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Book Review-The Assault on Truth

It’s a tragedy when the truth is discovered but, because of the desire to protect egos and keep secrets, that truth is then buried.  That’s The Assault on Truth that J. Moussaieff Masson is writing about.  His claim is that Freud discovered that children were being sexually abused and made the claim publicly, but because of his ostracization retreated from his position.  If true, Freud traded protecting children for his community and fame.  He may not have known he was doing it at the time, but it may have been the result.


Before I move on to the tragic claims, it’s important to surface whether these claims are supported in fact or the kind of fantasy published by tabloid newspapers.  The criticisms of Masson’s work largely focus on his character rather than the validity of his claims.  That’s a serious reason to ignore them.  Mastering Logical Fallacies calls this approach abusive – and I agree.  Rather than explaining how Masson’s conclusions aren’t correct, the focus is on him as a person.

Observationally, Masson is clear about the places that he’s “reaching” to draw conclusions.  He presents the facts that lead to the conclusion and, in at least a few places, some facts that lead away from the position he’s taking.  While I don’t anticipate that anyone is completely unbiased, his writing in this place has the characteristics of a reasonably well-balanced argument.

In the Morgue

The suspicions that Freud developed, that his patients were suffering due to the abuses they suffered as children, may have originated in a Paris morgue.  Freud studied with Ambroise Tardieu, who was a professor of legal medicine at the University of Paris.  Tardieu’s position had him performing autopsies on children who had died, and he was tasked with either validating their accidental death or determining the more sinister situations that led to the death.

Tardieu’s investigations began to uncover the frightening frequency with which sexual assaults were being perpetrated against children, particularly young girls.  Despite the claims that would come later that the children were “making up stories” about their assaults, the physical evidence of the deceased didn’t lie.  The assessment was that there were real assaults that had occurred.  The physical trauma was consistent with the kinds of trauma from a sexual assault.

Tardieu wasn’t alone.  In 1886, Paul Bernard published a book with the English-translated title, Sexual Assaults on Young Girls.  Paul Brouardel published a book on the rape of children, which was published posthumously.  The point isn’t to catalog the list of professionals and researchers who were elevating this real societal problem.  The point is to clarify that Freud’s voice wasn’t the only voice.  His ideas likely were drawn from the work of his medical mentors.  But Freud’s interest was slightly different.

His focus wasn’t on the physical trauma or the brutality.  His focus was on what happens to children who are sexually abused.


At this time in history, it was believed that only women got hysteria.  Hysteria was extreme – and often uncontrollable – emotions.  To the outside world, it didn’t make logical sense.  There weren’t conditions that should have warranted the kind of response that these women were experiencing.  We know today that these experiences aren’t confined to women.  They’re trauma responses that can happen to any human who has experienced trauma and hasn’t been able to deal with it.  (See Trauma and Recovery for more.)

However, for Freud, the behaviors were a mystery.  He was trying to sort out the root cause, and he stumbled across the secret of childhood abuse and its potential relationship.  As researchers came after Freud, they would ultimately dismantle psychotherapy but, in the process, validated the core tenet of the relationship between the past and the present.  It would be decades before John Bowlby and others would observe and explain the vulnerability of the young and how seemingly insignificant behaviors may have overwhelming impacts later in life.

Attaching Bowlby

John Bowlby isn’t mentioned in the text.  However, it’s important to assemble the puzzle that Freud couldn’t fully see.  His initial claims were that the disturbances that occurred later in life were caused by the abuse, and therefore trauma, of their lives as children.  To understand the connection, we need to understand trauma and understand how attachment plays into the ways that we respond.

Michael Meaney observed odd behaviors with rats.  Some would confidently leave their safe harbors and explore.  Others would cower and go nowhere.  The defining difference, Meaney’s observations confirmed, was that some pups were licked and groomed by their mothers more than others.  In short, the behavioral support conveyed by licking and grooming made them more confident.  Believing that they’ll be comforted and supported made them more likely to see what they were capable of.  This was consistent with Bowlby’s belief that young children need a secure attachment to feel confident later in life.

Harry Harlow discovered something similar with rhesus macaques (monkeys).  He placed monkeys in cages with two surrogate, inanimate, mothers.  One had a bottle holder where the monkeys would feed, and the other had a terrycloth covering that provided physical comfort but no milk.  He found that the monkeys would go and feed but then return to their terry cloth comfort.  They ate enough to live but craved the comfort the terrycloth mother provided.  This, too, was consistent with Bowlby’s belief that we need more than material needs: we need to feel nurtured.

Meaney’s work with rats was a part of the discovery that it was more than genetics that influenced growth.  It was the experiences animals had that altered the gene expression (activation or deactivation), which played a part in an organism’s future.  While Freud didn’t have the benefit of these experiments, he intuited that something was wrong with the adults he encountered.  They were behaving in odd ways that seemed inconsistent with the way that other adults behaved – just as the animal analogs would prove later.

Disordered Attachment

The disordered attachment, in Bowlby’s attachment theory, comes from the idea that an abusive childhood results in behaviors that are observable.  To understand why, we need to understand how much our internal sense of safety plays into our behaviors.

Our overall safety has three basic factors: our situational assessment, our mood, and our traits.  Very few people have a good understanding of their perceptions of safety.  We know that our responses and behaviors are shaped by numerous things well below the threshold of consciousness.  (See Predictably Irrational, Influence, and Pre-Suasion.)  Our perception of safety is one of those things that often is subconscious.

State and Trait (with Mood in the Middle)

Richard Lazarus in Emotion and Adaptation explains that our sense of fear or safety is based on our assessment of the impact and probability of the potentials that our environment – including stressors – may bring.  This is divided by our capacity to cope.  When we assess the probability as very low, the impact as very low, or our ability to cope very high, we’re likely to feel safe.

This moment-by-moment assessment is our state.  It’s the degree to which we perceive safety in our environment.  While we believe these assessments are made without bias, we know that our mood and our traits can be invisibly influencing our sense of probability and our belief about our ability to cope.

If we’re in a foul mood, we won’t realize that we over-estimate the probability and impact while simultaneously underplaying our coping capacity.  The factors that cause us to assess impact are varied but generally rely on our mood and our traits.  Our mood is the most short-lived but influential factor in our assessment of the situation.  Of course, sustained negative evaluations can reinforce a foul mood and ultimately create a reinforcing loop.

At the other end of the spectrum is our overall disposition.  Largely, we expect that there’s some degree of the way that we see the world that comes from our genes.  Some of us are blessed with less reactive genes and others are cursed with overactive genes that want to find concern in everything.  While trait effects from our genes make up just less than half of the impact, for most people, cultivating moods can make a big difference in the way that the current state is evaluated.

The Coming of Cults

We each have images in our head of what a cult is.  In most cases, we see the people in the cult as very “other.”  That is, we believe that they’re not like us.  For the most part, this isn’t correct.  Mostly people in cults got caught up in a system designed to transform them to a disordered attachment so that they can be manipulated.  The techniques that are used are both subtle and powerful.  (See Terror, Love, and Brainwashing.)

By changing normal attachment to disordered attachment, it’s easier to manipulate people.  Cult leaders do this by sending conflicting messages of love and punishment.  The messages muddle care and concern with exploitation.  Their safety can be threatened more easily, and they’re more susceptible to suggestions.  The cult puts people in the very vulnerable state that Freud discovered and discussed, where their future behaviors don’t conform to norms because their attachment was disrupted.  Instead of by a cult leader as an adult, it’s disrupted by a family member or acquaintance as a child.

Psychological Trauma

As Trauma and Recovery explains, psychological trauma is simply that we’re momentarily overwhelmed.  This means that we have some sense of inherent coping capacity.  This coping capacity is severely diminished in the presence of disordered attachment.  The evaluation of the potential for harm is substantially larger in disordered attachment than in a securely attached individual.  If we want to prevent psychological trauma, we reduce the stressors and make them safer.  If we want to create disordered attachment and trauma, we can do that by sending mixed signals.

Tonic Immobility

Freud and his contemporaries didn’t have the benefit of Peter Levine’s work or the researchers who discovered tonic immobility.  They didn’t know that, in cases of extreme fear, it’s possible to lose the ability to voluntarily control motor neurons and therefore muscles.  They didn’t understand that even strong people who are sufficiently scared can freeze in ways that they can’t immediately self-resolve.

The result was that sometimes it was decided that rape victims weren’t actually raped, because they had the strength to resist their attacker.  They didn’t know that, if tonic immobility sets in, strength doesn’t matter, because there is a gap between the brain’s instructions and what the muscles will do.

Some people experience a brief glimpse of this as they wake up.  They’re conscious but are also aware that they can’t move their muscles.  This is a normal brain process that occurs during sleep where muscle control is disconnected to prevent you from harming yourself.  In some people, the effects extend until after conscious thought, resulting in a very concerning and disorienting period.

During a rape, tonic immobility isn’t disorienting.  It’s terrifying.  The dynamics of the situation sometimes cause the victim to act as if it were their fault.  They’ll say to themselves, “If I only fought back.”  They say this not realizing that it wasn’t an option.  It wasn’t a matter of lack of will.  It’s a matter of brain chemistry.

Sometimes accusations of rape are dismissed because the victim didn’t fight back or, occasionally, because they had previously had sex.  Hopefully, we’re beyond these conclusions; unfortunately, I’m not so sure.

Sexual Gratification at Any Price

Adults who believe that they can and should pursue their desires without regard to the cost victimize children who seek protection and tenderness.  The price the child pays is problems with relationships and love for the rest of their lives.  Even those who have recovered through hard work and therapy will feel the lingering effects.  They’ll have to fight for normal relationships that should come naturally.  All of this happens while the adult inflicts their desire for sexual gratification on someone who can’t say no.

They can’t overpower the adult.  They can’t say no because of the relational power structures – and their physical power.  If the adult cares more about their sexual gratification, they’ll harm the child in the act, in the disordered attachment they create, and in the sense of powerlessness that they’ll leave the child with.

It would be appropriate to classify these acts as hatred for the child rather than love that some adults hope to contort them into.


On the surface, the fact that many of the children grow to be hypersexualized makes little sense.  It’s only when you realize that they’ve coupled the sexual act as being worthy and desirable that you can see how the grown child might interpret sex as a way for them to restore their value.

The paradox is that the premature sexual contact often leaves the children believing there’s something wrong with them – that it’s their fault – and they seek the same thing to relieve them of their burden.  We must realize that, in the face of uncontrollable abuse, children often choose to believe that it is about them.  This allows them a sense of control – even if it means they must believe they are bad to make this work.  They believe that they can become good enough, so the problems don’t happen any longer.  (See The Myth of Normal for more.)

Ferenczi Follows

While Anna Freud was growing, there was a protégé of Sigmund Freud’s who he called “dear son.”  Sándor Ferenczi was Freud’s closest analytical friend.  Perhaps it was the friendship that caused Freud to discourage and block Ferenczi’s publication of nearly identical to the claims that Freud made and then retracted.  It seems that Ferenczi reached the same conclusion – despite Freud’s objection.

Maybe there was some bit of Freud that Ferenczi detected that still harbored the knowledge that his disavowed theory was right.  The record, as edited by Anna Freud, doesn’t contain evidence of her father’s contemplation about whether he did the right thing to retract the theory.  Maybe he never lost the question – he just became more adept at hiding it from the record.

Ferenczi’s paper in 1932 was almost an echo of Freud’s 1896 paper.  It validated the belief that something was happening to these children, and it’s the result of this psychic trauma that was being studied all this time.  It wasn’t fantasies.  It was a fact.  Despite his mentor’s objections, Ferenczi persisted and accepted the ostracism to ensure that those whose voices had been silenced would once again be able to speak.

The fact that it keeps coming up, that individuals keep coming to the same conclusion, is evidence that it’s the truth, and that Freud, for the benefit of his career, played his part in The Assault on Truth.

Book Review-Quantum Change: When Epiphanies and Sudden Insights Transform Ordinary Lives

Personal change matters.  When people change, they make their lives better.  They find ways to change the world.  In Quantum Change: When Epiphanies and Sudden Insights Transform Ordinary Lives, William Miller and Janet C’de Baca explain how these changes can some quickly.  Miller is no stranger to change, having spent his life helping people change and having co-developed Motivational Interviewing, which is successful at helping people overcome substance use disorders (SUDs).  His curiosity about how people could change quickly rather than the methodological changes that he had spent his career facilitating led to Quantum Change.

Characteristics of Quantum

What Miller found was that there were these rapid and profound changes happening to people in seemingly spontaneous circumstances.  These changes were mostly broadly benevolent (positive) and enduring (long lasting).  They were moments that mattered.  The people could remember the transformation vividly, and they described it both as a moment and as a continuing process of transformation.

I instantly remembered my moment.  I was driving home from a speaking event.  I was still hours away from home, and my now ex-wife and I were in a conversation about a situation where she was placing the blame at my feet.  In most situations involving two people, both parties have a part to play in the situation.  It had been this way for my entire marriage.  There’d be some part of the situation that I’d own – and I’d try to accept at least that much of the blame and ownership.

In a moment of striking clarity, perhaps spurred by my exhaustion, I realized that I truly owned none of this situation.  She persisted in making it my fault, and rather than accepting it, I decided that it wasn’t mine to own.  It caused me to start getting clearer about what parts of problems I own and which parts I accept as external to me.  To be clear, I still don’t get this perfect.  I still learn.  However, this was a quantum change where I could accept that there are times when I have no responsibility or control of a situation.

It’s allowed me to detach from outcomes that I couldn’t have prevented.  (See The HeartMath Solution and The Happiness Hypothesis for more on detachment.)  It’s allowed me to accept that I don’t own all of the problems in any relationship – that I need to own only what I can control.

It Will Be Okay

My family and my current wife are tired of me saying “It will be okay.”  They retort, “You don’t know that.”  I respond that I do know that.  I do know it will be okay – but I don’t know what okay will be.  The conversation sometimes continues that some things are unchangeable.  People die – and they’re not coming back.  Certainly, how can the world be okay without these beloved?  Despite this, we continue.  We mourn.  We grieve.  We live.  We laugh.  And, perhaps more importantly, we continue to love.

I thought that this was a particular quirk of mine, but it seems that, from Miller’s research, it’s common in the people who he discovered had quantum changes.  They had a general sense that things would be okay.

Mystical Experiences

Miller recounts the work of William James and Walter Pahnke, who collectively developed a list of characteristics of mystical experiences:

  1. Ineffability. They are experiences that are more like feelings than thoughts and defy expression in words.
  2. Noetic quality. They are experienced as providing new insight and revelation that is of great depth and significance.
  3. Transiency. They do not last long, usually not more than half an hour, before they fade.
  4. Passivity. They are not experienced as being under personal willful control.
  5. Unity. They produce an internal and external sense of unity of oneself with one’s environment.
  6. Transcendence. They convey a perspective of the timelessness of life, transcending the limits of space and time.
  7. Awe. They produce a sense of awe or sacredness, a non-rational intuitive response to being in the presence of inspiring realities.
  8. Positivity. They yield deeply felt positive emotions usually described as joy, peace, love, and blessing.
  9. Distinctiveness. They are transient states of awareness felt to be quite different from ordinary experience.

They are important, because mystical experiences are similar to or perhaps sometimes trigger the kinds of changes that Miller was studying.

Seeing the System

Those who Miller studied explained how things just “came together.”  It was as if the random events suddenly lined up to form a system they could see.  (See Thinking in Systems as a primer for systems thinking, Seeing Systems for how systems work in an organization, and The Organized Mind for how we create organization in the midst of chaos.)  The alcoholic reorganized his thinking from drinking to relieve pain to how that drinking was causing pain in others.

The reorganized thinking caused people to release control of the future realizing that control is an illusion, and that all we can do is influence the results, not control them.  (See Compelled to Control for more.)  It allowed for harmony between the parts of their thinking.  (See No Bad Parts for the idea of parts of our psychology and how they become integrated.)

It’s hard to consider now, but there was a time when the elements didn’t make sense.  When Mendeleev organized the elements into his periodic table, the behaviors suddenly made sense – and it made it clear that there were elements that hadn’t been discovered yet.  (See The Tell-Tale Brain for more.)  This is the fundamental organization that was spontaneously happening with those experiencing quantum changes.

Because intuitive types (in MBTI) are able to more easily grasp patterns and larger pictures with missing details, perhaps it’s no surprise that intuitive types were overrepresented in Miller’s sample.

Gratitude for Pain

A curious part of those who have experienced quantum change is that they often are very aware of the pain and trauma they’ve had in their life, and they’re equally unwilling to let go of the experience.  In my review for Theory U, I shared an experience with the Church of Scientology and my retort to them that I didn’t have regrets – because the things I had done that were wrong helped to shape me.  I needed those experiences to be the me I am, and I like who I am.  People with alcohol use disorder would describe their past – and without wishing it on anyone, explain how they needed that past to get where they are.


Miller was convinced that “story” was a part of what happened to the people he saw with quantum changes.  He saw how they rewrote or reorganized their life story and the story of the moment to propel them forward.  They had a redemption story rather than a story of victimization or vilification.  Miller’s subjects were like the hero in Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.  They began as one thing, and by the end of the story, they became something else.  Maybe your story should include a Quantum Change.

Book Review-Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence that Caring Makes a Difference

Sometimes while reading a book, you can be in such agreement with the concept and so frustrated by the experience of reading.  It’s hard reading.  The research support is sometimes weak, but it’s so important, it’s worth looking past these limitations.  Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence that Caring Makes a Difference seeks to explain how being compassionate isn’t just the morally better approach but leads to better financial outcomes as well.

The Research

I soundly criticized The Burnout Challenge for addressing research with a waving of hands that there was “ample” evidence.  There’s a reason.  I’m in the habit of looking at the underlying research to ensure that it’s quality research – and that it says what the author purports it to say.  I want to find instances like Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, where the research doesn’t say exactly what he wants it to say.  (Daniel Pink’s Drive is in a similar category.)

That’s why I was concerned when I routinely saw the research being referred to.  The studies I sampled all had fewer than 25 people in them.  That’s so small that you really can’t reach any sound conclusions.  Those types of studies are really designed to identify a reason to do a larger study.  They’re great for what they are – but they’re not compelling evidence, just an indication that a larger study is warranted.  (Which was their conclusion.)

The Writing

Before I start with the long list of good things about the book, I’ve got to share one more challenge.  The writing is repetitive.  It’s hard to read simply because the authors are saying the same thing over and over.  The book could probably be a booklet if it weren’t for the repetition.  The good news is that it’s not as hard of a read as Servant Leadership – which is also a good book.

Be prepared to focus when you’re reading, so you can extract the value.


Before we can get into the economic impact of compassion, we’ve got to get clear about what it is.  Simply, empathy is “I understand this about you.”  (See Sympathy, Empathy, Compassion, and Altruism and Against Empathy for more.)  Compassion extends this to say that “I understand your suffering, and I want to do something about it.”  (See Emotional Awareness for more on compassion.)

Understanding what compassion is, we also need to understand how it came to be that we are – generally – compassionate creatures.  Adam Grant in Give and Take explains that givers are at both the top and bottom of the performance curve.  Sometimes givers end up on top, and sometimes they end up on the bottom.  To understand how this can happen, we start with Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, which basically says that our genes do the things that allow them to replicate.  That makes sense.  Those that don’t replicate don’t get passed on.  However, the “how” they are most effective at replicating is more complicated than it appears.

It’s more of a discussion than is appropriate here, but Robert Axelrod uses computer simulations to understand the best strategies in The Evolution of CooperationDoes Altruism Exist? and SuperCooperators more fully expose the mechanisms that allow cooperators to come out ahead and how they protect themselves from takers who threaten to destroy them.

The language shifts from compassion to “give and take” or “cooperation,” but fundamentally the concepts are the same.  Are we better off caring for others?  The answer across evolution and even Jonathan Haidt’s work in The Righteous Mind seems to say yes.

Mechanical Precision

Medicine, in its search for efficiency, has turned to shorter and more tactical appointments.  Doctors have, unfortunately, responded by interrupting their patients more quickly as they describe their primary complaint and their environment.  In short, they’ve made the decision that there’s not enough time to listen to the patient.  In the process, they’re alienating the patient, making poor diagnoses, and driving higher levels of healthcare access than are needed.

How quickly are they interrupting?  It varies over time – but within a minute.  In the standard 15-minute appointment, it’s a non-zero percentage – but if you believe Einstein, understanding the problem is the key thing in any problem-solving activity.

More challenging is that doctors are rarely listening to the broader context of the person, problem, or environment.  As a result, they’re often prescribing things that just don’t work.  They may not be solving the real problem – but more frequently, they’re proposing things that patients just won’t do.  It will get labeled as patient non-compliance, and that’s not their fault – or is it?

Patient Non-Compliance

It’s a big problem in healthcare.  The failure to follow the prescribed protocol for medication, exercise, or diet leads to a substantial amount of medical costs.  (Change or Die informs us that five behaviors drive 80% of the healthcare system cost.)  When the doctor prescribes a medication that is too expensive for the patient’s means, isn’t covered by insurance, or there’s no way to get it at a price the patient can afford to pay, the patient won’t take the medication.  It seems obvious, but if you’re not listening to the patient – and their entire situation – it isn’t.

Emotional Factors

When a doctor asks you how you’re feeling, you expect that they’re asking about your perception of pain – not your emotional state.  Despite better standardized screening, most of the time, doctors don’t ask about your psychological or emotional state.  They don’t believe that it’s any of their concern – or business.  It’s like the brain is the passenger in the vehicle called the body and that the passenger doesn’t have any control.

We know that the way we think, what we perceive, and our emotional state has a huge impact on physical health, but it remains undiscussable in most visits.  Those are the sorts of things that behavioral health is supposed to handle, not the doctor – or so they think.  Loneliness explains that being lonely can have a more significant health impact than smoking or abusing alcohol combined.  It matters, and it’s something doctors should be doing something about – but aren’t.

The Curriculum

Though, today, the need for compassion is seen as more essential than any other time in our history, it’s still common to hear of programs that explicitly or implicitly teach that nurses listen to patients, not doctors.  Doctors are the expert – and the patient would do well to listen to them.  Carl Rogers, a prominent psychologist, would likely disagree.  He believed that the client (or patient) is the expert on their life.  The practitioner knows their field, but they don’t know the person’s details.  This recognition that the client/patient is the expert is at the heart of Motivational Interviewing – which is effective at resolving substance use disorder (SUD) in ways that neither medicine or traditional counseling can be.

Sometimes the message sent in the curriculum is that the science of medicine – knowing the right values, drugs, and systems – is the only part of medicine that matters.  However, without patients, none of that information will matter.  Another explicit or implicit message may be that you must remain distant and detached from your patients.  However, compassion requires that you understand their pain – and want to resolve it.  You can’t do that if you’re detached.  You won’t have any patients if you don’t demonstrate the “art” of medicine through compassion.


Unfortunately, the authors head off into places where they don’t fully understand the space, including burnout.  They insist that personal connections protect people from burnout – despite limited evidence that relationships alone are sufficient.  In fact, it’s special relationships that seem to have protective effects, not just any relationship.  While depersonalization of patients will reduce compassion, it’s not a one-to-one relationship.  It’s the depersonalization that matters – not the degree to which they’re burned out.  Sure, it has a negative impact on care, but it’s tangential to the compassion problem.

Part of the confusion is equating burnout with compassion fatigue; though they’re similar, they are still distinct.  (See Is It Compassion Fatigue or Burnout?)


Similarly, the authors speak as if they are authorities on PTSD, but they fail to understand it at more than a cursory level – and don’t understand the factors that drive it.  (See Trauma and Recovery, Posttraumatic Growth, and Trauma and Memory for more about how trauma functions.)

Concealing Major Errors

The final error that is worthy of mention is that they equate anonymous surveys as being able to generate honest responses.  First, the providers need to believe they’re anonymous – and they’re often skeptical.  Second, they must overall feel psychologically safe enough to admit a problem even anonymously.  (See The Fearless Organization.)  Finally, they must believe that there was a “major error.”  What constitutes a major error anyway?  Maybe everything short of a mortality event isn’t major.  Even if they define major error more conservatively, they may not believe it’s their fault.  (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) and How We Know What Isn’t So.)

In the end, the authors made some major errors – and some valid points – in Compassionomics.

Article: 3 Reasons Why Empathy Is Essential for Your Training Development

Empathy is a desirable leadership topic in today’s world of worker scarcity. Organizations must be recognized as caring for workers to compete for the top talent; training developers have even more important reasons to focus on their empathy during the development process.

From the ATD blog. Read more:

Book Review-The Age of Overwhelm: Strategies for the Long Haul

Few, I think, would argue against the idea that we’re in the age of overwhelm.  The amount of information that we encounter daily is overwhelming.  The rate of change is overwhelming.  That’s what makes The Age of Overwhelm: Strategies for the Long Haul such a great title.  It’s the statement that we all know is truth.

Why It Matters

Before we delve into what being overwhelmed is or what to do about it, it’s important to understand why it’s important.  It’s important because it drives some of the most negative effects that society grapples with.  Substance use disorder (SUD) – “the drug problem” – is a result of the pain that people feel.  (See The Globalization of Addiction and Dreamland for more.)  Our American prisons and jails are overflowing as a result of lawless behavior that often comes from an inability to cope.  Some, like Clay Johnson in The Information Diet, are calling for a more conscious approach to media consumption, but this is likely insufficient to confront the torrent of information we encounter every day.  Daniel Levitin in The Organized Mind takes on the challenge of information overload – and how this leads to being overwhelmed – before explaining the cognitive processing impacts.

In short, humans don’t function well when we encounter too much information.  Our productivity and our mental health suffer as we try to stand in the face of our daily experiences.

In Our Control

As we look to navigate in this world, we must recognize our self-autonomy and our ability to control only ourselves.  We can’t stop the emerging use of AI-generated content and the impact that has on making our identification of key information harder.  We can’t control the market forces that have driven an explosion of human-generated content in the last decade leading to an increasingly difficult position of identifying content of value.  (So much for Peter Morville’s world of Ambient Findability.)


Sherry Turkle in Alone Together warns us that our technological connections aren’t the same as real connections.  Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone and Our Kids warns us of how we’re becoming more alone and less civic than we’ve ever been.  Chuck Underwood notes this in America’s Generations, as does Tom Brokaw in the introduction to The Greatest Generation.  Simultaneous with the erosion of our personal, face-to-face connections, we’ve seen an explosion of depression to the point where it’s the number one mental health concern and takes a substantial bite out of our healthcare costs each year.  (See Choice Theory and Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health for more about depression and treatment.)


Brené Brown is famous for her work on vulnerability – though she mostly describes herself as a shame researcher.  (See Daring Greatly, Rising Strong part 1 and part 2, The Gifts of Imperfection, and I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) for Brown’s work.)  Central to her work is the understanding and acceptance that we’re all broken.  We’re all vulnerable.  We all need others to accept us for who we are – not who we want to appear to be.  (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more about acceptance.)

Another recurring theme in Brown’s work is the sense that we’re “enough.”  It’s not clear what context we’re evaluating ourselves on, who sets the standard for “enough,” or even that there is such as thing as enough.  Yet each of us faces these questions – particularly in the face of overwhelming situations every day.

Humility and Learning

If we want to survive this overwhelming world, we must be humble.  The best definition of humility, I believe, comes from Humilitas: “power held in service to others.”  There’s a lot to our pull towards compassion and why it is critical for our survival as humans even if some try to do “social loafing.”  (See SuperCooperators and Does Altruism Exist? for more on how our compassion and altruism have evolved.  See The Righteous Mind and Collaboration for more on “social loafing.”)

In the end, the best that we can do is find ways to learn and keep learning.  We won’t keep up with the overwhelming pace of change, but we can perhaps make it easier to live in The Age of Overwhelm.

Book Review-Uncharitable: How Restraints on Nonprofits Undermine Their Potential

It’s heretical.  What would happen if we applied free market capitalist ideas to charities?  What would it be like to have non-profit organizations operate with the same (or similar) rules as commercial organizations?  Uncharitable: How Restraints on Nonprofits Undermine Their Potential explores this from the perspective of a former fundraiser – someone who used the power of marketing to gain funds for charities – but in the process spent a lot of money.

Changing the Rules

The way that charities are ranked, rated, and evaluated isn’t based on their results.  It’s on their efficiency.  We’ve confused effort with effect.  Instead of asking the hard questions about whether they’re effective, we simply ask what percentage of their income goes to programs.  In addition to not being the best measure, it may be fiction.

If you want a universal measure that applies to all non-profits, efficiency – how much is spent on programs as a percentage – makes sense.  It’s universal.  It sounds good.  The problem is that it doesn’t tell you anything.  I can spend 99% on programs with minimal infrastructure.  I can also fail to accomplish anything meaningful for anyone.

Consider an organization that spends 50% on programs – but is incredibly effective and transitions people from food scarcity to abundance.  Compare that to an organization that spends 99% on programs but only serves to address the current food need of people daily.  They can’t meet demand, and the demand keeps getting bigger – because they never help people find ways to eliminate their food scarcity.  Which is the better organization?  From the metric, the second.  From the outcomes, the first.

In addition, when everyone is pressed for the magic number of what they spend on programs, they’ll necessarily put more into that bucket than should be there.  Take accounting fees, which 27 percent of non-profits categorized as program expenses despite IRS rules telling them not to do so.  What about grant writing or proposal writing?  How do you account for an executive director’s time if they’re also running programs?  The answer is that in many – but not all – cases, the answers are biased towards programs.

Of course, it’s a bit of a misnomer, because everything is ultimately in service of the programs – it’s just a matter of how directly or indirectly those funds are used.

Short-Term and Long-Term

We know that in the long term, long-term investments will do better than short-term investments.  It’s a tautology.  We know the best way to create the best societal outcomes is to focus on the long-term problems – but there are people in need today.  Charities are penalized – and sometimes vilified – when they invest funds to improve the situation in the long term if they can’t serve today’s needs.  Consider the example from above, with the organization that spends 50% of its money on programs that transitions people out of food scarcity.  If this process takes a year or two, and significant investment in training them for better skills, it may be that the organization is vilified because they’re focusing too many resources on too few people.

In the corporate world, we look for organizations that are capable of producing consistent results and that transform their industries.  For charities, we look for those who are processing the most people today – regardless of whether they’re solving the real problems or not.

Financial Efficiency

A 2008 Ellison Research study found “most Americans believe non-profit organizations and charities are not financially efficient in their work.”  This may be in part based on the guidelines for what should be devoted to program operation versus overhead.  It may be in part because nonprofits are unable to make long-term investments to reduce their operational costs.  Whatever the source of the concern, it’s one that nonprofits need to take seriously.

Strangely, the effort to be cost efficient – accepting donated computers, furniture, and more – may lead to the inefficiency that so many of the public are concerned by.

Selfless and Selfish

At the root of financial problems for charities is the tension between the completely selfless and the completely selfish.  We expect that corporations are filled with people who are entirely selfish.  (See The Selfish Gene.)  We expect that charities are completely selfless.  Neither is true.  The movement towards corporate responsibility and B Corps is one way that we see that corporations aren’t entirely selfish.  (See Red Goldfish for more.)  Conversely, most people who are working for nonprofits need to make some money to support their lifestyles.  They need to make something to contribute to their family’s needs and dreams.

Donor Absolution

Certainly, donors contribute to a nonprofit because they believe in them.  They believe that the mission that the nonprofit is on is a worthy one.  However, there’s also a hidden challenge lurking in the shadows of most people’s consciousness.  The challenge is that people don’t believe that they should have so much money or that they’ve made decisions that have unintentionally hurt others.  Donating is at least in some small part a way to pay penance for sins.

The Puritans who started America believed that financial success meant God’s favor and living right.  However, at some level, they also believed that it was sinful to amass worldly goods when they’re supposed to be working for heaven.  This dichotomy has plagued us ever sense.

Tactical Morality

Most people haven’t given deep consideration to their morality.  Certainly, there are works like How Good People Make Tough Choices, The Righteous Mind, Choosing Civility, and Trust Rules that offer a detailed view of morality.  However, most of us don’t consider that there are three different approaches to morality.  Do we care about the results (ends-based, utilitarianism), the rules, or the intent (care)?  (This whole conversation is reminiscent of feeling, meaning, and power perspectives in Dialogue.)

This creates a problem when we’re talking about funding options for nonprofits.  Consider a fundraiser that raises $5 million but costs $3 million to do.  The net – utilitarian – view is $2 million in the coffers of a good cause.  This would seem on the surface to be a good thing.

However, those more concerned with the rules might wonder whether such a “wasteful” approach makes sense when $3 million would do a lot of good.  In the view of Uncharitable, this is not the right way to think about it, since the $2 million wouldn’t be available for good if the $3 million hadn’t been spent on the event.  The cries of efficiency echo.  Instead of looking at the outcomes that can be had with the additional money, we challenge the way it was raised.

Bowling Alone decried the loss of social capital, because instead of investing in relationships in groups, we started paying our dues.  We didn’t look at fundraising based groups the same way that we did the ones we participated in – and that may hold the kernel of our concerns for large scale, but high cost, fundraising.

Hiring a Service for the Poor

In some ways, a donor is hiring a person or service on behalf of those served.  The donor wants to be compassionate and thereby resolve the pains of those who the nonprofit serves.  This view isn’t the common thinking about donations, but it helps to change the conversation from one of efficiency to effectiveness.  There’s an opportunity to negotiate on costs at the start of the donation process.  It’s during this time that the nonprofit can set expectations about what the impact should be.  The donor can make $100,000 available with the expectations that 10,000 people will be reached and supported (or whatever the numbers are).

This changes the conversation to the efficacy.  Did you do what you said you would do – yes or no?

Failure Is Not Accepted

In the long term, it may not be acceptable to fail – but in the short term, are there incentives for bold initiatives that can make a real change?  In most cases, there’s not.  When donating, people want certainty – even if that certainty offers marginal benefits.  A venture capitalist knows that many of the companies that they invest in won’t make it.  They’ll fail.  They’ll break even.  However, there will be the occasional break out success.  The success will earn them 10x or 100x or even 1000x on their investment, and in doing so, they’ll make the whole portfolio of investments work.

However, a similar sentiment doesn’t exist in the nonprofit space.  First, there are fewer investments being made in nonprofits.  It lowers the threshold for risk.  You want to know that your donation made an impact – you don’t want a one in seven chance of making a 10x impact.  It doesn’t make emotional sense.

Investors and Donors

What if we gave investors an opportunity to invest in nonprofits – and to make a return on those investments.  It’s a radical and uncomfortable idea where we’d allow investors to participate in fundraising capital with the idea that they could take some percentage of the outcome from the event.  It feels wrong – but it might make the capital that nonprofits need to be able to get more donations easier to get.

There are many forms of how this investment might happen and the potentially promised returns might be structured.  For many, myself included, it “feels” wrong even if it might be morally right.

In all, that’s the challenge of Uncharitable: how do we get past our simple evaluations of morality and look to the broader good – even if it’s uncomfortable?

The Way It Really Is

In the end analysis, I struggled with the gap between what really is today and where Dan Pallotta would like to see the world.  I do think that we need to have a bold vision for making things better.  I believe in better metrics.  I accept that better marketing means more total dollars and a lower percentage.  I accept that, to get more capital than what donors are willing to provide, we need to find other approaches.  What I don’t see is the path from where we are today to where we want to go.  Uncharitable sets out a bold vision and explains the problems, but it feels short on solutions.  Pallotta claims that his subsequent works address this gap – we’ll see.

Book Review-Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship

What does it mean to have our development interrupted by trauma – and what do we do about it now?  These are the questions that Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship answers.

If you need a quick introduction to what trauma is before understanding what you can do about it, see The Body Keeps the Score or Transformed by Trauma.

NeuroAffective Relational Model (NARM)

The book is focused on a model called the NeuroAffective Relational Model (NARM).  The model is concerned with how our development may or may not lead to dysregulations, disruptions, and distortions.  These lead to difficulties in living our lives and ultimately reduce our ability to thrive.

The model suggests that we have five biologically-based core needs:

The model further suggests that if these needs aren’t met, they will need to be addressed, because they will create barriers to a fulfilling life.


Our bodies are amazing machines that allow us to achieve wide ranges of self-regulation.  From the mundane regulation of temperature, oxygen status, states of arousal, and the rest to the more complicated regulation of our emotions, we’re wired to achieve stability.  Of course, there are limits.  You can’t keep cool when you’re in intense heat.  However, overall, our systems are widely effective at the process of keeping us in states of homeostasis – relative balance.

When these systems are impaired, we experience it as a barrier.  Commonly, people who have been exposed to trauma have difficulty regulating emotions.  To be clear, as Jonathan Haidt explains in The Happiness Hypothesis, emotions are really in charge.  (See also Switch.)  Our ability to regulate our emotions is just an attempt to understand them and shape our responses.  Haidt’s model of a rational rider on an emotional elephant makes it clear that the elephant always wins when it wants to.

I prefer to position the work of regulating emotions as the perspective of the relationship between the elephant and the rider.  The degree to which our emotions are responsive to the requests and influence of reason can be harmed by early developmental trauma.  While Healing Developmental Trauma describes managing our emotions, I believe that this is too strong of a statement based on what we know about neurobiology.


NARM calls for mindfulness as a technique.  However, as they use it here, mindfulness is a catch-all term for a variety of approaches including more formal meditation techniques.  (See Altered Traits).  One of the specific approaches recommended is Somatic Experiencing (SE).  Somatic Experiencing is an approach developed by Peter Levine.  Healing Development Trauma and the NARM approach pulls key techniques from this work, including grounding, orienting, titration, pendulation, and discharge.  (See In an Unspoken Voice for more.)

Another component that is included in NARM is gestalt, which is a therapeutic approach developed by Fritz Perls, MD.  It’s focused on being aware of the current state – particularly, the current state of the body and what sensations are being felt.  This, too, is a part of the broader family of mindfulness.

Cognitive Distortions

“Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) does not address the nervous system imbalances that drive cognitive distortions.”  It’s a problematic statement for me, because it’s not well supported in the rest of the text, and it’s not precisely true.  CBT does have some aspects of reality grounding in the overall suite of tools.  But the more challenging aspect of the statement is should it?  Cognitive distortions are just a separation of our perception from reality.  Some of these distortions are adaptive.  For instance, we know that depressed people have a more accurate – and negative – view of the world and their capability to impact it than non-depressed individuals.  Thus, non-depressed individuals see the world more positively than they should – but it’s adaptive.  (See How We Know What Isn’t So for more.)

Some cognitive distortions allow people to maximize their capacity for hope and self-agency.  (See The Psychology of Hope for more about hope.)  We shouldn’t limit those cognitive distortions.  We should be concerned about those distortions and those adaptations that are no longer working.

For Another Time

Each of us picks up a series of quirks about the way that we interact with the world.  They are adaptations and accommodations that we make either because a human in our life requires it from us or because the way that we see the world requires us to adjust.  We see this in the stereotypical differences between men and women in the way that they interact.  (See Radical Candor and No Ego for more.)

These adaptations and accommodations can be positive for the time that we adopt them.  It can be that they’re incredibly effective at helping us navigate the world.  However, over time, these may get progressively less effective or even become harmful.  They can begin to limit our growth as adults and our ability to navigate in the world of today.  That’s why we need to be aware of these adaptations and evaluate whether they’re still appropriate.


Sometimes those adaptations deprive children of their childhood.  Chaotic lives and parents who fail to plan sometimes find children creating the structure, organization, and planning that is necessary for the children to get what they need – like food and shelter.  (For some examples, see The Years That Matter Most.)  The problem this causes is that the child doesn’t feel safe allowing others to be themselves and often results in over controlling in their adult lives, because to not do so is too dangerous and scary.


Too frequently, we believe that if we share our entire selves with someone else, they’ll stop loving us – or they’ll leave us.  Too often, we hear about people who believe that others don’t know who they are and wouldn’t like them if they did.  (See How to Be Yourself for more.)  It’s one thing to do that with others – to deny a part of ourselves – but it’s a different thing when we do it to ourselves – hiding or limiting parts of who we are to become acceptable to others and to ourselves.

In No Bad Parts, we learned about the Internal Family Systems model, which explains that we have exiles (parts of ourselves that we deny) and protectors (parts of ourselves that are over expressed to protect us from harm).  In trauma, we find dissociation, which can cause the creation of the exiles and the protectors.

Degrees of Dissociation

In my reviews of The Body Keeps the Score and In an Unspoken Voice, I spoke of dissociation, but Healing Developmental Trauma identifies the gradations of dissociation.  Specifically, they use the analogy of a switch.  Some people dissociate with a dimmer switch, turning up their degree of numbing or muting their experience.  Others have a breaker switch, where they shut everything off completely and often experience the situation as if they’re outside their body.

So, the trick when working with people who have had trauma is to look not just for the complete dissociation but also the self-numbing that may be maladaptive.

Holding Framework

NARM proposes that “emotions are experienced and contained.”  I’d call it a holding space.  (See more in my review for Alone Together.)  A holding space is an environment that is capable of holding the emotion.  The goal is to create a space that is sufficiently safe, calming, and reassuring that the person is able to gradually experience the emotion without becoming overwhelmed.  You can see how I recommend this for small groups in my post, Small Group Safety Rules – Before, During, and After.

The key – as with Peter Levine’s approach in Somatic Experiencing – is to allow people to move into the experience and emotion to the degree that they’re capable of doing it and feeling safe.  (See In an Unspoken Voice for more.)

Unleash the Kraken

For some, the process of creating a holding space and offering a place for them to express their emotion is like asking them to unleash the kraken.  They fear that they’ll never be able to put their emotions back in a box.  They’ve been taught that emotions aren’t safe, and they’re not sure how to dance with experiencing emotions without being overwhelmed.  However, that’s what the holding space is for – to make it safe enough to experience the emotions and to learn that they don’t have to be overwhelming.

If you’re ready to help others – or yourself – work through your trauma and move forward with it in the past, start the process by reading Healing Developmental Trauma.

Book Review-The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity

It’s a short book.  It is perhaps the shortest book that I’ve reviewed.  However, there’s something profound about The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, which is both hidden from view and inherently true.  We’ve been told not to back a wild animal into a corner, since they have nothing left to lose and will do anything to escape.  So too, should we be concerned about stupid people.

The Matrix

The primary model of the book is a matrix.  The dimensions are self-outcomes and other-outcomes labeled from negative to positive.  This forms four quadrants.  The quadrants are labeled helpless, intelligent, bandit, and stupid.  The helpless create negative self-outcomes, but positive other outcomes.  The intelligent create positive outcomes for everyone.  The bandit creates positive self-outcomes but negative other-outcomes.  The stupid creates negative outcomes for both themselves and others.

This isn’t the typical definition of stupid – but it’s one that works well.  The people who are the most unpredictable – and therefore risky – are those who are willing to apply a “scorched Earth” approach where everyone loses.  Much like the cornered wild animal, you just don’t know what they’ll do.

The Laws

The laws tell us how to navigate a world with stupid people.  They are:

  1. Always and inevitably, everyone underestimates the number of stupid people in circulation.
  2. The probability that a certain person is stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
  3. A stupid person causes losses to another person or group of persons while themselves deriving no gain and possibly incurring losses.
  4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular, non-stupid people constantly forget that, at all times and places and under any circumstances, to deal and/or associate with stupid people infallibly turns out to be a costly mistake.

Impoverished Society

Many people encounter the book and wonder if Carlo Cipolla was serious.  Most come to the conclusion that the work is a serious one intended to highlight a challenge with humanity.  It’s exposing the truth of humanity and sharing a warning, because stupid people are always gumming up the works.

The basic premise of the book is that stupid people are impoverishing society.  By definition, they are reducing the gains for everyone.  By knowing that stupid people are everywhere, we can begin to fight against The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity.

Book Review-Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well

It’s hard – if not impossible – to like being wrong.  However, being wrong is sometimes inevitable.  In Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well, Amy Edmondson encourages us to fight our urge to hide our failures or berate ourselves for coming up short.  Instead, she encourages us to distinguish between the intelligent failures that help us make progress in new territory and the basic and complex failures that can be wasteful and even destructive – but fortunately are also often preventable.  In her previous work, The Fearless Organization, Edmondson encouraged us to create organizations where people were free to speak up openly about aspects of the work, willing to experiment, and indeed felt able to quickly report failure.  Here, she expands upon the need to understand errors and failures – and what to do with them.


To understand why failure is always a possible outcome, we must first accept a fundamental truth that we’ve all heard before.  To err is human.  Said differently, there’s no way of avoiding human error entirely.  Even those who are disposed to perfectionistic traits cannot be perfect.  (See Perfectionism and The Paradox of Choice for more.)  Once we accept that errors will happen, we are better able to disrupt the relationship between errors and failure.  Far too many failures happen because an error isn’t corrected.  The result of failure can be shame and a lack of learning – or it can result in learning.

Learning opens the opportunity to prevent similar errors in the future and to reduce preventable failures. It has the potential to prevent harm and loss.  At their best, failures are small, meaningful, and instructive.  Failures can be a good thing when they lead to learning and actions that result in better long-term outcomes.

We can learn from all kinds of failures, but what Edmondson calls “intelligent” failures are the only ones that provide genuinely new knowledge that helps advance progress in new territory.

Failure is Not Fatal

I concluded my review of The Fearless Organization with a key observation.  Failure is inevitable if you try.  I explained that I failed all the time.  Years later, as I write this, I’ve got a number of 3D printed part iterations on my desk.  Each one teaches me how not to make something.  They’ll be thrown away soon enough to make room for more parts with different errors.  The beauty of the 3D printer is it allows me to test designs with minimal cost and risk.  I can play with an idea, test it, learn, and move on.  That is the very essence of what Edmondson calls “intelligent failure” – it’s small, the stakes are low, and the learning is real.

Edmondson suggests that we need to be “learning to dance with failure.”  We need to not just embrace failure but also learn how to pursue intelligent failures so that they’re not fatal – nor too costly.  It’s important to take risks and be courageous – but within limits.  (See Find Your Courage for more on courage.)

Failure Types

Not all failures are the same.  There’s a mantra in startups, “Fail fast,” which also exists in agile software development.  However, in both contexts, it misses the important second part: “…to succeed sooner.”  It’s critical, because it’s that piece that matters.  No one needs to fail – we need what failure offers us in the way of learning so as to succeed.

Edmondson proposes that there are three categories of contexts in which failure can occur:

  • Consistent – There is well developed knowledge about how to achieve the desired results. Think recipe.
  • Novel – Creating something new. There is no roadmap or recipe that reliably leads to results.  Think exploration.
  • Variable – Discontinuities where existing knowledge appears consistent or inside a skill set but for which the conditions have changed to make the existing knowledge insufficient. Think COVID-19.

Before I expand on these, I need to acknowledge that these contexts are reminiscent of Dave Snowden’s work on Cynefin.  Though he describes more contexts and liminal areas between them, they echo the same core truth that some things are knowable, and some are not.

For me, the contexts seem like those where I know how to solve the problem and those where I don’t.  Variable contexts are where I mistake one for the other.  It’s a place where I believe I have what I need, and I discover I don’t.

We often fail to realize the limits of our knowledge and the conditions under which something we know works.  In my review of The Cult of Personality Testing, I commented on the narrow bands under which chemical reactions will occur.  Without an awareness of the limitations, we can be surprised when a reaction doesn’t occur.  I find this particularly troubling when we seek to get good feedback.  We’re seeking feedback from others whose experience shapes how they model and simulate (or, more simply, view) the world.  (See Sources of Power and Seeing What Others Don’t for more on modeling.)  However, if our conditions are too far outside their experience, their feedback may be less useful or even harmful.  (More on that in the section Feedback Revisited below.)

Failures in the category of consistent contexts can be intelligent – that is, filled with learning – but only if we use the opportunity to change the system so that it detects and corrects errors before they become failures.  (See Thinking in Systems for how to make changes to systems.)  Appropriate risks in the novel territory often lead to learning.  Failures in the variable space can lead to intelligent failures if we discover the limitations of our knowledge.

Liking to Fail

Edmondson says, “Nobody likes to fail.  Period.”  By default, I agree.  I’ve never met anyone who has volunteered a desire to fail.  No one likes to be wrong.  However, I diverge from her thinking in that I believe one can condition themselves to like failure.  Adam Grant in Think Again shares a story when Daniel Kahneman was in the audience for one of his talks.  Grant was explaining findings that contradicted Kahneman’s beliefs.  Grant says, “His eyes lit up, and a huge grin appeared on his face. ‘That was wonderful,’ he said. ‘I was wrong.’”  While I think that this is far from the standard response, it’s clearly a response that is possible.  This is what Edmondson hopes to make easier for the rest of us mere mortals, who may not yet have developed Kahneman’s wisdom and genuine joy in discovery.

Careful readers will notice my substitution.  Kahneman was happy that he was wrong – not that he had failed.  This is where it gets tricky.  Edmondson defines failure as “an outcome that deviates from desired results.”  If learning is always one of the desired results, then even intelligent failure achieves at least some of the outcomes – thereby invalidating that it’s a failure in the first place.

This elevates us back to the chief purpose being learning.  It’s inherent in Kahneman’s response that he learned something.  While no one likes to fail by default, if you can elevate learning to being the chief purpose, then you can learn to like – or at least better accept – failure.

Barriers to Failing Well: Aversion, Confusion, and Fear

Edmondson explains that failing well is hard because of our aversion to failure, our confusion about what type of failure we’re experiencing, and fear of social stigma and excessive consequences.

While aversion is natural, there are ways to minimize it through reframing failure as opportunities for learning.  Confusion is addressed with clarity around the types of contexts and the type of failures.  Fear often looms largest of all – but it, too, can be addressed.  Not just by using the techniques to shape the amount of risk taken but by better understanding fear.

Focus on Fear

When discussing fear, it’s important to recognize the relationship between stress and fear.  Though often treated as distinct entities, they are the same phenomenon.  We are fearful of something.  If we weren’t, we’d call it anxiety – which is fear without a specific, targeted concern.  With stress, we’ve encountered a stressor, and we’re afraid of the impact we believe is possible or probable.

If we want to reduce fear, we can take what we know about stress and fear to clarify its sources and adjust our cognitive biases.  (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for a primer on cognitive biases.)  Richard Lazarus in Emotion and Adaptation shares a model where stressors are evaluated, and from there we can become stressed.  This is consistent with other researchers, such as Paul Ekman, who separates the startle response from other emotions because it’s unprocessed.  (See Nonverbal Messages and Telling Lies.)  Simply, the model is that we evaluate the potential impacts based on their degree of impact and their probability.  We divide or mitigate this based on our coping resources – both internal and external.  The result is our degree of stress or fear.

Biases exist in all three of these variables.  We often systematically underestimate both our own resources and the resources of others that they’re willing to provide in support.  We often overestimate the degree of impact.  A failed experiment, company, or attempt doesn’t make us a failure.  Hopefully, it means that we’ve learned.  Finally, we often overestimate the probability.

It’s important to acknowledge that failures are common.  The failure rate of businesses in the US in one year are 20%, 2 years 30%, 5 years 48%, and 10 years 65%.  Failure in change projects (and all large projects) is around 70%.  (See Why the 70% Failure Rate of Change Projects is Probably Right for more.)  It’s quite possible that failure is the natural result – but often with percentages that are skewed, we’ll amplify them a bit more.  (See How We Know What Isn’t So for more.)

The net of this is we can have an impact on our degree of fear around failure if we’re willing to delve into what we’re afraid of – and why.

The Relationship Between Effort and Success

In context, Edmondson shares how efforts to reduce errors and success at reducing errors aren’t the same.  The relationship is “imperfect.”  This is true.  Just ask hospitals that are in a constant battle to increase handwashing rates.  No one is startled to find out that handwashing reduces the spread of diseases.  Providers and clinicians working in hospitals are educated people who are aware of how germs work and that handwashing is an effective strategy for preventing their spread.  However, in most organizations, the best we get for sustained handwashing at appropriate times is around 80%.  Decades of research and hundreds of millions of dollars haven’t resulted in a material change in behavior – a behavior that should be natural and automatic.

Similarly, seatbelt use in the United States isn’t 100% (it’s slightly over 90%) despite all the marketing campaigns, laws, and pressure.  Effort alone doesn’t always drive behavior – and it doesn’t drive behavior consistently.  When we’re working on reducing errors, we can’t expect that effort alone is enough.  (See Change or Die for more on the difficulty of changing behaviors.)

Underground Failure

One of the riskiest things in an organization is when the feedback system is broken, and the leaders are deprived of the signals they need to make adjustments.  Like the Titanic in the fog, a lack of visibility can lead to tragic consequences.  Leaders who state unequivocally that failure is off-limits don’t prevent failures.  They prevent hearing about failures.

Antifragile, Nassim Taleb’s book about growing from challenges, explains our need for feedback and the opportunity to make many, compounding, changes to improve.  Deprived of feedback, we must make wild – and therefore riskier – changes.  If we want to create conditions for our probable survival and growth, we need constant feedback.

“A stitch in time saves nine” is a very old saying with a simple meaning.  If you can make the right corrective actions at the right time, you can save a lot of work.  That means knowing about errors, mistakes, and failures quickly so you can address them – not when they’re so large they can no longer be hidden.

Intelligent Failure

Edmondson qualifies a failure as intelligent if it has four key attributes:

  • It takes place in new territory.
  • The context presents a credible opportunity to advance toward a desired goal (whether that be scientific discovery or a new friendship).
  • It is informed by available knowledge (one might say “hypothesis driven”).
  • The failure is as small as it can be to still provide valuable insights.

Here, I have a slightly different view.  While Edmondson describes a set of conditions, I think the emphasis should be on results (as I implied earlier).  I believe a failure is intelligent if:

  • There is the possibility of real learning.
  • It informs future work or results.

The shift is subtle but important.  I allow for stupid errors in consistent contexts – as long as it is used to change the system so that the errors are less frequent.  Consider the fate of TWA Flight 800 on July 17, 1996.  It was a routine flight.  It used a standard Boeing 747-100 with an excellent safety record.  It was a well-established route.  There is no doubt that the failure was tragic.  However, the resulting investigation focused on the probability of a main fuel tank fuel-air mixture being ignited, triggering a fuel-air explosion.  The results of this tragedy – and the learning – are more frequent inspections of fuel tanks, revised anti-spark wiring, and injection of inert gas (nitrogen) into empty or partially empty fuel tanks.

While Edmondson’s categories are useful for designing situations that allow for failure to be intelligent, they disqualify the opportunity to convert an unplanned failure in a routine operation to something from which good can come.

Designing Failures

No one would ever want to design their failures – or would they?  Entrepreneur literally means “bearer of risk.”  Edmondson is encouraging us to fail in the right way – a way that encourages learning.  It’s designing experiments that are most likely to result in learning – and in ways that aren’t overly impactful.  In short, failure is okay, but if you expect that it’s going to happen, you should consider that, in your trials, failure is an option you can live with.

Persistence and Stubbornness

Move too quickly to accept failure, and you’ll be told that you don’t have enough Grit (Angela Duckworth’s term that encompasses persistence).  Linger too long, and you’ll be told that you’re too stubborn to accept what the market has been telling you.  Finding the balance between the two is perhaps the most difficult thing that we must navigate.

Edmondson shares the story of the Eli Lilly drug, Alimta.  It failed Phase III trials.  It could have ended there except for the physician that noticed in the patients for whom the drug was ineffective there was also a folic acid deficiency.  When the renewed trial was done with folic acid supplements for those with the deficiency, efficacy was established.  In this case, the dogged pursuit of the goal of getting the drug to market worked– but that isn’t always the case.

Jim Collins in Good to Great describes the Stockdale paradox – of knowing when to stick to your guns and when to listen to the market.  Adam Grant leads us over this familiar ground in Think Again and Originals.  Robert Stevenson addresses it in Raise Your Line.  It’s a challenge for Irving Janis and Leon Mann in Decision Making.  The conceptual challenge surfaces repeatedly in dozens of books and contexts.  Knowing when to accept failure and walk away – and when to persist – is a central challenge for all of us.

Feedback Revisited

Getting quality feedback is perhaps the most challenging aspect of life.  Learning when to listen and when to say thank you and move on is a puzzle for the ages.  In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains how Febreze was blown off track by bad feedback.  The truth is that feedback can fall into a few basic categories:

  • No Feedback – This vacuum makes one wonder if anyone is listening.
  • Good Feedback – Specific, actionable, experience, data based, and validated.
  • Bad Feedback – Unclear, unvalidated, or with limited experience, this kind of feedback leads you away from your goals without being malicious.

Unfortunately, the norm for the world today isn’t good feedback.  It’s either no feedback or bad feedback.  Most people provide no feedback – even when asked – and those who do often fail to recognize the limits of their experience and whether the feedback could be useful.

When we ask for feedback, we’re often not asking for clear enough feedback to be actionable.  Even in training, we default to satisfaction or sentiment instead of whether we changed behavior.  (See Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Training Evaluation.)  Similarly, when we’re looking for feedback on our failure, we fail to create safety and do after-action reviews that lead to real insights and learning about what happened.  (See Collaborative Intelligence for more.)


Feedback leaves both the person giving and the person receiving vulnerable.  The sender of the feedback is always worried about how the receiver will react.  We’ve all been exposed to people who want feedback only to be shunned or attacked when the feedback is given.  We’re naturally wary of giving it.

I was walking with a friend and her co-presenter after they gave a talk at a national conference.  My friend said, “I’d love your feedback.”  The friend I knew I could be honest with – but the co-presenter, I wasn’t so sure.  I asked for clarification about what feedback they wanted as a way of ensuring I could speak into the specific area of consideration.  They wanted feedback on a scenario they had demonstrated on stage, where my friend was a difficult person.  The co-presenter had responded (admittedly) harshly in the scenario.  I explained that I always start soft and move to harshness if required.  That was the end of the conversation and an uncomfortable walk followed as we walked the rest of the way to the co-presenter’s book signing.

Here’s the funny part.  Objectively, the co-presenter agreed.  That didn’t stop her from having her feelings hurt.  Given the situation, she didn’t lash out – but we’ve all seen that happen even when we’ve given good feedback.

The receiver is, of course, more obvious.  Opening up to feedback leaves us vulnerable to whatever they want to say.  They can use it as an opportunity for personal attack, or they can be gentle in their nudge towards better results, and we sincerely don’t know which with most people.

Vulnerability has a curious property – one that goes hidden for most.  Those people who are the least vulnerable as people are the most likely to make gestures to become vulnerable.  Said differently, the person most likely to take an investment risk is the person for whom a loss of the investment doesn’t matter.  The more secure someone is in who they are, the more likely they are to invite others to provide feedback, to put themselves in appropriately vulnerable situations, and to allow their real self to be seen.

Perhaps that’s why we take people who are openly vulnerable as a source of power and strength.  It’s paradoxical that those who appear the most vulnerable are those who are the least likely to be harmed – but when you recognize that it’s those people who make themselves appropriately vulnerable, the pieces can fall into place.


In a world of probabilities and no single cause, accusation, blame, and criticism make little sense.  We live in a world of probabilities where no one thing is solely responsible for an outcome.  (See The Halo Effect.)  We want this.  We want the simplicity of attributing a failure to a bad actor or a bad behavior.  However, the truth is much more complicated.

The quality movement started by Edward Deming was constantly seeking root causes.  Root cause analysis is a part of many cultures – even very good, high performing cultures.  The problem is that, at its core, it’s flawed.  One could easily cite the O-rings on the Space Shuttle Challenger as the root cause of the tragedy.  However, that’s only one of hundreds of technical design issues that led to its destruction.  Different choices for propulsion, the shape of the booster rocket, and innumerable other things all played a factor – as did the weather on that fateful day.  The decision to launch in the unusually cold Florida weather played a factor, as did the failure to listen to the engineers who warned the teams of a potential problem.

Blame, of course, lands on people.  It’s not the O-ring that’s to blame.  It’s the manager who failed to delay the launch when concerns were raised.  The Tacoma Narrows bridge failed because the decking wasn’t attached well enough to cope with unexpected aerodynamic forces.  The engineer is to blame for not planning for those forces.  He got off better than the engineers from the Hyatt Regency walkway collapse in Kansas City.  The engineer, Jack Gillum, accepted the blame for the failure.  However, the truth of the situation was that a change had been made after his original designs – one that he hadn’t recognized the true impact of until after the disaster.

The process of design change reviews and the urgency of the project factored into the failure.  Gillum accepted responsibility but there’s more to learning than just that someone made a mistake.  It’s something that Gillum has spent the rest of his life working on.  How do we find and correct errors so that we can fail with fewer consequences and better learning?  We need to fight the urge to attribute everything in a failure to a single factor – or person – and instead focus on extracting the maximum learning from every failure.

Accepting responsibility for a failure is different than someone assigning blame.  We find the Right Kind of Wrong when we’re willing to learn – but not blame.

Book Review-How Not to Kill Yourself: A Portrait of the Suicidal Mind

“I believe for a vast majority of people, suicide is a bad choice.”  It’s not the first highlight in the book, but it’s close.  In How Not to Kill Yourself: A Portrait of the Suicidal Mind, Chancy Martin exposes his thinking after a lifetime of suicidal thoughts and attempts.  He shares the losses and poor choices that led to his extreme suicidal thoughts and his rationale.  This isn’t the first book I’ve read written from the perspective of a suicidal person attempting to illuminate the mental machinery of the chronically suicidal, but it is perhaps the most direct and raw.

The World as It Is, Not as I Would Have It

Most people stop the serenity prayer before its conclusion.  They recognize, “God give me the courage to change the things I can, the serenity to accept the things I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  It continues, “…taking the world as it is, not as I would have it.”  It’s a constant source of challenge for humans, whether addict or not.  We all want the world to be the way we want it – not the way that it is really.  It’s easier when the world conforms to our beliefs and expectations than when we need to shift our expectations and behaviors because of the world.

We’re eager to ascribe a reality on the world when it’s just our perception.  We assume that our friend overdosed rather than died by suicide.  We would prefer to believe that our friend got distracted rather than ghosting us.  It’s easier to take our predictions and believe they are reality.

The End of Unhappiness

It’s not a novel idea that people consider suicide to eliminate the pain in their lives.  Shneidman called it “psychache.”  (See The Suicidal Mind.)  However, the degree to which this desire to end unhappiness drives not just the suicide attempt but also suicidal thinking cannot be overstated.  When we’re in intense pain of any kind, our natural response is to end the pain.  Since emotional and physical pain are almost indistinguishable to the body, there’s no limit to the approaches we may try to eliminate the pain.

Survivors often ponder whether the person who has died by suicide thought of them or what the loss would mean to those who remained.  The short answer is no.  The longer answer is complicated.  In the long answer, they thought about those they’d leave behind, but it happens in a way that is not nearly as important as the need to end the pain.

Psychological pain is different.  It’s hard to quantify and hard to understand when others seem to have everything going well.  It’s hard to understand how the longings of their heart cannot be quieted or how they blame themselves for something they’ve done or the current state of their life.  These pains are often hidden from the view of others.

Emotional Pressure Vessels

For some people and some families, emotions aren’t safe.  Somewhere in their history, they’ve learned that emotions aren’t to be trusted.  If you expose anger to the light of day, it may lash out and harm others.  If you express fear, sorrow, or longing, you may infect others and the infection may consume them.  Like a Chinese finger trap, the inability to deal with emotions becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  There’s no opportunity to learn how to have healthy responses to emotions, because it’s not possible to experience or share them.  (See Descartes’ Error for more.)

Over time, we know that the pressure of not having emotions builds, and it can do severe damage to psyches and relationships when emotions finally force their way to the surface.  Invariably, when emotions are contained, they’ll find their way out.

In the world of suicide, we realize that unresolved, unexpressed, and unmanaged emotions can be the source of suicidal impulses.  Like the proverbial white bear that can’t be considered, so to do the things that we deny get bigger.  (See White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts for more.)


Many are quick to describe suicidal thoughts as irrational or the result of mental illness.  However, as Dan Ariely explains in Predictably Irrational, we’re all, well, predictably irrational.  This, however, isn’t always a bad thing.  Martin explains how he was afraid of a gun and not afraid of death.  It might be more accurate to say that he had a different fear relationship with death than most.  (See The Denial of Death and The Worm at the Core for more about the fear of death.)  No matter what his fear of death, he explains that he was afraid of his gun.  This seeming contradiction makes sense when you evaluate the fear of guns as a tool for violence separately from death.

Shifting the Hand of Fate

To this point, I’ve written as if Martin’s perspective was one of always wanting to die, always wanting to silence the voices of unhappiness, but that’s not fair.  Like everyone, Martin struggled with a desire to live and a desire to die.  It’s ambivalence, not knowing whether it is better to live or to die.  (See The Suicidal Mind for more on ambivalence in suicide.)  It’s quite possible, as Martin asserts from his own experience, that the person doesn’t know for sure whether they want to die or not.  It can be that there is no clear winner in the battle to live or die.

One way to bias towards death without overtly making a suicide attempt is to make risky decisions.  Risky choices can be thrill-seeking rather than a wish to die.  It’s more socially acceptable to die in an accident than to die by suicide.  (See The Rise of Superman for many deaths that were connected to risky behaviors.)

Consider for a moment an automobile accident where a car runs off the road and strikes a tree.  Was the person asleep at the wheel and drifted into the tree – or was the turn towards the tree intentional?  We cannot know.  Was it carelessness and risk-taking to drive while extremely sleep deprived?  Was this, as Menninger describes, “suicide by degrees?”  (See Clues to Suicide for more.)

One way to bypass internal prohibitions about suicide is to set up situations where death is a possibility rather than to directly make an attempt.  Who would be the wiser?

How to Speak with a Suicidal Person

Martin embeds clues to how to speak with a suicidal person.  He shares the widely held belief that you should be direct, specific, and fearless.  There’s absolutely something to be said for fearlessly asking whether someone is considering suicide.  There’s more to be said for the person who listens and hears yes but doesn’t run away.  It’s scary for everyone.  You don’t want to be responsible for someone else’s death, and even though you wouldn’t be, it doesn’t make the fear go away.

Martin is right that it’s the secrecy of the thoughts that provide the energy, and simply holding space for the thoughts can move towards resolving them.  What’s harder to see is that you shouldn’t directly try to contradict their perceptions that lead to the desire.  If they say that they feel unloved, you cannot tell them they’re wrong, you need to invite them to discover the cognitive constriction of their thinking.  (See Capture for more on cognitive constriction.)

The tools in Motivational Interviewing are particularly useful here.  Rather than trying to convince them they’re wrong, you can and should ask them for evidence supporting their conclusion – and for the evidence that contradicts their conclusions.  The process itself unwinds the thinking that leads to poor conclusions.

Heritage and Legacy

Martin shares some of this family history of mental illness and violence not as a way to justify his struggles but for further context.  These stories are startling because of their raw nature.  I’m not sure how I could respond to learning that my mother was the woman with whom my father was dancing at prom after he had tried to kill his own mother just hours before.

We all have a heritage we’ve inherited from our ancestors, for better and for worse.  The question is always what legacy we leave for others.  Perhaps Martin’s legacy is teaching people How Not to Kill Yourself when you want to.

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