Book Review-Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing

In our modern cultures, death is hidden, both physically and emotionally. If we acknowledge death as a part of life, then we must confront our own mortality, and that is something few are willing and able to do. However, some professions come face to face with death every day. Whether it’s emergency responders, health care workers, or palliative care, death is an inescapable reality. It’s from this experience that Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing comes. Bronnie Ware worked as a palliative care giver in Australia, and she recorded the things that she learned from her patients to share with all of us, so that we can learn the lessons before the end of our lives.

The List

The list doesn’t match what you might reasonably expect to find. If you look at the values we have as a society, you might expect that the dying would have wanted that one last deal. Perhaps you would have expected to see something like having purchased that special car. Instead, what you find are deeply connected and deeply personal topics:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends
  5. I wish I had let myself be happier

The general theme is not one of personal achievement but rather one of personal courage. The courage to be yourself, to accept happiness, and to stay connected with others. It turns out the things that we think are so important as we go through our daily lives aren’t so important in the end.


There are two types of surrender: surrender accept and surrender defeat. When we speak of surrender, most people see the white flag, and they consider what it’s like to surrender in defeat. They think of what happened when the Confederates had to accept that the Union had won. However, this is not the most powerful and healthy kind of surrender; that’s surrender acceptance.

To some degree, the difference is one of perspective – and timing. Surrender defeat often leaves no choices. Surrender accept is full of choices. It’s a conscious decision to not fight the situation around you and to accept whatever the world has to offer.

Surrender acceptance is a courageous and difficult act. We let go of the illusion of our control and instead focus on how we can get the most out of life without fighting it. It’s a courageous act to accept our lack of control, because this puts us at higher perceived risk.

However, what you get back by not expending energy in the vain attempt to control situations can be immensely liberating. You have so much more to offer when you’re not wasting energy on a pointless fight.

To Thine Own Self Be True

It’s frightening to be yourself. What if people don’t like you? What if they reject or criticize you? If you’re projecting an image and someone doesn’t like it, you just change the image you’re projecting. No big deal. However, if it’s the real you, those rejections, corrections, and challenging conversations can be difficult and painful.

It looks easy on the surface. You just project an image that others will like, and, if they do, you get to feel good that they like you. There’s a catch though. The catch is that they really don’t like you. They like the image you project. As a result, you don’t ever get to know if someone really likes you – you don’t get to have a real connection with another human being. And as a result, you may end up feeling disconnected and alone. Loneliness – being isolated and alone – is one of our deepest fears (see Loneliness).

What would it be like to accept that some people do not like you and other people do? How would it feel for some people to reject you – but others embrace you with open arms? This is what those who contemplated their lives were looking for, that connection to other people that somehow validates they were real, important, and valuable.

Their Expectations

As humans, we’re machines for predicting the behaviors of others (see Mindreading and The Blank Slate). We know that other people generate predictions for our behaviors. They’ve got their own set of values and beliefs that drive how they think other people ought to behave. Our parents, our families, our colleagues, and our friends all have expectations of us. For the most part, our fear of being rejected causes us to try to live up to those expectations.

We sometimes get so wrapped up in being the person that other people believe we should be that we sometimes forget to be ourselves. That’s the first regret. That we didn’t live a life true to ourselves – not to others’ expectations of us.

Stepping out of their expectations takes courage. It takes willingness to be real and authentic. You can’t get that authenticity just through working a job. You must work at life to be authentic all (or most of) the time.

Hard Work

No one is knocking hard work. Peak tells us that working purposefully towards a goal can make us the best of the best. Mindset teaches us that it’s not what we’re born with that matters. It’s what we’re willing to do to grow. It’s not that hard work is bad. However, in the end analysis, we too often get wrapped up in work and forget to have relationships.

Sometimes it’s the certainty of the rewards. If we work, we’ll create something, and we’ll be praised or financially rewarded. Work is a convenient way to reminding ourselves of our value. One more project done. Another award to put on our resume. Work is often a place where folks can see tangible and nearly immediate rewards for their work.

Sometimes it’s the messiness of relationships. In any relationship, there are times of conflict and turmoil, and no one ever prepared us for how to deal with such things. It’s hard when you love someone, and you don’t know how to help them, so you run away. It’s hard when you’re in a conflict, and you don’t see a way out of it, so you run away.

Sometimes, it’s just life. We get so caught up in the treadmill of making enough money to live that we forget to have a life. We become obsessed with making money, so we can survive. Sometimes, that survival isn’t really at risk. We decide that we need the new car, and that takes money, and so does the new house or the private school for the kids or something else. When you add these things up, they start to take more and more financial resources, and eventually you must work hard just to pay for your things.

The regret of hard work is less about accomplishing things and more about the addiction to work that keeps people from the hard work of relationships.

Feelings, Nothing More Than Feelings

If there’s one irrational fear that can stand in the shadows and condemn people, it’s the belief that their feelings aren’t “right,” acceptable, or justifiable. Somewhere in the deep recesses of our mind, feelings emerge, and we fear that they may not be the right feelings. We don’t know how they come to be or what to do if they’re not right.

As a result, we often disconnect ourselves from others by ignoring or hiding our feelings. We don’t have to accept others’ ridicule of our feelings if we don’t share them – and if we don’t acknowledge them ourselves. The result is that we somehow end up as half a person. We end up denying part of our very existence – and for what?

The reality is that all (that means every) feeling is acceptable. It’s the feeling that you have, and it comes from somewhere deep inside of you. Something about your experiences and your beliefs leads you to it, and it’s always acceptable. It’s important to note that not all behaviors – the responses to a feeling – are OK, but the feeling itself is. Said more concretely, it’s ok to feel angry but not to punch someone in the face.

It’s difficult to speak to the fear in the corners of our mind and quiet it when we feel like we’re unlovable. Our feelings are taking control of us – and being irrational isn’t acceptable. Except that it is. Our feelings are designed to help us survive. In fact, they’re the basic wiring that helps us survive. To deny our feelings is to deny a part of ourselves. That is what far too many people regret having done. Too much denial of who we are and the validity of our feelings over the course of a life.

With a Little Help from My Friends

We live in an age where it is easier to stay in touch with – and reconnect with – friends than ever before. We can keep connected via LinkedIn or Facebook. We virtually follow friends as they move, take new jobs, go on vacation, and so on. We have internet search tools and companies willing to help us find lost contacts. The tools that are at our disposal are like ones that couldn’t have been dreamt about a generation ago.

Despite this, more and more people report having fewer close friends. (See Alone Together for more.) We’ve become more connected and disconnected all at the same time. Instead of staying in closer touch with those we care about, we tend to connect less. There is some good news, as reported in When: older people have fewer friends, but because they’re actively pruning relationships to only those that are emotionally meaningful. In other words, older people are starting to focus their energies on those who matter most. That may allow them to be happier.

Living Happy

The final regret is the failure to find ways to bring more happiness into their lives. While happiness is an elusive prospect, as we’ve seen in Stumbling on Happiness, The Happiness Hypothesis, Hardwiring Happiness, Flourish, and The Hope Circuit (to name a few), it’s a good goal to seek more happiness in our lives. Sometimes our happiness is blocked by a hurt that we just can’t let go of. Maybe it’s a loss that we can’t get past. It might be a betrayal that cut too deeply.

Sometimes we believe we don’t deserve happiness. Maybe we did something bad (guilt). Maybe we feel like we are bad (shame). Whatever the root cause, we feel like happiness isn’t something that we can or should aspire too. It’s too much to ask.

Blocked happiness appeared too often in Bronnie Ware’s care of people. It occurs too often in life. Maybe if you read The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, you’ll be better able to live the life you’re given fully and completely. Maybe you’ll find your way to death without any regrets.

Book Review-The Rise of the Creative Class: Revisited

There have been references spread out through many of the books that I’ve read to Richard Florida and his estimates of the number of “creatives,” people who work creatively every day. These references come back to the original version of The Rise of the Creative Class: Revisited. The original version of the book was published in 2002, and the revision came 10 years later. It’s a classic book in more than just the sense that it’s old. It’s classic in that it transformed the way that business leaders and civic planners thought about industries and economies.

Being creative is important, because the way that you motivate creative people is different (see Drive for more). Creatives impact the economy differently. They’re simply different than the kinds of people that our ancestors were and how they worked, and these differences matter.

We’re All Creative

Before we get too far, it’s important to note that we’re all creative. It’s not like some of us have a creative gene and some do not. Creative Confidence argues that, at some level, we’ve pushed this creativity from ourselves by increasing fear and reducing safety. However, whether driven away or not, it remains as a core part of our being.

The Rise of the Creative Class is neither an anthem about how creative people should rise up and take over the country, nor is it an attempt to define a privileged few who should be given more opportunities, more latitude, or more of anything. Instead, it’s an attempt to understand the social dynamics that come into play in economies. Florida is a student and scholar of economics and sociology. The Rise of the Creative Class is an expression of understanding about how we’re changing as a society and how that impacts economies.

Diversity and Innovation

Fundamental to Florida’s view is that innovation is necessary for today’s economic world. Simply doing the same things that we’ve always done won’t cut it any longer. Innovation allows us to radically change the way that we’re doing things – hopefully for the better. This innovation requires diversity. Here, Florida means more than just diversity in the sense we think of it today. It’s more than just including women or other races. By diversity, he means also inclusiveness and tolerance. That means for those who don’t look like we do, who don’t believe like we do, and who don’t think like we do. The Difference points out that this leads to a greater diversity of thought – and, ultimately, more productive teams. At least, if they can get past the storming phase of team development.

Innovation is the result of the right conditions. Conditions of psychological safety and diversity of thought that allows multiple different perspectives and ideas to combine in new and interesting ways. Innovation isn’t created by diversity, and more than bread is created by flour, eggs, yeast, and sugar. However, unlike bread-making, putting the right ingredients in the right place allows for the emergence of something new.

Material Needs

Life was harsh. While today, we speak of corporate jungles, rat races, and constant pressure, our ancestors had the real struggles. Death was a constant and unwanted companion. Disease lead to death. Accidents lead to death. Starvation was a very real concern for many people.

Today, as I write this, I’m on an unstructured vacation in Maine. We don’t know where we’re eating or staying, but thus far it has just worked out OK. We have no real concerns about going hungry. We didn’t pack provisions to ensure that we’d have something to eat. Nor did we worry about packing a tent in case there were no hotel rooms available. Our GPS guides us to our next destination. (We’re up looking at lighthouses.) Our car goes until we refill the tank with gas. Our cell phones are ever-present tools for looking at maps, looking up resources, and connecting with friends.

From a material world, things have changed in the last century or so such that working for our material needs – to stave off the specter of death – has largely disappeared. Social programs and broader opportunity mean that material needs are not a problem for a majority of us today. (For those few that remain, I hope that the future where this is not a struggle finds you soon.)

Replacing the Material Struggle

What has replaced the material struggle has been a psychological struggle. Instead of addressing the lowest levels of needs, we’ve stepped back into the ideals that the founding fathers of America expressed in the declaration of independence – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Though radical for 1776, these are ideas that we accept as basic human rights today. Gradually, we’ve moved from a life filled with toil to survive to a life that is expected to provide us happiness.

We’re moving from a materialistic society, where the material goods are scarce and prized, to one where belonging, self-actualization, and quality are the goal. We’re already seeing how people are seeking experiences over things. Millennials are choosing to delay the status symbols of stability and success such as home ownership and marriage to afford (or finance) experiences.

Organizational Struggle

Large organizations are beginning to realize the need to embrace the changing perspectives of workers. Instead of chasing the latest tax incentive or highway interchange, they’re chasing the people, and the people are chasing experiences that pull them towards natural resources and beauty. Finding talented workers has become the big challenge in organizations today. People drive organizations, and we realize that having the best people – whatever that means – is essential. Without dipping our toes into leadership too far, “the right people” means people who can work together to drive the business forward – whether at the direction of a leader or not.

In the past, finding work was difficult and essential. Unemployment rates hover below 5% – and have for a long period of time. One must wonder how low this rate can get and how long it can stay there. Certainly, there are many components to unemployment and many people who are still looking for meaningful work; however, unemployment rates are changing the way that organizations are hiring. They know that they must attract employees as much as employees must attract employers. That’s a relatively new phenomenon.

Security and Freedom

Employees used to value security. Working for a large organization used to be a golden ticket. You would work for the company, and the company would take care of you. However, the contract changed. (See America’s Generations.) Organizations couldn’t bear the load of all the people on their payrolls and purged. Children growing up during this time became disenfranchised with large organizations and the illusion of safety. Instead, they decided to rely upon themselves – and a greatly improved market in which they could market themselves. Suddenly, security was in what they could do.

The result is what has sometimes been called the “gig economy.” Earning is spread out and diffuse between different employer/customers. The kinds of projects that people do are sometimes diverse as well. Someone might do baby-sitting or house-sitting and drive for Uber or Lyft when things are slow or when they have a few minutes. Somehow, they piece enough money together to make it all work, even if it’s unclear – even to them – how that might happen.

The other side of this change is a new freedom to accept the jobs that you want and to pass on those that you don’t. The transaction between an employer (or really customer) and the worker is transactional and temporary. It’s a “gig.”

Implications to Employers

We could debate the benefits and weaknesses to the employees of this new creative “gig” economy, but there’s another side as well. The employers get more agility, because they can terminate contracts quickly and reduce their burden – something not practically possible with employees. But at what cost? Freelance contractors can move from one organization to another inside of an industry spreading know-how to your competitor. (See Sharing Hidden Know How for more on how this knowledge sharing is supposed to work inside of an organization.)

Similarly, retaining the knowledge of how to do things becomes harder when the employee that knows the critical information isn’t an employee any longer but is instead a contractor. While organizations struggle to keep knowledge from being lost, the use of freelance contractors increases turnover and makes the problem of knowledge management even more challenging. (See Lost Knowledge for some tools on minimizing knowledge loss.)

Collecting the Creative

The problem with a bunch of freedom-loving, diverse-thinking folks is that getting them to see themselves as a cohesive group isn’t easy. Developers and artists don’t perceive themselves to be the same, though their work styles and need for creativity may very well align perfectly. The solo entrepreneurs who work for themselves may or may not be creative – but they’re unlikely to see themselves as part of a broader movement beyond their chosen industry. (See The E-Myth Revisited for more about solo entrepreneurs.)

People don’t unite in their home offices – they’re separated by them. We’ve taken away personal contact on multiple levels. (See Alone Together for more about how we’re using technology as a proxy for real connections.) It takes more than just a home office and a temporary badge to make the “gig” living work – but many are doing just that. Sadly, few are connecting with others even in their own industry.

As a result, it’s unlikely that creatives will find their way into a union or a cooperative. Instead, they’re likely to operate independently in the shared space of the economy. It’s more like an antique shop that has many different vendors who share the burden of the infrastructure but set their own pricing and rules.

Tolerance and Intolerance

Florida says that tolerance of other people and their diverse ideas, backgrounds, and perspectives is critical to economic growth. Ironically, accepting people who believe in living up life may be key to economic growth. Various indicators, including those that account for the number of creatives and the number of gays, predict economic growth. It seems that tolerance of others creates the opportunities for creativity and innovation, and, as a result, economies grow.

There is some intolerance that seems to be helpful still. That is intolerance of mediocrity. Finding a desire to have excellence in whatever you do is a needed component as well. (See Peak for how to become the best and continue pushing to be better.)

So, on the one hand, you must create conditions of tolerance and acceptance of other people (see How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on acceptance), and on the other hand, you must desire to not accept OK as good enough. (See Good to Great on more about how good can be the enemy of great.)

The Anti-Economist View

I’m not an economist. I don’t work for the government trying to plan how to grow the economy. So, for me, the rigor of statistical analysis is lost. Whether it’s Florida’s Bohemian-Gay index or a Global Creativity Index or something else entirely isn’t really that important to me. What’s important is that we’re changing as a society. We’re moving from one corporate job to a creative economy driven by gigs that may not last that long. It’s a view that allows us to become more fully ourselves and to accept greater levels of risk. I don’t believe that we’ll ever see a movement in the creative class – however, I do believe that, if you’re someone who does anything creative, you might want to read The Rise of the Creative Class to understand what’s happening in society and, perhaps more importantly, what’s happening inside your own head.

Book Review-The Evolution of Cooperation: Revised Edition

Just how does cooperation evolve? If you followed Darwin’s survival of the fittest, cooperation doesn’t make sense. How do you benefit from sacrificing for someone else? That’s the problem that game theory sets out to solve. Along the way, they found an emergence of cooperation as a normal form of evolving to win in a competitive environment. The Evolution of Cooperation walks through the models and competitions that lead to a better understanding of how we evolved to cooperate.

Scientific Computer Programming

It was my junior year of high school, and I got into a class named Scientific Computer Programming. It was so named, I was told, because the science department wanted to teach it, and there was some conversation about whether the math department should be allowed to teach it. The man who taught it was also my physics teacher. He was a tall man and a gentle but imposing force to be reckoned with. Somewhere along the way, he prepared us to write a competitive game.

I didn’t know then, but I do know now, that it was a variant of the game that Robert Axelrod ran. It was called The Prisoner’s Dilemma. The basic construct was two prisoners are caught and separated. Each is given a deal. They can rat out their co-conspirator – to defect — for a lesser sentence. If both defect, they both end up with long sentences. If they both cooperate (don’t defect), both prisoners end up with shorter sentences. If one defects and the other doesn’t, the defector gets the best possible deal, while the person who didn’t defect gets the worst possible result – even worse than if both had defected.

There are some more rules, like non-communication between the two prisoners (competing programs) and so forth, but the one interesting thing is that you can record what happened in prior moves. In our class, I remember I took the average of every prior move that the opponent had made and used that to predict what they would do next.

In our case, as in the second edition of Alexrod’s competition, there was no way for the program to know when the last round would be played – there was a small probability that each round was the last. This prevents the strategy of always defecting on the last move, since there’s no better alternative.

Game Theory

I didn’t realize back then that I was learning about game theory. It was just another assignment in the class – which, though I liked it, was still a class. I got a reintroduction to it in Gottman’s The Science of Trust. In a book on relationships, it seemed like a stretch. That being said, it had an important lesson, one that Axelrod’s competitions played out. There are two equilibriums possible. The first is the von Neumann-Morgenstern equilibrium, where everyone looks out only for their best interests. The second is the Nash equilibrium, where people look out for the overall good – not just their own good.

Axelrod showed through the simulations how independent programs – or organisms – could collectively develop towards the Nash equilibrium, even using something as simple as an eye for an eye.

Tit for Tat

As it turns out, my program was beat rather handily by some others in the competition, but it was fun anyway. What I didn’t expect was that Axelrod’s competition, which drew entries from scholars in many different disciplines, was beat by a very simple program. The simple program that won his competition was Tit for Tat. It cooperates on the first move, and then every move after that, it simply does what the other program did. Thus, if the other program defected, Tit for Tat would defect. It’s very simple, but its simplicity got great results.

While Tit for Tat didn’t ever get the highest score, it always got a good score. Whether it was competing with itself or other strategies, overall, Tit for Tat was the winner.

Characteristics for Cooperation

Axelrod took his findings from running these competitions with many different programs and generalized a set of principles that defined the winners for the competition he established. He asserts that, to win this game, the programs needed to be:

  • Nice – The nice programs won over not-so-nice programs
  • Provokable – The program needed to respond quickly when the opponent would defect.
  • Forgiving – Once the other program started to cooperate, the program should start to cooperate too.
  • Clear – The program should make its behavior clear enough that the opponent would be able to understand the behavior and learn to work towards mutual benefit.

Tit for Tat was an ideal approach based on these rules. It started with cooperation, and after a single defection, it would defect to penalize the opposing program. Once the opposing program started responding with cooperation, it would respond in kind. Its logic and approach was neither complex nor cloaked. The other program could easily anticipate how Tit for Tat would respond after only a few rounds.

Barriers to Cooperation

Tit for Tat, you may recall, never got the highest score – it couldn’t. However, it did consistently get good scores. Tit for Tat avoided some of the barriers that other entrants had, like:

  • Being Envious – By being worried about your opponent in the current challenge, programs were less effective.
  • First to Defect – Programs that were the first to defect tended to do less well.
  • Failure to Reciprocate – Whether it’s niceness or not-so-niceness, programs that gained long-term cooperation tended to reciprocate.
  • Being Clever – Programs that were too clever didn’t allow a condition to occur where the other program could predict its responses.

All in all, these barriers to cooperation are largely opposites of the kinds of characteristics that drive cooperation.

Additional Learnings

Some interesting learnings show up if you randomize the different programs and run a sort of evolutionary game with them. The programs that get the most points collectively every few rounds get to replicate, and those who lose consistently die out. The result is that the programs that weren’t nice may have won for a while when there were “sucker” programs, but when the suckers died out, the not-nice programs eventually became extinct as well.

There were some challenges, however. Once an environment became All D (short for “all defects”), it was impossible for any strategy – including Tit for Tat – to gain a foothold. However, if you introduced new programs in clusters, so that at least some of their interactions would be with like programs, it was possible for programs like Tit for Tat to not only get a foothold, but also to start to eradicate All D. This works, because the benefits of both programs collaborating far outweigh the benefits for both programs defecting. Tit for Tat does so much better against itself that it ends up with a point surplus, even if it has to give up one move to All D. (The first round, All D will defect, and Tit for Tat will cooperate, giving it a disadvantage – however, a round with two Tit for Tat programs handily makes up for this small difference.)

Applicability to Life

Perhaps my greatest concern with the exercise and the learnings is their applicability to our lives as humans. I don’t intend to discount what we’ve learned but rather, I want to make clear the narrow space where this works.

Cooperative Ratios

One of the key driving factors for this game is that the cooperative payoff is collectively larger than one defection and one cooperation or both sides defecting. Effectively, this is a built-in bias that cooperation is the winning move – when you can get both parties to agree. The good news is that, on this front, I expect we’re in relatively safe footing. In most cases in life, we’re better off cooperating versus competing or attempting to take advantage of one another.

Will We Meet Again

The second concern is that the game presumes that the participants will meet again. In fact, retaining the probability that the participants will meet again is absolutely key to the system working. When you remove the chance that you’ll meet again, the best strategy is to defect. As mentioned earlier, this caused Axelrod to modify the game to not have a fixed endpoint, since knowing the end caused defections at the end.

In our world today, it’s unclear to me how much we expect that we’ll meet with others again. It’s unclear how much our reputations precede us and how much our behaviors impact our future interactions. I know that they should. I know that, for the system to remain stable, we must believe we’ll meet again, because otherwise there’s no point in working with someone. There are better payoffs to take advantage of them.

As we move from smaller communities to larger towns, and we have higher mobility, I’m concerned that this critical condition may be lost.

Value of the Future

Another inherent requirement is that the future not be discounted too much. It’s important that we believe that giving up some level of benefit today is worth the future benefits of cooperation. This obviously goes down when we don’t think we’ll meet again – thus we can’t assume cooperation. However, more than that we learned in Thinking, Fast and Slow that we discount things in the future more than we should. Whatever true value we get in the future has to outweigh our cognitive bias against it.

Lack of Escalation

In most things in life, there’s a compounding that happens. Compounding of interest at a modest 12% causes money to double in six years. The Rise of Superman, Flow, and Finding Flow spoke about how a 4% improvement each year in skill can lead to performances that seem impossible today. Fundamental to The Prisoner’s Dilemma game is a lack of escalation. This leads to the future not being seen as more valuable – and that can be problematic.

Variation and Non-Zero Sum

Most of life isn’t zero sum – and The Prisoner’s Dilemma illustrates this to some degree. However, the stability of the outcomes for each round isn’t what we see in life. Some interactions are more important than others. They’re worth more. In effect, there’s a relatively large degree of variation in real life in terms of the rewards (or punishments), but these aren’t captured. In real life, someone can die – or exit the game – if they’re hurt too badly. However, this is explicitly prevented by the rules in The Prisoner’s Dilemma.


There’s been a human behavior that has fascinated economists. As I mentioned in my review of Drive, there’s a strange human behavior in The Ultimatum Game. In short, two people play with a fixed amount of money (say $10) that the first person decides how to split. The second person gets to decide whether both get the split – or neither. From an economist’s point of view, the second person should always take the split, because they’ll be better off. However, that’s not what happens.

If the split gets too unbalanced – say $7-$3 or $8-$2 – the second person starts to prevent either person from getting money. Seen in the context of The Evolution of Cooperation, this makes sense. It’s necessary for someone to punish the other when their behavior exceeds acceptable boundaries.

Social Loafing

An area of concern that Collaboration raised was the issue of “social loafing:” people not pulling their own weight and relying on others to do all the work. Accountability is the proposed solution. We see this in The Prisoner’s Dilemma, where it’s important for misbehaving programs – or people – to be punished. We also see that when all the “suckers” are weeded out, those living off of those “suckers” also die out. So evolution has primed us to weed out those folks who are social loafers.

For each of us, there’s a line between “social loafing” and being able to contribute our fair share to the community. Finding that line seems to be one of the things that happens in The Evolution of Cooperation.

Special Event: Conflict: De-escalation and Resolution

We (Rob and Terri) will be delivering a workshop titled “Conflict: De-escalation and Resolution” at the Medical Academic Center at 13225 North Meridian St, Carmel, IN 46032 on November 1st from 6PM-8PM. A light dinner will be provided. Registration is free and open to everyone.

Conflict erupts in all our lives – both professionally and personally. Despite its frequency and regularity, few have been taught conflict de-escalation and resolution skills.

Professionals can learn to address conflict by identifying the conditions that create conflict, the causes that trigger it, and the techniques for resolving conflict. Success under conditions of high stress, risk, ambiguity, and complexity require effective conflict resolution skills. While it is impossible to resolve all conflict without the collaboration of the entire team, someone must lead these efforts.

In this session, we’ll teach you the essential skills necessary to de-escalate conflict and then to resolve it through instruction and exercises that we’ll all complete.

Register Today

Book Review-De-Escalate: How to Calm an Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less

There’s an angry person standing in front of you, and you want to help them with their problem – but you can’t. You can’t not because you’re incapable of solving their problem, but instead because they won’t let you. They can’t get past their anger to let you work with them to solve the problem. This is the heart of the problem that De-Escalate: How to Calm an Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less discusses. There are plenty of conflict resolution approaches that seek to understand the problem and create a collaborative approach to creating solutions. What De-Escalate addresses is the critical first step of diffusing the emotions.

Emotional Invalidation

We all just want to be understood. Our basic human need for connection cannot be overstated. (See The Dance of Connection if you want to know more about this need.) As much as a person who is emotionally agitated wants their agitation to go away, the thing they need more urgently is to feel like they’re understood. Unfortunately, we often start working with an emotionally-agitated individual by telling them – in effect – their emotions are wrong.

We confront the angry person and tell them there’s no need to be angry. This is telling them that we don’t understand them, and they’re “wrong.” As a result, we increase their agitation, because they’re not understood. Now they’re angry at us, because we’re telling them that their feelings are wrong.

All Feelings are OK

One of the things that’s important to understand about other people’s feelings – and our own – is that all feelings are OK (See Parent Effectiveness Training for more on feelings being OK). While not all actions are acceptable, all feelings are. Our feelings are a part of us. There is something that we’ve experienced that triggered the feelings either in the moment or through a combination of things in our past and the current situation that has come together to make our feelings.

Buddhists believe that feelings aren’t good or bad. They describe feelings – or emotions – as either afflictive or non-afflictive. That is, the feelings either harm you, or they do not. It might interest you to know that anger is not necessarily an afflictive emotion. It’s certainly a powerful emotion, but, when harnessed correctly, it can be a powerful force for change (see Emotional Awareness for more on afflictive/non-afflictive emotions).

Emotional Validation

At the heart of the process that Doug Noll lays out in the De-Escalate book is the process of affect labeling. Affect labeling is telling the other person what they’re feeling. Noll is critical of the advice that many of us have been given to use “I” statements not “you” statements in a heated discussion. (See Crucial Conversations for other ideas for how to handle difficult conversations.) In follow-up correspondence with Noll, I believe that he’s making strong statements in the book to cause people to project their desire to understand the other person and not water down things so much that the other person can’t see you’re attempting to identify their emotions.

Noll quotes some research by Dr. Lieberman, whose research, he says, indicates that labeling the other person’s emotion causes them to have a lower amygdala response and better prefrontal cortex control (PFC). The problem is that Dr. Lieberman’s research doesn’t say this. In reading it, the research says that, if a subject can label what they’re seeing, they themselves will have better PFC control. The research says nothing of the person being labeled. (In the research, they were labeling emotions they saw in pictures.) Normally, this would cause me to discount an author completely, because I hate it when authors draw conclusions that the research doesn’t support. However, in this case, I think there’s middle ground.

First, I recognize that we’re all emotionally-driven, no matter how much we want to believe that we’re rational. (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Predictably Irrational for more.) I know that the techniques we use for non-emotionally-charged conflict resolution and problem solving are fundamentally based on creating understanding – and thereby connection. Active listening is a skill designed to ensure that what is being heard is what the speaker means. (See Motivational Interviewing, Parent Effectiveness Training, and A Way of Being for more on active listening.) So it only makes sense that reflecting – and clarifying – emotion should have the same effect on emotionally-charged individuals.

Second, I played with it. I tried some situations that I could normally work through, but I tried it by reflecting and validating the emotion – before or in addition to the content of the message. The result was quicker resolution than other techniques that don’t acknowledge the emotion first. Motivational Interviewing describes an approach of open questions, affirming, reflection, and summarization. This technique is normally focused on the content of the conversation – but it works well when focused on the emotional context as well.

I and You

Ultimately, as I was experimenting with the technique, I found that I needed to not be blunt about what I thought the other person was feeling. Instead of “you are feeling angry,” I’d say something like, “It seems like you’re angry.” This way, they should feel free to correct me – and I wasn’t telling them that I knew what they were feeling better than they did. The result was having the other person correct me – not always gently. That was great, because it helped me to understand the emotional context and allowed them to feel like I was really listening.

With a few of the folks that I experimented with, I realized that I was helping them to articulate how they were feeling. They were able to evaluate my statement and acknowledge that this was their feeling – even if they couldn’t put a word to it.

Emotional Intelligence

In reviewing the situation, it seems like folks who have lower emotional intelligence – and particularly self-awareness – were more open to me labeling them, and I could be more direct. However, people like myself, who are more highly aware, bristled if I got too direct. (See Emotional Intelligence for more about what emotional intelligence is.) Over the years, I’ve had to say to some others that I get to feel my feelings – they don’t. I can feel annoyed – but they can’t tell me that I feel annoyed if I don’t.

In the end, the key is sensitivity to communicating your perception of the other person’s feelings – and giving them an open door to tell you that you’re wrong. You can be wrong as long as the other person feels like you’re listening.

Just Stop Listening

Noll also includes advice to not listen to the words the other person is speaking. Only listen to the emotions they’re conveying. While I wholeheartedly understand the factors that Noll is concerned with, I believe that the approach is sort of like “throwing the baby out with the bath water.” Noll’s concerns are that you’ll be overwhelmed with processing the words and the emotion and that you’ll get triggered. Both are valid concerns – but, in my opinion not sufficient to stop listening.

Overloading Processing

There’s a fixed capacity for our brain to consume glucose and process information. (See The Rise of Superman for more.) Much of what our brain is designed to do is filter and simplify information. (See The Paradox of Choice and Predictably Irrational.) However, despite these truths, the idea that you shouldn’t listen to the words that people are saying because you’ll be overloaded processing that and the emotion doesn’t hold true to the neurology. The Tell-Tale Brain walks through the verbal processing centers of the brain and how language is processed in the brain. However, emotional context is – almost exclusively – processed in other areas of the brain.

One of the observations about people in the mental state of flow is that there are areas of their brain that are more or less shut down to enable higher capacity in the areas that are demanded by flow. (See Finding Flow and Flow for more.) However, people rarely enter flow when engaged in a conversation. It’s not hard to understand why when you see the need for a small gap between capacity and current skill to drive the growth that flow provides – and the fact that our brains process somewhere between 450-600 words per minute and the spoken word is generally spoken in the 150 words per minute range.

In short, when someone else is talking, we’ve got plenty of capacity to process what they’re saying – and do other things. The key when someone else is speaking isn’t getting enough processing done. The key is staying focused on the right thing and not getting distracted by our own insecurities or triggered into emotional flooding ourselves.

Not Getting Triggered

It’s much easier to say “don’t get triggered” than to live it out. Hurting people hurt people. When faced with an agitated person, you’re facing someone who is psychologically hurting. They’re likely to say mean and awful things about you. They may be true, partially true, or complete fiction. No matter what they are, you must keep from becoming wrapped up in the emotions that these verbal barbs might trigger.

Noll’s suggestion is good in the sense that, if you can’t hear the words, then you can’t process them and get triggered. However, there’s a lot of neuroscience that says that what’s happening consciously and what is happening unconsciously can be – and often are – two different things. Just because you’re consciously ignoring the words doesn’t mean that your unconscious is. Unfortunately, it’s the unconscious that triggers the emotional response. Being triggered is all about emotions.

I believe that the key issue is the perception of safety. If you feel like you’re safe – both physically and emotionally/psychologically – then you’re not likely to react to even vile language hurled at you. (To understand safety, I’d suggest Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order and my post Why and How 12-Step Groups Work.) So, for me, the issue of not getting triggered is less about ignoring the words and more about putting them in the proper context. If you can evaluate the context of the words and whether they’re really threatening to your safety, you have a better chance of staying centered.

Staying Centered

Unless you’ve studied martial arts, you’re likely to not know what “staying centered” means. After all, how can you stay centered emotionally? The answer relies on the idea of balance and of interacting with the world. When your body is physically centered (or rooted), it takes quite a bit to knock you off balance. When you’re aware of the center of gravity of your body and where your limbs are, you don’t need to be so concerned with whether an attack will knock you down. In many martial arts forms, the ability to remain centered allows you to deflect or transform an attacker’s energy in a way that prevents that energy from harming you.

This is the same perspective on emotional centeredness. The verbal attacks don’t disrupt your perspective of yourself, the situation, or the person launching the attack. You can attend to it in a detached kind of way, knowing that you’re relatively safe no matter what happens.

This is the key to de-escalating a conflict. You can’t pour your gasoline on a fire that you’re trying to put out.

The Truth in the Conflict

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in this review explaining where I disagree with Noll (and supporting that with references). However, the truth is that my disagreements with Noll are a matter of degree. De-Escalate is a solid framework for de-escalating conflict, so that you can move forward to improving understanding, finding options, and, finally, solving the problem at the core of the conflict. While I disagree on the precise approaches he outlines in the book, I agree with the concerns and the concepts. As I followed up with him via email, I realized that there is a subtlety and an understanding of the need to adapt his hard-fast rules into something usable for every day. We disagree less about objectives and factors – we disagree about precisely how to accomplish them.

It’s a fitting thing for two folks that preach conflict resolution. We understand each other and can accept where the other person has a valid point – even without accepting it as ours. Hopefully you can De-Escalate conflict and build understanding with everyone you encounter.

Book Review-Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities

I’ve been a part of or have led many groups in my time. Each one had a unique “feel.” Some were hyper focused, and others generally organized around a topic. Some were high technology and others decidedly not so. Developing communities has always been interesting, since some communities flourish and others languish. Understanding how communities are formed – particularly communities that exist, at least in part, in the ethereal space of our digital age – is what Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities is all about.

The Way Back Machine

Before getting to the content, it’s necessary to explain that this isn’t a new book. It was published in 2009. I was first introduced to it through a book by Michael Sampson called User Adoption Strategies, which I read all the way back in 2011. Back at that time, my note-taking was substantially more primitive. I wasn’t writing reviews on a regular basis. I was working on some user adoption content for a client and stumbled across the reference – and the desire to revisit some of the sources that shaped my thinking about user adoption strategies.

Reviewing a 9-year-old technology book feels like dusting off dinosaur bones in the space of communities and digital collaboration – but though many of the examples cited in the book have been lost to the sands of time, the underlying principles of how communities come together and stay together haven’t changed. While myspace lost to Facebook, and some of the thriving communities from 10 years ago are all but gone, the need for humans to connect hasn’t changed in a few thousand years.

Alone and Together

Alone Together takes a negative view of how technology is driving us further from one another. Bowling Alone speaks of our continued abandonment of physical communities. There is a certain component of destruction in new creation. Digital Habitats is focused on the creation part of the process. It speaks of how communities are drawn together – whether in person or online – and how technologies can enable and support that process.

While it’s possible to create technologies that isolate us from one another, it’s equally possible to create connections.

Rhythms and Interactions

Digital Habitats speaks of our connection with others in communities in two parts. First, there are the rhythms – that is, the patterns of being together and apart. Second is interactions, which is described as participation and rectification. Rectification means “making into object.” In this context, I’d adjust this to say that it’s consensus building – whether written and formalized or not.

Rhythms of connection – and disconnection – are important. They form the basis of our ability to merge with the group identity and separate to regain our own standalone identity – or merge ourselves into other groups. (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for more on the identification process.)

Interactions are the part of communities that most of us consider when thinking of the community – but from the narrow perspective of the episodes of interactions rather than the outcome of those interactions. Interactions can divide; but more frequently within a community, they build our understanding and create consensus. We learn about different perspectives and nuances about the thing that we’re in the community to learn about. Sometimes members of communities convert the consensus into an artifact that can be leveraged by others to speed their learning about the topic. (For instance, take a look at my posts about the Indy CIO Network and my summary of those conversations, like Marketing Information Technology to the Organization or Effective IT Steering Committees.)

At an individual level, we gain knowledge through our communities. At an aggregate level, the artifacts created from the interactions of those passionate about a topic – whether expert or not – creates value to the world as those artifacts are available to others.


Digital Habitats asserts that there are different orientations to every community, and those orientations shape the needs of the community. The orientations and their key needs are listed here:

  • Meetings – Emphasis on regularly scheduled meetings
  • Open-ended conversations – Emphasis is on the ability to reach out and connect in a conversation at a time
  • Projects – The desire to work together to complete specific projects
  • Content – The desire to create content
    • Library – Providing an organized set of documents
    • Structured self-publishing – A forum for participants to publish information using a consistent format and metadata
    • Open self-publishing – Participants contribute but in a format and structure that suits them
    • Content integration – Participants build a network of links that connect information available publicly into a consumable structure
  • Access to expertise – The community forms so that the members can have access to expertise that they don’t possess
    • Access via questions and requests – Questions are broadcast in a way that experts can respond
    • Direct access to explicitly designated experts – Specific folks are identified as the experts that others seek to get access to
    • Shared problem solving – Group members help individuals solve problems
    • Knowledge validation – Artifacts are routed to members until they’re fully vetted
    • Apprenticeship and mentoring – Learning of the individual takes place through the mentorship of a skilled practitioner
  • Relationships – Connecting with other people on a common interest
    • Connecting – Networking with people who are likely to be useful
    • Knowing about people – Getting to know others at a professional and personal level
    • Interacting informally – Interacting one-on-one and in small groups
  • Individual participation – Creating opportunities for individuals to engage
    • Varying and selective participation – Various forms of participation are offered as ways to engage
    • Personalization – Members can individualize their experience of the community
    • Individual development – The community helps the development of individual members
    • Multimembership – Coordinating access across multiple communities
  • Community cultivation – Focused on the creation of the community itself – or the broader community
    • Democratic governance – Self-governing structures of self-management
    • Strong core group – A caring group of people take a nurturing role in the community
    • Internal coordination – A small group takes the role of coordinating the community
    • External facilitation – An external facilitator who is typically not a subject matter expert is responsible for managing the community
  • Serving a context – Orientation to the member’s point of view
    • Organization as context – The community is seen in its relationship to the host organization
    • Cross-organizational context – The community as seen as serving multiple organizations in a larger community
    • Constellation of related communities – The community sees itself in terms of the related communities that it serves
    • Public mission – The community sees itself in terms of the public mission it’s moving forward

While the ability to distinguish between multiple goals of different communities is important, I find this taxonomy unwieldy. Because this is a multiple selection-type organization, every community falls within every category to some degree or another, making it difficult to put your finger on exactly what the goals are.

More troubling than that, it seems as if, rather than being one set of categories, what we have are a few dimensions. I’d propose that there are a set of dimensions for communities as follows:

  • Context – Self-serving or other serving
  • Organizational approach – Completely democratic and free-form to completely bureaucratic
  • Expected Participation – From the “lurker” who never posts to the highly engaged
  • Relational – Is the objective casual professional talk or deep relationships that transfer outside of the group as well?
  • Intent – Meetings (ritualized gatherings), open-ended conversations, access to expertise, projects, and content creation

Technology Stewards

Ultimately, Digital Habitats seeks to empower technology stewards. That is, to take the caretaker for the habitat and enable them to make intelligent technology decisions to help the membership to get out of the group what they desire. In this, the book explains some categorizations and selection criteria that didn’t survive the test of time very well but provides a focus on the needs of the community, which will always be relevant.

Every digital habitat needs a caretaker, someone who will look after their Digital Habitats.

Book Review-I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough”

I’ve read much of Brené Brown’s work, but it wasn’t until I read I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough” that I made it back to the beginning. I had previously commented in my review of The Gifts of Imperfection that I was reading her work in non-sequential order and how that can sometimes be disorienting. I had already read Daring Greatly and Rising Strong (my review is split into part 1 and part 2). Despite having read some of Brown’s later work and some of the references she uses, I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) still had things to teach and remind me.

As a sidebar, the book was initially self-published by Brown in 2004 with the title Women & Shame: Reaching Out, Speaking Truths, & Building Connections. It was 2007 when Penguin bought the rights and released it with this title. I’ve taken some of Brown’s work here, put it together with pieces from other resources, and created a shame map:

Shame Researcher

Brown frequently describes herself as a shame researcher; that is, she seeks to understand shame. Along the way, she’s clarified that guilt is someone feeling that they’ve done something bad, and shame is a separate emotion where people believe they are bad. Brown believes that shame separates us from one another, and it’s this separation that makes shame so particularly toxic to our being.

Shame is a self-sealing proposition. As shame disconnects and silences us, our shame becomes a secret, and secrets are where our mental sickness festers. The challenge with shame is the feeling itself makes it unsafe for us to share the shame with others. It erodes our trust in ourselves and others.

Beyond the definition of shame and cataloging experiences of shame she has sought to identify those skills and temperaments that make folks more resistant to shame and there by to live a happier and healthier life.


Before we can confront shame for what it is, we must acknowledge the truth that life is about connection. We’re inherently social creatures. We’ve been designed to be in community, and we experience psychological pain when we’re isolated and removed from every kind of human connection. Loneliness explains the lack of connection and how it differs from the physical state of being alone. The Dance of Connection speaks about the need for and the way to get connection. Dr. Cloud describes the need for connection – and healthy connection – in The Power of the Other as being core to our human condition.

When we accept that connection is essential to our human condition we can realize that shame has the power to separate us from others through our fear. If we ourselves believe that we’re bad and therefore unworthy of connection, isn’t it realistic to expect that others will believe that we’re not worthy of connecting to? That’s our ultimate fear: that we’ll be excluded from the group. (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for more on exclusion.)


I attribute most of my shame resilience to stealing fear as a basic component from it. It was years and years ago when I decided that I wouldn’t live in fear. I’m not saying that I won’t be afraid, everyone experiences fear from time to time. What I’m saying is that I made a conscious decision to not live in fear. If that meant that I made financial choices so that I wasn’t in debt, and the consequences were a beat-up car, a small house, and modest clothes – then that’s what it meant. I realized that my first concern was going to be not allowing fear to build a stronghold in my life.

Over the years, as people have attempted to shame me, I’ve resisted, in part because I refused to accept the fear of disconnection. I would confront the fears directly and speak with people about what was real and what wasn’t real. I’d use my friends like a GPS system to triangulate my real position. (See Where Are You, Where are You Going, But More Importantly, How Fast Are You Moving? for more on this idea.)

Fear is an essential component for shame, and without it, it’s like starving a fire of oxygen. Eventually, it will go out. Not immediately, not without a fight, but eventually it will yield.


Courage comes from the Latin root word cor, which is “heart.” In its earliest forms, courage meant “to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” We’ve lost this definition with our focus on courageous acts, which are framed around charging into burning buildings and taking great personal risk (altruism). However, courage in its purest sense is the ability to work through the fear of being rejected for who you are to defend people or ideals that you hold dear. (Look here if you want to get clear on the distinctions between Sympathy, Empathy, Compassion, and Altruism.)

Notice that courage requires fear. You can’t be courageous without vulnerability – and thus some fear. Vulnerability comes in the ability to be hurt. Without vulnerability, there is no fear and no courage.


Why would anyone want to allow harm to – possibly – come to them? What possible motivation could someone have to become vulnerable? In a word: connection. Without vulnerability, there is no connection. Without our ability to share an unvarnished, unprotected part of ourselves, there’s no way that someone can get close to us. Wearing a suit of impenetrable armor also makes it impossible for someone to touch you – to connect with you.

Vulnerability in our relationships with others isn’t a binary thing. We don’t one day wake up and say to ourselves, “Today is vulnerability day.” Instead, we choose how much we share with others, how much we let them in and let them see us, warts and all. Often, we do this slowly, as we send over little test balloons. He might not like me if he realizes I’m saddled with debt, so maybe I can whine about my car payment and see how he reacts. She thinks that I have my act together. I wonder how she’d react if she knew I’d been in counseling for depression for years. Maybe I can suggest drinks at that bar “right next to the counseling center” and see what happens.

As we are vulnerable and aren’t attacked, we can open up to more to places and ideas that we’ve not yet broached. Each bid for connection – another way of thinking about being vulnerable – that is met with a positive response opens us up for more. (See The Science of Trust for more about bids for connection.)

Vulnerability may have a purpose and a need, but that still doesn’t make it easy. The process of being vulnerable to build trust takes time to build and a moment to lose.

Perceived Safety

In walking around in cities that I don’t know, I’ve probably walked into neighborhoods that I wasn’t really safe in. I probably shouldn’t have been there alone – or there at all. However, in most cases I felt fine. I was being vigilant about my surroundings, and things were fine. The funny thing is that one of the places that I can remember feeling the least safe was in downtown Manhattan. I couldn’t tell you where exactly I was, but I can remember the thing that triggered the feeling. It was the graffiti on the steel, roll-down doors on the shops.

Intellectually, I knew that there were uniformed officers a block away, leisurely chatting. They weren’t actively or intently scanning their environment. They seemed pleased that they had received such an easy assignment. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t safe. I started processing the fact that these shops needed these steel doors. I started to process the bravado required to mark the doors. I had fallen for what Malcom Gladwell described in Blink as “broken windows.”

There are times when we feel safe when we are not – and distinctly, there are times when the opposite is true. When it comes to our willingness to be vulnerable – our willingness to walk into a new neighborhood – it’s our perception of safety that is important. Strangely, our perception of safety may have been shaped years ago in our childhood. How Children Succeed explains the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, and how if you were exposed to adverse childhood events, you’ll be more cautious and reserved as an adult. You’ll be predisposed to not be vulnerable, because your perception of safety will be lower than most people.

Conversely, people who have a high degree of inner safety – which they had to develop – will take risks that no sane person should. (I may resemble this remark at times.) For these folks, there’s very little reason to spend energy protecting themselves, because they don’t believe they can be harmed – they don’t perceive their safety to be in jeopardy.

Clearly, there’s a balance here. You can’t have your set point for safety set too high, or you’ll step out in front of a beer truck and get flattened; but being so afraid that you can’t leave your home is also dysfunctional. We need to have enough safety to be vulnerable in a world with sympathy suckers.

Sympathy Suckers, Empathy Engagement, and Compassionate Connection

Sympathy is about separation. It’s an acknowledgement that things look bad – for you. The person who throws the blow-out pity party of the year is looking for someone to acknowledge their pain. That’s fine – as long as they, at the same time, don’t insist that you can’t understand. If you want someone to come alongside of you and invest themselves in your experience, you can’t tell them that they’ll never get there or, worse, make it impossible for them to get there.

Sympathy suckers want the energy associated with sympathy and don’t realize that it’s not a connection. It’s pity. The result isn’t two people getting closer together, it’s two people getting farther apart. A healthier approach is to seek and accept empathy. This is a simple expression of “I understand this about you.” It isn’t to say that one person understands everything about the other. It’s simply that there’s an aspect of your experience that I understand. I’ve never lost a child, but I’ve lost a brother, and I can use that tragic event to connect with others who’ve experienced a loss of someone close to them. I can demonstrate my compassion through my attempt to experience my own pain again, so that I can understand more of them and seek to find a way to alleviate their suffering in some small way.

You can find out more about my perspective on Sympathy, Empathy, Compassion, and Altruism in my post.

Bad Labels

The research on labeling, and how the labels that we apply to others and to ourselves shapes our behavior in subtle but persistent ways, is well-replicated. When students are labeled bad by their teacher (or administration), they do more poorly. When people label themselves as stupid, dumb, or incapable, they inevitably become this. (See Mindset for more on labeling.) Whether you believe that you can succeed or that you will surely fail, you’re right. However, you’re right not because of your skill, but rather because of the label that you apply to yourself.

One of the challenges with shame is the possibility that it will clue on to you your worst moments. Somehow your shame defines you by the moment that you were weak or at your worst and fails to recognize that this isn’t the whole picture. We are – none of us – one moment in time or one decision. We’re a series of good – and bad – decisions.

A healthy act of shame resistance is to resist being defined by our worst moments. We can – and should – acknowledge that it happened, that it was bad, make restitution, reform ourselves, and so on. I’m not minimizing the need to address the consequences of the action or inaction. Rather, we should not be defined by that moment. We should refuse to be labeled as a thief (and a no good) because of one incident. We shouldn’t label ourselves as insensitive when we missed the tear in the eye of a loved one. We can be compassionate and have times where we’ve lacked compassion.


It can be absolutely exhausting. Caring for another human being can take its physical toll on you. However, this feeling pales in comparison to the emotional exhaustion that many caregivers experience. The warm glow from the comments of friends fades, as you don’t have time for yourself and can’t make it to see them, because you’re too busy taking care of someone. The feeling of joy for being able to take care of someone when they need it is overtaken by bitterness and resentment, as you realize that you may be saving or helping their lives at the seeming expense of your own.

Slowly, the thought creeps in. What would it be like if this person died? What if I didn’t have to sacrifice my life for theirs any longer? And the thought starts to linger longer and longer. However, the thought itself seems shameful. What kind of a monster am I? What kind of a person would want someone they loved to die just so they can spend more time with friends? Why can’t I just suck it up and accept my fate?

The problem is that this perspective – shame – fails to realize that this is a normal response to exhaustion. The conclusion isn’t the right one, but the path that’s being walked makes sense. It’s a sign that you’re overburdened – not that you’re a monster. However, shame won’t let you see this. You’re supposed to be the perfect father or mother or relative. You’re supposed to be able to handle this on your own. You don’t need tights and a cape, but you’re supposed to be super.

If you’re in this situation, I know it’s tough. The difficult challenge is how to get the support you need to not become exhausted. It’s difficult when your siblings won’t help to take care of your aging parents and refuse to find them care, because it’s too expensive. They want to control the decision making – or influence it – but they’re unwilling to come support you while you’re supporting your parents. The answer – though it’s hard – is to stand your ground and insist that you need to be able to take care of yourself, your family, and your life too.

Peak Perfection

I’m always amazed at how put together other people appear. Whether it’s your favorite musician or the TV star or the celebrity, it seems like their life is right. From the outside looking in, everything seems perfect – until it isn’t. It takes a toll. Projecting the image that you’re perfect when you’re not is hard. You’re always considering what you have to say and where you need to be, what you need to wear, and what you need to drive.

It’s exhausting. It’s exhausting to believe that you must be put together. It’s hard to hide the gambling addiction or the liver problems caused by drinking too much too often. Preachers hide their marital trouble from the congregation. Politicians hide their financial problems from their constituents. The mayor is worried how long it will be until the town finds out about how much he’s been drinking.

Perfection takes work – and a bit of careful editing. How many takes happen before your favorite action thriller’s scene is done correctly? Two or three? Or thirty? How much work is put into hiding the mistakes and making the best take seem perfect? It’s not reality that anyone’s perfect. No one can be perfect, but in our highly edited society, we believe that it’s possible.

The problem is that no one has that kind of energy. No one can be all things to all people at all times. If we’re unable to allow ourselves to be real and vulnerable, then we’ll end up feeling lonely inside and shame has won. We silently condemn ourselves for not reaching the perfection we seek without consciously realizing that it’s an impossible goal.

Need for Learning

The understanding that perfection is an illusion isn’t an opportunity to sit back and do nothing. We need to learn from our mistakes, and we need others who are willing to do the same. We need to find ways to grow that are real. We’re not trying to be perfect, but we’re striving to be better. One of the amazing things about humans, both individually and collectively, is our capacity to become more than what we are.

The best way to do this is to learn from our trials and failures. The more willing we’re able to stare into the places that we haven’t done well and examine what happened, the more we can figure out how to do better. We become the best possible version of ourselves through our learning.


When you meet someone at work or in a community club or a kid’s activity, you associate them with that one thing that you know them for. However, everyone is more complex than the one view that we see them through. They’re more than the stereotypical soccer mom. They’re more than the corporate executive. Everyone of us has facets to our life that others don’t see. While it’s normal for us to seek to simplify other people into categories, it’s equally frustrating.

People need simple, but I spent my whole life building this complexity. For me, my interests are so diverse that people struggle to put me into a box. They don’t understand embedded systems programming and multithreaded technical detail with an interest in information architecture or psychology or user adoption. These facets of my personality – my me – seem incompatible. It’s frustrating to try to explain the interests and the passions and to have folks not understand.

People wonder how you get anything done with so many diverse interests. The question lingering in the minds of folks is how can both be true? How can all of it be true? I can tell them that the answer is hard work and dedication, but that’s not an answer that they can hear. It’s easier to find a single-dimensional view of others – of me – even if it minimizes others to cardboard cutouts, even if it means that you miss their richness.

Disconnected from Ourselves

The saddest thing about shame is the way that it disconnects us from ourselves. It causes us to focus on one facet of who we are, judge it, and disconnect with others, but we also lose the richness of our understanding of ourselves for the single-faceted focus. It seems like it should be easy to know yourself. It seems like you should be able to just know who you are, what you like, and what will make you happy. However, Daniel Gilbert points out in Stumbling on Happiness that we don’t know what will make us happy. Jonathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis and Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow point out that we’re not one commander at the helm of the ship of our lives, we’re two. We’re the emotional elephant with pattern recognition and the rational rider trying to justify and explain the decisions made by the elephant. Dan Aisley points out that we’re Predictably Irrational – but we don’t know it’s so. Eagleman shows us how our brains lie to us in Incognito.

All of this is to say that, though understanding ourselves may seem easy on the surface, it’s perhaps the hardest thing we’ll ever do – and the most rewarding.

Strength from Weakness

In the end, the way to conquer shame is to become weak. The path to victory runs through the forest of defeat. The way to connect is to realize that, even though I Thought It was Just Me, it isn’t.

Straddling Multiple Worlds

To some degree, everyone straddles multiple worlds. We have our personal world. We have our work world. Never the two should meet – except for the Christmas party and company picnic. However, most of us find ourselves walking between more than just two worlds. On the personal side, we have our childhood friends. There are our college friends. There are our church friends. There are the neighborhood friends. Mixing of these friends is strangely rare. The college friends and the church friends just wouldn’t get along, we tell ourselves. They wouldn’t have anything in common.

Too many people find their work worlds filled with the sterile, hospital-cafeteria-type conversations. No one wants to get personal. No one wants to get too aware of the coworker who is struggling with divorce or addiction. Those aren’t the polite conversations about the weekend that are sanctioned in the corporate world. The correct answer to “How are you?” is always “Fine.” We aren’t expected to share our whole selves. We’re expected to keep our professional world separate from our personal world.

Facets of Identity

Somehow, we’re expected to keep our wholeness separate. We’re expect to expose one facet of who we are to our church friends and a different facet to our drinking buddies. Even absent the explicit call to be fragmented, we’re conditioned to expect that people don’t really want to know about our struggles and our pride. How many jokes are there about how everyone’s grandchild is the most amazing child in the universe?

As a result, we keep the part of us that matches others positioned towards them, like how sunflowers position themselves towards sunlight. We are careful to not let them see parts of us that don’t fit the idealistic view of the parts they’re interested in.

Emerging Parts

However, the careful positioning in relationship to those we are near creates a gap. It takes the parts of our personality – the very growth that we crave and need – and makes it unacceptable to share with others. Because it’s precious and fragile, we can’t afford the risk to show it to anyone. We can’t share it with those that we trust, because it doesn’t match the part of us that they expect.

So we starve the sunlight from the places of our growth, because we can’t share it with those we trust, and simultaneously it’s too fragile to share with those we don’t trust.

They Don’t Know Me

All this leads us to the position that no one really knows us. We’re always positioning the image of ourselves to the people that we’re with, and we don’t get a chance to share our vulnerable parts. It leads to a profound sense of disconnection. We don’t believe that anyone understands us – and that’s the truth, because we’ve never allowed anyone to see an accurate picture of our real selves – including our blemishes, weakness, and flaws.

Stranger in a Foreign Land

Even if we can get past the need to show people only what they want to see, we’re forced to realize that, in our contemporary world, our interests and the interests of the others we interact with – including family, friends, and acquaintances – isn’t going to match completely. Even if we’re able to share the places of ourselves that are growing, it may not be that those people are interested in that part of us. They may not can help us to grow in that aspect of our reality.

It’s like that part of us is a foreigner in a strange land where they speak a different language. There’s no way to connect and communicate.


Perhaps the most challenging concern that any human faces is that their different worlds and interests will diverge to the point where they’re no longer able to keep themselves whole. For me, I know that I’m a father, husband, developer, technologist, speaker, organizational development advocate, psychology and neurology student, and the list continues. There are times when these worlds fit together like a continent with different temperate climates. There are other times when I feel like the gaps between them place me on a twister mat, where the dots drift farther and farther apart, making it harder for me to stay up.

Living and Letting Go

The trick to living in a world where we’re straddling these multiple worlds is that we need to learn when to let go of aspects of ourselves – at least for a while. We need to accept that, for a time, these parts of our soul will be separate from us. For me, there are several aspects that are missing from the core of who I am today. I’m a professionally-trained comedian – yet I don’t practice either stand up or improv comedy. I’m a pilot who loves flying but can’t find the time and money to stay current. These are just two small parts of my world that I’ve let go of for now. I’ve picked my hand up off the twister dot and have let it drift off – for now.

Sometimes the aspects that you let go of are done consciously, and sometimes it’s just an aspect of yourself that gets lost for a while. Sometimes we fight to hold on to more of our true selves than we can realistically contain at any one time. That’s when we can really feel the pain of straddling multiple worlds. The secret, if there is one, is to know that letting worlds go for a while doesn’t mean that they leave your core forever.

No Two Alike

Book Review-No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality

“Why am I me?” is an important – and unanswered – question that George Dyson asked his father, Freeman Dyson, at age 8. It’s at the heart of Judith Rich Harris’ work in No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality. It’s the essence of the tension between our desire to be like others and our need to have status amongst our peers. I’ve read and reviewed Harris’ previous work, The Nurture Assumption (written in 1998), so in many ways her work here builds on her theories, which I’ve previously studied. No Two Alike is a dozen years old as I write this, having been published in 2006. However, many of the observations that she makes and the research she cites still isn’t widely known by parents.

The Consistency Fallacy

We believe that human behavior is a fixed constant. We believe after meeting a person that their behavior is the same whether hanging out with their friends on a Saturday night or in the second row at church on Sunday morning. However, nothing could be further from the truth. (See How to Be Yourself for more on this example.) Kurt Lewin said that behavior is a function of both person and environment. (See more in my review of Moral Disengagement.) In The Lucifer Effect, we learned, through the Stanford prison experiment, just how powerful the effect of environment can be. We learned how people can behave one way in one environment and completely differently in another.

Johnathan Haidt explains how our behaviors are driven by a rider, an elephant, and a path. Our behaviors are rationally, emotionally, and environmentally based. (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch.) It would seem silly to believe that people behave consistently when there are so many levels to the way that we make decisions, most of which aren’t available to our consciousness.

Maybe we’re fooled by the belief that others are consistent, because we know how hard it is to change our own behaviors. (See Change or Die and Willpower.) Whatever the reason, we believe that we’ll behave consistently across time and circumstances despite the evidence to the contrary.

Not Knowing and Not Questioning

One of the challenges of our human brains is that we stop questioning things when we forget where we learned them. One of the reasons for the extensive notes I take – and the extensive effort I put into writing these blogs – is to preserve the knowledge of where I found things. Over the years, I’ve found a few errors in citations. It was defective steel in the Brooklyn Bridge that required additional winding – not the Golden Gate Bridge, as was reported in one source. Nor does “Indiana” mean a headman and advisor to the king in Zulu – as was reported in Dialogue. (This turned out to be a simple transcription error.)

The problem is that people assumed that the environment made a difference, that parents made a difference, that bad kids were the responsibility of parents, and that they deserved some blame for their children not turning out to be model citizens. That assumption is something that Harris challenges.

More Alike

With at least 50% of the genetics between them and a home environment that is completely the same, one would expect siblings to turn out substantially more alike than they do. Anyone with two or a few children quickly realizes that they’re not the same. But the question is why? If 50% of our makeup is hereditary, then what is the other 50% made of? Surely it must be the environment – but The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike both systemically eliminate many of the theories for why people are different.

Birth order – perhaps because of the popularity of the book Born to Rebel – is given considerable time as a potential actor in the play of differing personalities, but its effects are tiny – if they exist at all. Otherwise, the environment that siblings are raised in seems to be relatively identical.

Microenvironments and Mutations

Identical twins are – at least genetically – identical at the time of their separation. It’s one egg and sperm that separates into two people. However, sometimes genetic differences – very small differences – occur due to random mutations. These random mutations can make very small changes in twins, which can sometimes drive them apart.

We know that some genes are environmentally triggered. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers speaks of Fetal Origins of Adult Disease (FOAD) – and how these aren’t generically triggered per se. Rather, they are genetic responses to environmental stressors. Two twins sitting side by side – or quite literally attached to one another, as in conjoined twins – may still experience life, just slightly differently, and those slight differences may make all the difference.

Imagine a peg board like the one in the TV show The Price is Right. The Plinko board allows for a token to be dropped at the top, and the token bounces its way down through the pegs to its final resting place. Small differences can cause a token to go left or right at each peg. This is also known as the Butterfly Effect, after the 1972 article by Edward Lorenz titled “Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” The short is that, in a chaotic system like weather, we have no hope of capturing enough data to predict everything.

The same seems true of how our children’s personalities will develop. There are so many factors that we’ll never be able to accurately predict – or effectively shape – our children’s personalities. Each child lives in their own microenvironment, one unique just to them.

I vividly remember the day my son discovered that there were people who would steal. We were at the Indianapolis Zoo, and my wife and I had split up so I could look for something for my brother and his Fiancée’s wedding. She had our son and a wagon that we brought for him to ride in. She called me on the radios we bought to ask if I had taken the wagon. She had left it outside an exhibit. When she came back it was not to be found. I was already outside putting the gift in the car and began looking through the parking lot to see if I could find the person who had taken the wagon. Soon after, they joined me, and I eventually found the person who had taken the wagon and positively identified it, because my jacket was still in it. That was the day that my son learned about theft.

I couldn’t have shaped those events. I couldn’t have decided when he learned of theft. I had to respond to it when it came. The microenvironment of his life taught him a lesson that day – whether I was ready for it or not.

Academic Investigation

Rich is an interesting person, sitting outside the traditional academic world and focused on integrating disciplines instead of advancing a single discipline. Instead of being an expert in sociology or neurology, she artfully weaves the findings from each into a tapestry of ideas that point the way towards explanations for why children raised in the same household turn out so differently.

She’s like the chief detective in a murder-mystery book, who looks for the inconsistencies in one story and for other ways to understand or explain what is happening. This is exciting for me, because it resonates with my desire to connect thoughts from disparate disciplines and connect them or point out inconsistencies.


Often the term “amateurs” is used as a derogatory term by established elite, who believe that amateurs aren’t capable of the kind of progress that professionals – and particularly academic professionals – are. However, used as a pejorative term, it’s a weak one. Just months before this post, Smithsonian magazine posted “Will the Next Great Scientific Discovery Be Made by Amateurs?” It shares a few of the recent discoveries that amateurs participated in – and expectations that more discoveries will come from amateurs.

Amateurs hold a special place. They’re not bound by the assumptions of the profession. They don’t have to do things the same way that everyone else does them. They’re free to innovate and find their own way. (See The Medici Effect and Diffusion of Innovations.)

Consider that the research says that most therapies – whether talk-based or pharmacological – don’t work. They have marginal, if any, improvement for the patients. What does matter is a relationship – called therapeutic alliance – though it’s not clear that your bartender couldn’t give you that. (See The Heart and Soul of Change and Warning Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health.)

In fact, much of the entire field of psychology rests on pillars of salt. The psychological tests that many use have been repeatedly debunked but continue to be used in settings where their accuracy doesn’t approach any level of reliability. (See The Cult of Personality Testing.)

European Orphanages

For the most part, it seems that if you do a reasonable job with raising your children and don’t veer off course beyond the boundaries of what society expects, children are not permanently harmed by their childhoods, no matter what the psychologist of the week wants to make them believe. It’s easier to make someone believe that their unhappiness is their parents’ fault than it is to get someone to face the fact that they’re responsible for their own lives.

However, there are some cases – particularly, cases where children were deprived of stable social relationships – that do have lasting impacts. Orphanages in Eastern Europe denied children access to loving relationships and provided them with only the necessities of life. As a result, some of the adults rescued from this environment showed a host of psychological issues.

I had the opportunity to meet one such adult who had been in an orphanage in Eastern Europe. After several years with loving parents from the United States, she was overly friendly with the men she would meet – and several took advantage of that friendliness. She’s still seeking to heal the wounds left with her from her time in the orphanage. She’s still trying to learn how to be an adult and understand her intrinsic value.

Most children who are raised don’t have the social deficits that these children have and will grow up with personalities that, while not always pleasant for the parents, are in a normal range.

Children Teaching Children

Often parents today worry whether they’re spending enough time with their children. They’re concerned that they aren’t enriching their lives enough. However, Harris points out that, in most traditional societies, parents don’t interact with children much. Instead, children are raised by older children. A child is separated from their mother’s warm embrace at the time of the next child – typically after three or four years of age. After that, the older children of the group would look after the younger children.

Depending upon the size of the group, it may stay together or split along age lines, and eventually on age and gender lines. Smaller groups have one large group of children, and larger groups have age-specific groups. The self-categorization that happens in the children causes them to sort into groupings that are the most like them when the groups get large enough.


There are many words that could be used to describe me. Father. Son. Brother. Entrepreneur. Developer. Technologist. Pilot. The list goes on and on. No word fully expresses all my personality, but each can describe a facet of it. More importantly, I can switch between which facet of my personality I identify with as easy as crossing a room. All adults and children do this as well. One moment they identify with some aspect of themselves or a group to which they belong – and they can quickly change to another identification.

This is important, because each of the categorizations leads to a different set of behaviors. As a father, I take on an authoritarian (or authoritative) stance, helping my children to realize that I’m not their peer. As a son, I take an opposite attitude. The category that I leave myself in the most frequently begins to have dominance in how I behave and how others perceive me.

Bad Fit Stereotypes

Harris explains that she’s no good at fitting into stereotypes. I’m proud to say that I’m no good at it either. Use the developer stereotype, and you’ll find yourself thinking of someone who is so shy, they stare at people’s shoes when others talk to them. Use the entrepreneur stereotype, and you’ll expect me to hurl myself down mountains and surf the big waves in Hawaii. No matter what stereotype you attempt to use… I just don’t fit in.

Accepting this fact, that I don’t fit in, has taken many years. Children are – quite rightfully – disturbed by the lack of “fitting in,” which, in some sense, means fitting in with stereotypes.

Battle of Three Systems

Harris explains her theory that there are three different systems in operation in the human brain at the same time. There’s the relationship system that works to maintain favorable relationships with people. The second system is the socialization system that makes people want to fit in with a group. The third, and latest to develop system, is the status system that makes humans want to be better than one’s rivals. The status system gets much of its input from the mind reading systems in the brain – which, though functional at age four, needs some time to get good at its job. (See Mindreading.)

The personality we see from our children is the result of this epic battle. At one level, they want to make close friends, except when that means they don’t fit into a group – however they chose to define that group. More challenging, however, is how someone can be both a member of the group and above it in status at the same time.

As people move from group identification, where stereotypes live, to individual relationships, different mental processing systems are in use. As a result, Al Campanis can believe that Jackie Robinson is a great player and at the same time believe that blacks shouldn’t be managers. (See Mistakes Were Made for more on this example.)

Parental Influence

At the end of the day, do or don’t parents have impact on their children? They clearly have impact on their children, but most of it is indirect. The people that they move their child near and the groups that are formed by children dramatically influence a child’s personality and “lot in life.” Between random events and microenvironments, it’s impossible to really shape a child’s personality.

However, the good news is that this lets parents off the hook. They don’t have to be ashamed if their child doesn’t turn out perfect. They can – and should – still do what they can to support their children just like our ancestors did. However, we need not worry that we’re “doing parenting right,” because there is no one recipe when there are No Two Alike.

The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do

Book Review-The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do – Candidates and Effects

In the previous post, I addressed the foundation of The Nurture Assumption, Judith Rich Harris’ challenge to the assumption that how we nurture our children has an impact on their outcomes in life. She has broken the causal arrow from a parent’s nurturing to the child’s outcome. In this post, we walk through some of the candidates for why children turn out so differently and settle on Harris’ idea that it’s the peers that drive children’s growth – and why we can’t do anything about that.

Birth Order

The easiest first guess for how children with similar genetics end up so different is their birth order. That is, the first born is in a different world developmentally than the second, the third, and so on. It’s the difference between the first born – who doesn’t have to share the parent’s attention – and the second – who must contend with an incumbent. However, a careful review of the data by Judy Dunn and Robert Plomin concludes that there are no lasting, extrafamilial effects of birth order.

The research that said there was a birth order impact used only parental or self-reported questionnaire. When additional research was done, and teachers were asked to rate children’s personalities, the effects of birth order disappeared. It seems that the roles (or the perceptions of roles) that the child played in the family supported the idea of a birth order personality, but the independent assessment of personality didn’t find any patterns. This leads us back to the work of Kurt Lewin and others that personality – or at least behavior – is situationally dependent. How we behave at home isn’t necessarily how we’ll behave in public.

Situational Personality

Kurt Lewin has a formula for behavior. He says that behavior – what we actually do – is a function of both person and environment. In other words, the situation (the environment) has an unpredictably strong influence on what we do. We really are different people drinking with pals on a Saturday night than we are in church on Sunday morning.

When you couple differences in behavior and an awareness of the environmental impact, it’s easy to see how fundamental attribution error might lead us to trouble. Fundamental attribution error is our tendency to see a person’s behavior as fixed and unchanging despite changes in the environment. So, we’ll reach the wrong conclusion about people – and keep it even as the situations change.

Research proves that children behave differently in different situations – whether that behavior is moral or not. The structure of the environment has more impact – good or bad – than we would like to believe. (See The Lucifer Effect for more on the impact of the environment.)

Generalization of Learning

It’s necessary to side-step out of the world of psychology and personality and into the world of learning and teaching. One of the key roles of the parent in the modern society, and behind the nurture assumption, is the idea that the parent is a teacher. Certainly, it’s true that parents teach their children, but there is more to learning than meets the eye.

In learning, particularly adult learning, there’s a great deal of discussion about the facilitation of what is called “far transfer.” That is, how the learning applies outside the context that it was done in – mostly the classroom. Expressed in the context of The Nurture Assumption, the word that Harris uses is the “generalization” of learning. Will something that you teach your children at home be applied to other situations as well? The answer is, disappointingly, that it’s not likely. This is true of all learning – not just those important moral lessons that parents seek to teach their children at home.

Babies, it seems, are very poor at generalizing their learning. Take a mobile with red things hanging from it and allow them to move it by moving their foot, and they’ll reapply the learning that they can control the mobile with their foot. Change the things hanging from the mobile to blue and the baby must relearn the behavior. Move the crib to the living room while keeping the color of the mobile, and the same thing happens: they’re forced to relearn that they can control the mobile with their foot. The good news from the learning world is we know that the more similar the experiences with the same results, the greater the chance that someone will generalize the learning.

Just Showing Up

Woody Allen said that “showing up is 80% of life.” Strangely, Marcia Bates discovered through her research that as much as 80% of what we know comes from passive, undirected learning – that is, just being aware of our environment. (See Pervasive Information Architecture for more about Marcia’s work and structuring information. Ambient Findability is another good work about making information easier to experience.) It’s great that we learn even when no one is trying to teach us – either ourselves or others. The bad news is that it’s not possible to really control everything that a child experiences. As a result, we have no idea how they’ll process and learn from the world that they’re experiencing. They may make something big of something small – and completely miss those “big teaching moments” that parents so look forward to (or not).

Outside of Bounds

Interestingly, there seems to be a set of normative bounds for child-rearing, inside of which there may be little impact on how the children turn out, and an out-of-bounds category that can – but won’t necessarily – cause lasting harm. The tragic fact is that some children are abused by the very people that evolution designed to protect them. Some of those children appear to have long-term scars and burdens inflicted by those experiences – beyond what can be explained genetically. (Mainly because the studies use adopted or foster children.)

So it is possible to have a lasting impact as a parent or caregiver – unfortunately in the wrong direction. On the other side of the equation, the evidence is less compelling. Any advantage that a child has by growing up in a home full of books and classical music fades as the child grows into adulthood. It appears that no amount of “baby genius” programs, resources, or materials will turn your child into an amazing intellect when they’re an adult. This is one of the many factors that were tested for lasting impact and for which no meaningful correlation could be found.

Groups and Gangs

Harris’ theory is that we don’t pass along culture and personality from parent to child, but instead we pass these things from group to group. Children obtain their definition in no small part due to the groups of children that they associate with. Parents have often lamented about the kids that their kids are hanging out with. “Hanging out with the wrong crowd” is a common defense for parents whose children have found their way down the “wrong” path.

Groups are a way that children identify themselves. Whether they establish a name for the group or they just identify with the concept of the people that they’re hanging out with, groups have a powerful impact on people. In The Deep Water of Affinity Groups, I described the impact of affinity groups – or identity groups – on adults. Obviously, feeling like you’re a part of a group when you know everyone makes sense. However, that pull is effective, even when you don’t know the rest of the people in the group. I don’t know everyone in the Microsoft MVP program, but I’ll have a certain level of affinity with them should they ask me for something. They belong to the same group, even if I don’t know them personally.

These same powerful forces work on our children. They pick up a positive effect for the group – and from the group – through their self-identification. When the effect is positive, we call it a “group.” When the effect is negative, we use the pejorative term “gang.” It’s the pull of “the gang” that is at the heart of peer pressure.

Peer Pressure

I remember Nancy Regan’s “Just Say No” campaign. It was targeted at helping teenagers avoid drugs. (For more on the War on Drugs, see Chasing the Scream.) The basic premise was that just saying no when someone offers you drugs is all you need to do. After all, to start an addiction, someone has to offer to let you try it. If you just say no at that point, you can stop the addiction before it starts. It’s not that simplistic. It’s true that there is that moment of truth when you’ll be offered something. However, by that time, you’re likely to want to be a part of the group enough that you won’t want to say no. No matter how many lectures you’ve heard from your parents. No matter of how many of those “this is your brain on drugs” public service announcements you’ve seen. You simply want to be a part of the group.

I’m not saying that parents shouldn’t teach their children to avoid harmful things, including cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs. Rather, I’m saying that peer pressure isn’t about the first time your child is offered drugs. Peer pressure is about their internal desires to be a part of their peer group and what capacity they have to be different than their peers.

For me, I had a defining boundary (see Beyond Boundaries and Boundaries for more) that I would not do drugs. It wasn’t like I wasn’t offered any. It helps that I wasn’t in any groups that drugs were a part of their defining characteristics. By setting my defining boundary as not trying them, it made it easy. (See The Success Principles for Canfield’s perspective – 99% is a bitch, 100% is a breeze.)

Majority Rules

One of the interesting things in group formation is the development of the cultural norms. If you mix equal parts of Type A and Type B, what will the group coalesce around? Of course, A, B, and “something else” are all options. Group dynamics and formation are a major area of research as organizations seek to define their culture and build collaboration inside their ranks. (See Collaboration and Collaborative Intelligence for more on collaboration and Theory U, Organizational Traps, Reinventing Organizations, and The Advantage for more on forming healthy organizational cultures.) Despite the interest in developing the right kind of culture in organizations and an attempt to guide the future, there is little agreement on how to shape the culture. Rogers in Diffusion of Innovations speaks of factors that facilitate innovation adoption – rather than a formula for achieving success.

The upshot of this is that trying to determine how a group of teenagers will find their way is near impossibility. While you can move to good neighborhoods, you can’t really control who your teenagers are “running with” or the standards that the group holds. The problem with majority rules is that you don’t know what idea is in the majority until it’s tested, and by then it’s too late.


In a discussion of groups, it’s important to realize that there isn’t one group that anyone feels like they’re a part of. They might situationally be focused on one group, because they’re with other members; but when they attend the next party, they may identify with a totally different group – with different behavioral norms. Children can identify as child, teenager, boy, girl, nerd, jock, or any combination of these. The change in identification between these can be as quick as walking into the next room.

The reality is that our self-identification is fluid and influenced by our environment. This fluidity and transition is one of the reasons that each of us can live in our own microenvironment. We don’t experience the world like the person sitting next to us. Because we transition our identity into different groups during a conversation – and because our perspective is slightly different – we’ll experience the environment slightly different than every other person.

This microenvironment view is one of the explanations for how children who are raised in the same neighborhood and home don’t end up identical. They are – in effect – in their own environment.

Parent-Child Effects

Parents are targeted as the cause of the microenvironments that children inhabit and therefore their differences. The claim is that parents treat their children differently – and they do. However, as Harris points out, it’s because each child is different and needs different parenting. She speaks about how mothers used to be vilified for not spending enough time connecting with their autistic children, thereby causing the illness. We now know that this isn’t the case; the parent is responding to the child’s inability to connect and adapting their behavior.

This is a child-to-parent effect. The child causes a behavior difference in the parent. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It would be bad for a parent to fail to adapt their responses to their child. However, it isn’t an intuitive response. The assumption is that the parent shapes the behavior of the child. Rarely do we consider how children shape us. We worry about whether we’re raising children well – and at the same time worry that we’re worrying enough. We’re concerned that we’re investing enough into our children. We fear that our working, our divorce, or other distractions (including other kids) are depriving our children of what they need. (You can see other impacts of children with our own baggage in The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable.)

Working, Death, and Divorce

Many mothers (and fathers) have been concerned about the impact that their working has on their children. Traditional societies (hunter-gather societies) may have had mother-infant bonding all the time from age 0-4 – but after that, very little parental time was spent with the children. In Britain, it was common to send kids off to boarding schools – with obviously very little parental environment. Robert Putnam concludes in Our Kids that there has been little change in the overall time spent with kids after mothers started working.

Another concern has been about the increase in the divorce rate and the impact it has on children. Neither Harris nor Putnam believe this to be a significant factor. Harris, in fact, goes further to acknowledge that, in traditional societies, death of mothers due to mortality during childbirth or fathers due to wars and accidents was as much or greater than the number of children without parents today. While we bemoan the number of children living in single-family homes, over the long history of civilization, the rate seems to fluctuate but is generally moving in a positive direction with children receiving the benefits of two parents more frequently than not.

We’ve moved away from the tight communities that we used to have and the idea that children belong to the community and have a more parental focus than in the past; so there may be a greater need for the parent to support children – but, overall, things are no worse for children than they used to be.

Sidebar: Public Figures

One of the interesting aspects that raised its head but wasn’t directly related to the core topic is the awareness of the public vs. private perception of “celebrities.” Margaret Mead is well-known for her quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only things that ever has.” The use of this quote elevates Margaret Mead. She’s a luminary. She speaks with authority. Except that, when you read the works of others, you find her work tended to be filled with biases. She found what she expected to find. Some degree of this is normal for all researchers; however, Harris points a few places where the tendency rather high. Ekman, in his book Nonverbal Messages, points out similar concerns with Mead’s work.

Another figure who is featured in The Nurture Assumption – but indirectly – is Albert Bandura. Bandura is famous for his research on television violence. Harris debunks the myth that television violence causes violence – no matter what the Bobo doll says. (In truth, the research was on observing an adult attack the Bobo doll, not about children watching it on a TV.) In my review of Moral Disengagement, I shared that I didn’t agree with Bandura’s cases. It seems like my concerns about how he makes some of his cases are consistent with others’ concerns.

Circuitous Routes

Harris admits that, of her two children, one took a more or less straight path, and the other took a much more circuitous route. (That’s a parent’s way of saying that they were worried for their children for a long time.) In my – admittedly incomplete – experience with children, I can say that I understand the circuitous route. Some of our children know their path and follow it. Some don’t know their path, but work diligently to move forward to be ready when their path is revealed. Others drift, not yet sure of where they want to latch on or that they even want to walk forward.

The reality is that I can only support and nurture without any control of the outcomes. The outcome of our children isn’t ours to control – it’s theirs. I am not willing to give up on nurturing. Not because of The Nurture Assumption or because I believe that I can control the outcome of their life. Ultimately, it’s because it’s the person I want to be. Whether you make The Nurture Assumption or not is up to you – just be the person you want to be.