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Book Review-I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough”

I’ve read much of Brené Brown’s work, but it wasn’t until I read I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough” that I made it back to the beginning. I had previously commented in my review of The Gifts of Imperfection that I was reading her work in non-sequential order and how that can sometimes be disorienting. I had already read Daring Greatly and Rising Strong (my review is split into part 1 and part 2). Despite having read some of Brown’s later work and some of the references she uses, I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) still had things to teach and remind me.

As a sidebar, the book was initially self-published by Brown in 2004 with the title Women & Shame: Reaching Out, Speaking Truths, & Building Connections. It was 2007 when Penguin bought the rights and released it with this title. I’ve taken some of Brown’s work here, put it together with pieces from other resources, and created a shame map:

Shame Researcher

Brown frequently describes herself as a shame researcher; that is, she seeks to understand shame. Along the way, she’s clarified that guilt is someone feeling that they’ve done something bad, and shame is a separate emotion where people believe they are bad. Brown believes that shame separates us from one another, and it’s this separation that makes shame so particularly toxic to our being.

Shame is a self-sealing proposition. As shame disconnects and silences us, our shame becomes a secret, and secrets are where our mental sickness festers. The challenge with shame is the feeling itself makes it unsafe for us to share the shame with others. It erodes our trust in ourselves and others.

Beyond the definition of shame and cataloging experiences of shame she has sought to identify those skills and temperaments that make folks more resistant to shame and there by to live a happier and healthier life.


Before we can confront shame for what it is, we must acknowledge the truth that life is about connection. We’re inherently social creatures. We’ve been designed to be in community, and we experience psychological pain when we’re isolated and removed from every kind of human connection. Loneliness explains the lack of connection and how it differs from the physical state of being alone. The Dance of Connection speaks about the need for and the way to get connection. Dr. Cloud describes the need for connection – and healthy connection – in The Power of the Other as being core to our human condition.

When we accept that connection is essential to our human condition we can realize that shame has the power to separate us from others through our fear. If we ourselves believe that we’re bad and therefore unworthy of connection, isn’t it realistic to expect that others will believe that we’re not worthy of connecting to? That’s our ultimate fear: that we’ll be excluded from the group. (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for more on exclusion.)


I attribute most of my shame resilience to stealing fear as a basic component from it. It was years and years ago when I decided that I wouldn’t live in fear. I’m not saying that I won’t be afraid, everyone experiences fear from time to time. What I’m saying is that I made a conscious decision to not live in fear. If that meant that I made financial choices so that I wasn’t in debt, and the consequences were a beat-up car, a small house, and modest clothes – then that’s what it meant. I realized that my first concern was going to be not allowing fear to build a stronghold in my life.

Over the years, as people have attempted to shame me, I’ve resisted, in part because I refused to accept the fear of disconnection. I would confront the fears directly and speak with people about what was real and what wasn’t real. I’d use my friends like a GPS system to triangulate my real position. (See Where Are You, Where are You Going, But More Importantly, How Fast Are You Moving? for more on this idea.)

Fear is an essential component for shame, and without it, it’s like starving a fire of oxygen. Eventually, it will go out. Not immediately, not without a fight, but eventually it will yield.


Courage comes from the Latin root word cor, which is “heart.” In its earliest forms, courage meant “to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” We’ve lost this definition with our focus on courageous acts, which are framed around charging into burning buildings and taking great personal risk (altruism). However, courage in its purest sense is the ability to work through the fear of being rejected for who you are to defend people or ideals that you hold dear. (Look here if you want to get clear on the distinctions between Sympathy, Empathy, Compassion, and Altruism.)

Notice that courage requires fear. You can’t be courageous without vulnerability – and thus some fear. Vulnerability comes in the ability to be hurt. Without vulnerability, there is no fear and no courage.


Why would anyone want to allow harm to – possibly – come to them? What possible motivation could someone have to become vulnerable? In a word: connection. Without vulnerability, there is no connection. Without our ability to share an unvarnished, unprotected part of ourselves, there’s no way that someone can get close to us. Wearing a suit of impenetrable armor also makes it impossible for someone to touch you – to connect with you.

Vulnerability in our relationships with others isn’t a binary thing. We don’t one day wake up and say to ourselves, “Today is vulnerability day.” Instead, we choose how much we share with others, how much we let them in and let them see us, warts and all. Often, we do this slowly, as we send over little test balloons. He might not like me if he realizes I’m saddled with debt, so maybe I can whine about my car payment and see how he reacts. She thinks that I have my act together. I wonder how she’d react if she knew I’d been in counseling for depression for years. Maybe I can suggest drinks at that bar “right next to the counseling center” and see what happens.

As we are vulnerable and aren’t attacked, we can open up to more to places and ideas that we’ve not yet broached. Each bid for connection – another way of thinking about being vulnerable – that is met with a positive response opens us up for more. (See The Science of Trust for more about bids for connection.)

Vulnerability may have a purpose and a need, but that still doesn’t make it easy. The process of being vulnerable to build trust takes time to build and a moment to lose.

Perceived Safety

In walking around in cities that I don’t know, I’ve probably walked into neighborhoods that I wasn’t really safe in. I probably shouldn’t have been there alone – or there at all. However, in most cases I felt fine. I was being vigilant about my surroundings, and things were fine. The funny thing is that one of the places that I can remember feeling the least safe was in downtown Manhattan. I couldn’t tell you where exactly I was, but I can remember the thing that triggered the feeling. It was the graffiti on the steel, roll-down doors on the shops.

Intellectually, I knew that there were uniformed officers a block away, leisurely chatting. They weren’t actively or intently scanning their environment. They seemed pleased that they had received such an easy assignment. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t safe. I started processing the fact that these shops needed these steel doors. I started to process the bravado required to mark the doors. I had fallen for what Malcom Gladwell described in Blink as “broken windows.”

There are times when we feel safe when we are not – and distinctly, there are times when the opposite is true. When it comes to our willingness to be vulnerable – our willingness to walk into a new neighborhood – it’s our perception of safety that is important. Strangely, our perception of safety may have been shaped years ago in our childhood. How Children Succeed explains the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, and how if you were exposed to adverse childhood events, you’ll be more cautious and reserved as an adult. You’ll be predisposed to not be vulnerable, because your perception of safety will be lower than most people.

Conversely, people who have a high degree of inner safety – which they had to develop – will take risks that no sane person should. (I may resemble this remark at times.) For these folks, there’s very little reason to spend energy protecting themselves, because they don’t believe they can be harmed – they don’t perceive their safety to be in jeopardy.

Clearly, there’s a balance here. You can’t have your set point for safety set too high, or you’ll step out in front of a beer truck and get flattened; but being so afraid that you can’t leave your home is also dysfunctional. We need to have enough safety to be vulnerable in a world with sympathy suckers.

Sympathy Suckers, Empathy Engagement, and Compassionate Connection

Sympathy is about separation. It’s an acknowledgement that things look bad – for you. The person who throws the blow-out pity party of the year is looking for someone to acknowledge their pain. That’s fine – as long as they, at the same time, don’t insist that you can’t understand. If you want someone to come alongside of you and invest themselves in your experience, you can’t tell them that they’ll never get there or, worse, make it impossible for them to get there.

Sympathy suckers want the energy associated with sympathy and don’t realize that it’s not a connection. It’s pity. The result isn’t two people getting closer together, it’s two people getting farther apart. A healthier approach is to seek and accept empathy. This is a simple expression of “I understand this about you.” It isn’t to say that one person understands everything about the other. It’s simply that there’s an aspect of your experience that I understand. I’ve never lost a child, but I’ve lost a brother, and I can use that tragic event to connect with others who’ve experienced a loss of someone close to them. I can demonstrate my compassion through my attempt to experience my own pain again, so that I can understand more of them and seek to find a way to alleviate their suffering in some small way.

You can find out more about my perspective on Sympathy, Empathy, Compassion, and Altruism in my post.

Bad Labels

The research on labeling, and how the labels that we apply to others and to ourselves shapes our behavior in subtle but persistent ways, is well-replicated. When students are labeled bad by their teacher (or administration), they do more poorly. When people label themselves as stupid, dumb, or incapable, they inevitably become this. (See Mindset for more on labeling.) Whether you believe that you can succeed or that you will surely fail, you’re right. However, you’re right not because of your skill, but rather because of the label that you apply to yourself.

One of the challenges with shame is the possibility that it will clue on to you your worst moments. Somehow your shame defines you by the moment that you were weak or at your worst and fails to recognize that this isn’t the whole picture. We are – none of us – one moment in time or one decision. We’re a series of good – and bad – decisions.

A healthy act of shame resistance is to resist being defined by our worst moments. We can – and should – acknowledge that it happened, that it was bad, make restitution, reform ourselves, and so on. I’m not minimizing the need to address the consequences of the action or inaction. Rather, we should not be defined by that moment. We should refuse to be labeled as a thief (and a no good) because of one incident. We shouldn’t label ourselves as insensitive when we missed the tear in the eye of a loved one. We can be compassionate and have times where we’ve lacked compassion.


It can be absolutely exhausting. Caring for another human being can take its physical toll on you. However, this feeling pales in comparison to the emotional exhaustion that many caregivers experience. The warm glow from the comments of friends fades, as you don’t have time for yourself and can’t make it to see them, because you’re too busy taking care of someone. The feeling of joy for being able to take care of someone when they need it is overtaken by bitterness and resentment, as you realize that you may be saving or helping their lives at the seeming expense of your own.

Slowly, the thought creeps in. What would it be like if this person died? What if I didn’t have to sacrifice my life for theirs any longer? And the thought starts to linger longer and longer. However, the thought itself seems shameful. What kind of a monster am I? What kind of a person would want someone they loved to die just so they can spend more time with friends? Why can’t I just suck it up and accept my fate?

The problem is that this perspective – shame – fails to realize that this is a normal response to exhaustion. The conclusion isn’t the right one, but the path that’s being walked makes sense. It’s a sign that you’re overburdened – not that you’re a monster. However, shame won’t let you see this. You’re supposed to be the perfect father or mother or relative. You’re supposed to be able to handle this on your own. You don’t need tights and a cape, but you’re supposed to be super.

If you’re in this situation, I know it’s tough. The difficult challenge is how to get the support you need to not become exhausted. It’s difficult when your siblings won’t help to take care of your aging parents and refuse to find them care, because it’s too expensive. They want to control the decision making – or influence it – but they’re unwilling to come support you while you’re supporting your parents. The answer – though it’s hard – is to stand your ground and insist that you need to be able to take care of yourself, your family, and your life too.

Peak Perfection

I’m always amazed at how put together other people appear. Whether it’s your favorite musician or the TV star or the celebrity, it seems like their life is right. From the outside looking in, everything seems perfect – until it isn’t. It takes a toll. Projecting the image that you’re perfect when you’re not is hard. You’re always considering what you have to say and where you need to be, what you need to wear, and what you need to drive.

It’s exhausting. It’s exhausting to believe that you must be put together. It’s hard to hide the gambling addiction or the liver problems caused by drinking too much too often. Preachers hide their marital trouble from the congregation. Politicians hide their financial problems from their constituents. The mayor is worried how long it will be until the town finds out about how much he’s been drinking.

Perfection takes work – and a bit of careful editing. How many takes happen before your favorite action thriller’s scene is done correctly? Two or three? Or thirty? How much work is put into hiding the mistakes and making the best take seem perfect? It’s not reality that anyone’s perfect. No one can be perfect, but in our highly edited society, we believe that it’s possible.

The problem is that no one has that kind of energy. No one can be all things to all people at all times. If we’re unable to allow ourselves to be real and vulnerable, then we’ll end up feeling lonely inside and shame has won. We silently condemn ourselves for not reaching the perfection we seek without consciously realizing that it’s an impossible goal.

Need for Learning

The understanding that perfection is an illusion isn’t an opportunity to sit back and do nothing. We need to learn from our mistakes, and we need others who are willing to do the same. We need to find ways to grow that are real. We’re not trying to be perfect, but we’re striving to be better. One of the amazing things about humans, both individually and collectively, is our capacity to become more than what we are.

The best way to do this is to learn from our trials and failures. The more willing we’re able to stare into the places that we haven’t done well and examine what happened, the more we can figure out how to do better. We become the best possible version of ourselves through our learning.


When you meet someone at work or in a community club or a kid’s activity, you associate them with that one thing that you know them for. However, everyone is more complex than the one view that we see them through. They’re more than the stereotypical soccer mom. They’re more than the corporate executive. Everyone of us has facets to our life that others don’t see. While it’s normal for us to seek to simplify other people into categories, it’s equally frustrating.

People need simple, but I spent my whole life building this complexity. For me, my interests are so diverse that people struggle to put me into a box. They don’t understand embedded systems programming and multithreaded technical detail with an interest in information architecture or psychology or user adoption. These facets of my personality – my me – seem incompatible. It’s frustrating to try to explain the interests and the passions and to have folks not understand.

People wonder how you get anything done with so many diverse interests. The question lingering in the minds of folks is how can both be true? How can all of it be true? I can tell them that the answer is hard work and dedication, but that’s not an answer that they can hear. It’s easier to find a single-dimensional view of others – of me – even if it minimizes others to cardboard cutouts, even if it means that you miss their richness.

Disconnected from Ourselves

The saddest thing about shame is the way that it disconnects us from ourselves. It causes us to focus on one facet of who we are, judge it, and disconnect with others, but we also lose the richness of our understanding of ourselves for the single-faceted focus. It seems like it should be easy to know yourself. It seems like you should be able to just know who you are, what you like, and what will make you happy. However, Daniel Gilbert points out in Stumbling on Happiness that we don’t know what will make us happy. Jonathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis and Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow point out that we’re not one commander at the helm of the ship of our lives, we’re two. We’re the emotional elephant with pattern recognition and the rational rider trying to justify and explain the decisions made by the elephant. Dan Aisley points out that we’re Predictably Irrational – but we don’t know it’s so. Eagleman shows us how our brains lie to us in Incognito.

All of this is to say that, though understanding ourselves may seem easy on the surface, it’s perhaps the hardest thing we’ll ever do – and the most rewarding.

Strength from Weakness

In the end, the way to conquer shame is to become weak. The path to victory runs through the forest of defeat. The way to connect is to realize that, even though I Thought It was Just Me, it isn’t.

Book Review-Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness

Our human lives are filled with volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. We face a variety of threats that we can see and those we cannot. Living in this world can make you aware of your need to become resilient. Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness shows you how to move closer to being undisturbed when the challenges of life come your way – as they invariably will.

This isn’t the first book of Rick Hanson’s that I’ve read. The last time I was introduced to his work was through Hardwiring Happiness. While Hardwiring Happiness was focused on accentuating the good parts of life, the focus in Resilient is how to weather the storms of life. Much like you’d prepare for a storm in the real world, Hanson explains how to weather the emotional and thinking storms that come through life.


My previous readings on resilience include Angela Duckman’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Martin Meadows’ Grit: How to Keep Going When You Want to Give Up, and Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile: Thinks that Gain from Disorder. The first two describe grit as a sort of power or characteristic that people leverage towards their goals. The third explains that things can either be reduced or increased because of strain. There is post-traumatic stress disorder and post-traumatic growth as well.

Certainly, these cover aspects of the same topic that Hanson addresses with Resilient – but there’s a radically different approach. Where there is a force behind grit and being antifragile, there’s a peace behind resilience. Instead of having the strength to overpower the storms as in karate, resilience simply defects the slings and arrows of life. It’s not that you don’t need the skills that are shared in Duckman’s Grit, Meadows’ Grit, and Antifragile, it’s just that they’re not enough. You must know who you are and what you stand for.

Stable Core

I first wrote of centering and the ability to weather storms in my review of Dialogue. I revisited it in a post on How to Be Yourself. However, the topic of having a clear understanding of who you are shows up as the need for an integrated self-image in Rising Strong Part 1, Schools Without Failure, Compelled to Control, Beyond Boundaries, and The Power of Other.

In the inner game of dialogue, this concept is described as centeredness. Dialogue quotes Richard Moon, an aikido master, as saying that it’s not that the great masters of aikido don’t lose their center, it’s that they discover it sooner and recover it faster than novices. Resilience flows from this centeredness, from this stable core, like water from a spring.


Mindfulness is often thought of as sitting crossed-legged on a mat, chanting some simple word or sound repeatedly. While this can be mindful, it’s not close to the root of what mindfulness seeks to surface. Mindfulness is being able to tend to what is actually happening here and now, both inside and outside of your body – without unnecessary judgement or reaction. Mindfulness is being present – but exactly what being present is seems elusive.

Most of the time, we’re only peripherally aware of what is happening around us. Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice describes filtering as the basic function of consciousness. We’d never be able to function if we were consciously processing everything happening around us. Being mindful is learning to look at the filter and tune it differently. At any given moment, you’re being bombarded with internal functions like breathing rate, heart rate, temperature regulation, and muscle status. We pay attention only to a small part of these, because to pay attention to everything would be exhausting.

Being mindful is like being able to shine a light into the darkness that we rarely see. It’s a way to illuminate the inner world of ourselves – and the outer world of other.


Being mindful helps us to accept reality as it is – not as we want it to be. People who are mindful are willing to challenge their assumptions about the world and examine how their expectations of the world and the actual functioning of the world don’t match. Gary Klein explains in Sources of Power and Seeing What Others Don’t how we do mental simulations, and when our mental models’ expectations are violated, how we need to reevaluate them and the decisions we’ve made based on the false expectations.

One of the challenge of resilience is being aware of and accepting reality no matter what it looks like. We may not like reality, particularly when it clashes with our perception, but if our perception and reality differ, it’s our perception that must change. The sooner we can see that our perception doesn’t match reality and accept that it does not, the sooner we can begin to adjust our perception and bring it into alignment with reality.

By being aware and accepting of reality, we are less caught off guard when our perception clashes negatively with reality.


One of the concepts in Buddhist tradition is the concept of detachment. That is, one should not get wrapped up in anything too tightly. This is particularly true of our perceptions. If we get too wrapped up in the idea that the way we see the world is the way the world really is, we become blind to the possibility that we’re wrong, with often tragic consequences.

Too often, we become attached to the outcomes. We expect life to react like a formula, where if we do our three steps, we should receive the reward of the outcome we would like. The unfortunate reality is that this isn’t the case. The world is much more probabilistic than we would like to believe. (See The Halo Effect.) We aren’t as great as we would like to believe ourselves to be. There are no guarantees in life. The more we become attached to the outcomes, the harder it is to become resilient. The more we disconnect from the outcomes and accept that we did the best we can regardless of the outcomes, the more resilient we become.

The truth is that we only have control of our behaviors and what we put out in the world. We make the offering, and others must either take or leave that offering based on where they are and what they’re capable of. Sometimes, what we do and what others do plus the influence of non-human actors will result in success – and other times it will end in failure. Where it lands, we don’t control. That’s why we need to be detached from the outcomes.

Second Darts (and Neo)

My favorite movie scene is from The Matrix, when Neo stops the bullets, picks one out of the air, looks at it, and drops it. It’s for me an understanding that others can fire bullets or throw daggers at you, but you don’t have to accept them. Resilient tells the story of two darts from Buddha: “The first dart is unavoidable physical or emotional discomfort and pain: a headache, the cramping of stomach flu, the sadness at losing a friend, the shock at being unfairly attacked in a meeting at work. The second dart is the one we throw ourselves, adding unnecessary reactions to the conditions of life and its occasional first darts.” In other words, the pain that is caused sometimes has as much to do with our reaction as it did with the original pain or discomfort.

With detachment and the ability to stand outside of the situation and watch it happen like it was playing on a movie screen, we get the ability to not inflict pain on ourselves or others just because someone or something is trying to inflict pain on us.

Finding Fear

That’s easy to say when you’re not in fear. It’s easy to say when you don’t feel your pulse quickening and your face flushing with higher blood pressure; but how do you get there? The answer is in the math equation that’s done to determine whether fear is warranted. It’s not math exactly, but there is an evaluation that happens. Is the perceived threat greater than the resources that I have available to deal with the threat? The more resources you perceive yourself to have, the less likely you are to believe that the threat will exceed your capacity, and therefore the less likely you will be in fear.

I mentioned in my reviews of Mindset and Choice Theory the idea that some eastern philosophies understand anger is disappointment directed. Fear is similar – but slightly more complicated – in that it’s the perception of threat as compared to the perception of resources. You can reduce fear by reducing the perceived threat – which is particularly difficult to do – or you can increase your perceived resources.

Resources can come in the form of research and meditation, or it can come in the form of the support system of people that you are in relationship with. You can develop resources through internal work or by getting into more and deeper relationships with other people.

Compassion for Yourself

Ultimately, to be resilient, you may find that you need to build your resources, and the best way to do that is to extend to yourself the same compassion that you would extend to others. You can learn to accept that you’re not perfect. You can learn to have loving kindness for yourself as well as others.

You may find that having compassion for yourself is easier when you extend compassion to others, but having compassion for the suffering of others is often insufficient to allow for compassion for yourself. Resilience isn’t failing to bend when the wind comes, rather resilience is bending without breaking.

One first step towards compassion for yourself might be in finding ways to reduce your fear by resourcing yourself. Reading Resilient will give you a set of resources to avoid fear and have compassion for others as well as yourself.

Why and How 12-Step Groups Work

Alcoholics Anonymous and other “recovery” groups still suffer from a stigma in popular culture.  Much like going to a counselor does – or did – demonstrate that you didn’t have everything together, 12-step “recovery” groups are seen as a demonstration of weakness; however, I can tell you that I find them to be the places where I have seen the greatest strengths of character and where I see the most authentic people.

The first challenge in the opportunity to speak about this is to help people understand that I believe everyone can benefit from the core tenets of a 12-step program.  I don’t mean that as a prescriptive follow the steps as written.  I mean that, when you take a step back and you look at the process of building safety, fearlessly looking into our own souls with the help of others, and doing acts of service, you find a path where everyone can grow and become greater than themselves.

Building Safety

There are several tenets built into the 12-step program that are designed to increase the perception of safety.  (You may want to look at my post Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy for more on why I describe safety as a perception.)  Alcoholics Anonymous’ name is the start – anonymous.  You’re not going to be identified, labeled, or judged on the street, because no one is going to know you were there.

The check-in process helps to build connection, even in this anonymous world.  We get other people’s first names so that we can start the process of connecting with them.  “Hi, my name is Rob” is a simple start to connection, which conveys a name – and gives others an opportunity to hear the tone and tenor of my voice to know, to some degree, where my heart is.  You don’t have to have Dr. Ekman’s FACS training to know what I’m feeling.  (See Nonverbal Messages: Cracking the Code: My Life’s Pursuit for more on FACS and Dr. Ekman’s work.)  The opportunity to connect activates our understanding of safety that comes with being “a part of.”  (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for more on our need for connection.)

Many groups are facilitated by those who’ve been “working their program” for a long time.  Those who have been with the process for a long time have developed a wisdom for how to gently nudge a group into healthy trust and safety enhancing directions.  The process they share with the rest of the group isn’t a command or an instruction.  They’re simply sharing what worked for them while acknowledging others’ paths may be different.  Most also have a compassion for those who come to a group for the first time.  They remember how intensely frightening and confusing the first few meetings could be.


Attendees eventually come to understand and accept the rhythm of the group and the supportive approach that the group takes towards one another.  While there may be, at times, pointed conversations about how folks are deluding themselves or minimizing their dysfunction, there’s a clear undercurrent carrying the conversations.  That undercurrent is concern for the wellbeing of the others who are there.

We used to have small communities of people who worked together to conquer nature and defend the hamlet against the ravages of Mother Nature and the outside world.  This stance was seen in the wagon trains that conquered the American West as they “circled the wagons” so that the community could defend itself from the forces on the outside.

Somehow, a culture emerges in the 12-step group that places everyone inside the group as a part of the brotherhood (or sisterhood).  There’s a shared experience in whatever addiction brought them to the group.  The bonds of the community are an important part of building trust and separating the old habits.

The friendships and bonds which are forged in these communities are strong.  They provide a network of strength when the inevitable storms come.  Instead of turning to a substance, communities can turn to each other to support and hold each other up.

Accountability Partners

Sometimes, people will emerge from the community who are willing and able to hold you accountable.  The trust builds to a level that you know these people – in particular – are willing to speak truth into your life, with the grace that informs you they’re not judging.  These are people that come beside you when you’re struggling and help you keep moving forward when it’s difficult.  They encourage you to keep up the fight.

Accountability partners are sometimes semi-formal in that you ask someone to help hold you accountable, and sometimes they just evolve as people decide to speak truth into your life and as a result have become close friends.  It’s the truth being spoken into your life that begins to give you space to see where you’re hurt and broken.  As they speak trust into your life, frequently you’re given permission to speak truth into theirs.  The perspective is that no one recovers alone.  There’s no “I” in recovery, only “We.”


Sponsorship in a 12-step group is an opportunity for someone ahead of you to help guide you.  Sometimes the people who are ahead of you aren’t ahead by much – but they’re there to not just hold you accountable but to lead you.  Accountability partners sometimes become sponsors, but sponsorship inside of a 12-step group is a more structured arrangement.  More than just trying to hold you accountable to the standards that you set for yourself, sponsors are committed to walking with you through the 12-steps.

Sponsors don’t have it all figured out themselves, but they trust in the community and the process to lead them.  Sponsors themselves have sponsors.  The acceptance that the process of having someone there to lead you when you may lead yourself astray is a necessary part of facing an addiction.  It’s important to understand that sponsors share their experience and path, which may be quite different than the path of the sponsee.  I’ve found that having others to share when they believe you are headed astray is a helpful approach to going through life.

Taking a Step

Step 1 may be the “hardest” step – up to that point.  Admitting that our lives have become unmanageable may be more than what most people are willing to admit.  After all, we have jobs, cars, houses, and the modern conveniences that most people expect.  Our lives aren’t unmanageable in the same way that an addict’s life is – and at this stage, few are willing to admit their addictions.

However, most of us would admit that managing our lives is exhausting.  Wouldn’t it be good to get a break from the need to manage our lives?  Wouldn’t it be amazing to have an opportunity to allow our lives to become unmanageable for a little while?  Somewhere deep inside, we know that our control is an illusion.  We know that we can’t control our lives any more than we can control the weather.  We know that we influence and direct our lives, but still far too much is ruled by chance.  (See Compelled to Control for more on the illusion.)

Step 2 and step 3 acknowledge the presence of a higher power and release the management of our lives into their control.  In short, it’s a break, a rest from having to have it all figured out and getting it right all the time.  The first three steps of a 12-step program are all about releasing the burden of trying to have our lives all figured out.  Instead, we’re given the opportunity to place our trust in a higher power that can carry the load that we can’t – or that we don’t always want to – carry.

Non-Addictive Escapes

An addict is someone who has lost control of a coping skill until it gradually begins to control them.  Addictive behaviors are either compulsive – they “must” be done – or they’re risky – they can cause great harm.  Addicts started just like us.  They had a pain in life or their soul that they were coping with.  They grabbed that drink, that drug, or that food, and they used it to soothe their pain.  The difference between an addict and a non-addict often isn’t the coping strategy that they used – it’s that the coping strategy didn’t take over the non-addict.  The coping strategy didn’t make it into the category of a means of survival.

For the addict, new coping skills are needed.  They can’t turn back to the skills that gained control of them for fear that they may gain control once again.  For many, the new life in community and the ability to connect with others is able to support them during the same lows that they might have turned to their addiction to in the past.

To be clear, I’m not saying that we should never use coping strategies to help soothe ourselves.  Having coping strategies is healthy.  Allowing the coping strategy to take control of us isn’t.  All of us use coping strategies when we recognize that we aren’t going to get what we want and, ultimately, that we’re not in control.

The point of accepting a higher power is to realize that, even though we don’t have control, someone does.  We don’t have to be in control if our advocate, our trusted friend, is the one who is in control.  Developing an acceptance of the higher power to build trust and safety that everything will be OK is one of the key areas of growth that new “steppers” find themselves in.

Ultimately, the tenor of the 12-step community is designed to create trust and develop a sense of safety that you can stand on to accomplish the difficult work of looking deeply into who you are.

Fearlessly Looking

Fearless is not the way that most people describe the process of looking inside of themselves.  In fact, I’ve never met anyone who would describe the process of truly looking at what they believe and who they are as fearless.  Instead, people describe the process of learning to slip past the ego and its defenses into the inner sanctum of our most cherished beliefs about the world and ourselves as an intensely frightening activity.  (See Change or Die for more on the ego and its defenses.)  In fact, I’ve personally seen dozens, if not hundreds, of people who have started the journey only to turn back.

Why, then, should I call it fearless?  Because those who do it fear less than those who don’t make it.  The fulcrum of personal growth and development is the capacity to stare deeply into our own personal darkness and not turn our gaze.  Our fear causes us to turn away from the very activities that have the greatest promise for making us happy and changing the trajectory of our lives.

The point of building such a high tower of trust and safety in the beginning is to create the opportunity to peer into those deep recesses of ourselves in a way that, if not fearless, is at least safe.


If fear is still present when we seek to slip past our own defenses to see – and challenge – our core beliefs, then how do we move forward?  The answer is courage.  Most people believe that courage is the absence of fear.  However, nothing could be further from the truth.  Courage requires fear.  Courage is movement in the presence of fear.  Courage is overcoming fear.  (See Find Your Courage for more on how to find courage.)

So, while it’s important to fear less, it’s equally important to have the courage to move forward through whatever fear remains.  The community that 12-step programs build create a sense of safety that makes it more possible for people to proceed courageously.

Warped Perspectives

Walking through a carnival funhouse, one moment you’re tall and skinny, and the next moment you’re short and fat.  You’re the same person.  You didn’t change in the two steps you took.  The only change was the perspective that the mirror provided.  It’s these bad mirrors that the process of fearlessly looking is designed to eliminate.

We all have distorted versions of ourselves.  That’s a part of our human nature.  In fact, those poor souls who have depression have a more accurate view of themselves than those of us who are “normal.”  In our normalcy, we believe we’re better than average.  We believe that we’re the best students, teachers, leaders, friends, and spouses – even in the face of evidence that says this can’t be possible.

Through some poor conditions while growing, some people have developed a view of the world as a hostile and competitive place, where you must scratch and claw your way up from the bottom.  (See How Children Succeed for more on the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study and the impacts.)  It’s possible that this is an accurate view of your world, but, ultimately, a different perspective may be more helpful to your growth and happiness.  Viewing the world as a helpful place rather than one that is hostile yields lower stress and that means longer life.  (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers – The Physical Impact of Stress for more.)

The more clearly we can see where our perspectives are warped, evaluate by how much, and seek to lean upon other views and other trusted people for a better overall picture, the greater we can eliminate those pains that continue to haunt us and work on ourselves in ways that bring about our ability to grow and thrive.

Painful Before It’s Peaceful

A splinter isn’t something anyone would ask for.  Underneath your skin, the sliver of wood will eventually create an infection.  It will create a stronghold for infection before our immune system can send out its troops in the war for our survival.  The splinter hurts a bit when it first enters.  Left alone, it will continue to have a low level of pain until it becomes a problem.  That is, unless we’re willing to accept the additional pain of its removal.

Done well, removing a splinter doesn’t hurt that much more than just leaving it in.  Even done poorly, splinter removal yields a rapid decrease in pain.  So, splinter removal starts with a greater pain and results in less pain – in peace.  Our psychological splinters are the same.  Left alone, they fester and become infected; identified and removed, they lose their power over us.

Feeling our Feelings

Our feelings will demand to make themselves known.  No matter how hard we try to stamp them down, avoid them, run away, ignore, or subvert them, feelings want to be known.  The 12-Step group creates a safe space for us to experience our feelings and to have those feelings validated by others.  Someone can say that they felt something, and you can acknowledge that you too have felt that, or the reverse may happen.

Often, we forget that feelings aren’t good or bad.  We forget that everyone has feelings.  By making feelings safe again 12-Step groups create less need for the out-of-control coping skill.


One of the greatest predictors of how someone will do in their life can be found in a simple decision.  One marshmallow now, or two in a few minutes.  This test, given to pre-school-age children was illustrative of how well a child would do in the future.  If they were able to delay their gratification and wait for the two marshmallows, they would find themselves better off in life in nearly every measure.  However, what is going on?  How can a humble marshmallow have such predictive powers?

The answer isn’t in the sugary fluff.  The answer is in the skills that the children who were able to delay their gratification found.  These skills allowed them to make better long-term decisions over the course of a lifetime.  In short, they were willing to endure some level of pain today for the relief that it brings in the future.  (For more, see The Marshmallow Test.)

Trusting in the Future

There have been many studies and discussions about Mischel’s Marshmallow Experiment – including his own and those of his contemporaries.  Interesting correlations seemed to show up.  When you position children in environments that are less stable – including fatherless homes and those with lower socio-economic status – the ability to delay gratification is lower.  That is, the less you trust the person promising you a better future result, the less willing you are to forgo the treat or relief today.

An important part of 12-steps groups is the ability to see those who have succeeded in building their lives, recovering from their addictions, and learning how to thrive.  If you trust the people – and you trust the outcomes – you’ve got a foundation to delay gratification, whether that gratification comes in the form of an addiction or not.

12-Step programs are often quick to focus the degree of trust to the near term.  They’re talking about living one day at a time.  It’s not a question about how you’ll survive a year or ten years.  Instead, it’s a question of tomorrow and then the day after that.  This substantially narrows the need for trust and helps move things forward without worrying about whether the goal can be achieved.

Good is the Enemy of Great

Jim Collin’s Good to Great explains that we get to “good enough” and never come back to get to great.  It’s not that our patterns aren’t good – they can be.  It’s that our patterns aren’t great.  They aren’t allowing us to move towards that maximum expression of ourselves in business, our family, our relationships, or ourselves.  We must expose the places where our perspectives and patterns are just ok, might be good, but aren’t great.

We’ve only got so much emotional energy to expend each day.  The more that we fret over something that’s already good, the less energy we have left over to deal with other things – including those things that may not be good.

Constructive Destruction

Sometimes you’ve got to break the good to get to the great.  Sometimes you’ve got to break down something that has every appearance of working to get to something that excels at whatever it is.  Sometimes that’s well-worn patterns of interactions with other people including family, friends, and coworkers.  Facing the reality of our lives sometimes means that we’ve got to look towards what isn’t particularly bad but remains broken – or at least sub-optimal.

Acts of Service

One of the most amazing things that I hear from addicts who have been in the program for a long time is that they’re “recovering.”  This is a simple and telling statement.  It’s not that they’ve conquered their addiction, or that they’ve come to terms with their life and are thriving.  Instead, the healthiest members of the community routinely admit that they’re still learning, growing, and healing.  They’re not recovered.  They’re not done.  They’re works in progress.

Humility echoes through their statements.  They’re not thinking of themselves as lower.  Rather, they’re thinking less about themselves and more about others.

This, too, is why 12-step programs work.  They anchor inside of every member that they’re never done moving into the life that their higher power has for them.  For most of the members of the community, the way that they keep this humility is through their acts of service to others and to the community.


My favorite definition for humility comes from Humilitas.  It says that “humility is power held in service to others.”  That is, I use what strength I have so that I can lift others up.  Humility is power.  It is in having something that you can share.  It’s also in freely giving it to others so that they may benefit from it too.

Humility acts as an insulator from the pain that leads to the desire for the coping skill that leads to the addiction.  Much of the pain we experience is due to our own lack of humility.  (See A Hunger for Healing for more on this perspective.)  Without humility, we feel entitled, and we judge others, because we are unwilling to judge ourselves.

Value-based Happiness

If you want to remain free of the bonds of addiction, the best way to do that is to avoid the places and things that cause a desire for the coping skill that lead to addiction to be activated.  To do that, we need to understand what we can do to avoid situations of unattenuated pain.  That is, while pain is necessary, it should be the right kind of pain, and we should have the right psychological immune system to protect us from the need to seek a coping skill that leads to an addiction.  (See Stumbling on Happiness for the psychological immune system.)

How do we fuel our psychological immune system?  We fuel it with happiness or joy.  The happier we are, the more resilient we are to pain.  (For more about this, see Flourish and Positivity.)  The way to develop a persistent, long-term happiness is to help other people.  When we are in service to other people, we literally build happiness into ourselves.  (See The Time Paradox and The Dalai Lama’s Big Book of Happiness.)

We must keep our heads in the right place, that we are truly serving others, while at the same time realizing where the rewards are.  Whether they’re grateful or not, we should be grateful for the opportunity to serve our fellow man, and at the same time accept the positive emotions that flow to us in the process.

There are many lists of values that can bring us joy.  How to Be an Adult in Relationships offers the five As – Attention, Acceptance, Appreciation, Affection, and Allowing – which bring joy to us through our relationships.  Others list traditional values like honesty.  Honesty leaves us with more of our precious mental resources, because we’re not required to remember our lies or come up with excuses.  (See Telling Lies for the ways which lies trip us up.)

Stable Core

What I discovered in my participation in a 12-step group was who I was.  I knew who I was at one point.  I had a picture in my mind of a time when I knew what my life meant and was going to mean.  Somewhere I had lost my trail.  It took being with people who had great clarity in who they are so that I could remember that picture and use it as a map to find my way back onto the trail.

Once I had found my “stable core” again – the part of me that was unchanging, what Beyond Boundaries would call my “defining boundaries” – I was able to accept that I am both good and bad.  I’m neither worthless nor perfect.  I found a way to know myself again through my willingness to walk into those parts of me that I don’t like to find the splinter and remove it.  I’m far from done, but at the same time, I’ve made a great deal of progress.

In the end, 12-step programs work because they allow people to discover themselves, feel safe, and walk through the pain necessary to heal for good, so they don’t have to use coping skills as often or to such a degree.  The coping skills don’t rule them, and we can all use that.


It’s important that I say that unlike most of my posts, this post was developed through the strength of the amazing people I’ve met.  Many members of my broader community provided some input on this posts but I’d particularly like to thank Brad and Ben who substantially tightened my thinking and my language.

The Marshmallow Test: Why Self Control Is the Engine of Success

Book Review-The Marshmallow Test: Why Self Control Is the Engine of Success

It was a wintery night, and I found myself in the emergency room with my son. I was madder than I remember ever being. I felt like someone who was supposed to protect him had failed him. They had failed to do what they knew would keep him safe and were forcing to him to endure needless pain. The battle for control in my mind was palpable. On the one hand, I wanted to yell, scream, and much worse, and on the other, I realized that I had to not do this, because releasing my frustration would only cause my son more – admittedly psychological – pain. My solution was odd – to say the least. To occupy my mind, to keep my executive function firmly engaged, I designed a home security system based on Raspberry Pi devices. I never intended to build it for real, but it was a sufficiently rich and complex puzzle that my executive function could remain fully engaged. I credit this exercise with my ability to – relatively speaking – retain my cool in an awful situation.

Miles away and years ago, Walter Mischel evaluated how children could hold out for two treats instead of the one that was visible to them. His test became known as the “marshmallow test” (since marshmallows were sometimes used as treats). Investigating the factors and strategies employed that would lead to gratification was interesting research – until it became instructive. Following up on the children, he discovered the paths of the children who delayed vs. those who couldn’t wait were radically different. This simple test had predictive powers for SAT scores and wages years downstream. Explaining the background, the findings, and what to do about them is what The Marshmallow Test is all about.

The Power of Self-Control

Imagine for a moment that I told you a simple genetic test could tell you what your weight would be like as an adult. Better yet, what if I could tell you how happy you would be as an adult? Would you be interested in taking the test – or having the test done for your children? Ignoring the concern for getting bad results, who wouldn’t want to be able to get a reasonably accurate idea of where our children will end up? Most of us would. That’s what the marshmallow test tells us. It points towards whether we’ll have a healthy, well-adapted life or a maladaptive one.

It’s important to say that the marshmallow test – or genetic tests for that matter – are indicative of a probable path. They’re predictive, not prescriptive. If you fail the marshmallow test, you’re not doomed. There are things that can be done to shape your future no matter what the test says – but we’ll get to that later.

It turns out that much of what we see as success in life is the result of good self-control. Our ability to appropriately manage our weight is numerous decisions about the right foods and the right amount of exercise. Our SAT score reflects our effort more than any inherent intelligence. (See Mindset for more.) The outcomes that the marshmallow test predicts are the outcomes from our ability to control our self and plan for the long term results we want for our life. Often this self-control is called willpower. (See Willpower for more on this view of self-control.)

The Influence of Trust

The invisible presence in the room that silently tipped the scales from right now into the future was trust. The more that the children trusted they would get the extra treat, the more they would be willing to wait. Their trust influenced their ability to wait – but what influenced their trust?

Some of the protocols for the tests were intentionally designed to create trust. Creating the opportunity for the child to call the researcher back in at any time was a simple indication that they would keep their word. However, the primary factors for whether or not they would trust the researcher reached well beyond the room. Fundamentally, children had different perspectives on trust. Those from one home – with both parents – might find that their world is filled with adults that keep their commitments. Those from single-parent homes have too much experience with adults who don’t keep their word to just blindly accept that adults will keep their word.

Trust – which leads to perceived safety – is what it takes to be vulnerable, but it is also what it takes to make a long-term bet, even if the long-term bet is 15 minutes. (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy for more.) Trust and the way that it is expressed has substantial impact on organizations, cultures, and societies. (See Trust: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order for more.) It’s not that surprising that it might have a profound impact on children facing tough decisions about what to do about their sugary pleasures and how they viewed them.

Shake It Like a Polaroid Picture

In the age of digital cameras, the idea of shaking a Polaroid picture is just ancient history for most. In the world of instant gratification, the Polaroid camera had the market locked in for pictures. The photo lab in a box was the staple when the pictures were needed right now – until digital cameras far outstripped them in ease of use, lower costs, and better image quality. While most people didn’t frame their polaroid pictures, changing a frame of reference can be powerful when you’re a child.

One of the powerful strategies used by children to allow them to delay their gratification was to think of the treat in front of them like it was only a picture of a treat. As one study child so aptly put it, “You can’t eat a picture.” The cognitive reframing from a treat that can be devoured to a simple abstract representation of what you’ll get was enough to cool their jets and help them wait it out until the researcher came back with their reward.

Changing the way of thinking about something – changing the frame – is enough to dramatically change the outcomes. Just as Milgram found in his experiments using adults to administer seemingly lethal shocks, small changes in the framing or power dynamics can change whether people are willing to seemingly kill someone they don’t know – or not. (See Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) and Influencer for more on Milgram’s work.) One way to control the framing is to ask yourself: what would someone else do?

What Would Jesus Do?

In the 1990s, bracelets and other items started popping up with the initials WWJD on them. It was a sort of inside joke and club handshake that Christians had. Without explanation, the WWJD bracelets looked like membership in a secret cult. With explanation, it was a simple – and effective – way to change behavior. WWJD was the reminder of the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” If there were a Bible story about this specific point in my life, how would Jesus respond? The idea is that if you’re a follower of Jesus, then you should do the same behavior. If he’s the moral compass by which you evaluate your decisions, then why not make it more direct and just ask what would he do?

As a tool, it’s effective. You remove the emotional component, and you simply make a pre-decision about how you’ll respond. In this case, you’ll do whatever Jesus would do. However, pre-decisions can be more than just a decision to follow what someone else would do. They can be about how you want to respond and how you identify yourself.


The battle that rages between our basial brain and our neocortex is one that is described by Kahneman as System 1 and System 2 in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Johnathan Haidt explains it as the battle of wills between a rider and an elephant in The Happiness Hypothesis. Many people have been caught up in what has been termed “temporary insanity,” as their emotional brain grabs ahold of the controls and causes them to do things that they normally wouldn’t. (For more in the ethical and legal tangling of this idea check out The Lucifer Effect and Moral Disengagement.)

One powerful way to head the fight off at the pass is to make a commitment to a course of action before you’re in the heat of the moment. It’s a pre-decision. It’s a standard response to an if-then decision. It’s a way to get the emotional brain that’s effective at pattern matching to blindly connect the pattern to the if-then decision and execute that decision without a second thought. The result is that you’re not stuck in the moment of struggle trying to decide the right course of action, because the decision has already been made.

Who Am I?

Another way to short circuit the decision-making process is to decide what people like me do when they’re confronted with the choice. Made to Stick encourages us that people can make good decisions when they view the decision from the context of how people like them decide. If people like them are the ones who make the good long-term decision, then that’s what they’ll likely do. If, instead, they’re likely to live for the moment, their decision will be decidedly more focused on the current.

Helping to shape a self-image that is consistent with long-term values and high degrees of self-control will cause more decisions to be made in that way. An important corollary here is that who we are, our identity, is malleable. Dweck points out in Mindset that our way of thinking can lead us to understanding that we can fundamentally grow and change – or to decide that we’re not able to escape the orbit of our family, our environment, and our genetics. The research is clear that we can change the way we see ourselves and what we’re capable of.

Genes and Environments

The battle has raged on for century as to whether we are controlled by our genes or our environment. Judith Harris Rich exhaustively searched through the research to develop her theories about how much of what we are is from our genetics and how much is from our environment. Citing dozens of studies in her books The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike, she settles on the conclusion that roughly 50% is genes and roughly 50% is non-genetic. She teases out issues with what would traditionally be called environment, recognizing that there is too much to environment to neatly fit categories. Small differences in opportunity may yield vastly different people. Glasser speaks of inner, quality worlds, and how they shape how people see their world. Argyris uses a ladder metaphor, with the lowest rung of the ladder being how we choose what data we see with the implication that this filtering changes everything else about our experiences. (See Choice Theory for more on Glasser’s perspective and for more on Argyris’ ladder of inference.)

We’ve discovered that the environment can activate and deactivate our genes. While we may have a predisposition to something, it can be that this tendency never gets activated in our environment.

Tabula Rasa

It was philosopher John Locke who proposed that we’re a blank slate, and it’s only our environment that shapes us. His radical idea pushed the pendulum into a more middle state today than it was in his time, when people believed that folks were determined by their heritage. (This was before genes were discovered and understood.) This idea has been the basis for many things, including the book by Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate. It’s at the heart of the questions that Judith Harris Rich asks in The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike.

In reality, what we’ve discovered is that the slate is far from blank, but rather, to use Mischel’s words, it’s “encrypted” in a way that we don’t understand. My computer science background takes slight issue with his choice of words, because though we share most of the same genes as a mouse, we are quite different. Small differences making large ones, to me, is compression – not encryption. The understanding is no less opaque between encryption and compression, but it’s compression that yields a large change in output.

Combining the compressed genetic triggers with an environment that’s necessarily personal and nuanced explains why people become such unique adults. Each adult has the things that they’re interested in and their own triggers.


Everyone has their own “hot buttons.” These are the things that will set them off, get them angry, or cause them emotional harm. For some people, it’s a negative comment about their appearance; for others, they’re particularly sensitive about feeling stupid. Others still are triggered by feeling like they’re not being heard. These triggers cause an emotional reaction that can generally be felt by anyone in the room. What Mischel’s research on self-control teaches us is that sometimes we can – and need to – put covers over our triggers so they’re harder to get to.

We’ve all seen the movie with the self-destruct button that’s covered by clear plastic, that the hero (or villain) must lift before they can slam their fist into the button itself. In old airplane dogfight movies, there are the switches that must first be flipped up before they can be activated. These are the kinds of covers we install over our emotional triggers as well.

Instead of the button sitting out in the open where anyone can hit it, the cover provides some buffer. Perhaps we’ll only react to comments about our appearance from our family or only respond to being made to feel stupid with our friends. We can contextualize our sensitivities and provide that extra layer of protection to being triggered. We need this to protect us from the often poor results that come from our poor decisions.


To have self-control, we must know and internalize the idea that there are consequences for our choices. This is the lesson that we teach and reinforce to children to help them become productive members of society. We help them first build an understanding that there are consequences – both positive and negative – to their choices in certain realms, and then we help them generalize this concept, so they know that every choice they make has consequences.

Without this solid awareness of consequences, they cannot make decisions now that lead to better outcomes in the future. It’s consequences that provides the bridge from today to tomorrow.

Our Need for Control

We all have a desire to control. We want to control the things that we get in our life. We want to say that we did this, or we created that. Most people want to control other people while simultaneously not wanting to be controlled. We are obsessed with our need to be causal in our outcomes. Our need for the illusion of control blinds us to the fact that we’re never in control of the outcomes, we’re only in control of the conditions we can create that lead to the outcome. (See Compelled to Control for more on the topic of control.)

Change or Die acknowledges our psychological need to believe we have more control than we do just to avoid the thought that all our hard work can be wiped out in an instant. We can’t think about the fact that we may be crushed by an asteroid tomorrow, or we’ll never get any work done today. We must believe that our control is greater than it is. We must believe that, where we only have influence, we actually have control.

Most people recognize that they can’t force a plant to grow. You can’t say that, if I give it soil, air, and sunlight, it must grow. Instead, we create the conditions that influence a plant to grow in the right way, and we hope that the plant will grow. We don’t control the plant into growing. By creating the right conditions for growth, we influence the outcome.

This is the advanced lesson for consequences. What we do only sometimes has the consequences we expect. Because we don’t have control, sometimes the consequences don’t come as we would expect – positive or negative.

The Value of Optimism

It’s not that depressed people see the world in a distorted negative way. It’s that people with depression see the world more accurately. Instead of sugar-coating their capabilities and resources, they view the world as it actually is – and that’s a bad thing. It’s no secret that the world we have in our heads isn’t the actual world. It’s a construction that our minds have made up based on the data it has – and a whole lot of assumptions. (See Incognito for more one how our minds make things up.)

Generally speaking, the advice is to see things as they really are and to accept reality instead of denying its truth. This may be one exception, however. The presence of optimism makes us more creative, more innovative, more able to cope with life – while at the same time distorting our view of the world. Optimism is layered on our awareness that we don’t have control to help us believe that we’ll have enough influence to be OK.

Patience and Perseverance

What optimism gives you is the ability to be patient. Patience is at the heart of the marshmallow test. Can I be patient enough to wait for the good things to come? Even when trust is low and when we don’t know for sure, optimism allows us to hold out hope. (See The Psychology of Hope for more about hope.) Over time, we learn that, though we don’t have control, eventually if you try enough, things will work. We live in a probabilistic world, where we influence the probability of success – not guarantee it. (See The Halo Effect for more on the probabilistic world in which we live.)

Being persistently patient, persevering in our attempts to make our lives better, eventually means they’ll become that way. Grit is the way Angela Duckworth describes a set of skills that work together towards our eventual success. Optimism helps fuel the engine that allows us to stay afloat long enough to persevere, even when things aren’t going our way.

Changes in Attitude, Changes in Latitude

Jimmy Buffet sings a song, “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” – but I think he has it backwards. Moving down to warmer climates may allow you to change your attitude easier – but you can change your attitude no matter where you are. The heart of changing the results in the marshmallow test – and in life – is to change your attitude. Changing your attitude from the world being a cruel place that you must fight and claw at and take what’s available now to a world of reliability and ultimate success can make all the difference in whether you’re willing to make investments in your future.

Sometimes those investments are waiting a few minutes as a researcher leaves the room. Sometimes those investments are hours spent studying. Sometimes those investments are more traditional, like a 401k. However, you make the investments, you’ll want to make them, so you can pass the test of life. You might just get some help along the way by looking at this cheat sheet to improving your score on The Marshmallow Test.

Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life

Book Review-Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life

We’ve all seen the video. It’s a dog that has a toy he won’t let go of. He’s flinging his head back and forth trying to wring the life out of the lifeless toy in his mouth. At some level, we’ve all felt like the toy. We’re being tossed around with no control of our fate. We’ve felt helpless and broken.

And we’ve seen the video where someone does the seemingly impossible. They make the perfect shot. They leap to the top of the heap with apparent effortlessness. The ratio between the number – not the depth – of these two experiences defines our positive to negative ratio, and it’s the heart of Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life.

The Power of Positive

Our positive thoughts, feelings, and emotions have an unseen and powerful impact on our lives. It changes the way we see the world in subtle and abstract ways. Positive feelings expand our world view. We look to the corners of our consciousness and we look for larger patterns in life. Positive thinking quite literally expands our view – where negative thoughts have us focusing on the narrow and on our ability to survive.

Creative Confidence doesn’t directly state that positive thoughts lead to greater creativity, but the implication was there. The safer you feel, the more creative you become, and those thoughts are positive, life-giving thoughts. Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman all describe the psychological state of flow as a genuinely positive state – one that is both productive and engaging. There is exhaustion at the end, but the lingering positive effects of having spent time in flow can last for days.

Positive thoughts and feelings need not be larger than life to give life. They need only occur with relative frequency. They need not be a positive feeling like the birth of a child to matter in your overall mental – and physical – health. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more on the physical impacts of mental health.)

The Need for Negativity

If positive thoughts are good for us, then surely, we should eliminate negative thoughts. Surely negative takes the wind out of our positive sails. However, this does not seem to be the case. If we only have positive thoughts, we can’t see the world as it really is. We can’t see things accurately. Negative thoughts are like the keel on a boat, keeping things steady and grounded. The keel is what allows the boat’s sail (positivity) to catch the wind and propel the boat forward.

Negativity isn’t something that you can abolish from your life. Every life must have negativity to stay connected, grounded and rooted. The goal isn’t to eliminate negativity but to eliminate needless negativity that further disconnects us from reality and other people.

Needless Negativity

We’ve all been to the pity party of the century. We feel not good enough. We feel like we can’t get anything right. The end result is our negativity dredging up every bad thing that we’ve done in our entire lives and trying to heap it up on the counter of today.

Certainly, we must accept negativity as a part of life. However, we need not ruminate and turn over our faults, making them bigger than they really are. The closer you get to something, the larger it appears. However large problems may seem, they’re rarely fatal and rarely consistent all the time. Instead we, like all other humans, make mistakes. We shouldn’t magnify them to be larger than they really are if we want to flourish.

How to Flourish

What’s the big deal with managing our positive emotions and our negative emotions? In short, those of us who can achieve higher honest ratios of positive to negative emotions are more likely to flourish. That is, our positivity helps to drive our success in life. We begin to feel better, then do better, and then get better.

Seligman in Flourish talks about the power of positive psychology to transform your life – and Fredrickson’s work on finding the ratio of 3 to 1 where the magic happens. Drive speaks of discontinuities, places where on one side the results are almost nothing, and on the other side the results are incredible. When it comes to positive to negative ratios, that number is 3:1

Flourishing is that magical state of being more than you think you could be. It’s the enjoyment of nearly every aspect of life and a positive energy that radiates through you. It is, at its core, a change in perspective.


Have you ever wondered how someone could like something? Perhaps it’s a food that you don’t like, but others “would die for.” Perhaps it’s the pain you feel in your legs and the racing of your heart when thinking about sky diving, and your best friend does everything they can to get in just one more jump.

That’s perspective. It’s the ability to see things differently, and we all have our perspective. Getting to positivity – or flourishing – is all about subtly changing our perspective. It’s about amplifying our opportunity for positive experiences and dampening down the chances for negative experiences.

Few people would say that getting stuck at an airport is a positive experience. Few would say that they would love to be sitting in Ronald Regan Airport for eight hours just to get home. I can’t say that either; however, I can say that I had a positive experience while stranded. That was the day I picked up and read Stumbling on Happiness. I didn’t want to be there, and at some level, it was a negative experience, but my perspective on the situation allowed me to get a positive out of it.

To some degree, we all can shape our experiences, whether they’re positive or negative. We get to choose how we perceive things, what our perspective is, and then respond accordingly.

Projecting Positivity

We’ve all met that person. It feels like they’ve had so much Botox that their face is permanently in a smiling situation. They look like the criminal Joker from Batman. There’s no telling how they really feel, because their face doesn’t show it. Surely these people, the permanent smile people, should be positive and happy. They should be living the benefits of a positive life.

Well, unfortunately, their bodies know the difference between projecting an image and being something. You can’t be positive all the time. 100% positive isn’t real, and maintaining the illusion is exhausting. In my post How to Be Yourself, I speak of the effort necessary to hold a gallon of milk to your side – and how exhausting it can be. People who are permanently positive aren’t real. The stress of projecting this illusion eventually catches up with them. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more on the impacts of stress on the body.)


Changing our perspective isn’t something that is typically done directly. We can’t will ourselves into positive thinking. That sort of attempt to control our emotions generally backfires and leads to the projection of falsehood that creates stress. One of the time-honored ways of reducing stress and becoming more at peace with ourselves and our situation is meditation.

This powerful practice is used by different religions and different cultures to bring about mindfulness, awareness, and acceptance. This awareness, in turn, creates a greater gratitude for the world and levitates us out of the pit of negativity and positions us in a better place to be positive.

Loving Kindness

If you were to ask a Buddhist about meditation, it’s likely they would talk about their meditation on loving kindness in their desire to cultivate these feelings. These meditations are designed not just to broaden our mindfulness but to bring about positive feelings of love, kindness, and compassion for other living beings. This taps into more positive emotions and allows us to abide in these feelings. By soaking them in, we create the opportunity to radiate them later.

It’s important to note that you don’t have to meditate – with or without the focus of loving kindness – to be positive. I don’t routinely meditate. For me, the still-quiet space is reading, reflecting, and writing about what I’ve read and experienced. This isn’t what most people would consider meditation, but it works for me. I enter flow, and the results are similar to meditation.

Positively Social

On the one hand, meditation is an intensely individual and isolated exercise. Its definition means that you’re not interacting with others, you’re being mindful of yourself and your own inner states. While this is one tool to become more positive, it’s not the only tool. In fact, a better lift for positivity may be interacting with others.

Much of our negativity is about our fear of being disconnected from others. Much of what is positive is in our assurance that we belong, that others care, and that we’re a part of a group. (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for more.) Making deep connections with other people can create positive experiences and perspectives.

Positive Portfolio

Not all positive emotions are created the same. Each of us has our own mixture of how we perceive the world positively. One way for us to see our positive – and reinforce it – is to create a positive portfolio. Like an artist, we create mini-portfolios of each style or medium and we assemble those into the master portfolio of our work on being positive. Positivity suggests these categories for our positive portfolio:

  • Joy
  • Gratitude
  • Serenity
  • Interest
  • Hope
  • Pride
  • Amusement
  • Inspiration
  • Awe
  • Love

More Love

It’s important to dwell on love for a moment. Love is such a powerful amplifier of each of the other foundations for positivity that it’s important to realize its ability to transform people and experiences into positive experiences. Many boyfriends and husbands will watch a “chick flick” and enjoy it because the woman that they love is there. More than trying to score, they may genuinely enjoy sharing the reaction of their significant other. Similarly, girlfriends and wives may not choose to watch a baseball game on their own, but in doing so with the person they love, they might find it exhilarating to share the experience and find it positive (or they may not).

Whether you’re generally happy and thriving, or stuck in a negative loop, you can probably use a bit more Positivity in your life. In my opinion, what the world needs is more love and ultimately more Positivity – for all our sakes.

Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection

Book Review-Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection

It was early in my career, and I was given the opportunity that most people dream about. I got to go to London for work. It was a dream, because it meant that the company was paying for me to travel “across the pond.” I thought of all the things I’d see and all that I’d do. In the end, I spent more than a day of my precious time in a hotel room wondering why I was there and when I could get back home. It was the time of the most profound loneliness I can recall. I had recently split up with my girlfriend, and in this time before Skype and cheap (or free) long-distance, calling my friends at home wasn’t a great option. It was at this point that it would have been good to have read Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.

I managed to pull myself from my hotel room one evening to walk around London after dark –no one else with me. I’m not quite aware even now where I was, but I’m sure I shouldn’t have been alone. Walking by a church, I had a man come up to me and ask if I could spare any money to help his family. A hundred or so feet away, I could see a mother and two kids huddled together in the shadows of the church with just a few blankets. It was cold enough that I was wearing my winter coat, which had big pockets. I reached into one and pulled out a fistful of coins and handed them to the man.

I was in a sort of daze. I wasn’t familiar with the coins in the UK at the time, so I just dropped all my change from my excursions in my pocket, figuring I’d sort out later what was what. I honestly don’t know how much I gave the man that night, but I remembered thinking that it was sad that they had no place to go – and good that they had each other.

What is Loneliness?

Loneliness isn’t about being alone. It’s not the lack of other people with us or around us or talking to us. Loneliness is a feeling that need not be congruent with our physical experiences. We can feel loneliness when no one is with us – or when there is a crowd.

When my brother died, I was surrounded by people at his visitation. The noise was deafening. It felt like everyone in the small town had come by. Officially, there are 9,000 people in the town, and, unofficially, the count of people at the visitation was 8,000. The line of people wrapped down the hall and out the door. No one would imagine that, being in such a crowd, someone could say they were lonely.

Despite this, I was lonely. I’m not saying that I don’t appreciate my family or my wife. I’m saying that the feeling was pervasive and completely disconnected from the objective reality of the situation. While my loneliness was profound, it was greater for his wife. In the years since the event, we’ve shared that the same sense of loneliness descended upon us in the midst of so many people. (See Rusty Shane Bogue for more of what happened.)

Loneliness is a feeling, a mood, a perspective on life. It shapes and colors how we react to others and how we see the world. It is also a natural part of life. We all feel the sting of loneliness at times. While unpleasant, it’s not unexpected. Loneliness isn’t itself a mental disease – at least, not one recognized by DSM V. However, loneliness and depression do a two-step dance that’s hauntingly captivating.

What is Depression?

Depression may be defined by sadness and lack of energy, but the characteristic that’s the most defining and challenging is the power that depression has. It can rob you of your ability to feel joy. It’s like a thief who steals the ability to feel happy. In doing so, it sucks people in and pulls them down like the vortex created by a sinking ship.

Depression is, therefore, separate from loneliness, which is defined by the lack of connection, but it’s loneliness that can be a forebear to depression. It can predict those who are at risk, in no small part because we are designed for connections, and when you can’t make them or tend to them you end up with none – and develop depression.


The sinister scheme of loneliness – as if it could have a scheme – is that it can bias your choices towards relationships. It can make it harder to find and form the very relationships that are capable of lifting you out of the pit of loneliness. Relationships are at the heart of life. We are social creatures, who are designed by evolution to crave connections with others. (See The Blank Slate, The Righteous Mind, and Bowling Alone for more on social connections.) We survived as a species because of our ability to connect and protect one another. Our ability to band together and defend each other as a group allowed us to triumph over our evolutionary rivals and take control of this world.

Relationships are the threads that weave the tapestry of life for social creatures like humans. Despite the belief that Americans are rugged individualists, we left for the West in convoys and wagon trains. We have always huddled together and honestly struggled together. Loneliness prevents us from seeing the tapestry and the threads and, at the same time, seeks to stop us from weaving more.

For a Time

What separates “normal” from “abnormal” loneliness? The answer is in the persistence. We all experience loneliness and rejection. It’s when those feelings linger and grab ahold of us until they become a mood or even a general demeaner. Normal loneliness can be driven away by a conversation with a long-time friend. It can be held at bay by a casual conversation with a coworker. It can be vanquished for a time by an intimate conversation with a trusted colleague. (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy for how to get to those intimate conversations.)

However, when loneliness has a strangle hold on you, it’s hard to pick up the phone. Experience in weightlifting isn’t enough to overcome the weight of the phone, dial a number, and lift it to your ear. The muscles don’t necessarily have the strength when the mind and mood aren’t willing. You can find the persistence of loneliness a constant companion, like a dark shadow on a bright day.

Loneliness Stimulates Stress

At its core, loneliness is a compelling character. In our history, to be alone, to be outside of the community, was a death sentence. It’s no wonder that evolution taught us not to like loneliness and encouraged our desire to stay with others. After all, it’s with others that we’re the safest (on average). Loneliness necessarily triggers stressful responses and inhibits our access to the social skills that we need to develop new relationships. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more on the impact of stress.)

Is Anyone Listening?

One of the most interesting learnings for me in quite some time is how difficult it is to receive love. So many people have closed themselves off from the ability to be loved because of an experience in their past or, more specifically, a close betrayal. For these pour souls, no matter how much love others send out to them, they can’t receive it. Loneliness has the effect of reducing our ability to receive the love and connection that others emit towards us. Loneliness drives us to question all our relationships and wonder why other people are in relationships with us – and when they might withdraw their relationships from us.

In my post Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy, I hint that love is intimacy. Love is the ability to be connected with someone so completely that there is no need for barriers – not that you’re enmeshed or can’t tell where you end and the other begins, but rather that you are comfortable with those distinctions and see no need to protect them.

Think about it this way. You have lockable doors between your house and the outside world. You ensure those doors are locked at night. This separates the inside from the outside. You have a door to your closet, and it may even have a handle. However, there are no locks between bedrooms and closets, because there doesn’t need to be one. Can we distinguish between the bedroom and the closet? Yes. However, there isn’t a need for protection to protect one side from the other.

Some folks have installed locks on all their doors. It’s like loneliness has caused them to expect monsters in their closets. The locks protect them – and at the same time, isolate them from the connection that can come by interacting with others.

Birth of the Social Creature

If there’s any doubt that we’re social creatures, it’s possible to consider the artifacts that evolution has left with us beyond our gathering together into communities. We can consider how we have pair bonding (male and female together) for the purposes of helping to raise a child. We come together to ensure that our progeny have a good chance at survival, and the best chance seems to be for two parents to pour their resources into children together – rather than leaving the responsibility to the mother alone.

Our massive brains may be a great advantage to us, but it simultaneously means that we must emerge from the womb as dependent creatures who rely on our parents for everything for several years. Our brains are not fully developed and take time before we can be on our own. Consider most of the animal kingdom, where animals are born and walking within minutes, to the year it takes us to take our wobbly first steps.

Genes that Made It So

A great deal has been made about heredity in No Two Alike, The Nurture Assumption, and The Blank Slate. The quick summary is that about half of us is driven by genetics. The other half is, well, anyone’s guess. We chalk it up to environment, because that the only other answer we have. That being said, most people have a misconception of genetics. Darwin is taken too literally, and we believe that survival of the fittest means every creature is competing at every level for their lives.

However, this is not the operating unit of evolution. Evolution works at the group level. It creates greater opportunity for genetic propagation through our ability to work together. Even if I don’t survive, the genes that I carry may survive through one of my relatives – that my death served to protect.

There’s compelling evidence that reciprocal altruism works best for the survival of a gene when that gene is shared by your kin – or, to a lesser extent, the tribe that you’re in. One person can die so that their genes can live on in their children, their siblings, or their extended family.

Evolution selected us to protect others in our group. In doing so, it wired us for the kind of connection necessary to be willing to do this. It made strong us vs. them distinctions and encouraged us to sacrifice – and perform violence – to protect the folks that are “us” at the expense of “them.”

Genes and Memes

Perhaps the greatest irony may be that genes aren’t the be-all and end-all when it comes to replication. Richard Dawkins was on to something. He coined the term “meme” as a corollary to gene in terms of cultural transmission. For me, this is interesting, because I wonder how many genes have changed during the life of ideas. Whether the idea was correct or incorrect, I wonder whether genes have come and gone inside the space of a meme.

Shared ideas may just outlast genes – and they may be able to connect us together and fight off Loneliness.

Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being

Book Review-Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being

There are plenty of reasons to study Martin Seligman’s work. The foremost authority on positive psychology, former president of the American Psychological Association (APA), and longtime researcher provides plenty of reasons to pay attention. However, the most compelling reason for me was one of kindred spirit. In the close of the book, he admits to starting the book not to write a book. He was trying to refine his thinking, and the writing process did that. He used the writing process to crystalize what he was thinking. That’s a process that I use in writing my book reviews. So, though I didn’t discover it until the end, he wasn’t trying to deliver a book to drive a cash machine, he was trying to develop and share his thoughts – I respect that.

Flourish is a book about how to take what we have in life and make it better. It’s a sign post that points down the road of happiness and fulfillment. It represents a lifetime of thinking about how wellness is not the absence of illness. It’s a clarity that the value of life isn’t in your bank account, your house, cars, or things. The value of life is in how you live it.

Authentic Happiness Recapped

In Authentic Happiness, Seligman asserts that three elements lead to happiness: positive emotion, engagement, and meaning. Engagement, Seligman explains, is about flow. (For more on flow, see The Rise of Superman, Flow, and Finding Flow.) Meaning is a part of Pink’s idea of motivation, as expressed in Drive. Pink calls it “purpose” and is clear that purpose doesn’t need to be changing the world. It just means something that’s important to the person.

That leaves us with the positive emotion component. Seligman explains that “happiness” is inextricably bound up with being in a cheerful mood. This problem shows up when you ask people about life satisfaction, and they tend to respond related to their present mood rather than an overall satisfaction. It’s almost as if people can’t see the forest, because they’re standing too close to the trees.

One of the criticisms that Seligman levels against his own work is that it doesn’t address what people do for “their own sake.” This hearkens back to Aristotle and the difference between the means and the ends. That is, what are we doing just because we want to, and what are we doing in service of something else? What you do cannot serve another master for it to be the thing that brings you happiness. (However, the ends that you want can bring you happiness through the means of what you’re doing.)

The trick, it seems, is that, though as Aristotle said we all pursue happiness, that’s not what we really want. We want well-being. Well-being is a construct, and happiness is a thing. In my review of A Philosopher’s Notes, I discovered (but didn’t cover) the story of Lakshmi and Sarawati, which I covered in my review of The Heretic’s Guide to Management. The short version of the story is that Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth, who runs away when people pursue her. Her sister Sarawati is the goddess of knowledge. When you pursue her, the jealous Lakshmi comes running after you. In other words, seeking knowledge and wisdom leads to wealth, but seeking wealth directly leads to nothing. In this context, happiness is a fool’s errand. Happiness is found through well-being – not on its own. (I’ve read a lot about happiness – try Hardwiring Happiness, Stumbling on Happiness, The Happiness Hypothesis, and The Dalai Lama’s Big Book of Happiness for a few examples.)


Seligman’s perspective is that well-being has five elements:

  • Positive emotion
  • Engagement
  • Positive Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Accomplishment

He refers to these through the acronym PERMA. (Positive relationships is the R.)

Getting Outside of Yourself

If you were to sum up the things that make people happy, it could best be described as getting outside of yourself. Whether viewed through the lens of accomplishing something (outside of your own skin), the lens of meaning (beyond oneself), relationships (with other people, or performing a kindness for another person), the heart of happiness is getting beyond yourself.

Happiness research is split between those with a hedonistic happiness approach (live for the moment) and a eudaimonic happiness approach (live for meaning and self-realization – or value-based). The effects of hedonistic happiness are gone with the end of the experience. The effects of eudaimonic happiness are more long-lasting. (See The Time Paradox and The Happiness Hypothesis for more on this distinction.)

One of the problems that we seem to encounter in ourselves and others is the desire to patch up our poor emotional state with hedonistic approaches. We believe that we can change the way that we feel in a persistent way with a new item, a new trip, or something that we acquire. This thinking leads to the pull of addiction. (See Chasing the Scream for more on addiction.) It’s not nearly as easy or quick to find those ways to get outside of ourselves and change our persistent state of well-being.

To Be Loved

If you want to live longer, have better and more relationships. It is George Vaillant’s insight that the capacity to love has a companion: the capacity to be loved. These two together are capable of extending a person’s life. Together, loving and being loved are characteristics that make a difference.

This is expressed differently by others. Having intimate relationships would be the way that I’d describe it. (See Intimacy Anorexia and Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy for more on intimacy.) Folks like J. Keith Miller in Compelled to Control express the ability to be loved as a feeling of being worthy and not being loved as a feeling of unworthiness. Let’s start with the need to feel worthy of love.

When I was getting my divorce, I was struggling with whether I was lovable. If this marriage didn’t work out, and God hates divorce, then what if I wasn’t lovable – what if I wasn’t worthy of love? (See God Loves You: He Always Has and Always Will for a good reset of this perspective.) Before I could be ready to be loved – to let it in – I had to accept that I was lovable. If other people are pouring love all over you, but you believe that you are at your core an unlovable person, then it will simply wash over you and go away.

In Spiritual Evolution, Dr. Vaillant speaks of a Dr. Carson (a pseudonym), who had glowing letters of love from his patients – that he couldn’t bring himself to read. (Yes, it’s the same Dr. Vaillant that Seligman speaks of in Flourish.) He couldn’t let that love in – he couldn’t hold it in his consciousness.

Social Evolution

The greatest evolutionary trick and adaption is the trick of socialization. Altruism, it turns out, can mean the survival of the species (see The Blank Slate and The Righteous Mind for more about altruism), whether it’s survival of chimpanzees (see Spiritual Evolution for survival of chimpanzees’ genes based on social skills) or survival of colonies of ants or bees (see The Dalai Lama’s Big Book of Happiness for more on insect altruism).

From insects to primates, we’re evolved to be social. So much so that Robin Dunbar noticed a correlation between prefrontal cortex in primates and the size of their social groups. (See High Orbit – Respecting Grieving for more on Dunbar’s Number.)

Generating Gratitude

If you want to be happier, be grateful. It doesn’t matter what you’re grateful for, gratitude has its own power. Studies confirm that the impact of keeping a gratitude journal is positive for your general mood. In truth, we often overlook small acts of kindness and small wins. However, it’s these small things that outweigh by volume the great evils that exist in the world. The Blank Slate quotes Gould describing “The Great Asymmetry” as “we perform 10,000 acts of small and unrecorded kindness for each surpassingly rare, but sadly balancing, moment of cruelty.” In other words, we can see the bad things that happen to us and around the world, because they’re big, bold, and easy. What is sometimes more difficult is to focus on and savor the small positive things that make up daily life.

It is certainly possible to create a gratitude journal and fill it with items that you’re grateful for without ever experiencing the positive mood. As we rolled through the American holiday Thanksgiving, our children could express appreciation for food and for shelter, but would do so in a way that’s entirely intellectual. “It sure would be bad if we were hungry.” Rather than bringing the feeling of warmth that comes from a meal and turning over the taste in their mind, the way that it made their tummy just a bit warmer. Experiencing gratitude is more than a checkbox. “I’ve got one more thing to do today to get a perfect score. I have to make three entries in my gratitude journal.”

Gratitude is something that must be experienced in its emotional state – not something that can be considered in a cold, sterile, rational consideration. When you allow the gratitude to dwell within you for a moment, it changes your outlook on the rest of life. Like water carving the Grand Canyon, the effects may not be immediately visible, but over time the impact can be enormous.

Curing Depression

Depression is the costliest disease in the world – at least according to the World Health Organization (WHO). With an average cost of $5,000 per year to treat, it’s simply expensive to treat the symptoms. The real tragedy is, however, that the psychiatry and psychology industries have given up on finding a cure.

All medicines can be classified as curative – they cure the disease – or cosmetic – they hide the effects. The medicines that we have available to us for depression are cosmetic. When the drug is removed, the symptoms return. Every single drug in the psychopharmacopoeia is cosmetic. The idea of curing depression has largely been abandoned. More concerning is that the efficacy of psychoactive drugs is only marginally better than placebos. (See Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health for the dangers of psychiatric drugs.)

The work on the behavioral side of treating depression has some positive points, but a cure is far from certain, with many people languishing in a depressed or near-depressed state for their entire lives. (See The Heart and Soul of Change: Delivering What Works in Therapy, Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology and House of Cards for more on what does and doesn’t work in therapy.) In fact, depression is about ten times more common now than it was fifty years ago. Once someone gets depressed, they’re tending to stay depressed.

Dealing with Dysphorias

Dysphoria is from the Greek language, and it means a profound state of unease or dissatisfaction. It is often a generic term to describe depression and anxiety. If the professionals have largely given up on curing depression, and many of the drugs that we have available to us have only marginally better results than a placebo, where does that leave us?

In short, it’s learning to deal with the dysphoria and continue to operate as best we can. It’s not quite “fake it until you make it,” but there is a degree to which we’re looking for people to behave in ways that are incongruent with their feelings. This might mean going to the store when you don’t feel like it. If we can help folks with depression to simply do healthy behaviors, it’s possible to halt the descent into the depths of depression.

The trick is that feelings and behavior aren’t a one-way street. It’s not that our feelings or moods cause our behaviors. Our behaviors can feed back into our moods. By doing the behaviors, it’s possible to influence the feelings and moods. Depending upon the severity of the problem and the degree of effort expended, it’s possible to reverse the effects of depression.

One problem that is often cited when people are “just dealing with it” is that they feel like they’re being fake. Often the perception is that they aren’t being real when they’re putting on “a happy face” and going about life. However, the truth is that they’re behaving as they want to feel. They’re not “faking it” as much as they’re making a conscious decision to pull their mood in the direction of happiness.

Negative Nelly

What makes some relationships feel like they’re life-giving but others sucking the life out of you? The answer may reside in part with the ratio of positive to negative comments. Relationships with a positive to negative ratio of 3 (2.9) up to 13:1 are positive. (Above 13:1 the positive comments aren’t believed.) The Losada ratio, as it is called, is corroborated by Gottman’s work with couples, who suggests that a 5:1 positive to negative comment ratio is necessary to keep a couple’s marriage healthy. (See The Science of Trust for more.)

While it seems like even higher ratios of positive to negative comments might be helpful, when the number gets above about 13, it begins to feel ingenuine. It seems like the negative comments are required to hold the relationship together – but in an appropriate ratio to the positive and affirming comments.

Values in Action Signature Strengths

At the heart of Seligman’s perspective on flourishing is the ability to use your strengths rather than focusing on your weaknesses. The Values in Action Signature Strengths test is available for free at This test ranks the strengths that you have, indicating which strength the test believes is the most valuable in your life. The core concept is that you should focus your development efforts on making these strengths more powerful in your life.

While, in general, I agree that it’s a good thing to focus on strengths and avoid feeling shame about our weaknesses, I worry that Seligman’s approach may not lead to peak performance of humans. (See Peak for more.) Peak performers use coaches to help them see weaknesses in their performance that’s holding them back. I’m concerned that only focusing on strengths may lead us to believe that we don’t need to address our blocking weaknesses.


Blood alcohol content is abbreviated BAC; but so too is Our Beliefs (B) about an Adversity (A) – and not the adversity itself – cause the consequent (C) feelings. This is a subtle but important point. It’s not the problem, it’s how we react and respond to the problem, our fundamental beliefs about the adversity – or the situation – that really matter. A day can be good or bad based on our beliefs about it.

So if we want to change our feelings, we need to consider (and challenge) or beliefs.

Achievement = Skill * Effort

As was addressed in my review of Grit, a work ethic puts everyone ahead. We saw this in Peak as well. People need to work to get good at what they’re doing. Dweck echoes this same sentiment in Mindset. Everywhere we turn, we find the effects of work – or effort. Still, one could argue, skill has an impact on achievement. We can’t ignore that part of our simple equation – but we can when we consider that skill is the previous achievement. Skill is the outcome of the last time through the equation. So if we were to use basic algebraic substitution, skill is, at some level, some factor of effort.

All achievement is then based on effort and effort alone. Arguments will be made for natural talent, but scientists haven’t found enough natural talent to matter much when compared to the weight of effort on achievement. So, as we’re looking at our lives and trying to find ways to flourish, we need to try. We need to put our nose to the grindstone and work – to put the effort in.

Brake Specialists

When looking at flourishing, it seems odd to talk about holding back – and how holding people back can save them from themselves. Seligman recounts a story of a professor who learned to be slower. He quotes Dr. Ed Hallowell speaking to a child with ADHD: “You have a Ferrari of a mind, and I’m a brake specialist. I am here to help you learn to apply the brakes.” Anyone who has spent any time with a child afflicted by ADHD will tell you that a brake specialist is a great idea. However, how does this help them flourish? The answer seems to be in the idea of going slow – to go fast.

One of the greatest minds of our time, Albert Einstein, was – relatively speaking – slow. He wasn’t a gifted learner and he had to expend great effort to stay on task. He credited this need to stay on task to his ability to make such profound observations. Everyone else ran ahead, and they missed the implication of shining a flashlight while riding on a beam of light.

To be effective in our world, we sometimes need to slow down and stay with a problem long enough that we can thoroughly work through the problem.

For the Common Good

Everyone believes that Darwin thought that we were out for ourselves. After all, he said, “Survival of the fittest,” right? Yes – but only sort of. The unit of natural selection isn’t the individual. The unit of natural selection is the group. In fact, he said, “A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.”

Said differently, it’s possible for selfless genes to replicate if they replicate through the rest of the tribe or social group. It’s possible that the best thing that a person can do to ensure the survival of their genes is to sacrifice themselves for their family. By extending the definition of family, what they do for their country, community, or friends, helps to preserve their genes even in their death.

Good, God

Sidestepping the issue of whether God does exist or not, people who have a higher level of spirituality have a greater well-being. Those who live by a code that includes serving others or believing that they’re a part of something larger has a positive effect on their well-being and reduces mortality. In The Blank Slate, Pinker claims that someone else praying for you seems to have no effect. However, praying for yourself seems to have an impact. Our belief in things larger than ourselves creates an opportunity for us to be happier.

Said sort of paradoxically, whether you believe in God or not, you should believe in God if you want to have a better and longer life. One could argue that the safest answer – not knowing for certain whether God exists or not – is to accept that God exists if for no other reason than to get the benefits in this life.

It’s All Pointless

We’ve all had those moments when we’ve wondered if all of our hard work has been pointless. Families whose homes are crushed by a tornado. Businessmen who see their fortunes washed away in a blink of an eye by a tsunami. Farmers who lose entire flocks of chickens due to infection. When our world comes crashing in with something beyond our control, it’s natural to wonder whether it makes any sense to go on. We have an illusion of control. (See Incognito.)

Sometimes reality confronts us with the truth that we are not in control. We only have the illusion of control. We live in a probabilistic world (see The Halo Effect), and we can’t guarantee outcomes. Some people get despondent after their world has been crushed. That’s normal before recovering. (See On Death and Dying for more of the cycle.)


If you want to predict which soldiers are going to be afflicted with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), all you need to do is assess them prior to the stress. The more mentally healthy they are, the more likely they’ll grow from a stressful experience. Those with good coping skills and a generally optimistic disposition will see some level of post-traumatic growth.

We’re back to the fact that it’s not the adversity that leads to the results – it’s our attitude about the adversity that matters. If the adversity as seen as temporary, changeable, and local, we’re more likely to grow as a result of a stress. It’s only optimism that predicted who would – and who would not – have a heart attack.

Great Men with Great Struggles

There are times that we think there can be no greatness in life without happiness, but some of the greatest leaders that this world has ever known struggled with depression and negative emotions. It wasn’t that there was no struggle or sorrow in their worlds. Rather it was this struggle that they turned into a power for good.

Abraham Lincoln’s struggles in general, in the death of his mother and in his marriage to his wife, are well-documented. Despite these enormous burdens to his mood, he is regarded as one of the greatest presidents the United States has ever known. What few people know is that Lincoln failed many, many times before becoming the successful president he was.

Winston Churchill is another great leader who struggled with depression and somehow rose above the depression and led England through the second world war.


It’s not a measure of money that holds the key to flourishing. It’s somehow this arrangement of optimism, gratitude, relationships, and building emotional resilience that leads us to be able to flourish. One way to build these in ourselves is to read Flourish.

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

Book Review-The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature – The Implications

In part 1 of this book review of The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, I focused on the basics of the argument. We learned about the blank slate, the noble savage, and the ghost in the machine. In this part, I focus on what the implications are of disproving these ideas.

Intelligent Design

The argument for intelligent design is how could it possibly be that such beauty and complexity could emerge spontaneously? The comforting thought is that there’s an unseen hand that has helped guide evolution to its current point. However, what we know from the historical evidence is that the process of evolution often is wasteful and cruel. It’s a robust system that can unnecessarily take out species or a people in the service of the greater good – or at least in the response to the randomness of time.

It may be comforting to think that there’s a hand compassionately guiding the process of evolution, but the evidence seems to point to a process that wouldn’t be considered compassionate.

Genetic Variation

Biologists expect genetic variation. They expect that overtime the number of variations will stack up within a species. The problem is that all the diversity that we have in the human species doesn’t add up. We focus on differences (see The Difference), but the reality is that there’s really not much in the way of genetic diversity. In fact, from a biologist’s point of view, our race should be much smaller.

The cause of the lack of diversity may be in our population explosion. Roughly ten thousand years ago, we discovered agriculture, and the caloric surplus that it afforded us allowed us to rapidly increase in number. Instead of a steady increase in numbers, we have a slow increase followed by rapid growth. The result is a relatively small degree of diversity.

Taboo Items

As was covered in The Righteous Mind, there are some things that, though they leave everyone better off, can still be considered taboo. Pinker reminds us that it’s illegal to sell your vote, organ, or children – but some could argue that both parties would benefit. It’s difficult to consider these items without getting caught up in the hidden feelings. Haidt uses the following story, which Pinker quotes:

Julie and Mark, who are sister and brother, are traveling together in France. They are both on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie is already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy it, but they decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret between them, which makes them feel even closer to each other. So, what do you think about this? Was it wrong for them to have sex?

Haidt shares that people try to create reasons for their discomfort with the story. It just feels bad – and it is hard to put our finger on why. Most of us wouldn’t feel comfortable with vegetables grown in sanitized human waste or an elevator with a glass floor – not because we logically believe they’re risky, but instead because the ideas just give us “the willies.”


Discrimination is really differentiating between two things. It’s discernment. However, we often use it when we take one trait and use it to predict the behavior of someone. Pinker share a perspective on discrimination: “It would be reprehensible for a bank to hire a man over a woman as a manager for the reason that he is less likely to quit after having a child. Would it also be reprehensible for a couple to hire a woman over a man as a nanny for their daughter because she is less likely to sexually abuse the child?” Again, this sits the wrong way with most moral people. We know that we leap to conclusions, and we simplify, and that discrimination is a part of that process – whether we like it or not. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more.)

Inside and Outside (Our Group)

The Lucifer Effect chronicles the issues that came from the Stanford Prison Experiment, which took normal students and split them into a guard and a prisoner group. The results were telling in our ability to harm folks who are not in our group. The line we draw between us and them isn’t factual; it can be drawn at random, and we’ll accept it. We’ll treat outsiders with disrespect and contempt. We’ll try to conquer them – unless we trade with them. You can’t trade with someone, kill them, and continue to trade with them.

The specialization of skills and the need to trade may have helped to buffer us from the constant fighting and bickering that could have destroyed us as a species. As it is, there are some tribes where males’ deaths can be attributed to war more than half of the time.

It’s this tendency that has the Dalai Lama encouraging us to expand our circle of us – our circle of compassion – to everyone. (See The Dalai Lama’s Big Book of Happiness.)

Responsibility and Accountability

One of the challenges with accepting that 50% (or so) of our behavior is driven by genes is the concern that it will absolve people of responsibility for their actions. After all, my genes made me do it. What’s next? “My genes ate my homework?” There’s no biological exoneration of wrong-doers.

We tend to not blame people who make bad decisions if they could not have seen the consequences. We tend to punish only the believed intent of the actions. We believe there’s a lower level of accountability to be extracted from those who couldn’t have known better. If someone couldn’t have known better because of their genes – or their raising – can we really hold them accountable? The point of holding people responsible is to prevent others from committing similar acts. What happens when that deterrent doesn’t work? (See Moral Disengagement for more.)

The Moment of Ensoulment

When you believe there’s a ghost inside the machine – an immortal soul – the question comes when that soul is installed in the body. Catholics believe that this moment is the moment of conception. However, this is a convenient line to draw. As I mentioned in Fractal Along the Edges, sometimes the lines aren’t all that clear. Pinker points out that sometimes it can take a day after the fertilization of an egg for the genes to become merged and more time for the merged genome to control the cell.

Using conception – or fertilization – as the moment of ensoulment, then what happens to the roughly 3/4ths of the fertilized eggs that never implant in the uterus or are spontaneously aborted for no clear reason? Are these souls lost or returned to the pool of available souls?

My point isn’t to dislodge the belief of ensoulment but rather to share that our view on the process is naïve and incomplete.

Tit-for-Tat and Reciprocity

Our evolution seems to have been dominated by tit-for-tat as a bargaining approach. If you do bad to someone, then bad will be done to you, so we’ve been conditioned to be mostly fair but slightly selfish. We know that an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind, but we’re conditioned to it anyway. We believe in reciprocity. We want it in our losses, and we seek it in the gifts that we give.

Studies have shown that we’re more generous to those that we believe are in a position to be more generous to us. We are more willing to give when we think that we’ll get something in return.

Backwards and Forwards

When we look backwards at our memories, we look not at the reality that existed back then, but instead we look at an idealized image of the past that has been distorted and changed by the lenses of our current thinking. Memories are far from infallible. (See Incognito.) Despite this, viewing our current state of moral progress and society is best measured against a distorted past than it is against an idealized future. We cannot expect that we’ll be at some utopian vision of how society can be – we’ll always fall short by that measure. Instead, as we look at where we are, we should look at the progress we’re making towards becoming better, more moral, more caring, and further enlightened.

Anticipated Costs

At some level, our society is held together by a set of expectations. We enforce behaviors that are socially desirable by creating stiff consequences for undesirable behaviors. We attempt to ensure enforcement of these consequences so that the calculus of whether someone should do a socially undesirable behavior or not is clearly weighted towards the desirable behavior. The higher the cost and the more certain the enforcement, the less likely that it is that someone will attempt the behavior. Like any conditioned behavior, once the behavior pattern has been established, it’s possible to remove or reduce the external consequences, because they will be internalized.

That’s why strict parenting creates in children an internalized sense of social norms that leads the children to – on average – not have as many skirmishes with the law.


Democracy is the worst kind of government – except for all the other kinds of government that we have tried. (That is according to Winston Churchill.) Marxist ideas may have been a good idea. Communism may have its place – in a colony of ants. It doesn’t work with humans, but other species may be able to leverage the ideas.

Caring for the Poor

Status is a zero-sum game. As we strive for status, we create a gap between us and others. As others struggle for status, they close the gap, and we must find new and more exotic things to recreate the separation. Thus, there’s a natural rise in the standard. Even the poorest today are better off than the aristocracy of yesterday, but we don’t measure worth against a time years ago. We measure against others – we measure our status relative to our peers.

As a result, we don’t really want to care for the poor. If we care for the poor, then we raise their status, making it necessary to further elevate our status.

Media and Violence

Albert Bandura is famous for his research on televised violence and its impact on children. This is one of the topics that is covered in his book Moral Disengagement. The problem is Pinker cites research and situations that contradict Bandura’s beliefs and findings. Jonathan Freedman did his review and found that there seemed to be little or no effect of televised violence on actual violence. This makes rational sense, as violent crimes were on the decline in the 1990s – at the height of the increased violence on TV and in video games. Places like St. Helena first got television in 1995, and there wasn’t any discernable increase in violence.

Sometimes, even with respectable scientists, the confirmation bias is just too strong. We tend to find what we’re looking for. (See Confirmation bias in Thinking, Fast and Slow.)

Do Guns Kill People

There’s a popular mantra that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” Of course, at some level, guns make this prospect easier. Pinker comes down on the opposite side of the issue of gun control as Bandura. Where Bandura sees that guns make people less safe, Pinker sees guns as a deterrent that is effective at discouraging violence. There are studies that seem to prove both points. Which author is subject to confirmation bias? Both. In many cases, Pinker makes compelling arguments that some of the places with the most guns (per capita) have lower homicide rates. That seems to indicate that guns don’t mean more murders – they could even mean fewer.

My perspective is that it’s neither good nor bad. My perspective is the impact of the availability of guns to generally well-behaving functional members of society have limited positive or negative effects. In short – it doesn’t matter as much as people matter.

Feminists and Wage-Earning Gap

According to Pinker, most women don’t believe they’re feminists – except that they believe the core beliefs of feminism. Originals covered the tendency for a movement to be known by its most extreme members. Pinker explains that there are two kinds of feminism – equality and gender. The first is focused on the lack of fairness to women, and the second is focused on the perceived system of male dominance. Thus, most women (and men) believe in equality – but few believe in gender feminism.

The gender feminists point to the wage-earning gap between women and men, which is often quoted in the 70 cents per dollar range. The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth found that the wages of childless women were 98 cents to every dollar a man makes. Basically 2% off. The wage discrepancy may (or may not) be because women exit the workforce temporarily or permanently to raise children – and thus have less time to generate work experience than men do.

Birth Order

One consideration for the influence of personalities is birth order. However, most of the studies of birth order used surveys of family members. These studies seemed to indicate differences in personality traits based on birth order. However, these effects seemed to disappear when neutral third parties were surveyed.

The Writing Is on The Wall, We Just Can’t Read It

The Blank Slate doesn’t leave us with clear answers as to exactly how our minds are formed. We know that some part of it is genetics, and some part is environment, and there’s a substantial amount that falls into the category of we just don’t know. Just as two “identical” twins will have different fingerprints, we know they’re different. We know that they’re shaped in important ways with subtle cues from their environment. In the case of fingerprints, we know that it’s pressure waves during gestation, and those waves impact the two twins differently. In terms of their personalities, who they are, the answers are not clear.

What is clear is that though we can expose ourselves to things that help us grow and improve, things like reading The Blank Slate.

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

Book Review-The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature – The Basics

What makes a man a man? What drives our behavior? What makes us us? These are the questions that Steven Pinker tries to answer in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. The answers are surprisingly entangled in religion and our belief in our own free will. The book, when it was originally released, was labeled “controversial.” In other words, Pinker challenged the status quo. What we believe intuitively or through faith didn’t mesh with his decomposition and recompositing of the discoveries of science. This review will be broken into two parts: the first where we cover the basics of The Blank Slate, and the second where I talk about the implications.

The Heart of Human Nature

The Blank Slate is in service of understanding human nature better, how we and our fellow humans make our decisions, and how we grow to be a service to our society. Some authors who have tackled this topic have broken the mind down into lower- and higher-level functions – like Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Others have looked at the problem with metaphors such as the Rider-Elephant-Path model as written in Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt follows up The Happiness Hypothesis with The Righteous Mind, where he seeks to uncover the fundamental sources from which I morality arises.

Others, like Greenleaf in Servant Leadership and Scharmer in Theory U, seek to nudge human nature in a better direction. Without trying to explain how we came to be the people we are, they propose a different way of thinking.

Instead of hypothetical models of how we operate, Pinker explores two historical perspectives on how humans evolved and how our brain works before systemically walking through the research and the implications. The first of the three historic views of human nature is that we’re a blank slate, and we’re shaped entirely by our environment. The second view is that we’re all noble savages who are altruistic at our core. The discovery of seemingly peaceful native tribes led to the belief that we’re corrupted by our society. The third view is that there’s a ghost in the machine. That is, there’s a soul that inhabits our bodies and frees us from the bonds of biology. The blank slate is first.

The Blank Slate

Before we understood genetics to the level we do today, we knew that everything about a person couldn’t be encoded into our genes. This gave rise to the idea that the brain was a blank slate, a new computer with nothing loaded. Through our experiences, we became who we are. Some of this was the environments that we surrounded ourselves with and some of it was the choices we made.

The blank slate is a good place to start because it means that it’s possible to hold people accountable for the choices that they make. If they’re a product of their environment and choices, it’s easy enough to hold people accountable for their choices. It’s the blank slate that our legal system is based on.

However, the blank slate is not supported by research. It seems that there’s something in our genes that influences who we are.

The Noble Savage

The Dalai Lama and Daniel Goleman had a conversation recorded in Destructive Emotions where they considered whether humans were rational egoists, selfish and compassionate, or compassionate and selfish. There was no answer to this puzzle, only three different views. This captures the heart of the noble savage. Some believe that we’re generally peaceful creatures who are perverted by our environment in ways that lead us to selfishness and narcissism.

The very idea of a noble savage was disproved. As the study into the cultures that were initially thought to be peaceful was deepened, it became more apparent that the conflict between people and peoples exists everywhere. Conflict, in fact, exists in all of nature, up to and including humans.

However, it’s a convenient and comforting belief that we can blame our infirmities and weaknesses on our environment.

The Ghost in the Machine

The ghost in the machine is our soul. It’s the timeless, endless, undying part of ourselves that continues after this life. (See Soul Keeping for an attempt at defining what the soul is.) The ghost in the machine is a healthy buttress against nihilism and the belief that our lives are without purpose. If we live and we die but leave nothing behind, then what’s the point? Why would we care if we add to society or take from it?

The idea that we have an immortal soul serves to continue to press into the service of humanity. Whether it’s the Jewish and Christian belief in heaven, or a belief in reincarnation where you get to come back as a higher form of animal, most religious institutions believe in the ghost in the machine and use this belief to drive forward progress of the species.

Genes Turning On and Off

What we’ve learned through our study of genetics is that gene sequences can be turned on and off. That is, our environment and our internal thinking literally changes our genes. This makes it difficult to isolate a single factor as the cause of a condition. We live in a probabilistic world, where the presence of a gene only indicates a change in possibility for a condition – not a certainty that it will or won’t appear.

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers spends considerable time explaining how we can transmit stresses across generational lines without the direct expression of genes.

Human Clockwork

Humans are – in essence – a machine like any other. They’re like a complex clock, whose function and operation can be determined through a detailed understanding of the component parts. This is a scary proposition for those who hold dear the idea that our bodies are just temporary containers for our soul. If we can reduce everything to chemical reactions, then where do we have room left for us to have a soul.

This is a common concern. In Mindreading, much of the criticism against mental models was leveled because of tendency to decompose the magic of the mind into a set of constituent components with sufficiently limited complexity to be understood how we might model them. The more we can peer into the depths of how the mental machinery works, the less mystery there is.

Perhaps equally scary is the idea that, if we’re a biological clockwork, we should start with the best clocks to begin with. We shouldn’t take care of the weak or inferior, we should end their lives move on to moving the species forward. This was the heart of the Nazi attempted genocide of the Jewish people. As scary as it is, this is not the first nor last attempted genocide in history.


If it makes sense to end lives that are not adding value to society, shouldn’t we also only allow those to breed who have superior genes and therefore represent a better clock? This is the idea of eugenics, which seeks to deny reproductive capacity to those who were deemed inferior. In Indiana, we had eugenics laws from 1907 for about 70 years, sterilizing 2,500 people. These laws are long off the books but represent a time when Francis Galton, who was Darwin’s cousin, had substantial influence on the policies and thoughts of the leaders of the state.

The pendulum swung from the blank slate to everything is programmed in our genes and weaker genes should be prevented from replicating.

Battle of the Sexes: Animal Kingdom

If you’re going to work your way through evolutionary biology to get to the impact of passing genetic code on through procreation, you’re going to get to sex and how the two sexes view the act. With mammals, the difference is striking. Males have very little energy expended in the reproductive act. While the actual sexual act may be more physical exertion for the male, the actual act of raising children is substantially more burdensome for the female, who, in most species, takes primary responsibility for raising the young that she carries.

From a sheer glucose management point of view, the female is substantially more involved in the reproductive act and therefore must be choosier with whom she mates. She should make the right choice, because her choices are going to be very large bets on the scales of life. Mating with the right male can give her children an advantage. Mating with the wrong male can reduce the chances of her offspring making it and the survival of her genetic code.

Males, on the other hand, are best served by finding many female mates, thereby spreading their chances across a variety of female partners. Thus, females seek to maximize the quality of the partner, where males seek to maximize the quantity (number) of partners.

Sex, Children, and Contraceptives

In a world without effective contraception, the biological desire for sex and the love of children is enough to support the propagation of genes. In the world of contraception, we’ve got things turned around a bit. Thoughtful intellectuals leverage their greater self-control and more consistently use contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancies, while those with less self-control are not using contraception and get pregnant at much higher rates. This means we may have stalled or reversed the impacts of natural selection.

When well-reasoned people aren’t reproducing as fast as folks who cause burdens on the social systems, it’s not hard to see how someone might consider the eugenics laws – even if they aren’t appropriate.

Nature vs. Nurture

In the raging battle of whether our personalities are driven by genetics, the environment, or both, the answer seems to be a qualified both. The qualification is that the environment as we think of it – “they came from a good home” – seems to have less impact than we believe. We have genetics setting the development process on a path, but it seems that the path can be influenced.

Estimates vary, but you can say that roughly 40-50% of our personalities are generated by our genetics. There’s about a 0-10% swing based on what we classically believe about the environment. The other 40-50% of what makes up the development of our personalities is undefined. Research doesn’t show us what makes this component up.

Personally, I believe it has to do with random openings of receptiveness. That is, I believe there are times when we’re more susceptible to input and learning and times when we’re not open to learning from our experiences. So, something that may be impactful to one person might not be impactful to the person standing next to them. Unfortunately, saying that people have periods of open and closed time for learning does nothing to illuminate the situation until you can define, describe, or detect those times.

Environments and Learning

Neural plasticity is a popular term. It refers to the idea that our brains aren’t fixed and then remain unchanged through our adult lives. D.O. Hebb said, “neurons that fire together wire together; neurons out of synch fail to link.” In truth, neurons form connections to other neurons based on the firing pattern – which is driven by both internal processing and sensory input. As we gain new experiences, or we sit and meditate, we generate new connections that didn’t exist before.

We learn and grow – that is, we grow new neural connections that allow unrelated concepts to become linked and go together. The way that we learn really does shape our mind. It shapes the internal structure.

Good and Bad

Every generation – over the last several at least – believes that society is going downhill. They believe that the world is “going to hell in a handbasket.” However, it’s not clear whether that’s literal truth, or whether we’re just getting more negative news than we used to. When something awful happened beyond the scope of our community, we never used to hear about it. Now, with traditional and social media sharing and amplifying bad events, it’s certainly possible to believe that the world is getting worse.

However, what the media doesn’t share are the thousands of small kindnesses that are done every day. This is what Gould calls “The Great Asymmetry.” We do thousands of small “goods,” and they’re balanced out by a few truly heinous acts. Humans have the capacity for great love and kindness as well as discouraging evil and harm.

What’s It All Mean?

So much for our conceptions of how we think and how we should hold people accountable. In Part 2 of this review, I walk through some of the implications of our minds not being The Blank Slate.

Mindreading: An Integrated Account of Pretence, Self-Awareness, and Understanding Other Minds

Book Review-Mindreading

Mindreading – it’s the stuff of comic books and science fiction. At the same time, Dr. Paul Ekman struggles with the implications of his discovery of micro-expressions and the emotions they reveal (see Nonverbal Messages and Telling Lies). All the while, Jonathan Haidt believes our ability to read others’ intentions is the point at which we became the truly social and cooperative species we are today. (See The Righteous Mind.)

Somewhere between the superhero capacities and the reality of our evolution lies questions. The question is, how does it work? How is it that we have any capacity to read another’s mind? What is it that allows us to “know” what is in someone else’s head? This is the question that plunged me into the academic writing of Mindreading.

Making Models

Other than Steven Pinker, I don’t know anyone who claims to know exactly How the Mind Works. In his book with the same title, Pinker attempts to walk through the topic, but my initial journey through the material was called on the account of boredom. It’s back on my list to try to read again, but I can’t say that I’m looking forward to it. The neurology books I’ve read can describe the firing of neurons and their structure – but not how they work together to produce consciousness. (See Emotional Intelligence, Incognito, and The End of Memory.)

Psychology has its problems too. Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology and The Heart and Soul of Change are both clear that psychology doesn’t have all the answers for how the mind works. The DSM-5 is a manual of all the manifestations of problems with psychological development without any understanding of what’s broken or what to do about it. It’s sort of like a categorized list of all of the complaints that people have had with their car when they take it to an auto mechanic. Warning: Psychiatry can be Hazardous to Your Mental Health speaks of the rise of the use of drugs – with limited, if any, efficacy – and how we still don’t effectively know how to treat mental health problems.

With all these problems, one might reasonably wonder why we bother making models at all. The answer lies in a simple statement. The statistician George Box said, “All models are wrong, but some models are useful.” The fact that each model moves us closer to an approximation of reality is why we make models. Much of Mindreading is spent exploring the author’s model of mind reading and comparing it to the models that others have proposed – and how the author’s model builds on the models of others.

Telling Lies

I ended my review of Telling Lies with the idea of stealing the truth. That is, how detection of lies could be used to steal the truth from those who wished to keep the truth secret. This is, for me, an interesting moral dilemma. Our ability to read minds – to have shared intentionality – allowed us to progress as a species. It was an essential difference, just as was our ability to use tools. At the same time, we believe that we should have a right to keep our thoughts private.

Mind reading, or shared intentionality, has been one of the greatest factors in our growth as a species and at the same time we struggle with what it means.

Understanding Beliefs

Show a small child of one or two years old what’s in a box, and close it. Watch as their playmate enters the room, and ask them what their playmate will believe is in the box, and they’ll confidently explain the item you showed them. Of course, the playmate has no idea what’s in the box. Young children are unable to comprehend that the beliefs that they have aren’t the beliefs that everyone has. They believe the illusion that their brains are creating. (See Incognito for more.) However, somewhere around three years old, if you revisit this test, you’ll find the child identifies that their perceptions and those of their playmate are not the same.

There’s a transition between the belief that everything is the same for everyone to a more nuanced understanding that your beliefs and others’ are different. However, differentiating between you having a belief and someone else not having it – or having a different one – doesn’t help to understand their desires.

Reading Desire

Understanding different desires is something different entirely. It’s one thing to understand that someone else doesn’t know what’s in a box but something entirely different to understand that not everyone loves brussels sprouts. Young children tilt their heads like a confused puppy when you tell them that you don’t desire something that they do.

Soon after they’re able to accept the principle that you don’t have the same desires they have, they start to try to figure out what your desires are. They begin the process of looking for markers in behavior that either confirm or disconfirm that your desires match theirs. They look for whether you take the brussels sprouts from the buffet.

Desire is inferred from behavior or lack of behavior more or less like adults assess others’ desires. The models that we have in our head and the number of markers that we’re able to use expands, but, fundamentally, it’s the same process. Where we get off track is more frequently reading intentions.

Reading Intention

“Fundamental attribution error” is the name that Kahneman gave the tendency to attribute intentions to others. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow). It’s our tendency to leap to conclusions. It’s our tendency to reach out and make the wrong leap about what other people were intending.

When it comes to leaping, Chris Argyris has a ladder. His Ladder of Inference describes how we make assumptions and conclusions about other people and what is going on inside of them. Most of the time, when we talk about the Ladder of Inference, we’re talking about the problems that it causes. (See Choice Theory.) We’re talking about where it misses the mark. However, the inferences we can make to read the intention of someone else is a marvelous piece of mental machinery.

Consider Gary Klein’s work in Sources of Power and Seeing What Others Don’t, which lay out the mental models we use to simulate the world around us. Reading intentions means that we model the mental processing of other people. This sort of box within a box has been mastered by virtualization software, but wasn’t popular for the first several decades of computer technology. We know that a mind can simulate the processing of another mind – but how?

What’s the Harm in a Thought?

Research has shown that thoughts can be harmful. They can lead to stress responses and harm. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.) However, a thought or belief can rewrite history. People struggle with the curse of knowledge (see The Art of Explanation for more). We simply don’t see how people couldn’t realize that the round wheel is best. Our awareness of the current state shapes our perception.

Andrew Carnegie is perhaps my best example of a man who understood the power of a thought. In his time, he was called a “robber baron.” He was reviled. However, through his gift of public libraries, he shaped people’s perceptions of him – for generations. The thought that he is a benefactor of public knowledge pushes out the incompatible robber baron thought.

Thoughts are substantially more powerful than we give them credit for. They can change our biology. They can change our world, and, ultimately, they can change the world. Incompatible thoughts wage a war inside our heads, duking it out to see which one gets to survive. Einstein described “genius” as the ability to hold two incompatible thoughts inside our head at the same time.

The harm in a thought can be how it pushes out other thoughts – necessary thoughts. (See Beyond Boundaries for more on confirmation bias.)

Possible World Box – The Heart of Simulation

At the heart of our ability to project the future and to simulate situations is the possible world box. In this box, the bounds of our perception of reality are weakened. We copy our thoughts and expectations into this box from our belief box – but inside the possible world box, anything is possible. We can overwrite our beliefs. We can change our world view – at least for a moment. The possible world box is where we simulate. We simulate the future. We simulate other people and other situations.

Without the possible world box (or some equivalent), we would not be able to simulate at all. We’d be limited to the experiences that are directly within our perception. With a possible world box, we can create flights of fancy and any sort of world or simulation we might like – including what might be going on inside another human.

It’s this ability to simulate that is unique to our human existence, and it’s one fraught with problems. Many of these problems revolve around the challenge of cognitive quarantine.

Cognitive Quarantine

It’s great that we have a possible world to run simulations in, but what do we do with the results of those simulations? If we had complete cognitive quarantine, there would be no way to migrate the output of our simulations into our belief system. So, we clearly need to take things from the possible world box – or the output of the simulations we run in the possible world box to our beliefs. This gets us into trouble.

Suddenly, it’s possible to get things from the possible world box – which aren’t constrained by reality – into our belief system. The mental mechanisms that regulate this process are far from perfect. In fact, we know through research that the introduction of information into a simulation can bleed into beliefs about the real world.

I wonder whether schizophrenia as we understand it is really a failure of the mechanisms designed to limit, regulate, and control the flow of information out of the possible world box in such a way as the possible world leaks into our real world and our real beliefs. Once that happens, it becomes fascinatingly hard to loosen the belief. (See Change or Die for more.)

Displacing the False Belief

Let’s say you are placed in a situation of seeing a set of suicide notes – some fake and some real. You’re asked to sort them into fake and real. You’re told that your sorting is very good – much larger than chance. Then later, you’re told that the feedback was wrong. In truth, all the suicide notes were fake. The whole experiment wasn’t about sorting suicide letters. It was about persistence of beliefs. And then you were asked whether you were good at sorting suicide notes between the fake and the real.

Your perception will have changed. You’ll believe that you’re good (or better than average) at sorting real suicide letters from the fake. You’ve been told, by the same researcher that told you were good, that they were lying. You should – if you’re completely rational – not hold any belief about your ability to sort suicide letters. However, the research shows that you will. You’ll hang on to the lingering belief that you are good at this sorting.

In this very controlled experiment, you received direct evidence that you are not good at the task, and yet the belief persists. What does this say for the beliefs that leak out of the possible world box? How difficult would it to be to displace a bad belief if you don’t have direct, disconfirming evidence? Would it even be possible? In many cases, it isn’t.

Inference Mechanisms

We’ve got finely-tuned inference engines. We ascribe our thoughts to others. In fact, this is something all young children can do. Shortly after they discover object permanence – that is, that an object doesn’t disappear when it moves out of their field of view – they start to expect that what they know is something everyone knows. If they see an object move behind another until it’s hidden, they expect that other children who didn’t see the object get hidden will know where it is. They infer that, because they know it, then everyone should know it.

As we get older, our inferences get more complex. We move from being able to identify the number missing in a series to being able to infer what someone else believes based on their behaviors. We test possible beliefs in the possible world box until we can find a belief set that could create the behaviors we’re observing.

Behavior Prediction

In many ways, our mental systems evolved in ways that allow us to predict the behaviors of others. That is, we want to know what to expect out of others. We predict behaviors, because, as social animals, we know that our safety is dependent upon how others behave.

Our behavior prediction engine is fed information through play and through our experiences. (See Play for more on the role of play.) As we amass more data, we expect that our ability to predict others’ behaviors improves. We do this because, by predicting the behavior of others, we can learn to work together and stay safe.

Failure of Prediction

Though we’re good at predicting other people’s behavior, our failure to predict their behavior is inevitable.

The more certain we are of how we believe someone will behave, the more hurt and betrayed we feel with they don’t meet our expectations. (See Trust => Vulnerability => Intimacy for more clarity.) In evolutionary history, we needed to know how someone would behave, because it quite literally could mean the difference between life and death.

Kurt Lewin tried to expose a simple model for behavior prediction. Behavior, he said is a function of both person and environment. So, it’s not possible to predict behavior without considering both the person and the environment. Folks like Steven Reiss have worked to characterize the personal factor of behavior by isolating and identifying the 16 basic motivators – sort of like a periodic table of elements for motivation. (See The Normal Personality.) Others have proposed other ways of categorizing people to make the explicit prediction of behaviors easier. (You can find more in The Cult of Personality Testing.)

Despite all of these tools and models, we still fail to predict others behavior. Caesar Agustus asking “et tu Brute?” is perhaps the most historic example of a betrayal that cost a life. The good news is that every failure to predict isn’t a life or death situation. Sometimes it’s trivial.

Pretense – Something and Not at the Same Time

Have you ever picked up a banana, held it to your head, and started to talk into it like a phone? Or have you seen a child pick up a block and talk into it like a cell phone? These are examples of pretense. It’s the basic forerunner of our ability to simulate the mind of others and the start of the possible world box. We can simultaneously accept that what we’re “talking on” can’t make calls – and at the same time pretend to be doing just that.

The interesting part of this is that we can imbue the attributes of the target item, the phone, to the source item, the banana, while at the same time recognizing that the banana is still a banana. This bit of cognitive distinction is why the possible world box makes so much sense. We can pin our beliefs into a possible world and recognize our beliefs that are “real.”

So, we start by pretending one thing is another. And we end up with a way that we can read other people’s minds. It may not be the stuff of comic books. However, Mindreading is pretty cool – and something worth learning more about.

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