Jumping Out of My Skin—Some Thoughts on Flow

May 20, 2015 1 comment

Here I am at my desk with statuettes of the smiling Buddha and the arm-waving Ganesh silently urging me on—cheerleaders determined to keep me at the top of my game. These inert deities only have the power that I give them, and I daily bestow them with the gift of being my conscience.

The thing is, when I see them, something’s amiss—I’m not concentrating, I’ve lost my focus, I’m distracted, my eyes are wandering,  I’m out of flow. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as a state of mind in which one is so absorbed in the moment that they have lost all sense of time, temperature, hunger—in short they’ve lost touch with the rest of the world. All their energy is focused on the immediate task. When a teammate tiptoes into my office and gently calls “Pierce?” I usually jump in my chair, startled away from my focus and jerked into the world around me.

Buddha, Ganesh, Buddha, and Ganesh arranged below my monitor at CentACS

Buddha, Ganesh, Buddha, and Ganesh arranged below my monitor at CentACS

“Time flies when you’re having fun” could just as well have been “time flies when you’re in flow.” Flow is akin to the currently popular Mindfulness. But I prefer flow, like a river gently, inevitably moving forward—neither drying up nor flooding its banks, neither rough nor still. Flow is a stick fallen into a river that has floated miles downstream with only minor detours, perhaps from mountain to ocean.

Flow is not happiness. In fact, for most of the time I’m in flow, I feel no sense of emotion. Occasionally emotions accompany my flow state, but normally flow is emotionless–a positive state of well-being that I want to inhabit as often as possible.

Also, I am in control of flow in two significant ways.

First, I chose a task or activity that is neither too difficult nor too easy for me. If it is too easy, I become bored, as there is no need to pay close attention and dig deep with effort. If it is too difficult, I become frustrated. Flow is not associated with playing it safe. Flow is associated with stretch goals, with trying something that is just demanding enough that I really have to try hard. For me, to practice Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star would not lead to flow, as I’d be bored. Conversely, to practice the Vivaldi Piccolo Concerto would not lead to flow either, as I’d be frustrated. The one’s too easy, the other too difficult for my skill level.

That leads to the second way that I am in control of flow. When I am bored with a task, I can get into flow in one of two ways—either by decreasing my skill or by increasing the difficulty of the task. So, if I am bored with practicing Twinkle with my granddaughter, I can decrease my skill by selecting a musical instrument that I play poorly. I have about fifty instruments in my collection, and several are unfamiliar to me. Or I could increase task difficulty by attempting to create a new harmony. I did this recently—our granddaughter played Joyful, Joyful (Beethoven) on the guitar, and I made up a harmony using my bass recorder.

On the other hand, when I am frustrated with a task, I have options similar to the foregoing—I could simplify the task or increase my skill level. In the case of the Vivaldi concerto, I could slow the tempo considerably (simplify the task) or I could spend more time practicing scales and arpeggios at brisk tempos (increase my skill level).

Being bored or frustrated is unpleasant. But we can fix our own mess—there is no excuse for staying frustrated—simplify or practice, nor is there an excuse for staying bored—complexify or self-handicap. When I see Buddha or Lord Ganesh, I smile at myself and know that I’m out of flow. Time to stand up, walk around, and re-approach my task with the aim of figuring out how to get back into flow. Ah, my eyes are tired—I’ll try changing my monitor’s background from white to yellow to alter the glare and renew my attention. Thanks, Lord Ganesh. And a nod to my laughing Buddha. Because I’m back in flow, the next time someone interrupts me I’ll gladly jump out of my skin for them!



Keep it simple, sir! One month ago I wrote in praise of brevity. Today I write in praise of her sister—simplicity.

In short, when you intend for all who read your writing to understand it, then keep it simple, sir. My first encounter with this principle was the 1978 monograph by Richard Wydick “Plain English for Lawyers.” Now available as a book (and in its 5th edition), it urged lawyers, among other things, to end the use of legal redundancies. These hair-pullers, such as “mete and proper” and “will and testament,” are vestiges of legal writing from the middle ages in England. Prior to the Norman Invasion of 1066, England was dominated by two rival languages—Latin and Old English—spoken by the Romans and the native Anglo-Saxons. To insure clear communication, key terms in contracts, wills, and so forth appeared twice—once in the language of the natives and again in the tongue of the invaders. Accordingly, “mete” is an Anglo-Saxon word, “proper,” Latin. Similarly, “will” is Anglo-Saxon, “testament,” Latin. This tradition continued when the French invaded in 1066, and they replaced Latin with French (which is not much of a switch, as French mostly derives from Latin). The use of these translation pairs was necessary so long as England housed two rival language groups. By the 16th century, neither Latin nor French were common, and Modern English ruled. No longer was there a need for these redundancies in legal documents.

But persist they did, so much so that many lawyers and judges today, ignorant of this linguistic detour, insist that subtle differences in meaning attach to each member of such pairs, and that to omit either member of a redundant pair would put the author at risk. Nonsense! Ignorance! One doesn’t need a Last Will and Testament–only a Will.smplcty

Obfuscatory (from the Latin for “to make dark”) language in all its forms tends to put a cloud between reader and writer. In addition to legal redundancies, other difficult words abound:

  • Jargon
  • Buzzwords
  • Foreign terms
  • Showy technical terms
  • Gobbledygook
  • Polysyllabic words (with Latin or Greek origins, such as “utilize,” when a simpler Anglo-Saxon version would do the job—“use”)
  • Wordiness (I could have said verbosity, but…)

And then there are unnecessarily long sentences, as when the writer uses a comma instead of a period, and the sentence continues to chug along, while the reader struggles to recall how the sentence began, and then has to reread the entire sentence, and maybe even the preceding sentence (or two), before understanding is possible, and they begin to build up resentment towards the writer, and the writer is in clear danger of losing their reader, all because of the failure to use periods, which could be blamed on undemanding teachers from the writer’s past, but could just as easily be blamed on thoughtlessness and failure to edit or poofread, but then who….   J

To be readable is to use short sentences and short words Readability formulas, such as the Gunning Fog Index and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level (which Microsoft Word offers), calculate the number of years of education required to read a passage. The formulas determine the average sentence length and the average word length for a document. Hence, “Jesus wept” is more readable than “the Saviour lamented.” I calculated the grade level required to read my previous silly paragraph. The result: 46.4. Only 50-year-olds and above need try to read me!

The temptation to dazzle the reader with polysyllabic and seldom used words must be managed. When I am reading for pleasure (e.g., novels) or for instruction (e.g., textbooks), I do not mind being sent to a dictionary. I enjoy learning new words and relish well-chosen ones. I remember reading Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain with dictionary in hand—the novel is photographic in its precision of verbal detail. Many words I could define from context, but others were like new fruits that needed definitions in order to taste.

But for instructions, manuals, memoranda, contracts, wills, letters of agreement, and other documents whose value rests on their clarity and ease of understanding, give me brevity and simplicity. Some states have passed Plain English laws—New York was the first, in 1978. These laws protect consumers against obfuscatory language in contracts. If you are sued for breach and can prove the contractor’s language to be obfuscatory, you can successfully blame your noncompliance on obfuscatory language. (Sorry, I DO like that word!) “I would have done what you required if you had communicated clearly with me.”

Not all states have a Plain English law. Does yours? President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act in 2010. It requires all government agencies to use clear language that citizens can understand. The government provides a sample web page to announce an agency’s pledge for plain writing and to ask their customers for help in identifying instances where they’ve failed to do so.

Gordian Knot

Preachers are notorious for obfuscatory sermons. One gets the notion that many sermons are not intended to communicate, but only to soothe or disturb. I have created my own Listenability Index for Preachers (LIP): I count the number of jargon/buzzwords per sentence, sampling ten or so sentences from the sermon, and then find the average number of obfuscatory words per sentence. The less listenable sermons tend to average around 50% jargon. Example: “The grace and glory of the Lord be with you forever and forever, Amen.” That’s six jargon and eight plain, for an index of about 43%. The more listenable preachers come in under 5%. Example: “Go from this place and be helpful and friendly to those you meet.” Free and clear of jargon. I once complimented a pastor from Princeton on his fresh, direct language. He thanked me and confided that he consciously avoided religious language in preference for the everyday.

Another way to gauge simplicity of text is to apply Seymour Epstein’s two modes of information processing—Expository and Narrative. Expository mode is more abstract, much like a dictionary definition. Narrative mode is more concrete, like a story. The best writers and speakers mix it up—they make a point by using expository mode and illustrate the point by using narrative mode, or vice-versa. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is a master of this technique—he will take one or two paragraphs to make a point, then illustrate with several concrete examples. I have found that speakers who lean more heavily on one than the other are not listenable—all expository is boring and hard to understand, and all narrative is shallow and irrelevant. Expository: Distraction lessens pain. Narrative: Apply an ice pack to your aching back so that you will feel the cold rather than the pain.

When you want others to understand, keep it short and simple. Otherwise, dazzle them with jewels from your word chest.

Know Thine Unself

April 29, 2015 Leave a comment

Several years back I posted on the importance of being true to one’s nature (see Becoming More Like Who We Are). Today I post on the importance of being true to what one is not.

When work, family, or community expects us to behave unnaturally, and we consent to go along with them, we experience stress. McGill University stress researcher Hans Selye distinguished between eustress (healthy stress) and distress. One who loves their work and keeps long hours experiences eustress, while one who dislikes their work and keeps either long or short hours experiences distress.

Each of us has certain personality traits that are dominant. For me, imagination, love of complexity, independence, sensory pleasure, love of family, love of learning, and directness (my wife calls it lack of tact!) are dominant. I try to build on these basic dispositions. I do not have to pretend whenever I engage in any of those behaviors. I can engage in them for long hours without tiring. They may cause eustress (as in figuring out a complex problem), but not distress.

However, I am defined just as much by the qualities that I am missing—organization, calmness, ambition, love of leadership roles, comfort with repetition, and an affinity for maintenance-type activity. When others expect these of me—to lead, to compete, to stay organized, to clean house—I experience distress.

playbillIn early Roman times, actors wore masks that suggested the kind of character they played. These masks were named personae. Today, by “personality” we mean the mask we put on for the world. However, we only need masks for our unselves. I do not need to act in order to be imaginative, nor do I need to act in order to enjoy being with my family—no mask required. However, proofreading and leadership are unnatural behaviors for me, so engaging in those activities entails wearing a mask. If you were to see me acting as a leader or proofreading a document, you might think it natural for me, but it is an act—an unnatural, uncomfortable act. You would be seeing my mask, or my unself, not my true self. An associate once thought I loved dealing with details—this was because he only saw that side of me. He never got to see my other stuff.

At the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies, we urge people to identify their unnatural traits, and plan with them how to behave when others expect these traits of them. We call these “compensatory” strategies—ways to compensate for, or work around, a trait that others need from us but that we lack in sufficient quantity. History comprises both successes at building on one’s strengths and successes at compensating for one’s weaknesses. Hence,

  • The architect who was low in organization, who sensed that sloppiness would derail his architecture career, and who compensated by hiring an assistant who had carte blanche to do anything she darn well pleased to keep him organized.
  • The nervous writer who became dysfunctionally panicked as deadlines approached, who began giving himself false deadlines in advance of real deadlines and subsequently eliminated his panic.
  • The extraverted insurance agent who worked alone at home, who countered her loneliness by turning up the radio and television in the background to simulate co-workers.
  • The ambiverted (not too much society, not too much solitude) elementary school reading consultant who demonstrated methods for teaching reading throughout the school day, who recognized that she had no more people-energy left when she got home to her three children, and who figured out that she could bargain with them to let her read quietly and nap in her bedroom with the door closed for an hour, and then give herself once again to others.
  • The creative, solitary, agreeable pediatrician who developed high blood pressure as the result of having to be repetitive, sociable, and confrontational every day, and who changed environments to work with problem children one at a time over three-days with an interdisciplinary team of physicians, social workers, and therapists. The high blood pressure went away.
  • The gregarious, creative statistician who disliked the solitary, repetitive proofreading required of him. He recognized his distaste for proofreading put him at risk for rushing through and making errors. He invited a teammate to join him in the task, with one calling out numbers from a computer monitor and the other verifying against a written list. This slowed down the process, made it more enjoyable/sociable, and minimized his distaste for the activity.
  • The plant manager who was private and quiet but had to wear a daily mask of beingsix masks public and outgoing—his quiet nature worked fine when initially hired as an assembly worker, but 20 years later when promoted to plant manager (promotion to management was the only way for him to get ahead) he had to wear the masks of extraversion in order to manage. As a result of the stress from pretending, he developed ulcers. His management ultimately recognized the misfit and transferred him to company headquarters, where he became Vice-President for Research and Development. This quiet, low-key environment helped him lose the ulcers.
  • The lawyer who was nervous, introverted, and polite, who had to litigate daily and be calm, outgoing, and aggressive. Even though he was good at it, he hated it—it made him nauseous to go to work in the morning. He recognized his need for a low-key, less sociable, and less confrontational mode of lawyering—he became a professor of law and learned to love work.
  • The career military professional who was naturally untidy and disorganized, who recognized that they’d never get promoted unless they engaged in military spit-and-polish, and who contracted with their spouse to lay out their uniform daily and to insure that the brass and leather shined like mirrors. They achieved high rank based on this mask.

 Each of these cases entailed an aware professional who recognized the need to find a way to compensate for a missing trait, attitude, or value. By finding an appropriate crutch to lean on, they were able to create an effective mask that the world might never know was in truth a false front.

What comprises your unself? How do you compensate when demands are made of you to engage your unself?

Standing on Others’ Shoulders

April 22, 2015 4 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).


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