibaba which then (and now) shows that I didn’t pay for the order. When I asked them to mark the transaction as paid on Alibaba they said they couldn’t. So now I’m off the Alibaba system.

Delays and Discrepancies

The order was officially acknowledged by the manufacturer on November 3rd. By November 8th, we had agreed on the shipping marks for the cartons. When I checked on when the products would be shipped on December 3rd I was told they needed 20 more days for production. On December 22nd I reached out to confirm they were producing the lights. On January 8th, we got photos that they were producing the lights and we noticed a problem. Our logo wasn’t printed on the lights.

I made the decision to continue since the logo wasn’t the biggest thing in this particular case. It was a nice to have but not a “must have.” In order to prevent further delays I told them to complete the shipping of the products.

Included in the photos of the lights was one where the light was on. What I didn’t see in the picture was that the LEDs were regular cool white LEDs not the UV LEDs I had been trying to order. Maybe I should have seen the problem – or maybe I shouldn’t have. I don’t know.

The Shipment

One of the other challenges was finding the best way to get the lights from China to the US. Ultimately the best answer became UPS. I did figure out that it was more expensive to ship them via ocean than to just ship them air freight. I can’t explain how that is. However, I did end up getting them shipped via air to arrive here. I’ve still not seen the final bill for the freight but the estimate is over $1,000 USD.

When it arrived my heart sank. I turned on the first light and realized that the entire batch of lights were useless for my purpose. I needed UV lights and these weren’t them.

No Remedy

So I’m not in a spot where there is no remedy for the problem. If the manufacturer gave me a set of replacement lights and could get them done immediately I’d still be out the over $1,000 in shipping charges for this first batch and would have to ship the next batch. Of course, I doubt that the resolution will be to replace all of the lights – but even in the best case scenario it’s a big loss.

No Recourse

I’ve tried talking to the vendor and to Alibaba without even a proposal for a resolution. So I’ve now got a set of lights that I can’t use – and I still need to find a way to get our kits together. While a $2,000 mistake doesn’t mean that we’ll stop eating. It does sting to have to learn such a difficult lesson. The only good thing about this is – I probably spent less than I would have spent to go to a course on sourcing from China. At least that’s the way I’m trying to console myself.

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis

Book Review-Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis

My children haven’t seen Back to the Future. They’ve not seen the idealistic view of the 1950s portrayed in a movie from the 1980s. They don’t understand what it was like when I was growing up when we walked down to the park to play, rode our bikes all around town, and generally expected that the world was a friendly place. Kids today are taught to be warry and cautious. We teach them “Stranger Danger!” and “Don’t talk to strangers.” The world that our parents grew up in, the world that we grew up in, and the world our kids will grow up in are radically different. But this isn’t exactly new news. Robert Putnam’s classic book Bowling Alone discussed how our social lives were different. His new book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis focuses on social mobility and how kids today don’t have the same opportunities that they did 50 years ago.

Social Mobility

Social mobility is simply the ability for people to change their social class. The focus is on how many generations it takes for a person in one social strata to move to a different one. Obviously, the primary focus is on our American dream of being able to move up the ladder. However, there seems to be evidence where the upper middle class has the capability of moving up, lower class and lower middle-class families aren’t able to help their children get ahead.

It’s important to note that social class – or social strata – is mostly defined by income but because income numbers are notoriously fickle as people misrepresent their income, studies shy away from asking the question, and people will outright lie, Putnam chose to use as a proxy educational level as the demarcation point between the upper and lower middle classes. This makes the analysis cleaner and mostly fits with the data – but it does mean that at times he my unfairly categorize high-income earners in lower classes.

Attitudes and Acceptance

While there were (and are) pockets of the country which are preoccupied with prejudices and differences, for the most part after the second World War people just wanted to get along with one another and enjoy life. Putnam sites his home down of Port Clinton, Ohio as a place where race wasn’t a factor and where the social classes hadn’t split. Kids with parents of all income brackets and backgrounds played together and became friends.

It turns out that while race relations and prejudices still exist that many of the same social problems are working themselves through every race in America. The determining factor isn’t – it seems – race but is rather the support systems that are in place around our children that matter.

It turns out that children who are from homes in lower income brackets are more frequently struggling to keep a place to live, are living in neighborhoods with poorer school education, and are fighting off neighborhood forces that are driving pregnancy and drug use. It’s not a surprise that children today who are faced with more adverse childhood events (ACE) are struggling. (See How Children Succeed for more on ACE.)

The radical enforcement of drug laws in the 1980s exasperated the problem of single mothers raising children and made a reality out of dad being in prison for untold numbers of children. (See Chasing the Scream for more about the savagery of the war on drugs.)

Airbags and Active Defenses

Americans greatly value our rugged individualism. We love to portray ourselves as conquerors of the frontier. We love the image of the lone cowboy riding off into the sunset to meet his fate. However, this is a Hollywood movie not the realities of our westward expansion. In truth our grandfathers banded together with others who shared a similar taste of adventure and a desire to make a better life for their families. Our rugged individualist grandfathers created wagon trains that could be pulled together to support and protect a traveling community of people rather than “going it alone.”

Perhaps the Hollywood story explains why we buy into the idea of a “self-made” man. Someone that overcame all odds to move themselves up the social strata. However, the more we look into the stories the more we realize that there were people behind the scenes protecting the “self-made man” and allowing them to take more risks than others. Bill Gates, for instance, was allowed to spend so much time with computers as a child because of the relative affluence of his parents. (See Outliers for more.)

Affluent parents are more likely to engage on the children’s behalf. Whether it’s intervening in an unfair situation at school (as I have done) or helping them plan for college, affluent parents with their greater connections are more likely to lift up their children above the muck and to deploy “airbags” to protect them from unnecessary harm. While Putnam uses the term airbags – I believe there are two dimensions of which the term airbags only covers one.

Limiting the impact of a negative event is one dimension. However, the other dimension is what I like to call active defenses. That is what the parents do to actively prevent harm for their children and to enrich them. Whether it’s sending them on a mission trip (which I’ve done for two of our children) or facilitating conversations with business owners about a job – affluent parents are more capable (and perhaps therefore more likely) to support their children’s growth.

When you’re struggling to pay the rent and keep food on the table you’re simply not able to focus on these things for your children.

Schools and Saviors

Schools get a lot of flack for the lack of performance from students. While there are opportunities for improvement (see Schools Without Failure and How Children Succeed) schools cannot be held solely accountable for the educational state of our nation. Instead we have to look at schools as lifelines for students to learn good study practices and the “how” of how to learn. We’ve come to defer our responsibility to educating our children to schools.

Putnam discussed the differences that we have experienced as a society in Bowling Alone. Membership used to mean mutual commitment and somewhere along the way it meant writing a check. We as a society have decided that schools are responsible for educating our children. We are taxed for it and we pay fees for it so we expect the service to be that they’re educating our children. However, this is such a critical responsibility that we can’t completely defer the responsibility – even if we might like to.

Schools cannot single-handedly become the saviors of our children. While they can provide structure to their learning and can round them out in ways that we cannot personally, our children’s savior is us. It’s the parents personally taking an interest in their children and at a more communal level each parent looking out for the other children as well.

Defending Against Drugs

Drugs are an easy out, an escape that seems quick and easy. It’s no wonder that we have such a struggle with drugs and drug addiction. (See Chasing the Scream for more on drugs, enforcement, and addiction.) Despite the relative ease of drugs there are numerous factors which can influence a child’s decision to try drugs or to make a decision to abstain. We’ve all heard of peer pressure and thanks to Nancy Ragan have heard the public service announcements teaching our children to “Just say no to drugs.” The truth is that influence over a child’s life shifts to being less focused on parents and more focused on peers – but the influence of a parent doesn’t go away.

The parent’s attitudes – and particularly behaviors – have a profound impact on the child’s life. If you (or your spouse) decides to use drugs in view of the children then it becomes OK for them. It becomes acceptable to them. It’s normal. Even if you and your spouse aren’t engaged in drugs other members of the family or living in close proximity can be a powerful negative influence. Again the more OK, normal, or right the drugs become the more likely that a child will try them.

However, there’s more to it than this. Even attentive parents – those who know where their children are and what they’re being exposed to represent a protection to the children. Parents can prevent unnecessary exposure to elements that might lead towards an addiction. By knowing where your children are and what they’re exposed to allows you to redirect inappropriate energies.

Finally, there’s the challenge of economics. If a child believes that the only way out of the situation that they find themselves in is to sell drugs – then you can’t blame them for considering it. If you’re looking for a way to protect your children from drugs the answer may lie in giving them an awareness that they can make their lives better – without drugs.

Dinners and Dads

With social science there is almost always a twinge of suspicion. This weeks’ research study will be contradicted by next weeks’ study. When researching after reading The Cult of Personality Testing, I discovered that even though there were numerous personality tests that had been discredited through peer-reviewed journal articles there were still many practitioners using those tests – and that there were at least a few journal articles that supported the dubious techniques. Such is the nature of social science – it’s messy and rarely are there clean answers. However, when it comes to having dinner together as a family the research is unequivocal. Having dinner together as a family is linked to a variety of outcomes later in the child’s life. Sadly, my own children comment how few of their friend’s families make a point of doing dinner together. In our microwave, crowded schedule world, it seems that the glue that holds a family together – the dinnertime meal doesn’t fit or isn’t convenient enough.

Though not as unequivocal as the data regarding having dinners together, there’s a growing mountain of evidence that suggests that fathers are essential to the development of children – both boys and girls. As a father I’m glad to know that my impact matters. As a member of the American society where fewer children are in regular contact with their fathers because of unstable sexual relationships where the parents don’t see each other any longer, incarceration of too many fathers due to drug related charges, and the social factors that have led to a greater acceptance for unwed mothers.

Whatever the causes the downstream impacts are being felt by children. They’re being deprived of the input that they need to help them to grow up to be productive and well-adjusted members of society. At least part of that is due to the gap in time that’s being spent with children.

Time and Skills

Parents who are struggling to keep things together simply don’t have spare resources to divert to the enhanced development of their children. Holding down two jobs and keeping a household together means that there is little room to wiggle in the way of providing coaching to children who are struggling to make sense of their environment.

While studies indicate that working mothers have sacrificed themselves and other things to continue to spend as much time with their children as their non-working parents, it’s a hard road, and one that is really indicative of the upper-middle class who have the capacity to share the load across parents and who aren’t literally worried about how to pay the rent next week.

Those who are struggling to provide for the basic needs of their children spend much less time with their children. It makes sense and there may be no solution but it’s tragic. It’s equally tragic that the parents who have the least time also have the least ability to teach good life skills to their children.

Things like financial planning, grit, and persistence are some of the factors that have led to the parent’s – and therefore the child’s – situation. You can’t teach what you don’t know and in too many cases the parents haven’t developed the life skills to pass on to their children.

Community Caring

In the end the changes that have swept across the country are moving us into a more segregated, separated, and more self-focused point of view than we’ve had before. If we really want to improve society as a whole we may need to decide that all of the children that we know are Our Kids. We may need to return to a time when it took a village to raise a child. It seems it still does – even if we don’t behave that way.

The Cult of Personality Testing: How Personality Tests are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves

Book Review-The Cult of Personality Testing: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves

I love personality tests as a way to spark the conversation. Whether it is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), the Enneagram (See Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery), Reiss’s 16 desires (See Who Am I?) or Time Perspective (See The Time Paradox) – I love the conversations that it can provoke. However, there’s a dangerous side to personality testing. It has the potential to be perceived as a limiting factor for folks and can incorrectly diagnose people with psychological problems that they don’t have. As I read The Cult of Personality Testing, I began to see some of the dark side of the tests and the curious minds that created the tests.



Short of your family and your hairdresser it’s unlikely that you’ve let anyone feel your skull. It’s far less likely that anyone ever felt around your head for bumps – unless you just got hit by something. However, one of the earliest techniques for “discovering” the personality and characteristics was based on a detailed examination of the skull. The thinking was that as areas of your brain expanded they would leave a corresponding bump in your skill to accommodate the additional brain mass.

While we’ve known for some time that Phrenology isn’t based on anything scientific at one time it was considered a way to get a better understanding of oneself. Walt Whitman – among others were enchanted with the idea. However, Samuel Clements (Mark Twain), saw through the use and saw that the practitioners always seemed to find ways that the subject’s character charts compared favorably to George Washington’s.

Rorschach’s Inkblots

While Phrenology was a virtual parlor trick, inkblots were quite literally the faire of parlor games and fortune telling. Rorschach was a psychiatrist at a mental hospital and noted that the responses that he got to inkblots from schizophrenic patients was radically different than the responses that he received from “normal” people. His perspective on using inkblots to see into the personalities of patients was usurped by Szymon Hens. However, Rorschach wasn’t concerned with what his patients saw but rather how they saw it. He was concerned with whether they saw the whole inkblot or focused on a part of it. He was concerned whether the figures that the subjects saw were static or in motion.

The Rorschach system descended into two different paths by two different followers with differing views. John Exner’s respect for both men caused him to create a comprehensive system which integrated the two paths by Rorschach’s direct followers. This was enough to increase interest in the test but unfortunately, the test effectively has zero validity. In other words, the test isn’t well validated by peer reviewed journals and there’s no evidence that the conclusions reached by the Rorschach’s tests are reliable as many subjects have been diagnosed as depressive, narcissistic, or overly dependent – but many patients don’t exhibit any symptoms of these diagnoses.

The criticisms of the Rorschach tests have taken the form of their own book What’s Wrong With The Rorschach? and peer-reviewed journal articles “Effective Use of Projective Techniques in Clinical Practice: Let the Data Help With Selection and Interpretation” and “Failure of the Rorschach-Comprehensive-System-Based Testimony to Be Admissible Under the Daubert-Joiner-Kumho Standard.” Like any debate there are numerous articles purporting the validity of the test – and a corresponding number refuting those points. Clearly the quality of the instrument is in question.


It’s cold in Minnesota. Perhaps not as cold as you might expect but cold enough. In the exploration of testing techniques, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory is next. The story starts with Starke Hathaway at the University of Minnesota mental hospital. This winding path reveals a test that fails to sort mental patients into categories – it’s original purpose – and a test whose items were essentially selected by the patients – and then added to. With revision some of the old artifacts are gone and it’s widely regarded as the most clinically useful for personality testing. The structure of the test is a straightforward pencil and paper multiple choice question test.

The MMPI-2 contains a number of primary scales for the diagnosis of: Hypochondriasis, Depression, Hysteria, Psychopathic Deviate, Masculinity/Femininity, Paranoia, Psychasthenia (Worry/Anxiety), Schizophrenia, Hypomania, and Social Inversion. Additionally, there are restructured scales, validity scales, and supplemental scales. Some – but not all – of the scales have issues including members of the clergy who score high on the Lie Scale – presumably because they are perceived to be more virtuous than should be possible.


From cold Minnesota we move to a dark tale of Henry Murray and Christian Morgan and the development of a different kind of test the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). The darkness doesn’t develop so much from the test itself but from the lives of its authors. Murray was a fan of Carl Jung and had the opportunity to meet Dr. Jung, his wife, and his mistress over tea. It was reportedly during this meeting when Dr. Jung recommended that he keep his marriage and his mistress as Dr. Jung had apparently convinced both his wife and mistress of a similar arrangement.

Dr. Murray, his wife, and Morgan didn’t reportedly enjoy the quaint over-tea conversations but it was apparently clear to everyone the true nature of the relationship between Dr. Murray and Morgan. What’s not clear is what Morgan’s husband thought of the arrangement or if he even knew about it. Dr. Murray lost his wife and then shortly thereafter lost Morgan in somewhat dubious circumstances while the two were vacationing in the Caribbean.

The TAT is not a pen and pencil type of test. Instead subjects are sequentially shown a set of pictures and are then asked to create stories around those pictures. The responses are recorded and coded. The TAT is considered a projective test because it presents ambiguous stimuli and asks for the subject to respond. The general principle is that by providing ambiguous stimuli the subject will fill in the gaps with their experiences and thoughts – thus providing the examiner an opportunity to peer into (or X-Ray) the patient’s psyche.

Without high levels of adoption of a consistent scoring system and due to the general nature of the test and what it exposes, it’s not surprising that there is a very large cloud of uncertainty around the test. In the book Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology John Hunsley, Catherine Lee, and James Wood call the TAT “woefully short of professional and scientific test standards.”


Carl Jung was a powerful man in the space of psychotherapy. While Sigmund Freud may be the “Father of Psychotherapy” but one of his first sons is Carl Jung. Jung – as we saw above with Murray the TAT test – had a great number of followers of his own. Even the Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of flow fame was inspired on his work by Dr. Jung. (See Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman for more on flow.) Jung also inspired Katherine Briggs and Isabel Myers (Katherine’s daughter). When Jung’s book Personality Types was translated to English they started with his ideas for the four dimensional model that became the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (initially published as the Briggs-Myers Type Indicator and later renamed.)

It was an unlikely subject of interest from the start. Isabel was a 44 year old house wife who had won a contest for writing a mystery and had subsequently published a best-selling book when she discovered the Humm-Wadsworth Temperament Scale. This people sorter tool was designed to help place people in their best jobs. Isabel was convinced that she and Katherine could do better.

The MBTI may have become popular because of the PT Barnum effect – that is it has something for everyone. Perhaps it’s the same qualities that Samuel Clements (Mark Twain) discovered in Phrenology – focusing on the good attributes and minimizing the negative ones. Whatever the cause, the MBTI is one of the most popular personality tests in existence with use in many major corporations.

However, the test has serious problems as a diagnostic tool. First, the repeatability of the test is rather low despite fervent arguments that people’s type doesn’t change. Second, what do you do with the information when you’re done with it. If you assume that someone is born with these unchanging characteristics, then if they’re in a “bad fit” position all you can do is fire them. You can’t train them. Something that Carol Dweck disagrees with in her book Mindset. Human beings are inherently teachable so one’s results shouldn’t be used as the final word on who they are.

I’m actually a fan of MBTI because I find it interesting. Perhaps it’s more therapeutic than diagnostic in that it helps you accept who you are. However, I also find that it makes it easier to listen to others and have conversations (See Dialogue and Crucial Conversations for more.) I do, however, disagree with the tests authors on two key points.

First, I believe that we drift in our orientations based on our experiences. I believe an introverted person can become more extroverted and vice versa. I don’t believe these are people trying to project someone they’re not, rather I believe that they can move at glacial speeds. This is supported by the work of Albert Bandura. (References to his work appear in Emotional Intelligence, Willpower, Influencer, Creative Confidence, Who Am I?, and Introducing Psychology of Success.) Further, I believe that the either/or side of the scale is a simplification – or perhaps even a fiction. I believe that we have a natural point on the scale where we sit. Some of us sit very close to the center of some scales and very close to the edges of another.

Second, I believe that we develop “adaptive ranges.” That is: we develop an ability to operate – to live and work – with people who are not made up like us. A strong sensing and a strong intuiting person have no natural way to communicate with one another. However, the intuiting person can develop an acceptance or understanding of sensing behavior. Similarly a sensing person can develop an understanding and acceptance of intuiting behaviors. Each person’s ability to adapt to someone who isn’t near them on the scale is – for me—their “adaptive range.” I believe that people can expand their adaptive ranges across all four of the functions in the type indicator. But, of course, this is just my belief.

Drawing Conclusions

Our next stop puts us right in the center of the debate about racial equality and the separate but equal debate which segregated children. Here we find Kenneth Bancroft Clark and his discovery that African-American children when asked to draw, drew children in lighter colors. He also tested children to find which dolls were “good” and which were “bad.” Where the only difference was the color of their skin. Dr. Clark discovered to his dismay that the African-American children often said the darker doll was bad.

The outcome of the court case was to desegregate schools across America but in addition Dr. Clark spawned interest in the “pencil-release factor,” a term coined by John Buck. The pencil-release factor is the tendency for children to talk about subjects while otherwise occupied with drawing. This created a set of tests revolving around engaging a child in the process of drawing and has further expanded to play therapy in more recent years.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with using a drawing activity to help elicit therapeutic conversations, however, describing them as tests implies some sort of scoring and focuses the objective on the drawing process itself – here there’s little standardization and almost nothing pointing to reliable interpretations.

16 Factors

The MBTI is sometimes described as too complicated, vague, and unwieldy. (Though I’ll often do these assessments of other people in my head while talking to them with strikingly good results.) There is, however, a more complicated approach to personality assessment that has its roots in linguistics which uses 16 personality factors at its core.

Our destination this time is a dusty library and a dictionary. Francis Galton had speculated that if you wanted to categorize human personality all you had to do was go to the dictionary because every aspect of personality most certainly had a word for it already. Gordon Allport and a colleague put this to the test by painstakingly going through Webster’s New International unabridged dictionary and counting the words related to character. They found a staggering 17,953 words. By paring these down to what they deemed essential they got the list down to 4,504 words.

It was Raymond Cattell that applied new statistical techniques of factor analysis to reduce this list to 16. In addition to the new statistical techniques a shiny new computer at the University of Illinois made this task possible where Allport and his colleague had no chance of creating such a reduction in the number of terms.

The sixteen factors that Cattell found formed the basis of a very popular 16 psychological factors test (16PF) that eventually fell out of favor as it was too complicated to use. (Sidebar: Though Reiss’ factors from Who Am I? are unrelated except in the number of factors – I leveled the same complaint at the complexity of Reiss’ model.)

Further refinement from the same source data led to a reduction to five factors, a ton of variations, and not much additional value. As such the 16PF test and the derivatives aren’t used frequently any longer. Too much was lost in all of the reductions.

Ph Range

While reading The Cult of Personality Testing I was reminded of something from chemistry. Most chemical reactions take place only within a relatively narrow Ph range. That is, the reactions only work under narrow conditions. As each test was deconstructed I wondered what where the edges of reliability were. Obviously as none of the tests have great reliability I wondered how various factors – like being a software developer or an author might distort the results of the tests to the point where they might not be valid.

I recently had a Rorschach test done as a part of a custody evaluation and the results were laughable. To those who know me, the idea that I miss the forest for the trees – that I see the details but not the broader patterns – is completely strange and yet that is what the Rorschach test said about me. It makes sense because as a software developer I’ve been taught and I teach breaking down problems into solvable units. This causes you to find the patterns you can and then get to the point of assembling larger patterns. So in the Rorschach I saw lots of little patterns – but I never did find larger patterns – because there are none. The result is a scoring that says I’m more of what MBTI would call sensing instead of my true location much closer to intuiting.

I was similarly considering the TAT. It’s a test that encourages subjects to make up stories. However, what if you’ve been taught to write stories or give presentations or do anything that teaches you how to sell a story. While proponents of the TAT will say that you can hardly fake something you don’t know exists. I’ll counter that you can’t get to real insight if the response is playing back a well-worn professional response.

Then there are the norms — the comparative normal across which you evaluate results. That’s fine except that many of the tests are designed against identifying abnormalities. How do they respond to “normal” people? Are the norms of 50 years ago the norms of today? In many aspects the answer to that question is no – as a simple perusal of Bowling Alone would clearly show.

Good Test Taking

“In theory, practice shouldn’t be different than theory but in practice it is.” –Anonymous

The reality of these tests is that they attempt to identify outcomes that you would get in real-world situations. The idea is that they can probe deep into your psyche to see how you’ll behave in real life. However, it’s painfully apparent that the tests rarely – if ever – are capable of this level of precision or awareness. For those people who are “good test takers” they may find that the tests reveal nothing while in life they’re dealing with immense struggles and psychological wounds that just won’t heal.

Personality tests are good when they’re used to further a conversation, to illuminate the darkness, however, all too often they’re used as the final word on who someone is – but I suppose that is The Cult of Personality Testing. It’s worth deciding what the membership rules are before deciding you want to become a member.

Step Parenting: Everything You Need to Know to Make it Work

Book Review-Stepparenting: Everything You Need to Know to Make It Work

It’s been said that parenting is the world’s hardest job. It comes with immense responsibility, impossible hours, no respect, and an unending litany of problems. However, there is a more difficult job. That is the job of the step parent. With parenting you have biology and history to fall back on. With step parenting you have no genetic bond and you don’t know what happened to the children before you became a part of their lives so it makes understanding them difficult. Stepparenting: Everything You Need to Know to Make it Work is designed to help you through the process and make it a little more manageable.

The Path to Step Parenting

In order to reach this difficult job one first has to go through the death of a spouse or through divorce. (See my review of Divorce for more on the divorce path.) Having personal experience with one and up-close experience with the other I can say that neither of the paths are enviable. Both of the paths come with their own pain and they leave their own scars – not just on the parents but on the children as well.

When parents are in pain they are often distracted from their roles as parents and they are prevented from being successful. The addition of another person, a stepparent for your children improves the situation because it offers a close relationship which improves overall divorce recovery. (See Divorce for more on the value.) Further, it introduces another person who can help to share the load with you. However, at the same time it introduces the need to address their pains as well.

Children’s Losses

The death or divorce that lead someone to being a step parent took a toll on the children in the relationship whether they quite literally lost – or only lost a part of their parent, they’re aware things aren’t as they were. Often children feel like they’re fighting for attention of a parent because their parents are spending more time tending to their own needs.

The introduction of a step-parent further removes some of the time available for the child. It’s another person to focus on further decreasing the amount of time that the children feel is available for them. It’s another loss for them. Another reduction of the time that is spent with them.

Consider a week has only 168 hours in it. If you’re sleeping 7-8 hours a night, working 50 hours (and traveling another 5), spending another 25 hours per week on domestic duties and personal maintenance tasks, you’re left with only 37 available hours for anything else – projects, spouses, children, etc.

With so little available time even a few hours a week of loss to a step parent can seem monumental.

Positive Parenting

So much of what causes problems in step families are the things that are problems in nuclear families – but the results are just more dramatic.


The integrity of the couple’s union is sacrament. If you went through the divorce path you have firsthand knowledge of what happens when the couple isn’t in sync. If you experienced a death you may or may not have seen what happens when a couple isn’t a united front to the children.

The primacy of the couple must be maintained because without it nothing else will hold together. It’s like gravity. If there is no gravity it doesn’t matter how great a car you have.

Pushing Boundaries

In the family unit it’s the children’s job to push boundaries and to try to work around the systems. They’re naturally designed to explore. The trick is to not get your buttons pushed when the children are pushing the boundaries.

Clear Consequences

Rules are rules, or are they? Rules without consequences aren’t really rules at all as one friend of mine recently explained while describing a class where they defined rules for a game but no enforcement. Children need to not just know the rules but they need to be clear about the consequences – and they need to be implemented if the rule is broken.

Parent-Child Relationships

With distracted parents sometimes children are allowed to set the rules or negotiate a new set of rules. This is dangerous as children aren’t ready for this responsibility. In any parenting relationship the parents need to be parents and not allow children to parent them.

Friends Second

Developing healthy friendships with children is appropriate – particularly as they become adults – but only when this doesn’t interfere with the primary role of being a parent. Parents sometimes desire approval from their children so much that they try to be their child’s friend first instead of second. This causes a number of problems when children don’t understand how to deal with step up-step down relationships (authoritative relationships) in the future.

The World Doesn’t Revolve

Sometimes in one-child relationships the child can become the center of attention. The entire world revolves around the child. The problem is that this doesn’t teach the child how to get along with others. Creating a healthy balance between paying attention to the child and not being focused on the child is key to the child’s long term development.

Like the rule of being friends second, revolving the family world around a child can create problems adapting later and a child that needs to be the center of attention in every situation.

Step Differently

Perhaps the most pervasive theme throughout the book was drawing the distinctions between a normal family and a biological nuclear family. That makes sense. From the point of view of most of us we’ve seen a nuclear family – whether functional or dysfunctional. What we may not have seen or understood are the nuances of a step family. Chief among the differences is the lack of instant love.

Instant Love

One of the wishes when a couple creates a step family is for everyone to instantly get along and love one another. After all they love their new spouse, shouldn’t the families love each other too? In a word, no. The kind of love we’re talking about in a family develops over time. Unlike the eros (romantic) love that attracted the couple in the first place, the philos love that binds a family together in brotherly love takes time. Shared experiences will create the opportunity for love to develop.

Mutual Maturation

In the book Play we discovered the value of play in preparing humans for the ambiguities of life. One of the challenges of step parenting is knowing when to let the siblings verbally play with one another and when the play is too rough or it’s no longer play.


Whether you have a “wasband” (was husband) or a “prife” (Prior wife) the children have parents including two biological ones. No matter what your issues are with the ex, the children still love (or should love) both parents. When speaking in front of the children it’s essential to respect the prior spouse.

Step to It

While parenting can be a scary proposition, step parenting doesn’t have to be any more challenging despite the lack of biology and history. By considering how to be the best parent you can be you’ll easily sail through the step parenting process. If you don’t, you can always pick up the book Stepparenting.

Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul

Book Review-Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul

Play is, for many, a lost art. Somewhere between childhood and growing up, we’ve lost our ability to really play. However, play doesn’t have to be a separate activity from our day-to-day lives. Play can – and perhaps should be – woven into the very fabric of our lives. In Stewart Brown’s book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, he covers how we’ve lost play and how to reclaim it.

Playing into Flow

Play has some very interesting connections to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow. (See Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman for more on flow.) The conditions for play that Brown highlights are:

  • Apparently purposeless (done for its own sake)
  • Voluntary Inherent attraction
  • Freedom from time
  • Diminished consciousness of self
  • Improvisational potential
  • Continuation desire

Comparing this list, to Csikszentmihalyi’s list of characteristics for flow we see a great deal of overlap. Czikszentmihalyi’s list for flow is:

  • Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  • Merging of action and awareness
  • A loss of reflective self-consciousness
  • A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  • A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
  • Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience

At a direct look only two of Brown’s criteria – Apparent purposelessness and Improvisational potential don’t directly map. However, later in Brown’s own book he admits that play is about the internal attitude of the activity not the activity itself – and so while I believe play does not need to have an explicit relationship to something purposeful but it can if you have the right attitude. (More on this idea later.)

While flow does not require improvisation, it does generate it. Research studies indicate that people in flow are more creative and that this creativity lasts for days after the flow state. (See The Rise of Superman for more on the chemicals involved and the creativity.)

The state of play and the state of flow are so closely connected that one could wonder how the most productive state (flow) might be the evolutionary byproduct of the development of play – a way for us to learn how to better adapt to our environments in a safe way.

Consciously Creative

Play may be important for children, but an important question is “How is it important to business today?” The answer comes from the relationship between play and creativity. It comes from the desire that businesses have today to have people that are more creative. Theory U quoted Richard Florida of Carnegie Mellon University in speaking of “the rise of the creative class” and attributed roughly 30% of all employed people into this new creative class. According to an IBM global survey of 1,500 top executives in sixty countries, the most desirable skill in a CEO was creativity.

Creativity is serious business – it is the driving force behind Pixar’s success (See Creativity, Inc. for more on Pixar and creativity) as well as many other organizations (See Unleashing Innovation for how Whirlpool leverages creativity and innovation.) However, it is play’s characteristic of continuing desire is what converts creativity into innovation.

Defining Innovation

As it turns out, I have written about innovation in my chapter titled “Removing Innovation Friction by Improving Meetings” for the Ark Group Book Smarter Innovation: Using Interactive Processes to Drive Better Business Results.
Innovation is not just creative ideas. Innovation is taking those creative ideas and seeing them through to the end. That takes a persistence that you develop through play. You learn to enjoy the “birthing” process so much that you continue to play with your creation until it becomes something real and tangible.

I cannot tell you the number of people who are impressed at the humble child safety cards that we created for Kin-to-Kid Connection (Visit for more on the child safety cards.) While there are many comments about the cards themselves, I’m astounded at the number of people who have congratulated us on simply accomplishing something – converting the idea into implementation.

So play creates the conditions that allow for better creativity through a safe environment and then develops the persistence to get things done. (See How Children Succeed for the impact of persistence – which the book calls grit.)

Safer but Not Safe

From an evolutionary standpoint, play is interesting because it’s energy that is expended with no clear and direct purpose. That is, it is not hunting and it is not recovering – so how is play a useful part of the evolutionary process. The answer it turns out may have more to do with our ability to create mental simulations than the direct learning of skills. While cats deprived of play can still hunt and kill, antelope will be maladjusted with the herd, if they have been deprived of play. We are not just rehearsing our practical skills; we’re learning to simulate alternative realities in a safe way.

One of the challenges of our world is that it is not safe. We seek out ways to manage our apparent safety either by taking risks or by avoiding risks. For some, who didn’t get enough “licking and grooming” and therefore didn’t develop a secure attachment to their parents, there never seems to be enough safety. (See How Children Succeed for more on licking and grooming.) For others, we cower and never get a chance to find the courage to be ourselves perhaps because we did not have enough opportunities for safe play. (See Find Your Courage for more on being courageous.)

Courage is learned through play whether it’s in sparring (See The Art of Learning), just talking (see Dialogue), or even having crucial conversations (see Crucial Conversations). Courage is feeling safe enough that you can learn and grow – that you can take appropriate risks.

However, play is not safe. Play is relatively safe. That is that we are measuring our risks and not taking unnecessary risks. The simple fact of the matter is that sometimes animals and humans die while playing – so from an evolutionary standpoint it is necessary for the benefits of play to outweigh the few casualties that result from it.

Simulations are one of the things that humans do best. While we may withstand the worst of this with additional stress, it is an extremely effective way for us to adapt and avoid dangers that we could not normally see. Consider the fire captains that Gary Klein researched for Sources of Power who were running mental simulations to create effective firefighting strategies.

Learning Safety

We really learn differently when we are stressed. Quite literally, the processes that are at work to integrate memory are different depending upon our state when we are learning. When we are in a stressed state, the memories are routed via the hippocampus and stored for use by the amygdala to use for the pattern recognition used in fight or flight. The memories are therefore not directly accessible by the conscious. (See Incognito, Lost Knowledge, Sharing Hidden Know-How, and The New Edge in Knowledge for more about knowledge management and how we don’t have access to all of our memories.)

Play creates an air of safety that surrounds the activity and ultimately allows the lessons learned to be applied to other situations and environments. Play is supposed to be safe and is therefore supports the development of memories which can be applied to other situations.

Purpose and Play

Brown quotes Running Magazine as categorizing runners into four main categories: the exerciser, the competitor, the enthusiast, and the socializer. Every runner is objectively performing the same action – that is they are all running. Running is a means to some end – it is not the end itself. However, the experience for each – the internal game – is different. The socializer does not worry much about whether their running is good or bad. The Enthusiast just enjoys the act of running and does it for the pleasure. The exerciser may be disappointed with their workout and the competitor about their performance. Four different people, the same activity and four different reactions.

What if play isn’t about the actions that we’re performing? What if it is not about whether we are doing a pickup game of football or volleyball but is instead about the way that we are approaching it. What if play is about being in flow – rather than the actions we are doing? Brown carefully explains that because play is self-fulfilling and therefore better players will play-down to the rest of the players to keep the game going.

Malcom Gladwell made Anders Ericsson’s research regarding expertise popular in his book Outliers. Outliers says that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something. However, the caveat here is that it has to be purposeful practice. However, Ericsson might have been speaking about flow and play. He was clear that the objective had to be to become better at the object of the effort. The examples that are often cited by Gladwell and others clearly enjoyed the work that they were doing – they could not distinguish it from play. The objective for them – the purpose – was often just to drive something forward. Their purpose was the purpose of becoming better, becoming more than they were.

It seems that play is the internal state of mind, which is characterized by a desire to improve – even if there’s no clear tie to being a “productive” human. Csikszentmihalyi was clear that flow required a clear goal and constant feedback. However, the clear goal can be to get better – even if one cannot explain exactly what better would mean.

So when examined closely, it seems that play can have a purpose – but the purpose of play cannot be to be productive. Play requires the feeling of safety even in failure.

Building a Brain for the Ambiguity of Life

The best adaptability and survival technique that Mother Nature has come up with is the ability to learn. It turns out that the ability to learn – rapidly and continuously – has a huge evolutional advantage. It’s no wonder then that play creates a strong positive learning effect – one which dramatically out paces the risks associated with the activities of play (in most cases.)

Traditional adult education says that adult learners need to be trained at the moment in time that they need the learning (readiness), why they need to know a piece of information (need to know), that they have the foundational concepts necessary to integrate the new information (foundation), and that they have an understanding of the problem they are trying to solve (self-concept). The training must be focused on solving problems (orientation) and the motivation for learning must map to the internal motivations of the student (motivation). (See The Adult Learner for more on adult learning.)

Most of the research in education (See Efficiency in Learning) is focused on the management of cognitive load. That is, most educational research says that helping to keep students focused on the task at hand is an important – if not essential part of the process for learning. Students (of all ages) have a limited working memory and without the ability to create complex schemas and chunking to reduce the load on working memory they’re frequently overloaded or teetering on the edge of being overloaded. (Efficiency in Learning talks about schemas. Sources of Power uses the word models for the same ability to process a large number of items as if they’re one thing.)

Lost Knowledge, which is focused on the retention of critical tacit knowledge explains the learning problem from the point of view of strategies of learning which are more and less effective. Instead of focusing on creating focus, Lost Knowledge focuses on approaches, which are more effective while admitting that capturing tacit knowledge is very difficult. That is, gaining experience and integrating the unspoken learnings from the experiential process, is challenging.

This is where play comes in. Play is autotelic – that is self-motivating. This eliminates much of the educational research which is trying to keep from distracting the learner – or allowing the learner to be distracted by their passing thoughts. When you couple in the self-regulating challenge aspects of play and realize that play will regulate the level of challenge into an acceptable band you’re left with an educational opportunity which is incredibly effective.

When organizations seek to teach their employees how to handle situations for which there is no rulebook the best strategy is to run simulations of the situations that you can expect – and allow the employees to internalize the foundational principles and to develop guidelines which can be generally applied to any situation. That’s what play is – simulation – and so it’s not surprising that brain development happens at its fastest rate while playing.

Rat Park and Dysfunction

From Chasing the Scream we learned about the studies on rats and the use of drugs. We learned that the rats that drugged themselves to death were in solitary confinement. They did not have other rats to play with – or things either. Their life was solitary and without any way to play or interact. So faced with an awful situation the rats chose drugs to numb their pain. When the rats were allowed to socialize with other rats, they rarely used drugs. The context of rat park was the study of drugs. However, somewhere along the way, we learned that socialization was important for rats. Buried in socialization is the innate need to play.

When humans are deprived of play as a child and as an adult, they have a disproportionately higher chance of creating harm or being locked up. You don’t have to be Charles Whitman in a bell tower to be handicapped by the lack of play. An over-controlled childhood with a lack of play seems to be a way to lead yourself to jail. We need play – just like the antelope – to learn how to get along socially and how to self-regulate.

Play Signals

Knowing that you need play is one thing – knowing when it is time to play is another. In the animal world, there are “tells” for when animals are playing. A dog will “bow” and wag its tail. There are also tells that the dog isn’t playing – like hair standing up on their backs. During the engagement, you’ll see animals voluntarily rolling on their backs to indicate they need a break or to reduce their position of power over the other animal.

Animals, even of different species, recognize these play signals and respond accordingly. They instinctively know that play is an important part of learning and growing. Even if humans aren’t endowed with the same level of play awareness we can improve our play and reading Play may be the place to start.

Divorce: Causes and Consequences

Book Review-Divorce: Causes and Consequences

God hates divorce. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for interpretation. The state assumes that stable marriages are in the best interest of the state itself. Despite this the average marriage lasts only seven years and the divorce rate has impacted 40% or more of all marriages since the early 1970s. The blissful union of marriage is often found to have cracks – sometimes severe cracks – that challenges individual marriages and the institution itself. The book Divorce: Causes and Consequences tears apart what divorce is, how prevalent it is, and what the impacts are.


Biblical Reasons for Divorce

Using the standard of the bible there are three accepted reasons for a divorce. The first one is the “obvious” and most direct answer of adultery. The language in Matthew 19:9 is relatively clear and indicates that if a spouse chooses to have sexual relations with another person outside of the marriage that this is grounds for a divorce.

The second reason is an obvious social reason – abuse. Here the language is a bit less direct but still present (see Malachi 2:16 and Ephesians 5). All too often the victims of abuse are pushed into staying in bad marriages by the fear that in the eyes of the church and the community they won’t have been faithful to the vow they took. However, the reality is that God never intended for anyone to be abused in a marriage relationship. The only challenge here is what constitutes abuse and what is not. Generally, by the time that people are willing to confront this concern the abuse is obvious.

The third reason is abandonment. That is, when a spouse abandons another. This is really a special form of abuse. Here the bible says that a married couple shouldn’t deprive each other except for a short time. (See 1 Corinthians 7) While this is speaking specifically about martial sex – the broader application is that wives and husbands are supposed to be of one body – and you can’t abandon a part of your body.

Despite God hating divorce, there are biblical reasons why divorce is acceptable – and even righteous.

The Lesser of the Evils

God hates divorce is an absolute statement. There’s nothing to compare it to. And it’s in this context that divorce is most often considered. All things being equal who wouldn’t choose a healthy marriage instead of divorce. However, in this is the fallacy that marriages that aren’t divorcing are healthy marriages. It probably won’t take you long to think through your friends, your parent’s friends, and your grandparent’s friends to find a marriage where both parties are engaged in a silent warfare. Instead of protecting each other from the outside world, they’re the ones wielding the knives.

Which is the lesser evil: Divorcing amicably, or continuing to harm each other and any children? From a research point of view the answer is clear. Children are best in health marriage relationships. However, when confronted with unhealthy marriages or divorces, children are more successful after divorce than they are subjected to the unhealthy marriage.

So while divorce shouldn’t be the first option – for the sake of the children it needs to remain an option.

Divorce Trends

While it’s generally believed that the divorce rate is climbing, it’s actually been recessing slightly since the 1980s. Take a look at this graph from the book:

However, these numbers aren’t unique to the United States. While we have a higher divorce rate than other countries, all countries experienced a rise in divorce rates. See another figure from the book:

So while the US was experiencing higher divorce rates – so was the rest of the world. The spike in divorce rates immediately after World War II had some concerned that the rise of women participating in the workforce had contributed – and continues to contribute – to the divorce rate. However, the data seems to indicate that some part time work makes women happier and their marriage relationships more durable.

While the numbers from the 1960s to 1980s marked a steep increase that is likely due to changing laws and attitudes that allowed divorce for a broader set of reasons and the abandonment of unhappy and unhealthy marriages.

Components of Divorce

While divorce is a legal concept, it’s also got different components that evolve over different periods of time. Paul Bohannon’s model of the components of divorce is:

  • Emotional Divorce – This is the first stage of decreasing emotional investment in the marriage. (This mirrors the emotional investment that preceded the legal marriage.)
  • Legal Divorce – This is the legal process of filing for and receiving a legal decree for the division of property and custody of dependent children.
  • Economic Divorce – The practical steps necessary to dissolve any existing economic ties including things like removing names from bank accounts and creating new bank accounts.
  • Coparental Divorce – Custody expectations are established and followed.
  • Community Divorce – The social relationships inside and outside of the extended family need to be separated.
  • Psychic Divorce – Autonomy of thinking and emotions

Top Ten Risk Factors for Divorce

  1. Young Age – Marrying before the age of twenty-five
  2. Low Income – Earning less than twenty-five thousand dollars per year
  3. Race – Being African American or marrying someone of another race
  4. Rape – Having been raped
  5. Religion – Having no religious affiliation
  6. Children – Having children at the time of the marriage or having unwanted children
  7. Divorced Parents – Having divorced parents
  8. Education – Having less than a college degree
  9. Work Status – Being unemployed
  10. Poor Communication – Nagging, stonewalling, escalating conflicts (See The Science of Trust for more on communication patterns.)

Divorce Resilience

One of the clearest consequence of divorce is downward mobility. That is that having two households rather than one is more expensive and therefore both parties cannot maintain the same standard of living that they might have enjoyed before. So with the host of issues surrounding a divorce, how do you rebound from a divorce?

The answer seems to lie in strong friendships. Whether it’s a new romantic relationship or preferably a strong friend or two to carry you through, those with strong friendships fared better than those who didn’t have strong relationships. (See Change or Die for more on the impact of relationships.) Emotional Intelligence quoted a 1987 Science article as saying that isolation “is as significant to mortality rates as smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and lack of physical exercise.” Divorced persons with health problems die earlier than their married counterparts. In other words, relationships are key. With the death of a major relationship it’s important to cultivate others.

That is not to support frantic socializing but rather to encourage healthy dating. The research seems to show that when men are frantically social they tend to be less happy and more distressed. So while some level of socialization is appropriate and healthy, filling every night on your calendar to prevent yourself from processing the loss is not.

Death is a good metaphor for dealing with divorce. (See On Death and Dying for more on how to cope with death.) In reality divorce is the obituary for your marriage. It signals the end of what was – including your dashed hopes and missed opportunities. Grieving for the loss of your marriage is appropriate and healthy.

Wallerstein defined three different profiles of adjustment. There were the survivors who were scarred by the divorce but kept struggling to move on – sometimes unsuccessfully but mostly succeeding. The second profile was the successful adjusters. These people resolved the past issues, accepted their mistakes, changed their behaviors, and functioned more adaptively. The final group were the losers who were unable to escape the pull of the divorce being the central spot in their thoughts and emotions.

The key it seems to healthy living post-divorce is to learn lessons from the divorce but to not ruminate about the divorce or how you are the victim of it. (See Boundaries, Beyond Boundaries, Daring Greatly, and Change or Die for more on victimhood.)

Children’s Concerns

Children are the “collateral damage” in a divorce. That is, they weren’t a part of the cause, but they’re stuck with some of the impacts. One of those impacts is that they’re more anxious and upset. They wonder if they caused the divorce and wonder if both of their parents still love them. They wonder where they’ll live and sometimes if there will be enough to eat.

Children also have the tendency to grow up too quickly. They become the parent’s confidant. Sons become “the man around the house.” This happens in part because of the void left in the parent’s lives and their inability or difficulty in managing their own responses. Mothers were found to be more irritable, unresponsive, erratic, and punitive. They had more trouble controlling their children, especially their sons. Children try to adapt their responses to compensate for their parents but create a gap in their own childhood in the process. They try to reverse roles with the parent and take on responsibility for the emotional needs of the family. This additional pressure can make them feel more depressed.

Years later when they try to form relationships the scars will become apparent for both the rapid growth and their difficulty in seeing what a healthy relationship should look like. It’s hard to have a healthy relationship with another human being if you’ve never seen it yourself. While not strictly speaking an outcome of the divorce itself – instead being a symptom of the dysfunctional relationship that created the divorce – the impact of “normal” being defined as what you grew up with and that “normal” being dysfunctional requires a great deal of work to get around.

Helping the Children

The best thing that a parent can do to help their child is to become emotionally healthy themselves. Any divorce is going to leave bruises and scars. It’s incumbent on the parent to do what they need to do to get healthy.

Children still need to remain children. That includes supervision of their habits and their school work. Checking homework to make sure it gets done and monitoring what they’re watching on the TV or on the computer. Simple things like regular mealtimes and regular bedtimes establish a routine that is comforting.

The rules should be clear and discipline should be firm but flexible. The structure reduces the uncertainty and paradoxically the firm discipline reminds the children that they don’t need to be in control. They can depend on their parents to be parents. Discipline and rules aren’t all that’s needed. Nurturance is also needed. That is a loving and responsive posture towards the child which acknowledges that they’ve got their own limitations, faults, and fears.

When parents treat their children like they’re an aunt, uncle, or grandparent and fail to establish and maintain appropriate guidance, children have more difficulty adjusting to the divorce. Being the “fun parent” may seem like you’re loving your children through the process, however, the research says that for both parents – but particularly for the custodial parent – this is dangerous.

Step Parenting

In most cases divorced individuals will eventually find themselves married again – or at least in a serious live-in relationship. In an upcoming review I’ll address this in more detail – but for now there are a few key insights to step parenting laid out in Divorce.

First, most second marriages are better than first marriages. Apparently divorcees learn from their mistakes and stop making them.

Second, the best way to step parent is to stay in sync with your spouse. The most successful step parenting relationships are those where the couple focus on maintaining their bond and presenting a unified front to the children.

Moving On

No one sets out in live to be a divorcee. However, despite this many find that this is the best answer for them. Reluctantly many adults find themselves trying to figure out how to cope with the loss of their marriage. Divorce has clues on how to navigate the waters of divorce and move on.