Book Review-Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know

The man born as Samuel Clemens but better known as Mark Twain has a famous quote: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Our certainty that we know how things work and what the right answers are gets us into far more trouble than the things that we don’t believe we know. Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know seeks to encourage us to remain curious about the things that we do know and to learn how to relearn when things change. We all know the rate of change is increasing, and the ability to reconsider our truths is critical to our continued ability to survive and thrive.

Surviving a Fire

It was 1949 when a lightning-ignited fire was spotted in a remote part of Montana known as Mann Gulch. It was the policy at the time to extinguish any fire no matter whether it was a threat to human life and commercial property or not. Fifteen smokejumpers loaded into a single plane and were delivered to the fire. Smokejumpers are an elite group of purportedly fearless individuals considered firefighters at their core.

When the fire blew up and began chasing the smokejumpers, it may have been their identification with their profession that got thirteen of them killed. They ran up the slope to escape the fire with their heavy packs of tools. They might have looked at their retreat from the fire as a temporary setback instead of as a loss. They had never lost to fire, and it seems unlikely that they were willing to let that day be the day. They clung onto their tools in the belief that once they got to the top of the ridge, they could again take the offensive against the fire.

The leader of this group, Wagner Dodge, couldn’t give up his identity either but was willing to look at the problem differently. He knew he was being pursued by a big, out-of-control fire that he couldn’t compete with. However, he reasoned that he could create a small fire, burn out the fuel the larger fire needed in an area, and then survive by staying in that area as the larger fire passed him. He was right – and he was lucky. All save two other fearless heroes lost their lives in the fire.

The Meaning of Heat

In the mid-eighteenth century, every scientist seemed to subscribe to a theory of heat called the caloric theory. It suggested that it was an invisible fluid called caloric that was present in all matter. The amount of heat in an object was the result of this caloric fluid. The problems of the theory were many, from a lack of mass change when an object heated or cooled and the inconsistent heating of different kinds of matter to the lack of explanation for the heat generated by friction.

By the mid-nineteenth century, James Joule was able to validate the kinetic theory of heat proposed by Benjamin Thompson in the late eighteenth century. We now believe that heat is the result of atomic vibration – kinetic energy. The idea that heat was an invisible substance would seem laughable.

Around the World

Understanding the objects of the night sky was a source of fascination for centuries. We found patterns in the arrangement of the stars that surround us. We created constellations and elaborate stories of how the formation of stars came to be. As we sought to understand the motion of the heavenly bodies, there were two competing views from about 300 BC. One was geocentrism – that the Earth was the center of everything. With much less recognition was the idea that the Earth – and all the planets – circled the Sun. In Europe, it was a fact that the Sun and planets orbited Earth.

That was until 1514 when Copernicus published mathematical formulas of the movement of the planets. Only then did people seriously consider that the Earth might revolve around the Sun. Most dismissed Copernicus as a self-promotor or a crackpot until, in 1610, Galileo Galilei discovered moons around Jupiter, and he realized that Copernicus was right.

By 1616, there was an inquisition, and the Pope banned all materials related to the heliocentric model. By 1633, Galileo would be sentenced to prison for his refusal to adhere to the papal decrees regarding heliocentrism. His sentence was commuted to house arrest where he spent the rest of his days. It wouldn’t be until 1758 that the papal decree would be lifted, and we could officially recognize the order of the solar system as we understand it today.


In the world of computer databases, the language is still that transactions are atomic. That means they’re either completed together or not. It’s an important aspect of how to keep data integrity, but it exposes another place where our thinking has changed. Atomic used to mean indivisible. It wasn’t possible to break the atom down. It was as small as we could go. We know now that this is not true, as we’ve learned about quarks and even smaller particles called bosons that make up the Higgs field. Haven’t heard of them? You’re not alone. Nerds have heard about these experimental edges of science where it’s believed all objects get their mass, and thus their attraction to other matter, from.

What we seem to find is that the world is much more complex than we’d like to believe. Every time we believe we’ve got something nailed, we learn about a whole new world that had not yet been uncovered. Every time we uncover something new, we have to reevaluate all we know – and that can be very scary.

Fundamental Shifts

These examples represent fundamental shifts in thinking – and may explain why they take so long to eventually become accepted. There are a variety of cognitive biases (see Thinking, Fast and Slow, Superforecasting, and Sources of Power) and ego defense mechanisms (see Change or Die) that attempt to keep our current perspectives intact even in the face of irrefutable evidence that they’re wrong. The slow, defensive posture for protecting what we’ve worked so hard to learn is a reasonable thing in a world that changes very little. However, our world is far from unchanging.

In 1950, it took about 50 years for knowledge in medicine to double. By 1980, medical knowledge was doubling every 7 years. By 2010, it was doubling in half that time. What 70 years ago would take 50 years to double takes less than 10% of that today. Consider that it was 68 years for aircraft to get to 50 million users. It took Pokémon Go 19 days. In other words, we’re living in a world of change that is unlike anything in history. (See Focused, Fast, and Flexible for more.)

Cognitive Flexibility

Superforecasting explains that if we want to be good at forecasting, we must be willing to consider multiple perspectives. When Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied eminent scientists, he concluded that it was their cognitive flexibility that separated them from their peers. (Csikszentmihalyi is more well known for his work on Flow.) They had bucked the trend of becoming locked into a single perspective and instead embraced multiple views as the situation required. Walt Whitman, in “Song of Myself” section 51, explains, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” He, like the eminent scientists that Csikszentmihalyi studied, wasn’t afraid of contradicting himself.

This willingness to be cognitively flexible may combat one of the most challenging aspects of knowledge. The more we know, the more resolute we become about what we know. Instead of discovering what we don’t know, we turn inward to protect what we do know. In so doing, our convictions lock us in prisons of our own making.

Confidence and Humility

The Dunning-Kruger effect is the name given to why those that know the least about a topic are the most willing to believe in the importance of their knowledge and their command of the topic. Grant draws a graph with “Mount Stupid” – the place where we’re most likely to be subjected to the Dunning-Kruger effect and therefore comment upon our intelligence while exposing our ignorance. At some point, we discover we don’t know as much as we think we did on a topic, and we suddenly fall silent, aghast at what we don’t know.

What we’ve come to learn is that our confidence isn’t solely a measure of the validity of our words. While great leaders can be both humble and confident, it’s a difficult place to reach. It’s too easy to believe that humility is about thinking less of yourself, but my friend Ben says it’s not about thinking less of yourself but rather thinking about yourself less. Humilitas says that humility is “power held in service of others.” I like that, because it makes it difficult to believe that we could possibly confuse self-deprecation and humility. Jim Collins in Good to Great describes this as the Stockdale Paradox. It’s unwavering faith and relentless reexamination.

The Joy of Being Wrong

It’s always a tense moment. It’s the moment when, sitting in the audience, you know the presenter missed something. It can be that they missed something small or something important. It’s tense, because every fiber of your being is at war with itself. You wonder whether you should tell them – privately, quietly, respectfully – or whether you should ignore it. If you ignore it, you deprive them of the opportunity to learn and to be better. You also protect yourself from learning that perhaps you’re not right.

The problem is some people take great offense at even the slightest hint that they may have made an error, a mistake, or an omission. Their response can be direct and abrupt. At least this response allows you to learn what they really believe. Their response can be silent or sullen. It’s rare to encounter someone who says that they appreciate the feedback or that they need to further consider the point – and it’s a mark of excellence.

Grant shares a story about Daniel Kahneman being in the audience while he presented data that contradicted Kahneman’s beliefs and the resulting exchange afterwards. Danny was thrilled. He, wisely, recognized that being wrong is necessary, and it’s when people point out that he is wrong that he has the greatest opportunity to learn. Danny says, “My attachment to my ideas is provisional.” He embodies the perspective we all need to take to survive in our changing world to look for ways to change our opinion and work with the best and most recent facts we have.

The Need for Conflict

We want to believe that it’s possible to consistently get it right on the first attempt. We hear success stories where people seem to have stumbled across the right idea immediately. Brene Brown would say that we’ve gold-plated grit. (See Rising Strong.) We somehow missed the missteps, struggles, and challenges that made the path more winding, dangerous, and uncertain as the retrospective might seem to imply.

In our quest to remove the pain from others’ lives, we often forget that conflict and struggle are essential for everyone’s growth. Baby sea turtles must struggle to find their way to the ocean to calibrate their internal sense of direction. Chicks must break from their shell on their own to understand how to struggle and succeed. That’s why The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable is so tragic. While thinking they’re doing what is best for their children, parents are harming them.

An African proverb says, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” (The Titleless Leader is the source of this reference.) When we’re working with others, there is bound to be conflict. They’ll see things differently or have different values. However, these differences in perspective allow us to become better – to rethink our perspectives – and to develop clarity.

The key challenge with conflict is not the conflict itself. It’s when the conflict is not managed well. Poorly managed conflict leads to hurt feelings and broken relationships. Having had these experiences, many of us fear the poor outcomes from conflict. When we learn to manage conflicts well – and we interact with others who manage conflict well – we can find conflict rewarding rather than debilitating.

A Weak Argument Dilutes a Strong One

When trying to win over another to a new way of thinking, we often load both barrels of our gun and give them everything. The problem with this approach is that it generates resistance. (See Motivational Interviewing for a better approach.) However, it also means that we’re loading up every argument regardless of its strength. The problem with this is that the overall strength of the argument is weakened by weaker points.

Instead of arguments adding to one another, they average each other. Because of this, focusing only on the strongest of the arguments for change gives you a better chance of success.

Persuading the Unpersuadable

Humans have a natural aversion to being persuaded. The moment I detect that you’re trying to persuade me, I’ll start the process of digging in my heals. That’s another reason why multiple arguments may be challenging. It triggers awareness of an attempt at persuasion and thus a reluctance to proceed.

Once this switch, has been tripped it may be that the person becomes unpersuadable. It can be that people are so firmly entrenched in their beliefs that they won’t change their mind no matter what evidence is provided. An important question to ask is “What evidence would change your mind?” If the answer to this is nothing, then there is no point in continuing.

The Greatest Hostility

One of the paradoxical things that happens in any sort of persuasion resistance is that we most violently defend those things which we know deep down aren’t true. We’ve got a natural tendency to defend our positions, but the ones that make us angry are those that we know are the most true. This creates a challenge.

Those people who are defending their beliefs the most vigorously are the same ones who deep-down know the truth. Somewhere along the line, they may have had someone try to convince them that they were wrong, but those people failed – and now the belief became stronger.

So, the internal conflict exists between a deep-seated knowledge that they are wrong and the need to protect themselves from further attempts at persuasion. This is one of the reasons why getting change initiative success is so hard once the organization has failed a few times.

Craving Certainty

As humans, we’re prediction machines, and we want certainty. We want to know that our predictions will come to pass. We don’t like the possibility of error or the chance of catastrophe. There’s always an internal pull that drags us from the understanding that the world is probabilistic rather than certain. (See The Halo Effect.) We know instinctively that nothing in life is certain – except “death and taxes,” as the saying goes. Despite this, we delude ourselves into believing that there are certainties. The certainties make us feel better about our world and reduce our fears. (See Change or Die for more on this phenomenon.)

It’s one of the reasons why when people appear to exude confidence, we’ll follow them more readily. We’d rather listen to “the sage on the stage” than someone who is aware of the limitations of their knowledge. We don’t often reward curiosity. We look at it as a reason to not be certain – and we don’t want that.

When to Commit and When to Think Again

The greatest challenges in life is the Stockdale Paradox. It’s learning when to commit to a course of action and learning when it’s time to Think Again.

Trigger Happy

Roy Rogers had a horse named Trigger. A gun has a trigger. However, neither of these are what we’re talking about when we’re talking about a trigger – an emotional trigger. We’re talking about something that awakens an emotional response in someone else, but it’s fundamentally different than either a pet horse or a gun that has a trigger. The implications of this are that, if you’re telling other people they’re triggering you, then you may be blaming them for your problems.


One of the biggest challenges in statistics – and problem solving – is proving causality. Correlation is a simple statistical formula. Causality is much, much harder to tease out and it’s at the heart of what’s wrong with calling foul because someone else triggered you. It implies that someone else has control of your feelings and therefore you’re a victim.

Feeling Control

Most days, I don’t feel like I’m in control of my feelings – let alone anyone else. They seem to wash over me like waves lapping the shores of the ocean. Sometimes a big wave comes up and catches me by surprise – what my friends in Iceland would call a “Deadly Sneaker Wave.” Other times, the waves are so calm they seem to be rocking me to sleep and perhaps even singing a lullaby from my childhood.

Without a doubt, the environment and, particularly, other people influence us. Kurt Lewin said that behavior is a function of both person and environment. His statement holds true even for our emotions. We have, in ourselves, our history and experiences that lead us towards emotions and behaviors. Our environment can shape how we respond. Neither can be taken in a vacuum, but, ultimately, we must be owners of our own emotions.

Lisa Feldman Barrett took on the challenge of How Emotions Are Made and concluded that how we feel is the interpretation of the events. This is consistent with Richard Lazarus’ view in Emotion & Adaptation that we form our emotions – they don’t come out of nothingness. Together, this means that our emotions aren’t directly the result of external triggers but are instead the result of the complex interaction of our beliefs, our values, our perspectives, and our experiences.

Direct Line

When you think about the path between the trigger of a gun and the rush of lead out of the barrel, there are mechanics involved, but none of those mechanics have the capacity to stop the bullet – presuming that the gun and bullet are functioning properly. It’s the simplicity of logic that A + Time = B. That’s what a trigger is. It’s causal. However, in the case of emotions, it’s not causal at all.

A verbal or visual trigger may create conditions that encourage someone to feel something – but at the end of the day, it’s the mental processing of the conditions that do or do not create the conditions.


It may be an okay place to visit, but it’s a lousy place to build a home. It’s the best explanation I can give for the mental space that Kurt Lewin called topological psychology. (See Principles of Topological Psychology.) Topological psychology is concerned with how people get from one state of mind to another. It’s concerned with how people can move from being a victim to finding strength – and what happens when they don’t.

In victimhood, we necessarily feel powerless. Someone did this to us, and we can’t do anything about it. Therefore, we are powerless. If you look at Marty Seligman and his colleagues’ work over the past five decades, you’ll find The Hope Circuit. When the situation was initially discovered, they called it “learned helplessness.” It was the ticket to victimhood.

When you developed learned helplessness, the story goes, you wouldn’t help yourself out of any situation. Even when you could take actions to reduce or eliminate pain, you wouldn’t, because to do so would be unthinkable. The subsequent research and the ability of enhanced diagnostics led to the awareness that those with learned helplessness didn’t learn something at all. They failed to learn about their degree of control in their situation – and therefore they didn’t learn that they could get out of the situation.

Perhaps one of the reasons why people have become sensitized to potential emotional triggers is the fact that they’ve never learned their ability to manage their emotional responses, or the ability to manage their responses has been taken away.

Addiction, Mental Conditions, and Triggers

Where did the idea of an emotional trigger come from if it’s so different than the direct, causal line that the word was originally intended to mean? The answer is that it came from psychologists struggling to address the challenges of mental illness, including addiction.

The word “trigger” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is the bible for diagnosing mental disease, is always used in reference to initiating an episode. Whether it’s the triggering event for a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) patient or the latest relapse of an addict, it’s something that almost always causes a negative episode.

Almost always isn’t always, but it’s close enough to borrow a word. It’s close enough to bring triggering to the world of psychology and emotions, and in so doing, it’s close enough to create the feeling that other people shouldn’t be allowed to trigger us – rather than working on healing and growing.


Animals are, by their nature, antifragile. That is, they get stronger with the right kind of stresses and challenges. Our muscles grow as we destroy them. Adversity, challenge, and stressors are necessary for survival. Sea turtles need the struggle to find the ocean. Chicks need the effort of breaking from their shell and we need to find ways to push our emotional boundaries to grow more resilient. Nassim Nicholas Taleb dedicated a whole book, Antifragile, to helping us learn this important concept. However, it was the work of Albert Bandura that connected the idea of antifragility to emotions and mental disorders.

Phobias can be debilitating. It’s one thing to be afraid in a dark alley but something entirely different to be afraid to leave your home in a safe neighborhood during the day, with friends, to a well-known spot frequented by policemen and policewomen. However, there are those for whom the fear of going out is overwhelming. Bandura’s work was with people who had a phobia of snakes. Not the kind that startle you as you are walking in the woods but rather the kind that people keep as pets.

The technique he developed essentially relies on creating zones of safety that move closer and closer to the source of the phobia. First perhaps you talk about snakes, then look at a picture, watch someone across the room with a snake, and so on until you’re holding a snake. (Bandura has other work as well, including Moral Disengagement, that’s interesting.)

Safe Zones

Amy Edmondson has focused her research on creating psychological safety. That is, she tries to make people feel safe in their environments – emotionally. However, the irony of the creation of safety is that it must be coupled with accountability and concern. (See The Fearless Organization
for Edmondson’s work.) Kim Scott in Radical Candor is a bit more direct. She says that holding people accountable isn’t cruel, it’s clear.

In that clarity, there’s the ability to silence the inner voice of doubt. We sometimes confuse safe zones by thinking that they’re not places where you can directly challenge someone. However, the truth is that the way people are challenged is critical in the same way that stresses are critical to any developing animal. It has to be the right time, in the right way, with the right intent. With those pieces, it’s possible to not only create a safe zone for today but to create the kind of healing that Bandura, Taleb, and Seligman are encouraging.


But what about boundaries? Shouldn’t I be able to say what other people can and cannot do to me? This is perhaps the fundamental misunderstanding of Cloud and Townsend’s work in Boundaries. People have confused the idea of boundaries, which was intended to discuss what someone themself will and won’t do, with what we believe that others should and should not do to us. When someone says, “Well, he can’t talk to me like that, I’m drawing a boundary,” they’ve missed the point. They’re trying to control someone else’s behavior. (For controlling other’s behavior, see J. Keith Miller’s work Compelled to Control.) A similar statement would be “If you continue to talk to me, I’m going to hang up.” In the second case, the person is describing their behavior, not someone else’s.

This reversal is at the core of the problem with people who believe that others are triggering them and that they must stop.

Unknowable Results

It was a twelve step-based program designed to help teach people life skills. It collected people who had officially recognized addictions and those addictions that aren’t officially recognized. It also included those who were struggling with a major life event, including things like divorce, estrangement or death of a child, and any form of human suffering you might imagine.

I was supporting the audio and video production when the manager of the program came to me to talk about triggers. Stacy is an amazing individual who could balance the needs of people and recognize when things had gone too far. Someone had complained about a music choice and some of the words that were upsetting to them. (The irony was that we were in a church, and the music was from a Christian artist.)

We discussed it as she made me aware of how someone had interpreted the music, and then we both moved on. Unlike what’s happening in too many places, we acknowledged the concern and recognized it as a function of this person’s dysfunction, and as a result made no changes. Stacy could go back and tell the person that we had discussed it – because we had – and she could move into the place of talking to the person about how to heal from their hurt.

When I started the song – even if I had paid attention to the particular lyrics – I couldn’t have predicted how one woman in the crowd could have responded. There was no way of knowing how her unique pain and experiences would be translated into her emotions.

I don’t know whether the woman continued to participate in the program – but either way, she did the right thing for her. She had to figure out how to better manage the emotions that were being stirred inside of her or not be there.

It wasn’t our responsibility to prevent people from feeling emotions or to suppress every possible trigger. It was our responsibility to be respectful and continue on – inviting her to set her boundary to not come or to decide to become more antifragile and desensitized by experiencing a safe space that had the occasional troubling, but not harmful, thought.

Book Review-The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us

Gorillas aren’t exactly easy to miss. If you saw one, you’d expect to realize it. However, our expectations and reality aren’t always the same. In a famous experiment, Christopher Chabris, Daniel Simons, and their colleagues showed people a video asking them to count the passes between people wearing white shirts on a basketball court. Some people got the counts right and some did not, but that’s not the point. The point was to see how many people would notice the gorilla. Half of the people didn’t. The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us is a journey into the place of questioning our assumptions about what we should and should not know.

The Invisible Gorilla

It’s impossible. I couldn’t have missed the gorilla in the video. You must have switched the videos. If there were a gorilla in a video I was watching of people on a basketball court, I’d notice it. These and similar comments were common. Our common sense says that we’ll recognize something that is that different, abnormal, and important. Except half of people didn’t. Not because they were inattentive but precisely because they were being attentive – to something else.

While we believe we can pay attention to everything happening around us, we know that we cannot. There’s simply too much information coming at us for us to fully process and make sense out of it. That’s why we ignore so much of what’s happening around us. Change or Die explains that our reticular activating system (RAS) is responsible for what we pay attention to and what we do not. Incognito provides the other half of the equation by explaining how our brains make up information that’s missing. Basically, we have some small subset of the world around us that we perceive, and we make up the rest.

These combined give us the perception that we’d see the gorilla while simultaneously only taking in a small amount of the information around us.

The Intuitions

The book covers the following intuitions that may deceive us:

  • Attention
  • Memory
  • Confidence
  • Knowledge
  • Cause
  • Potential

Because we believe that we intuitively know how things work, we can be misled into poor decisions. Consider for a moment the legislative push in the United States to eliminate the use of phones in hands while driving a car. Many states are now requiring hands-free technology when using phones. This is despite the fact that research doesn’t show any difference between the results of phones in hands and hands-free conversations.

Intuitively, we believe that hands-free should be no different than speaking with someone in the car with us. However, the research seems to prove that we do treat it differently, because when we enter a period of high attention to driving, we pause the conversation in the car. The passenger knows why we’re pausing the conversation, so we feel justified in doing so. When the other person isn’t in the car, we feel awkward pausing the conversation to focus on the traffic around us.

In this case, and in many others, the intuition doesn’t match the reality we find when we research it.

Evidence to the Contrary

One of the key challenges with our intuition is that it’s based on our experiences. Our intuition pattern matches against the things that we’ve seen and done. Since few of us encounter situations where we’re confronted with evidence of our failure to properly manage multiple tasks – like driving and talking – we assume that we can. After all, if we’ve done it this many times, why can’t we do it once more?

This is the kind of rationale that was prevalent in the 1980s, when, in the United States, we began to crack down on drunk driving. Groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD) started to push for tougher laws, greater awareness, and fewer losses due to drunken driving. People would argue that they’ve driven after a few drinks for years and nothing ever bad happened. That may be true in their case – thus far. Because any kind of accident is such a rare occurrence – thankfully – we get no feedback about how our behaviors are increasing our risk.

The Illusion of Memory

Our memories cannot, as much as we may like to believe it, record and replay events accurately. As was pointed out in Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), every time we go to recall a memory, we subtly change it based on our current understanding. We believe that our memories are precisely accurate recollections of the past because they appear that way to us. However, we are frequently surprised to see how things were different when viewed from an actual recording.

We should realize that we have no way of encoding every experience into our memories with full fidelity. Despite the amazing capacity of the brain, we’d quickly run out of storage. Instead, our brains store key concepts and relationships. We connect nuggets of data so that we can regenerate the situation – rather than recall it.

Our fallacy of memory has convicted too many innocent people. We’ve discovered through DNA analysis that many convicted people were the wrong people, and decades after their arrest they’ve finally been freed through the work to combat the undue weight given to eyewitness testimony in criminal cases.

Change Blindness

Movie gaffs are famous. In one part of a scene, something is present and in the next version of the scene, it’s not. Waffles convert to pancakes. Windows that are shot up are suddenly fixed and things flop from left to right and vice versa. There are specific people whose job it is to ensure that there is continuity in a series of shots for a scene, and even though it’s their only job, things are often missed. The good news is that most of us – due to our illusion of attention – miss these gaffs all together until someone points them out to us.

The truth is that we’re all generally very unlikely to notice small changes. These changes don’t meet our threshold and therefore don’t register. We believe we should remember what happened seconds before… but we don’t.

False Memories

Abuse of any kind is a tragedy. It’s a failure of humanity to protect the weak. Nothing is more tragic than allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated against children. In the zeal to capture all of the perpetrators and to bring them to justice, we accidentally tripped over another problem with our memories – the fact that we can recall false memories.

Perhaps the easiest and most innocuous version of this is when we hear a story from a friend, and we make it our own. We can recall the event with sufficient detail, and therefore we believe it’s ours. While it’s embarrassing, it’s not particularly harmful.

What happens when you intentionally test the limits of false memories, as researchers did when they doctored photos of people as children, placing them in a hot air balloon. The adults knew they’d never ridden in a hot air balloon ride. However, they were asked to imagine themselves in this ride. Come back later and ask them if they’ve ever been in a hot air balloon, and many will say yes and recreate their initial imagination but as fact rather than as a flight of fancy. This strikingly easy research experiment shows how we can land with false memories of things that never happened.

Gary Ramona was accused of repeated sexual abuse of his daughter Holly. The accusation came from memories induced by a therapist under the influence of drugs known only to Holly as “truth serum.” Gary lost his marriage and his high-paying job. Ultimately, he was able to sue the therapist and win in a suit that claims the therapist planted the memories in Holly. It got him a monetary award and the summary dismissal of a civil suit filed by Holly after the fact, but it didn’t repair the damage that had been done.

False memories are dangerous things. It’s tragic – and predictable – that, in most of these cases, there’s no way to verify things one way or the other. When it comes to memories, when there’s no direct evidence, we tend to side with more people’s memories than fewer. When there are only two people involved, we’re stuck.

Fixed Memories

Sometimes we develop memories of events that are “flashbulb memories” – that is, the memory is sealed because of a significant event. These memories, though perceived as more vivid, are not any more accurate than regular memories. They are, however, more firmly anchored. As a result, they can sometimes be more difficult to dislodge.

Even in cases where irrefutable evidence can be produced, people may be unwilling or unable to change their memories about events. Instead of reprocessing their world view given the new information, they reject it because it doesn’t fit their beliefs. (See confirmation bias in Thinking, Fast and Slow.) This is a common challenge with humans leading to divides that can last decades.

The Illusions of Confidence and Knowledge

You’ll accept the testimony of a more confident witness more readily than one who is less confident – even if the objective measure of certainty are the same. We tend to elect officials that seem like they know what they’re doing – even if they do not. When coupled with the Dunning-Kruger effect, this is a very dangerous place to be.

The Dunning-Kruger effect says that those who know the least are over-confident in what they know. Those who are experts err, too – but generally by slightly underestimating what they know. (See How We Know What Isn’t So.) These sorts of errors show up when you ask people whether they’re better leaders than the average. The answers generally come up in the 60-80% range of people believing they’re better leaders than average – which is, of course, statistically impossible.

More Information

Sometimes our perception of knowledge is distorted by the volume of information that we get. We believe, for instance, that we’ll do better with investing if we have more data about how our portfolio is performing. The truth is that it causes us to make changes more quickly and make less money in the long run. Instead of information helping us to make better decisions, we overreact, and we perform poorly. (See The Information Diet for more.)

Audio cable companies used to advertise all sorts of unique features of their cables when audiophiles in a blind test couldn’t tell the difference between the cables and a metal coat hanger. The truth is the illusion of information is all that’s needed to cause us to make decisions.

Infographics have become quite popular. They convey a very small amount of actual information in a graphic and therefore compelling way. (See the book Infographics for more.) When speaking of neurological scans included in neurological articles, the authors refer to it as “brain porn.” Even when the scans don’t convey any additional information, people rate the article as more understandable with the meaningless scans.

The Illusion of Cause

One of the arguably most painful illusions we’ll talk about is the illusion of cause. That’s because of the work of the discredited Andrew Wakefield and his publication (since retracted) in The Lancet that claimed the cause of autism was the MMR vaccine. I’ll spare you the details, but we’re so wired to find simple, singular causes, that it seemed probable. After all, the rise in autism cases tracked the rise in immunization. (However, it also tracked the rise of piracy off the coast of Somalia, but no one thought that was a cause.)

This is one of the greatest negative impacts because, despite Andrew Wakefield having lost his license to practice medicine as a result of the problems with the article, people still vehemently believe that vaccination causes autism and as a result fail to vaccinate their children, leaving them unnecessarily susceptible to disease.

The Illusion of Potential

We’ve probably all heard the claim that we only use 10% of our brains. We’ve heard that we have limitless potential if we just reach out and grab it. The problem is that it’s not true. Steven Kotler in The Rise of Superman studies amazing athletes and shows how they perform at levels well in excess of anything you or I could through training and entering flow. However, their feats of accomplishment are narrow. Being a good basketball player doesn’t make you a good baseball player or vice versa.

More importantly, while we may only be using 10% of our brain at any one time (which is itself a dubious claim), that may be because there’s no way to get enough energy (glucose) to the brain to support everything being turned on at once. Just like the appliances in our house, we can’t turn everything on all at once without blowing a circuit.

This has not stopped people from trying to find easy ways to enhance our potential. Without any study on children, it was proposed that playing Mozart made them smarter. Out of that came a number of products, including Baby Einstein, which sold to Disney for a nice profit. The actual results of testing were a reduction in the verbal fluency of babies – a fact that these companies would love for you to forget.

The truth is that we do all have great potential – but it’s not found in simple quick fixes or radical jumps. Working diligently, as Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool explain in Peak, is a path toward that potential, but it’s neither quick nor easy. It’s intentional, disciplined work over a long period of time. That being said, you may find that reading The Invisible Gorilla can help you avoid a few pitfalls and to reach your potential.

Book Review-The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life

What if everything that we did in life was designed to help us avoid the terror of our own death? What if we could explain everything from a framework that presumes everything we do is driven by an unconscious motive to transcend death? That’s what The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life sets out to prove. Extending the work of Ernest Becker, the authors seek to show us how we work towards ways of transcending the death that we all know comes for us one day.


Self-awareness is a gift of the human race. It’s our ability to recognize ourselves and, to at least some degree, self-monitor what is going on with us. However, when it’s coupled with our ability to mentally travel through time to the past, present, and future, we’re left with the stark reality that one day we’ll all die. Whether we experience mortality through the death of a pet or a loved one, there are always reminders that death waits for us all. Our ability to project ourselves into the future confronts us with the reality that the day comes for all of us.

In the 1983 movie Krull, the race of cyclops traded a second eye for the ability to see the future. However, the deal was made with a witch, who tricked them. They can see the future but only one event in the future: their death. Rell, the character we meet in the story, explains that a cyclops can seek to avoid their death but only with the consequence of great pain. This is a vision of the human condition where we’re able to see – or simulate – the future and how we might die, and it’s a terrifying thought for many of us.


Nearly every culture that we’ve ever discovered has a fascination with immortality. Some focus on reincarnation – that is, coming back again as another human or another animal. Others are focused on a soul or a spirit that transcends death and enters an ethereal plane. Whatever the specific approach, in most cultures, there’s some sense of life continuing after death. While this seems to be a bandage on a broken arm, it’s something that we all cling to when we’re personally near death or experience the loss of someone near us.

Immortality may also be sought in other ways. Directly through our progeny (children) and the continuation of our genetic material, or indirectly though our memories living on. If our children are unable to carry us in their memories, we can turn to claiming our 15 minutes of fame and ensuring that the world won’t completely forget about us.

However, both direct and indirect approaches for us to maintain immortality eventually fail. The great pharaohs of Egypt are long since gone and many monuments have been found for which we can find no record of who is buried there. In short, the sands of time eventually erase all marks that we make as humans – no matter how terrifying a thought we find that to be.

Cultural Reactions

Our reality that we cannot escape death leads us to seek comfort and safety in some predictable – but not always productive – ways. When reminded of our mortality – when we’re briefly shaken from our death slumber – we react in ways that confirms our values. Even judges, who are supposed to be impartial, when reminded of their death levied a 9x fine in the case of a person who was soliciting for prostitution. Instead of the normal $50 and time served, they levied an average $455 fine. None of them realized that they had done it because of a simple two question survey that asked them about death. The person wasn’t really a case for them but was a test to see if a brief reminder of mortality would have any impact on their sentencing at all.

As a result, if you want to get people to be more protective of their group – their nation, their religion, their ethnic class – remind them briefly of their mortality and watch as the sentiment for the group increases. We saw this in the United States after the 9/11 attacks, when everyone flew American flags and were committed to protecting their fellow Americans.

There is, however, a downside. As we are increasingly sympathetic to our “in” group, we become less tolerant of the “out” group. Those who aren’t like us, who are different, or who don’t fit our beliefs are more critically judged, shunned, and ostracized.

Not Loss, Just Death

It’s important to note that the clinical research has shown these strong effects for reminders of our mortality only. No other loss seems to trigger the same kinds of reactions. This places our mortality and the threat of death into a totally separate category than any other loss. Because death is final, it seems to get some special weight in our mind and in our reactions. This is true well below our conscious thoughts.


The true danger is in accidentally triggering a death response when we stumble across someone’s core beliefs. When we threaten their core beliefs, we bring the awareness of mortality to the surface. Thus, that’s why we can often see extreme reactions to relatively innocuous seeming ideas.

If those ideas are a part of a person’s core beliefs and they’re disturbed, then the reaction can be quite large. We’ve all encountered “sacred cow” topics with friends and in organizations. These topics are ones we dare not touch because they invariably provoke disproportional responses.

The longer a core belief – a world view – is in place, the more things get built around it ,and as more things get built around the core belief, the more resistant people become to changing it. Instead of it being about one way of thinking, it seems to become an all-encompassing change to their meaning of life.

Self-Esteem Shielding

One of the defense mechanisms we have for warding off the fear of death is our self-esteem. The higher our self-esteem, the less likely we are to feel threatened by death or react to the anticipation of pain. Our belief that we have personal agency seems to give us the perspective that we’ll be able to forestall death indefinitely. Martin Seligman and his colleagues described the power of learned helplessness. The more we believe we have control of our circumstances and situation, the greater our hope and the less likely we are to fall into depression. (See The Hope Circuit for more.)

If we want to temporarily avoid the problems associated with a death reminder, we can take steps to build self-esteem. Simple, positive self-talk may be enough to prevent the effects of being reminded of death. Of course, the more durable our self-esteem, the more resilient we are to the effects of thinking about death.

Eggs and Baskets

If you want to have the kind of durable self-esteem that will act as a persistent buffer against the threat of death, then one tool to use is to diversify your interests. If you’re the master in one domain when you’re confronted with a setback, your self-esteem will take a serious hit. (See Peak if you want to know how to become a master in one domain.) However, with diverse interests, you’ll find that any single setback won’t seem as large and won’t impact your overall self-esteem as much, and you ultimately won’t be as influenced by thoughts of death.

In Range, David Epstein makes the compelling case for the other benefits of having a broad base rather than a deep expertise. In addition to the self-esteem benefits, it may be more valuable to you personally and professionally as well.

Monuments and Death

An interesting set of theories have arisen about death and its relatively large importance to early cultures. Many early cultures had elaborate preparations for and ceremonies associated with death. One can point to the pyramids as an example of the huge effort that was expended to prepare pharaohs for the next life. However, these investments aren’t confined to Egypt; other prominent examples include the terracotta army that was buried with Qin Shi Huang. Clearly death was a big production – certainly for leaders but for everyday folks as well.

When you consider the effort expended towards the preparation for the next life and the reality of very little surplus, it becomes clear that death must have commanded a large portion of early human awareness. You can’t spend the effort on preparing for the next life if the thought of death isn’t critically important.

Some of the theories even propose that our transition from a hunter-gatherer existence to an agricultural existence may have been driven by seeds buried with the dead. This gave rise to plants in those locations and ultimately the idea that one could sustain themselves from farming. Of course, alternative explanations are that our transition to agriculture provided for more free time and surplus resources that made elaborate burials possible. Either way, our growth as a human race has been inextricably woven into our concerns of death.

Proximal and Distal

Our proximal – or conscious – thoughts of death are confronted with efforts to push those thoughts from our mind. Its one of the reasons why, shortly after a death, the spouse encounters profound loneliness, as not only did their spouse leave them but, in many cases, the couple’s friends avoid the survivor to protect themselves from their own feelings of loss.

Once pushed below the surface of understanding, the distal defenses are activated. No longer living in a world of rational thought, they prescribe harsher sentences for criminals, more severely alienate those who challenge our core beliefs, and generally manipulate us in unseen ways towards defending ourselves either literally or figuratively.

Rich and Famous

The more death enters our mind, the more we’re persuaded by the idea of the rich and the famous. Perhaps it’s the belief that they will accomplish immortality in some way that we will not be capable of. Perhaps it’s just the fact that we believe that they’re more confident and therefore more capable of keeping death at bay. Whatever the drivers, we know that we’re more driven by forceful and successful personalities when we’re confronting death. Maybe it’s worth the time to look for your own Worm at the Core to see how it may be shaping your behaviors as well.

Book Review-Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People’s Minds

How do you persuade someone else to change their mind? How do you get someone else to come around to your point of view? These are questions at the core of Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People’s Minds. Howard Gardner is no stranger to the mind, having proposed the idea of multiple intelligences – escaping the bounds of the famed intelligence quotient and moving towards a more wholistic view of the kinds of skills that people can possess that aren’t reflected in such a narrow measure.


Humans aren’t good at self-monitoring their own thoughts. Over and over again, we find that self-reports are subject to extreme biases based on what we believe the person asking the question wants to hear. If you think that you’re being asked your income for a social club, you’ll overstate it. If you’re answering a tax collector, the number will be dramatically lower. If we’re so bad at simple things like how much money we make, we can’t be expected to report the experience of our inner lives in a completely faithful way. Daniel Kahneman explains in Thinking, Fast and Slow that our automatic, System 1 brain can lie to our rational brain, and we won’t even know it.

While many disciplines call for self-reflection, most are cautious to prevent you from getting too wrapped up in our inner thoughts, which can – and often do – lie to us.

Storm the Castle

An effective approach to changing someone’s mind is to come at them from multiple fronts. Instead of trying one story or approach, you bombard them with multiple stories to be processed and angles from which to view the desired change. The more approaches that you can try, the more likely it is that one of them will be useful.

While it’s possible to set up defenses around a single approach to a change, it’s hard to cover every angle. While it’s not always the best approach to consider a change of mind as a conflict, thinking about how they may set up defenses can be useful to consider how you may want to disarm them.

Thunderbolt Changes

Gardner explains that no matter how quickly the change may seem to occur, it almost always occurs over a much longer time. The willingness to change happens below our conscious awareness as we take in additional information. We become aware of our own change – and the change in others – in a thunderbolt. However, a better analogy may be the straw that broke the camel’s back rather than thinking any single intervention or conversation changed someone’s mind.

It’s nice to believe there’s a single watershed event that is solely the cause of a change, but the truth is often much more nuanced.


Fundamentally, humans are prediction machines. As a result, we need to make sense of our environment so that we can simulate situations mentally and ultimately come up with our predicted outcomes. Sense-making is neither optional nor accidental. Jonathan Haidt explains in The Righteous Mind that it’s our ability to communicate and predict the other person’s behavior that made it possible for man to thrive. The problem is that the way we make sense of our situation isn’t always right.

Consider the old wives’ tale about going out with your hair wet and catching a cold. It’s simple, observational, and wrong. We know now that colds are the result of a virus, but no amount of explaining or evidence can shake the hold that this simple observation has on us. Our ability to see correlations is a powerful gift but one that sometimes gets things wrong.

Being wrong is okay. The challenge is that, once we’ve made sense of something and formed a theory about its operation, it’s notoriously hard to change. Andrew Wakefield published a study indicating a correlation between the MMR vaccine and autism. He was later found to have a conflict of interest, the article was retracted, and he lost his medical license. However, these facts don’t interfere with the beliefs that some people have about the ill effects of vaccines. (They have an exceptionally low side effect rate.)

Our ability to prevent conflicting ideas of information once we’ve made up our mind is very impressive. We can ignore the facts that are right in front of our face.

Change Scaffolding

Learning and teaching isn’t easy. Efficiency in Learning is just one title that summarizes what we know about good and bad teaching styles. One good strategy to use is to match the degree of support surrounding the training to the degree of need of those being trained. There’s a place between too easy and too hard where we find a desirable level of difficulty that prompts people to learn and remember, rather than listen and forget.

Creating the right kind of scaffolding for a new change is a difficult challenge indeed. It’s necessary to create a degree of ease to engage students – and enough challenge that the person feels it’s appropriate to learn. When you hit this, magical learning that sticks with the student happens – but only if you ‘re able to get this right.

Lives and Stories

The media is filled with stories of people who live one life publicly and a different life privately, senators and congressmen who send pictures of their private parts to those other than their spouse and religious leaders who have fallen from grace. These people have fundamentally separated the stories they tell about themselves and the kinds of change they want to create from the lives they’re leading.

Someday, the disconnect catches up with them, and they lose credibility. When this happens, they may not lose their position, but people certainly lose respect for them and the stories they tell because they can no longer believe that their exalted leader can do no wrong.

If we want people to make a change, we need a compelling story about why we need them to make the change, and we need to live a life congruent with that change.

Easy and Complex

All things being equal, an easier approach will win over a complicated approach. Everett Rogers explained that complexity creates barriers to adoption in his book, Diffusion of Innovations. The more complex the innovation, the less likely people were to adopt it. As a result, we often find ourselves looking for simple solutions so that we don’t have to think about a problem any longer. The first thing we all want is to ditch those negative thoughts. It’s hard to fight this urge, and it’s even harder to fight that a simple model may not be the right answer. We want the simple answer to be right and will reject more complicated models unless there’s a clear and compelling reason to accept them.

Continuous Learning

The more that we can create a mindset of continuous growth (see Mindset) and learning (see Peak), the more likely it is that someone will change their mind. This makes sense. Those folks who have a growth mindset expect that they’ll have to change their mind to grow, and that involves learning. However, too many people find themselves in places in their organization without an opportunity to grow in their responsibilities – or at least so they believe.

Instilling a lifelong love for learning may not be possible for everyone in the organization, but where possible, the ingredients that support growth and learning should be made available to those who are willing.

Failure and Love

Ultimately, we must accept that we won’t change everyone’s mind and, despite our best intentions and efforts, there may be some people who are categorically unwilling to change. While we can’t expect to change everyone, we do know that love is capable of building bridges between the ways that people think – and the change of mind we want them to make. Ultimately, I think that you’ll love to read Changing Minds.

Book Review-Childhood and Society

When I started reading Childhood and Society, it was to learn more about Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. I wanted to learn more about how children develop and the stages that they must go through to become an adult – at least according to Erikson. In addition to more about the stages, I gained a glimpse into his world. Born in 1902 in Germany, he had important thoughts on both Hitler and Russia.

Stages of Psychosocial Development

Fundamentally, Erikson believed that humans went through a series of stages in their development and that each of these stages culminated with the resolution of a fundamental conflict. In resolving this conflict, the person was able to move to the next stage. If they moved to the next stage but were unable to resolve the conflict in the prior stage, they’d be continuously pulled back to that stage to face the conflict again and again until they found a resolution to it. The stages are:

Stage Name Conflict
I Oral-Sensory Trust vs. Mistrust
II Muscular-Anal Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt
III Locomotor-Genital Initiative vs. Guilt
IV Latency Industry vs. Inferiority
V Puberty and Adolescence Identity vs. Role Confusion
VI Young Adulthood Intimacy vs. Isolation
VII Adulthood Generativity vs. Stagnation
VIII Maturity Ego Integrity vs. Despair

The primary value, to me, is that this frames development as a series of fundamental conflicts that we must all find our own resolution to. It structures our evaluation of how to grow and become an adult around resolving these conflicts.

Studying Children

One of the realizations that I reached from Childhood and Society is that Erikson’s studies weren’t just of the western European and American children, as most studies are. His work included two different tribes of Native American Indian tribes. This – and his research into the customs of other cultures – informed his thinking about how children develop. He observed how different customs and approaches influenced the way children went through the stages, but the stages themselves remained relatively unaffected. In this, his work reminds me of Joseph Campbell’s work in The Hero with a Thousand Faces and the recognition that all heroes’ stories follow a similar arc no matter what the culture.

He could also observe how different cultures had different values, how those values become virtues, which are by their nature rigid, and how those virtues can interfere with the ability for a society to adapt – and therefore survive. He called it a paradox, and it mirrors the kind of paradox that organizations face. Organizations by their very nature are resistant to change. This provides the necessary cohesion of the organization, but at the same time, it necessarily rejects the kinds of change that are needed to adapt to the environment.

The cohesion is built around the idea that everyone does things the same way. It’s what Michael Gerber explains in The E-Myth as why organizations can become successful and scale. Richard Hackman in Collaborative Intelligence frames this in terms of the degree to which teams have internal cohesion compared to their willingness to accept the expertise and input of others. He explains that there’s a middle ground that teams must find to be the most effective. They reject some things but remain open enough to accept new input.

Child’s Play

One of the ways that Erikson learned about children was through their play. He’d watch them build towers, fences, gates, and cities. From this, he would draw conclusions about their worlds and things they wanted to express but couldn’t quite say. As Stuart Brown explains in his book called Play, play is an important part of becoming an adult. The rehearsal and the practice allows them to try out ways of interacting with others without committing social faux pas.

Erikson noted that boys built towers and girls built gates; and often, the specific ways that they would arrange their space would communicate the dynamics they were dealing with. In play, they had a much higher degree of control than they have in real life.

The Making of Hitler

Erikson turned his focus on Adolph Hitler and, in particular, how his childhood development had left him so scarred that he could order such atrocities. Hitler was a man that many like to analyze. Albert Bandura and Philip Zimbardo have both taken a shot at it in Moral Disengagement and The Lucifer Effect, respectively. However, Erikson makes a point of the abusive father, the submissive mother, and the ways that he suffered in life.

Analogies were drawn with vulnerability and the number of times that Germany had been conquered by foreigners, as being in the middle often led them to be. Germany, Erikson concluded, would therefore develop a collective psyche as a submissive country. The way she was held submissive left her with a transformation that led to Hitler’s rise.

After World War I, Germany’s army size was limited. The response to that was to train an army of specialists. In effect, the army size was smaller, but the knowledge and skills were greater. This led to a more efficient army – with the ability to quickly expand as necessary. This change in the makeup of the army made it susceptible to the desires of Hitler as he rose to power.

Perspective by Profession

Perhaps one of the more striking realizations was that our perspectives are shaped by our profession. By nature of the work, we choose we shape our perspectives. If you’re in law enforcement, you’re likely to support causes that increase and protect law enforcement. If you choose a career in a non-government organization that’s committed to the peace in the world, you’re likely to have a perspective that doesn’t favor increased police strength.

That’s not that surprising. What’s surprising is that your views on other things that are seemingly unrelated shift as well. The constant and continuous reinforcement from your profession can sway your thinking on seemingly unrelated topics. It might shift your feelings about welfare as well. In fact, law enforcement may find that they’re more sympathetic to the soup kitchens and homeless shelters, because they encounter the people who need this kind of help every day.

This means that as you’re talking to folks, you should be curious how they came to believe what they believe. Did they arrive at their opinions and then join their profession, or is it the other way around?

The answer may be found to some degree in the person’s childhood and some degree in the society. It may be worth reading Childhood and Society to learn how to separate the factors for yourself.

Book Review-Influence Without Authority

“Nobody has ever had enough authority – they never have and they never will.” It’s the first highlight in Influence Without Authority, and it is the defining statement for why we need to learn how to influence others without authority. Coercive influence is corrosive to relationships. It must be used sparingly when it is available, and it’s often not available. The fundamental message on how to influence through authority is through the law of reciprocity.

The Law of Reciprocity

In some circles, it’s known as tit-for-tat. (See The Evolution of Cooperation for more on tit-for-tat.) Fundamentally, it’s an awareness that when you do something good for someone else, they often feel a psychic debt to repay your kindness, generosity, trust, or material gifts. (For more on how trust is reciprocal, see Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, Revisited.) The power of reciprocity is so great that it’s worked its way into campaign and public service laws as well as the guidelines for many organizations. In its Latin form, quid pro quo is an ethical challenge and something that politicians and business leaders want to steer clear of.

In its smallest forms, the law of reciprocity may hardly be noticeable. You’re more inclined to hold a door for someone if you’ve had a door held open for you. Whether you hold the door for the person who held it for you or not, a single random act of kindness can set off a natural chain reaction of kindness that sends ripples in all directions for a long time.

The Model in Six Steps

The model for influencing with authority is six simple steps:

  1. Assume all are potential allies – Fundamental attribution error will drive us towards thinking the worst of other people, but we must fight the tendency. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow and How We Know What Isn’t So for more on fundamental attribution error.)
  2. Clarify Your Goals and Priorities – Get absolutely clear on what you want. We often confuse the means that we’re striving for with the ends that we really want. (See Who Am I? for more.)
  3. Diagnose the World of the Other Person – This is one part getting into the other person’s head – mind-reading – and one part finding their perspective. See Mindreading for more on getting inside the other person’s head. See Incognito and The Ethnographic Interview to understand perspectives and for tools for learning about the other person’s world, respectively.
  4. Identify Relevant Currencies: Theirs and Yours – “Currencies” here means motivators, things you can give them that they desire and vice-versa. Here, the work of Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind and Steven Reiss in Who Am I? have illustrative of models for evaluating the other person.
  5. Dealing with Relationships – Here, the key is to relate to the other person. That takes a degree of emotional intelligence. (See Emotional Intelligence for more.) It also requires skills to carefully navigate difficult conversations. (See Crucial Conversations for more.)
  6. Influence through Give and Take – Here, the key is to give the other party what they want – and ask for the things that you want.

Being Heard

One of the most frequent causes of conflict and the reason that people resist influence is that they don’t believe they’ve been heard. They confront you with some concern that you quickly dismiss, and they feel as if you’ve not given it proper attention. It can be that it’s not applicable, but the summary dismissal makes the other person feel unheard, and that can create problems.

Helping other people be heard and understood – without necessarily agreeing – is a difficult art. It’s one that Miller and Rollnick discuss at length in Motivational Interviewing. They work with addicted individuals and convince them that their addiction is bad. Despite this, they must first develop a therapeutic alliance – a relationship through which they can say difficult things. (See The Heart and Soul of Change for more on therapeutic alliance.)

Our ability to communicate and read others’ minds may be the difference between us and other animals, but it also comes with an expectation. We’ve developed an expectation and need to be heard and understood. It’s something that we call need. (See The Righteous Mind and Mindreading for our ability to read others’ minds – and the evolutionary impacts.)

Hearing Objections

It’s too easy to dismiss objections and, when that doesn’t work, allow fundamental attribution error to kick in and think the worst of them instead of focusing on how their perspective or values are different. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on fundamental attribution error.) It’s a starting point to acknowledge and learn more about the other person’s objectives. It’s advanced work to recognize that others aren’t bad people even if you struggle to understand their perspective.

With curiosity, you can begin to see objections and irritants as clues to the perspectives and values of the other person and thereby create a pathway to asking more questions and learning more.


Too often in our attempts to influence others, they bring their own version of reality that is difficult for us to hear. They see aspects of reality that we’d prefer to ignore. However, denying reality doesn’t make it less so. In fact, to deny reality makes it more dangerous for us, since we’re unable to respond wholly to the world around us.

Perhaps the best way to take a step towards the reality that we need to learn more about and get accomplished what you want through others is to read Influence Without Authority.

Book Review-Trying Not to Try: Ancient China, Modern Science, and the Power of Spontaneity

I think everyone wants the easy life. We’d love for things to be effortless. We’d all love to be powerful. These things are at the heart of Trying Not to Try: Ancient China, Modern Science, and the Power of Spontaneity. Though we all want to get to effortless and powerful, no one seems to have cracked the magic formula.

Wu-Wei (“OOO-WAY”) and De (“DUH”)

To set the context, we need understand two Chinese words. The first is wu-wei, which is pronounced “ooo-way”. This word is literally “no trying” or “no doing” but is about effortless and unconscious. The second word is de, pronounced “duh.” It is virtue, power, or charismatic power. It’s the thing that others see and can’t put their finger on but know they want. When we’re doing wu-wei, then de naturally follows. The more we can be in an effortless state, the more de we radiate.

System 1 and System 2

The concept of things being effortless doesn’t mean that things are being done. It’s more accurate to say that things are getting done automatically from what Daniel Kahneman calls System 1. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more.) It’s the hot cognition that happens seemingly without thought. It’s automatic.

The need to consider, ponder, and evaluate slows things down and feels unnatural. The effortlessness embodied in wu-wei is the kind of automatic processing that Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool describe in Peak. It’s when there has been so much purposeful practice that everything has been converted into something that happens effortlessly – without conscious thought.

Steven Kotler speaks of the same thing in The Rise of Superman when he explains that athletes need to get into flow – and stay there – if they’re going to accomplish the amazing and seemingly superhuman things that they do. Kotler bases his work on the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Flow.

Going with the Flow

Slingerland is careful to draw some distinction between wu-wei and flow. He explains that the focus on the relative degree of challenge between skill and challenge has become a preoccupation with Csikszentmihalyi’s work, and how this challenge isn’t conducive to effortlessness. Here, Slingerland has a point that Csikszentmihalyi’s initial data didn’t always reflect folks who were in challenging situations when he did his initial research. Sometimes, folks who reported the conditions associated with flow were doing rather mundane things.

J. Keith Miller commented in A Hunger for Healing about a Zen saying, “After enlightenment, draw water, chop wood.” Mark Epstein in Advice Not Given says, “After the ecstasy, it is said, comes the laundry.” Thupten Jinpa in A Fearless Heart explains that what we call walking meditation is a part of “post-sitting practices” – the idea being that monks bring full awareness to their everyday activities not just when they’re sitting meditating. In short, our attainment of enlightenment doesn’t free us from the simple work of life; we need to continue to find peace, joy, and effortlessness in all we do.

Kathleen Norris in Acedia & Me comments that she regains herself by doing ordinary things. She drains away the challenges of acedia – which is roughly equivalent to burnout in today’s language – by doing things in an effortless and accepting way. (You can learn much more about burnout at

While Slingerland takes issue with Csikszentmihalyi’s focus on challenge, he does so in the context of ancient Chinese thinkers, who struggled to find the way to effortless action. When we think about this instead as enlightenment or bliss, we can distance ourselves from the specific concern of challenge and turn the question on its head. The answer as to whether the path to wu-wei is paved with effort, without effort, or with only some kinds of effort seems unclear. What is clear is that the destination seems to have been found by several who took different roads.

Indirect Acquisition

Some states are only reachable through indirect means. Consider happiness. Those who pursue it are often miserable. They believe that somehow they need to be happier than they are. Many books have been written more or less explicitly about how to find happiness, including Stumbling on Happiness, which explains that most of the time what we believe will make us happy doesn’t – or doesn’t for long. Happiness looks at happiness from the perspective of a skill rather than an end-state and narrowly avoids the trap that you’re never in the state “enough,” because you can always become more skillful at something.

The trick it seems with wu-wei is that you can’t pursue it directly. This reminds me of the story of the two Hindu goddesses – wealth and knowledge – and only by pursuing knowledge will wealth come to you. (See The Heretic’s Guide to Management and A Philosopher’s Notes for more.)

Two Selves

One of my favorite models of all time is Jonathan Haidt’s Elephant-Rider-Path model from The Happiness Hypothesis. The rational rider (System 2) sits on top of the emotional elephant (System 1), and they’re in a constant battle for control. The elephant allows the rider to feel like they’re in control until the elephant starts to care deeply about something.

The key to wu-wei is to build a relationship between our elephant and our rider such that both trust the other rather than distrusting the other. By integrating these two aspects of our psyche with respect, we spend less time battling internally and have more energy to share with the world.

In Service of Other

To get to wu-wei, we’re encouraged to do things in service of bigger things, like improving others’ lives or moving forward humanity. This sentiment seems to be wired into our being based on the game theory attempts of Axelrod in The Evolution of Cooperation. Folks like Robert Greenleaf urge us to pursue Servant Leadership. Many have written about the power of doing things for others and how this makes us feel better.

Even twelve-step groups are clear about the power of service to harmonize people and make them return to a state of being more whole.


It’s not that any of us always have pure thoughts or thoughts about others. Even the work of the Jesuits wasn’t successful in eliminating these selfish tendencies. (See Heroic Leadership.) However, the more that we seek to channel our passions in ways that are positive, the more domesticated our passions become and the less energy we must spend trying to consciously control them.

Returning our energies to other things, we can accept the occasional selfish thought while recognizing a generally other-focused perspective on life.

Step-by-Step Guide

Perhaps the greatest challenge to wu-wei or any form of enlightenment is that there is no one who can show off the path to achieve it. There’s no 3, 6, 8, or even 12-step guides to becoming enlightened. Instead, there are a variety of thoughts and approaches and a seemingly endless array of folks who have made it there but are unable to articulate their path.

For the few who are able to articulate a path of enlightenment, they seem focused on very high bars of self-sacrifice. These high bars are not the kind that most people can make – and as a result, they can’t follow the recipe. Perhaps this is intentional, or perhaps it’s a rare person who is able to reach enlightenment or moral goodness. However, perhaps it’s that the shallow slope needed by most people to reach this elusive state isn’t a prescriptive path that leads to predictable results. Perhaps the path is the result of the person themselves and what they need most.

Compensation for Virtuous Acts

Some people do virtuous acts. Whether it’s work, a connection, money, or whatever to help someone else out, these virtuous acts help drive our interconnectedness as a society – until we learn that there’s a catch. They’re not really being virtuous. They’re doing something for us with the expectation of something in return. More than just karma, they expect that they’ll get some sort of tangible benefit from it.

We’ve learned to distrust even the virtuous act for fear that people want something from it.


In Inside Jokes, there is the suggestion that we may connect with others who share comedy with us, because, at their very, core your response to jokes is unfakeable. Paul Ekman coined the Duchenne smile as a genuine one. (See Emotional Awareness, Trust Me, and Social Engineering for more.) This unfakeable nature makes them ideal for detection. If someone is able to display the Duchenne smile, then they must really like it.

Similarly, it’s thought that wu-wei shows a naturalness that cannot be faked. A peacock’s feathers are an extravagance that serves no material purpose except to show peahens that the peacock has something going on – otherwise he couldn’t afford to spend such effort to make such lavish feathers. With wu-wei, you cannot fake the naturalness, because to do so would require conscious control, which would break the whole flow of the moment. In The Rise of Superman, Kotler shares the stories of high-performance, extreme athletes who are killed by their sports, presumably because they tried overthinking their situation and couldn’t make the right moves at the right time.

Trying Not to Try is a paradox. It’s something that must be accepted. That being said, it seems like if you’re going to try not to try, you’ll have to read Trying Not to Try first.

Book Review-Principles of Topological Psychology

On the surface, it would seem like math would have very little to do with psychology. However, when looking at Kurt Lewin’s work in Principles of Topological Psychology, it’s clear to see how mathematical models influenced his thinking on psychology and how to motivate people.

Context and Math

Most folks know Kurt Lewin’s work because of his famous equation that behavior is a function of both person and environment. Some are aware that he proposed a model for change that involves unfreezing behavior, changing behavior, and freezing it again. Those aware of his concepts regarding force fields and their application in accomplishing change will recognize how Lewin was influenced by science and electromagnetism. (See A Dynamic Theory of Personality for more.)

Here, Lewin’s thoughts about psychology and motivation use set-based language from advanced math. He speaks about the things that are inclusive to a state, the boundary conditions, and other concepts that are borrowed directly from advanced mathematics.

I was surprised about the relationship, even though I had read John Gottman’s work in The Science of Trust. Gottman’s particular interest in game theory comes from advanced mathematics and mathematical simulation as well. If you want to know more about game theory and its application, see The Evolution of Cooperation.

States and Motion

While force field analysis was concerned with the motivators for moving someone in one direction or another, topological psychology is concerned with your current state and the places that are accessible from that state. It’s about creating a map from where someone is at any given moment to their desired state. The transition from today to the future can be a single step across a single border or it can be a multi-step process with various borders.

The motive force is provided by force fields pushing or pulling on the psyche of the individual, but the application of that force is most interesting in topological psychology. What path will be chosen to move towards the goal – and why?


One of the key points is that it’s more than the force that’s applied to a person. It’s the relationship between the person and their environment – or the mental maps of their environment – that really matter. Relationships have multiple meanings when addressing psychology. Here, the relationships are most concerned about the interaction of the person with the environment. The environment pulls on the person, and the person pulls on the environment.

While it’s helpful to think of one force that drives someone and one set of conceptions of the environment that drive the behavior in one direction or another, it’s more accurate to say that there are many forces and understandings of the environment that shape the way the person will behave.

Regions and Boundaries

Regions are the collection of mental states that are qualitatively like one another – and other regions are qualitatively different. Boundaries are the places between these two dissimilar spaces. There are two implications from math that are useful but not infinitely true.

First, regions can be subdivided. Just because the region contains a set of mental states that are similar doesn’t meant that, when evaluated from another dimension, the region might not split into two regions. Mathematically, a closed set should allow for infinite subdivision. While this is unlikely the case with mental states, it’s possible to provide a great deal of division, thereby separating thoughts and perspectives based on numerous criteria.

Second, boundaries are really regions as well. While it’s easy to conceptualize a boundary as a crisp line, such a crisp distinction doesn’t always exist. Consider the regions for the colors red, blue, and green. In which group does the color blue-green belong? This classic information architecture problem leads to an awareness that even boundaries can be expanded to more detail when appropriate.

Person and Environment are not Independent Variables

Going back to Lewin’s equation that behavior is a function of both person and environment, it’s important to recognize that the person and the environment are not independent variables. That is, person impacts environment and environment impacts person. While we can recognize the distinct agency of the person, we should acknowledge that a person is – at least partially – a product of their environment. (See No Two Alike for more.)

If you’re wondering how people move from one perspective to another – and how that impacts behavior – maybe it’s time to look at the Principles of Topological Psychology.

Book Review-A Dynamic Theory of Personality (Selected Papers of Kurt Lewin)

It’s hard to work in learning and motivation, or even remotely care about how people work, without stumbling into Kurt Lewin’s work. Most of the time, people quote the high level and don’t go back to read his writing directly. They think about force fields and behavior functions and stop there. However, I was recently intrigued by a subtle difference between the way some authors referred to his behavior equation and decided the only way to get to the bottom of the mystery was to read his work directly. That’s what led me to A Dynamic Theory of Personality and therein some of Lewin’s writings.

Behavior is a Function of Person and Environment

It’s a simple formula – B = f(P,E). However, it is profound. It says that both person and environment influence behavior but that their interactions are opaque. We don’t know precisely how they interact – and the implication is that we may not be able to know. The mystery that started the journey was that some people wrote the function with the word “situation” instead of “environment.” Indeed, most of the places surrounding the actual equation use situation instead of environment. However, what is most likely happening is an artifact of the translation process, since the original work was written in German.

Whether the text was using the word situation or environment, the intent was the same. The things around us, from cultural norms to the kind of lighting and how warm or cold it is, influence our behaviors in subtle – and sometimes not subtle – ways. The situation we find ourselves in influences our behavior. If we’re in a stressful situation (or environment), we’ll behave differently.

What started out as a question about whether the original intent was situation or environment led to another fascinating observation about Lewin’s research.

Mentally Retarded Children

What I realized that much of Lewin’s work was with mentally retarded children – his words are “feeble-minded” and “moron.” (Perhaps I’m showing my own bias by not using the NIH preferred terms, but I prefer to think of these children as held back or limited instead of disabled.) His studies included comparing the behavior patterns of these children to those who were more normal and investigating the differences in their behavior patterns, particularly their persistence. This reminded me of The Marshmallow Test and Grit – how persistence and patience pay off. However, the data was interesting because it showed that mentally retarded children seemed to have a greater degree of persistence – and a lower distractibility. This is also interesting from the perspective that the task put in front of the mentally retarded children might have put them in the challenge-skills ratio to support them entering flow. (See The Rise of Superman, Flow, and Finding Flow for more on the psychological state of flow.)

It also reminded me of Einstein and his self-admission that he wasn’t the brightest student – but that he was more persistent. (See Raise Your Line for one mention of this.) It’s also been claimed that Thomas Edison was removed from school and educated by his mother, because he wasn’t a good student. Whether this is true or is simply a myth, it’s interesting to me that Lewin’s research showed a tendency for mentally retarded people to work on something for longer. We know from Carol Dweck’s work on Mindset and Anders Ericcson’s work on Peak that people can radically change their capacity if they’re willing to work on it.

The First Force Fields

Science fiction has become enamored with force fields. It’s a chosen device for protecting the good guys from the bad guys – and vice versa. In their science fiction form, they’re impenetrable fields that can protect against projectiles, lasers, and anything else the opponent might come up with. Lewin’s force fields are more akin to physical science than science fiction. The force lines that magnets generate and the vector equations of physics are more like the force fields that Lewin used to understand and describe the behavior he was seeing.

It’s not like it’s impossible to push through Lewin’s force fields. It just takes some effort. There are a set of normal forces that hold things in their relative state. Even if the state is oscillating, there is some relative balance that things fall into. The planets orbit the Sun and the Moon orbits the Earth in a relative stable environment, where the forces of gravity are balanced with the centrifugal force exerted as the heavenly bodies try to continue along their straight paths. However, a force can be exerted that will knock things completely out of balance – and can snap one or more of the force fields being applied to something.

That’s why when we teach change managers about implementing change, we recommend that they look for opportunities to change the forces that are present rather than directly exerting force against them. If you ever find yourself trapped near a black hole, accelerating your orbit around the black hole will be much more effective than trying to directly pull against it. (See how we teach change management in our Confident Change Management course.)

Quenching and Satiating

There’s another way that we teach to shut down the forces that are holding you back. It’s quenching. Forces are exerted only when the need or drive is active. When you satiate the need, you quench it. The key, then, becomes what does satiating mean, and how do you satiate to the point where the force being generated is quenched?

It may be easiest to think in terms of hunger. A very hungry person will do almost anything to get food. The forces that propel them are very powerful. However, after a big meal, there is almost no force to get food – there might even be a small push against food if their belly is already stuffed, like after a feast.

If someone has a drive for position, it can be that their drive is quenched – at least temporarily if not permanently – by a promotion to the next level. Sometimes, this means giving in on smaller and less important issues to neutralize the disproportionally high forces they exert on people. In my experience, many people are happy to do the same or more work with a simple change of title – even if it doesn’t change their responsibilities or authority.

The Choice of Punishment

Perhaps the most interesting observation was the observation that sometimes-threatened punishments are considered as choices rather than being considered as unacceptable alternatives. When presented as “You do X, or I’ll punish you with Y,” some children decide that Y is better than X, so they specifically state that they’d like that alternative.

The problem is we rarely enumerate all the consequences of failing to do the desired behavior. Thus, the equation that is being evaluated is incomplete. The expectation is still that the child completes the requested activity – even with the punishment.

Observations like these make it important to dig into Kurt Lewin’s work, and one good place to start is A Dynamic Theory of Personality.