Book Review-The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us

Inflection points matter. They’re the one time when a left turn really matters from a right turn. Paul Tough’s thesis is that “mobility in the United States today depends in large part on what happens to individuals during a relatively period in late adolescence and early adulthood.” More specifically, he believes the college we go to can make a life-altering difference to our social mobility. It’s a position he lays out in The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us.

I’m a fan of Tough’s writing, having read How Children Succeed and Helping Children Succeed previously. Both were well-researched and provided a great deal of perspective on the factors that lead to a child succeeding. It’s a natural evolution that Paul’s writing would grow up and move from childhood to adolescence. He brings to bear the same research and integrity as his prior books. As any parent can tell you, adolescence is a harder time for children. This topic is no different. It’s a challenging problem that he does good justice to, even if I’m not convinced in the end.

Social Mobility

Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order shares a traditional Irish saying: “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.” This saying contrasts the work of Alexis de Tocqueville, which Tough explains was confused by the social mobility in America. Our ability to change our class in life was a relative anomaly to the minds of the Europeans. The assumption was made that you were born into a class, and you’d say in that class. However, the ideas in America were different. The idea that you could work hard and change your station in life was both different and compelling. However, as the Irish saying suggests, changing your class in a permanent way wasn’t easy.

Social mobility is a great broad concept, but too often, it’s defined in economic terms, where the change is a relative degree of income or wealth. Somehow, making $1 million per year deposits you magically into a different class. However, as Kahneman points out in Thinking, Fast and Slow, the positive value by doubling our income doesn’t double our happiness or joy.

A more practical approach to thinking about social mobility is to consider stability and safety. In far too many families, their shelter and food are not assured. In far too many families, there are dangers of violence and turmoil that literally reshape the brains of those trapped within those family systems. In my opinion, the greatest social mobility move we can help people make is to elevate them not out of poverty in the financial sense but out of the challenges that are part and parcel with poverty. It’s not whether someone makes $20,000 per year or $200,000 per year that’s important. It’s whether they’re stable that matters to the development of the next generation.

By financial and statistical measures, going to college makes a big difference in your income earning potential. Going to the “right” school further increases your earning potential. There are advantages to going to college, even to a prestigious college, but is that all there is?

Defining Moments

A defining moment is supposed to tell the future of a person. It’s a moment where the person’s makeup and character are solidified and exposed in a real, tangible way to the rest of the world. In those terms, which college that someone is admitted to and chooses to attend doesn’t measure up. While it shapes the connections forged and the future income, in most cases, it doesn’t define a person. In that sense, it’s another in a long list of things that impact a person and shape their lives but don’t necessarily define them.

We integrate into our identities beliefs about who we are, whether we’re bright, funny, introverted, cute, friendly, or hundreds of other labels about aspects of who we believe we are. The point of inflection at our transition to college is not so much a crossroads about our earning potential as it is a crossroads of our identity.

Students who worked hard and were at the top of their class in high school find that they don’t get into their chosen school – or worse, they do. When they arrive at the high-performance school of their choice, they find that the competition is much, much stiffer. They once could run circles around their classmates, but now they’re struggling to keep up with the coursework. Instead of the person who was breaking the bell curve, they’re hoping that the bell curve helps them enough.

The reshuffling of identities can be hugely disorienting and challenging. The transition to college may be important from a financial perspective, but the ability to cope with identity disruption may be more critical.


All of us. Every one of us. We all want to belong. Even the misfits want to belong – in that case to a group of people who don’t belong to the mainstream. Seth Godin, in This is Marketing, quotes Professor Roland Imhoff in his writing: “Adherence to conspiracy theory might not always be the result of some perceived lack of control, but rather a deep-seated need for uniqueness.” However, even in this uniqueness, there’s a desire to have others share their belief.

One of the common thoughts that arises in everyone is the thought that we don’t belong, and we’ll be discovered as an impostor. It’s called “impostor syndrome,” and most people report experiencing it sometime in their lives. Rooted in our deep desire to belong, impostor syndrome is the fleeting or persistent feeling that we don’t really belong. I wrote about Straddling Multiple Worlds, where it’s easy to feel like an impostor, because you don’t feel like you fit into any of the places you experience on a regular basis.

Test Anxiety

If you believe that your whole life hinges on the outcome of a single test – like the SAT or the ACT – you’ll likely have test anxiety simply because there is so much at stake. Many people struggle in the presence of stress and anxiety. As a result, the very fact that it’s important makes you not perform as well. (See Drive for more on the impact of stress on creativity and Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more on stress more broadly.)

Because of the importance of the test, there is a whole industry of test preparation that surround both the SAT and ACT exams. The idea is that if you can get a better score on the standardized test, you can get admitted to a better university and therefore change the course of your life.

The truth is that the SAT was initially designed by Ivy League Colleges to assess what was thought of as a fixed capability – something that we’ve long since abandoned. (See Mindset for more.) Even though it’s been revised, the SAT remains an assessment with substantial biases that create a tendency for more affluent test takers to do better – leading to the nickname “Student Affluence Test.” The alternative, the ACT, was designed to be a more practical test, and it fares better – but it’s not without its biases either.

To combat the biases, and because the relative differentiating advantage with these standardized tests is low, some schools are no longer requiring that prospective students provide standardized test scores with their applications. While it’s unlikely we’ll see these tests go away, they’re losing their stranglehold on students who want to go to college.

Leveling the Playing Field

Because of the biases that make it more likely for rich students to attend prestigious schools, several attempts have been made to encourage students to attend the best school they’re admitted to. The idea is that these schools offer the best potential for long-term income generation.

The money game is soft on both sides, both in terms of the long-term earning potential and the amount the student pays for tuition. The schools with the highest incoming scores spend more to educate their students than they take in with tuition. They expect they can do this, because later the students will give to the university as alumni – and because previous alumni have given so generously. For that reason, it is presumed that you get the best education with the best college you can get into based on the scores.

However, many non-affluent students choose state schools, schools closer to them, and those where more of their friends are going. The result, it is supposed, is that they’re wasting their potential. To resolve that, attempts have been made to encourage students, including packets and conversations. However, most of these have been ineffective.

The Disagreement

So, while I believe that Tough did great research, I’m still not convinced that your decision on what college to go to matters most. It is my belief that much of the effect statisticians see in income disparity isn’t about the education but instead the connections that are made. One could argue that it doesn’t matter. Income is, after all, income. However, I disagree. It’s my belief that the value of life is measured in happiness and what we do to further humanity. I believe education is key to both.

I have no disagreement with making money nor desiring to go to a great college. I do, however, have a great disagreement with a system that causes our teenagers to commit suicide at higher and higher rates, because they are so unhappy with their lives that they can’t see any point in going on.

I didn’t go to college immediately after high school. I was accepted, but I looked at the finances and knew it wouldn’t work. (There’s a long but largely irrelevant story there.) I started working a job and went into publishing. It’s not that I make the most money of anyone I know. However, I like my life. I get time with family and friends. I get to pursue the things bring me joy (like reading and learning). We (my wife and I) are working hard to change the world that we live in for the better. For me, that’s more than any amount of money. After all, money doesn’t buy happiness.

In the end, I believe that The Years That Matter Most are the happy years, and I want more of them.

Conflict: Humility

We live in a time of arrogance. We live when people believe they’re better than other people, and they’re entitled to more of the world’s riches than anyone else. In this kind of a world, we’re left with conflicts, as people fight for more than their fair share (despite believing they deserve it). We’re left with a world where people struggle to have respect for one another. The result is more pointless conflict that doesn’t serve to make people better or more whole.

Power Held in Service to Others

The best definition of humility I’ve ever seen is “power held in service to others.” It’s a statement of how the humble person should position themselves. They’re not to become meek or powerless. They’re not to roll over to any breeze that comes by them. Instead, the humble person builds their inner strength to the maximum extent they can. They simply direct that inner strength towards helping others rather than helping themselves.

Instead of worrying about how to finish the race first, they worry about how to first ensure everyone finishes the race.

Humility Is Not Weakness

In Western societies, humility is often seen as weakness. “It’s easy to be humble when you’re powerless” resonates. However, humility shouldn’t be weakness. It should be selfless. Being selfless allows you to leverage your personal strengths for others.

Said differently, humility is not about thinking less of yourself, it’s about thinking about yourself less – thus creating more room to think about others.


The opposite of humility is arrogance – thinking about others less. However, the root of confusion about humility seems similar to the confusion that we have in the Western world about the difference between conviction and arrogance. While arrogance is not caring about others, conviction is being clear about how you care for others.

One can be completely convinced about the thing that they must do and therefore not seek input from everyone. This, on the surface, seems to be arrogance and the opposite of humility, but it only appears this way until you dig deeper and see that there’s no longer the need for input because of the clarity that already exists about how best to help.

In Conflict

If you enter a conflict with conviction but not humility, you’re blinded to how your conviction may be wrong or may conflict with the needs, hopes, and dreams of another person. You may be convinced that every person should have a computer and be blinded to the fact that people are dying of diarrhea and that this may be a more pressing need. (This was the revelation that Bill and Melinda Gates had.)

Humility – the willingness to hold your power for others – is the tempering for conviction that keeps you open to the needs of others while being convinced that your objective is the right one. Whether you decide to change your beliefs because of the conflict or remain firm in your conviction, humility is the tool that keeps us open, listening, and ultimately succeeding in our conflicts.

Book Review-Relationship-Based Care: A Model for Transforming Practice

Healthcare isn’t sausage-making. In sausage-making, “what’s in there” doesn’t matter. It’s simply that it tastes good. In fact, most people don’t want to know about the sausage-making process. However, in healthcare, we’re talking about people, and the process matters. That’s the heart of Relationship-Based Care: A Model for Transforming Practice – an understanding that the process of delivering care is important and the best way to do that is by recognizing the importance of relationships.

Three Directions

In the healthcare system, there are three primary kinds of relationships that a provider can have. First, there’s the obvious relationship to the patient – and their family. The second relationship is with the colleagues. Healthcare is a “team sport.” No provider can work alone. Finally, there’s the relationship to one’s self.

It may seem that a relationship to self is an odd thing to add; however, the truth is that the lack of self-care and self-awareness on the part of providers leads to burnout – and poorer outcomes for the patient. (See for more on burnout causes and resolutions.) The truth is that the relationship to self is the relationship from which the other relationships initiate.

Connecting to the Mission

Every day, care providers face new patients. They present with the same kinds of conditions and the same acuity as the day before and the day before that. There are variations to be sure, but the patients keep coming. It seems like the provider isn’t having an impact. The same patient comes back with the same problem, because they didn’t heed the provider’s advice.

It can be frustrating and demoralizing to realize that you can’t save everyone – that you can’t help everyone. As each day becomes more and more of a grind, it’s possible to lose your way – and wonder why you’re pushing yourself if you’re not seeing any results. That’s when it’s important to reconnect with the mission of the organization and to our personal mission.

Simon Sinek in Start with Why explains that connecting to why we’re doing something has a powerful effect on our productivity and our ability to continue in the face of adversity. In some cases, we know why we’re doing something – our personal and organizational missions – but we’re lost, because we don’t feel like we’re accomplishing the mission. Instead, we feel as if we’re engulfed in chaos, and we’re just trying to survive.

The Healing Power of Relationships

We think we’ve got the world figured out. We believe that our technology and techniques save lives – and to some extent, that’s true. Our technology does save lives, but there’s more to it than that. Aristotle knew that there was more than one way to know the truth. There’s the science – episteme – but there’s also the art – techne. The truth is that our technology and techniques are only part of the solution. (See Theory U for more about different kinds of knowing.)

In Being Mortal, Atul Gawande recounts research that assisted living facilities with patients who were given something to care for – a plant or an animal – lived longer than those who didn’t have something to care for. Our connection to other living things is a powerful tool for health.

Florence Nightingale knew this. She believed that the role of the nurse was to help patients attain the best possible condition, so nature could act, and self-healing could occur. The icon of nursing didn’t believe it was the nurse’s role to heal but rather to create the conditions for healing to occur, and those conditions seem to be found in caring, compassionate relationships.

Transforming an Environment of Care

Jayne Felgen developed a model, I2E2, for transforming the environment of care. The model is four concepts:

  • Inspiration – How do you connect people with the things that inspire them – in other words, their mission?
  • Infrastructure – The set of practices, systems, and processes that make the inspirational vision achievable.
  • Education – The promotion of competence, confidence, and personal commitment through providing the knowledge and skills necessary to do the job.
  • Evidence – Gut feel isn’t enough. In today’s healthcare world, it’s necessary to know for sure that the work being done is making a real difference.

The model encourages the tools that we know lead to change, including creating the initial pull to drive the change forward, supporting the individual both at a systemic and educational level to help them understand they can be successful, and providing continuing support in the form of demonstratable results. (See Diffusion of Innovations for more about motivating people to change.)

The Five Cs (Conditions)

In every organization, there are barriers to change. In fact, organizations, by their very nature, are resistant to change. The network of policies and procedures are designed to form a network that provides strength around unnecessary change. However, there are conditions that make it more likely that change can occur. They are:

  • Clarity – When people know what’s happening at a deep level – both to them and to the organization at large – they can move forward with less fear. (See The Fearless Organization about the role of fear in organizations and Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited for more on the role of safety.)
  • Competency – The more people feel competent, the more willing they are to step forward into the change. (See The Psychology of Hope for how waypower impacts a person’s ability to maintain hope.)
  • Confidence – The feeling that someone knows what is being asked of them and has the skills to execute on that leads to confidence – or courage – to move forward. (See Find Your Courage for more.)
  • Collaboration – Collaboration is the ability to work together towards a common goal. That’s essential if you want to transform an organization, because in all but the smallest of organizations, there are multiple people involved whom you need to work with. (See Collaborative Intelligence for a very detailed investigation in how to make collaboration work.)
  • Commitment – Being “bought in” to a goal is critical to its success. Commitment carries the change beyond just doing it if it’s easy, and instead moves it to the world of grit, where there’s a burning desire inside the person who is willing to face adversity to accomplish the goal. (See Grit for more.)

Though the 5 Cs aren’t a rich model for organizational change, it does provide a good framework for some of the basics.

Person not Diagnosis

Diabetes in room 3. Stroke in room 4. Breathing trouble in room 5. It’s a quick way of communicating, but it’s not a respectful way. In healthcare, we’ve got HIPAA to consider, but we can’t use that as a shield for our thoughts and words. Everyone has a story. Everyone is a real person – and they’re much more than a diagnosis.

When we dehumanize people, as referring to them by their diagnosis tends to do, we make it easier to unconsciously treat them poorly. Stanley Milgram demonstrated that, given light environmental controls and encouragement, most people are willing to administer what they believe are life-threatening shocks to others – if they’re not in the same room. (See The Lucifer Effect and Moral Disengagement for more on Milgram’s experiments and the topic of dehumanization in general.) Though we don’t want to admit it, the more we fail to think and communicate about patients as real people with real fears, hopes, and aspirations, the easier we make it to discount them – and that’s the opposite of being in a relationship with them.

Leadership as Being in a Relationship

Joseph Rost laid out in Leadership for the Twenty-First Century how he believed all leadership is done in relationships – non-coercive relationships – and how everyone is a leader. Rather than believing there are two classes of people (separating people into us vs. them), Rost believed that all of us are in relationships with others and are capable of leading. The common thread is that the relationship is accomplished for a meaningful, mutual purpose. In healthcare, the well-being of the patient is a meaningful, mutual purpose.

Sometimes in leading recovery, the patient will lead, and other times, the nurse will lead. Sometimes, in healthcare organizations, the manager will be leading, and other times the nurse will be leading. Leading is, according to Rost, centrally focused on the ability to be in a relationship.

Most nurses recognize that their relationship with their patients, the ability to be with them at their times of such great vulnerability and need, is a sacred and privileged trust. This puts them in the position to lead the patient to better health – as non-coercively as possible.

Organizational Models

Relationship-Based Care spends a great deal of time investigating structural models of organization and approaches to how to deliver the best care. From the historically highly authoritative to the more collaborative approaches, the walk-through shows the progression from a very power-based approach to one that is more collaborative and focused on mutual relationships.

The concerns are addressed about how organizations can maintain consistency of delivery when the delivery is done in a more collaborative and relationship-driven way. The fact of the matter is providing professionals with more autonomy provides for better outcomes – when that autonomy works inside of a well-defined framework.

I’m reminded of Chris Lowney’s work, Heroic Leadership, and how the Jesuits learned which things couldn’t be adapted to fit a culture they were working with – and which could. This clarity about the things that were and weren’t negotiable made it possible to operate effectively in very different environments.


Relationship-Based Care recommends reflection – and that’s important both at an individual level and at a level of process improvement. When we do institutional reflection like after-action reviews (see Lost Knowledge), more commonly seen as root cause analysis, systemic cause analysis, or morbidity and mortality meetings, we create the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and not repeat them.

Perhaps it’s worth some reflection to see if you are providing the best Relationship-Based Care.

Conflict: Detachment not Disengagement

Most people don’t really want to have a conflict. It takes time, effort, and mental energy to even be in the conflict, and in our busy worlds, it’s more than most people want to deal with. Too often, conflicts seem to disappear before they can be dealt with only to reappear someplace else in the future. Too often, we disengage from a conflict rather than gain detachment from it.


You can call it retreat. You can call it avoidance. You can even call it stonewalling, John Gottman’s favorite term. Gottman, in fact, names stonewalling – or refusing to engage in a conversation and conflict – as the death knell of relationships. Disengagement is like taking your ball and going home. Disengagement has the same kind of relational impacts as literally taking your ball and going home. It shuts off connection to the other person and blocks or prevents relationships.

Disengagement comes in the silence or in the “okay” responses that are uttered without emotion or with a sullen face that indicates there’s no point in continuing the discussion. It comes when it no longer seems worth it to continue the fight. When it happens, there’s a real problem that requires the other party to try (even if unsuccessfully) to re-engage.


Detachment and disengagement seem similar on the surface. Not only are the words phonetically similar, the responses are even objectively similar. A detached person is likely to accept what the other person is saying by answering with the same word – “okay” – as the disengaged person. The difference is in the attitude. The difference is in what the response does to the person themselves and their willingness to stay in the conversation.

Detached people are “okay.” Literally they don’t see themselves in the ring having the struggle. Any outcome is acceptable. The other party isn’t an enemy combatant. Instead, they’re just someone with a different point of view or perhaps different values. This distance from the conflict allows them to respond instead of react.

Responding not Reacting

Reacting is normal. We react to loud noises, and we often react to the things that we think are going on with other people. However, when we react, we don’t allow the space for our neocortex to come up with an intelligent response. When we react, we don’t take the time to consider the consequences on our discussion or our relationships.

Detachment allows us to view the conflict as “okay” and therefore not a threat. This allows us the capacity to thoughtfully respond rather than trying to respond quickly.

Cultivating Detachment

Detachment, though desirable, isn’t always easy to get to. To reach detachment with a situation, you must shed the idea that you’re at risk. By cultivating a sense of safety, you create detachment from the outcomes. Cultivating safety can be as simple as playing a fair game of worst-case scenario, in which you evaluate what’s the worst that could come from the conflict – and realize, in most cases, it’s not life-threatening or even all that impactful in the long term.

Learning to take a step back from the emotion to recognize that the conflict isn’t really that harmful can be the difference between unhealthy disengagement and healthy detachment.

Book Review-No Ego: How Leaders Can Cut the Cost of Workplace Drama, End Entitlement, and Drive Big Results

It started with the liars. They’d ask, “Do you have a minute?” They’d plop themselves down in the comfy guest chair and proceed to take about 45 minutes. That’s what kicked off Cy Wakeman’s quest and led to No Ego: How Leaders Can Cut the Cost of Workplace Drama, End Entitlement, and Drive Big Results. The frustration with the status quo and the conventional wisdom about how to deal with employees led Wakeman to a very contrary view about what can and should be done to create organizations that deliver results.

BMWs (Bitching, Moaning, and Whining)

They’d drive their BMWs right into offices, and no one would stop them. Employees who were low on the accountability and engagement scales would routinely do a drive-by and kidnap the time of another employee with their bitching, moaning, and whining (their “BMW”). The problem is that, in a world where we must listen to our employees and care about how others feel, what are you to do?

It turns out the answer is to convert the useless listening into something useful – problem solving. As the father of two daughters, I know firsthand that there are times that everyone just needs to be listened to. They don’t want a solution. They want to know that they’re understood. There’s nothing wrong with that. Despite Wakeman’s perspective that we should never listen to an employee bitch, moan, or whine, I’ll disagree.

As humans, we need to feel connected (see Loneliness, The Blank Slate, and Bowling Alone for more). We need to believe that we’re heard. There’s a very valid question as to whether our manager or HR department should be the person that hears us for every concern we have. In most cases, I’d say no. However, we’ve got to be careful turning this natural need for connection away, because we don’t stop it – we redirect it back to their peers and subordinates, and this has the potential for a creating a toxic effect on the culture.

I remember a long time ago, when I walked into a friend in HR’s office and told her that I had turned in my resignation to my manager. She was visibly stunned. I was confused by her reaction. I had been very transparent with her about my frustrations – which she could do little or nothing about. Her response still echoes in my head. “But lots of people come in and complain to me about things, but few actually do anything about it.” That was the fundamental difference. It’s OK to complain if you’re willing to do something about it in the end.

One of my daughters has a habit of plopping herself at the end of my bed at about 10:30 at night. My wife and I get up early, and 10:30 is when we want lights out. Our college-age daughter gets up a little later than us and seems ready to talk. I’ve learned that, most of the time, what she wants of us – or me, as my wife sometimes falls asleep during our long talks – is just that I’ll listen. She doesn’t want me to solve the problem, she wants me to understand. That’s OK, I can follow along. It’s part of being a dad.

Where she and I sometimes must renegotiate is when she continues to bring the same problems to our untimely conversations. She knows that she’ll get two or three swings at the bat before my natural instincts to help solve problems will kick in, and she’ll get a solution so I can get some sleep.

My response is to not reject the person but to redirect them into healthier long-term habits. With that in place employees can be redirected to talking to their peers because they’ll be moving forward rather than moving back.

Driving into Victimhood

BMWs are meant for driving. But the problem is they seem like they’ve got a runaway GPS and autopilot system that drive them only one place. They’re always headed for victimhood. It’s not that victimhood isn’t a place to visit. We’ve all driven by and perhaps pitched a tent for a while. The problem with victimhood is that it’s a lousy place to build a house.

I’m very careful to draw a distinction between being victimized and being a victim. (See Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy and Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited.) Being victimized means that someone took advantage of you or your situation. Being a victim is a self-identification label that people apply to themselves as if it’s a permanent thing.

Being a victim should never be a label that one applies to themselves or others. It’s a negative, self-fulfilling sort of thing that keeps people trapped and prevents them from starting to move forward in life.

Start Helping

The way out of victimhood is often the helping bus. Sometimes it can be helping yourself out of your situation, but, strangely, it’s often about helping others. If you look across research and programs, one of the most powerful ways to lift your mood is to volunteer and to help someone else. The very act of doing something for others moves you away from the self-focused pity that lies at the heart of victimhood.

Managers and leaders have powerful questions that they can ask to transform someone who appears stuck in victimhood into action. Simply asking “How can you help?” is a powerful framing change, where the person is no longer the victim and is instead an active party in their situation and the situation of others.

Rely on Reality

Reality isn’t always pleasant. It’s not always fun, but it always beats the alternative. The problem when we get into our own heads and do the prediction our brains were designed to do is that we invariably get it wrong. We’re still marvels in that we can predict and anticipate, but what we believe may happen doesn’t mean it will happen. (See Mindreading for more about predicting.)

Many of the sources of stress in our modern lives aren’t real. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more on stress.) We make up stories and see potential negative outcomes, and we forget that, in most cases, we’re really OK.

Suffering Because We Refuse to Adapt

Wakeman relates a story where her team was moved repeatedly during some construction, and they were getting frustrated. A mentor asked why she was frustrated, and she answered that it was because of the moving. When her mentor asked again, a light bulb went on. She wasn’t frustrated because of the moving. She was frustrated because the team failed to adapt to the moving. (Though she didn’t say it directly, she let go of her righteousness that she and her team shouldn’t be treated like this.)

The short version is that she and her team were failing to adapt to the moving. As a consultant for most of my professional career, I’ve learned to work anywhere. Starbucks, McDonalds, kitchen, cafeteria, it doesn’t matter. It’s a skill like any other. Becoming adaptable and flexible is something that her team needed to learn.

We get caught up in the ways we feel we should be treated and respond with righteous indignation when we feel as if people aren’t giving us the respect we deserve. But, in many cases, it doesn’t matter. Learning to accept and adapt is critical to our work lives as well as our lives as humans. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on acceptance.)

Right Turnover

But what about when it’s not right to adapt? Sometimes, there’s a bad fit that just won’t work. As much as you hammer the square peg, it’s simply not going through the round hole. That’s when it’s time for turnover. With the increasing difficulty in finding people to fill open slots, it’s hard to recognize when it’s time for someone to be successful somewhere else, but it must be done.

We’ve all seen the receptionist who has a permanent pickle face. (You know the kind of face you make when eating a pickle.) We’ve met the salespeople whose world view is to extract as much out of a customer as possible today and not worry about the long-term relationship despite the corporate culture being built on lasting relationships. Those are the people that need to turn over in the organization.

Sometimes, the numbers don’t tell the complete story. One of my clients had an average tenure of employees for over 30 years. In many ways, it was a testament to the leadership. In other ways, having such a low turnover rate meant that some people who needed to go… didn’t.


In some organizations, people can continue to work there even when they’re not meeting their goals. Let me restate that – in almost every organization, people can continue to work there even when they’re not meeting goals. The reality is that we love the idea of other people being accountable but cringe when there’s the thought that we’d be made accountable. (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) for more.)

Over the course of my career, I’ve had more than a few projects where the systems I was implementing would result in greater accountability. The systems would provide crystal clear reporting on who was and was not doing the behaviors the organization required of them. I’m not talking about the outcomes. I’m talking about the actual behaviors the organization wanted.

Consider, for instance, the CRM (customer relationship management) system designed to track when customers are followed up with and what the current status of a prospective deal is. Managers love it, and salespeople see it as busy work. Rarely has a high-performing but non-compliant salesperson been fired for not keeping their data up to date.

The problem with this is that a lack of accountability is a breeding ground for all sorts of bad behaviors the organization doesn’t want. It’s inconvenient and uncomfortable to have to hold employees accountable, but it’s necessary. That being said, it’s even harder to hold ourselves accountable for our actions and inactions. We fall into the trap of fundamental attribution error (see Thinking, Fast and Slow), and we instead excuse away our actions and, in the process, create opportunities for problems.

Don’t Feed the Trolls

The internet is a great place where there are lots of small bridges to cross. For a while, I was managing some internet communities, and the single best piece of advice I ever got was “Don’t feed the trolls.” Trolls are the people who are just there to create a ruckus. They’re not really trying to add value to the conversation, they’re there to stir the pot.

Trolls grow in strength and power when they accomplish their goals and get responses. The less they’re able to draw people into the fight, the weaker they become. So, responding to the trolls was always done in private. For situations where it was appropriate, their posts were removed and occasionally the trolls were banished.

More routinely, we’d encourage our regular posters to restore balance by contributing in ways that acknowledged but neutralized the trolls. Instead of directly fighting them and escalating the tensions, they’d acknowledge them and then minimize their efforts to create problems. The strategy worked well and allowed us to keep a vibrant community that welcomed healthy disagreement without the kind of disruptive influence the trolls were trying to create. (See more about how trolls are disruptive by looking at Mastering Logical Fallacies.)

Don’t Encourage Lying

I’ll end with another place where Wakeman and I disagree. To be clear, there’s a lot of good in No Ego. There are only a few places where I think the advice works in the short term but is caustic in the long term. Confronting people about their support is one of them.

Wakeman encourages managers to confront employees and get them to commit to the plan – or find a place for themselves off the team or in a different organization. While noble in purpose, in my experience, this just shuts down transparency. The employee – who often needs THIS job – will say whatever is necessary and then not do it. (See The Fearless Organization about the need for their job and creating a culture of safety.)

In effect, Wakeman’s approach encourages employees to lie and ultimately subvert the goals and plans of the organization. That’s very difficult to root out. Rather than put it on the employee to commit, I’d transform the question to “What needs to be done to help you support this initiative?” In Wakeman’s world view, this is kowtowing to the employee; but in my view, it acknowledges them as a human being who has a concern. The end may be that there is no agreement to be had, but before that, I may learn something, and I’m also not forcing them to lie to me – I’ll count that as a win.

I remember reading Humilitas‘ introduction and the great humility displayed in sharing that the book wasn’t about the author but was needed. It’s hard to write a book about humility – or No Ego – without seeming arrogant or conceited. For me, there’s a humor in No Ego as a title, since Wakeman firmly believes in her perspective as an opinion – as we all do to some degree. At the same time, her writing suggests that she knows better than the employees. For me, No Ego would have been about how to gently redirect while learning. When you read No Ego, do you see ways to develop your own lack of ego?

Conflict: Personal Agency and Compassion

If you want to make conflict easier – and you don’t have the ability to build trust and relationships with the people involved ahead of time – there are still things you can do. You can work on you. Working on you means developing an appropriate sense of personal agency and cultivating compassion.

Personal Agency

Your sense of personal agency is your belief that you can get things done. It’s about believing you have the strength and resources it takes to overcome obstacles, and it’s very handy in conflicts for two reasons. First, feeling like you have personal agency makes you more resourceful for coming up with solutions that require you to offer up some skill, talent or resource.

Second, and more importantly, believing that you have personal agency allows you to weather the conflict more easily. In a conflict where you believe you have few resources, every inch you give to the other party’s position feels like something you’ll never be able to regain. Every inch of lost ground is a major issue. However, the greater your personal agency, the less concerned you become with winning every point. This allows you to concede some points while knowing that the end of the conflict will be ok.

Recognizing your personal agency makes the conflict safer. Making the conflict safer opens up riskier options that sometimes have the greatest value.


Rising out of a place of strength in personal agency is the capacity to be compassionate. Being compassionate requires that we’re willing to feel the pain of others and have a desire to alleviate that suffering – even if we can’t do that directly. The willingness to feel another person’s pain is the response of someone who has the inner fortitude and personal agency to know that allowing themselves to feel what the other person feels will not overwhelm them. Compassion requires feeling what others feel, and if you don’t believe you have the kind of strength it takes to do this effectively, you simply won’t.

While many believe that compassion comes from a place of weakness, it does not. Even after connecting to the feelings of another, there is more strength required. The desire to alleviate the suffering of the others requires a willingness to sacrifice. While not every case of compassion requires a sacrifice, every act of compassion has the potential to require some sort of sacrifice – and that sacrifice takes strength.

It may be a financial contribution, a mission trip, a connection, or something else to attempt to reduce the suffering of others; but whatever it is, it represents an expenditure of your personal agency for the benefit of others.

The Impact

Taken together, personal agency and compassion provide the best framework for listening to the other party. Personal agency forestalls a sense of defensiveness that can enter into a conflict when we feel like we have no power or recourse. Compassion provides the power to connect with the other party to understand their needs, their pains, and their perspectives.

Together, these create a set of conditions that make it more likely that the conflict will end with both parties feeling good about it – and less chance that the conflict will end poorly.

Book Review-Critical Knowledge Transfer: Tools for Managing Your Company’s Deep Smarts

What is it that makes one person more valuable to an organization than another? Take two engineers with the same degrees from the same universities and even the same grade point average. One is invaluable to the organization, and the other is just a solid contributor. One just seems to know things the other doesn’t. When considering how to make the knowledge of the organization more accessible, it’s in the organization’s best interest to highlight the more knowledgeable of the two. However, how can you determine that?

Critical Knowledge Transfer: Tools for Managing Your Company’s Deep Smarts is designed to help solve this problem, both from the point of view of identifying which employees hold critical knowledge and from the perspective of learning techniques to transfer those deep smarts to other members of the organization.

Identifying Deep Smarts

Before you can put a plan together about how to transfer deep smarts, you must first be able to identify where those deep smarts might be. While the deep smarts themselves may not be easy to isolate and convert into explicit knowledge, there are precursors that you can look for that may indicate that deep smarts exist.

There are cognitive, behavioral, and physical indicators that, when you find them, can indicate a deeper level of thinking and processing is happening – and therefore deep smarts might be nearby. In the physical dimension, the ability to quickly, accurately, and precisely predict and respond to physical touch and other senses can lead to deeper “feels” that may be hard to articulate. From the mundane riding a bike to the subtle skill of a master illusionist, there are observable physical traits that indicate there’s more happening.

In the behavioral category are a cluster of skills that seem to be formed around communicating and relationship-building with others. We’ve all met the master connector who can make friends with anyone and who can plug people together. Whether it’s for personal gain or in service to others, master connectors can communicate and connect when others can’t. Their deep smarts involve the map of the other people they know and what they’re capable of as well as their own deep smarts about how to operate in social environments with people who have such a variety of interests, backgrounds, and goals.

The most commonly focused on category is the cognitive area, with systems thinking (see Thinking in Systems for more), critical “know-how” and “know-what” skills, wise judgement, context awareness, and pattern recognition being the contributors to this kind of deep smarts.

Comfortable with Disagreement

One of the curious entries in the list is the capacity to be comfortable with disagreement. Those with deep smarts often have a characteristic capacity for being comfortable with disagreement. The fact that other people don’t agree with them doesn’t threaten their perception or their identity. These folks have accepted that others will have different perspectives than them, and that is OK. Either they’ll learn to adjust their perception about reality – or they’ll accept that someone else has a different perspective.

We learn through well-managed conflict – through dialogue. Dialogue with another person grants us the gift of revealing our inconsistencies. (See Dialogue for more.)

Creative Abrasion

When John Gottman first did research on couples, his ideas were odd. Why would you intentionally ask couples to fight? What would it reveal about who would stay married and who would divorce? The answer was in the way the couples fought. Some couples would fight and get nasty and personal. Others would fight in ways that recognized the disagreement and acknowledged the value of the person. (See The Science of Trust for more.)

Similarly, it’s generally believed that, in teams, there shouldn’t be conflict. Conflict is seen negatively about the ability of the team members to get along. However, the problem isn’t that the team is fighting. It’s an opportunity see how they’re disagreeing. If the team can be respectful of their colleagues’ perspectives and seek to better understand each other, the creative abrasion can fuel excellence and performance. Ed Catmul, in Creativity, Inc., explains that, at Pixar, the brain trust (a specific meeting) reviews and criticizes early drafts of movies. The way it’s done is constructive rather than destructive, and this allows the meetings to empower directors rather than to demotivate them.

A Monkey’s Expertise

Unfortunately, what appears to be deep smarts isn’t so deep after all. Some environments don’t give good feedback, and people aren’t interested in it anyway, since it would expose that they’re not good at their job. A bunch of monkeys could pick stocks as well as the expert investors. This sad proclamation is almost true. With dart-throwing, when humans stood in for their evolutionary cousins, the assertion was proved false. However, the expert investors only beat the Dow Jones Industrial Average 51% of the time. That’s not a particularly impressive record.

A single percentage point difference can be important when there are large amounts of money involved. However, for most people, the expertise isn’t worth much. Sometimes, “expertise” really isn’t. And, sometimes, it can lay dormant without notice.


When it comes to recognizing deep smarts after it is too late, posthumous recognition is the ultimate. Once someone is dead, they can, obviously, no longer produce additional works. History is littered with experts whose genius was recognized after their death. Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickerson, Henry David Thoreau, Claude Monet, and dozens of others’ expertise was never recognized while they lived.

In business and knowledge management, this highlights a key problem that plays out every day with less grisly consequences. Organizations don’t recognize the key smarts an employee had. The employee leaves, and the organization discovers what they lost. While this cannot be prevented, it does represent a challenge for organizations that don’t want to find they wasted precious opportunities to capture the knowledge that someone has.

Tactical with an Overarching Theme

I’d call it strategic and tactical. It’s the ability to be both fox and hedgehog. (See Range and Should You Be the Fox or the Hedgehog?) It’s rare to find people who have both a “vague understanding about everything” and a detailed understanding about some things. More importantly, it’s powerful. Sometimes, the most important knowledge doesn’t stand out as the most detailed expertise in a single area; sometimes, it’s hidden in the valleys between the peaks of the disciplines. It’s in the connections between one thing and another. These sorts of deep smarts are particularly hard to identify and transfer, since developing them requires developing expertise in multiple areas, which takes time.

Leaving a Legacy

There may be no one formula for identifying or capturing the deep smarts that folks in your organization possess. Techniques like those detailed in Lost Knowledge are all options for capturing the knowledge that has been identified. But identifying those deep smarts – particularly those smarts that will be useful to others – isn’t as easy as it looks. However, there may be a way to leverage mentoring opportunities to empower the expert with the drive to share what they know.

It starts with leaving a legacy. We all, at some level, want to leave our mark on the world. We know that some day we’ll die, no matter how much our ego tries to shield us from this fact. When we believe that we can leave a lasting change beyond our lifetime we’re motivated to try. While most of us won’t contribute to the library system like Andrew Carnegie, we can leave our mark through the way that we educate, support, and mentor others.

When you’re working at an organization to encourage experts to share what they know, consider connecting this sharing to their being able to leave a legacy at the organization and in the world.

Maybe, just maybe, this will be what it takes to accomplish Critical Knowledge Transfer.

Conflict: Is it Fair?

The parent sets a boundary, says no, and the child retorts, “But, it’s not fair.” The parent certainly thinks it’s reasonable and fair, but the perspective of the child is different. So, who’s right? How do you define fair in any situation? The gap in perceptions between two people and what they believe is fair is generally right at the heart of the conflict.


When we comment that something isn’t fair, we believe it wasn’t handled impartially. It’s not fair that she got the job, because she’s the favorite. He’s not the best fit, but he plays golf with the boss, so he got the job. We expect judges to be impartial, and that’s why there are so many rules about what they can and can’t (or rather should and should not) do as it relates to the parties in the case. We expect that they’ll recuse themselves if they believe they can’t be partial. (To recuse oneself is to say that you’re unfit because of potential partiality.)

In our real lives, rarely do we get the option to recuse ourselves from the decisions that we must make. Whether it’s deciding between one child or another’s activities or choosing which family to visit for an important holiday, we can’t just let someone else make the decision. What we can do to minimize conflict is to communicate the criteria that we used and make it clear why we made the decision that we did.

Different Criteria

Ideally, the criteria being used by the decision maker and the criteria of the person who feels slighted should align, but rarely do they. When we’re saying that it isn’t fair, we’re often complaining that the criteria we are using wasn’t the criteria the other person was using, and so the decision didn’t turn out the way we expected it to. The reality of our brains is that we make our decisions and then we rationalize them. Maybe she smiled a bit more or he made better eye contact. Neither objectively has impact to the matter at hand, but it shifted things in their favor nonetheless.

Even if we can align on criteria, we may not align on the way the measurement of that criteria is done. One person may believe the criteria of scholarship is best expressed through the works they’ve read, while another party may believe that the best criteria is what they’ve written. Conflicts can persist even when the criteria is the same if the way it is assessed is different.


The truth is we all have our perspectives that are based on our prior experiences, including our experiences while growing up. Our perspective is not wrong, they’re just incomplete. We see things from one point of view, and the other party sees it from a different point of view. The parent in the opening example believes it’s important for the child to learn to eat their dinner. They’ve made a value choice about learning good eating habits. The child is focused on the here and now and their desire for immediate gratification with some candy. In this case, the criteria that the parties are using are radically different.

Parents might say that the parent perspective is “right,” while children may side with the child in this example and wonder what’s the harm in one sucker. By operating on two different levels, the conflict persists, until the child gets to experience the authority of the parent in the situation. In peer relationships, it’s not so easy to resolve the disagreement with “I said so.”

To find fairness in the situation, we must establish the criteria we’re using and then the standards by which we’ll evaluate that criteria. Done well, this can resolve conflicts quickly – or avoid them altogether.

Book Review-This is Marketing: You Can’t Be Seen Until You Learn to See

In This is Marketing: You Can’t Be Seen Until You Learn to See, Seth Godin builds on his other writing and tries to explain marketing today. When it comes to marketing, he is about as popular as it gets. His writing spans decades, and he’s worked with some of the other leading marketing authors, including Jay Levinson in an early version of Guerrilla Marketing. In Tribes, he calls out his strategy for creating a following. In This is Marketing, he widens the field to explain why he believes tribes are necessary and how they fit into marketing objectives.

The Myth of Marketing

There are many myths about marketing, but none more pervasive than it’s easy or there’s some simple, 5-step formula for being successful. (See Got Your Attention?, Email Marketing Demystified, Launch, Pitch Anything, Traction, Launch!, Killer Web Content, and Platform for some examples.) Repeatedly, we hear about “overnight” successes that weren’t so overnight. Chick-fil-A and Walmart are popular exemplars for people to pull out for “overnight” successes. The irony is that both organizations spent decades in relative obscurity, until, eventually, they developed enough of a following and scale to really ramp things up. Apparently, organizations aren’t alone, Godin explains, as both the ice cream sundae and the stop light weren’t overnight successes either.

We want to believe that marketing is easy and quick. We want to believe that anyone can do it. However, reality doesn’t bear that out. We need to delve into the psychographics of our potential audiences and find out what consumers want. More than the ¼” drill bit and even more than the ¼” holes, what is it that they really want? We could stop short and say that they want to mount a shelf, but continuing further, what kind of an emotion does the person want to obtain by hanging the shelf? A bit more peace about the order in their world? That’s a far stretch to sell them a drill bit. Will they even understand the emotion they’re trying to solve when they’re staring down the ten options for purchasing a ¼” drill bit? (If you want more, Clayton Christiansen in Competing Against Luck and The Innovator’s DNA says that buyers hire things to do a job for them.)

Time and Measurement

In today’s world, we have more capacity to measure the efficacy of our advertising and the ways we engage the market than we’ve ever had in history. I can tell you which ads people clicked and even how long they stayed on my website after clicking the ad. We can see where our website hits are coming from. We can tell what time of day people come to our site. Not only are we swimming in data, most of the time, we’ve got solid dashboards to help us make sense of the data.

The problem is that Godin encourages us to realize that marketing is about forming a relationship with our prospects – our tribe – and this takes time. We’ve got to keep showing up day-after day with generosity for years and years. When we’re doing direct marketing, we can see that the users clicked, but we can’t see if we’ve built into our relationship or if we’ve made a small withdrawal from our relational bank account.

So, on the one hand, Godin encourages us to carefully watch our metrics, and at the same time, he encourages us to be patient for results to come. Some – but not all — of this discrepancy can be resolved by understanding that Godin is encouraging a relationship and not advertising. While advertising is necessary, he feels like advertising is unearned media.

No More Rock Stars

Fundamentally, Godin explains, marketing has changed. It’s more personalized, fragmented, and diluted. We simply don’t have as many megastars as we used to have. Growing up in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, I can remember Madonna and Michael Jackson. I don’t expect that we’ll see stars of their magnitude any longer. Things are just too diffuse. (See America’s Generations for more on differences in generations.)

Instead of trying to reach everyone, we should be focusing on our target market and finding a few raving fans who will share their passion for your solution with others. You want a group – even if it’s small – that believes so strongly in your solution that they’re willing to tell everyone they know.

Brand Promise

Most of the time, when I’m talking to an organization about their brand, they instantly move to a discussion of their logo, fonts, and colors. They talk about what it looks like, but that’s not the core of a brand. The core of a brand is the promise that the brand makes to consumers. In The Deep Water of Affinity Groups, I explained that every brand makes a promise, and the strength of the brand relies upon their ability to deliver to that promise.

Marketing and Pricing

Your approach to marketing and your pricing are not distinct things. They’re related. If your brand promise is luxury and your price is low, the consumer won’t be able to reconcile the difference. They’ll be stuck trying to decide your messaging or your price. In the end, they’ll accept your price as truth – whether it is or not. When you’re deciding the spot you want to occupy in the market, you must consider not only the key emotion that you’re selling but also whether your price supports that position.

Brands have the power to cause people to spend money for little or no additional value. They’re selling status. They’re selling exclusivity and elite. That status is something that many people are quite willing to pay for. Somewhere deep inside, they believe in scarcity, and that, when things get scarce, those with the higher status will get the remaining resources. The problem is that the things marketers sell for status have no relationship to how much or little someone will have when resources become scarce. But, then again, This is Marketing.

Conflict: The Value

There is a tendency to view conflict in a negative light. After all, we typically only focus on the conflicts we have that have gone poorly. We only lament about those that didn’t end well. However, the truth is that conflict is a necessary part of all our lives. When we look at conflict through a more wholistic lens, we can see how it’s neither positive nor negative.


Friction is also seen negatively. Friction in our doors calls for WD-40 to help eliminate it. Friction in our cars makes them less fuel efficient. However, without friction, our cars would skid helplessly across the road, never stopping – and they’d never get started in motion either. Friction allows us to get going and change direction, but when we’re focused on efficiency, we don’t always see that. We need the right kinds of friction to allow us to move and control our situation.

However, the wrong friction can be a real problem. Run an engine without oil to lubricate it, and eventually you’ll find that the parts are fused together and no longer work. If you have the wrong kind of conflict, and you don’t lubricate it, you’ll find yourself stuck.

Positive Attributes of Conflict

While conflict can be difficult to get through, it forces us to understand our own thoughts and the thoughts of others better. Consider C.S. Lewis’ perspective on disagreement and debate. He loved it. He and J.R.R. Tolkien were both better for their disagreements and debate. Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” The reality is that we make each other sharper and better. We do that through our conflicts.

We’ve come to learn that animals and humans need challenge and struggle to fully develop their potential. A chicken who is “helped” out of its shell will almost certainly die, because it never conquered the challenge of breaking free of its shell on its own. New hatchling sea turtles who are “helped” to the sea become helplessly lost, having never calibrated their ability to map their world.

Time and time again, we find in nature that we need struggle, challenge, and conflict to make us better people.

The Outcome

Conflict need not end poorly. When you develop the skills to detach, stay curious, seek understanding, and find new options, you can get to the other side of conflict having learned more about the world, including its objective reality, and about other people. We don’t really want to eliminate conflict, because to do so would rob us of the ability to grow and become more of the people we need to be. However, we want to get to the other side of conflicts, where we’ve grown instead of being harmed or damaging relationships.

Learning how to have conflict the right ways, in which we nurture respect of one another and find greater strength in ourselves and in those around us, is the goal.