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Understanding Trust and Betrayal

There’s a lot of talk about trust, but how much do we really know about trust?  We speak of trusting others, but do we really know what we’re saying?  Trust is both deceptively simple and infinitely nuanced.  Trust is simply our perception of our ability to predict the behavior of someone else.  Betrayal is when our prediction doesn’t match the actual behavior.  Okay, but what does that mean, practically speaking?  It means that you can be more conscious of what you mean by trust, learn to trust more, and to protect yourself more from betrayal.

Trust Can Be Negative

For the most part, when we speak of trust, we speak in terms of positive outcomes.  We believe we can trust our accountant to do our taxes, and we trust our babysitter to faithfully protect our children.  However, we’ve all had situations where we expect that what the person will do will be negative.  We expect that the thief will steal from us if not monitored.  We expect the person who has struggled their whole lives with substance use to return to use again.

In these cases, we have the expectation of a negative outcome.  It’s still trust – but it’s framed negatively.  We trust that we can predict their behavior and the outcomes for them, us, or humanity will be bad.  We say that we “know” that someone will behave badly when that’s clearly not knowable in a literal sense.  Of course, if trust is negative, then betrayal could be positive.  It would be great to see our friend who has struggled with addiction succeed even if we didn’t expect it.

It’s recognizing that we can trust in negative outcomes that allows us to simplify trust to our ability to predict someone else’s behavior.  By removing the attachments to the word “trust” and replacing it with “prediction,” we can look objectively at the situations and decide how confident we are in our predictions.  The more that we believe in our positive predictions, the less we must invest in mitigating the impacts or the more we should be willing to risk for the predicted positive outcomes.


Prediction is what human consciousness does.  The evolutionary advantage of consciousness is that it allows us to prepare, predict, plan, and protect ourselves in ways that other organisms can’t.  While it’s an amazing feat, it’s also subject to numerous limitations and biases.  It was Lorenz who wrote about the butterfly flapping its wings setting off a tornado.  Small, and unobserved, events can ultimately change a set of progressively larger events in a chain reaction that makes a large difference.

It’s not just weather that exhibits these characteristics.  People, too, have hidden recesses of their psyche that we’ll never see or understand, and they can – and often do – change their behaviors.  When we’re trusting, we’re expecting something from others based on the information we have – which will always be incomplete and limited.  However, in many cases, this limited information is enough to generate positive value through trust.

Trusting Is Risky

However, inherently, trusting someone is a risky proposition.  It requires a bit of mental algebra to calculate the amount of risk involved.  On one side of the equation, we have the probability of betrayal and the potential impacts that the betrayal will have on us.  On the other side, we have the probability that our prediction is correct and the benefits that it brings.  We assume, for instance, that our accountant will do our taxes well and won’t steal from us.  The benefits are that we get our taxes done without the painful learning process – and we don’t have to worry about an IRS agent showing up at our doors because we’ve not paid them.  For most people, this is simple.

Babysitters are a bit more complicated.  Here, we have a potentially high impact event.  What if one of our children would be harmed or even die while they’re watching?  The probability is very low of course, but it’s not zero.  On the trust side, we get to go out to dinner and rejuvenate our relationship with our spouse.  It’s frequent that two partners don’t evaluate these risks (or rewards) the same way.  The result is that for one of the pair, there are more verification steps built in.  Before the babysitter is selected, we look for certifications and references to increase our confidence that they’ll take good care of our precious children.  During the date, we may call to check in – and verify.  In today’s technological world, we’re also likely to check in with cameras and other forms of monitoring to ensure our expectations are being met.

No matter how mundane the opportunity to extend trust, we’ll find this basic algebra in operation.  What’s the impact and probability of betrayal against the benefits of deciding to trust?

Trust Is Contextual

Algebra doesn’t change based on the context, but trust is different.  While we speak as if trust is a constant, it’s highly contextualized.  For instance, you can trust your babysitter to watch your children and your accountant to do your taxes – but woe to the person who trusts the babysitter to do their taxes and their accountant to watch their children.  When we trust we really are saying that we can predict behaviors inside of a narrow band of established circumstances.  You may trust the babysitter to watch your children while their love interest is out of town, but do you trust them when their love interest is in town, and you predict that they’ll have them over and become too distracted by them to appropriately monitor your children?

Whenever we’re evaluating trust, we must know what context that we have the trust – under what conditions we believe we’re able to predict the end behavior.  Kurt Lewin said that behavior is a function of both person and environment.  If we’re trying to predict behavior, we need to take both into account.


Much has been made about people who are trustworthy – that is, worthy of trust.  However, we often confuse the way trust works when we speak of people who are trustworthy.  Even if someone is trustworthy, that doesn’t mean I must trust them.  It means that they – and perhaps others – believe they should be given trust because they’ll do what they say they’ll do.  It’s still your choice on whether you’re going to trust someone – and to what degree.

Trust is always a choice that you make.  It can’t be demanded.  Whether a person is trustworthy or not isn’t the point.  The point is your decision to trust and that can be based on several factors, not just the trustworthiness of someone.  In fact, even if someone is outwardly not trustworthy, the choice to trust them may be the difference between a continuing relationship and not.

Experience and Fear

Some people, through genetics and childhood experiences, are more likely to trust – and be betrayed.  It can be winning the genetic lottery or developing a secure attachment with their guardians or other factors that we don’t fully understand.  Conversely, individuals have grown up in unpredictable and relatively hostile environments where their very survival was in question repeatedly.  They are thereby primed to expect a lack of safety and the need for fear.  These extremes obviously make someone more – and less – likely to trust.  For most of us, our experience growing up was somewhere in the middle – but it still influences our ability to take the risk of trusting.  It’s better to not get the rewards but not take the risks for some of us.

At the heart of the difference between those who are more and less likely to trust is the degree to which we feel we have the coping skills if we are betrayed.  These coping skills can come in the form of the things that we can personally do, or it can be in the form of the people that we believe (trust) will support us.

There are also factors about the way that we process that can make us over (or under) estimate the probability and impact of betrayal.  Obviously, the larger the impact and the less likely we are to be able to cope, the less likely it is that we’ll extend trust.

Basic, Blind, and Authentic Trust

Most of the trust that we have in the world is so low stakes and normal that it falls well beneath our conscious radar.  We expect that cars will stop at stop signs and stop lights even though we’ve heard cases where this hasn’t been true.  We expect that our bank will have our money, that our credit card transactions will go through, that our phones will work, and the electricity will stay on.  There are thousands – if not millions – of things daily that we simply trust because it’s easier.

Consider the situation of asking your colleague to look after your luggage at the airport while you go down the hall to buy a sandwich or use the restroom.  Most people wouldn’t give it a second thought.  That’s true whether we trust and respect the colleague or not.  It’s simply too much trouble to make conscious decisions to trust about everything.

Sometimes, this gets converted into blind trust, where our trust is disconnected from the signals that might warn us that our predictions of someone’s behavior might be off.  The owner who doesn’t follow up on the strange disconnect between profitability and assets.  The wife who notices lipstick on her husband’s collar or handkerchief that isn’t hers but ignores it – or buys the weak story she’s told.  This is where we’ve stopped looking at validating our predictions – and we’re putting ourselves at greater risk of betrayal.

In other times, we’ve got lots of data that reaffirms that the trust that we have in someone is well founded.  There are those few people in your life who are always there without fail.  The people that you know you can count on no matter what.  You authentically trust them to continue their behaviors, because you’ve seen them do it again and again in a variety of different circumstances.  Authentic trust is earned through having gone through bad things with people and knowing they’re there for you.

Building Trust – Make, Meet, Renegotiate

People wonder how they can make people trust them instantly.  This isn’t possible, because other people are always deciding whom to trust and whom not to trust.  However, you can build trust with other people.  Benjamin Franklin had a simple way to build trust.  He’d ask for someone to extend to him a small amount of trust.  Often, he’d ask to borrow a book from someone.  He’d read it and promptly return it.  This simple act of meeting his commitment to return the book paved the way for larger and larger opportunities for trust.

Franklin’s model was simple.  As for something small, make a commitment, and then meet the commitment.  Keep doing that to continue to build trust.  I’m sure there were times when Franklin couldn’t keep his commitment and he’d be forced to renegotiate.  Perhaps to ask for an extra week or month to read the book before returning it – or maybe even to take it with him to France.  By renegotiating, he continued to build trust because the other person knew Franklin was serious about his commitment and that he wanted to make sure that he met it enough to be willing to have uncomfortable conversations.

Franklin’s simple model of making a commitment and either meeting it or renegotiating before it came due helped people learn to trust him.  Eventually, his name preceded him, and his reputation made it much easier to build trust with new people.  They’d ask others for their perspectives, and the word “trust” would naturally arise.


Knowing that, as humans, we’re wired to find shortcuts and be strategically lazy makes the reputational aspects of Franklin’s life make sense.  When faced with a difficult decision about whether to trust Franklin – with things much more valuable than a book – it’s easier to look for markers than to do a thorough evaluation.  Instead of personally gaining progressive experience with commitments, people would ask others.  If I trust someone as a judge of character, and if they trust someone, then I should, too.

We see proxying trust today.  Websites proclaim the brands they work with.  Speakers show pictures of them speaking to presumably large crowds.  Wealth experts are always seen speaking in front of mansions and expensive cars or on yachts.  They are sending subtle signals of wealth to an audience trying to determine if they can be trusted.  Instead of thoroughly evaluating people and personalities, we look for simple ways to accept their claims – or to reject them.

When we’re struggling to believe other people, a good question to ask is what subtle signals are they sending that is eroding their credibility?  What credibility markers are they using that you either don’t understand – or don’t believe?  For instance, I can claim 19 years in the Microsoft MVP program, which likely means nothing to you.  It’s only in explaining that it’s a very reserved award for at most a few thousand people that must be renewed each year that you begin to recognize it’s a big deal – even if you still don’t know exactly what it means.

Contract, Communication, and Competence

Knowing whether to trust someone or not – to predict their behavior – is evaluated along three dimensions.  First, there’s the contract.  Will they honor their word, or will they do what’s right?  Second, there’s the communication aspects.  Will they, as Franklin did, notify us when things are changing and create the opportunity to shift our predictions together?  Third, there’s their competency.  They may have committed to something, but can they actually deliver?

Contract weasels are maddening.  You think that your agreement – and therefore your prediction they’ll honor it – is air-tight.  You’ve specified all the SMART things – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic/Relevant, and Timebound.  However, somehow these people find a different way to interpret something in the agreement, and therefore you find yourself betrayed.  Sometimes there are different interpretations without anyone being a weasel.  The contract terms – explicit or implicit – weren’t clear enough to ensure a single, unified perspective.

Communication, as was already explained in Franklin’s example, is best done openly and particularly when a commitment can’t be met.

Jimmy Bakker’s Fall

Reverend Jimmy Bakker was revered by my grandparents.  They religiously watched his 700 Club and PTL Club.  That was until 1987, when allegations of sexual misconduct and improper use of ministry funds landed him in jail.  It was 1961 when Bakker and his wife, Tammy, left college to become evangelists.  It was decades of building trust, working hard, and convincing people to trust him with their money.  It was undone in a matter of months.  From riding high on the continuing waves of trust to getting crushed by a complete lack of faith in him.

This is at the heart of trust.  It takes a long time of making and meeting commitments to build trust – and only a few moments or a single scandal to lose it.  Once the bubble of trust has popped, it’s suddenly possible that people – or a person – may not be as predictable as they appeared.

Reciprocal and Reinforcing Trust

One of the quirky aspects of trust is that it seems to belong to the mutual admiration club.  That is, we trust those people who seem to trust us.  The more trust that people place in us, the more we’re likely to place in them.  That’s why if we want to get trust from others, another strategy is to trust more.  All other things being equal, the more we trust someone, the more they’ll trust us.

This reciprocal nature of trust often sets up a second factor for trust – its reinforcing nature.  When the flywheel is spinning in a positive direction, we get more and more trust between people who trust each other.  Each trust bid – each time we trust the other person – when completed reinforces that our predictions were well placed and allows us to increase our probabilities for the next cycle.

Trusting More

If you want to be trusted more, there are some simple tools you can use:

  • Grant trust to others more frequently and in as large of degrees as you feel comfortable with.
  • Evaluate the conditions that would cause your trust to be well-founded and cases where it would be ill-founded.
  • Offer small opportunities for trust before larger opportunities.

If you want to know more about how trust, safety, vulnerability, and intimacy are related, you’ll want to see Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited.

Small Group Safety Rules – Before, During, and After

There are many cases where groups can be powerful tools for healing.  Whether these groups are in a religious context, a mental-health recovery context, or simply a community context, they need to remain psychologically safe for everyone.  This guide is designed to address what should be done before you meet, while you meet, and after you meet to ensure the psychological safety of everyone involved.


Before anyone gets together, they need to understand what the rules will be and what is expected of them.  Setting expectations prevents people from arriving at an event unprepared for the rules of the event.  Here are some suggestions for rules that every group should have:

  1. Confidentiality – Except as expressed in the organization of our group or explicitly agreed to by the participants of the group, everything shared in the group will remain in the group. No one will disclose what was discussed except through the rules the group has agreed to.
  2. Privacy – If you are participating virtually, we ask that you take steps to ensure that the others in the group will not be heard to protect their rights to control who hears what they’re sharing.
  3. Safety – This group will respect both the physical safety and the psychological safety of every individual. No overtly threatening physical activities or verbal attacks will be tolerated.
  4. Power Dynamics – In every group, there are a set of power dynamics that are unavoidable. Our goal is to minimize them so that everyone feels free to share.
  5. Inclusivity – Everyone will be given the opportunity to speak and share. We will not dismiss or interrupt others when they’re sharing.
  6. Focus – Everyone in the group is present for a reason. We ask that you remove distractions that may prevent you from fully participating, including silencing phones and removing other potential distractions.
  7. Curiosity – Stay curious about what the other person is sharing, including their values and the perspectives that led to their beliefs.
  8. Judgement Free – This group will remain judgement free. Everyone is entitled to their own values and experiences.  We don’t have to agree with them.  Our goal is to understand them.

Further, for groups that are intended to create space for hurting individuals to share, it’s recommended that you add:

  1. No Commentary – Participants should not directly address other participants’ comments unless specifically requested and approved by the person who’s being responded to. Even positive comments may be interpreted negatively or reinforce the perception that they’re being judged.

In addition to the rules, it’s recommended that participants receive invitations to the behaviors that are desired.  Some desired behaviors are:

  1. Titles – Please introduce yourself without unnecessary titles, certifications, and credentials. Consistent with our stance on power dynamics, we don’t want to imply that anyone else’s perspective is less valuable.
  2. Preferred Pronouns – We encourage you to signal to other participants your preferred pronouns, if you desire. It’s expected that others will honor your preferences, though they may forget or stumble.  If other participants don’t use your preferred pronouns, we suggest that you model the pronouns you would like to have used.

These invitations and rules help participants prepare for their experience with the group.  However, in some cases, there may need to be a broader understanding of why the group is gathering and the expectations of behavior.  An introductory statement can set the tone for the gathering even when the tone can’t be translated into specific, defined behaviors.  For example, an introduction might look like:

We’re looking forward to everyone joining us for this event.  Our goal is to create a safe and inviting space for everyone to feel heard and listened to.  We expect to demonstrate our caring and compassion for one another.  To do that, we’ve established a set of expected ground rules, which are:


When the group meets, there are two big goals.  First is setting the tone for the group, and second is maintaining the integrity of the group.

Setting the Tone

The process of setting the tone has two parts.  First, participants should be reminded that they’ve seen the rules governing the meeting, and that their presence is a tacit agreement to those rules.  They’re further reminded of critical rules in summary.  For instance, a tone-setting statement might look something like:

You’ve all received the set of rules that we’ll be following here, and by your presence here, we accept that you agree to abide by them.  As stated, confidentiality about what we discuss here is paramount, and we remind you that what is said here will only be shared in the ways that we’ve all explicitly agreed to.

Second, the first person to share should model the behavior that’s expected from the group.  The facilitator or convener should call on someone to start the conversation who can demonstrate the expected approach.  This can be someone with whom the facilitator has prior conversation or someone who has experience with the group process and knows what behavior should be modeled.

Maintaining Integrity

Facilitators should be on the constant lookout for boundary-pushing or boundary-crossing of the rules that are established for the group.  Boundary pushing is when a participant makes a comment that’s inside the rules – but just barely.  It’s important for facilitators address participants who are intentionally or unintentionally boundary-pushing, because not every participant will see these as boundary-pushing – some will interpret the response as a boundary-crossing.  Boundary crossings refer to those cases when someone feels as if the rules of the group have been violated.

In all cases, the facilitator should start with gentle shaping remarks designed to steer the participant(s) back inside the boundaries for the group.  If this isn’t effective, the facilitator should directly remind the participant(s) of the rules that were agreed to.  In extreme cases, it may become necessary to provide a single warning that further boundary crossings will result in expulsion from the group.  Finally, if a warning is given, and the participant breaches the boundary again, they should be expelled immediately.

In our experience, almost never does the situation require the warning – and in decades of experience, we have only seen someone expelled from a group once.  While these are exceedingly rare events, everyone should believe that these measures can and will be enacted if necessary.


After the event, the need to protect the safety of the group isn’t over.  A follow up message should be sent, which includes a reminder of rules that persist beyond the meeting and is a summary (without details) of what was experienced.

Typically, the rule that is most necessary for post-meeting is confidentiality.  The communication should indicate whom information is authorized to be disclosed to – including restrictions on those not in the group – and, if appropriate, when disclosures will be made.  In some cases, the group will have agreed to share notes with those beyond the group.  In cases like this, it’s ideal to provide the notes to the members and invite them to review the notes for a short period of time prior to being shared more broadly using the terms and conditions previously agreed to.

In cases where no disclosure is authorized, the follow-up message should state this and provide a generic appreciation and summary of the event.  For instance:

Thank you for your participation.  We feel that it was enriching experience for everyone and hope that you feel the same way.  As you know, none of us will be sharing the details of what was discussed during the meeting, but we’re deeply appreciative of the stories and perspectives shared during our time together.  We respect the vulnerability and courage everyone displayed in creating the space of learning and caring.

Practical Complexity

It was a great, spirited conversation about the concept of complexity that led me to wonder what we really know.  Specifically, the conversation was about the idea that we love linear problem solving.  Proverbially, it’s the simplicity of A+B=C.  It’s a simple math equation that anyone who has learned algebra gets.  However, it’s a simplification of the world around us – and one that sometimes gets us into trouble.

Chemical Reactions and Probabilities

Given perfect understanding and infinite time, A+B does, in fact, equal C.  However, the problem is that we rarely understand things perfectly – and we rarely have enough time to allow all of the A+B to happen.  Let’s take a chemistry example in an attempt to make this clear.

We now know that different kinds of atoms have different kinds of properties and propensities to cluster together.  For instance, water is H2O: two hydrogen atoms with one oxygen atom.  If we placed twice as much hydrogen as oxygen in a sealed container, we’d end up with water.  The reaction time is dependent on many things, principally temperature and pressure.

Both of these factors lead to the probability that the correct combination of atoms will collide into one another in a range that causes them to enter the relatively stable relationship we call water.  Too slow, and they’ll bounce off; too fast and they’ll plow through each other without enough magnetic pull to stay together.  Temperature and pressure increase the overall motion of the atoms and their proximity to one another and therefore make the conditions more likely to occur where the factors are just right.

There are a few important aspects here.  First, the reaction isn’t immediate.  It may appear immediate, but it’s not.  Second, we simplify the billions of individual molecule formations of a much larger quantity – say, a cup of water – into a single reaction when it’s not.  Finally, the introduction of other factors may increase or inhibit the reaction.  We call items that accelerate a reaction, but are not consumed by it, “catalysts.”

Reinforcing Loops

Einstein called compounding interest the 8th Wonder of the World.  Even small changes over time create big results.  Consider, for a moment, the idea that you get better by 1% each month.  It’s a tiny change – barely noticeable.  After 10 years of this, how much better would you expect to be?  Mathematically, you’d be 3.3 times as good as when you started.  This is because even at very low rates of increase, these increases compound over time.  The previous result – the increase – is fed back in for the next cycle, so the second month you’re better from the first by not just two percent but slightly more than that (2.01%).

Extended out over long periods of time, this makes some sense.  However, the problem becomes that we rarely think about short periods of time.  Returning to the world of chemistry for a moment, an explosion is a rapid increase in a chemical reaction.  Fire results from heat (energy), oxygen, and fuel.  In an explosion, the cycle time from one set of molecules to the next is very, very quick.  There’s enough heat in the presence of oxygen and fuel that the reaction expands quite quickly.  The output of the prior reaction – fire or explosion – is available for the next cycle.  The result can be catastrophic very quickly.

Balancing Loops

Most of the time, we don’t find explosions, because there are balancing loops that reduce or dampen the impact of the forces that tend to reinforce themselves.  In the case of explosions, the consumption of the fuel eventually depletes it and deprives the reinforcing loop of the conditions of its action.  In the simple example, the results are relatively predictable.  The explosion continues until the conditions of heat, fuel, and oxygen are somehow removed.  Often, the fuel component is exhausted, but sometimes the expansion created by the explosion occurs more rapidly, and the heat (energy) dissipates too quickly.

In many cases, the reinforcing loops are stopped automatically because they reach some limit.

Initial Conditions

Imagine that you’re standing at the Continental Divide in the United States.  On one side of a spot, water rolls down into the Pacific Ocean; on the other side, water will roll down into the Atlantic Ocean.  At the very top of a peak, a very tiny difference in position leads to a very large difference in the water’s final resting place.  (If you’re a teenage boy, you’ll stand at the top and urinate in a sweeping motion to pee in both oceans at the same time.)

A very small difference in initial conditions leads to a very radical difference in the outcomes.  While it’s easy to determine that when we’re at the Continental Divide, it’s much more challenging to determine the places in life where a very small change in initial conditions can have a large impact.  Whether we identify them or not, they’re present everywhere in our everyday life.

Perfect Understanding

Of course, it would be great to have perfect understanding.  If we knew all the places where initial conditions mattered, we could adapt, adjust, and engage in ways that allow us to take advantage of the situation – but we don’t.  In fact, we simplify our world to pretend as if we have a perfect understanding when we often do not.  Let’s come back to water.

You get a glass of water from your faucet and wonder, is it 100% pure water, or are there other things in there as well?  There are, of course, other things in trace amounts.  There’s some chlorine that was used in the treatment process that hasn’t fully broken down yet.  There’s a bit of limestone that was dissolved in the water.  There are probably very tiny amounts of all sorts of things.

You dump the water, turn around, and get some from the refrigerator, thinking that it will be colder anyway.  The filter in the refrigerator has removed some more of the impurities from the water – but it’s still not 100% H2O molecules.  Trace amounts of other stuff still hitch a ride.

Even in our examples here, we’re intentionally ignored the impurities that don’t make much of a difference – at least most of the time.

Applying Probabilities, Time, and Loops

Now, combine these concepts and recognize that there’s a probability of something happening in a given time, that loops drive the continued expansion until a point of collapse or stability, and that our initial conditions that we can’t fully understand can make a big difference in outcomes, and we’ve arrived at complexity.  It’s a place where we can’t predict the outcomes with high degrees of certainty, because there are too many variables and too many components of the situation that we cannot know.  This is what led Lorenz to realize that a butterfly flapping its wings could create a tornado in Texas.  This doesn’t occur in the linear cause-and-effect type way.  Rather, given loops, time, and initial conditions, it’s possible that a small change can lead to a very, very large outcome.

Some would describe this as a non-linear model or a non-proportional result, but I do not.  Ultimately, it is a set of equations and reactions that are all quite linear in nature.  The results of a linear equation need not be proportional – exponents are allowed.  Further, the emergence of the perception of non-linearity is because we fail to recognize both the simplification of many to one – and we fail to recognize the challenges of multiple iterations and the impact of initial conditions.


What we perceive as complexity is often just something complicated that we’ve over-simplified and failed to take into account the components and speed at which the system loops and therefore feeds back on itself.

Probabilities to Near Certainties

Several days ago, I woke up this morning to a notification on my phone.  This one was from Facebook.  The fiancé of one of my son’s friends had posted.  His post was about the loss of my son’s friend, Caroline, one year ago.  It was this friend’s death that ultimately led to my son’s suicide.  It was the loss of the bright light that his friend exuded that so darkened his world that he didn’t know how there would be light again.

For me, it started a clock.  Its tick, tick, ticking remained with me for several days, as one life unfolds unto another.  It feels as if there’s a train that’s left the station and hasn’t arrived yet – but the tracks have only one destination.

The Last Turnoff

I’m struck by the inevitability of it all.  Certainly, I can’t change the outcome – no one can.  My son is dead, his friend is dead, and so is one other friend.  The question that looms is at what point could three lives – or even just one – have been saved?  When did we pass the railway switch that led to different outcomes, and instead became locked onto a single track – a near certainty?

Even today, I don’t know what I could have said or done to help my son, Alex, realize that life wasn’t hopeless, and that grief would eventually change (but never go away).  Having spoken with him twice the day he died, and knowing that he was similarly connected to his mom and siblings, I just don’t know what should or could have been done.

As I move backwards through the chain of seemingly causal events, I wonder what if his friend, Caroline, hadn’t interrupted the car robbery.  What if she had slept in?  Maybe she could have been sick that day.  Certainly, I didn’t wish harm on her; in my brief time with her, she was an amazing person.  However, what if she hadn’t confronted the robber?  What if she hadn’t become who she was – someone of high honor and integrity – who felt like she had to stop injustice in the world?

I feel for her fiancé, whom I’ve never met.  The questions swimming in his mind must be deafening.  What if he had been the one to confront the robber?  What if he had held her back?  (I’m not sure that would have been possible – but presuming it was.)  It always feels as if there must be something that could be done.  We believe in our personal agency, our ability to influence things, so strongly that certainly there must be something we could do.

However, at some point, our chance for personal agency has stopped.  We can no longer stop or change the events that are going to happen.

After the Bullet is Fired

We can accept this at some level.  No one believes they’re going to stop a bullet from hitting its target once it’s been fired from the gun.  There’s not enough time.  There’s not enough influence.  Yet we wonder where the edge of our influence is.  In the moments before the bullet was fired, what could we have done?

The question is specific, but the problem is not.  When does our ability to influence – or, more importantly, to change – the outcome stop and inevitability begin?  The answer seems to be that we cannot know.  We can’t know when the outcomes are so probable that they reach near certainty.

It’s About the Outcome

When near certainties are towards positive outcomes, we’re thrilled.  We aim for retirement savings that will provide for our golden years with near certainty.  However, when the outcomes are negative, like the need to declare bankruptcy or the death of a loved one, we want to prevent the outcome, the event, and the near certainty.

As I roll further back, I wonder what could have been done to stop the robber from going out that day, to that parking lot, to Caroline’s car.  I realize that this is a zero-sum game.  If it wasn’t her car, it would be someone else’s; another family would lose their precious daughter, fiancée, and friend.  So further back, I go wondering if the robber’s father’s own prison sentence and his crimes didn’t lead his son down a path.  What if someone had paid attention to him, gave him a job, shown concern for him, or a million other ways that might have redirected his life?

Certainly, then, the change could have been made.  If he didn’t feel trapped and that stealing was the only way to make things work, then Caroline’s life would have been saved – and the two more lives that followed hers could have been saved as well.

The Law of Unintended Outcomes

The problem, as I move further and further back, is I know that the outcomes are subject to the law of unintended outcomes.  The further back we go, the less likely it is that we can predict the outcome.  As more and more variables are added in, we become less and less likely to predict the outcomes.  As we go further and further back, we have no idea what the outcomes may be.

The robber’s second grade teacher has no way of knowing that offering him a second chance at a failed paper may one day make the difference in four lives – including his.  There’s no way to know what single act of kindness, mercy, or support may have changed the future in a positive way.

So, then, we can’t go too far back, because to do so makes it as impossible to predict as it seems impossible to stop.  We’re caught between predictability and certainty.  We have no way of knowing – and we have no way of changing.  We’re left with the tragedy of acceptance.

Book Review-I’m Your Huckleberry: A Memoir

Most people don’t think of Val Kilmer’s role in Real Genius as a defining moment.  They’d pick something else, like Top Gun, The Saint, or The Doors.  However, I’ve always been impressed with the capacity for range and the ability to embrace a character.  I’m Your Huckleberry: A Memoir walks through Val’s life in career and in love.

Val Kilmer’s movie credits are impressive, his recent medical challenges tragic.  The ride between the two – and the journey he’s still on – are worth following.


One of the most entertaining quotes from the book is “Imagine going to sleep knowing that one neighbor had hanged himself and the other had stuffed two of his three costars.”  The other neighbor was Roy Rogers, who had Bullet the dog and Trigger – his horse – stuffed.  It was definitely different than the life that most of us knew growing up.

Val’s experience of childhood created an awareness of things that people had, and repeatedly through his memoir, he shares his longing to find places where it didn’t matter how many backhoes you owned.

Success and Failure

“It was tough telling the down-and-out homeless from the down-and-out musicians.”  It is one thing to love your art, whether it’s on canvas, in sculpture, in music, or on stage.  It’s quite another to make a living of it.  There’s a sense of dumb luck mixed in with the hard work and dedication that makes it impossible to tell those who are good and those who aren’t simply by their appearance.  Success on stage could also mean living a meager life if your roles weren’t great and the stage wasn’t popular.

Somehow the rewards of great performance had a random connection to the talent that was wielded from within.  This was a frustrating truth about acting – and all art.  Those who make it big may have less – or more – talent than the others who strive in obscurity, but there’s no way to know.

Side Trips

“[S]ide trips have been as important to my life as the main voyages.”  There’s a sense that we should have some straight arrow that points out the paths we have in life.  We should know what we want and take it.  However, that’s almost never the case, as we take side trips, the road ahead of us turns in unexpected ways, and we just experience life rather than pursuing the false belief that we can plan out our lives.  Even Robert Pozen in Extreme Productivity acknowledges that as planned and directed as his life seems in retrospect, it was never really that.  It was always adjusting to the reality around him.

At some level, Val is sharing the side trips as failures – but more broadly, they’re ways of gaining experience and perspective.  They’re things that may not have been commercially viable or recognized for their quality, but they were nonetheless a way for one to develop wisdom.

Post-Launch Blues

“Artists can become severely depressed when they’re not performing.”  Can’t we all?  We push to complete a project, and we await the results.  We are caught in a limbo between our past efforts and our future fears.  What if they don’t like it?  More importantly, what will I do next?  For those who are driven, the idea that we don’t know what to do next is one of the most terrifying things – and if you work on projects, the feeling comes with irregular regularity.  The title, I’m Your Huckleberry, Val confesses, comes both from the love of Mark Twain and from the idea that pallbearers used to be called Huckleberries.  In a sense, Val mirrors the winding road all our lives can take.

Not Saving a Child

Val lost his brother, Wesley.  He saw how this crushed his father.  Francis Ford Coppola lost his son, and Val saw the torture it inflicted upon him.  “He explained that parents, no matter the circumstances, are never free from the guilt of not being able to save their child.”  Parents are supposed to protect their children.  This is the way it’s supposed to be – even if that’s not realistic.  We can’t prevent tragedy from striking – even for our children.

Coppola and Val are right.  You never really accept that you can’t always save your children.  There’s a part that stays with you.  Whether it’s guilt or something else, it won’t let go.  It becomes a part of you, and, too often, it clouds your judgement or chokes off reason.  It can all too easily strangle the desire to live in the ways that you once did.

The Day You Find Out Why

“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”  It’s funny, because I’m not sure that Val has found his “why” yet.  At least, I’m not sure that I saw it in the book.  I say this as someone who doesn’t believe has found his why yet.  I don’t believe that I know what is truly in store for me or what I’m to do.  I am looking forward to the day that I find out what it is that I’m supposed to do.

Cancer and Art

Val contracted throat cancer, and it’s limited his acting roles.  He’s now doing artwork and trying to find what’s next.  For me, I deeply respect the work and the journey.  I appreciate the opportunity to glimpse into his world and to learn from what he’s learned.

Maybe Val has found his why, and I couldn’t see it.  Maybe he didn’t write it down.  Either way, I hope that he finds his and I find mine before someone comes to me and says, “I’m Your Huckleberry.”

Sorrowfully, Suicide in Spring

It’s a time of life and rebirth – and it’s also a time to die.  One of the things I’ve learned over the last six months is that suicide peaks in the spring.  I would have expected the dark of winter or late fall when confronted with having to survive winter.  However, that’s not what the statistics say.

To recognize the spring peak and that next week is the start of spring, we’ll be posting a book review for a suicide book at 8AM EST every day next week instead of just Monday.

If you’re concerned about someone who has been struggling or you suspect may be struggling, my simple advice is reach out to them.  Send them a text or give them a call.  It may mean more than you know.

[The image accompanying this post is a sunrise – not a sunset.]

Healthy Dependency in Relationships

We all want it. We want to be healthy. We want to be in relationships. We recognize that to be in a relationship creates some degree of dependency. Despite this desire, many of us have no idea how to create healthy dependency in our relationships. This is about making healthy dependency in relationships possible.

The Need for Dependency

Before we can speak about how to reach a healthy dependency, we must first recognize why dependency is required. We are all born dependent. In fact, humans are the least developed mammal at birth. We’ll require more care and support than any other mammal and much more time.

In our adolescence, we begin to assert our independence. (For more, see Erikson’s stages in Childhood and Society.) We begin to embrace the ideas that the West was won by the lone cowboy on his trusty steed and his reliable rifle. This myth of the American Western is simple fiction. The West was won by wagon trains, and it is where the phrase “circle the wagons” comes from. At some point during our development, we realize that we need our parents. Maybe it’s when we wreck our car or when we see the first bill from college, but we decide once again that other people can be helpful to us.

This is the phase when we can become interdependent on one another. We can start to work in ways that are mutually beneficial. With parents, that may be harder; but with our peers, we can look for ways to work together rather than always competing. Instead of seeing everyone as a competitor, we can begin to work together for everyone’s best interest. See The Science of Trust for the Nash equilibrium, which explains how working towards everyone’s best interests benefits us, too. (See also The Evolution of Cooperation for more on the mathematics behind interdependence and cooperation, and Adam Grant’s Give and Take for how being generous results in better outcomes in the end.)

For more on the progression of dependent to independent and finally to interdependence, see The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Relationships are Dependency

Though it’s not obvious, every relationship we’re in is a form of dependency. We’re dependent on the other person in the relationship – even if it’s just to be a sympathetic ear. That isn’t to say that the relationship needs to be deep or that every relationship creates a great deal of dependency, but those relationships that are more interdependent are those relationships that really matter.

We’re more effective when we can have many interdependent relationships. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on the need to get emotional support from multiple people and places.)

Speaking Truth to Power

Once we realize that we need to be dependent, we must work our way towards understanding the difference between dysfunctional dependency and healthy dependency. The litmus test – for me – for healthy dependency is the ability to speak truth (in love) to those who we’ve given power over us – that is, those with whom we’re in a relationship. Let me unpack that.

There’s an inherent power balance in relationships. In healthy relationships, that power is ever-changing, ebbing and flowing from one person to the other. For the person in power, they enable healthy relationships by holding their power in service of the other. (See Humilitas for this as a definition of humility.) For the person who is momentarily out of power, the ability to speak truth with love is the best assessment of health of the relationship.

Speaking truth to power is an active of courage. The person with power can, of course, harm the person of lesser power, and therefore it’s a risky thing to speak truth to them. (See Find Your Courage for more on how courage overcomes fear.)

The person of power can choose to become angry and stop supporting the person with less power. (See Choice Theory for choosing our emotions, and Emotion and Adaptation for how our emotions are formed.) According to Eastern philosophy, anger is disappointment directed. (See A Force for Good for more.) Anger is, then, some prediction we’ve made about someone’s behavior that didn’t come to pass. We expected them to behave one way, and they actually behaved in a different, disappointing way. We are prediction machines – it’s a fundamental aspect of our consciousness. (See Mindreading and The Body Keeps Score for more.)

So, others may be angry because they predict a different behavior from us (likely compliance), and when we speak our truth, they must accept that their prediction was bad and what they’re going to do about it. As Inside Jokes explains, we laugh at a joke, because we recognize that the prediction engine has failed in a small way and discovering and correcting for the missed prediction, we get a small reward.

The challenge for the person who has more power is to listen without choosing anger. The challenge for the person with less power is to summon the courage to speak the truth in a way that the other person can recognize the concern and relationship. (For more on relationships, see The Dance of Connection.)

Wholehearted Authenticity

The words for this are different. Brene Brown tends to use “wholehearted people” or “authentic people.” (See Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection.) Most of the time, I speak of stable core or integrated self-image. (See Braving the Wilderness, Rising Strong, and Beyond Boundaries.) Though the language is different, the intent and concept are not. Wholehearted people are authentic. They know who they are and who they are not. They’re tolerant of others’ perspectives, views, and values while maintaining their own.

I’d love to give you a direct path towards the kind of wholehearted authenticity that makes it easier to have healthy relationships and healthy dependency – but I don’t have a straight path to offer. I can start you with my post, How to Be Yourself, and share that, in Daring Greatly, Brene Brown explains that the most wholehearted people she knows are also vulnerable. (See more on vulnerability, see Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited.) One factor that helps in becoming authentic is being clear on who you are.

Creating Clarity

For most people, the Industrial Revolution is about steam engines and the power that they brought to work. With greater power, greater achievements were possible. While this is certainly true, it’s not the only driver for the dramatic increase in productivity. The other key factor was standardization. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, everything was crafted and therefore not standardized. With the advent of machinery, it became both possible and more essential to maintain standards. Bolts needed to be exactly the same size so that they could be replaced. We needed the consistency, and that came from clarity. Clarity in what a bolt and other parts should be – exactly – allowed for mass production, replication, replacement, and ultimately productivity.

In our own lives, clarity isn’t as easy. One tool that we can use to get clearer about ourselves is boundaries.

Boundaries for Me

Henry Cloud and John Townsend wrote Boundaries, and John Townsend followed up with Beyond Boundaries. These two works encourage us to define what is “us” and “not us.” Too often, boundaries are confused. People say, “You can’t do that to me,” but the truth is that boundaries are about us – what we will do and what we’ll allow – not other people. The boundary may be “If you smoke, then I’m going to leave. I refuse to be in the presence of cigarette smoke.” You’ll note that the structure of this is how the person is going to be themselves, and their statement about them – not the other person. Done correctly, discovering your boundaries is a way to get greater clarity about who you are – and thereby become better at being in relationships and healthy dependency.

Another key to boundaries covered in Beyond Boundaries is the difference between a defining boundary and temporary boundaries. A defining (or permanent) boundary is one that, if changed, would fundamentally change who you are. Temporary boundaries are erected after you’ve been injured, harmed, or simply when you need to focus on your needs. Temporary boundaries define what you will or won’t do in the short term to allow for your recovery.

Too often in relationships, we become so dependent on the relationship itself that we allow ourselves to be influenced too much by the other person. (See The Nurture Assumption for peer pressure and The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for how our belongingness can drive our behaviors.)

The Role of Trust

I mentioned while explaining anger that we’re prediction machines, and we try to predict others’ behaviors. When we’re angry, it’s most frequently someone’s behavior that didn’t match our prediction. Trust is our reliance on those predictions knowing that most of the time we’ll be right, and some of the time we’ll be wrong. Healthy dependency is built on trust. It’s a trust that the other person won’t use your dependency against you. It’s a trust that they’ll be there when you need them.

The key to understanding trust is to realize its power. Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order
is a study in how trust, placed in different places, influences the world, our societies, and our economic productivity. The short version is that more trust is better. The less we trust our prediction of others’ behavior, the more resources we must waste validating our trust.

Ronald Regan picked up a Russian proverb, “Doveryay, no proveryay,” which translates to “Trust, but verify.” He turned it into a strategy for dealing with Michail Gorbachev. This proverb is a shortcut to understanding the cost of not trusting. When you have no trust, you must verify everything. The greater the trust, the less effort is wasted on verification.

In the context of dependency and relationships, we can cause a relationship damage when we become too dependent and insecure about the relationship and therefore seek constant reassurance.

Types of Attachment

It was the work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth that led to the perspective of three kinds of attachments that children form with their parents: secure, anxious-avoidant, and anxious-ambivalent. Much like the work of Michell in The Marshmallow Test, the adverse childhood events (ACE) study leading to adult diseases and Fetal Origins of Adult Disease (FOAD), attachment style is an indicator for how we’ll connect with others as an adult. (See How Children Succeed for more on ACE and Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for coverage of both ACE and FOAD.)

In Daring to Trust, David Richo offers a way to transform your adult experience of relationships to be more positive no matter what attachment style you started your adolescent life with. He helps understand when to trust others – and when trusting others isn’t warranted.

Broken Attachment – Approach-Avoidance

Some people exit their childhood and adolescence with a sense of connection to others that isn’t balanced. The style of interaction forms an approach-avoidance cycle. Often, this cycle operates as one person in a relationship approaches, causing the other person to flee. The cycle operates in reverse when the second person begins to reapproach, and the first person begins to avoid. This becomes a sick cycle, with the relationship constantly oscillating between approach and avoidance and never settling into connection. (See The Dance of Connection for more.)

In even more broken situations, one person may be incapable of maintaining an intimate relationship. In Intimacy Anorexia, Douglas Weiss explains that some people have never learned to be intimate with other people. Their history has led them to dysfunctional types of superficial connection. In these cases, the cycle never reverses, and one person in the relationship is always (or nearly always) approaching while the other person is constantly avoiding. This scenario is mostly found in marriages.

Dependency in Marriage

John Gottman is famous for his research demonstrating a 91% accuracy in prediction about whether a couple would remain married for 3 years based on evaluation of only three minutes. The key is that the couple had to argue. Gottman explains in The Science of Trust how there are a handful of factors which push towards divorce and some – like emotional attunement – which lead towards intimacy and away from divorce.

Perhaps the best explanation of appropriate dependency in marriage comes from Team Genius and its explanations of the kinds of two-person teams that are effective – and why they’re effective. These patterns are prototypical examples of how two people can work together, be mutually dependent, and be productive.


At some level, the ability to be in a relationship that demonstrates healthy dependency it must be possible to detach oneself from the outcomes, both of the relationship itself and the joint work that is being attempted through the relationship. The more firmly entrenched in the relationship itself and the outcomes, the less willing we become to speak our truth and to do the hard work it takes to improve the relationship. (For more on getting teams to do the work to be able to effectively produce, see Collaborative Intelligence by Richard Hackman)

Over time, we’ve developed a sense that we’re in control. In Compelled to Control, J. Keith Miller explains that everyone wants to control – and no one wants to be controlled. Conceptually, both cannot be true at the same time. The way that society has come to understand and harness nature more completely leads us to believe – incorrectly – in our societal and personal levels of control, which ultimately leads us away from detachment. If we are in control, then we’re responsible; when we don’t achieve the outcomes we desire, then we’re responsible, and we should be upset with ourselves. However, since we really only have some degree of influence, we should not be surprised when we occasionally fail to get the results we want.

Working on detaching isn’t always easy and is sometimes confused with disengagement, which can seem like a negative thing, but the concept of detachment comes up too often when looking for ways to become a better, wholehearted, person. (See The Heartmath Solution for more.)

The Ebb and Flow

When I started explaining healthy relationships and dependency, I explained the ebb and flow of power is essential to a healthy relationship. However, what does that mean? Well, let’s look at the divorce rate as it pertains to women being able to find and maintain a job that pays them a livable wage. Instead of so-called “pink-collar” jobs that offered money for luxuries, during World War II, women began working blue-collar and professional jobs, which paid enough money to support themselves, and the result was a wave of divorce. (See Divorce and The Anatomy of Love for more.) It wasn’t just “no fault” divorce laws, it was the fact that women were no longer trapped in relationships with a constant power imbalance. Divorce is bad, but unhealthy marriages are worse – at least in some cases. When the power started to ebb and flow between spouses, some marriages couldn’t survive the changes.

Another way to look at the situation is that both people in a relationship should be whole before they enter the relationship. Please understand, I’m not saying that they can’t be better in the relationship, I’m saying that they’re at least whole to start. When Terri and I got engaged, I designed a custom engagement ring. It’s a heart made of two diamonds. They’re two pear shaped diamonds that are each – in their own right – beautiful and complete.

Unsafe People

While it may be ideal to be in a power-balanced relationship with people who are complete and whole, this isn’t the case that most of us find ourselves in every day. We find ourselves dealing with other humans with faults like us – and faults that are different than ours. In Safe People, Henry Cloud and John Townsend enumerate ways that people may be unsafe. Unfortunately, they don’t explain how to be in relationships with people who aren’t safe. It’s certainly helpful to be able to identify the ways in which people may be unsafe, because it changes your predictions of their behavior and encourages you to take less risks by trusting them in those areas.

At some level, being in relationships with unsafe people is about establishing your boundaries. (See their book Boundaries and Townsend’s book Beyond Boundaries for more.) However, it’s more than that. It’s about learning the skills that you need to have hard conversations. (See Crucial Conversations for more.) It’s about learning the skills you need to be in a conflict with someone and at the same time not think of them as a villain. (See Words Can Change Your Brain, Nonviolent Communication, and Why Are We Yelling? for techniques for managing conflict.)


Overall, the feeling that pervades healthy dependency is safety – not when the person provides for your needs, but when the person cannot provide for your needs. The safety exists when you’re able to be only partially dependent upon them and know that there is a mutual intent of caring for and supporting each other.

When You Should Not Get the COVID-19 Vaccine

There are valid reasons to not get the COVID-19 vaccine, and there are valid reasons to recommend caution to those you care about. Before getting into those, let’s walk through where we are so we’re all on the same page.

COVID-19 is Real

At this point, almost everyone knows someone who has had COVID-19. A year or more ago, that wasn’t the case. It was possible to say that it’s not real or it’s like the common cold. In fact, the likelihood is that if someone we knew had the disease, they got better. For some, it was no worse than a cold. For others, it was more severe – more like a bad case of the flu.

So, while we accept that it’s real, it’s harder to accept the real impacts of it. When we hear that more than half a million people in the United States have died because of COVID-19, it’s hard to wrap our head around if we don’t know anyone personally. The truth is that the chances of someone who is infected with COVID-19 dying is less than 1% (~0.6%).

Of course, the next belief is that those people who do die from COVID-19 are all feeble and, in some cases, “were going to die anyway.” We’re all going to die at some point. That doesn’t stop us from convicting a murderer for bringing on the outcome sooner. Much has been made of inflating the COVID-19 mortality numbers by including people with “comorbidities.” That is, they were already compromised by something else.

Maybe that’s true, but the unfortunate fact of American life is that most of us have some form of comorbidity – something that’s hastening our path towards the grave. Whether it’s cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, asthma, hypertension, and/or cancer, slightly less than half of Americans (45.4%) have something. It’s not so easy to dismiss that the people dying were going to die already when you realize how many of us have chronic conditions that would put us in that category.

With all these statistics, it’s no wonder that few of us have seen people die of COVID-19. We’d have to know 100 people with COVID-19 to see one death. Personally, I’ve lost a brother-in-law, a high school friend was hospitalized for five months, and my daughter wasn’t able to work for five months. I clearly must know more than 100 people. If we shift the focus to hospitalization for COVID-19, the rate goes up. If you are in your fifties, it’s about 5%; by the time you’re in your eighties, it’s about 33%. Clearly, the older you are, the higher the chances you’ll be hospitalized or die.

I’m Okay

Many younger people think to themselves, rightly so, that their chances of getting the disease and needing to be hospitalized are low. For them, that’s fine; however, the real problem is not the person themselves but those they come in contact with. Some losses are just unacceptable. When you go to see your beloved grandmother and infect her without realizing it, you’ll feel terrible. What about that older man or woman who has always looked out for you, whose wise counsel you’ll dearly miss when it’s gone? What happens if they get sick?

If too many of them end up in the hospital, the hospital will fill up and won’t be able to accept more patients. It’s tragic enough to get the disease and need to go to the hospital. It’s even worse when you’re told there are no beds available at the hospital, and you’ll have to figure out something else. Most people have never experienced being turned away at a hospital, so the idea that it could happen doesn’t feel like a possibility.

Being Careful

The challenge isn’t just that you can be careful and not infect folks. Even if you isolate yourself as soon as you feel symptoms coming on, it’s too late. You’re contagious and potentially infecting others up to two days before you feel symptoms personally. That’s one of the reasons that so many people are being infected. With the original COVID-19 disease, each infected person on average infected 1-2 people. With the Delta variant, the number is 5-8 people – in that way, it’s like chicken pox.

While there are current discussions about when to wear a mask and when it’s not necessary, there’s a broader question about the efficacy. There are a number of variables involved when people are wearing homemade masks and when the masks are made of varying materials. Getting to well-researched numbers is difficult. What we do know is that the particles that transport COVID-19 are slowed by masks – in both directions.

Excuse the crude example, but if you spit at someone, your chances are much better of hitting them if there’s not a screen door between you – and even less if there are two screen doors. Sure, the COVID-19 virus itself is small, but it needs something to ride on to get to someone else, and those “somethings” are collectively larger. Any sort of barrier will reduce what makes it through.

Vaccine Safety

As a general statement, vaccines are safe and effective. We’ve all had vaccines since we were children. These vaccines have eradicated polio and have substantially reduced the incidence of measles, mumps, and rubella. We’ve pushed back tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis. The problems with the vaccines have generally been very rare.

In fact, the government stepped in to create the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. It’s a small fee with each vaccine dose that’s collected automatically and is held to compensate those who do have an issue with a vaccine. The current cost per vaccine is $0.75. Clearly, the number of people harmed by vaccines is very small, because the fund could not operate with those kind of fee rates if the incidence of claims was very high.


The other major concern regarding vaccines comes in the form of a single article published in the prestigious Lancet journal. In the article, the lead investigator, Andrew Wakefield, claimed that children developed autism after receiving the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine. As a direct result of that article, the physician lost his license to practice medicine. The Lancet published a very public retraction. What wasn’t known at the time was the conflict of interest that Dr. Wakefield had in the publishing of the article.

The loss of a medical license is a serious issue – particularly when no patients were directly harmed. It’s a powerful statement about how grievous the community felt Dr. Wakefield’s ethical problems were. Despite the public condemnation of his behavior, many are still concerned about the potential of causing autism in their children with vaccines.

It’s hard to think that something you’re doing – authorizing to have your child receive a vaccine – could be harming them. It’s easier to think that you did nothing and take your chances with the diseases that the vaccine is designed to prevent. However, there is no scientifically validated link between autism and vaccines – it’s just not there.

COVID-19 Vaccines

The most widely studied vaccines in the history of mankind are the COVID-19 vaccines. It’s counter-intuitive, but it’s true. While studies aren’t complete, and there is still more to learn, the communications and information technologies have made it possible to use much larger study sizes and to more precisely track the symptoms after receiving the vaccine.

The two different approaches are used in the development of COVID-19 vaccines. The first approach involves messenger RNA that’s been used since the 1980s. The messenger RNA (mRNA) approach used by both Pfizer and Moderna tricks some cells into creating the characteristic protein spike for the COVID-19 virus that the immune system needs to learn how to identify.

The second approach, used by J&J (Johnson & Johnson) uses a modified version of a different virus to deliver important instructions to the cells. The cells then produce the spike protein that our immune system learns to defend against. Both result in the production of a harmless spike protein that is found on the surface of the COVID-19 virus.

For both approaches, these protein spikes don’t do anything on their own: the immune system recognizes them as foreign and gets an opportunity to learn to attack and contain them without the threat of the virus.

We can’t know the long-term impacts of this vaccine, but we do know that the technologies used are well known and well used. Much of the vaccine development was already done but not tested because of other outbreaks, including SARS in Canada, and MERS. The coronavirus has been with us for a long time, and we’ve previously seen mutations of the virus that became more impactful to humans. COVID-19 (and the Delta variant) is simply the latest set of mutations of this virus, which happened to have unlocked a pattern that’s more deadly to humans.

What We Know Without Vaccines

Much has been made of the unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 virus. However, we do have another analog. Just over 100 years ago, influenza, known as the Spanish Flu (only because the Spaniards were willing to openly discuss it), infected roughly a third of the world population (~500 million people) in four waves with a death toll between 20-100 million of those infected.

Without the benefits of vaccines and other tools of modern healthcare, that pandemic took somewhere between 1.5 to 6 percent of the population.

Vaccine Reactions

There are, in fact, reactions to vaccines in general. There are people who are allergic to any of the ingredients in a COVID-19 vaccine who should not get that vaccine. If you have had a severe or immediate allergic reaction to any ingredient in the mRNA vaccine, you should not get either of the currently available mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. On the other hand, people who have underlying medical conditions, including immunosuppressed individuals, are at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 and are recommended to receive the COVID-19 vaccination. For those who do receive the vaccine, the rate of reaction is very low. The most typical response is some pain or redness around the location of the shot itself followed by headache or fever.

There are more serious reactions, such as a specific form of blood clots, which occurred at a rate of about 120 per billion doses. To put that in perspective, you’re about 60 times more likely to be struck by lightning. Reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome happened at the rate of about 1 in 100,000 for the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. Which is still very, very unlikely. Guillain-Barre Syndrome is also associated with the COVID-19 virus itself. It’s unclear whether the patients affected would have been impacted the same way with the virus or at the same rate. There’s just not enough data to make a firm conclusion. While Guillain-Barre Syndrome doesn’t frequently cause death, it can have a serious impact on quality of life.

The final complication that is being tracked as a possible side effect of the mRNA vaccines is an inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis or pericarditis), which happened at a rate of about 2 per million. Putting this in perspective, you’re about 5.5 times more likely to die of dog attack in your life.

So, while there are reasons to not get the vaccine, do they apply to you? If they do, maybe you can pass this along to those in your world who believe that they shouldn’t get the vaccine.

Western Governors University, Master of Science, Management and Leadership

That was it. I’d had it. There was a conference that Terri and I were doing together. We were teaching burnout to nurses. We love working together, and it was an opportunity to teach folks the skills that we had to learn the hard way. The problem is that I couldn’t be listed as an instructor. I could be listed as an assistant and the conference would still pay us the same – but they couldn’t list me as an instructor because of rules for continuing education credits.

Continuing Education

Many professions have associations that are responsible for certifying that their members who have earned professional credentials are keeping up with their continuing learning. Lawyers and doctors are a good example of the kinds of professionals that need to keep current. In some states, nurses fall into the same category. (Not in Indiana, where we live, but it’s sort of an anomaly.) The rules for issuing continuing nursing education vary by the issuing body; but in California, if you’re not a nurse, to teach, you must have an advanced degree in the topic you’re teaching on – and I didn’t have one. (See my post on my BS.)

It would trigger me to go back to WGU for a master’s degree and continuing my academic education – though I didn’t have many gaps in my learning. When I shared with a friend of mine that I’d gone back to do it, he explained that I could teach it. Maybe he was right but either way, I went back.

Sideways Entry

I applied, was admitted to the program, and started doing what I did for my BS: completing courses at a faster than normal pace. However, for relatively different reasons. For the past seven years or so, I’ve read a book each week and posted a book review. Goodreads says that I’ve read 522 books – and I don’t read fiction. I’ve got a large library to pull from.

In the end, I’d pull 74 references across the program to use in my papers and my capstone. I read zero of them for the program. They were all references that I had previously read and reviewed. I could have probably referred to more, but I met the criteria and then some, so I stopped.

I totally accept that this isn’t the way that most people enter the program. I recognize that the fact that I write like I’m running out of time (apparently like Alexander Hamilton). Papers that would normally take people weeks to do I could knock out in a few hours.

It’s for that reason that I feel like I need to say, “Your mileage may vary.”

Master of Business Administration, IT Management

A natural progression might have been to get an MBA – or an MBA with an IT management concentration. Both are offered in the WGU catalog. However, I don’t believe that the critical need that organizations – IT or corporately – have is a lack of administration. Nor do I believe that my strengths are in the administration of businesses. I believe strongly that my strengths are in leading and managing. I believe that administration leads to bureaucracy, which has its place but is not where I believe that organizations of the future are going.

I’m much more interested in motivating people to follow a new direction than I’m interested in counting the number of paperclips they’re using or trying to predict the unpredictable future.


With that said, it’s not that I’m not interested in efficiency. I just don’t try to extract it by minimizing the amount of office supplies. I relentlessly seek to optimize processes, and that’s part of what led me to WGU in the first place. What I didn’t say when I wrote my post about my BS was that I researched my options and ended at WGU because of the efficiency with which I could get my degree.

I’ve got to be careful lest people believe that either the BS or the MS degrees were easy – that’s absolutely not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that it was an efficient way to get the degrees. Efficiency isn’t always easy.

For me, efficiency allowed me to progress in my educational journey when I had time. For the most part, I didn’t have to wait to be able to do more work, demonstrate some competency, or add another class to my schedule. My schedule is highly variable. Being able to accelerate when I had time and to slow down when my work schedule increased was the difference. It cut my time to completion at least in half – if not more.

Healthcare Administration

I mentioned in my post about my BS degree that this whole process was kicked off by a desire to get a master of science in healthcare administration. So what gives? The short answer is that I became more aware that what every organization needs is better leadership, and the healthcare administration degree doesn’t offer that. Will I go back and pick up a master of science in healthcare administration? It’s unlikely, but it could happen.

Western Governors University, Bachelor of Computer Science Graduate

I graduated. I never expected to go back and get a second Bachelor of Computer Science degree, but I did. The reasoning is a bit strange – even by my standards – and the path is even stranger. Those who know me would never question or wonder whether I had a bachelor’s degree or not. Dozens of books written, editor on a hundred more, and countless articles and presentations. Why would anyone question whether I had a degree or not?

My First Bachelor’s Degree

I was sitting on the leather couch next to a mentor and friend of mine in front of a fire at his house when he asked, “Why haven’t you bought one of those degrees yet?” “What?” I stammered. He was a lifelong educator teaching high school and college and eventually ending up on the school board. I couldn’t understand what he was saying. It turns out he was paying me one of the biggest complements of my life.

He, more than most, knew I was a lifelong learner. I hungered for it. I was editing about 16,000 pages a year at that point, and I was always discovering something new. But he actually asked that question. He explained that I already knew the things I needed to know, I just didn’t have the paper.

It wasn’t too long after that when an email crossed my desk. A degree for life experience. It was a few hundred dollars, and you had to produce documentation of your experience – which was easy to do, since I kept records of my work on book projects and Amazon was just starting out so people could verify the books that I had worked on.

For my money, I got a very official looking package from Concordia University. It came with grades, transcripts, etc. Accredited in one country, operated in a second, with web servers in a third. It was a paper mill diploma factory, and everyone knew it, but it would pass any employment screen test for a bachelor’s degree.

Why I Didn’t Go to College

Backing up the bus for a bit, one might ask the important question of how I found myself in a position where I didn’t have a college degree already. For that, you must look past the good grades in high school, the decent scores on the ACT, and the acceptance to Purdue with honors. The short version was money. Yea, FAFSA was a thing even back then, so in theory, I should have been able to get aid and student loans to help pay for it.

The problem was that if a parent was uncooperative, if they refused to provide their tax return information, well, you couldn’t fill out the forms, and you couldn’t get the aid you needed to make it work. I tried putting together budgets but none of them worked. In the end, I resigned myself to the idea that I’d settle for night school at IUPUI while I worked. It wasn’t ideal, but I could do half time at night and work full time and the math would work out.

I had taken as many as ten credit hours at the community college while going to high school and working 20 hours a week. I knew I could find a way to make night school work, because I was willing to work hard.

The Siren Song of Technical Editing

Mike Groh was a quirky character when I met him. He was married to the marketing director for the company I was working at. I was at their house to help them get connected to the corporate email system. Back then, it was modems and store and forward email, and it was my job to make sure that the directors were successful. Mike was working for New Riders Publishing – then an imprint of McMillian and, ultimately, Pearson.

He asked me if I would be interested in technical editing books. I explained that grammar and I weren’t on the best of terms; we had a strained relationship. Then he explained that they needed someone to read the material and make sure it worked. It was an ideal job. I got paid to learn.

I had been grousing about having to take assessments at IUPUI even though I had passed the AP tests and had college credits. It was a part of the procedure, and I was caught up in the machine. It wasn’t long before Mike came through with some work. I started technical editing with Inside Paradox and Inside Microsoft Access, the two competing database technologies of the day. I loved it. It made money instead of consuming it.

I resolved to defer college until the technical editing thing had run its course and I had saved some money.

I Got Hooked

Like an addict, I picked up more technical editing. I was, for several years, doing about 16,000 pages a year after my full-time job. It was fun. I loved learning and only occasionally got too overwhelmed. I was sometimes offered development editing opportunities, which paid better and really amounted to what I was doing plus talking about how to explain the concepts better. I even got a few authoring opportunities.

Authoring wasn’t my favorite thing. It took a long time and the rewards were less than editing. However, it felt like it was the thing to do. Before I knew it, I lifted my head, and years had gone by. Eventually I realized that I’d never go back to traditional college. I’d be bored to tears. That’s when the conversation came and when I bought the degree.

The Master’s Degree Trigger

I didn’t find Western Governors University (WGU) because I wanted to get a bachelor’s degree – at least, not directly. I started out investigating a master’s degree in healthcare administration. It’s a place that I’m passionate about. I want to make healthcare better. I figured the bachelor’s degree I had worked well enough for background checks. It should work as a prerequisite degree for a masters.

I was wrong. In the years since I had gotten it, almost every school had gone electronic. Now, it was easy for one school to validate the credentials of another – and there was a master database of universities that were accredited – by accrediting bodies that mattered.

I wanted to move on the healthcare administration journey, but that meant going backwards to get the bachelor’s degree.

Hits and Misses

I decided to find a solution that would be the easiest for me to do. That was computer science. My first semester at WGU, I completed 60 credits. WGU uses an “all you can eat” plan for your tuition. You pay a fixed amount per six months no matter how many classes you take. I tested out of a lot. I could have even tested out of more, but I wanted to save a few easy classes for later semesters.

It’s been a year and a half since then. During that time Terri (my wife) got very sick for a while, and it was all I could do to keep the wheels on the cart. Juggling kids, the business, and WGU was more than I could do. I met my requirement to do at least 12 credit hours and kept everything afloat through a semester where Terri was ill for three of the six months.

The last nine months of my journey, I’ve been only working on my capstone. Most of that has honestly been a waiting game. I decided that I wanted to prove that I can improve environmental services workers’ training so they’ll clean better using augmented reality, and Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 was announced but seriously unavailable.

For reference, I don’t think that I do things the way others do. While I was getting my degree, Terri and I wrote a book together (Extinguish Burnout), and I created a comprehensive course on change management (Confident Change Management). I was busy. I’m looking forward to the opportunity that things can slow down a bit, and it can resume just normal crazy.

My capstone completion would mark 2 years since I started. Great time for college as a part-time thing – but easily a year longer than it needed to be due to delays and capacity problems.

The Program Itself

Having three children currently in traditional colleges and a wife with a master’s degree, I have an interesting perspective on the process. WGU taught me when that’s what I needed. (Calculus isn’t necessarily easy.) It also allowed me to test out of those things I already knew. For the most part, it stripped the stupidity from the college experience, and it dropped all the participation awards.

I’m comfortable saying that if I needed to learn a topic, it taught it to me. It seems on par with the education that the children are getting – with a lower price tag and a much better schedule.

I would have never survived going to classes each week for 15 weeks. As it was, I shook the cages at WGU rather hard for the handful of courses that had rough edges. (I was bound and determined to leave the program better off than I found it – even if I had to explain instructional design to people with master’s degrees in instructional design.)

All in all, I’d recommend it. I’d recommend it for adults who want to go back for a degree – and even for high-performing students who want to get their basic degrees out of the way so they can get to what they really love.

What’s Next

As for what’s next for me, I don’t know. I may go back and get the master’s degree in healthcare administration. However, I won’t start that right away. I am also considering a master’s degree in psychology, but I’d do that more for me than for than any earning potential.

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