Book Review-Seeing Systems: Unlocking the Mysteries of Organizational Life

Sometimes the people I speak with look at me funny. They tilt their head just a bit and wonder how I’m looking at problems. I know that I see things differently, but it’s normal to me. Seeing Systems: Unlocking the Mysteries of Organizational Life seeks to help everyone see things a bit differently. Instead of blaming people for the problems we encounter, the goal is to expose that many of the problems we see are natural outcomes of the systems we create.

Thinking in Systems

One of the reasons I see things differently than others is because I see things in systems. It’s stocks and flows. It’s things that happen as a natural result of other places in the system. It’s also seeing bottlenecks and areas where the system itself can’t adapt. It’s less about the answer today, and it’s more about the process that led to the answer, so I can see if the answer will be the same tomorrow.

When you learn to think in (or see) systems, you learn to wonder what’s next. You begin to look for the situations where the results you’re seeing no longer apply. While it’s doubtful you’ll ever be able to predict every outcome because the systems are too complex, you can often begin to see what might come next – and ways that you can break the chain and cause the system to stop behaving in a bad way. (See Thinking in Systems for much more about systems thinking.)

Good or Bad

We tend to think about both people and systems as being good or bad. However, it’s more about whether the system is a good fit for the need or not. A battleship is a great solution to a sea-to-sea conflict but poor at a sea-to-land attack. Battleships are big ships, and they can’t get close enough to the shore to attack targets that are inland. Aircraft carriers and the planes they support are good for sea-to-land attacks (through the intermediary step of air-to-land) but are vulnerable due to their size and inability to protect themselves from attack at sea. It’s not that one is better than the other, it’s that one is more suited to the task than another.

We need to step away from the idea that something is good or bad and instead look for fit and interactions. Systems – including organizations – can be good for society, good for customers, and good for employees – or good at only some of these.

As a quick aside, Nassim Taleb argues in The Black Swan and Antifragile that we optimize redundancy out of systems so we can enhance our gains but leave ourselves susceptible to naturally occurring forces that can take the system out of balance. It’s important to realize that short-term productivity of a system isn’t the only measure we should be watching. Resilience and the ability to cope with stress is important too. (See Collaborative Intelligence for more on different kinds of measures of productivity.)

The Blame Game

It’s natural. We have a natural bias – called the fundamental attribution error – to see negative outcomes as the result of people rather than as a natural result of the system they’re in. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on fundamental attribution error.) Kurt Lewin said that all behavior is a function of both person and environment. When we’re speaking of our own poor behaviors, we attribute them to the environment. When we’re speaking of others’, we tend to attribute them to their character. While this is natural, that doesn’t make it desirable.

When we’re trapped in corporate systems, we tend to blame others for our chronic frustrations. Instead of looking at the system and seeing the situation as a natural outcome, we perceive that someone must be doing something wrong. Consider walking into an emergency room and finding out that the wait to see a doctor is four hours. You might, quite naturally, be frustrated because of the wait – particularly when you’re feeling bad enough that you’ve decided to go to the emergency room. The problem is that this is – occasionally – the natural result of the system that seeks to optimize the utilization of resources, including doctors and nurses.

In an unconstrained system, there would be a doctor available immediately for every need. However, this is entirely impractical. In an ideal situation, there would be room for everyone to stay in a city for the big game. But to build such capacity would require that it’s unused most of the time, and that would not be financially viable. The point is that every system has a set of constraints that allow it to continue to operate – even if those constraints are occasionally personally painful.

We blame the power-hungry CEOs who don’t allow enough capacity while simultaneously investing in healthcare stocks and demanding an above average return. The truth is that the CEO may be power-hungry, but it doesn’t mean there wouldn’t still be a four-hour wait if they weren’t. We can, if we choose, attribute the negative circumstances in a system to a person, but often there’s no person who should receive the blame.

The Blind Reflex

Giving in to our natural biases and failing to recognize that the system we’re operating in leads us to bad results is our blind reflex. It’s the default settings for us as humans. When we’re faced with a situation that has us feeling misunderstood and with a lack of control, we’ll feel as if the management is out to get us. The view from the CEO’s desk is one of failures and non-compliance rather than an understanding of the complexity of the system and the inevitability of details and challenges.

To be able to change the system, to make the outcomes better, we need to be able to see the systems we’re operating in and how those systems don’t always work the way we want them to work. In short, we need to find a way to stand outside of the system long enough to see what’s happening inside the system.

Standing Outside the System

It sure would be easier to see the forest if there weren’t so many trees in the way. When you stand too close to a problem, you simply can’t become detached or take a step back far enough to see the bigger picture. That’s the fundamental problem with most organizations. We can’t get enough distance or safety to really evaluate it. (See The Fearless Organization for more about the role of safety in organizations.)

In the workshops that Barry Oshry and those certified through his company Power and Systems runs, this distance is explicitly created for everyone through “time out of time” portions of the program (called “toots”). This when everyone is encouraged to share their experience of the workshop, particularly their role in the fictious organization they’re a part of. This is purposeful reflection that is designed to give the members of the system the space they need to see what’s happening.

In fact, the workshop itself is designed to be a microcosm of what happens in a real organization, and therefore make the patterns more observable, just like we would run a small-scale experiment to confirm something we think we’re seeing in the world at large. When the workshops are run at full scale, there are ethnographers. They’re people whose role it is to document what happens and the background behind each decision. While ethnography is most commonly associated with anthropology and the understanding of different societies, it’s strangely appropriate to the micro-society that’s created in the small organization. (See The Ethnographic Interview for more about the ethnographic process.)

The ethnography serves to provide the context and history across the organization. Ethnographers are silent while the system is running but provide a method of storytelling during the after-action review that helps to understand why and how the system became so dysfunctional. (All systems become dysfunctional.)

Predictable Outcomes

It’s entirely predictable. The C-suite is going to feel burdened and overwhelmed. The middle managers (including VPs, directors, managers, and supervisors) are going to feel torn. They feel powerless to influence the C-suite or protect their workers. The workers are going to feel oppressed. Why? Because that’s the pressure the system puts on them.

The workers can not see the reason behind the rules. They don’t understand what value others are adding – particularly when they are doing all the work. (See The E Myth: Revisited if you’d like to see the natural outcome for bottom level workers who aren’t risk adverse.)

Managers feel like the C-suite doesn’t understand the work being done or the needs of the workers, nor do they feel the workers understand their plight. The C-suite wonders why people just can’t do what they ask. If everyone would just do what the C-suite says, then everything would be good. Instead, they feel like they’re spending all their time dealing with the problems when workers or managers aren’t doing their job.

The Amazing Unpredictable

Of course, the best possible answer is to move past these predictable responses to more enlightened responses, which accept individualization and integration (see How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more about acceptance). Instead of seeing one extreme or the other as the only approach, the enlightened view is to see that it’s a continuum, and both extremes are needed at different times and in different amounts. It’s a perspective of wholeness that acknowledges all is needed – not just some.

Amazing things happen when people accept responsibility for their role in a system and either amplify or dampen the natural effects. The system reaches dynamic stability or harmony more easily when the culture encourages personal responsibility. It’s easier for humans to forgive when the other humans in the system apologize. When, instead, people dig into their position of righteousness, the system destabilizes and creates pain more quickly.

To get to the amazing, unpredictable result, we must be able to step beyond the invisible walls that confine us to our preconceived roles and behaviors. It’s hard to step out in courage into new spaces, to adapt the system to be a better fit to the conditions and reduce the suffering of everyone in the system, but it’s worth it.

If we get really good at Seeing Systems, we don’t need the workshops to find our path to the amazing, unpredictable future.

Book Review-The Joy of Burnout: How the End of the World Can Be a New Beginning

I’ve heard burnout called a lot of things. Never once have I heard someone say that it was a joyful experience. However, Dina Glouberman’s book, The Joy of Burnout: How the End of the World Can Be a New Beginning, seeks to turn the thinking about burnout around and make it a gift instead of a burden.

The characteristics of burnout are exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. That’s not exactly the recipe for joy. However, Glouberman’s point isn’t that burnout itself is joy but rather that it can be a wakeup call that leads you to greater joy. While I wasn’t sold on the idea, I took the journey to see where Glouberman was leading.

Messages from Beyond

A long time ago, I heard that someone was seeking to use the word “signal” instead of “pain.” They felt like pain had developed a negative connotation. (You think?) Their reasoning was that pain was just a signal. It’s a signal that what we’re doing is causing damage. Athletes know it as a signal of muscles breaking down. When partnered with rest, it leaves our muscles stronger than they used to be. Instead of pain being bad, the idea was to think about it as a signal for us to interpret and use. That’s a fine sentiment until you’re in intense pain.

In essence, Glouberman’s message is that. Burnout is a signal. So, the question is, what’s it telling you? Her assertion is that you’re not doing what you should be doing. You’re not leveraging your unique talents in the way that was intended (by the universe, higher power, or God – whichever you choose). Said differently, our soul has a desire for our lives, and we’re not living it. As a result, our soul withdraws its energy from our lives.

Coherence

A little less mystical explanation has to do with the coherence of our thoughts, emotions, and energy. Coherence is the idea that everything is consistent or aligned. When our thoughts, feelings, and actions are aligned, there’s no wasted energy. To make this make more sense, let’s look at a practical example.

Consider the light output by a regular bulb – even an LED version. It creates the light we need to see. At roughly 20 watts, an LED version doesn’t consume much energy by historical standards – however, the same amount of power applied to a laser – which is just coherent light – can cut through metal.

The inner conflict in our world is like friction. It converts the motion we have towards our objectives and converts it to heat, robbing our efforts. The more we can eliminate the friction in our worlds, the further we can get. In the case of burnout, Glouberman says that the inner conflict is the gap between what our soul wants for us and what our mind propels us towards. If we can get our heart, soul, and mind in alignment, then there will be less friction – and less of a tendency to enter burnout.

Choices, Expectations, and Commitment

Glouberman explains that we’ve got more choices and opportunities than our parents did. We have more doors open to us. We expect that we’ll do greater things than our parents were able to accomplish. At the same time, our choices have made us less prone to commitment to anything. This shift in dynamics has an important role to play in burnout.

I agree, but it’s important to separate two factors. First, and most directly, high expectations create the opportunity for a huge gap between our expectations and reality. I believe the awareness of this gap causes burnout, like a rubber band breaking after being stretched too far. (There’s plenty more about this idea on the Extinguish Burnout site.) Second, our lack of commitment robs us of the opportunity to become truly great at anything, there by keeping us from having an area of our lives to be proud of.

Our choices and lack of commitment does have an impact on our susceptibility to burnout, but it comes back through our expectations. We grew up with the Norman Rockwell view of the past. We’ve idealized the world of our parents and their parents, when communities banded together against the wilderness to conquer the frontier or to maintain the sanctity of the city. The bonds that were forged in these fires were strong and would never dissolve under the weight of a move, job change, or change of the times.

The problem with this view is that it’s not an honest reflection of reality. On average, our parents did have deeper connections than we have. (See Bowling Alone, Our Kids, and Alone Together for more on this topic.) However, just because our parents had greater community connections doesn’t mean that they had substantially more confidants. According to research cited in Loneliness, the number of confidants fell from an average of three to none in the 19 years between 1985 to 2004.

Our view of the past has us longing for the connections that our parents seemed to have. We want the confidants and the community. While we need to maintain people with whom we can confide in, the days of banding together as a community may regrettably be behind us as a society. When we expect this – but can’t get it – we necessarily see the gap between our expectations and our results.

Illusions and Delusions

One of the largest problems that we have as humans is our belief that we understand. As Incognito explains, we don’t understand the world, we perceive it – and our brain is willing to lie to us to make the perception be consistent. Thus, everything we think we know is an illusion. We have the illusion that we knew how things were just as truly as we believe we know how things are. We delude ourselves into believing that was can go back to places that never existed, because we’ve so distorted our perceptions of the past.

You see, our memory isn’t a tape recorder, it’s a set of fragments that are reconstructed. Every time we reconstruct them, we change them slightly. Every time we recall our childhood fondly, it becomes a little bit better. (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) for more on the malleability of our memory.)

Sometimes, we learn lessons through our delusions that aren’t real. We believe that we’ll only be loved if we’re good. (See The Road Less Traveled and The Four Loves for more on performance based love.) We learn that under the sink is dangerous. For me, I was taught that under the sink was bad, because that’s where my mom kept the cleaning chemicals. I can remember that, until quite recently, I didn’t like going under the sink, because it was somehow bad. It often takes a great deal of work to free ourselves from the things that we learned in our childhood – even if what we learned wasn’t right.

Loving Ourselves Differently

If we were different, we could love ourselves. When you say it that way, it sounds funny. I’d like myself if I weren’t myself is a common undertone that permeates some of our lives. In our striving to become better, we forget that we’re good – and enough today. Burnout, from Glouberman’s perspective, is in part caused by our lack of acceptance of ourselves for who we are.

Certainly, the lack of acceptance of who we are is draining to anyone. Resolving this discrepancy will free up more energy and personal power to fight burnout and accomplish our life’s desires.

Detachment – Waiting without Hope

Sometimes, the language we use obscures as great idea. Such is the case when Glouberman explains that we should wait without hope. As I read carefully, I began to realize that she wasn’t focused on the need for a lack of hope – which would be bad. (See The Psychology of Hope for more on hope.) Instead, the intent was to convey a lack of attachment to the outcomes. That is, we can become so attached to the outcomes that, when things don’t happen exactly as we had planned (or hoped), we become dejected and burned out. Instead of being attached to the outcomes, we should be detached and accepting of whatever comes to minimize the risk for burnout. (See Resilient for more on detachment.)

To find The Joy of Burnout may be too much to ask, but to learn how to consider the growth from burnout as joy is something that we can aspire to.

Buzzword Buzzkill

It seems like using buzzwords and acronyms can spice up your communications. But, more often than not, your audience will just get confused. We’ve got some tips to avoid being a buzzword buzzkill in this video.

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Now Available: The Road Ahead White Paper

Knowledge management and records management can seem like they’re on opposite sides of the table. One side argues to create and retain more information, because then it becomes more findable. The other side wants to be able to properly dispose of documents to reduce the costs of maintaining them. In truth, they often have the same need for organization, and they face the same discoverability challenges, the same barriers to effective labeling and tagging, and the same questions of where to store things. 

To bring the parties together and lay out a roadmap for success, we’ve developed a whitepaper that discusses what happens when these two seemingly opposing forces meet: “The Road Ahead: Knowledge Management and Records Management Converge with Office 365.” We teamed up with Colligo, HELUX Systems, and Vana Solutions to bring you a comprehensive discussion on how to achieve information governance that satisfies both the knowledge management and records management needs. Whether you’re a well-versed veteran looking to the future of information governance or just starting out on your journey, this paper will guide you on the road ahead. 

Get The Road Ahead white paper

Book Review-Integrity: The Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality

What does being “a person of integrity” mean? Though most people would immediately think of moral, ethical, or right, there is a deeper meaning to integrity. It’s about wholeness. It’s about being one person and not different people in the same body depending on context. Henry Cloud explains in Integrity: The Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality how integrity is much more than simply ethics and morals – though that’s not a bad place to start.

Context

Before diving into the details of the kind of character that Cloud describes with “integrity,” it’s important to share that I’ve been a fan of his work for years now. Boundaries, which he co-wrote with John Townsend, is a cornerstone of my recommendations for people struggling to find ways to go through life. His books Safe People (also co-written with Townsend) and Changes that Heal, Cloud connects the kinds of people we need to be in relationships to the need for boundaries. His more recent book, The Power of the Other, helps us to understand how others impact us – often without our knowledge.

Integrity isn’t the latest book that Cloud has written (The Power of the Other holds that distinction), so this was a chance for me to go back into the foundations of Cloud’s thinking and writing and look at more basic components of how we get along with one another.

Wholeness

At the heart of Integrity is the understanding that we need wholeness. We need to have what I’ve described as an integrated self-image (see my reviews of Braving the Wilderness, Happiness, Beyond Boundaries, and many more), which circumscribes all that we are instead of carving out only the parts of our identity we want to allow others to see. Many authors have hammered away at this topic, as they’ve sought to capture and relate the sense of completeness that philosophers have struggled to share for ages.

The fundamental problem with wholeness is that it is difficult to explain. It’s like trying to explain a plane to a tribe that has never met modern civilization. Until you’ve seen a plane, it’s hard to make sense of them in your brain. Even after seeing an airplane, that doesn’t mean you can build it. As you’ve stumbled across people who appear to be wholly integrated, you may think to yourself that they’re interesting. But, for the most part, there are barely clues to how they became so whole, complete, and integrated.

Feedback

One of the ways that people become more whole is to see their blind spots, and that comes through feedback from others. There’s a simple truth that you cannot see everything. From the blind spots in our eyes where our optic nerves connect to the fact that we can’t see the soles of our feet when we’re standing, there are limitations to our own perception. (See Incognito for more.) We need others to help us develop a more complete picture of the world and ourselves.

Feedback is often difficult to take. It often highlights an aspect of ourselves that may be true but we conveniently ignore or gloss over. It’s often painful to adjust our self-perceptions to include our limitations and opportunities for improvement.

However, truly whole people invite feedback and seek to better understand themselves and their worlds – even if it’s difficult at times. They’ve figured out how to recognize the value that it brings to them more than the immediate sting, much like the athlete who pushes through their pain in exercise to gain stronger muscles and better endurance.

Connection

Feedback can drive us apart – or it can bring us together. We’re all wired for connection. It’s a fundamental part of the way that we live. Our togetherness has been woven into our very survival since well before our written language. (See Mindreading, The Righteous Mind, and The Evolution of Cooperation for more.) Books (The Dance of Connection, for instance) and entire careers have been made on our need for connection with one another.

A wholly integrated person isn’t incomplete in one sense. They understand who they are and don’t rely on others to complete parts of themselves. Simultaneously, they’re aware of their fundamental need to be connected with others. This paradox of being complete and at the same time acknowledging the need for other people is what makes wholehearted people interesting.

Grace

Whenever there are two people involved in a relationship, there must be some level of grace. Grace is a gift, an unmitigated favor, bestowed upon another person to accept and redeem their faults. Done well, grace is given with the humility of acknowledging that we give grace because we need grace ourselves. We will make mistakes, we’ll be blind to our limitations, and we’ll struggle.

Because we need grace ourselves, others must need it. Though we all suffer from a fundamental attribution error – attributing our setbacks to situations and others’ to their character – we at some level know that we’re not perfect. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on fundamental attribution error.) It would be disingenuous to expect grace from others and offer it to ourselves but then not offer it to others in return.

Trust

Cloud is a bit fuzzy with his use of the word “trust,” sometimes using it to mean trustworthy and other times meaning the giving of trust. I’d offer that I’ve spent a great deal of time learning about trust. While you must be trustworthy and learn to appropriately trust others to be a whole person, I’m not sure that this well understood. (My most recent capstone on trust is at Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited if you want a longer explanation about trust and how it works.)

Cloud appropriately flags person of integrity as trustworthy because they are worthy of trust. Persons of integrity also have a greater capacity to give the gift of trust to others. They can see where and how people can be trusted and can extend trust in more situations and to a greater degree than people of lesser integrity.

The Work

While being a person of integrity is a good thing with a host of benefits to yourself and those around you, it’s not easy. Just knowing what needs to happen doesn’t make it happen. People of integrity have typically worked long and hard to become the person of integrity they want to be. It’s hard work, and it take determination and grit. (See Grit for more.) It’s more than the willpower to pass up the chocolate cake. It’s an enduring commitment to seek to become more than they are today.

In the end, a person of integrity is willing to accept the feedback and accept the assignment to make themselves better. Perhaps they’re even willing to take a nudge to read Integrity.

ARMA InfoCon 2019 Interview

A few weeks ago, I did an interview with RJ Mauro leading up to the ARMA InfoCon this year. We discussed some of my information governance background, the future of the information profession, and the conference itself. It was posted on YouTube, so you can check it out by going here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oBHrkyY4Ngs.

You can learn more about ARMA InfoCon on their website, https://www.arma.org/page/infocon.

Getting the SharePoint Site URL in a Microsoft Flow

Working with clients on deployments in the Microsoft world isn’t always easy. Some clients want to develop in one environment (or tenant) and then move that development to a new tenant. Invariably, there are steps that get missed. When they do, the production deployments break, which impacts users – and it’s frustrating.

One of the problems with Microsoft Flows is the need to update the source URL for the SharePoint operations. If you trigger based on some list event, and then want to update another list in the same site, you’ve got to enter that URL again.

The first solution to this is to define a variable at the top of the flow and then use that variable for the Site URL for every SharePoint operation. That helps, because it centralizes the setting of the site URL to a single place. However, it’s still easy to miss when you’re doing a deployment.

A way to enhance this is to use an expression to set the variable so that it’s always the right URL, but that’s not easy.

In your trigger inputs – trigger()[‘inputs’] – there’s a variable called path. The problem is that this path looks something like /datasets/https%253A%252F%252Fthorprojects.sharepoint.com%252Fsites%252FTEST/tables/f0de155c-08bc-4a46-9772-74dde8a1ece0/onupdateditems

To get the SharePoint path out of that, you need to do a few things. Initially, I tried stripping the last three levels in the URL iteratively, but that proved to be unwieldy. What I ultimately realized is that the lengths of the start and end of the URL are fixed, thus I can use hardcoded values for the lengths to trim rather than relying on the slash delimiters. For this URL, I can use the following statement to get the SharePoint portion.

substring(trigger()[‘inputs’][‘path’], 10, sub(length(trigger()[‘inputs’][‘path’]), 69))

Of course, I still have some replacements to do to get my encoded characters back, so the statement becomes:

replace(replace(substring(trigger()[‘inputs’][‘path’], 10, sub(length(trigger()[‘inputs’][‘path’]), 69)), ‘%252F’, ‘/’), ‘%253A’, ‘:’)

That’s relatively clean. I just initialize my variable to this, and we’re good – if the trigger is an On Changed. It turns out the URL for On Created is slightly different. (It ends with onnewitems.) To cover both, I added an if statement to test whether it’s a new or changed event and ended up with:

if (greater(indexOf(trigger()[‘inputs’][‘path’], ‘onupdateditems’),0),
replace(replace(substring(trigger()[‘inputs’][‘path’], 10, sub(length(trigger()[‘inputs’][‘path’]), 69)), ‘%252F’, ‘/’), ‘%253A’, ‘:’),
replace(replace(substring(trigger()[‘inputs’][‘path’], 10, sub(length(trigger()[‘inputs’][‘path’]), 65)), ‘%252F’, ‘/’), ‘%253A’, ‘:’))

Now, I’ve got one formula that I can give developers to get the SharePoint Site URL for the current site, and I don’t have to worry whether the URL gets updated during a deployment or not.

Book Review-Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic

I was in a darkened room listening to two presenters with their different vantage points on opiates in the workplace, and during the talk, they mentioned the book Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. I disagreed with what seemed to be the presenters’ fundamental premise that drugs are evil, and are to blame for the problems we face as a society, but that made me more interested in reading the book they seemed to be drawing from. Perhaps, in my desire to understand addiction, I had somehow ended up on a side street rather than a main thoroughfare of perspectives on addiction.

As I began to read, I realized that, much like my perspective in my review of The Fearless Organization, there’s a component of the problem related to the coverage in the book – but that there are many factors that have received insufficient coverage. In the case of Dreamland, it’s not just about the morphine molecule but also about people.

Oxycontin

The poppy plant, and the opiates it produces, have been with us since the start of civilization between the Tigress and Euphrates rivers. Morphine may have only been first distilled in 1804, but its history travels back much further than that. However, as recently as 1999, pain management became important to medicine through the work of the American Pain Society. Press Ganey surveys became powerful forces in medicine to assess patients’ satisfaction with their doctors. The lower the pain, the better the scores. Even today, patients are asked whether they feel as if their pain is well-managed.

Though the American Pain Society promoted pain to be the fifth vital sign, it is different than the other four, which can be measured by calibrated instruments. Pain is whatever the patient says it is – and that opens the door for problems.

About the same time, in 1996, in the search for the perfect, non-addicting version of the morphine molecule, Purdue Pharmaceuticals took oxycodone, a synthetic opioid, and packaged it in a time-release pill called OxyContin. The aggressive marketing of OxyContin along with other factors led to a massive increase in the use of opiates – in the form of OxyContin – to treat pain.

Pharmacological Theory of Addiction

At that time, it was believed that high and low feelings created addiction. It was further believed that OxyContin solved this problem by continuous dosing, and therefore it was non-addictive. However, the story has its problems. The first is what was purported as strong evidence that people who were prescribed opiates didn’t get addicted – as was previously believed. The “strong evidence” was a single paragraph written as an editorial about the results of the progression of abuse in inpatient settings – not the outpatient prescriptions OxyContin was being suggested for. The editorial was written based on a database query of those inpatients who developed addiction which as a result of controlled settings was relatively few. In short, OxyContin was sold as non-addictive. An army of drug representatives sold it to doctors this way, who, in turn, prescribed it for patients.

There was another problem, too. OxyContin contains a high dose of oxycodone. It was the time release formula that made this make sense. If you don’t crush the tablet, all is fine. However, like a child who is told not to do something, the cat slipped out of the bag. If you crush the tablets – which you learned not to do by a warning label – you can remove the time-delay of release, resulting in a dose of oxycodone all at once and creating a euphoria.

The understanding of morphine and related opioids is that they overwhelm a receptor in our brains – the mu receptor. In doing so, they are far more powerful than any high that people can get naturally. It’s also understood that, after the influence of opioids, these receptors take some time to recover. In effect, the belief is that no one stands a chance against a morphine-based drug.

Retraining the Brain

Support for the idea that opioids can reprogram a brain comes from Toxoplasma gondii. It’s a parasite that infects cats. It’s excreted in their feces and ingested by rats. T. gondii, Dreamland reports, “reprograms the infected rat to love cat urine, which, to healthy rats, is a predator warning.” There’s a problem with this. When I went to investigate this fascinating idea, it seemed more far-fetched than reality. When humans are infected with T. gondii, they are higher in extraversion and lower in conscientiousness (fear). This is the kind of behavior you might define in rats as loving cat urine: less fear and greater extraversion.

While it’s possible that opioids literally reprogram the addict’s brain (or even the first-time user), it seems like this is more like propaganda than reality. (See Chasing the Scream for more on how drug addiction has been propagandized.) It’s certainly possible that opioids change biases in the brain, and acclimatization happens, meaning higher amounts of natural endorphins are required to activate the same response as was previously possible. But, again, this is a far cry from reprogramming.

The secondary support for the reprogramming idea comes from the fact that addicts will do things that are harmful to them. The problem is that they’re only harmful in the long term. Humans use stress to get a performance boost and pay the long-term consequences. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.) It’s true that our ability to defer gratification and do long-term planning is a large part of our success. But it’s a far cry to say that anyone who eats an extra cookie at the picnic is an addict. (See The Marshmallow Test for more about the positive impacts of delayed gratification.)

Addictive Tendencies

If you rule out that drugs are inherently evil and can reprogram the brain, you’re left with the reality that people are getting addicted, and they’re getting addicted at a very high rate. There’s something going on. It seems to be that “something” is susceptibility to being addicted. Some would argue that we can be genetically predisposed to being addicted. The answer might be a bit more complicated than that.

The Globalization of Addiction shares Bruce Alexander and his colleagues’ work, including a very interesting experiment called “rat park.” The research indicated that rats will continue to drink morphine-laced water until they kill themselves, but Alexander and his colleagues found that’s only true when the rats are bored. If you give the rats a social interaction and playthings, they much prefer that to overusing morphine. In short, when you deprive rats of the kinds of stimulation and community they need, they turn to drugs.

If our addictive tendencies are anything like rats’ tendencies, it’s because of things that are missing in our lives. We see this trend happening today. Robert Putnam has written about how our communities and connections are unraveling in both Bowling Alone and Our Kids. (Each book approaches the problem from a different lens.) Sherry Turkle in Alone Together writes about how technology has changed the way we interact, making us simultaneously more connected and disconnected. In short, the breakdown in our communities is leading to more capacity for addiction.

Interestingly, it may be one of the reasons why successful programs involve communities, such as Delancey Street (see Change or Die and Change Anything for two places where this program is cited) and twelve-step programs (see Why and How 12-Step Groups Work). Even the growth of gangs seems deterred by improving communities, as they tend to be another way people escape their existence. (See Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order for more.)

Drug Community

Communities may be a way of staying out of drugs – but once you’re in a community that centers around drugs, it becomes harder to get out. When all your friends are users or dealers, they’ll inevitably pull you back in. (There’s a story related in 12 Rules for Life about Satan touring Hell and showing off the cauldrons – including the one with no need for protection, as anytime a Russian starts to get out, the others pull them back in.) So, while community is necessary to avoid addiction, it can, at times, create a safe haven for drug addiction.

That’s what happened when OxyContin gained acceptance in the medical community and at large. It’s not that abuse didn’t happen before – it did. What changed was the constraints that limited addiction were removed, and, as a result, addiction soared. What started with honest primary care physicians prescribing a little more than they should because they’re weren’t well-trained in pain management degenerated in to pill mills.

Pill Mills

If you want to tell the difference between a regular doctor’s office and a pill mill, all you have to do is look at the parking lot. Dreamland recounts, “If you see lines of people standing around outside, smoking, people getting pizza delivered, fistfights, and traffic jams – if you see people in pajamas who don’t care what they look like in public – that’s a pill mill.” What’s a pill mill? It’s a cash-only business, where “patients” pay a fee to get a prescription for narcotics. The visits are notoriously short, and the doctors don’t suggest alternative treatments or understanding pain better. It’s a “just take this and it will get better” approach with no thought given to the root cause or how to stop the pain. All that’s hoped for is temporary relief.

These pill mills spawned their own systems. People would get put on disability not for the somewhat trivial monthly amount but because it also gave them Medicaid. And Medicaid would pay the sometimes $1,200 fee for their drugs. The street value of the drugs was often even higher than this. The result is a system where those with a little money would pay for the exam fee at a pill mill and split the pills they got after filling the prescription. The elderly would sell some of their drugs to make a little bit of money. It seemed like anyone addicted to pills would need to support their habit by selling some of them.

Another solution was to steal. Walmart grew in rural America and brought economies of scale and globalization. In turn, it shut down local retailers, who couldn’t compete. In many Walmart stores across rural America, theft is just a part of business. The Walmart greeters aren’t really there to greet people as much as they are there to deter theft. However, addicts weren’t deterred and instead found ways to work around the system.

Dial for Drugs

The socioeconomic system was primed. Many people were hooked on pills they couldn’t afford. They needed a cheaper solution, and it came in the form of a phone number. Mexicans from Xalisco began taking calls and delivering drugs to addicts. Farmers and their children barely subsisted on sugar cane they could grow. However, poppies and the black tar heroin harvested from it was very lucrative in the United States. They created a system of drivers, and selling small amounts made heroin more accessible and cheaper than it had ever been. Some reports are that a one-gram hit of heroin cost roughly the same as a pack of cigarettes.

The Xalisco boys would come into town through an addict who got them connected to the community – usually in exchange for supplying their addiction. They’d find methadone clinics – which were sometimes described as game preserves for addicts. Handing out a phone number and some free samples, they’d quickly develop a clientele. That would be the start of a new drug cell.

Police Presence

The system worked well. Drivers never had much heroin on them and what they did have were in balloons in their mouths. If they were about to be arrested, they’d swallow what they had. Even when that didn’t work, they never had enough to be perceived as a threat, so they either got small sentences or were simply deported. The drivers were mostly illegal immigrants, all from the area of Xalisco.

The Xalisco boys made a point of blending in. Simple cars and apartments were traded in frequently. Just enough for them to run their system. Even after the largest scale drug enforcement action ever executed, there was only a one-day blip in the supply of drugs to most cities. The structure was an organization of individual small business owners, each trying to bring heroin to a place that wanted it.

The Cost

The cost wasn’t measured in dollars. It was measured in lives. It’s tragic. Drug overdoses in some communities outpaced deaths due to automobile accidents. It killed indiscriminately. It was no longer limited to skid-row junkies that no one knew or cared about. It happened to children. It happened to businessmen, politicians, policemen, and the wealthy. Still, it was quiet for a long time. The shame and stigma wouldn’t let go. Slowly, the story changed. Slowly, people began to recognize the truth that had been forgotten and ignored – that treatment is more cost-effective than incarceration. Medical professionals started treating the addicted not as pariahs but instead as people who needed help.

People still die every day of drug addiction. They die directly through overdose and indirectly through the complications of drug use. We haven’t – and cannot – stop it, no more than we can stop the legions of drug dealers from trying to make a profit. However, the tide is slowly changing. We’re recognizing that we need to support and help rather than condemn and confine.

The Road Back

The road back from the path that liberalized the prescription of painkillers and the systems of drug dealers that our police were ill-equipped to fight is long. Those who succumb to addiction are prisoners who need to be set free. They need to understand that their lives can be filled with positive things. They need to understand that they can accomplish something – and that something can lead them to their own Dreamland.

Footnote

There’s so much more to Dreamland that I didn’t share. My point wasn’t to convey the entire length and breadth of the book. Instead, in this review, my hope was to share the core of the very real problem that gripped, then strangled, much of America. My hope has been and always is that anyone struggling with addiction can escape their prison and find their own personal Dreamland.

Communication Control to Collaborative Communication

In many organizations, there are two main streams of communication: the officially-sanctioned media and what’s actually used to learn the information. Instead of taking a “command and control” approach to these communications, there are ways to make it more collaborative.

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Book Review-The Burn Book: 8 Key Strategies to Recognize and Extinguish Teacher Burnout

I’m not a teacher in the traditional sense. Sure, I’m an educator. I stand in front of classes and teach, but not in the way that Colleen Schmit means “teacher” in The Burn Book: 8 Key Strategies to Recognize and Extinguish Teacher Burnout. As a former kindergarten teacher, she means teacher in the kindergarten-through-12th-grade sense. Still, I wanted to get a sense for how teachers experienced burnout, so I started reading.

Independent Book Publishing and Speaking

First, it’s important to note that several of the books I’ve published have been self-published. I even laid out the math of self-publishing in my post Self-Publishing with Lulu.com. It talks about the finances to get a book done and what you get back from it once it’s published. I also explained that self-publishing wasn’t for the publishing revenue.

There’s a well-known reality in speaking circles that a book makes you more credible and more valuable. There are numerous services that exist to help speakers publish books to create more credibility. From extensive editing services and flat-out ghost writing to services like Lulu.com, they are designed to get someone listed easily.

This is important, because The Burn Book feels very much like a book that was designed to increase Schmit’s credibility as a speaker. She speaks once in the book about needing to teach occasionally to maintain “street cred.” She also discusses her work doing professional development workshops for teachers. While I don’t fault the desire to get credibility, I’m sometimes frustrated when I’m looking for a well-researched and well-thought-out book on a topic. The Amazon listing for the paperback version of the book says 120 pages – but the Kindle version reports 59. In any case, the book is short.

Work Wife

Schmit recommends that teachers get a work wife (her preferred term) or a work husband. The intent isn’t something adulterous. Rather, she advocates a close relationship with a peer and mentor who can help you become a better teacher. My problem with this is that a friend of mine was deeply – and appropriately – offended when her former boss called her a “work wife” in front of the team.

Certainly, having others who can help you up when you’re feeling down and provide a path forward when your waypower is lacking can be helpful. However, I’m not sure everyone’s spouse would appreciate the recommendation. (See The Psychology of Hope for willpower and waypower.)

Blame, Shame, Guilt, and Sarcasm

Schmit appropriately recommends that teachers avoid blame, shame, guilt, and sarcasm in their classes. I’ve written several times about shame and guilt. Having said that, shame is bad, and guilt can be, but isn’t necessarily, good. (See I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) for more on shame and guilt.) I think the key here is to respect your students and try to help, not harm, them.

What About Burnout?

Honestly, I missed the connection to burnout. There was the occasional reference thrown in – but, all in all, it felt like this was a book about how to be a good teacher that got wrapped in a thin veneer of language that seemed “hot” to make it interesting.

If you’re a teacher and want to know how to be better, then by all means, pick up The Burn Book. If you’re looking for an understanding of research on burnout or different perspectives on burnout, there are better options.