The Hidden Logic Behind Perceived Situational Safety

There are times that we feel very safe – when we are not. Similarly, there are times when we are filled with unfounded fear. It’s unfounded, because we are objectively very safe. Our actual safety and our perception of safety can be separated by many of the biases that are well known to psychologists but which few people give much thought to. However, another important factor about our feeling of safety is based on about the impact to us and our ability to respond. If we feel that the probability of any kind of loss is low and the perception of our ability to recover is high, we’ll feel safe. Conversely, if we have low self-esteem, we can be provoked into fear very easily.

Behind our feelings of safety are a complex web of factors that make us feel safe – or not. It’s this web of conflicting factors that we’ll untangle here.

The Operating Model

It’s important to understand how the emotion of fear works. It’s not simply that there’s some sort of a threat or a stressor, it’s what we believe about the stressor both in terms of probability and our ability to compensate should the stressor come to fruition. Let’s explore what we mean when we say “stressor” then talk about the aspects of our assessment that are important for both fear and anxiety.

Stressors

While the idea of stress is understood, most folks don’t have a clear picture of what a stressor is. In short, it’s anything that can cause harm to someone. The harm can be physical or psychological. The brain makes very little (if any) difference between a physical threat and a psychological threat. Most folks think of stressors as things like lions, but for humans, stressors can be losing a job, needing to pay a mortgage, etc.

Stressors can also be either real and present or predicted. Stressors need not be real in the abstract sense for them to be stressful to you. For instance, your boss may sing your praises and give you glowing performance reviews, but you may still be concerned about losing your job or getting fired. Stressors are therefore both externally generated and internally generated as the perception of a stressor.

Stressors themselves don’t generate fear or anxiety. Stressors are just the first step in the process that can lead to fear and stress – or to peace.

Assessments

To determine whether a stressor is a real problem or not, we make a series of assessments. We assess probability of occurrence. We assess the impact of the occurrence. We also assess our ability to respond should the stressor become real.

Probability of Occurrence

Stressors are either a warning that something might happen or they’re the reality that something has happened. For losing your job, it’s a prediction until it happens. For this, we estimate the likelihood. This is the first place we can make an impact in our situational safety: we can correct for biases in our estimation of the probability of the stressor occurring.

Impact

The second assessment we make is what the impact of the stressor coming to fruition may be. In the losing our job example, we may think that finding another equal or better paying job is good within a month – or we may believe that we’ll never find a job as good as the job we had. This assessment is the impact. In the first case, there may be little or no real impact; in the second, it may be a lifelong impact.

It’s important to note here that even after the threat of physical harm or the lack of food, water, and shelter are removed, there are still impacts. The impact is one of loss. We may love the mission of the organization or being able to work with good people. We may feel the loss of the organization as impactfully as we’d feel the loss of income.

Capacity to Cope

The final assessment is our capacity to cope. If we believe that we can absorb or cover for the loss in the impact, then the overall assessment of the stressor isn’t likely to cause fear, panic, or anxiety. If, on the other hand, we don’t know how to deal with the situation, the chances are that we will be afraid.

Resuming our job loss scenario, if you’ve got enough money for a year’s worth of expenses in the bank, you’ll react differently than someone who is living paycheck to paycheck and may need to be very concerned about having enough food for the family while the job search is underway.

The Math

If you were to look at this as a math problem, you’d think about the probability of getting a fear result like this:

Probability of Fear = (Stressor Probability * Stressor Impact) / Capacity to Cope

If you think that the probability or impact are low, you’ll likely not have a fear response. Similarly, if you believe you have a very large capacity to cope, you’ll only find yourself fearful when there are very high probability, high impact stressors that present themselves.

There are no units in the preceding math formula, because there are no known units to use. So, this is not a formula that you can use to reach a precise answer, it’s a guide to understand how we become fearful.

Examples

Before exploring what can be done to adjust the variables that drive our sense of situational safety, let’s review a few examples of situations and the perceived safety. This will provide background context for our more formal explanation below.

Asteroids

Consider the stressor of an asteroid hitting the Earth. In this scenario, the impact is great – potentially ending all life on the planet. Our ability to cope is very low. However, the reason that we don’t all live in a constant state of panic – besides the fact that we block it out of our minds – is that we believe the probability is infinitesimally small.

The net-net with these variables are an almost 0% chance of fear, because there’s a near zero result when the chances are so low.

Home Appliance Failure

If you own a home, there’s a certain probability that you’ll have a failure of an appliance. Let’s say that you’ve got five major appliances and that on average they fail every fifteen years. For the list, think refrigerator, stove, water heater, washer, and dryer. That means once every about three years, there will be an appliance to replace – or 33% chance per year.

The impact of a failure is a few hundred dollars. For the sake of argument, let’s just say it’s $600. That means your annual impact is about $200.

In this case, if you’ve got a “rainy day” fund or a household maintenance fund that has more than $600 in it, you can assume that you have a nearly infinite ability to cope with this sort of problem. Thus, there’s a low probability of fear. If you have less than $600 but you have enough room on your credit card, then you have an ability to cope as well, but perhaps not as large. In this scenario, you may have some probability of fear. If you have no financial reserves and are living paycheck to paycheck, you have almost no ability to cope, and therefore you have a high probability of fear.

It’s important to note that, in scenarios like these, the ego will eventually block out risks like this, because they’re too uncomfortable to live with. As a result, you’ll find people living with no financial reserves who don’t exhibit any external signs of persistent fear.

Legal Dispute

Let’s take a departure from the probability of happening and jump into a situation where the stressor has already appeared. Take, for instance, a civil lawsuit about a claim against you. Let’s say that the suit is for $100,000 – and that’s more money than you have. The probability shifts from the probability of a lawsuit to the probability of someone winning this lawsuit against you. Most attorneys are hesitant to place odds and almost never make guarantees about outcomes. They’ve experienced too many last-minute turns, unpredictable judges, and general oddity that makes them not want to place odds. That leaves you with a 50/50 split. That makes the net impact probability $50,000 – still more than you have.

In the ability to cope category, there’s a problem – and it’s more than just the potential financial impact. The bigger problem is that very few people, thankfully, have experience with this sort of a situation, and as a result, they often feel unprepared for how to proceed. This lack of understanding of the process and confidence in the attorney they just met, leads to a very low capacity for coping and therefore a high probability for fear.

Not Enough to Eat

We depart from the world of rational to irrational when we consider the concern that there will be enough to eat. Everyone has felt what it is like to be hungry. Thankfully few, but still too many, people have really had to experience what it’s like to be persistently hungry. For a lot of reasons, whatever the probability of hunger, the perceived impact is large. It’s connected with survival, and it doesn’t get much larger than that.

As a result, while most people don’t believe that there’s a real risk of going hungry, they’ll often prepare to protect themselves from it. They’ll get snack bars to put in their bags, or perhaps a bit of trail mix. They reason that they’ll be able to grab and eat it if for some reason they get hungry and can’t eat a full meal.

For many folks, particularly those that have more experience with having not had enough food during childhood, the risk of not having enough food is perceived as large. Without some sort of coping mechanisms built in – like having snack food – they’re likely to unconsciously fear that they won’t have enough food.

The Adjustments

To improve your situational safety, there are three levers we can pull on. We can adjust our perception of the probability, we can adjust the perception of the risk, or we can adjust our perception of our ability to cope.

Probability

Probability is, by its very nature, uncertain. However, as humans, we love the idea of certainty. We’ll create certainty in our minds even when no certainty exists. For instance, in the job loss scenario, we may be “certain” that we’ll lose our jobs – because our boss doesn’t like us, because of a restructuring, or because the organization folds. However, until it’s happened, it’s never certain. The first adjustment to probability is to reduce any probability from 100% until it’s already happened. It may seem like a little thing, but psychologically it forces you to evaluate things differently. It forces you to reach a more realistic guess at the probability that something will happen.

Impact

Most people believe that people who win the lottery are appreciably happier after the event – and for the infinite future forward. The truth is that lottery winners are happier for a time. However, after a few years, even a multi-million-dollar payout loses its luster. It turns out that money cannot buy happiness – though it might be able to make you a hell of a deal on a long-term lease. No impact from any event is as permanent as we expect it to be – positive or negative.

Think about your first breakup. They boyfriend or girlfriend was the one for you, and you’ll never know how to go on with your life. Except you did. You got married – you may have even gotten a divorce and remarried. The fact is that whatever the situation is, it’s not nearly as permanent as it seems when you’re standing next to it.

Ability to Cope

The final way to adjust your perception is through reconsidering your ability to cope. The more resourceful you feel about your ability to move forward personally, the less impactful the events will seem, and therefore the safer you will feel.

Too often, we fail to account for the assistance of others when coping. While some of us don’t have great support systems around us of families, friends, and communities, most of us do if we look hard enough and we’re willing to ask for assistance. When we’re assessing our situation, we should ask ourselves who we could call upon for assistance – and the likelihood that they can and will assist. If you want to change this aspect, the easiest way to do it is to ask the people around you for small things that they can do to help you – and offer to help in small ways yourself. This will increase the changes you’ll think of others support – and the likelihood that they’ll offer it.

Finally, don’t give up hope that there is some resource available to you that you don’t even know you have. There are many times when benevolence shows up even when it feels like it can’t. Keeping in mind the “miracles” in your own life and in the lives of others may be the thing that tips the scale towards perceiving that you’re safe.

Conflict: Surrender Accept vs. Surrender Defeat

For a conflict to end, someone must surrender. They’ll either surrender with acceptance, or they’ll surrender in defeat. Because conflict management is a delicate game of how to manage both the relationship with the other party and the immediate needs of the situation, there will be times when it will be necessary for someone to walk away in defeat. However, most of the time, the goal is to strengthen the relationship, and that means reaching a surrender that is accepting.

Who Is Right?

Of course, from our perspective, we’re right. There’s no point in taking a position that doesn’t have us being right. However, who is objectively and verifiably right in a situation isn’t always the right way to measure the results of the conflict. The right way is whether you got what you needed, and you’ll be able to salvage the relationship in the future.

In this context, we can view a surrender in a conflict to be a defeat – after all, our ideas didn’t win out. Conversely, we can choose to view the surrender as accepting a different point of view – without necessarily agreeing with it or believing it to be the one truth.

Yield

Yield signs in traffic are easy most of the time. If there’s no one coming, you can look, and then move forward cautiously. It’s when there’s traffic coming that yield signs get interesting. Yielding – or surrendering – in a conflict isn’t as easy. By our very nature, we believe that we’re right and the other person is wrong.

When we yield – or surrender – to another person, we’re giving up our view of right and accepting theirs. We can do this because we value the relationship more than the specifics of the conflict or because we feel like there’s no way for us to win.

To surrender to the other person is to yield our version of right to their version of right – thereby admitting that we were wrong or didn’t know what we were talking about. That’s never easy, as our ego is firmly entrenched in the idea that we’re right. While at some level, we know that we’re not always right, we believe that, in most cases, we’re right, even when there is someone else who disagrees with you.

Learning how to yield and not feel like a failure is an important first step in being able to surrender and do it well.

Failure Is Not Fatal

We often confuse the idea that we’ve failed with the idea that we’re a failure. We fail to decouple the situation from the person. Instead of taking a decision to yield to someone else’s perspective as just another thing, we attach that failure to our identity – and feel lesser because of it. To escape a conflict with a surrender based on acceptance of the other person, another idea, and perhaps that we’re wrong, we must realize that failure isn’t fatal.

If you’re a professional baseball player, you’re going to fail roughly two of every three times you’re at bat. In professional baseball, roughly one third of the time the ball is pitched, you’ll hit it. Professional baseball players don’t wander out to the batter’s box like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh with their heads hung low. No, they’ve come to accept that failure – to hit the ball that is pitched to them – is a part of the game.

In the game of life, no one hits the ball every time it comes by. In the game of life, the average may be much lower than one in three – it may be one in ten or more. The key to moving forward with these failures is admitting to them and letting them go.

Someone is going to end a conflict with a “failure” of their idea. How do you make sure that you’re okay with that being you when it’s appropriate?

Unity Packages Overwrite One Another On HoloLens and HoloLens 2

By default, Unity packages will overwrite one another as you deploy them through Visual Studio to the HoloLens and Hololens 2. This is due to the package name being defaulted to Template3D for all new projects (created via the 3D Template project.)

To fix the problem, go to Build Settings and press the Project Settings button in the lower-left corner, or go to Edit – Project Settings…

In the project settings dialog, navigate to Player (on the left), expand the Publishing Settings section, then change the value in the package name.

You’ll need to delete the directory that you created the build in (the directory you use when you press the Build button on the Build Settings dialog). Allow Unity to recreate the directory, compile, and deploy via Visual Studio as normal.

Book Review-Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Training Evaluation

Sometimes, you say a thing and it just catches on. It’s a moment of insight that gets frozen in time like a mosquito in amber, and later you realize just what you have. Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Training Evaluation is like this. It’s a simple framework for evaluating the efficacy of your training program. Don Kirkpatrick uttered the words: reaction, learning, behavior, and results. His son and his son’s bride take up these words and refine the meaning that the industry gave to the words and adjust them back towards their original intent.

The Levels

Despite the fact that Don never uttered the words as levels, others added them to the descriptors, and eventually people began calling it the “Kirkpatrick Model.” It stuck. Today, professionals speak about the levels of evaluation like this:

  • Level 1: Reaction – Did the students report that they enjoyed the learning experience, including the materials, the instructor, the environment, and so on?
  • Level 2: Learning – Did the students learn the material that was delivered? This is the typical assessment process that we’re used to having to complete to be able to report successful completion of a course, but it’s more than that. It’s did we learn anything that we can retain after the class and the test are long over?
  • Level 3: Behavior – Ideally when we’re training, we’ve identified the key behaviors that we want to see changed. Level 3 is the measurement of the change in the behavior.
  • Level 4: Results – Did the change in behaviors create the desired outcome? Are we able, as training professionals, to demonstrate that what we’re doing has value to the organization in a real and tangible way?

The Process called ADDIE

Many instructional designers use a design process called ADDIE after the steps in the process:

  • Analysis – What results do we want, what behaviors need to change to support that, and what skills need to be taught to change the behaviors? (Here, I’d recommend looking at The Ethnographic Interview and Motivational Interviewing for tools you can use.)
  • Design – What kinds of instructional elements and approaches will be used to create the skills and behaviors that are necessary to accomplish the goal? (Here, Efficiency in Learning, Job Aids and Performance Support, The Art of Explanation, and Infographics are all good resources.)
  • Development – The long process of developing each of the individual elements of the course.
  • Implement – Implementation is the execution of the training, either instructor led or in a learning management system.
  • Evaluate – Assess the efficacy of the program – and, ideally, revise it.

If you’re unfamiliar with the course development process or you’d like to explore it in more detail, our white paper, “The Actors in Training Development,” can help you orient to the roles in the process and what they do.

The untold truth is that, in most cases, the processes is rushed, hurried, and many of the steps are skipped or given insufficient attention. Rarely does an organization even have someone with instructional design training much less the time to do the process right. There’s always more training that needs to be developed and never enough time. The Kirkpatricks are driving home an even more telling point. The evaluation process – how you’re going to assess the efficacy – needs to be planned for during the analysis and design phases. The development and implementation phases need to consider the conditions that will be necessary to get good evaluation results. Evaluation isn’t something that can be bolted on at the end with good results.

It’s sort of like Wile E. Coyote strapping a rocket to his back and hoping to catch the roadrunner. It always seems to end badly, because he never seems to think through the whole plan.

Leading and Lagging Indicators

I learned about the horrors of metrics through The Tyranny of Metrics but learned real tools for how to create metrics through How to Measure Anything. However, it was Richard Hackman who really got me thinking about leading and lagging indicators in his book, Collaborative Intelligence. He was focused not just on how to make teams effective in the short term but how to create teams where their performance remains good and keeps getting better. He was talking about the results as a lagging measure, an outcome from the creation of the right kind of team. Influencer picked up and reinforced the concept. We need to look not just at the outputs that we want but the behaviors that we believe will drive those outcomes.

It’s all too easy, as you’re working on developing the metrics for your training, to focus on the lagging metrics and say that you don’t have enough influence on them. After all, you can’t take responsibility for sales improvement. Some of that’s got to be up to the sales manager. And you certainly don’t want to say that your training sucked if sales dropped after salespeople took the course. As a result, training professionals too often shy away from the very metrics that are necessary to keep the organization when there’s a downturn. Instead of being seen as an essential ingredient to success, they’re seen as overhead.

By focusing on a mixture of both leading indicators and lagging indicators, training professionals can get to an appropriate degree of accountability for end performance. Leading indicators are – or at least should be – behaviors. They should be the same behaviors that were identified as a part of the analysis phase as needing to be changed. These should be very highly impacted by the training. The lagging measures are the business outcomes that also should have been a part of the analysis process – but are further from the learning professionals’ control.

Waypower

While it’s not true that we need to hope for good outcomes, there’s a bit we can learn from The Psychology of Hope with regard to training’s role in the process of changing behaviors. In The Psychology of Hope, Snyder explains that hope is made of two components: willpower and waypower. Willpower is what you’d expect. It’s the desire, perseverance, or grit to get things done. (See Willpower or Grit for more.)

Waypower is different. It’s the knowledge of how to get to the other side. It’s the knowledge of the how that learning professionals can help individuals with. It’s waypower that training professionals give to their students every day. This may be used for the purposes of some corporate objective, but in the end, it’s a way of creating hope in the minds of the students that they can get it done if only they try. (Here, a proper mindset is important, too, as explained in Mindset.)

Application

There’s nearly zero research on the relationship between overall performance on the job and well trained, knowledgeable people. The problem is that we don’t really know how much training does really matter. What we do know, however, is that the application of the skills and behaviors that are taught in the classroom don’t always happen. The problem is called “far transfer,” and it’s a relative secret that what we teach in classrooms doesn’t always get applied to the real world. (If you’re interested in some other relative secrets in the training industry, check out our white paper, “Measuring Learning Effectiveness.”)

There’s an absolute essential need to consider how the skills that are being taught in the course can – and will – be applied by the student in the real world. Discussions, case studies, and conversations make for learning experiences that tend to be more used long after the training has been completed.

About the Questions

The book wouldn’t be complete without some guidance on how to write actual evaluation questions, including avoiding superlatives and redundant adjectives when evaluating in a scale – and ensuring that the scale matches the type of question being asked. Question authors are encouraged to keep the questions focused on the learning experience rather than the instructor or environment to get better answers.

The real question for you is will you read Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Training Evaluation and apply it to the way you evaluate your training?

Building a Course: Rendering All Stale Videos

When you’re building a large-scale course with hours of videos comprised of literally hundreds of videos, you’re invariably going to run into a problem that will require you to rerender the videos. In our case, we needed to replace the background. We got feedback that our plain white background, which we often use in our videos because it’s non-distracting, resulted in too much white on the screen. The result was the need to rerender all the videos with a new background.

Since the move to the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema 6K camera, we found our render times climbing to about 5:1. That meant a one-minute video would be a five-minute wait to complete. It also meant that repacking all the videos by hand would take weeks. The way we solved it was to create an extension for Vegas to render all the project files in a directory tree, but that wasn’t the way we started.

Scripting and Off-the-Shelf

When it comes to needing tools to build courses, my first goal is always to buy something. I’d much rather buy something and put a bit a script around it than have to build something from scratch. There’s a simple reason for this: time. It’s cheaper to spend $100 than it is to spend 10 hours building a tool. While there are a number of tools that plug into VEGAS to allow for batch rendering – and even an out-of-the-box script – none of them approached what I was trying to do. They either allowed output to multiple formats or they wanted you to build a single project with multiple regions in it, each of which would get rendered to a separate file. That might make sense for some situations, but it’s not practical with hundreds of files and 12 hours of content.

I resolved to start by trying to revise the Batch Render script that is included with the product. I got the framework built out and tried to use it only to realize the primary limitation with the approach. It’s difficult to debug. The script is a C# script, and Vegas supports extensions, too, with a single interface. So, I broke out Visual Studio and converted the script to an extension.

The Code

Basically, I needed to take media files, copy them to the reference directories for each of the projects, and then render the files. However, since I expected I’d never get all the work done in a single sitting, I needed to be a bit more intelligent about when I rendered. That all started with copying the media files.

The Media

I ultimately decided that the tool would pick up media files from a master directory and copy them into the media directories for each of the projects (actually the working directories), since, in some cases, a single folder might host several project files. The copying would only happen if the files in the master directory were newer than the files that exist in the media directory already.

We use this strategy because the automatic file location in Vegas is good if the files are placed under the project directory but not good if they’re in random directories – including directories above the project. By placing copies in the media folder, we knew that Vegas would locate the files even if we needed to render from another machine on the network.

In the end, I’d figure out when the last file in the media directory was modified and use that in deciding what projects to render.

Deciding Which Projects to Render

A project needed rendered if the project file had been updated since the last rendering or if the media the project uses was updated. We keep all the rendered files in a specific subdirectory from the project file – Render – so locating the rendered file wasn’t that difficult. Then it’s a bit of checking to know whether the project needed to be rendered or not – except for two problems.

The first issue was that some of the project files that we had in the directories were leftovers. We kept them for reference, but the output didn’t make it into the core of the project. For those, we had a simple solution. Suffix the file name with -DNR (for “do not render”). We’d have the tool skip any files with the -DNR suffix. However, that still created one more problem: nested files.

While Vegas supports nested project files natively – that is, you can use one project file as a source for another – they’re not the most performant. As a result, if we need to split a long video (as we often do), we render the output of the master file, then use Vegas to slice into that file. The rendering time for those files is 1:5 (one minute of render for five minutes of video). So what happens is we end up needing to do some files first, so the rest of the files can use the output out of the render directory as their source. We reused the suffix idea and suffixed these files with -1st. We’d process all of those first, then all the other files. This ensured that we created the files the other renderings needed.

The User Interface

The user interface was super simple: just a set of text boxes for configuration and then a dialog with a Data Grid View in it. The Data Grid View includes the directory and project name as well as the length, media files copied, start, end, elapsed rendering times, and a status. Length and rendering times are only recorded if the file is rendered.

Vegas has two quirks related to opening new files. First, there’s no method you can call to close the existing file. There’s a workaround to create a new blank file and turn off prompting to save the existing file. The second quirk is that your dialog gets hidden during the opening of a new file. To solve this, you can just reshow the dialog after the file is loaded.

In the end, there’s an option to save the output file to a CSV file to save the results of the operation – and to provide some baseline timings.

Wait for Idle

One of the other quirks with Vegas was that you have to call WaitForIdle() before you can read values from the project that you just loaded. You need to do this so you can get the length – so you know how to set up the rendering. If you don’t, you’ll get a length of zero – and that doesn’t work so well.

Rendering

The last step is starting the rendering process. That’s about setting a few things – like the length – and then kicking off the process. Of course, you need to tell it where to render to – which is easy enough, given the standardized folder structure. You also need to set the rendering settings.

Luckily, Vegas allows you to save the rendering settings that you want in the user interface. You save these settings with a name so the code can just go retrieve that template. It’s looping through the various renderers looking for the specific template you want – but it’s not particularly challenging code.

The Results

The result is a “fire and forget” approach. If you need to update a batch of files, you just kick it off. If you need to change the background – or a logo/bug – you replace the file in the media master directory, and the tool will copy the files and render the files.

It turns an interactive process of 60 or 80 hours of rendering into something that you can set up before a long weekend and come back to when it’s done. There are still, of course, the issues of getting all the files staged in the video delivery platforms, but while that process is tedious, it doesn’t burn through weeks of time.

While I don’t like having to build automation to make our content projects function effectively, there are times like this one when it works out well. If you want a copy of the tool, contact us, and we’ll get you a copy, so you don’t have to build one yourself.

Book Review-Hostage at the Table: How Leaders Can Overcome Conflict, Influence Others, and Raise Performance

When you can look at the topic of conflict from the eyes of a hostage negotiator, you realize that it’s a unique opportunity. Few people have the role of hostage negotiator, and it seems like it’s a role that involves nerves of steel and powerful charisma. However, at the same time, it’s easy to think that the skills necessary for hostage negotiation aren’t skills that would be generally applicable to your day-to-day office environment. It’s rare for Suzi to hold a plastic utensil to the throat of Bill and threaten to hurt him if her demands aren’t met. (Whether the plastic utensil could hurt Bill is another question.) While, tragically, workplace violence happens, it’s rare. However, the applicability of the experience of a hostage negotiator extends to all conflict.

Hostage at the Table: How Leaders Can Overcome Conflict, Influence Others, and Raise Performance is a former hostage negotiator’s effort to take people into the experience, so the power plays, the victimization, and all conflicts can be addressed in ways that leave everyone more whole than when they started.

Making Ourselves Hostage

In a literal sense, most folks don’t make themselves a hostage. However, in a figurative sense, people often end up as hostages of their circumstances – or, as The Anatomy of Peace describes it, their boxes. We become hostage to our beliefs and perspectives, and we particularly become a hostage to our victimhood.

Martin Seligman and his colleagues, including Steven Maier, discovered learned helplessness in the late 1960s. Maier’s further research – with the help of an fMRI – indicated that it wasn’t learned helplessness at all. It was a failure to learn control. (See The Hope Circuit.) However, the result is still the same. Once a dog has learned that it can’t escape a mild shock, it stops trying. Even when it’s clear that escape is possible – and even easy – the dog wasn’t interested in freeing itself. The experience of learned helplessness is a trap. It holds us hostage to our beliefs that we can’t do anything about our situation. Like backing a wild animal into a corner, it’s dangerous, because you never know what might happen.

The Address of Victimhood

Victimhood is a place we all visit. We believe we’ve been victimized and feel frustration and anger. However, while victimhood is an ok place to visit, it’s a lousy place to build a home. Staying in victimhood is more than just feeling as if we were victimized one time. It’s the feeling that the situation is permanent, that we’ll always be victimized. It’s about us and who we are, so we can’t escape it.

The people who were able to escape from being a literal hostage are often those who never saw themselves as a victim. They refused to believe that they were powerless. They accepted their current reality but never gave up on changing it. Victor Frankl explained what helped concentration camp survivors make their way out in Man’s Search for Meaning. It wasn’t just some blind sense that someone would come rescue them – because, eventually, when that reality didn’t happen, their hope would be crushed. (See The Psychology of Hope for more about how hope works.)

One could easily conclude that a religious leader was wrong if they prophesized an event and it didn’t happen. The followers could look upon themselves and wonder how they could have been so misled. However, that’s not what happens most frequently. What happens most frequently is followers become more convinced that they were right. In Influence, Robert Cialdini explains how this process works.

Powerful forces lead us to lack of hope, learned helplessness, and descending deeper and deeper into our beliefs that the problems are internally generated, permanent, and global. The greater degree to which we see our circumstances this way, the more convinced we become that it’s our fault, and there’s nothing to be done. (See The Hope Circuit for more about attribution of circumstances.)

People Don’t Kill People

Of course, the instant response to “People don’t kill people” is “What is murder, then?” However, that is not the point that George Kohlrieser is trying to make. The point is that people don’t kill people – they kill objects. To allow themselves to kill, they’ve necessarily dehumanized the other person so that they’re now an object. Martin Buber in I and Thou helps us to understand how our interactions often drive us towards dehumanizing people and how that diminishes our relationships with them. Albert Bandura is more direct in Moral Disengagement, explaining how situations like the Nazi concentration camps could happen.

The more we can help ourselves and others see everyone as people – and not objects or sub-human – the better our chances at preventing violence.

Hostage Taking Triggered by Trauma

One of the statements that caught me most by surprise was when Kohlrieser indicated that he’d never seen a hostage situation start by anything other than loss. The trauma of a loss triggered some sort of change that made the hostage-taker feel like taking hostages was the only way to be heard and have their needs addressed. Hostage-takers didn’t proceed out of a sense of power or strength, they proceeded out of despair and desperation. It’s as if their powerlessness first took them hostage, and then they took others hostage.

The solution to both literal hostage-taking and the figurative hostage-taking that happens in our mind is bonding. That is, connecting with the hostage-taker whether in our brains or literally, is our way out.

Bonding

It’s fundamental to the human condition to need bonding with other humans. Our bonding mechanisms can become disrupted, and when they do, bonding becomes more difficult – sometimes difficult enough that it might be described as Intimacy Anorexia. At a lower scale, it may be found as people having difficulty relating to other people. (See The Secret Lives of Adults for more about how to form bonds with different kinds of relationships.) A failure to be able to bond to other people can result in loneliness, which has huge negative health implications. (See Loneliness for more.)

An area of bonding that’s most often overlooked is the bonding with ourselves. That is, how well do we accept who we are and talk to ourselves in a healthy way? Perhaps you’re a fan of Jonathan Haidt’s Elephant-Rider-Path model for how we coordinate the different aspects of our personality or you prefer to think in terms of Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2. (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch for the Elephant-Rider-Path model and Thinking, Fast and Slow for System 1 and System 2.

Focus on Freedom

As I mentioned above, there are some people who more or less refuse to remain hostages. They focus on their capacity to free themselves as soon as it’s possible to do so. High performers focus their minds on the positive and refuse to focus on the pains and challenges. They won’t get bogged down as they begin to struggle. They continue to tune out the unnecessary clutter and focus on only those things that matter. (Barry Swartz of The Paradox of Choice describes filtering as a basic function of consciousness.) High performers simply seem to be more able to filter out the clutter. When negotiating a conflict (both in the sense of navigating and, more traditionally, negotiating a position), the ability to filter out clutter is useful.

In Buddhism, there’s the story of the first dart (what someone else does) and the second dart (the way you process it). Basically, if you can ignore the darts people throw, you don’t have to throw darts at yourself. (See Resilient for more.) In conflict, our ability to remain neutral and detached serves us well. When we become emotionally engaged in a conflict, we’ve become the other person’s hostage. We’re no longer able to think rationally about what we’re doing.

Emotional Processing

The ability to remain emotionally detached is a goal for negotiators – of life. Dialogue quotes Richard Moon as saying that it’s not like the great masters never lose their center, it’s that they discover it sooner and recover faster. Such is the case with our ability to identify when we’re becoming emotionally triggered – and quiet our emotions quicker. In Emotion and Adaptation, Richard Lazarus explains that our emotions are one part stimulus and one part our appraisal of the situation. Specifically, it’s our ability to be okay.

All too often, we’re not taught how to process our way through emotions. The emotions are just things, and there’s nothing to be done about them. However, as we learn more about ourselves and our emotions, we can learn how to work better with them. When we realize that anger is just disappointment directed, we can process the judgements that lead to the disappointment and either more thoroughly understand our disappointment or realize that the judgement was wrong and the disappointment wasn’t necessary. (See A Force for Good for more.)

Emotional Covering

One of the most challenging aspects of our emotional lives is the real probability that the hurt we feel today isn’t caused by today’s events but is instead by the traumas from our past. Certainly, we can express a real and plausible reason for emotions today, but many times, the emotions that happen today are echoes and repetitions of unhealed hurts from our past. They’re wounds that have never healed and scars that have created sensitive spaces in our souls.

Whether it’s the feeling that the other person isn’t listening (we’re not being heard) because our parents ignored us, or it’s the feeling that the other person is out to get us because our childhood was filled with turmoil, we’ll never be able to address the current pains without moving backwards to address the root cause. Until we’re able to understand why we’re sensitive, to acknowledge and accept it, we’ll never be able to move forward.

The Not Knowing is the Hardest Part

We’ve all heard others say that it’s the not knowing that is the hardest part. From an emotional processing perspective, this is true. Once we know what the truth is, we can start the process of grief. (For more on the process, see On Death and Dying.) In our lives, we become hostage to the uncertainty and the fear that we’re not going to be able to survive what life throws at us.

Perhaps the hardest part about Hostage at the Table is not knowing whether it’s someone else – or it’s you.

Building a PDF to Image Converter

The Confident Change Management course was a major effort for us. The result is 800 pages of content and over 11 hours of video. It also required over 1,000 hours of time directly and the creation of four different pieces of technology to help us manage the process. This post is about the tool we built to convert PDF documents into images that we could use in videos.

PDFs for Exercises

There are lots of ways to build exercises for students. Just in the question and answer arena, you’ve got Word, PDF, online form builders, and whatever your LMS supports. Each of them has their benefits and limitations. We ended up deciding that, for our course, we could get to the best overall experience for most students by using fillable PDF forms, but we start with Word forms.

In truth, all the content we build starts in Microsoft Word or Microsoft PowerPoint. We’ll do note-taking in Microsoft OneNote and outline with MindJet MindManager, but the bulk of our content, including the things that we produce the courses from, are from Microsoft Office products. Word has a built-in forms technology, so why don’t we leverage that for prompting students to enter information?

The largest answer is that not everyone has Microsoft Word available to them in general or while taking the course. The largest common denominator is PDF, since everyone has or can get a PDF reader for free. There’s an issue getting the Word fields into PDF fields, but I’ll leave that for another post. For now, know the decision between Word and PDF largely came down to accessibility and ease for the students.

The question then becomes why not put this into some sort of electronic form and use that? The short answer is that it necessarily precludes someone from working offline. Given the nature of the course and our desire for the students to really reflect on the questions and dig deeply, we wanted to give them the option of escaping the onslaught of email and the ever-present interruption. With that in mind, PDF was the right answer.

Connecting Video Introduction and Exercises

To help orient the student, we wanted to record a video introduction to the exercise as well as providing written instructions. We felt that layering the two different communications approaches would give us the best coverage and retention of the intent of the exercise. The problem with that was how to connect the video component to the exercises.

Initially, we wanted to use a jib with an overhead shot, a leather three-ring binder, and some dual-mode front and overhead shots. When we did that, we realized that it just wasn’t coming together. You could either see what I was saying or the exercise, not both. That left us with the video overlay option. That’s what we do with slides and instruction anyway, so it seemed natural. That was until we realized the exercises were multiple pages, and sometimes I’d want to talk between the pages – and that would be awkward.

The solution was to create a single linear image of the exercise. We did this by outputting the Microsoft Word document to PDF, and then we built a tool to convert the PDF to images. The actual rendering part of the PDF wasn’t that hard, because we had a license to a PDF tool. What was interesting was addressing the gutter problem.

The Gutter Problem

Gutter margins are added to the inside edge to allow for binding. It’s used for 3-ring binding and every book you’ve ever read. The inside margin is larger than the outside. When you line up images for the different pages, you’ll notice the sawtooth effect, as the pages jump right then left. As a result, we detected the edges and added padding to the top, bottom, left, and right of the image we detect, so we could remove the whitespace then add back just enough of our own.

The Result

The result is a single linear image that we can scroll through in the video as I’m talking about each aspect of what the student will do in the exercise. Visually, they can connect what I’m talking about with what the pages look like. The result is lower cognitive load and better performance on the exercises.

Cognitive Load

In instructional design, I’m always trying to minimize cognitive load and free up more resources for the student to be able to focus on the work of learning the material. That means choosing words carefully, designing exercises and instruction that are progressive – in the sense that it uses very many small steps – and finding ways to make it clear what I’m talking about. I didn’t expect to need to use programming and image processing skills to make it a bit easier for students to learn – but I did. If you’re interested in what I built, reach out to me. I’m not going to post it publicly, but I’ll share it with folks who ask for it.

Book Review-The Hidden Persuaders

I can remember as a child sending off a letter about an idea that I thought was powerful. It came from a story I ran across about a movie theatre that ran subliminal advertising for their concession stand. The idea was that the advertising was conveyed in a single frame. It was too short to be perceived by the audience consciously but apparently was quite effective at selling popcorn. I found a reference to this movie theatre popcorn situation in The Hidden Persuaders. Though Vance Packard, the author, treats the recollection with skepticism, I wondered as a child how this could be used for good – rather than commerce.

I don’t remember who the letter was sent to, but, being a kid, I assume I wrote the President of the United States. The idea was to leverage subliminal messaging in prisons to attempt to adjust criminal behavior. An answer came back, I think from the Department of Corrections, that the FCC had issued a rule banning the use of subliminal advertising, and that was that for me.

However, after picking up Influence and Pre-Suasion, I wanted to go back and dig into the stories about how advertisers in the 1950s and 1960s started paying attention to psychology and how they could manipulate people in ways that weren’t expected. What I found in The Hidden Persuaders was strangely familiar and foreign at the same time.

What We’re Sold

We are, in many ways, a consumerism-based society in the United States. We as a people follow fashions, replace our cars every few years, and practice retail therapy when we’re feeling down. (Retail therapy is buying something to feel better.)

The overwhelming array of choices we face has transformed, from awe at what is available to us now that only royalty would have been able to afford a few centuries ago to a sense of entitlement that we must have all these things. However, at the heart of this isn’t the item itself: it’s how it makes us feel. We feel like “I deserve this” or “I’ve earned this.” The “this” we’re referring to is the feeling of beauty, freedom, status, or any of the other desirables that we want to believe we are – but don’t always feel like we are.

An interesting dynamic to this is that we buy things expecting they’ll make us feel better about ourselves; however, they don’t. We expect that a new car will refresh our vitality, but it doesn’t. We want to impress others by wearing a status symbol and are disappointed when our friends and peers purchased the same thing. How are we supposed to demonstrate our superiority if we’re constantly being copied – and are copying others?

Saying and Doing

We are willing to go to remarkable lengths to do what we say we’re going to do and maintain our public image. When people are looking, we will bend our preferences to support the identity that we believe other people expect of us, as we learned in Pre-Suasion. However, we feel no compunction to behave consistently with our answers if we don’t expect that people are looking.

Marketers have long known that people will answer one way and then behave in a totally different way. You ask them to commit to a course of action, but if they don’t feel they’re being watched when it comes time to take that action, their previous answer will likely not have much impact on their behavior. We want to be seen as rational, reliable, intelligent, and consistent people, when that’s rarely the way we are. We store up our reliability for those times when we believe we’re being watched. Even then, we often behave in ways that aren’t objectively rational.

I’m the Most Important Topic to Me

Nothing appeals more to someone than themselves. It’s not exactly new news – it wasn’t even new news when The Hidden Persuaders was first published – but it is profound. We spend time trying to get people to be interested in something else – or someone else like ourselves – but we fail to recognize that, at the end of the day, what everyone is most interested in is themselves. While this news may seem like bad news to those who want to motivate us, nothing could be further from the truth.

Knowing that everyone cares about themselves, including how they feel about themselves and how they’re perceived, there’s a lot of room to help people feel good about themselves. Makeup can make you look beautiful. It’s not creating a beautiful appearance, it’s changing the person’s perception of themselves as more beautiful. A powerful car can make a man feel more vitality.

While when stated directly, it may seem far-fetched for someone to believe that a product can make them stronger or more beautiful in an intrinsic sort of way. But this is exactly the way we’re sold to every day. Having the latest phone doesn’t appreciably change the features for most folks, but it sends a signal about the kind of person you are – and if you’re that kind of person, you deserve a phone.

Avenues for Expression

We use the things we own as proxies for who we are. Are we dog owners? Are we townhome kinds of folks? The things we have shape how others perceive us – or, perhaps more accurately, how we project what we want others to see. Once an object has been imbued with meaning, the meaning tends to stick. This is how brands work. They associate a characteristic or a feeling to a product, and then the product is sold based on the characteristic.

Nowhere is this truer than in the American love affair with cars. There are truck people, SUV people, minivan people, sports car people, sedan people, and other variants too numerous to mention. When you hear about the kind of car they own, most people begin to form images in their heads of the kinds of people we’re talking about. Truck people are rough and tumble. Minivan people have a lot of kids to be transported to soccer games – too many to fit in an SUV. Sports car people are wild and adventurous; sedan people are refined and reserved.

The truth is that the automobile industry reinforces these images. It tries to convince us that, if we just bought their car, we’d regain some aspect of our lives that we’ve lost (or never had). The innovation of the hard top is one of those success stories.

The Wife and the Mistress

Dr. Dichter, one of the key players in the act of peering into our minds to sell us merchandise, says that men settle down with a practical, down-to-earth, and safe person. The wife, in his analogy, is a sedan. He continues, however, that in his perspective, a man never forgets his desire for youthful passion. Convertibles were this image of vitality, excitement, and passion. He considered the convertible the mistress. Convertibles were, at the time, canvas, because of the need to fold.

The introduction of the hard top, he argued, would be like the best of both worlds: the perceived safety and stability of a sedan and the excitement and toplessness of the convertible. Thus, a single car could help a consumer fulfill two aspects they have of themselves. They wouldn’t need to deny a part of themselves when they’re buying a car – or in their lives.

Kaleidoscope

Masters of the marketing game find ways to leverage these different aspects of products in a way that allows a product to be seen differently by different audiences. Younger adults see smoking as a way for them to look older, while older adults seek it to regain their youth. Both groups see the same set of products, but they see different facets of the products in ways that drive their interest.

The different perspectives for different audiences may be difficult to master and ever-changing, but, done well, it can be a powerful way to drive demand for your product.

Bad Looks

Of course, where there is a positive side, there is also the potential for a negative side. When you attempt to introduce an aspect of a product, it can conflict with core messaging or reason why people buy your product, as Jell-O found out. Jell-O is a convenient, inexpensive desert. It’s the kind of thing that you can do and not worry about it too much.

When Jell-O started running ads with these impressive, multi-color, molded creations, sales dropped. It turns out that people didn’t want to compete with what they were seeing in the ads. They wanted to be able to do something simple, and the beautiful creations interfered with that.

When we’re motivating people with features, we must expect that we may accidentally trigger a response we don’t want.

Higher Prices and More Sales

Traditional thinking is that higher prices result in less sales; however, the reverse is often true. As Predictably Irrational exposes, people use price as a signal for quality. If it’s low-priced, it must be junk. Thus, if the prices are high, it must be good. Whether it’s black pearls, turquoise, or anything else that people don’t know about, they’ll use price as a proxy for goodness.

Related to this is the awareness that people make decisions about how well they’re going to treat themselves, particularly with things that have no fixed price, like art or jewelry. The result is they go looking for something that matches the range they have set out to spend on themselves. Then they buy something in that range – or generally slightly above it.

Price should be about the exchange of money and should be logical, but it’s not. It operates in a different world of feelings and perspectives.

Frozen Panic

Another, unfortunate, thing that can be triggered in us irrational humans is being overwhelmed by panic. There is a state we can enter where we don’t feel like we know what to do. We’re overwhelmed, and we can’t process anything. It can be that we’ve got sensory overload (see The Signal and the Noise for more). It may also be that, in our quick assessment of whatever is going on, we’ve decided there’s nothing we can do. (See Emotion and Adaptation.) Said differently, we may have rapidly lost hope that there’s a way out of the situation. (See The Psychology of Hope.) Irrespective of the cause, the result is the same. The result is that we’ll do nothing. That’s why it’s important when communicating with the market that you don’t create panic, because the result is generally a lack of action.

Hopefully, you’ll decide that it’s time to look behind the curtain and find out more about The Hidden Persuaders.

Building Student Handbooks, Workbooks, and Lab Manuals via Book Builder

It was 2008 when I wrote the article for MSDN magazine that showed off the first book publishing Word add-in that I had built. It basically assembled individual Word files into one master document. We’ve used it to publish every version of The SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide (2010, 2013, 2016), Secret SharePoint, Extinguish Burnout, and more. However, it had grown quite long in the tooth. Small problems cropped up that we worked around until now. We had to do something different, because we were building an exercise handbook with page numbers that matched the lesson and exercise, which meant we had to assemble the files with section breaks in them instead of page breaks.

The Problems

Being able to individually work on and track components of a large project is essential. We had that in spades. It’s a well-oiled machine as each element of the process moves from one state (and therefore queue) to another. However, when the OneDrive and Office integration happened, the book publishing tools choked, as Word and OneDrive got confused as to what was happening. We worked around the issue by copying the files to a non-synchronized folder and ran the tool from there, but it was frustrating and took time.

We also were always fighting the problem of starting new elements on the right side of a pair of facing pages. For The Shepherd’s Guide and other projects, it wasn’t such a big deal, but as we got to having separate exercises, it became important. The tool didn’t manage that – but it definitely could.

The tool didn’t do a good job of behaving well with the Word user interface. It would sometimes end up behind the user interface updates, and you’d wonder what was going on. We needed to make it reliably report status – all the time.

It also treated every file the same. You couldn’t say that you didn’t want to convert fields to text in the bibliography, but you wanted to convert all fields to their text for other parts of the file.

Other than the section/page numbering issue, everything was a small annoyance, which is why they hadn’t been fixed. However, that changed.

VSTO

Visual Studio Tools for Office was the initial name of the toolset used to build a compiled DLL add-in for an Office Application. Those tools have been carried through until today. The heart of it is a set of objects that expose the internals of the Office application – in this case, Word – to another program. It’s the same object model between the macros that Word supports internally and the externally compiled objects. The initial article made this point clear by first recording steps and then transitioning those into compiled code.

However, back then, I didn’t have a deep understanding of the threading model inside of Word or – to be honest – the complexities of updating the user interface from a single thread. The result was a kludgy implementation that made the user interface both in Word and in the dialog very non-responsive.

Threading and the User Experience

Since then I’ve had more than a few primers on threading, user experience updates, call-backs, events, and other ways to make the user interface better.

I settled on an approach that used DataGridView bound to a data set that managed. The result of that is the infrastructure would handle all the screen updates if I handled my data and fired the right events. The data source turned out to be my core objects, which isn’t the most normal case, but it’s completely possible to bind your collection (IList<>) to the data grid view.

Even the preparation to start the process changed as well. Using a similar strategy, the default settings were established, and then files were added to the list. Unlike the previous iteration that only allowed you to load a manifest at the end, this version of the user interface would allow you to load files, change settings, add files, and save the results. Where the previous version only supported a text file, this version would support XML files as well – where settings were stored with the individual files.

Settings Control

One of the user interface components that was moved into its own component was a settings control. This control would be responsible for creating a settings object and allowing a user to adjust it – whether the settings were the default settings or the settings for an individual file. By creating an entry point in the control to load from a settings object and to push back to a settings object from the screen, it became easy to adjust settings in the user experience without making changes every place the settings user interface was needed.

Restructuring

While the user interface updates were relatively easy to do by leveraging a data grid view, the rest of the code was a mess that needed cleaned up. It reflected the fact that it was a macro that was converted instead of a set of objects designed to work together. The restructuring started by moving from a one-size fits all to a per-file approach to settings.

A method would bring in a file using the settings object that it was provided. This allowed for fine tuning of individual files and some isolation. Additional separation of concerns was achieved by having the settings object be a cluster of other objects for different aspects of the assembly. Page settings and image settings had their own object and their own method for addressing these concerns.

The file assembly method, then, was largely a process of sequencing these individual calls. It kept the loading of the files and the copying, but most of the other detailed work got kicked out into separate methods. One class of settings, assembly, stayed in the main method, because it impacted the overall assembly. Adding breaks – including section breaks instead of page breaks – remained in the core methods, as did copying to a temp directory was a handled in the main method.

Copying to Temp

One of the problems that we were facing was the new behavior where Word was getting confused regarding synchronization when in a OneDrive synchronized folder. The solution was to do a quick file copy to a temporary directory and open from there. The mechanisms for doing this are straightforward in .NET, so having compiled .NET code that plugged into Word was a powerful combination.

In the End

In the end, the new tool is easier to work with, supports all of the new features we wanted, and allows us to create materials quicker and more reliably than we could ever do by hand, either with individual documents or with a single master document.

Book Review-The History of Iceland

I’m by no means a history buff, but there’s something about Iceland that drew me in and made me want to understand the story behind the island nation in the North Atlantic. The History of Iceland is a tome about the Icelandic people and how this amazing island came to be.

Sucking You In

My interest started with an invitation to deliver a keynote presentation to the Icelandic Records Management Association. Iceland arose from the deep recesses of my memory as a place that seemed wild and different. I accepted the invitation and began learning about the island, the people, and the history.

The more I learned about Iceland, the more interested I became.

Geography

The first bit to understand is where it is. It sits on the fault line between the tectonic plates that North America and Europe sit on. The gaps between the plates created a way for lava to flow up and create the land mass that is Iceland.

Though it’s very far west compared to European countries, the time zone that it observes is GMT/UTC. That means it’s on the same time as London, and five hours ahead of the US Eastern Time Zone. The time zone is as good as any other, since there’s plenty of light in the summer and not much in the winter due to its very high longitude.

However, the relatively low habitation means that it’s a great place to see the northern lights. (Or so I’m told — we did get to see them on our visit.)

Government

The initial settlement was by the Vikings, and because of the rugged nature and some misfortunes, the island struggled to reach and maintain a population of 50,000 people. Modern day Iceland boasts roughly 400,000 people – roughly 40% of which live in the capital of Reykjavik and the surrounding area.

As a result of their heritage – and failure to desire independence – they remained subject to the king of Norway and eventually Denmark. Independence was officially conveyed in 1944. However, in an odd turn of events, not a single shot was fired. Independence was granted without a fight.

Through the ages, Iceland had a largely decentralized government. Though subject to the King of Norway, the King largely left the Icelanders alone. It seems like no one really wanted to put up much of a fight over Iceland. In fact, the Danish rule of Iceland was overthrown by the capture of a single person.

Icelanders have, reportedly, protected their national image of neutrality and defenselessness. Having a national identity in defenselessness is to me – an American – a very foreign concept. However, for a country that’s spent most of its history largely undefended, the concept seems to make sense.

Farming and Fishing

The early history of Iceland required that everyone have or work on a farm. While it seems like fishing would be a primary commercial activity, the Icelandic people are described as sedentary pastoralists. That is, they would live off farms and livestock. Fishing, while done in the winter months, wasn’t a full-time vocation for centuries.

Today, marine products may make up 70-80% of exports, coming down from an estimated high of 90% in the 1940s through 1960s. So, while there are still many farms, most of what is grown locally is eaten locally. Fishing became so important that Iceland extended its fishing rights from 2 miles to 4 miles to 12 miles and, ultimately, to 50 miles and 200 miles. The extension of the fishing around the island was the cause for the only real “war” the island had when the British had a different idea of where their trawlers should be able to fish.

What’s in a Name

Iceland is greener than Greenland, and that’s a bit of marketing by Erik the Red. He figured if it had a good name, then men might like to come there. Iceland had no such marketing-based name, thus there’s a reversal of conditions between Greenland and Iceland.

There’s another name-based uniqueness in Iceland. They don’t use family (or sur-) names. Instead they use patronymics. That is, your second name is the name of your father or mother followed by son or daughter. To trace your lineage, you track back through the names of your ancestors one at a time instead of claiming and continuing a family name. The result, I’m told, is a propensity to just use first names, even if you’re not very familiar with the person to whom you’re speaking.

Christianity

Though initially the island was settled in pagan times with pagan chieftains, the island was converted to Christianity in 999 or 1,000 A.D. through public decree at the big meeting – called Althing – after a dispute was brought forward because of the different laws that were being followed by the pagans and Christians on the island. With a non-existent centralized government, it made sense that there needed to be an agreement on what the laws should be.

Christianity in countries outside of Iceland would ultimately prove to be a boon to Iceland because of the decision that fish didn’t count as meat when it came to fasts – particularly during Lent. There was an increase in demand for fish since it was allowed during fasts.

Christianity becoming the law of the land would ultimately drive literacy but not always in the most straightforward manner. Literacy was defined as the ability to recite Luther’s catechism (summary of principles as a question and answer), while literacy in other countries at the time was the ability to write your name. Despite this, the requirement that children be “literate” before they were confirmed started the process of learning.

Real Literacy

Real literacy came from the humble beginnings of Christianity. Children were required to be literate and this eventually transformed into the kind of literacy (reading and writing) that we expect today. However, adults were often concerned that the effort spent learning to read and write would prevent the children from doing their work on the farm. So, like all good teenagers, the thing that was forbidden became the thing they did. They would often learn how to read and write in secret despite the concerns and sometimes instructions of their parents.

Today, Iceland has a love affair with books – both reading and writing. Much of this love affair can be attributed to generations of literacy – and probably at least to some degree due to the lack of distractions. Radio and televisions service came to Iceland late – and only due to the American base.

Social Support

A network of neighbors and churches along with some interesting economic policies kept unemployment low in Iceland. Unemployment didn’t officially exist in a unified way until 1956. Perhaps that’s because being able to work – but not working – was considered a crime. It may also be related to the fact that if you had received public assistance you would likely not be allowed to marry. (Which was mostly a sign that you intended to have children.)

The other policies that led to people working was as high rate of inflation that made it useful to spend your money when you had it – generating a demand for labor – so that it would not become devalued. This high demand for labor and the societal stigma surrounding not working likely kept the rate low.

As I prepared travel to Iceland to get a chance to learn more about these amazing people and this amazing land, I looked at my research as a kind of social support as I felt more prepared to take in all that Iceland had to offer. The History of Iceland is amazing. I’m grateful to have read it before I experienced the island.