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

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

When you look at another family (probably on Facebook) and think “they’ve got it together,” do you think that they “come from good stock,” or are you impressed with the matriarch and patriarch’s ability to nurture their children? Would it surprise you to know that the ability to change our children through nurturance is a widely-held but frequently disproved assumption? In The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, Judith Rich Harris, with a bit of help from Steven Pinker, explores the impact that parents can have on their children – or not.

This review is broken into two parts, the first that speaks of the assumption and the basics, and the second that speaks of the candidates and the effects.

The Grandma from New Jersey

It was Steven Pinker’s book, The Blank Slate (see my review on the basics and the implications), that pointed me to The Nurture Assumption. Pinker spends a great deal of time in the book trying to explain how humans are formed and how we become ourselves. He describes the flap that happened when Harris published an article and her book. They called her the “grandmother from New Jersey.” This was a true statement intended to prejudice people against her.

To me, however, it was a statement of conviction. Without a university affiliation and “only” a master’s degree, Harris published a controversial article in a peer-reviewed journal. People wanted to know about this mysterious woman who came from outside academia to challenge their beliefs. What they found was surprising and disconcerting. She was a citizen scientist. She was a scholar who dedicated her scholarship across disciplines. She sought for truth no matter where it led her. (See Antifragile, Saving Our Sons and Bold for more on citizen scientists.)

As a mother and grandmother, Harris had a particularly practical point of view on the process of rearing children; she had done it. She had the battle scars to prove it. So, while writing a textbook on child development, she came across a crisis. Suddenly, the answers that were being taught – including in the textbooks that she had authored – no longer made sense. The research didn’t seem, to her, to say what the authors claimed. She saw that some of the research was hopelessly flawed. There was no way to say that the claims being made were valid, because the structure didn’t support the conclusions.

What do you do when your beliefs come crashing down on you? If you’re this grandmother from New Jersey, you dig in and dig out.

Setting the Stage

As was discussed at length in The Blank Slate, roughly 50% of our “selves” comes from our genes. There may be 10% of what we become that comes from what we typically think of as environment, and the remainder is unexplainable using the typical definition of “environment.” In the context of a parent rearing children, this is disappointing news. After the roll of the genetic dice, there’s very little we can point to that has a real impact on the outcomes and personalities for our children.

This doesn’t stop advice-givers from telling parents what they should and should not do to help raise healthy “well adjusted” children. In fact, I’ve reviewed a few of these books, including Parent Effectiveness Training, Saving Our Sons, Raising a Modern-Day Knight, Stepparenting, The Gift of Failure, How Children Succeed, Helping Children Succeed and The Available Parent. This doesn’t include those books that include advice for parents as a sideline to their main message. Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly caries the subtitle of “How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead.” The Cult of Personality Testing carries the subtitle of “How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves.” Clearly, there is a lot of advice out there.

The market for writing the instruction manual that parents never get when they have a child is big business. There is always someone that has a different take. Some of those takes are misguided or discovered to have their own challenges that show up later. Dr. Benjamin Spock is reported to have lamented about the outcomes of the advice he gave parents in his book Baby and Child Care as a more elderly and wiser man.

Human Development and the Art of Mindreading

There is a lot we have learned about human development. As was discussed at length in Mindreading, the human ability to read the intentions of others – to do mind reading – is a skill that is nearly unique to humans. (Harris points out that dogs can read human intention to some degree.) We have the ability – by age 3 or 4 – to understand that not everyone knows the same things. Further, we realize that the object of communication is to interact with other people and their understanding of the world. Sometimes that’s conveying our intent, and other times it’s inquiring on the intent of others.

The problem is that, as much as we know through careful study of the fundamentals of our mind’s functioning and research on development, there’s still a great deal we don’t really know. There aren’t simple easy answers on how to “best” raise a child – much less multiple children.

Guilt and Shame

One could easily ask the question, what’s the harm in the advice that causes parents to seek better ways to care for their children? Certainly, that is a positive position. Parents are more attentive to the practices they use, and they’re more conscious of how they impact their children. However, what are the negative impacts? There are some that describe Millennials as self-absorbed and under-developed due to the “helicopter parenting” that Generation X used to protect their children. (See more about my thoughts on this in my review of America’s Generations.)

However, the more insidious harm comes to the parents themselves when their children aren’t perfect. If they’re children aren’t perfect, then they must have done something wrong. If you assume that you ultimately have the power to nurture children, then you must feel some guilt that you didn’t. In the assumption that you can nurture your child into anything that you or they want to be is the problem of believing you’re at fault for not nurturing your child to success.

The problem is that, for all the advice-givers, none of them has the 12-step program to your child’s success and happiness – at least not one that everyone agrees upon. Scholars have been working on research to lead us towards this goal, and they’re no closer to understanding what factors in the environment of a child are the important factors to help them live a fully-fulfilled life. In fact, it’s hard to define exactly what it is that we really want for our children outside the context of our culture.

Culture

What few realize is that what we believe about parenting is very culturally driven. Should children sleep alone or with their mothers? It turns out that the perspective is driven by culture. If you’re in a traditional society, a baby is rarely away from its mother. Some traditional societies would consider the idea of a baby sleeping separately to be cruel.

It’s important that I add a quick sidebar here. There are many tragic deaths where a parent (both mothers and fathers) accidentally smother a baby while sleeping with them. While I accept that traditional societies don’t believe that children should be left alone to sleep, I’d still encourage that they be left in their own bassinet (or crib) with no items in them. I can’t imagine the horror of having to live knowing that you accidentally suffocated your precious child to death.

Harris shares that she and her peer group of mothers didn’t believe in children in the parents’ beds, they believed in bedtimes, and that “an occasional smack, administered at the right time and in the right spirit, might do a kid a bit of good.” She’s quick to point out that she’s not condoning beating children, just that an occasional correction might be warranted. For Harris and her group, these are the norms. There are groups who don’t believe in bedtimes, or that physical punishment isn’t acceptable. There are some who, despite the evidence of unnecessary deaths, believe it’s OK for children – even babies – to sleep in the parent’s bed.

Should a child be physically corrected? Most societies, and most of America, believe that the right correction at the right time is helpful. There’s some research that supports this notion. However, there are other perspectives as well. In fact, there’s a correlation between physical punishment and poorer outcomes for children. However, things aren’t as they seem. To understand that, we first must understand at least one way to categorize parental behavior.

Too Hard, Too Soft, Just Right

The year is 1967, and Diana Baumrind has defined three contrasting styles of parenting. They’re named authoritarian, permissive, and authoritative. Harris finds these labels too confusing, as do I, and calls them simply too hard, too soft, and just right.

The authoritarian parents dominate their children – they’re presumably too hard on their children. The permissive let their children dominate them – they’re presumably too soft on their children. The authoritative parent is firm but flexible and interacts with their children in ways that the children feel heard but still understand the power structure.

The correlation between parents using a too-hard approach on their children having greater problems with those children exists – but only if you select the right data. It’s true that, in lower income homes of generic American and European descent, the too-hard parents tend to have more unruly children. The problem occurs if you include Asian parents in this mixture. Their style would be considered too hard – but their children are frequently model students and citizens. Their too-hard parenting style is what their culture expects, and their children seem to be no worse for the pattern.

Much of the research that is designed to show that too-hard parenting is bad for children falls victim to our old nemesis – the confusion of correlation and causation.

Correlation and Causation

One of the persistent issues in science, research, and life is confusing correlation and causation. It seems to come up time and time again. (The last time was in Antifragile.) The problem is that we see some level of statistically-significant correlation, and we assume that the correlation is real – and that one of the variables causes the other. Time and time again, this mistake is made in research – and outside of the confines of peer-reviewed research. Yet we continue to miss it. We continue to miss that we potentially leap to the wrong conclusions in our desire to understand and dominate our world.

Much of Harris’ work in The Nurture Assumption is working through dozens of faulty studies and explaining what must be done to ensure that the results are reliable – and indicative. For a finding to be useful for parenting children, there must not just be a correlation between two factors. We must know first that it’s not a spurious correlation (one expected by random chance) and second which – if either – of the two correlated factors is causal to the other. While this would seem to be an easy proposition, it’s far from it.

Environment and Nurture

Before proceeding, we must address one confusion that exists. That confusion is lumping all the environmental factors that can influence someone into the emotionally-loaded word of “nurture.” Nurturance is about taking care of someone, as a parent does to a child. However, once we clear the correlations in behavior due to genes, we must move to a more emotionally neutral word of “environment.” Nurture would imply a limited scope of the things that a parent does to further their child’s development, but much of what happens to a child happens beyond the direct control of a parent.

We must realize that the world that a child lives in is much broader than just a set of parents. It includes siblings, extended families, communities, and the nations in which they live. Even if we can find the causes of personality differences, they may not be caused by parents at all. They may be a result of the environment that children are in.

Robert Putnam did a study of children and their communities in his book Our Kids. He seems to disagree with Harris about the degree to which parents matter in a child’s life – however, he does offer support, in that he believes that there’s a great deal of richness in the environment that matters beyond the parents themselves.

The Studies

It’s important to explore for a moment the kinds of studies that sociologists and psychologists use to tease out which environmental factors are important to improving a child’s success in life. The favorite choice is identical twins. They’re the favorite, because the genetic factors can be held constant. Identical twins are – at least from a genetic standpoint – identical. So whatever makes them different must be based on something else – something environmental, something experiential, and perhaps a bit of the random zigs and zags of development. These studies find identical twins raised in different homes and measure their differences.

Another favorite of researchers is adoptive families. The similarities at the end of the day can’t be assumed to be genetic, because the genetics are different. The similarities must be driven by the environment in which the children were raised.

Of course, regular families are important too, since a family with very many kids is bound to produce some radically different individuals. It becomes interesting, because roughly half of their behavior should be driven by genetics, but the children turn out to be so different. I can attest to this in the six of seven children that share the same genetics. They’re very different people despite the similarity of genetics. The question to be answered is what makes them so different? Is it something as simple as birth order?

Who and What?

If parenting has less of an influence on a child than we have first thought, then where do we look to for answers? Now that I’ve covered the basics, part 2 of my review will discuss some candidates for why children may turn out differently.

The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships

Book Review-The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships

I don’t know anyone who has ever lived that has described relationships as easy. Rewarding, absolutely. However, I don’t know anyone who has said that relationships – good relationships – are easy. Relationships are necessarily difficult, messy, dynamic – and worth it. When you look at John Gottman’s work, you see a body of knowledge that pierces the veil of complexity in relationships and lays out the key factors that lead to good and lasting friendships and marriages. While there is some hyperbole in The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships, the core of what is being said is useful to anyone who struggles with how to make their relationships better. That is, everyone.

The Need to be Connected

Before we can get to how to make relationships better, we must first acknowledge that we need them. Not that relationships are nice, they make us feel better, or that it’s a good idea. We need to accept that relationships have helped us survive (See The Righteous Mind), that they reduce our illness (see Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers), and that they increase the span of our lives. (See Change or Die.)

In short, we need to get over ourselves and start getting close to others. This isn’t small. This is meaning of life stuff.

Auctioning Off Our Love

Gottman’s language for people’s desire to connect is a “bid.” (See The Science of Trust for more discussion on this.) We bid for connection with other people by asking a question, giving them a look, snuggling up with them, and in a multitude of ways. How others respond to our bids – and how we respond to their bids – is the basic transaction set in a relationship.

When we turn towards someone’s bid, we increase our capital in our emotional bank account. When we ignore others’ bids, we lose ground – think of it as the impact of service fees on our account. We really reduce our balance when we turn away from someone’s bid. Sometimes when we turn away, we make heavy withdrawals from the relationship.

Interest happens on our emotional bank accounts driving us to ever higher levels of satisfaction – or ever escalating conflict. (See Choice Theory as a starting point for a discussion on confirmation bias.) When our balance is high we can accept or avoid service fees. Our positive affinity for the other person carries us through small withdraws.

The challenge in relationships is recognizing the bids – and having the capacity to respond in a meaningful way.

Recognizing Bids

“Did you lock the door?” can be a simple transactional question or a question saturated with meaning. It can be a simple check to see if I need to go lock the door or whether it’s already done. It can be an accusatory question that contains in its sub-context, “You never do anything around here to help keep us safe!” It can also be an offer to go lock the door, so the other party doesn’t have to. One question with three – or many more – meanings. How can we, as humans, know which question is really being asked and whether there’s an embedded bid in it? In short, we don’t know. We must guess or try our hand at mind-reading (see Mindreading).

Where’s the embedded bid in the preceding question? The answer lies in the basic need for safety. The bid may be a desire for you to reflect your concern through demonstrating a desire to keep the other person safe. We often get to see these bids through knowing the other person and recognizing where and how they’ll make these bids.

Relational Capacity

It’s one thing to know that someone is asking for a connection with you – remember that’s what a bid is – and quite another thing to have the capacity to respond appropriately. No one can respond positively to every single bid that is laid out in front of them. That would be exhausting and enabling. However, safe, healthy people need to have the relational capacity to respond positively to some bids. (See Safe People and How to Be an Adult in Relationships.)

The true problem with relational capacity is that very rarely does someone retry a bid once it’s rejected. Gottman’s research suggests that, even in very good relationships, the retry rate is only 20%. That’s problematic, because it means that, even if someone is only rejecting one percent of the bids they receive, over time, there will be a substantial number of pathways for emotional connection that will be closed off.

Emotional Command Systems

Gottman refers to the work of Jaak Panksepp in his work at identifying seven emotional command systems. These are like the different personalities of the elephant in Jonathan Haitdt’s Rider-Elephant-Path model (see The Happiness Hypothesis). They’re the different ways that people are activated.

  • The Commander-in-Chief – This system is responsible for control, dominance and power. It’s engaged when there’s a need for control.
  • The Explorer – Adventure is the name of the game for the explorer. It wants new experiences. The explorer is always learning and growing.
  • The Sensualist – Sexual gratification and reproduction are the drivers for the sensualist.
  • The Energy Czar – There’s only so much capacity that people have for doing things. The Energy Czar is on the lookout for things that drain energy and the risk that the “battery” might get completely depleted.
  • The Jester – All work and no play make Jack a very dull boy. The jester is about lightening the mood and enjoying the moment.
  • The Sentry – Safety is the sentry’s job. The sentry responds to fear. The sentry tends to want to put everything on lockdown, much to the chagrin of the explorer and the commander-in-chief.
  • The Nest-Builder – This emotional command system is focused on preparing the way, connecting, bonding, and being social.

All except the jester systems map interestingly to Reiss’ 16 motivators (see Who Am I?):

  • Commander-in-Chief => Power
  • Explorer => Curiosity
  • Sensualist => Romance
  • Energy Czar => Tranquility
  • Sentry => Vengeance
  • Nest-Builder => Saving, Family, Social Contact

It’s important to note that Jaak Panksepp doesn’t refer to these command systems with the labels that Gottman applied; however, instead he uses a model of seeking, rage, fear, lust, care, grief, and play. I’ll be digging into some of his more recent work soon to see if his research diverges with Gottman’s assessment – or not.

Know Thy Bids

Most couples would admit that their fights aren’t about important topics – or at least they don’t seem to start out that way. Whether it’s a pass-the-milk kind of conversation or how to raise the children, the hidden messages are the important ones. Learning how to see the bids that aren’t made is an art form, and it takes willingness. There are tools and techniques (like those used in Motivational Interviewing) that can help you discover what the conversation is really about instead of just the context of the conversation.

To get a better relationship, we should be clearer about the bids we make, so we understand them and can make them clearer. Additionally, we should be more attentive when looking for the hidden bids. In a sense, we need to look past what we see to the feeling, power, and meaning of the conversation. (See Dialogue for more.) The topics that we use to discover the needs and desires of those we interact with are only tools for gaining a better relationship – or barriers in our way.

Will the Real Men Step Up?

One of the interesting bits of Gottman’s research is that women tend to turn towards their partner at about the same rate whether they’re in a good relationship or not. It’s the men that change their bid responsiveness to the environment – or to create the environment they want to communicate. From this, Gottman concludes that it’s men’s ability to turn towards during bids that has a substantial impact on the overall health of the relationship.

Raising Emotional Children

The impact of relational health in a family system extends beyond the spouses and impacts the children. Research shows that couples that have less conflict have more emotionally-adjusted children. However, there’s more to it than that. Gottman believes that families’ emotional philosophy falls into four general categories:

  • Coaching – Emotions are expected, welcomed, and harnessed. Children are taught productive behaviors to address their feelings.
  • Dismissing – Emotions aren’t given much “air time.” They’re acknowledged, but not much is made of them.
  • Laissez-Faire – These families ignore emotions and hope they’ll go away.
  • Disapproving – Emotions are taboo. You can’t have them, you can’t talk about them, and you don’t admit if you have had them.

Obviously, the best approach is coaching. That’s giving children tools that they can use to manage their emotions. After all, all emotions are acceptable, but not all behaviors are.

People Reading

Gottman quotes Ekman’s research on microexpressions (see Telling Lies and Cracking the Code for more on Ekman’s work). He also speaks about reading people’s body language to peer into how they’re feeling. Basically, The Relationship Cure is teaching basic Emotional Intelligence for social monitoring. A better source for this is Trust Me: Four Steps to Authenticity and Charisma.

Unresolvable Conflict

Most people believe that, if there is a happy couple, they don’t have any conflict they can’t get through. However, Gottman’s research indicates that this isn’t the case. Every couple finds irresolvable issues, but they choose to deal with them differently. A healthy couple will acknowledge the disagreement and accept their spouse’s position, even if they don’t agree with it. They lean on their respect, love, and appreciation of the other person to allow the conflict to remain without causing harm.

The trick to a good relationship isn’t necessarily resolving every single conflict in a relationship – it’s learning how to more completely accept the conflicts that do arise.

Rituals

One of the tent poles that effective relationships hang on are positive rituals. These rituals become a welcome reminder of the other person’s love and concern for you. For Terri and I, we sit on the bedroom floor of a morning while we’re getting ready. We call this “puppy love,” because we invite the dogs over to be loved. This is our ritual for every day that we’re both home. We follow this up with me making Terri a cup of coffee. It’s a simple thing, but it’s done so consistently that it is a daily tangible reminder that we love each other and that we’re “for” each other.

Rituals don’t have to be big things. They don’t have to be completely consistent. They just have to be repeated, and they have to be imbued with the meaning of love.

I don’t know that anything in the book individually will save a broken relationship. However, I know that many of the things – including rituals – will make a relationship better, even if it’s not The Relationship Cure.

The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies

Book Review-The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies

In America, we’re supposed to appreciate the value of diversity, but this runs in conflict to the way that we actually behave. We associate only with people who are like us. We fill our organizations with people who are like us, because we’re more comfortable that way. However, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies encourages us to consider how diversity can create better answers than we can accomplish with a set of same-minded individuals.

Group Think and the Wisdom of Crowds

Janus Irving first coined the term “group think” as a way of describing the dynamics of a group that coalesce around an answer – but the wrong one. There’s no one around to say, “The emperor has no clothes,” because everyone is too close to the problem and things in too much the same way. This is the opposite of the wisdom of crowds . (See my review of The Wisdom of Crowds.) That is that crowds, by their nature, can be wise. They can find solutions that no single person can.

Not all crowds are wise, however. There are Fermi’s “crowds” (a.k.a. students in a class) that can accurately predict the number of piano tuners in Chicago. Given a reasonable number of people with useful information, it’s possible to come to reasonable conclusions that yield a highly accurate result (see How to Measure Anything). It’s equally likely that someone will come up with a Drake equation – where there are no reasonable answers, and as a result, the outcome is completely unpredictable.

Defining Diversity

We can’t get too far without being clear what is meant by “diversity.” The word has been subsumed by corporate technobabble to mean race and, occasionally, gender diversity. However, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Race and gender diversity are important issues, but they’re not the kind of diversity that Page is discussing. He’s talking about how individuals see the world, categorize its components, and understand its interactions and meanings, and how they believe that they need to go about the process of improving it – or deciding not to.

Page explains that there are four kinds of diversity that are important:

  • Diverse Perspectives: ways of representing situations and problems
  • Diverse Interpretations: ways of categorizing or partitioning perspectives
  • Diverse Heuristics: ways of generating solutions to problems
  • Diverse Predictive Models: ways of inferring cause and effect

Diversity is about thought. It’s diversity in the internal language that individuals use to encode the world around them. It’s about the tools and techniques – the heuristics and “rules of thumb” – that they use to survive in this crazy world. At the core of understanding diversity is understanding the value of it.

Consider the old cliché that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you have a full toolbox with different perspectives and approaches, you can see everything as it is – or nearly as it is – rather than accepting a single-dimensional and necessarily inaccurate view.

I Am Large, I Contain Multitudes

One of the reasons that I spend so much time reading and researching is so that I can expose myself to different perspectives and approaches. Consider personality profiling. Whether it’s Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) , DISC, Enneagram (see Personality Types: Using Enneagram for Self-Discovery), Reiss’ Basic Motivators (see Who Am I? and The Normal Personality), StrengthsFinders (see Strengths Finder 2.0), the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory (see The Time Paradox), etc., they’re all ways to look at other people to seek to understand them better.

While I often fall back to using MBTI as a way to learn how to communicate better with people, because I do it automatically, I find that having different perspectives creates opportunities to look at folks using different lenses to see different things. Even if I find that some of my views are contradictory, that’s OK, because I get to learn from the conflicts – and I get to explore with another person where their unique strengths lie.

I am trying to become the man that Walt Whitman described himself to be when he wrote, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” The more tools I can put in my toolbox, the more internal diversity of thought I can generate.

Optima, Games, and Math

When reading The Science of Trust by John Gottman, I was surprised at the amount of game theory that the book contains. Gottman is known for his work with couples and discovering their propensity for divorce. The subtitle of the book is “Emotional Attunement for Couples.” However, much of the time, he talks about game theory, John Nash, and how game theory predicts some of the behaviors we see. You can imagine my surprise when The Difference had a degree of mathematical, game theory, and logic that isn’t standard fare for business books. It’s not like Theory U, Coachbook, Organizational Traps, or Reinventing Organizations had any hard science or even hard logic.

At some level, it seemed out of place to be speaking of soft topics like diversity and then transition into mathematical/logical proofs, in which diversity must trump non-diversity given a set of restrictions (which I’ll cover shortly). Simple equations like

Net Benefits of Diversity = Gross Benefits of Diverse Tools – Costs of Diversity

demonstrate a level of thinking about not just the positive effects of diversity but also its costs. Few things in life are all good or all bad. Diversity can have a demonstrable positive impact, but these impacts come at a cost. When the costs outweigh the benefits, then diversity isn’t helping you.

One for One and One for All

Before diving into the specific conditions for which diversity can be of great advantage, it’s important to pause and acknowledge that diversity conveys no benefit in some scenarios. When the work to be done is routine or procedural, there’s no added value to diversity. Diversity helps when there are problems to be solved or predictions to be made.

More specifically, diversity helps when problems can be structured so that the contribution of any member can help all the members. Though not a golfer myself, I’m familiar with a style of play where groups can play from the best ball of any of the players in the group. Thus, their diversity of styles and abilities can benefit the entire group. This differs from traditional golf play, where each person must play their ball and their weaknesses may substantially hamper them.

Converting tasks from conjunctive tasks – where everyone’s contribution is critical – to disjunctive – where only one person needs to be successful for the group to be successful – is one of the great challenges in creating organizational systems for success. (See Thinking in Systems for more on systems design.)

An Army of Diverse Monkeys

The power of diversity isn’t to say that the individual members don’t need some ability. It’s not like you can gather an army of diverse monkeys and expect great things to emerge. Fundamentally, diversity requires intelligent actors. This isn’t an either-or decision about whether to find more diverse thinkers or whether to hire good thinkers. The argument is for both, where possible.

Page acknowledges that there may be times when the superstar approach is the right approach. The benefits to be had with a top-notch person are substantially more than can be achieved by diversity – and there are times when it’s not. (See Who: The “A” Method for Hiring if you’re looking for superstars.)

Rules for Diversity Triumph

For diversity to trump individual ability, there are four conditions to be met:

  1. The problem must be difficult – It must be sufficiently difficult that most individuals can’t solve it on their own.
  2. The perspectives and heuristics that the problem solvers possess must be diverse – If there’s no diversity of thinking, there are no benefits.
  3. The set of problem solvers from which we choose our collections must be large – You must have enough different perspectives to make a difference.
  4. The collections of problem solvers must not be too small –You must apply multiple diverse groups against the problem so that the solutions themselves are diverse.

The Quest for a Problem

According to The Paradox of Choice, if you want to be happy you should be a satisficer. Just do what is minimally necessary to make it ok. According to Peak and The Rise of Superman, the truly amazing feats that we witness are about people who have decided to obsess on the relatively modest gains that they can make – and do it day after day, and then year after year. In other words, they’re not satisfied. They’re perfectionists – or near perfectionists – on a quest to see what they can do to get just a little bit better.

There is effectively nothing that we as humans can’t do to develop better skills if we’re willing to commit ourselves to the purposeful practice to achieve it. Our diverse army needs to not simply be intelligent, they must be willing to engage in the problem.

Well, Obviously

If you want to show the power of diversity, you see it in the invention (or discovery) of the wheel. You see it in the discovery of fire. It seems obvious that you want to use round wheels to transport goods now that we know about it. How else would you heat something except with fire? These are absolutely obvious solutions – now that we’ve all seen them. They may – or may not – have been equally obvious when the solutions were first proposed. The genius of diversity is that it finds the solutions that aren’t complicated but are beyond the reach of every man. Once the answer has been discovered, everyone should say “well, obviously.” Solutions produced by diversity don’t typically require complex layering or difficult-to-follow approaches. Once the solution is known, it will have seemed obvious the whole time.

Hills and Valleys

Breaking into game theory for a moment, consider a game where you have a simple rule. From a given starting point, an evaluation is made as to whether one of the neighboring spots has a higher value. If this is true, the starting point is set to the neighbor with the higher value. It’s possible that, if the data is ordered correctly, this simple algorithm will find the highest peak. However, it’s also possible that the algorithm will get caught in a local optimum – rather than the global optima. That is, using this heuristic may result in a good solution, but frequently not the best one. The approach gets caught at good and can never arrive at great. (See Good to Great.)

If you take several actors and insert them into different places, you’ll get multiple different answers – which can be compared against one another. The best one is likely to be discovered using this approach.

Consider a different scenario where there are multiple factors, and some of the actors look for kinds of optimal solutions and others look at other factors. By comparing the end solution, it’s possible to get the same kind of diversity as inserting actors into random parts of the data.

Combining the perspectives from multiple actors – with multiple approaches – allows you to create better solutions for finding the best answer.

Simplifying Life

The power of diversity lies in the ability to simplify our complex world in a way that’s useful. Some perspectives eliminate information that is necessary, where others keep it. We all need ways to simplify the world we live in, because we can’t take everything that is coming in. The trick is that sometimes we stumble upon a particularly effective way of simplifying the world.

We’ve all learned mnemonic abbreviations for important things. We remember SMART for setting our goals and SWAT for evaluating our competitive position in a situation. These are simplifications – they allow us to memorize one thing that we can expand into more things. They make some aspects of life easier by using a tool. Diversity offers a limitless number of these potential lenses through which we can view the world – and through which we can eliminate the non-essential.

Synergy

In the late 80s and into the 90s, the management buzzword was “synergy.” Everything needed to be synergistic. We had to have mergers that would create more than what either of the organizations could accomplish on their own. (Ignoring the fact that most organizations that merged did worse than the effects of both companies individually.) The idea was that when you added one plus one, you would get three – not two.

Diversity fulfills this promise, as tools are added to one another and do increase the overall effect, like the team of golfers who are able to use the best ball as a place to launch their next swing from. The more cognitive tools you have, the more chances you get at having a set of tools fit together in ways that are more powerful than any tool could possibly accomplish on its own.

The Cost of Diversity

The cost of diversity is conflict. Not necessarily the knock-down, drag-down fights, but certainly conflict. When I teach conflict resolution, I say that all conflict comes from only two sources. The first source is a difference in perspective. The second source is a difference in values. Conflict arises from the very source of diversity. Without a difference in values or perspectives, there is no conflict – but that means there’s no diversity.

The negative impacts of diversity can be minimized by teaching everyone effective conflict resolution skills and attitudes of acceptance. However, these, too, are training costs that fit into the overall costs and benefits of diversity.

Tools in the Toolbox

Often, diversity is viewed from the lens of multiple people who come together to solve a problem. Certainly, this is one of the meanings. It’s also one of the things that Hackman considered when he wrote Collaborative Intelligence. However, there’s another option. The other option is when a single person develops a larger set of tools and approaches themselves. They build a toolbox so large that they can have the tools necessary to generate synergy without the involvement of others.

Diversity has a cost – particularly when multiple people are involved. Diverse perspectives create conflict and conflict is a cost. You can avoid that cost by gathering the tools into a single person.

Fundamental and Instrumental Preferences

Diversity has another dark side. When the ends aren’t the same – when there’s a fundamental difference in preferences – there are problems. If not everyone can agree upon the same end point, there’s very little chance you’ll actually get anywhere. Organizations where the fundamental preferences aren’t fixed through the vision-casting, strategic planning, and employee engagement processes are doomed to struggle.

Instrumental preferences, however, aren’t about a different goal, but are instead about how to achieve the goals that are set out. In other words, we agree upon the ends, but we don’t agree upon the means to get there. We all agree we want lower crime, better health, more inclusion, less oppression, etc., but we don’t necessarily agree on how we accomplish those goals. In truth, we have the same foundations of our morality (see The Righteous Mind), but how we believe that we become – and stay – moral are different because of instrumental preferences.

Nash and the Tragedy of Commons

One of the challenges facing the journeymen and -women who seek better outcomes through diversity is the tendency to look only at our own outcomes – and not the outcomes of the larger group. The ability to look to how we can all win together – ala Nash – is an important step to ensuring that everyone’s needs of diversity are met. (See The Science of Trust.)

By considering Nash, we can look at solutions that provide sufficient common resources, in which all may draw appropriately from common goods. If we generate more goodwill, capacity, and growth, than we collectively consume – even if some consume more than their “fair share” – we end up driving an engine of economic growth. This is the power of diversity to find Nash-like solutions, which leave everyone with a bit more.

Different Identities

One of the interesting observations about diversity is how it exists inside of individuals. It exists both in their training to be able to apply diverse perspectives, but it also shows up as individuals respond differently to the same situation in different contexts. The way that someone responds to a situation as a father is different than how they respond as a club leader, and that’s different from how they respond as a manager.

Sometimes unlocking the diversity inside a person is encouraging them to evaluate the situation from multiple perspectives that they already incorporate inside themselves. Creating the freedom to explore how someone might think about something in different contexts unlocks these perspectives. Even with diverse perspectives, sometimes the environmental context can be so strong that it aligns everyone to the same perspective – eliminating the effects of diversity. (See The Lucifer Effect for more on situational influence.)

Small Changes, Compounded

Ultimately, the impact of diversity aren’t hundreds of percentage points. The net value of diversity might be a few percentage points of improvement – making it difficult to distinguish from the noise. However, the power of compounding can operate on diversity like it operates on professionals trying to make incremental performance (see Peak), and, ultimately, that compounding makes The Difference.

Safe People: How to Find Relationships That Are Good for You and Avoid Those That Aren't

Book Review-Safe People: How to Find Relationships That Are Good for You and Avoid Those That Aren’t

Growing up, my family was dysfunctional. I realize that this is redundant. No family system is completely healthy. There are always portions of the family that will be irresponsible. There are parts of everyone’s family that will try to control others. There will be the placaters, who can’t confront issues even if they’re glaring. From this environment, I grew up, and I learned, imperfectly, how to find safe people – people who I could share my burdens with. Finding the right kinds of people – and becoming the right kind of person – to be safe is what Safe People: How to Find Relationships That Are Good for You and Avoid Those That Aren’t is all about.

Beyond our family, most of us have experienced relationships that aren’t healthy. We’ve stumbled into unsafe people and have let them into our inner worlds, only to discover that they’re not the kind of people that you should be close to. (See Choice Theory for more on our inner worlds.)

Types of Unsafe People

Cloud and Townsend believe there are three types of unsafe people:

  • The Abandoners – Those who can start a relationship but can’t finish it. That is, they get going when the going gets tough.
  • The Critics – Always critical, they often end up in one-up/one-down relationships with their friends.
  • The Irresponsibles – They can’t take care of themselves – and therefore they can’t take care of others either.

People who fall into these types aren’t safe to be with. They’ll not be there when you need a friend, or they’ll confront you with truth when what you really need is love and grace.

Perhaps the greatest “trick” to this life is finding people who are safe, and therefore can help you grow, instead of people who are unsafe and will only serve to harm you and your growth. This requires discernment.

Discernment

Discernment is the winnowing process. It’s sorting folks into safe and unsafe, and we believe that we should be better at it. Some of us should be. Some of us make the same mistakes with the same kind of person over and over again. However, for many folks, we connect with someone without realizing the character deficiencies that might make them unsafe.

We must start with understanding discernment and realizing that we’re trying to practice a kind of mindreading trick that can’t be accurate all the time. (See Mindreading for more on this cool evolutionary trick.) Most people who have had to hire others for a job realize that an hour in an interview isn’t enough to know whether someone will be good at a job or not. (See Who: The “A” Method for Hiring for more on the hiring process.)

We can’t use the same tactics and tools for interviewing people to be in a relationship with. We must try things over time to get to know people and whether they’ll be safe. We must accept that we’re going to be wrong sometimes. We’re going to stumble into unsafe people. The real discernment is whether we can avoid the same mistakes next time.

Consistency

In some ways, the fundamental question about finding safe people or not is a bit of a misdirection. We’re all unsafe people – at times. We’re all less than perfect when it comes to coping with this world and being in mutually beneficial relationships with other people. We can gauge how safe – or unsafe – a person is only by observing their behavior over a long period of time.

We need to see them under stress and see how they express their needs. We need to see how they choose to behave when “the chips are down” to know how safe they really are. What we desire most in our relationships with other people is consistency. We want to know that they’ll be there for us when we need them.

Unfortunately, consistency necessarily means “over time” and because of that we’ll have a substantial investment in a relationship before we can know for sure.

Must Be Seen As

Real relationships require that people be real. Real people are people with faults, foibles, and weaknesses. People who are in positions that require they “be seen as” perfect are in the wrong position. Anyone with “must be seen as” is necessarily denying a part of themselves and is subject to the potential harm that comes from not being yourself. (See The Anatomy of Peace for more on “must be seen as”.)

Relationships have a degree of safety and a degree of vulnerability. (See Trust => Vulnerability =>Intimacy for more about why this is required.) Those people who can’t be vulnerable aren’t able to be in a complete relationship with others – the kind of relationship that improves health. Wherever we can’t let others in to see the real us, we deny our true relationships with others, and as a result, we remain separate and disconnected.

Being Comfortable in Your Own Skin

Sometimes it’s easier than others to identify safe and not-safe people. Safe people are comfortable in their own skin. (For more on this, see What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.) They know who they are and who they are in relationship with other people.

There is a great deal of power and invulnerability by knowing who you are. When you hear things that you know are not true about yourself, you can reject them – or find the kernel of truth in what is you and remove what is not from the feedback. You can expose yourself to more vulnerability without worry of being overcome by it.

Being comfortable in your own skin – for most people – takes a great deal of work. It takes studying, reflecting, meditating, and patience. There’s no one formula for becoming comfortable with who you are – but it’s something that other people will see when you get there.

Humility

One of the challenges with being comfortable in your own skin is that sometimes you can come off as arrogant. Someone once explained to me that the line between confidence and arrogance is razor-thin, and it’s drawn in the eye of the beholder. In other words, those who are comfortable in their own skin are often identified as being arrogant because of their self-confidence. John Dickson in Humilitas said, “One of the failings of contemporary Western culture is to confuse conviction with arrogance.” We’re so used to the fragile, broken images that people project to others, that when someone has the capacity to send an image that is their real self, warts and all, we’re confused and taken aback by it.

It’s surprising, therefore, to realize that another one of the markers of a safe person is a level of humility. The best definition of humility that I’ve heard also comes from Humilitas, and it’s “power held in service to others.” That is, humble people are servants. (See Servant Leadership as an example.) Most people who have become safe (or safer) are people who have found themselves and who’ve found their need to be in relationship with others.

Servant leaders – or the humble people who serve – don’t do so to make themselves feel better about their lives or what they’re doing. They serve, because it’s the image of themselves they want to imprint upon the world.

Conflict is Not Bad

Despite popular opinion, conflict is not bad. Only poorly handled or poorly initiated conflict is bad. It’s bad, because it causes damage to the relationship. In our culture, we’ve developed a belief that if there is conflict, it’s a bad thing. However, in my experience, a lack of conflict is a much more concerning statement. It generally means that people aren’t being real. Sometimes it’s truth, but often it means someone is sugar-coating things.

For the first few years of our relationship, my wife and I would say that we didn’t have any conflict. Our friends, who are particularly well-trained in psychology and relationships, were concerned with this statement – appropriately so.

However, what we began to realize is that we had disagreements, but we were both so focused on our relationship that rarely did our disagreements elevate to the position of conflict. For those few that did, we addressed them so quickly that we didn’t even remember we were having them. Imagine having a friend remind you of a conflict that you wouldn’t have remembered without the reminder. This was the world we were living in. Conflict was being managed so well we didn’t remember it.

That’s the willingness to be wrong, to accept and learn from the perspectives of others. Safe people know that conflict should be avoided when appropriate and confronted where necessary. Safe people neither relish conflict nor run from it. I like to say that safe people are conflict apathetic. They are no more concerned by conflict than by preparing a meal. It’s something that needs to be done from time to time, and it’s something that is best done well.

The Need for Feedback

Safe people need conflict. People who are comfortable in their own skin and are humble know that they’re not perfect, and they’re constantly looking for safe people to push, prod, nudge, and needle them in directions that are helpful to their growth as humans. Safe people eat feedback for breakfast. Unsafe people run from feedback. Feedback is often in conflict with our perception of ourselves. (See Change or Die for the ego and its defenses.)

Peer-to-Peer Relationships

However, conflict shouldn’t be a tool that creates a power differential between people. For most relationships – with the notable exception of parent-child, and manager-employee – relationships should be peer-to-peer. One person shouldn’t wield unnecessary power over another person.

In healthy relationships, people take ownership for their own faults and foibles. (The opposite of Mistakes Were Made.)

Secrets Shared

There’s a saying in 12-step groups that you’re only as sick as your secrets. However, that really means secrets that no one else knows. You’re expected to share your secrets with a few safe people. These safe people can keep your deepest, darkest secrets, and they won’t share them or gossip about you. That’s real safety. We need to share our secrets to be healthy – but we also need to know that those secrets will remain with the people that we shared them with.

Safe Relationships with Unsafe People

Cloud and Townsend leave off before what I consider to be the most important part of this topic. The book assumes that there’s a completely safe person. It frames the problem in the context of finding the right person to be in a relationship with. I believe this misses a fundamental point. We’re all some degree of safe and some degree of unsafe. None of us are perfect, and we can’t expect that from others. As a result, we need to learn how to be in safe relationships with unsafe people.

Learning how to draw boundaries allows us to prevent an aspect of someone else’s unsafe-ness from harming us. (See Boundaries and Beyond Boundaries for more.) Knowing ourselves and having a stable – but flexible – self-image allows us to weather the storms of conflict and abandonment.

For me, the real mastery isn’t discerning how to find only totally safe people to be in a relationship with, but instead is learning how to become a safe person so that you can attract more Safe People.