The Grim Consequences from Studying Fake News

“Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it” – Jonathan Swift

The recent recognition that false or fake news propagates isn’t new, and the idea that it travels faster than truth isn’t either. Jonathan Swift knew this in 1729, and there’s good evidence that Solomon recognized it throughout the book of Proverbs.

So, what you thought was going on in life, really is.

Actually measuring this was difficult until an MIT study of Twitter was recently published in Science and summarized both in The Atlantic (Grim Conclusions of the Largest-Ever Study of Fake News) and on The Verge.

Grim Conclusions

The study covering 126,000 stories, tweeted by some 3 million users over more than 10 years, revealed that fake news and false rumors reach more people, penetrate deeper into the social network, and spread much faster than accurate stories. A false story reaches 1,500 people six times quicker, on average, than a true story does.

While false stories outperform the truth on every subject – including business, terrorism and war, science and technology, and entertainment – fake news about politics regularly does best. It appears that Twitter users almost prefer sharing falsehoods – falsehoods were 70 percent more likely to get retweeted than accurate news. (While Twitter was studied, the results also have strong implications for preferences on every major social network). (Not mentioned, however, are the Grim Consequences for preferences in our daily lives – more below).

The bigger question now is Why?

One of the authors, Soroush Vosoughi, suggested, “It might have something to do with human nature.”


The study also prompted an essay in Science (discussed in The Atlantic here) alarms from social scientists for further research, particularly, “to address the underlying pathologies it (the study) has revealed.” (Note: Pathologies: “mental, social, or linguistic abnormalities or malfunctions.” In other words, human issues).

There’s a mixed bag here. Human Nature is what we normally do, whether good or bad; Pathologies indicate there are one or more abnormalities occurring above and beyond what we normally do (one suspects this probably means really bad bads). Pathologies we can try to identify, address, and treat; Human Nature, well, easier to identify than to treat.

Let me scoot out on a limb and see if a number of known concepts can be connected with the observations from the study (that are well summarized in the article in The Atlantic).

First, a selection of knowns (neither good or bad – they just are),


At some point we have to deal with reality. We have to actually realize, if not actually admit, that we each live in a Bubble, a reasonably comfortable environment that encompasses our lives. This is sort of a known known, although frequently ignored. It involves not only the choices of where and how we live, what we do, but also the people we comfortably interact with, and in particular, how we think. In other words, it’s our cultural environment, our Worldview experienced locally. One could also call it a social neighborhood, with some activities and material things thrown in.

Most important though is that, for the most part, we recognize that it’s comfortable, or at least we’re accustomed to it. One could also make the case that we create and maintain our Bubble by including only what is comfortable. That’s the known known part. (We’ll come back to additional thoughts a bit later).

What we’re less conscious of is the fact that there are other Bubbles out there, somewhere yet everywhere. We slip into the casual error of …


That’s where we assume everyone else is just like us; that their Bubbles are just like ours. The whole kit and caboodle. Especially how they think.

While we might realize that there are other, different Bubbles, we don’t consciously dwell on it. And this leads to the existence of, and invariably the ignoring of …

Missing Information

Most of the time we don’t know what we don’t know, and don’t even know that. This is sort of an unknown unknown, and therefore it doesn’t seem to bother us in our Bubbles, at least until …

The moment we’re somehow exposed to something unexpected, whether it is an event or information (which for the moment, could be either false or true). Then,

  • When we are hit with an unexpected event, it basically collides with our Bubble. The surprise collision puts a dent in our Bubble, and is a threat to do more permanent damage. This is just not comfortable and typically we try immediately to find out why, seeking to determine what caused it or who is to blame. We try to identify missing information, and if nothing concrete is readily available, we will create something. This will either be false or incomplete because our nature is to fill this void fast with something, anything, rather than take time to seek and fill it with the best or correct thing. And if the void is not completely filled, we continue to seek more missing information. All this to save our Bubble!
  • If we are hit with some new information, we try and make sense of it (unless it is so far outside our Bubble that we ignore it). If it does not make sense we will seek or create additional information to help it make sense.
  • In both cases, this new or created information, whether false or true, flows into the voids of Missing Information in our Bubble, into the dents. It’s like filling a dent in a car body with epoxy, sanding it down and painting it so no one can see the damage.
  • For this information to flow into the voids, it passes through a very significant filter known as Confirmation Bias. Everyone has this, and it describes our nature to more selectively receive new information that serves to confirm what we already believe we know. It works to preserve Bubble consistency.

Gap Theory

  • Because there’s an urgency to fill these voids NOW, we reflexively or intuitively grab whatever information “stuff” is at hand (or can be created) either to fill the void or to push out the dent in our Bubble. The alternative is to take a lot longer to rationally seek, find, and filter the right information to fill the void or repair the dent by incorporating verifiable truth. Gap Theory says we won’t wait or take the time; Human Nature says, “Repair the gaps in the Bubble’s wall NOW!”
  • There is another potential reason that we sometimes avoid the longer seek-and-confirm process, and that is we can’t or won’t accommodate the growth, learning, or change that would result from accepting the new information. Absorbing into our Bubble anything that is incompatible will cause the Bubble to stretch uncomfortably, or burst. We have to force or coerce other Bubbles to merge with ours, or eliminate the threat of having to merge with theirs.  It’s an old refrain recognized in organizations that can be traced to its true origin, the individual:

If I don’t know it, it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t exist;
If it agrees with me, it’s fine;
If it doesn’t agree with me, it’s a threat because it’s wrong, and I have to tell others.

That’s a simple description of a common process, one I wager we’ve all experienced (or practiced surreptitiously) whether we’re conscious of it or not.

Returning to the Grim Consequences of the Twitter study. To pursue this reliably, the authors had to answer a preliminary question first: What is truth? And how do we know? For this they developed a way to look at all the tweet data, basically with a complex filter: What were the properties of the author (were they verifiable?); What was the kind of language that was used (was it sophisticated? – In my words, was it rational and thought out, or more intuitive and emotional?); and How did a given tweet propagate through the network?

This ultimately led to another important question: How does the computer know what truth is? The authors opted to turn to the “ultimate arbiter” of facts online: third-party fact-checking sites, including Snopes, Politifact, and These sites formed the “verification processes” that in Gap Theory would eventually uncover the truth.

As described, there are two more or less extreme paths for a tweet to get 10,000 retweets (i.e., propagation in a network). If a celebrity who has a couple of million followers (think of these as adjacent or overlapping Bubbles) sends tweet A, perhaps 10,000 people will see the tweet and decide to retweet it. This would be a wide but shallow pattern.   The other extreme is if someone without many followers sends tweet B that goes out to their 20 followers, one of whom retweets it, and then one of their followers (think non-adjacent non-overlapping Bubbles) retweets it, on and on until 10,000 people have seen it and shared it. This would be both a wide and deep pattern.

Results of the study showed that Fake News dominates according to both patterns above. It consistently reaches a larger audience and it tunnels much deeper into social networks than real news does. Accurate news wasn’t able to chain together more than 10 retweets; Fake News could put together a retweet chain 19 links long, and do it 10 times faster than accurate news could put together a chain of 10 retweets.

Why does falsehood do so well? The authors settled on two hypotheses.

First, Fake News seems to be more “novel” than real news. Falsehoods are often notably different from the 60-day previous stream of the user’s tweets.

This appears to be the appearance of some form of Missing Information that is either not consistent with the user’s Bubble of information, or is confirming of what has been rejected and is outside the user’s Bubble.

Second, Fake News evokes much more emotion that the average tweet. Using a sentiment analysis tool, the authors found that Fake News tended to elicit words associated with surprise and disgust, while accurate tweets summoned words associated with sadness and trust.

Following the observation above, the newly introduced (Missing) Information that is opposed to their value system (worldview or moral matrix Bubble) therefore demands not only an immediate reaction (i.e., close the Gap quickly) but a negative emotional one (it’s disgusting) as well.

There is correlation here between these research results and results from Moral Foundations Theory 1. In MFT studies, groups of people whose value systems (moral matrices, Bubbles) were primarily based on the two foundations of Care and Liberty often felt disgust towards people whose value systems (moral matrices, Bubbles) were more broadly based on all six foundations (Care, Liberty, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity). In fact, there were instances where people with primarily Care and Liberty values felt that other more broadly based value systems (Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity) were in fact immoral! 2

The takeaway here is that false/unchecked tweet/posted content that arouses strong emotions spreads further, faster, more deeply and more broadly on Twitter (and by inference not yet studied, also on other social media) than content that does not.

(In the two weeks of writing this post, three additional non-Twitter examples of Falsehood Propagation appeared: one attempting to discredit student leaders after the Parkland, FL shootings (How A Conspiracy video on YouTube went viral on its own); another about misusing Facebook in Myanmar (Facebook has now turned into a beast, UN investigators say); and a third very interesting one about whether an astronaut’s DNA had been altered by his time in space (How Did Astronaut DNA Become Fake News), the latter based on misunderstanding of the difference between gene mutation and gene expression, which I got around to discussing here, eventually.)

The Grim Conclusion, apparently, is that we should be surprised that this behavior shows up so strongly on Twitter. However, it should not be a surprise, because of a similar process historically known to follow the same patterns. If Falsehood Propagation is practiced around the bridge, dinner, or meeting table or in groups of two or more, what we call gossip, it should be no surprise that it shows up on other venues that are less accountable and more easily and often anonymously accessible, such as Twitter or any other major social network.

That conclusion presumes the study data point to Twitter, or social networks in general, as the culprits. False Conclusion. I propose that the culprit Possession Arrow (sorry, it’s March Madness time) should point in the opposite direction – to us as individuals, to our Human Nature and the choices we make. This, then, is the …

Grim Consequence

We all live in the Bubbles3 of our own value systems, our own moral matrices, and our own Worldviews, each constructed by our cultures and protected primarily through our own choosing. The Grim Consequence is that we affect, if not infect, everyone around us, from family to clans, to tribes, to organizations, to nations. The infectious bug  is simple:

If I don’t know it, it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t exist;
If it agrees with me, it’s fine;
If it doesn’t agree with me, it’s a threat because it’s wrong, and I have to tell others.

Treating the bug begins with us as individuals. This is an opportunity where our rational mind can and needs to step up and choose to overrule our underlying intuitive (and Bubble protected) emotions. Identifying the process is simple; pursuing it is a more difficult journey:

  • Recognize – The Bubble (and its compartments) are real;
  • Resolve – Choose to change areas in order to grow;
  • “Repent” – Turn to become Forward Looking rather than stick with Past Protecting;
  • Renew – Embrace change for growth;
  • Redemption – Arrival at a better place
  • Rinse, Repeat – Pick another compartment …

It’s not just about threats and/or dents to our Bubbles. Either we choose to recognize and manage the situations where we’re confronted with less than accurate information or information that conflicts with our Bubbles, or we will have to wait for another 50,000 years for slow selection in the gene pool to improve our behavior 4.

Why not choose to do it now?

1   The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt (Vintage Books, New York, 2012). “A landmark contribution to humanity’s understanding of itself” – The New York Times Book Review.

2   The Righteous Mind, pp 334.

3   Our Bubbles also have what I’ll call “compartments.” Three of these are nicely summarized (as “bubbles”) in the March 21st blog post by Dan Rockwell in Leadership Freak:

  • Virtual bubbles: social media echo chambers;
  • Institutional bubbles: organizational echo chambers; and
  • Affinity bubbles: the kind of people we like to hang out with.

4   The Righteous Mind, pp 250, 255.

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The Weinstein and Kalanick Syndromes

“If I don’t know it, it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t exist. If I don’t understand it, it’s wrong.”

I’m all in on respecting Gap Theory, so in the time after Harvey Weinstein was, well, revealed for who he was, I’ve tried to pay cautious attention and collect and sort out information. During that time the spotlight widened to pick up issues with Travis Kalanick (ex-CEO of Uber), and then widened again to follow testimonies at the trial of Dr. Larry Nasser (USA Women’s Olympic doctor).

Reactions and reporting in the media escalated, as Gap Theory would predict, leaving most everyone with a deeply callow view of Men in general. While surveys indicated the behavior was more widespread than just high profile people (NY Times, Leadershipfreak), they also showed that a majority of men (~2/3rds) have not committed harassment behaviors. Still, that doesn’t prevent a lot of men from worrying about being painted with the same Either/Or brush and fearing they are next. While there are some subdued articles trying to identify broader perspectives (more on these below), they don’t get much traction.

As these media pieces trickled in (or were shot across the internet), it became clear that much of what occurred (behavior as well as reporting) fit neatly onto the Behavior Curve. So I thought I’d put my toe to the ice and see if it would support me getting quickly to the other side.

To do this will require some additional perspectives – perspectives that we all know, or probably should know, but have either forgotten or conveniently chosen to push aside in the emotions of the moment. One perspective looms huge on the horizon, so we should begin there. Carefully.

Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus

I know that you know this, dear reader, because you’ve told me so. Well, perhaps not you specifically, and probably not in so many words, but over the course of a long lifetime I have heard, read, and observed from uncountable numbers of both men and women who could have been readers but were certainly of strong enough opinions to verbalize or act out their understanding of this fact.

One I recall years ago was Maurice Chevalier’ observation, Viva La Differencé! (Chevalier was, of course, French, which explains a lot, a fact that will come up again later.) Both of these observations, Mars/Venus and Viva!, don’t do justice to what we should know and understand. They’re abbreviations, fuzzy snapshots of reality. One implies, Danger, and the other implies, well, Whoopee! There’s a lot of territory in between.

After some deliberate time spent in the information Gap, with missives flying overhead, I concluded that there needed to be some additional thoughts that connected these distressing behaviors with aspects as to why they continue to occur. Here goes.

There have been many valid scientific studies that have attempted to identify differences beyond the obvious (think XX and XY chromosomes and the resulting physical attributes) and figure out just how men and women think. (Caveat here: those studied were not attempts to answer the question, “What were you thinking when you did that?!” but attempts to ask people to think about what they would do if they found themselves in a particular situation. These are very different questions.)

When men and women are asked the question, “What are the needs that you would desire most in life?” the answers are revealing. Of the top five answers, statistically, three stand out for men, and three for women,

Men: In the list of top five most important needs in their lives, unsurprisingly, these three appear most often,


Food; and

Respect (not necessarily in that order, but pretty close).

For Women, these three appear most often,

Security (physical and/or financial);

Companionship; and

Communication/Connection (again, not necessarily in that order, but pretty close).

(This is not to say that each of these do not appear as being important to those of the opposite sex; they do appear, just further down the list and not as frequently. Please note that. And note also that this is a clear reinforcement that men are from Mars, and women from Venus, descriptively speaking, not judgmentally.)

How has this come about? Go back to our XX and XY chromosomes, but don’t assume that we can stop there. It’s more complicated and it looks more like this,

It’s not just that Boys will be Boys (or even Girls will be Girls), but it starts there. The bigger factors are one’s Environments (pre- and post-natal), accrued Triggers (including one’s Baggage), and Chance (being in the right/wrong place at the wrong/right time), each and all heavily modified by Choices, whether those arose from the people who molded one’s environments, or one’s own choices in a particular environment or situation.

See. It’s complicated, despite the wealth of reporting and opinion pieces that seem to sprout from simplicity (Either/Or thinking).

Take Harvey Weinstein’s behaviors (please…). From what has been reported and supported, the following picture comes into focus.

Weinstein likes Sex. This is not unsurprising given his XY chromosomes. And by all reports we have to conclude he had a huge appetite for sex and took steps to satiate it often. (He may still have an appetite, but it is only conjecture if he is able currently to satisfy it).

Weinstein also likes Food. One can conjecture this based upon publicly available information, such as follows,

Harvey Weinstein, in Los Angeles, after meeting with lawyers.
Photographs from Lalo/RR/Premiere/Backgrid. (Vanity Fair)

Weinstein is chunky.   He has an appetite for food (no pun intended).

Weinstein likes Respect. One can surmise that not only from the body language in the photograph above, but from his position and career. As head of The Weinstein Company, and formerly running Miramax film productions (founded 1979; Disney subsidiary until 2010), he was in a position to control larger-than-life careers (writing, acting, directing) and money in the entertainment industry, one often charitably described as “self-seeking.” (Looking back historically, there is this overwhelming picture of the theater developing in order to get people more concentrated in order to make pickpockets’ and cutpurses’ activities easier and more efficient. The story also goes that the Oscars awards were created to help overcome this historical image).

Weinstein has an appetite for Respect. He found a way to fulfill it by exercising power over people, in more ways than one (bullying, philandering, temper tantrums). It is not impossible that this appetite was fed (sorry again) by the phenomena that Power Causes Brain Damage.

His behaviors in each of these areas line up with Taking, and if we look for a spot for his behaviors on the Behavior Curve we would probably place him about here,

It seems appropriate to label this general area at the bottom of the Behavior Curve (for one or more types of behavior including bullying, philandering, and a bad temper), a Predator. In numerous articles (So This Is How Men Like Weinstein Get Away With It For So Longand Harvey’s Concern Was Who Did Him In (Vanity Fair) ) Weinstein and others have been referred to as Predators for their behaviors, sexual and otherwise.

Others who would fit into this behavior region would have to include Dr. Larry Nasser (USA Women’s Olympics doctor), for similar reasons, and for other reasons, John Battaglia, Luis Enrique Monroy Bracamontes, and Jamison Bachman, The Worst Roommate Ever (a must read).

The fact is, people like this exist.  And it’s not that these people totally lack skills and talents (including social ones). They certainly have a number of them. It’s just that they are weak in or are missing the appropriate skills and talents required to grant them access to their greatest needs, and they reverted to Taking behaviors.

It is as if they purposefully Chose to take up residence in the Predator neighborhood of the Behavior Curve.

Then there is Travis Kalanick, the founder and former CEO of Uber. Not withstanding a litany of stories about sexual harassment at Uber, there seems to be less of the Weinstein Syndrome (Predator) but more of something of a different but still demeaning condition that created a toxic cultural environment. There was an aura of arrogant superiority and power that permitted an environment to develop in which certain power behaviors were not only permitted but also encouraged (How the Susan Fowler Memo Changed the Tech Industry; The Fall of Travis Kalanick). They suffered from the Kalanick Syndrome: they were “Bros.

Bro: (Urban dictionary definition 2): An alpha male idiot. This is the derogatory sense of the word (common usage in the western US): white, 16-25 years old, inarticulate, belligerent, talks about nothing but chicks and beer, drives a jacked up truck that’s plastered with stickers, has rich dad that owns a dealership or construction business and constantly tells this to chicks at parties, is into extreme sports that might be fun to do but are uncool to claim (wakeboarding, dirt biking, lacrosse), identifies excessively with brand names, spends a female amount of money on clothes and obsesses over his appearance to a degree that is not socially acceptable for a heterosexual male.

Kalanick extended the fratty, Bro-y range above age 25 and drove something that cost more than a truck, but give him credit, rather than depending upon his daddy’s dealership, he had created his own business which itself had become a “brand.”

I think one could also include in this group Anthony DiNozzo, the character from the NCIS TV series.

There are a lot more Bros in the world than Predators. But they’re just as demeaning.

We were Bros

We can place Bro behavior generally on the Behavior Curve just so,

The Bro behavior zone is almost a poster case as the Proof of Bubble they live in. So involved with ’What We Do and Who We Are’ that they forget (or never knew, or don’t care) how Others think. It’s as if they attain a state that the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’—a condition of absolute presence and happiness – Being in the Zone.

They assume that ‘Who We Are’ is defined by XY and ignore the environments, triggers, chance, and choices that finished them off. It’s a perfect example of Fundamental Principle 6 in action: “If I don’t know it, it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t exist. If I don’t understand it, it’s wrong.”

Generally, where most male behavior seems to “hover” is about dead center on the Curve. Behavior can “slide” one way or another along the curve depending upon circumstances, environments, and even people we’re with.   Sometimes this is a conscious “sliding,” sometime it’s not. It’s a bit tricky labeling our behaviors here, but it’s worth a stab.

This central area, of “flexible sliding” as it were, is where we’ll find both Boys and Men: Boys to the left of the centerline (slightly “negative” behaviors), and Men to the right (leaning “positive”),

Where some men seem to take up residence as Predators (exhibited in a number of different ways), Bros and Boys/Men seem to be able to more easily “slide” along the Curve into different behaviors. It’s as if Bros are merely occupants (“there,” but not permanently), and Boys/Men are simply tourists, very flexible while passing through.

What the world needs now (sorry again) are males who are capable and comfortable of 1) noticing that there is an area further to the right on the Behavior Curve; 2) interested in getting there; 3) capable of learning what that takes; and 4) actually willing to make the effort to get there. It would also take females who notice the same area on the Curve, appreciate what that behavior looks like, and are willing to provide helpful constructive feedback.

We should call that area the Gentleman,

(To be clear, because of the focus on the Weinstein and Kalanick Syndromes these areas got a masculine label. The Behavior Curve applies equally to women, so I’m sure in the latter case the areas would need different labels.)

There’s an odd obstacle or two in the way of moving to the Gentleman’s zone, however.

The first is, I think, the issue of defining where/how/what is the source of this Respect that’s high on our (men’s) list of needs. We’ve been taught by those who’ve dabbled before us that a great deal of Respect comes from being bonded with our Boy/Bro peers, in being “one of the guys” (the Bro-y Effect).  As a consequence, to depart from this is to leave comfort and ease (and “Respect”) and go where we think no man has gone before (sorry for that, too), and, having ventured there, feeling it’s probably not cool to report back on our experiences.

The second obstacle is discovering the Law of Reflection. That is, to get something, you don’t have to Take it because you think you deserve it. When you Give something away you are very likely to receive something back in return. Often in spades.

Overcoming both of these requires conscious Choices to alter the criteria and measure of what it means to be a Man.

In the workplace, respecting others leads invariably to getting Respect in return.

In some workplaces (like Silicon Valley), working hard and producing might also lead to food (onsite free pizza ovens, buffets, lattes, etc.).

Sex, however, ought to be left for consensual relationships outside the workplace.

In a relationship or marriage, for instance, when a man discovers the Law of Reflection and focuses on providing Security, Companionship, and Conversation to his partner, he just might find he’s receiving all the sex, food, and respect he needs.

Women, I suspect because they already have good intuition, a greater sense of nurturing and different top three needs, “get” the Law of Reflection and find it easier to practice. Perhaps, just perhaps, that’s a contributing factor why some women remain in abusive relationships, hoping he will eventually “get” it. (He most likely won’t, especially if he’s taken up residence at the left on the Behavior Curve).

My wife and I once ran a Self/Other exercise with a group of young single and married adults (if you’re in a relationship or married, you might also try this). A ground rule is that there is no discussing with one another until the end. This is coming from inside:

  • Write down what you think are your most important needs;
  • Then, write down what you think are the most important needs of someone of the opposite sex, for instance, your spouse or the person you are in a relationship with;
  • Next, write down what you think someone of the opposite sex (your relationship partner or spouse) would say your most important needs are (re-read that carefully);
  • And finally, write down what you think someone of the opposite sex (your partner or spouse) thinks you would write down for their most important needs.

When we got to that last part in our exercise, the majority of the males in the group (single as well as married) all looked up puzzled and said, “Huh?” Clueless.

It is interesting to look back on that exercise in light of additional years of life and blogging.

One realization is that the object of focus of the responses (the degree of conscious separation from the person answering) changes in each step:

  • The first part deals with oneself, or the 0th degree of separation and consideration;
  • The second part deals with someone else, a 1st degree of separation and consideration;
  • The next part deals with someone else’s concept of you, a 2nd degree of separation and consideration; and
  • The last part deals with someone else’s belief about what your concept is about their needs, or a 3rd degree of separation and consideration.

In that exercise, a high percentage of the women were “right on” through the 4th step. The men? They floundered quickly after step 2.

An interesting hypothesis is that, for instance, it appears,

  • If a person’s focus cannot get beyond self, as in step 1 and a 0th degree of separation and consideration, there’s a good chance their behavior is often in the Taker (or possibly Predator) area of the Behavior Curve;
  • If a person is aware that another might have needs (but hasn’t bothered to check them out), there’s a chance their behavior occupies someplace in the Bro or Boy/Man regions of the Curve;
  • If a person is aware that another is consciously aware about his/her needs, there’s a chance their behavior occupies someplace higher up in the Boy/Man or Bro region of the Curve;
  • If a person is aware and communicates what they are thinking about another’s needs, then there’s a very good chance that their behavior occupies the Gentleman area more often than not.

A disappointing consequence of all the media reporting about Weinstein and the subsequent fallout (the “Weinstein Effect,” not to be confused with the “Weinstein Syndrome,” which is the Why? pondered here) is that much of it is so Either/Or, with a lot of disparaging of the “Or” dialogue.

For instance, Catherine Deneuve and 99 other notable French women from the arts, medicine and business published an open letter in Le Monde calling out what they dubbed a “puritanical” wave of resignations and a group-think—largely in the United States and Britain, since no heads have rolled in France—that they said infantilized women and denied them their sexual power (Remember, they are French. The Atlantic, France, Where #MeToo Becomes #PasMoi). (Chevalier would rejoice). Subsequently, the #MeToo movement shamed Deneuve into issuing an apology. (Chevalier is now spinning in his grave).

Some recommendations for the ~2/3rds of men (and an untold percentage of women) should be in order. Consider the following personal action steps,

I need to understand why I think the way I do, and then I need to consciously choose to try to understand why you think the way you do;

Then I need you to do the same concerning me.

To do this is to recognize I live in a Bubble (my Worldview, where I don’t know all that I don’t know), and Choose to take steps through understanding to expand my Bubble.

The intent is not to fix or repair your Bubble or to protect my Bubble (by putting another brick in my wall);

The intent is to expand both of our Bubbles.

This is difficult for men due to the Bro-y Effect. Not so hard for women who want to connect (and get Respect also).

One last thought. If women could tune-in to these action steps, put them into practice, and begin to discern those among the 2/3rds of men who are also putting them into practice, they just might be able to begin to exclude the Predators and the Bros from the gene pool.

And that just might be a good great thing.

But then, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, what do I know.

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Success or Failure?

Why do some people succeed and others don’t? …

That question has plagued people for eons. And plagued for me over the last 55 years. Too often the explanation has been an Either/Or one: some people work harder, others don’t. You see that a lot in letters to the editor, although there are far fewer of these now, and in comments online.

Since people work at doing something, by default we pretty much have a culturally assumed working definition of Success:

Success: applying one’s skills to achieve a desired goal or objective (which also produces Added Value for people other than just the Doer).

Either/Or is, for the most part, very useful.  For instance, at a fork in the road (where we usually have all the information). But it does become the plague of human thinking when it becomes our default (or lazy) response when we don’t have all the information, which is most of the time. Then it just becomes linear (or binary) thinking. It has recently been called by these last two names by various media and people online, a fact that unfortunately does not help to clarify much. In reality, these labels are all describing the same thing – our (lazy, default) thinking considers most if not all questions as if they were a fork in the road – Either turn left Or turn right; or as one of the two the endpoints of a Line (no matter how far apart); or as a Binary choice between a 0 or a 1.

It is not that simple. In dealing with people in business, the classroom, and in different cultures over the years a number of things have slowly become, at least to my eyes, clearer. Not crisp, but clearer. So, as I describe these things please have patience and follow along on this journey as I try and move from a Point to Lines to 2 dimensions to, ultimately, 3 dimensions (which is where I got really tired).

A Starting Point

It has almost become passé in the business world to talk of SWOT analyses where one looks at Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. Most often this occurs formally for organizations or departments. More rarely it is used for individuals in the form of reviewing ongoing performance (by one’s boss, if he/she’s good) or in a mentoring or coaching relationship. What can be good about these is identifying areas to develop (or avoid), and which directions to head (or avoid).

SWOT works for organizations as well as individuals, but only if they are followed by action and follow up. Too often I’ve seen them done only to be able to check off a box on a form being sent back upstairs, or in a long and argumentative performance review, or in an ‘animated family discussion.’

In these cases SWOTs are pointless, when they should not be. They do serve to shine a light on a really important aspect of life and the beginning of the difference between survival and success: a Skill, or talent or gift, if you will (yes, we all have more than one skill, talent, or gift, and I will touch on this a bit later). This, then, is our starting Point, one where everyone has a view, comment, or opinion because absolutely everyone has some Skills.

Drawing a Line in the Sand

A number of years ago I posted about Three Types of People. I had experienced each of these in various forms over the years, as I think most of us also have, and simply reduced my observations to a short bon mot,

There are people who climb rocks,
There are people who trip over rocks, and
There are people who throw rocks.

It was an attempt to formally recognize what many of us have experienced: there are people who accomplish things, people who unintentionally block things, and sometimes people who intentionally prevent or disrupt things.

Eventually I concluded there was more to this than just Skill or talent.

When I taught at the college level I began to realize that I had been partially wrong if not incomplete in my earlier Three Types bon mot (No, all college students do not fall into the first two types. There are indeed some college students who prefer to throw rocks at professors, but I suspect they actually don’t know the real reasons why they are in college).

I didn’t need to shrink the bon mot; I needed to expand it.

In considering various observations about success in life and career, it seemed that there were actually four phases or points of Skill Development along a path or Line from beginning to Success (It’s Not Just the 1%,The Myth of Meritocracy?).

I envisioned these developing this way,

(Skills)                           (Motivation)                  (Opportunity/Crisis)    (Empowerment)

(Single Skill Development for one person)

This picture is linear with Skill Development stretching horizontally from left to right. Some would say that it stretches from failure to success. That would be not only simplistic (and another example of Either/Or thinking), but also incorrect. That view labels a person a failure if they have no Skill.

Failure is an event, not a person (Zig Ziglar). Even successful people fail, but their Skill Development provides them with a way around the obstacle of failure – through learning and self-adjustment.

To avoid labeling people a failure (as opposed to experiencing failure events), we now need to recognize and deal with people having multiple Skills.

Stacking Multiple Skills

If you poll even a small number of people you will find a multitude of skills and talents, each of them more or less recognized and/or developed and applied. If you observe people carefully you will probably notice far more ‘skills or gifts’ than they themselves will acknowledge. One person is a craftsman, very good with their hands regardless whether it is mechanical things or woodworking; another lacks hand-eye coordination but is great with numbers (and possibly lousy with people); another is a great HR counselor but a threat to the public on the highway, etc.

Here is where we need to widen our perception for multi-skilled people and leap from the linear view above (for a single Skill Development) to a 2 dimensional view. To do this, take the table above for one Skill, tilt it on its side, and stack each additional Skill one atop another. For 4 Skills it would look like this,

(Visualization of one person’s Skills Development, horizontally, with multiple Skills vertically)

Now we can recognize a multitude of independent Skills for a person, each with different levels of development that we can then call individual Strengths and Weaknesses.

When we interview people for employment we primarily identify the needed tangible or action skills (the doing) and look for people who can fill them. At the same time we can tend to deemphasize, minimize, or possibly ignore other skills and/or attributes (often intangible ones) that can greatly affect the effectiveness of the action results.

Which brings us to this additional thought: while it is easy to develop the above picture using familiar concepts of Skill, invariably what we consider as ‘Skills’ in this category needs to be greatly increased.

Intangibles, such as temperament and personality, interpersonal skills, loyalty, ability to learn, problem solving, creativity, etc., all fit into this structure. So would concepts such as being a Doer (task oriented and fast out of the starting blocks), or a Dreamer (a visionary, finishes well but tough to get out of the starting blocks), or a Feeler.

Put these all together and we get a more complex picture of a person and a better picture of the complexity of success. If we recall the aspects of temperament and personality, a person could very well have a complex stack of ‘Skills’ from over 400 possibilities.

This perspective can work for one person, in isolation, which might help them feel more comfortable with him/herself. But that is not where we live or work.

Paving the Path to Success

Imagine now that one is identifying and connecting people (each with our little ‘Stack of Skills,’ above) for a specific purpose or mission, be it institutional, organizational, or departmental. We identify the skill/talent/attribute requirements and attempt to find people through an interview and reference process that fit the bill (of Skills), hoping not to have overlooked any weaknesses or lack of skills that would impede the purpose or mission.

And sometimes we miss. First off because we most often focus on identified strengths and demonstrated expertise to fit the bill, and second off we don’t focus on the Missing Information of either other strengths or weaknesses that might not fit so well. We often end up with a group or team that can be strong in only one or two areas.

What we should be aware of is that we are paving a path to success with building blocks of multi-skilled people who should complement each other not only in multiplying strengths but also in covering weaknesses, with an underlying foundation of their ability to continue to learn and grow. One can also consider this a 3 dimensional structure, which can look like the following,

(3D view of Skills Development horizontally, differing Skills of different development vertically, for a three person group)

Now, consider what helps determine success. Multiple factors, I think, beginning on the individual or Personal Level,

  1. Skill evaluation (horizontal). Being honestly able to assess if I have a particular skill, talent, or attribute. Do I need it? This is realistically asking one’s self the Repugnant Question: “Is something I am doing (or not doing) contributing to my current (good or bad) circumstances?”
  2. Skillset evaluation (vertical). Being honestly able to assess how one’s current skillset (multiple skills) measures up to the most likely and dynamically changing necessary skillsets. Do I have all the Skills I need? Do I need to acquire and develop more?
  3. Motivation evaluation (2nd box to the right in a Skill). Am I happy where I am in my Skill? Do I have the motivation to develop it? Do I need to develop it?
  4. Opportunity evaluation. Do I recognize opportunity when I see it? Do I seize the opportunity?
  5. Coaching/Mentor evaluation. Do I have one? Do I need one? (Yes)
  6. Growth evaluation. Do I seek growth and learning, or avoid it?

Then come the group or teamwork questions.

  1. Do I know and understand the purpose and mission of the group?
  2. Do I know my role in the group? Do I understand how they depend upon me? Do they understand how I depend upon them?
  3. How do group and mission/purpose needs help me answer my personal questions 1-6 above?

To really test this construct against reality, try seeing if it fits your marriage. How did you decide whom to marry? What missing information during dating/courting began to manifest itself during the first, say, 7 years, and how did you adjust? And how did your spouse adjust to learning more about you? (Here I am asking you to ask yourself the Repugnant Question).

Then take it one step further and apply it to parenting. (Ok, this is perhaps a stretch because while you can’t pick your kids and their developable skillsets (temperament, personality, tangible skills, etc.), you are in charge of raising and developing them.)

And finally, remember that an organization is not a static entity. It is more like a living body (which is one reason why a corporation is legally considered a ‘person’), and like a living body it requires internal growth and healing mechanisms. Cells multiply, function, and die, and people come and go in an organization. And during growth cells develop and multiply in functionality, and people remaining in a organization must continue to learn and develop.

Bottom Line

I think my perspective comes from being one of the “(unintentional) Early Adaptors” of what is now described as “episodic careers.” Today that implies being able to pivot to a different career track in an age of disruption and dwindling opportunities. As I experienced it, however, it was more of moving to a new and challenging opportunity rather than moving from or away from a dwindling or stagnating one. It involved changing disciplines, companies, industries, and even cultures. In the process I observed cases of successful transitions or pivoting, cases of failed ones, and ample cases that lacked even considering trying one. Those experiences solidified much of what I have presented in this blog.

There is another variable playing out here, however, that very few people recognize or can articulate. In fact, while until recently I could describe my perspective on success and the increasing wealth gap, I couldn’t put a finger on an underlying explanation. It was as if we had two camps bickering (or worse) with one another: the 80% versus the 20% (including, most despicably, the 1%) with no understanding of why. Both sides are absolutely convinced the other side is doing (or not doing) something causing the rift, without considering something’s missing. This is Missing Information leading to avoiding the Repugnant Question (and Conclusion). It took a fortuitous gift of a book that revealed and illuminated a real explanation.

The book is The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. Once I finish it there will no doubt be a more extensive blog post, but for now the following snippet will have to do.

Haidt is a professor and psychologist who spearheaded the development of Moral Foundations Theory, which as I read further has a direct relationship with Values as I use them in this blog, so right away this is very interesting. The Theory proposes six ‘foundations’ that primarily drive peoples’ behavior. (They highly resemble another blog bon mot, Attitudes that Become behavior by Choice, thus becoming even more interesting). The two foundations of interest here are first, the Fairness/Cheating foundation, and the second is the Liberty/Oppression foundation. The question to ask is, ‘What is your attitude about Fairness and Cheating?’ Or, ‘Where do you prefer to lean on the scale?’ The same questions apply to Liberty/Oppression.

The research studies indicate that the love of political (and social) equality rests on the Liberty/Oppression foundation rather than on the Fairness/Cheating foundation, and the Fairness/Cheating foundation is primarily about proportionality! In other words, people whose moral attitudes (Values) lean towards social equality are primarily based upon the Liberty/Oppression foundation. It appears these people are primarily concerned about outcomes and the widening wealth gap triggers concerns about oppression; it is not surprising that the research shows these people tend to be among the liberal left. On the other hand, people whose moral attitudes (Values) lean towards social proportionality are primarily based upon the Fairness/Cheating foundation. These people are primarily concerned about relationships and processes and want to see cheaters punished and good citizens rewarded in proportion to their deeds; it is not surprising the research shows these people tend to be among the conservative right.

When we are talking about the reasons for the widening wealth gap we therefore need to be aware of multiple factors. Which foundation (Value) is the primary driving force for a person’s attitude: Liberty/Oppression or Fairness/Cheating, for instance? (There are other foundations, but that is for another time). And where on each foundational scale do they fall?

The popular but simplistic view that someone’s failure (an outcome) is primarily due to other people with intentionally well-developed skills taking something (i.e., Cheating) from those with no skills or poorly developed skills but little or no motivation, or removing an opportunity before someone else could respond to it (all processes), is predominantly wrong.

Yes, there are jerkholes in the world that behave exactly like that, but that does not translate into all successful people must be behaving the same way.

Failures can arise from not having a particular skill, or more likely from being insufficiently motivated to identify and develop it, and/or missing opportunities, and/or being sufficiently risk averse as to avoid opportunities. Alternatively, one can lack a skill and yet still push forward too far. Take Icarus, for example.

In business I experienced people in each of the four phases of Skill Development, but often in the lower two. Some of these were customers (where it was sometimes wise to let a competitor have them), some were peers (where we often have to work to complement each other), and some were upstairs (ah, the joy of learning how to manage your Peter Principle boss). In teaching college I sadly experienced people who also fell into these lower two phases, in the classroom as well as in administration (recall my earlier extended bon mot, “Those who Can, Do”).

In large part, I think the widening gap in politics, social structure, and wealth can all be traced back to a perfect storm of a number of Fundamental Principles: a lack of understanding (Missing Information) of what is going on, a subsequent rush to judgment (Fixing the Blame and Gap Theory), both aided by a fear of being complicit in the process and/or outcome (thus avoiding the Repugnant Question and Conclusion).

So, if we keep doing what we’ve always done, it should come as no surprise that we’ll keep getting what we’ve always gotten, but really don’t want.

It is human nature to avoid change until the pain of not changing becomes too great.

We as individuals are Agents of Influence and if we want group and societal changes we need to begin with ourselves (Success), and not expect society to change so we can get comfortable remaining the same (Failure).

Posted in 03: The Peter Principle, 05: People, 06: Incomplete Information, 09: Doing, 11: Growth, 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture, 17: Choice, Career, Gap Theory | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Fishermen’s Dilemma – A Parable (Actually More About Tax Cuts and Responsibilities)

There was a town, of no small size, that was located by the sea. There were merchants, craftsmen, tradesmen, and, as you can imagine, a number of townsfolk who made their living by fishing, as had their ancestors.

Recently the economy underwent a change and many traditional jobs disappeared. Many of the people affected then decided to take up fishing as there always seemed to be plenty of ocean and plenty of fish.

They bought boats and equipment and usually sailed together as a fleet, not only for fellowship and presumed safety, but because they could always follow the boats of the gnarly older captains. This became their routine, and they watched quietly and followed what they saw.

Common sayings among them were, “If we keep doing what we’ve always done, we’ll keep getting what we’ve always gotten,” and “A rising tide lifts all boats.” They became confident. Very confidant.

One particular day, the tide ebbed stronger and faster than usual. This caught the newer fishermen by surprise. Most of their boats were left high and dry where they had been anchored, while the boats of the veteran captains managed to chart a rather meandering course through the channels revealed by the rapidly ebbing tide. These managed to reach open water, while those stranded high and dry were left to await the returning tide.

When the boats returned with the tide they were ladened with fish, but only enough for their obligations and the open market.

The new fishermen mumbled among themselves, “This isn’t fair. They must know something that we don’t know, and took advantage of us.” A few said, “What if it was something we should have known, or been prepared for?” but that drew a loud and sharp response from others, “If we say we might have played a part in this, then they’ll foist most of the blame on us!”

They approached some of the veteran captains and asked how they managed to navigate the morning’s ebb tide. One of the captains said, “You men know well that a rising tide lifts all boats, but you didn’t recognize the other half. You didn’t realize that an ebbing tide leaves high and dry the boats of fishermen who don’t know the channels. You anchored in very poor places.”

“What? That anchorage always worked for us before!”

“Yes, but this was a peculiarly strong tide. You couldn’t sail straight out to sea as you normally did.”

“What do you mean?”

“You were only paying attention to what you could see above the water, and missed what was below.”

The newer fishermen mumbled and quickly reached agreement that the successful captains were intentionally taking an unfair advantage of everyone else and ending up with many more fish.

They went to the town council and pressed for new ordinances: the veteran captains, they argued, should not be permitted to sail until all of the other boats had made it to open sea. In addition, they should be taxed more heavily on their catches, as well as a portion of their catches should be redistributed to the fishermen who weren’t successful.

Since there were many more voting families than successful captains, the council passed the ordinances.

The tide ebbed and flowed. The newer fishermen sailed as they always had, and caught what they always caught. And often enough strong tides left most of their boats high and dry.

But the veteran captains left for other ports. And as a result the fishing industry decayed just as the other industries had. And with it, so did the town.


In a crisis, typically, the majority’s first gut reaction is to fix the blame (Rarely is the reaction to pause and adequately identify and fix the problem);

If all of the obvious culprits and forces are eliminated, what remains? (The unseen, or the ignored);

If all of the obvious culprits and forces are just inanimate things, then what remains? (People);

What can cause unintended consequences to occur? (Missing information and the resulting poor decisions, all accompanied by complacency and fear – each of which involve choices).

We’ve just passed a significant revision of the Tax Code that will have a great impact. When I stop and consider this (and the discussions leading up to it), I am struck by observations and information that no one seems to have connected together and which subsequently lead to paradoxes. It seemed appropriate to consider these seemingly unconnected facts and draw some logical (I hope logical) conclusions pertaining to them:

  • There is strong evidence that 80% of English speaking peoples cannot do ‘Math,’ especially finance. Either they scrupulously avoid it or just choose not to think about it. No doubt this results from education’s overemphasis on the word ‘Math’ to describe anything to do with numbers. This word should be relegated only to those times when the simple digits from 0 to 9 are replaced by dreaded symbols, (for instance, x, y, z, or a, b, c, and especially ax!) These are enough to scare anyone away. What people really need is comfort with simple arithmetic: plain old addition, subtraction, and occasionally multiplication and division. And a $ sign.
  • It is also documented that ~67% of English speaking peoples cannot explain the compounded growth of money over time, that is, earning interest on interest in a saving account, CD, or other investment (no doubt due to fear of that ‘ax’ thingy).
  • The impact of the above also means, and what is rarely recognized, that these same people also do not understand the possibility of the negative growth of their money, that is,
    Debt will also increase exponentially over time because of interest on interest!
    In essence, this is the silent, continuous creation of the deadweight of negative wealth. (This lack of understanding of this growth is also the basic driving force behind the proliferation of credit card offers, a force that rarely occurs to anyone except those in the industry.  Since dollars cannot be in two places at once, one institution’s gain must be someone else’s (eventual) loss).
  • Since all financial transactions (paychecks, taxes, purchases, bills) involve numbers (and a “$”), it follows that the 80% conclude there must be some ‘Math’ associated with these transactions and therefore they don’t pay enough attention to them.
  • For a very long time, longer than I can remember, the political response to economic tough times is to pass a tax cut. Generally speaking, it is unclear whether these have ever provided any documentable impact on turning an economy around, i.e., they didn’t create a rising tide. In many cases it is unclear what identifiable factors did contribute to turning the economic tide, even years later after much academic study (here is Gap Theory in action again).
  • Why politicians pursue a tax cut has one obvious reason: to act decisively in the short term in a way that will justify their jobs and get them reelected by a grateful, newly flush electorate. However, consider now the following two perspectives:
    • Remember the old adage (yes, conveniently fluffed up by me here) –
      Those who can, do;
      Those who can’t, teach;
      Those who can’t teach, administer;
      Those who can’t administer, become politicians.
      What this implies is that, if 80% of those who can “do” think they cannot do financial arithmetic or scrupulously avoid it, then three steps further down the incompetence adage you can be certain that ~100% of politicians can’t do financial arithmetic either! (This is borne out by politicians ignoring both the deficit and the financial impact calculations of think tanks, the GAO, and reactions from corporate CEOs: This Tax Bill Is A Trillion-Dollar Blunder, and America’s Inequality Machine).
    • Which leads us to the puzzling paradox that any tax cut probably will be too small to overcome the financial difficulties of the majority of people who need help. It will be like telling them “We’ll pay 25% of your outstanding debt” and ignoring the fact that the remaining 75% debt will continue to grow exponentially! Or telling them, “We’re going to raise the tide! (But don’t worry about what comes afterwards.)” This is giving money to people who do not handle it well in hopes they will spend it, which just results in maintaining their situation. Treating the symptoms does not deal with the systematic issue underneath.
  • Rather than a tax cut, why not redirect the same amount of money into realistically dealing with people’s lack of confidence and/or understanding of financial arithmetic.
    We did put a man on the moon, after all.

On another note, there is a second paradox contained in The Fisherman’s Dilemma. It goes like this,

  • We uniformly agree that our children must get an education. In the past few years this has become the idea that everyone should go to college. (From my experience from years both in the seat and at the lectern, not everyone belongs in college. There are other ‘ways’ to obtain the education one needs to succeed with one’s skills identified and developed. In addition, I think that not everyone in the seat (or at the lectern, for that matter) understands the ‘what’ and ‘why’ he or she is there for. I hinted at this here, but a deeper discussion on education is for another post.)
  • We probably also agree that we want our kids to be successful, and depending upon our own backgrounds, more successful than we were.
  • But just not too successful, especially other people and their kids.
  • When people get too successful, when they move too far away from our Cultural Mean, we react as if this were not possible without some subterfuge or scheming. It becomes a crisis, and we look to fix the blame. We jump into the Negative Sum Game and draw the conclusion that they therefore must have taken something that they didn’t have the right to take. It’s Gap Theory again. We quickly stick them with a negative character attribute or behavior to justify our reaction, rather than take the time to look carefully to see, first, what is their added value and if it warrants their success, and, second, if perhaps we ourselves aren’t missing something (such as understanding financial arithmetic) that would have otherwise benefitted us somehow. That’s avoiding the Repugnant Question so that we don’t have to deal with the Repugnant Conclusion. As a result, we have a strong tendency, nay, predilection, to blame the upper 1% (or 20%) when they are succeeding beyond what we deem acceptable, explainable, or understandable by our Cultural Mean.
  • While there is indeed some truth to what we observe, that there are people who manage to get through life by being Takers (or, in an alternate terminology that has a nice ring to it, Extractors), this does not translate into punishing all who manage to be successful beyond a Cultural Mean. Takers are a small percentage of any group of people. Stretching this dollop of ‘truth’ into full condemnation appears to be the pastime of a sufficient number of people to keep this ‘conspiracy theory’ alive and in good health. It’s apparently also great clickbait.

Interestingly, these two paradoxes eventually merge together, but with a twist in understanding:

The vast majority of the 20% and the 1% are not Takers or Extractors. They understand enough about Added Value to be Participators in the economy, and they contribute and benefit (and sometimes lose) accordingly. There also is sufficient reason to propose that part of the widening income and wealth inequality gap has a component that is due to a lack of full participation by the 80%, which has a strong basis in a weakness in financial understanding.

The above implies a dual (but not necessarily equal) contribution, exactly what the Repulsive Question, if pursued, would reveal. However, being glued to an Either/Or mode of thinking (the blame either lies with them or me) precludes considering this idea. So does Political Correctness.

Overcoming the immediate gap takes us back, once again, to education, especially about financial arithmetic.

In considering other social and cultural gaps and if this dual contribution idea is true, which I think it is, it still leaves me with a larger, nagging question in explaining how this happens.

Much pondering for another post.

Posted in 02: Value Added, A Definition, 04: Games People Play, 06: Incomplete Information, 07: Getting It, 08: Observing, Listening, Learning, 16: Culture, 17: Choice, Gap Theory | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thought Provoking but Obscure Articles from 2017

So little time, so many good articles, so many great books, so much fake and misleading “news” … (sigh)

Here, in no particular order, are the pieces that helped make my reading year most enjoyable, informative, and often challenging.

Ground Zero

Speaking of reading, this article from the Quartzy daily newsletter (itself a valuable free reading source – subscribe!), The Beginning of Silent Reading Changed Westerners’ Interior Life is worth the time. Historically, information was shared through oral tradition. Even with the development of writing, an oral tradition was important because so few could read but one was still at the mercy of the speaking reader as late as the 1700s. Silent reading, however, “… emboldened the reader because it placed the source of his curiosity completely under personal control.” And with that we discovered: I read; I do; I become …

From another short and affirming article, You Are What You Read (Quartz),

“Language is our primary tool of communication. It’s how we build and organize our knowledge, and it’s what allows us to interact with each other. Outside of direct experience, it’s also largely how we create our perception of reality. The information your senses absorb through your surroundings combine to create linguistic (and subconscious) models in your mind about how the world works and the best way to interact with it.”

From building and organizing our knowledge to creating our worldview (both expanded here), reading is essential. While not necessary for maintaining a limited ‘worldview’ or live-in bubble (we can get that from the “news” or social media), it is essential for stretching our ‘worldview’ to touch other “bubbles” that exist (more below).

Lest we forget, language is a living entity. It is constantly evolving; new words appear, new definitions and uses arise for existing words, and, alas and alack, words die. Twenty-six words we don’t want to lose ( is more plea than eulogy. I hope you ‘popple’ while reading this before having to ‘scurryfunge’ with your ‘ambilavousness’ before your boss peaks over your shoulder, unless of course you are ‘frowsting.’

Singularly Unique

The 2017 Jealousy List” (BloombergBusinessweek, December 2017). This is the selection of favorite articles by other journalists that the Bloomberg staff wished they had written. A wide variety of stuff here, all well written, including the reasons why Bloomberg writers were jealous someone else had written them.

For the sheer fun of it, the following:

A Long-Sought Proof, Found and Almost Lost (Quanta). Ok, I know most readers might skip this one, but I thought the article itself (not just the math concept) worthwhile as a proof of another little recognized reality (the basis for this blog): that knowledge and understanding in one area can be transferred into other areas to great, surprising and unexpected benefit. I identify with the discoverer, as he too was old, retired, and just putzing around. Go ahead, it’s illustrated.

The Secrets of People Who Never Get Sick (Guardian). Yes, there are some of them out there, or so they say. To paraphrase Pogo, “We have met the healthy, and it is us.” In reality, despite a rapidly growing health supplement market, our health depends upon our immune system with a bit of environment thrown in (the innate along with the acquired, once again). Happiness and lack of stress are very beneficial. Lots of pills, not so much. Lifestyle plays an important role in the functioning of our immune systems. Suggestions included.

In case you missed it, Albert Einstein’s “happiness” note was sold. What could be better than “happiness” guidelines from the world’s most renowned physicist? He wrote them on a hotel napkin in 1922, and the napkin was sold this year at auction for $1.56M. What is even more surprising is the simple lifestyle instruction he wrote, which you can read here. Money can’t buy happiness?? Hopefully the purchaser wasn’t that desperate.

For sheer perspective, the following:

Capitalists Need the Nation-State More Than It Needs Them (aeon). An informed look at how any rampant and polarizing Either/Or thinking obscures the positive effects of globalization by falling into the trap of ignoring important perspectives by actively avoiding the Repugnant Conclusion.

21 Ways Dumb Leaders Drain Everyone’s Energy (Leadershipfreak). Research reports that about 80% of people do not like or actually hate their work, and that the number one reason for people to quit their jobs is, not surprisingly, their boss. So, if you are one of the 80%, read this to see how many of these align with your experience. If you are a boss, read it again. In either case, this short video will help understand a simple way (at about 2:30) to overcome negative behaviors.

Today’s biggest threat to democracy isn’t fake news – it’s selective facts (Quartz). One of our human failings is that we most often don’t know what we don’t know and we won’t admit it (that’s Fundamental Principle 7c). This, coupled with the loads of missing important information (Fundamental Principle 6) that we need to make good decisions, can lead us to recognize but choose to avoid the Repugnant Conclusion and ultimately arrive at bad decisions.

That description just describes everyday life with naturally or passively missing information, which, if we’re aware and attentive, we can choose to make the effort to find.

What happens when someone actively ignores available information and uses selective but incomplete facts to promote a particular agenda or worldview? Sam Zell, former CEO of Tribune, was blunt but real when he told his journalists, “You need to help me by being a journalist that focuses on what readers want and therefore generates more revenue.” With actively selected facts, the target audience will take hold of it due to their Confirmation Bias, be completely oblivious of the selectivity, blow right by the Repugnant Conclusion, and become more strongly polarized. Rather than crowdsourcing news, perhaps we should call this crowdsucking the news.

But the unintended consequences demand we take the higher, more difficult path: to intentionally scrutinize information in spite of its massive quantity and ease of access. In other words, we must be more responsible to inform ourselves rather than relying on others to do it for us. This is the digital equivalent of the historical shift from a passive oral tradition to an active reading one. Some simple tips for doing this are included.

Since I mentioned the Repugnant Conclusion, the essay by David Graham’s about embracing political conversations (and a few other types as well) at the family Thanksgiving table (or any other time) seems apropos since it spills the messy contents of family dirty laundry right in the middle of the living room floor (thus attempting to avoid spoiling the food on the table; well, perhaps not). His advice: just do it. He leaves out, though, how to do it, but refers to a multitude of articles written with that in mind. One reader’s comment highlights the connections with the Repugnant Conclusion, Missing Information, and Selective Facts (with my brothers-in-laws it was always “You have your facts. I have mine!”),

“I’m tired of seeing people take some of the happiest days of the year, and some of the best opportunities for engaging with others, and use them as an excuse to b**** and moan. It’s likely that if you can’t handle conversations in which people don’t automatically agree with you, you yourself are at fault to some degree. You are probably not trying hard enough to engage civilly, to listen, or to understand others. And if someone is truly being belligerent or disrespectful, then end the conversation with a contrived excuse, steer it away from hot topics, or show some decorum and politely say that you see no point in continuing … Find something to be grateful for, engage others around you, and don’t get bent out of shape if not everyone caters to your every opinion and preference.” (The Atlantic Daily, November 22, 2017)

Speaking of Bubbles

We live in bubbles. Call them your Dunbar Group, your Social Neighborhood, or your worldview, but it’s a bubble. It’s limited by your Accessibility Heuristic (what information you choose to access – remember, lots is missing – naturally or intentionally), your Confirmational Bias, overload, and most likely a strong dislike of the Repugnant Conclusion. The illustration that accompanied the Politico essay The Media Bubble Is Worse Than You Think visually captures the concept well, not only for media, but for organizations and individuals.

(Source: Poltico)

This is an informative essay that reveals facts and reasons behind the truth of the media bubble, but in unexpected ways. This bubble’s not intentional (surprise; it’s economics) but it goes unrecognized by those in them (no surprise), and consequently it is not compensated for (also no surprise). Observations like “… the national media just doesn’t get the nation it purportedly covers” (Fundamental Principle 7c again), and “… ideological clustering in top newsrooms led to groupthink,” indicate a sincere attempt at self-evaluation which leads to the following,

“The ‘media bubble’ trope might feel overused by critics of journalism who want to sneer at reporters who live in Brooklyn or California and don’t get the ‘real America’ of southern Ohio or rural Kansas. But these numbers suggest it’s no exaggeration: Not only is the bubble real, but it’s more extreme than you might realize. And it’s driven by deep industry trends,” and

“… the ‘heart, mind, and habits’ (of the NY Times) cannot be divorced from the ethos (read: bubble) of the cosmopolitan city where it is produced.”

Both quotes provide strong support for the reality of Regression to the Cultural Mean.

Not being able to “get the ‘real America’ ” leads right into another revealing essay on just how strong this groupthink has become: On Safari in Trump’s America by Molly Ball (@mollyesque) from The Atlantic. Picture the country’s coastal elites from an influential “center-left think tank” doing research (the “safari”) in the fly-over states (i.e., not the coasts) just to listen to people, and then producing a report that leaves out much of what they heard (but which is caught by this accompanying journalist). Because they couldn’t process it, it did nothing to unsettle their preconceptions. That’s a bubble.

Now, picture the bubbles around everyone you interact with in a day. Then, picture them in your organization.

How can/will you engage with them for growth, learning, influence, teamwork, or just leaving while taking away an “I’m glad I interacted with that person today” feeling? It takes willingness to process.

Then picture the people around your Thanksgiving table …

Mostly Important Books:

This has been a lean year for books for me, probably because the election caused a lot more activity in articles and essays and the increased need to follow sage advice and check them out more thoroughly. Here are some books that struck me as important as well as genuinely good reading,

David and Goliath, M. Gladwell

I mentioned this in January’s best articles/books post (a bit late due to travel). It, along with any of Malcom Gladwell’s other exquisitely research and written books, deserve your attention.

Unpopular Essays, B. Russell

“12 Adventures in Argument” by the 1950 Nobel Prize winner in Literature. (Note: Russell was an outstanding mathematician and philosopher, but, alas, there were no prizes for these.) Enlightening but considered revolutionary because he pushes stuff that “we know” into arenas where we should know them and apply them, but don’t.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century, T. Piketty

Amply reviewed after its 2014 publication, Piketty makes strong arguments based on historical and current data about the increasing discrepancies in capital (wealth) distribution. Very apropos given our current stock market, economy, and ‘anticipated’ tax revision. Although an academic, this is actually a moderate and easy if lengthy read. A couple of holes, I think, but that’s for sometime later.

For additional reading sources, there is also 100 Notable Books for 2017 from the NY Times. However, an even more relevant source is The Best Books of 2017 from Bloomberg. The latter is not a list but a compendium of favorites from notable influencers. One recurring book is The Gene, which I referenced in January 2016’s list and used extensively for Agents of Influence. Depending upon your bubble, there’s bound to be something rewarding.

Read. Enjoy. It is good for you.

It’s good for your bubble, good for everyone you influence, good for your organization, and good for overall society as well. As long as we put good lessons into practice.

Posted in 06: Incomplete Information, 07: Getting It, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Baker’s Dilemma – A Parable

In a small village there was a bakery shop. Its owner had inherited the bakery from his father, who had inherited it from his father before him.

It was not the only bakery in the village, but it was well known. It baked breads of all sorts, styles, and sizes, and pastries, too. But it was mostly known for its breads. Its products were well liked, and its baker was well respected in the village since anyone could remember.

One particular day, the baker began early in the morning as was his usual habit, prepared his large wood fired brick oven and began to make the dough for the day’s breads. Grains and flour were selected and the yeast, eggs, salt, and milk added just as he remembered.

The dough was set aside in a warm place to rise, covered with a moist cloth to protect it and prevent it from drying.

When the oven temperature was right, the coals were pushed aside and the oven floor made ready.

When each dough had risen and reached its desired size, he took it from its bowl, placed it on the floured table and began carefully to knead it. When it was ready, he cut the large dough into smaller portions and formed each of these into perfectly shaped loaves and cut them with a knife on the top in the special way that noted each loaf grain and type.

When enough loaves had been prepared, he placed them on a wooden paddle, opened the oven, and slid each loaf onto the oven floor, pushing it carefully into position for the best temperature. Then he noted the time on the clock.

When the right amount of time had passed, he checked the loaves for color and firmness, then removed them and paced them on a cooling rack. When they had properly cooled, he carefully stacked each loaf on an open display rack.

When it was time for the shop to open, customers were already lined up outside. They entered into the aroma filled shop, mingled and chatted, made their selections for the day, and headed home.

An hour or so later, while customers were still streaming into the shop to buy, other customers began to return to speak to the baker.

“There’s something wrong with my loaves of bread! They are not completely baked!”

“There are lumps in my loaves!”

“My loaves don’t taste right! My family won’t eat them!”

For a moment the baker was puzzled. He thought, “I didn’t notice anything amiss. I did everything as I have always done, so I should be getting what I’ve always gotten!”

Then he realized that his shop was also full of customers who hadn’t yet purchased bread for the day.

He spoke up boldly, “There’s nothing wrong with the bread! I made it from the same grains, in the same oven, in the same way I’ve always made it! Something must have happened when you took it home! What did you do differently?”

Of course, arguments ensued. And got more heated. And then those customers left. And then the customers who had not yet purchased left also.

And the shop was empty.

The baker was still puzzled. And still angry.

Loaf by loaf he cut off samples and tasted them.

“They don’t taste right! And this loaf is lumpy! And this loaf is not completely baked!”

“It must be the oven!” So he ran to check the oven. The coals were still hot, and the temperature just right.

“It must be the flour!” So he ran and checked each of the flours, and they were fine.

“It must be the yeast!” So he took out the yeast and checked it, and the yeast was fine.

“It must be the clock!” But the clock read the right time.

This left him in a horrible dilemma:

If it wasn’t the oven,

and it wasn’t the flours,

and it wasn’t the yeast,

and it wasn’t the clock,

What on earth could it be?

He was left with only one question, and one that was very repugnant:

“What if it was something I did?”

He rejected the question because he quickly realized that just considering it might lead to the obvious but very Repugnant Conclusion:

“Something I did actually contributed to the situation!”

So, unable to find another answer to his dilemma, he grumbled and complained the rest of the day.

And all the while, his shop was empty.


In a crisis, typically, one’s first reaction is to fix the blame (Not to identify and fix the problem).

If we eliminate all of the obvious culprits, what remains? (The unseen, or the ignored)

If all of the obvious culprits are just inanimate things, then what remains? (Us)

What can cause unintended consequences to occur? (Missing information, poor decisions, complacency, fear – all of which involve choices)

The real Repugnant Conclusion

Yes, there is one named that. It applies to “real” debates in philosophy and ethics dealing with different groups of people (subcultures) and their “happiness.” It also is known as the mere addition paradox. Both labels concern the “incompatibility of assertions about the relative value of populations (subcultures of people).”

The mere addition paradox arises from faulty (and incomplete) reasoning, for instance, as in this simple example: take a population of 100 people who control $100 in resources. Their average wealth per person is $1. If you add one person to this group who has wealth of $10,000, then the average wealth per person statistically becomes $10,100 spread over 101 people, or $100. Apparent average wealth (and a shift away from poverty, which apparently means towards “happiness”) has drastically increased, but in reality nothing has changed for the original 100 people.

Interestingly, the inverse mere subtraction paradox is even more informative. In an unequal society, such as the 101 people above, simply eliminating the rich and their resources technically would result in a more equal world at a lower resource level, but still nothing would improve for the poor. This raises questions over whether or not “inequality” is the correct or only issue to consider. (Take, for instance, blaming the upper 1% (or 20%) for income inequality. Or once again offering a tax break to treat a symptom rather than addressing the actual issue – 80% of people cannot adequately manage their finances and don’t feel competent to teach their children.)

If we must then consider other “issues,” what issues are there? Apparently, these should be those that are previously unseen or ignored. Following this path inevitably leads to the Real Repugnant Conclusion:

That each of us, as individuals or a group, is responsible for contributing a non-zero but measurable contribution to the undesirable situations we find ourselves in.

What is the most difficult source to accept as a contributor to unintended and undesirable consequences? (Ourselves)

For reasons of insecurity, self-protection, defensiveness, or simply saving face, we very often refuse to ask the Repugnant Question. And to avoid the Repugnant Conclusion, we shift the blame. Or we label it as Politically Incorrect.

Consider the behavior in each of the following (and identify the unseen contributor):

-Two siblings arguing; “Mom! He hit me!”

-Husband and wife arguing; “You started it when you …”

-You are driving and suddenly experience road rage directed at you …

-Your culturally accepted behavior causes “social rage” from another cultural group …

-Your “leadership” behavior causes “rage” (disruption) from employees, upper management, shareholders, customers, or the public …

-Your nation is viewed negatively by the world when “we’re just doing what we’ve always done” …

The real Repugnant Conclusion is the one we choose most often to avoid:

That something I/we have done (my/our behavior) has contributed to an undesirable outcome.

Notice another paradox: this chosen avoidance behavior cascades upwards – it begins with individual behavior (often in childhood) and moves upwards to family, to peers, to clan, to tribe, to community (subculture, a social neighborhood or Dunbar “bubble”), to organizations, to nations.

It’s also like a pandemic – the behavior spreads rapidly within a given population (a Regression to the Cultural Mean).

The situation is not, however, hopeless. Behavior can always be changed, especially old ingrained behavior. But this change is a choice; it is an intentional, and often demanding process.

Change begins with self (you, the individual) and progresses through what we can call the Five R’s:

  1. Recognition, that your behavior contributed to an undesirable outcome
  2. Regret, that the outcome negatively affected others, not only you
  3. Resolution, making a decision, a choice to change
  4. Renewal, of the Attitudes that by Choice lead to your Behaviors (here), and ultimately
  5. Redemption/Restoration, (of position, esteem, performance, self-worth)

Where could you begin today?

And, being an agent of influence, who would you influence tomorrow?

Posted in 06: Incomplete Information, 10: Integrity, 12: Character, 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture, 17: Choice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Power Causes Brain Damage

“Power – a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies” – Henry Adams

Power is like the weather:

  • Everyone likes it when it’s comfortable, warm and makes them feel good; but
  • More often than not it’s lousy and something everyone complains about but can do little about; and
  • In small and well-controlled doses it can leverage life, progress, and added value; but
  • In heavy doses, like hurricanes and tornadoes, it causes immediate and either highly focused or widespread damage, or both.

That’s generally what happens to us when someone else has power. But what happens to them?

The Atlantic ran an article recently that confirmed what we all probably knew before hand – Power Causes Brain Damage. If you can’t read it, the following is a brief overview, followed by more thoughts.

After years of lab and field experiments on people’s behaviors, Professor Dacher Keltner from UC Berkeley reached a conclusion not far from Henry Adams metaphorical quip. Subjects under the influence of power (i.e., wielding it for long periods) behaved as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury. They had become

  • more impulsive,
  • less risk-aware, and most importantly,
  • less adept at seeing things from other people’s perspective.

In different studies, Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University in Ontario, looked at subject’s brains. He observed that power impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy (the ability to relate to what others are feeling).

These and other results give a neurological basis for what Keltner called the “Power Paradox”:

  • Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place.

Powerful people “stop simulating the experience of others,” leading to what is called an “empathy deficit.”

(Blog: In other words, they become clueless. To say nothing of dangerous and potentially destructive.)

Had power people become so task focused that they made little effort to empathize with others? In a subsequent study people were informed what “mirroring” was and instructed to make a conscious effort to increase or decrease their response to others. Results? “No difference.” Effort didn’t help.

This leads to Power Paradox #2:

  • Knowledge is supposed to be power, but what good is knowing that if power deprives you of knowledge?

A sunny spin on this is that these changes are only “sometimes” harmful. Power, according to research, primes our brain to screen out peripheral information. That is, to increase our “task” focus, which in itself generally reduces our “relationship” focus where empathy is most necessary.

In being heavily “task” focused, “power lessens the need for a nuanced read of others, since it gives us command of resources we once had to cajole from others.”

“Less able to make out people’s individuating traits, they (power people) rely more heavily on stereotype. And the less they’re able to see, other research suggests, the more they rely on a personal “vision” for navigation.”

One issue is that many people regard power as a post or a position rather than a mental state. If regarded as a post or a position that comes with certain perks, this makes Taker behaviors all the more justifiable.

If power is recognized as a mental state, then the choice to exercise that power depends more upon the situation and available information and less on it being a “permanent” or entitled behavior.

The latter is referred to as “Hubris Syndrome” – “a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success (Blog: or perceived success), held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader.” It has 14 clinical features, but the most interesting are

  • manifest contempt for others;
  • loss of contact with reality;
  • restless or reckless actions; and
  • displays of incompetence

Now consider the following thoughts …

Unfortunately, while the medical literature does not yet recognize Hubris Syndrome, I suspect that the majority of us have all lived through some manifestation of it.

Apparently, the longer someone is under the influence of power, the further left on the Behavior Curve they unconsciously move, exhibiting Taker behaviors much more often. In addition, the screening out of supposed “peripheral” information increases the amount of Missing Information, some of which can be critically important. By screening out potential course corrective information, the further left on the curve they move.

Nature With Nurture

While our five forces of Nature (genes (DNA) & temperament) working with Nurture (environment, triggers, and chance, all influenced by inanimate and/or human forces (choices)) play a significant role, there is a certain pattern of power that emerges:

  • A person observes power being exercised by someone and the effects that it brings;
  • It is assumed that power is something tangible to be acquired, primarily by position and/or title;
  • It is also assumed that power is a chip in a zero-sum game: if someone wins, others must lose;
  • Power is thus something to be seized;
  • Because you seized or acquired it, your vision must be the correct one;
  • Once acquired, power is like muscle, it must constantly be used or become atrophied;
  • The point of having power is therefore to use it, demonstrating that you have it;
  • By exercising it, you keep it in shape to be used when necessary; and
  • You need to keep it stronger than other power around you.

One can see where power viewed in this way becomes a tumor, controlling behavior in order to feed itself.

It might just be that accepting the adage that Knowledge is Power is incorrect if not misleading. Perhaps the adage itself is incorrect.

Knowledge, if we remember from a previous post, results from organizing Information. Knowledge must still be processed to become Understanding, which must then be practiced to become Wisdom, which is when the benefits are realized. Unfortunately, due to the very real human attributes of the Availability Heuristic and Confirmation Bias, we are constantly in danger of slipping from Wisdom back down to Mere Knowledge, an effect we can call Understanding Erosion. When “exercised,” Mere Knowledge can take on the aspects of a ritual response or a recipe, exhibiting this loss of mental capacities, including the ability and desire to read other people.

What is possibly a strong driving force for this behavior is fear. Since the power holder climbed up the mountain to attain a position of power, he/she knows that someone else behind them is also climbing up the mountain. What one obtained can be lost, or even worse, taken.

There is nothing worse than a Taker who fears being taken – The Fear of getting Mugged and losing power.

It is for these reasons that I suspect that the adage Knowledge is Power is at least incorrect if not misleading. If we must associate an adage with position or title, things that are possessed, then a better one would be

  • Knowledge is only temporary power

Process, not just knowledge

If we accept the concept that power is a mental state, then much broader opportunities open up:

  • Power as a mental state implies that there is more focus on the process necessary to reach understanding on how and when to exercise it;
  • Process involves recognizing that important information is very likely missing and responding to that fact;
  • Process thus involves engaging with others who may have insight and/or the desired information. This requires empathy, a strong Emotional Quotient, the recognition and management not only of your own emotions but the ability to read and appropriately respond to others;
  • Process also involves situational awareness, when to act, how to act, and how strongly to act. This directly implies the option not to act or to wait, without losing any power;
  • Process also includes recognizing that the best outcome is a careful mix of both task and relationship.

This provides a much more powerful (sorry) adage:

  • Knowledge with Process is sustainable power

This is a freeing concept. Power is no longer some thing one possesses and gets mugged and loses. It become who you are, what you do that achieves outcomes above and beyond yourself.

It cannot be lost or taken away. It is part of who you are.

It is no longer something that must be exercised to accomplish goals and objectives, it becomes something that can be invoked to influence circumstances and motivate people such that not only are goals and objectives achieved, but people are developed (their individual “cultures”) and healthy organizational culture is strengthened.

So, is power a tumor, the result of a Taker’s Fear of Being Mugged?

Or is it the result of a Giver’s enhanced mental state?

Since we are all agents of influence and have a choice, which would you choose?

Posted in 04: Games People Play, 06: Incomplete Information, 12: Character, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture, 17: Choice, Career | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment