Standing on Others’ Shoulders

April 22, 2015 2 comments

“Don’t grab all the recognition for yourself—give credit where due!” The first expression of this sentiment was by Bernard of Chartres, who admonished his 12th century peers to show some humility when building on (or borrowing) the ideas of early thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle.

Sometimes we strut our stuff as though the entire idea sprouted from our 21st century brain with no lead-in from the past. I

Cedalion on the shoulders of Orion

Cedalion on the shoulders of Orion

have advised many graduate students come thesis time to tone down their claims for the latest school of thought being new and different. Jared Diamond in his Guns, Germs, and Steel called this “inventions by leap versus invention by creep,” with arguably 99.9% of all inventions the result of a slow creep of small, incremental modifications beginning centuries ago from unknown origins. The progression from boiling water in turtle shells to the modern steam engine is such a series of steps that creep inexorably towards, not the next best idea, but the next best tweak, accident, experiment, or blind piece of luck that yields an improvement—steps that couldn’t have happened without the efforts of those who tried before.

To claim that we have leapt to center stage with our invention is to arrogantly fail to point to those who have gone before us, unlike the basketball shooter who points to the assisting teammate who passed the ball to create the shot.

Here is a series of ideas that some have claimed to be giant leaps forward that in truth are simple builds, and in some cases just simple rewordings, of pre-existing ideas:

  • Mindfulness, a creep from Flow, which is a creep from Ram Das’s Be Here Now, which is a creep from Buddhist Sati
  • Children at Risk, from Underachievers
  • Accelerated Learning, a repackaging of known effective practices
  • Adaptive Leadership, from Transformational Leadership, from Theory Y Leadership, from Machiavelli’s Prince who eschewed rigidity
  • Adam 1 & 2, from Agency and Communion
  • The Learning Organization, from Theory Y Leadership
  • Emotional Intelligence, from Competency Measurement
  • Gallup Strengths, from Competency Measurement
  • Phillips’ Levels of Evaluation, from Kirkpatrick’s
  • Happiness/Well-Being, from Aristotle’s Eudaimonia
  • Sense of Self, from Self-Efficacy, from Self-Esteem
  • Innovation Management, from Change Management
  • Executive Coaching, from Organization Development

In the spirit of full disclosure, many have looked to my company as the creator of the Big Five. That is far from the truth. We crept from the work of Costa & McCrae, who built on Lew Goldberg, who built on Tupes & Christal, who built on Gordon Allport, who built on Carl Jung, who built on the Elizabethan theory of humours, who built on the 4th century theory of Hippocrates, who built on….

Always point to the minds that have led you—always acknowledge the shoulders that support you. Know that you are Cedalion on the shoulder of Orion.







A Gift from Down Under

April 15, 2015 Leave a comment

HRO MaoriVacations are never all play. All play and no work makes the Howards shallow indeed!

Last year Jane and I went down under—a week in New Zealand. After driving from the fjords of the south island and up the west wilderness coast and then ferrying across to the north island, we moved from long stretches of farmland to the bustling hive of Wellington. All advice had pointed to a “can’t miss” visit to Te Papa Tongarewa, The Museum of New Zealand—their Smithsonian, and a tribute to Maori culture and her recent immigrants.

Among the obligatory canoes, instruments, and stuffed animals, the note by Dame Te Atairangikaahu (1931-2006) at left drew us in.

Dame Te Ata, as she was called, was the longest reigning Maori monarch (40 years). She wrote the first paragraph in Maori, then translated as follows:

“Therefore draw from all that you have within you—your god given gifts. In doing so we as a nation will experience as promised prosperity and spiritual fulfillment.”

Dame Te Aka was pointing backwards to the New Testament (I Cor. 4 ff.: “There aDame De Atare different kinds of gifts…) and unknowingly forward to what we call Human Resource Optimization (HRO). This is the notion that we all have innate tendencies, and that the satisfying life learns to build on one’s natural tendencies, and to compensate for what one lacks, but needs.

I was born with a fertile imagination, gladly, but I was also born without strong eyesight, sadly.

I have built on my imagination by following a career in research and development, and a hobby of choral and instrumental music. I have compensated for my weak vision by using drops, avoiding glare, and resisting physical activities which require strong depth perception (skiing, baseball).

A similar notion is the well-worn advice from Reinhold Niebuhr to change, or build, on what one can and to accept what one cannot change.

Thank you, Dame Te Ata, for not letting me forget about my work while at play in your lovely fields.

Quakers as Bloggers

I once was a practicing, silent-meeting Quaker. I still try to be—Quakerly, that is, without meeting attendance.

My friends taught me the virtue of succinctness. They taught, “If you wish to speak at meeting, make it brief, fleeting, more like an image than a story or a lesson. 25 words is a nice goal.” I was going to say “…a nice target,” but that seemed too aggressive, not particularly Quakerly.

I once entered a meeting with an unsettling personal problem on my mind. Once the silent meeting began, I searched for the right words to share my problem in a manner respective of their norm for brevity. As Cornell University English professor William Strunk Jr. urged, “Omit needless words.” Pare it. Eliminate redundancy. Some twenty minutes into the meeting, this is what I shared: “I came today with a problem on my mind, but, trying to express it succinctly, I had a new insight and have solved my problem.” 25 words! 

Quaker Meeting in Early New England

Quaker Meeting in Early New England

When being prepped for my appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show in May 1997, the producer said, “Speak in sound bites—no extended monologues. This is the age of the sound bite. If you begin to ramble, she’ll cut you off.” Didn’t know Oprah and her ilk were Quakers!

The New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg summed it best in his “No” cartoon. Gazing at this picture that is worth a thousand words, you may take your pick—a simple “No” (being a good Quaker, perhaps) or the full chapter and verse.

Saul Steinberg's No

Saul Steinberg’s No

Contrast Hemingway and Faulker: the master of the short sentence versus the master of the (near interminable) periodic sentence.

But brevity is not always apt, just as elaboration is not always welcome. The thoughtful communicator considers whether to risk failing to provide crucial information for the sake of terseness, or to risk obscuring the main point while enjoying one’s verbosity. Whether to err by undercommunicating or by overcommunicating.

Quakers should make good bloggers. The essence of the weB LOG is concision, like a  one-minute sermon. Try to say too much in a blog, and you misuse the medium. Some blog posts would make a better book—book readers expect you to go on and on. Blog readers expect you to make your point and sign off. Thus I shall!

Not what you have, but what you do!


Shawn Achor in The Happiness Advantage (2010) points out that spending money on experiences is better than spending money on stuff*. Research shows that the good feelings that come from positive experiences are both more intense and longer lasting than the good feelings that come from acquiring new stuff. Some examples would include:

Experiences: picnic, family vacation, bowling league, camping, dinner party, building a Habitat for Humanity home, and singing in a choral group

Stuff Alone: new chair, new car, new suit of clothes, paying someone to build a patio, new entertainment center, new dining room table, and new wind chimes for the yard

The University of Colorado at Boulder’s Leaf Van Boven (2005) offers three reasons for the superiority of spending on experiences versus spending on things:Research on this kind of “calculated buying” involving experiences is being conducted by psychology professor Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia. She lamented when interviewed for an article in The New York Times (August 8, 2010) that too much research is done on income levels and happiness, and not enough on the way people spend their income. She summarizes her research by quipping, “It’s better to go on a vacation than buy a new couch is basically the idea.” A recent publication by Daniel T. Gilbert (Harvard University) and Timothy D. Wilson (University of Virginia) had the thoughtful title “If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy Then You Probably Aren’t Spending It Right.”

  • Experiences age better than possessions. An early childhood school experience, a memory of a poignant moment with grandparents, a camping adventure, a summer camp caper, a vacation at the Grand Canyon, a family reunion in the mountains—all these memories wear well, embellished here, deleted there, becoming the lore that we love to retell time and again. The sofa just sits there in need of cleaning and repair. Hmmm, there’s a way to make an experience out of a possession in disrepair—involve the family or friends in reupholstering the sofa!
  • Experiences stand on their own uniqueness and are thus difficult to compare. Some people engage in social comparison, in which, for example, one compares what one owns to what others have. If others have more than we do, that is a downer, and we want more. If others have less, we are more comforted. Solnick and Hemenway (1998) found that people generally would prefer making $50,000 when other acquaintances are making $25,000, than make twice as much (e.g., $100,000) when their acquaintances are making twice again as much as them ($200,000). Experiences tend to resist such comparison. While one might say dejectedly that “you did more with your vacation time than I did—I squandered it,” it is also possible, and easier to say, and feel good about it, that “you got more reading done on your vacation, and I got more time getting to know my grandkids—both sound good; maybe we’ll swap emphases next time!” In other words, it is easier and more natural to get competitive about material things than about experiences.
  • Experiences build more social capital. By their very nature, experiences build relationships (unless you have them alone!). In addition, to talk of one’s experiences is usually less off-putting than to talk of one’s possessions.

Research professors Thomas DeLeire of the University of Wisconsin in Madison and Ariel Kalil of the University of Chicago have analyzed nine categories of consumer spending to determine which categories relate to happiness levels. Their data came from the National Institute of Aging’s U.S. Health and Retirement Study, a 20-year longitudinal project that followed some 20,000 Americans over the age of 50. The final cross-sectional sample comprised 937 individuals, as not everyone in the larger sample completed the supplementary questionnaires. These are the nine spending categories:

  • Leisure—trips, vacations (including “staycations”), exercise, spectator events, hobbies, equipment for leisure;
  • Durables—appliances, vehicles;
  • Charity and Gifts;
  • Personal Care and Clothing—plus housekeeping, yard maintenance, laundry;
  • Health Care—health insurance, medications, supplies, visits;
  • Food In—purchased to prepare and consume at home (including alcohol);
  • Food Out—purchased at a restaurant/bar, including takeout;
  • Utilities and Housing—plus house furnishings, home repair home insurance;
  • Vehicles—vehicle insurance, maintenance, payments.

Only two of the nine showed a significant association with happiness: leisure and vehicles. The researchers point out that both are related to experiences and to social connectedness, while the others are related more to one’s material possessions. In fact, they estimated that spending $20,000 for leisure is associated with the same happiness increase as that associated with getting married.

Gene Cohen, founder of the Center on Aging of the National Institute of Mental Health, concludes that the length of time committed to an experience is a major determinant of the experience’s impact on happiness. And it is not just length, but the way the experience develops over time. For example, to play with one rock band this weekend, another the following weekend, and so on playing for a different rock band every weekend, Cohen would propose that playing with the same rock band every weekend over the same time frame would be more satisfying. So it is duration of the experience plus developing relationships during the experience that elevates mood. Fewer one-night stands, more affairs of the heart, mind, body, or soul.

*This post is substantially based on the section of my book The Owner’s Manual for Happiness that treats the subject of “Spending on Experiences” (Chapter 2, page 56).

Happiness and Political Leaning

March 25, 2015 1 comment

In The Owner’s Manusmilesal for Happiness, I reported on research that found conservatives, on average, to describe themselves to be somewhat happier than liberals. This finding was explained by pointing to the conservative’s tendency to accept things the way they are/have been, to embrace tradition, and to be “happy” with things in general. The liberal’s tendency towards malaise was explained by a discontent with the status quo, a call for change, and a tendency to be “unhappy” with the status of the poor and disenfranchised.

A study reported by UC Irvine’s Sean Wojcik and others in Science for March 13, 2015, finds the opposite to be true! Let me summarize their extensive (thousands of subjects) research in everyday language.

First, the researchers suspected that the traditional happiness surveys were failing to identify the true feelings of liberals and conservatives. Other research has shown conservatives to respond to questions such as “I am fully in control of my own fate” and “I always obey laws, even if I’m unlikely to get caught” with a resounding “Strongly Agree.” Researchers call this socially desirable responding, or self-enhancing, or responding in a way that makes one sound better, more ideal, than one really is. Consequently, they reasoned, when conservatives are presented with a happiness survey question such as “On balance I would say I am a happy person,” they would strongly agree with this item, as it contains a strong element of social desirability. To test this assumption, they measured 1,433 individuals in three areas:

  1. Political affiliation
  2. Degree of happiness/well-being
  3. Tendency to Engage in Desirable Responding

Bingo! They found that more conservative individuals reported themselves to be happier, AND that conservatives tended to respond in the socially desirable manner (e.g., strongly agreed with “I always obey laws”).

Armed with this support for their hunch—that conservatives were not really as deep-down happy as they were letting on—they designed an extensive program to look not at what liberals and conservatives SAID about their happiness levels, but instead to look at liberals’ and conservatives’ ACTUAL BEHAVIOR. For example, do liberals or conservatives smile more? But not just any old smile—the Duchenne smile, an expression that is near impossible to fake. To accomplish this genuine smile, the cheek’s zygomaticus major muscle must contract to raise the corners of one’s mouth, while simultaneously the orbicularis occuli around the eye socket contracts so as to form a so-called crow’s foot pattern on the edge of one’s eyes. It is relatively easy to raise one’s lips in smile, but no so much the creation of crows’ feet at one’s eyes. The upturned lips without crows’ feet is referred to as a Pan Am, or fake, smile. See the example at top left.

Here is what they found:

  • In the language used by members of the U. S. Congress in the 2013 Congressional Record, conservatives used fewer words that expressed positive emotions.
  • In the same analysis, liberals showed a higher ratio of positive feeling words to negative feeling words than did conservatives.
  • Using the Congressional Pictorial Directory of the 113th Congress, researchers found that liberals engaged in more intense smiles.
  • In the same analysis, liberals engaged in more genuine smiles—the Duchenne smile.
  • Reviewing Twitter account holders who were self-identified Democrats or Republicans, liberals’ tweets were more likely to contain positive feeling words, happy emoticons, and expressions of joviality, while conservatives’ tweets were more likely to contain negative emotion words.
  • Reviewing LinkedIn accounts, the researchers found that persons working in politically left- or right-leaning organizations (say, Planned Parenthood vs. the Family Research Council), pictures of liberals were more likely to contain more intense and more genuine (i.e., Duchenne) smiles.

While these differences are not huge, they do consistently indicate a tendency for liberals to behave in a manner that suggests a greater sense of well-being, while conservatives tend to mask their feelings with expressions of contentment.

One word of caution: Politicians and Tweeters are not a random sample! It will be interesting to see if these findings hold up as their sample expands to become more inclusive.

I am unsure what the practical implications of these findings are. What is more important than averages and trends is that each of us as individuals—regardless of political leanings–be genuine with one another with respect to our feelings. High quality, intimate relationships characterized by genuine communication will trump averages and standard deviations any day.

Interdependence, One More Time

March 18, 2015 Leave a comment

intertwined treesHarold Kelley, the late UCLA social psychologist, clarified what it means for two people to be interdependent in a relationship. Put simply, in every relationship, partners share a workload. Domestic partners’ workloads include everything from reading the kids to sleep to mowing the lawn. Office partners’ workloads include everything from creative design tasks to proofreading documents. Community partnerships’ workloads include everything from committee co-chairs’ need to plan a program to ball team coaches’ need to pack up and clean up after a practice.

The workload of any partnership—domestic, office, or community—comprises tasks which range from more pleasant to more unpleasant, from recreation to drudgery. At my home, emptying the trash is drudgery, while writing the kids is recreational. At my office, proofreading is drudgery, while writing a blogpost is recreational. In my community, sorting music in my choir’s library is drudgery, while planning a reception is recreational. Each task that partners must complete has a valence—an emotional value that ranges from ecstatic to onerous. In an interdependent relationship, each partner regards their ratio of pleasing tasks to onerous ones as comparable to their partner’s ratio. Or, put simply, you and I feel that we both have roughly the same amount of drudgery on our To Do list in comparison to the amount of fun stuff.

On the other hand, if I feel that you get to do more pleasing stuff than drudgery, and that I feel that I must do more drudgery than pleasing stuff, we are out of balance. We are not interdependent. The one with proportionately more fun stuff to do is independent in the relationship, while the one with proportionately more drudgery is dependent. To establish or restore balance, the two of us must have a conversation around how to redistribute our workload.

The problem with this model is that what pleases one person may not please the other. One may find cooking pleasurable, while the other finds it a chore. One may find proofreading a satisfying challenge, while the other finds it a bore. Ultimately, what matters is individual perception. If I perceive that you get to do relatively more fun stuff than I do, I will over time feel myself in a dependent position and am at risk for developing resentment towards you. And you are at risk for developing a superior, condescending attitude towards me that takes me for granted and marginalizes my worth as a person.

Here is a simple exercise to test for interdependence. Make a list of every task that you and your partner are both responsible for. This list defines your workload. Then each of you place a plus (+) or minus (-) by each item to indicate the valence you assign to that task—one of you can mark to the left of the item, the other to the right. Then, mark whether each task is done mostly by one of you or the other, or whether it is shared equally. Use the results to discuss how your workload might be redistributed so that neither of you is left with an excess of drudgery.

Whether at work, at home, or in the community, in relationships that matter no one should have all of the goodies!

On Extraversion

March 11, 2015 1 comment

JaJanusnus was a Roman god of complex qualities. Most commonly, people have viewed him as looking forward to the future and backward to the past. He was known as the god of transitions, of war and peace, of doorways entering and exiting, of gateways and harbors, of passages for both trade and travel, of conflict, of birth and death. Wikipedia has an informative entry on this hard-to-pin-down ancient deity. I like the image at left that depicts Janus on the one hand facing the sunlight, and on the other facing the night. I further complicate the Janus construct, suggesting that his two-headedness serves as a metaphor for extraversion and introversion. From this perspective, extraversion is associated generally with more comfort around sensory bombardment—here suggested by facing the light, while introversion is associated with a preference for relative absence of sensory bombardment—here suggested by the absence of light.

A recent study by Brown University researchers Tara White and Erica Grodin was popularized by the PsyBlog. Scientists claimed to have “discovered” that extraverts come in “two different types.” One nurturing, or affiliative, and one fixed on achievement, or agentic. They associate different brain areas with these two dispositions, both of which harken back to the 1950s writings of Timothy Leary at Harvard.

Well, of course there are two kinds of extraversion! Better said, there are hundreds of kinds of extraversion, each with its own brain system and other physical distinctions. In truth, if you combine extraversion with any one other personality trait, that gives you new paired kinds of extraversion:

  • Extraversion + high organization = a neat extravert
  • Extraversion + low organization = a messy extravert
  • Extraversion + high agreeableness = a nurturing extravert
  • Extraversion + low agreeableness = a hard-driving extravert
  • Extraversion + high openness = a head-in-the-clouds extravert
  • Extraversion + low openness = a feet-on-the-ground extravert

And then we could combine more than three traits:

  • Extraversion + low agreeableness + low openness = a competitive extravert with minimal need for variety in life.

Or even more:

  • Ext + high openness + math skills + altruistic values + linguistic ability + high energy level = a missionary using advanced analytics to solve logistical problems in underdeveloped countries

In short, thousands of combinations of qualities with extraversion at their core populate our globe. Similarly, introversion comes in thousands of varieties. For every kind of extravert, a parallel introvert exists. The Brown University scientists found the brain areas associated with extraversion and high agreeableness, in contrast to the brain areas associated with extraversion and low agreeableness. The same would be true for introversion: introversion + high agreeableness = the quiet madonna, while introversion + low agreeableness = the quiet mastermind.

To complicate matters further, each of the qualities we’ve mentioned—extraversion/introversion, math ability, altruism, organization, imagination—defines a continuum. An individual’s placement on any given continuum can be understood as being more towards one end, more towards the other end, or somewhere more in the middle—as in more extraverted (an extravert), less extraverted (an introvert), or moderately extraverted (an ambivert—like Janus, who comfortably switches perspectives from extraverted to introverted, like a teacher who spends eight hours in a stimulating environment, then another eight in quiet, solitary study).

At the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies, we refer to these combinations of qualities as “blends.” Humanity comprises millions of unique blends. And, each of these thousands of blends has its own, unique brain, or physical, system.


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