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Racking The Shotgun: Quickly Sorting Those Who Know from Those Who Act Like They Know

One of the great challenges we all face in life is distinguishing between two classes of people: people who know and people who sound like they know. It’s called the Batesian Mimicry problem and once you see it, you’ll start to notice it everywhere from colleagues and boardrooms, to talking pundits on TV.

From Elon Musk’s advice on how to tell if people are lying to how to win an argument, the problem is so pervasive and so fundamental to succeeding in life that I keep a running file whenever people have a clever way to help quickly determine who knows. An unlikely book offered another technique called Racking the Shotgun and it comes from a professional gambler.

80/20 Sales and Marketing by Perry Marshall tells the story of John Paul Mendocha, a friend of Marshall’s. At age 17, Mendocha dropped out of high school, hitchhiked to Vegas, and became a professional gambler.

A teenager, however, needs some street smarts so he found himself someone who would take him under his wing for a split of the profits. Mendocha found Rob, a seasoned gambler.

“Son, the first lesson about gambling is, you have to play games you can win. You need to play people who are not as good at poker as you are. Those people are called marks.”

One time, Rob wanted to show John something so they got into the car and headed to the Cabaret. They walked in and sat down amongst the blaring music, dancing women, and copious amounts of alcohol. Rob had a sawed off shotgun in his coat.

He pulled the shotgun out, slipped it under the table. He pressed the lever, popping the chamber open as if to load it. But instead of inserting a shell, he loudly snapped it back shut, with that sharp, signature ratcheting sound shotguns are famous for— what enthusiasts call “racking the shotgun.”

A few heads in the crowd twisted around, trying to see where the racking sound had come from. Everyone else was oblivious, absorbed in their haze of nightclub revelry. Then Rob slipped the gun back into his jacket.

The owner of the club came over to their table and asked if everything was ok.

“Everything’s fine, Bill. Just teaching the lad a lesson,” Rob replied. Then he leaned over and said to John, “John, the people who turned around— those guys are NOT marks. Do not play poker with them. “John, your job is to play cards with everybody else.”

 

 

 

Edward Deci: On the Relationship Between Need Fulfillment and Motivation

Edward Deci’s work on motivation is so often quoted (Dan Pink’s Drive comes to mind) that we decided to go back to the primary text by Deci himself, a book called Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation.

The author is probably best known for his thoughts on the role of autonomy in intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Deci co-developed the Self-Determination Theory with Richard Ryan.

Intrinsic Motivation

Deci and Ryan believed that people naturally develop through a process of engagement and interaction with the world and that said interaction tends to be driven by a “movement toward greater consistency and harmony within.”

The urge to develop an integrated sense of self is thus a central feature of who we are as individuals, and the activity — both physical and mental — that is necessary for this natural developmental trajectory is intrinsically motivated.

This intrinsic motivation is both driven by three innate psychological needs:

  1. The need for autonomy
  2. The need to feel competent
  3. The need for relatedness

In Deci’s view, when the needs are being fulfilled, we will have plenty of motivation. When there are obstacles between us and these needs, it will be demotivating.

***

In our day to day lives, we will interact with the environment and we will integrate what we feel and learn from these interactions into our sense of self. Think of this like a continuous feedback loop. This environment is littered with societal influences, which can be motivating or demotivating, depending on how they interact with our innate needs and sense of self.

Deci uses an example of a young “artistic athlete.” This individual, who has talent both in an athletic arena and with artistic expression, will ultimately be tugged at times towards being an artist or athlete. To feel authentic to themselves, they will need to find a way to express themselves in both of these realms. If they don’t then they won’t be able to feel that sense of harmony; the self they are reflecting to the world won’t be consistent with the self they feel within.

Ideally, both aspects of this individual need to be nurtured, which Deci calls “autonomy support” — supporting the development of a whole, integrated person.

To characterize our perspective more formally, we view human behavior and experience in terms of the dialectic between the person and the environment – the interaction (and potential opposition) between the active organism striving for unity and autonomy and the social context that can be either nurturing of or antagonistic toward the person’s organismic tendencies. Synthesis occurs when there is enough support in the social context so that the natural, proactive tendencies are able to flourish. But in the absence of adequate supports, not only will intrinsic motivation be undermined, but so too will the development of a more integrated or coherent sense of self.

Deci and Ryan discovered that there are specific social contexts that can undermine this integration.

First, those social contexts that are excessively inconsistent and chaotic. These situations make it next to impossible for people to know what is expected of them: They can’t understand how to behave as there is no consistent feedback, which tends to leave people with little to no motivation (they can’t tell if they are being effective and will feel less a part of the group/situation – no competence, no relatedness).

Second, those social contexts which are extremely controlling. These environments pressure people into certain types of behavior and removes autonomy. The people who comply with the demands tend to become almost robotic at times. Whether the individual is complying with or actively defying the controls, they are not acting autonomously.

Autonomy is the key; without it, Deci believes people will lose their motivation and worse, it will hinder their development.

To develop in a natural and healthy way people need to perceive that they are in a “psychological state of feeling free.” People tend to know when they are being controlled, even if they can’t name it, they feel it. We can’t even trick ourselves, sometimes we think we truly want something but we are actually doing it out of a sense of obligation or fear.

Some people believe that our need for autonomy and our need for others is inherently contradictory. Not so, says Deci:

People have often portrayed the needs for autonomy and relatedness as being implicitly contradictory. You have to give up your autonomy, they say, to be related to others. But that is simply a misportrayal of the human being. Part of the confusion stems from equating autonomy and independence, which are in fact very different concepts.

Independence means to do for yourself, to not rely on others for personal nourishment and emotional support. Autonomy, in contrast, means to act freely, with a sense of volition and choice.

Internalizing & Autonomy

So how do we nurture those around us to help them become the best, authentic version of themselves? Deci and Ryan talk about this in terms of helping people to internalize values/regulations.

They believe there are two distinct types of internalization: Introjection and Integration. Introjection is akin to swallowing a rule whole without thought, whereas integration is more like chewing and digesting a rule. This the optimal form of internalization.

The behavioral output of introjection—swallowing a rule whole—are things like rigid compliance, halfhearted adherence and sometimes even defiance.

Introjected values and regulations can thus result in a variety of outcomes, but none of these is optimal. Clearly the half-heartedness and the rebellion are good for neither party. And while the rigid compliance may please the socializing agents who prompted it, there are serious costs to be borne by the people who comply.

This introjection manifests mostly in a lack of vitality and enthusiasm. It’s hard to be motivated when you are focused on pleasing others instead of being authentic to yourself.

So how can we focus on helping people integrate the regulations and values that will help them to develop to their full potential?

If you put a rooted avocado pit in a pot of earth it will probably grow into a tree, because it is in the nature of avocados to do that. It happens naturally. But not all pits become trees; some shrivel and decompose. They fail to thrive because the climate is inadequate, or the necessary nutrients are lacking. They need sun; they need water; and they need the right temperatures. Those elements do not make trees grow, but they are the nutriments that the developing avocados need, that are necessary in order for the avocados to do what they do naturally.

The metaphor is simple but poignant. Too often we ask the avocado pit to grow into an apple tree. You can try to nudge that avocado into becoming something else but it will never happen, and you will both be miserable.

It all comes down to autonomy support, according to Deci:

It is particularly interesting that autonomy support, which was a crucial contextual nutriment for individuals’ maintaining intrinsic motivation and as a result being more creative, processing information more deeply, and enjoying their activities more, also turns out to be essential for promoting internalization and integration of the motivation for uninteresting, though important, activities.

At one level of analysis, autonomy support means to relate to others – our children, students, and employees – as human beings, as active agents who are worthy of support, rather than as objects to be manipulated for our own gratification. That means taking their perspective and seeing the world from their point of view as we relate to them. Of course, autonomy support may require more work, but then, as socializing agents, that is our responsibility. For us to expect responsibility from others, we must accept our own responsibility as the agents of their socialization.

Autonomy support is not the same as being overly permissive. Having no limits or regulations will create inconsistent and chaotic environments that are no better to generating feelings of autonomy and full development.

Permissiveness is easy, but autonomy support is hard work. It requires being clear, being consistent, setting limits in an understanding, empathic way.

People will continue to make mistakes; that’s human nature (and it’s often a byproduct of trying hard things). Reacting with either heavy-handedness or permissive indifference does not help. Setting the environment for growth and trying to understand the situation from the other person’s point of view is the best course of action.

We all have the need for autonomy, to feel competent, and to relate to others. If you want to learn more about motivation in yourself and others pick up Why We Do What We Do, it’s well worth the read. The other influential book on motivation in recent years is Daniel Pink’s Drive.

Under One Roof: What Can we Learn from the Mayo Clinic?

The biologist Lewis Thomas, who we’ve written about before, has a wonderful thought on creating great organizations.

For Thomas, creating great science was not about command-and-control. It was about Getting the Air Right.

It cannot be prearranged in any precise way; the minds cannot be lined up in tidy rows and given directions from printed sheets. You cannot get it done by instructing each mind to make this or that piece, for central committees to fit with the pieces made by the other instructed minds. It does not work this way.

What it needs is for the air to be made right. If you want a bee to make honey, you do not issue protocols on solar navigation or carbohydrate chemistry, you put him together with other bees (and you’d better do this quickly, for solitary bees do not stay alive) and you do what you can to arrange the general environment around the hive. If the air is right, the science will come in its own season, like pure honey.

One organization which clearly “gets the air right” is the much lauded Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

The organization has 4,500 physicians and over $10 billion in revenue from three main campuses, and it is regularly rated among the top hospital systems in the United States in a wide variety of specialities, and yet was founded back in the late 20th century by William Worrall Mayo. Its main campus is in Rochester, Minnesota; not exactly a hub of bustling activity, yet its patients are willing to fly or drive hundreds of miles to receive care. (So-called “destination medicine.”)

How does an organization sustain that kind of momentum for more than 150 years, in an industry that’s changed as much as medicine? What can the rest of us learn from that?

It’s a prime example of where culture eats strategy. Even Warren Buffett admires the system:

A medical partnership led by your area’s premier brain surgeon may enjoy outsized and growing earnings, but that tells little about its future. The partnership’s moat will go when the surgeon goes. You can count, though, on the moat of the Mayo Clinic to endure, even though you can’t name its CEO.

Pulling the Same Oar

The Mayo Clinic is an integrated, multi-specialty organization — they’re known for doing almost every type of medicine at a world class level. And the point of having lots of specialities integrated under one roof is teamwork: Everyone is pulling the same oar. Integrating all specialities under one umbrella and giving them a common set of incentives focuses Mayo’s work on the needs of the patient, not the hospital or the doctor.

This extreme focus on patient needs and teamwork creates a unique environment that is not present in most healthcare systems, where one’s various care-takers often don’t know each other, fail to communicate, and even have trouble accessing past medical records. (Mayo is able to have one united electronic patient record system because of its deep integration.)

Importantly, they don’t just say they focus on integrated care, they do it. Everything is aligned in that direction. For example, as with Apple Retail stores (also known for extreme customer focus), there are no bonuses or incentive payments for physicians — only salaries.

An interesting book called Management Lessons from the Mayo Clinic (recommended by the great Sanjay Bakshi) details some of Mayo’s interesting culture:

The clinic ardently searches for team players in its hiring and then facilitates their collaboration through substantial investment in communications technology and facilities design. Further encouraging collaboration is an all-salary compensation system with no incentive payments based on the number of patients seen or procedures performed. A Mayo physician has no economic reason to hold onto patients rather than referring them to colleagues better suited to meet their needs. Nor does taking the time to assist a colleague result in lost personal income.

[…]

The most amazing thing of all about the Mayo clinic is the fact that hundreds of members of the most highly individualistic profession in the world could be induced to live and work together in a small town on the edge of nowhere and like it.

The Clinic was carefully constructed by self-selection over time: It’s a culture that attracts teamwork focused physicians and then executes on that promise.

One of the internists in the book is quoting as saying working at Mayo is like “working in an organism; you are not a single cell when you are out there practicing. As a generalists, I have access to the best minds on any topic, any disease or problem I come up with and they’re one phone call away.”

In that sense, part of the Mayo’s moat is simply a feedback loop of momentum: Give a group of high performers an amazing atmosphere in which to do their work, and eventually they will simply be attracted by each other. This can go on a long time.

Under One Roof

The other part of Mayo’s success — besides correct incentives, a correct system, and a feedback loop — is simply scale and critical mass. Mayo is like a Ford in its early days: They can do everything under one roof, with all of the specialities and sub-specialities covered. That allows them to deliver a very different experience, accelerating the patient care cycle due to extreme efficiency relative to a “fractured” system.

Craig Smoldt, chair of the department of facilities and support services in Rochester, makes the point that Mayo clinic can offer efficient care–the cornerstone of destination medicine–because it functions as one integrated organization. He notes the fact that everyone works under one roof, so to speak, and is on the payroll of the same organization, makes a huge difference. The critical mass of what we have here is another factor. Few healthcare organizations in the country have as many specialities and sub-specialities working together in one organization.” So Mayo Clinic patients come to one of three locations, and virtually all of their diagnoses and treatment can be delivered by that single organization in a short time.

Contrast that to the way care is delivered elsewhere, the fractured system that represents Mayo’s competitors. This is another factor in Mayo’s success — they’re up against a pretty uncompetitive lot:

Most U.S. healthcare is not delivered in organizations with a comparable degree of integrated operations. Rather than receiving care under one roof, a single patient’s doctors commonly work in offices scattered around a city. Clinical laboratories and imaging facilities may be either in the local hospital or at different locations. As a report by the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Engineering notes, “The increase in specialization in medicine has reinforced the cottage-industry structure of U.S. healthcare, helping to create a delivery system characterized by disconnected silos of function and specialization.

How does this normally work out in practice, at places that don’t work like Mayo? We’re probably all familiar with the process. The Institute of Medicine report referenced above continues:

“Suppose the patient has four medical problems. That means she would likely have at least five different doctors.” For instance, this patient could have (1) a primary care doctor providing regular examinations and treatments for general health, (2) an orthopedist who treats a severely arthritic knee, (3) a cardiologist who is monitoring the aortic valve in her heart that may need replacement soon, (4) a psychiatrist who is helping her manage depression, and (5) and endocrinologist who is helping her adjust her diabetes medications. Dr. Cortese then notes,”With the possible exception of the primary care physician, most of these doctors probably do not know that the patient is seeing the others. And even if they do know, it is highly unlikely they know the impressions and recommendations the other doctors have recorded in the medical record, or exactly what medications and dosages are prescribed.” If the patient is hospitalized, it is probably that only the admitting physician and the primary care physician will have that knowledge.

Coordinating all of these doctors takes time and energy on the part of the patient. Repeat, follow-up visits are done days later; often test results, MRI results, or x-ray results are not determined quickly or communicated effectively to the other parts of the chain.

Mayo solves that by doing everything efficiently and under one roof. The patient or his/her family doesn’t have to push to get efficient service. Take the case of a woman with fibrocystic breast disease who had recently found a lump. Her experience at Mayo took a few hours; the same experience in the past had taken multiple days elsewhere, and initiative on her end to speed things up.

As a patient in the breast clinic, she began with an internist/breast specialists who took the medical history and performed an exam. The mammogram followed in the nearby breast imaging center. The breast ultrasound, ordered to evaluate a specific area on the breast, was done immediately after the mammogram.

The breast radiologist who performed the ultrasound had all the medical history and impressions of the other doctors available in the electronic medical record (EMR). The ultrasound confirmed that the lump was a simple cyst, not a cancer. The radiologist shared this information with the patient and offered her an aspiration of the cyst that would draw off fluid if the cyst was painful. But comforted with the diagnosis of the simple cyst and with the fact that it was not painful, the veteran patient declined the aspiration. Within an hour of completing the breast imaging, the radiologist communicated to the breast specialist a “verbal report” of the imaging findings. The patient returned to the internist/breast specialist who then had a wrap-up visit with the patient and recommended follow-up care. This patient’s care at Mayo was completed in three and one-half hours–before lunch.

So what are some lessons we can pull together from studying Mayo?

The book offers a bunch, but one in particular seemed broadly useful, from a chapter describing Mayo’s “systems” approach to consistently improving the speed and level of care. (Industrial engineers are put to work fixing broken systems inside Mayo.)

Mayo wins by solving the totality of the customer’s problem, not part of it. This is the essence of an integrated system. While this wouldn’t work for all types of businesses; it’s probably a useful way for most “service” companies to think.

Why is this lesson particularly important? Because it leads to all the others. Innovation in patient care, efficiency in service delivery, continuous adoption of new technology, “Getting the Air Right” to attract and retain the best possible physicians, and creating a feedback loop are products of the “high level” thought process below: Solve the whole problem.

Lesson 1: Solve the customer’s total problem. Mayo Clinic is a “systems seller” competing with a connected, coordinated service. systems sellers market coordinated solutions to the totality of their customers’ problems; they offer whole solutions instead of partial solutions. In system selling, the marketer puts together all the services needed by customers to do it themselves. The Clinic uses systems thinking to execute systems selling that pleasantly surprises patients (and families) and exceeds their expectations.

The scheduling and service production systems at Mayo Clinic have created a differentiated product–destination medicine–that few competitors can approach. So even if patients feel that the doctors and hospitals at home are fine, they still place a high value on a service system that can deliver a product in days rather than weeks or months.

[…]

Patients not only require competent care but also coordinated and efficient care. Mayo excels in both areas. In a small Midwestern town, it created a medical city offering “systems solutions” that encourage favorable word of mouth and sustained brand strength, and then it exported the model to new campuses in Arizona and Florida.

If you liked this post, you might like these as well:

Creating Effective Incentive Systems: Ken Iverson on the Principles that Unleash Human Potential — Done poorly, compensation systems foster a culture of individualism and gaming. Done properly, however, they unleash the potential of all employees.

Can Health Care Learn From Restaurant Chains? — Atul Gawande pens a fascinating piece in the New Yorker about what health care can learn from the Cheesecake Factory.

The Most Respectful Interpretation

Consider this situation: You email a colleague with a question expecting a prompt response, but hours or days later you’ve yet to hear from them. Perhaps you can’t move forward on your project without their input so you find yourself blocked. How do you imagine you feel in this situation?

For many of us, situations like this result in feelings of anger, frustration, or annoyance. Maybe we take it personally and conclude that our colleague is lazy or that they don’t value our time or our work. Perhaps we send off a terse reminder asking for an update.

If we’re feeling particularly revengeful, we alert the person’s manager or mention our grievance to another colleague looking for validation that the offending colleague is in fact lazy and disrespectful – a form of confirmation bias.

Perhaps this colleague has been slow to respond to communications in the past, thus we extrapolate that to all of their communications, a case of the fundamental attribution error.

Of course, it’s natural to feel anger and frustration when faced with these situations. But is anger the appropriate response?

In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle wrote about The Virtue Concerned with Anger. He begins Book IV with a description of good temper:

The man who is angry at the right things and with the right people, and, further, as he ought, when he ought, and as long as he ought, is praised. This will be the good-tempered man, then, since good temper is praised.

Aristotle tells us that anger has a time and place and that when applied to the right people and for the right reason, is justified and even praiseworthy. But we have to use anger judiciously:

For the good-tempered man tends to be unperturbed and not to be led by passion, but to be angry in the manner, at the things, and for the length of time, that reason dictates; but he is thought to err rather in the direction of deficiency; for the good-tempered man is not revengeful, but rather tends to make allowances.

In Aristotle’s description of good temper, he encourages us to err in the direction of “making allowances”. But how can we do this in practice?

Let’s return to our example.

We take our colleague’s lack of response personally and assume they are lazy or disrespectful, but it is important for us to recognize that we are assuming. We often instinctively chose to assume the worst of people, because it slips easily into mind. But what if instead we chose to assume the best?

In her book Rising Strong, Brené Brown describes how she learned to assume that people are doing the best they can and shares a concept introduced to her by Dr. Jean Kantambu Latting, a professor at University of Houston. Brown writes:

Whenever someone would bring up a conflict with a colleague, she would ask, ‘What is the hypothesis of generosity? What is the most generous assumption you can make about this person’s intentions or what this person said?’

By pausing to reflect on our anger we can recognize that we are making a negative assumption and challenge ourselves to invert the situation and consider the opposite: “What is the most generous assumption I can make?”

Perhaps our colleague has been given a higher priority project, or they don’t understand that we’re blocked without their input. Maybe they are dealing with some personal challenges outside of the office, or they need input from somebody else to reply to our message and thus they’re blocked as well. Perhaps they’ve decided to reduce their email frequency in order to focus on important work.

When we pause to look at the situation from another angle, not only do we entertain some explanations that frame our colleagues in a more positive light, but we put ourselves into their shoes; the very definition of empathy.

We’ve all had competing priorities, distractions from personal issues outside of work, miscommunications regarding the urgent need of our response, etc. Do we think others judged us fairly or unfairly in those moments?

The point is not to make excuses or avoid addressing problems with our colleagues, but that if we recognize we are making negative assumptions by default, we might need to challenge ourselves to consider more generous alternatives. This may alter the way we approach our colleague to address the situation. It takes effort and a commitment to think about people differently.

Someone who knew this best was the late, great author David Foster Wallace.

***

In his beautiful commencement speech to the Kenyon graduating class of 2005, Wallace reminds the students that the old cliché of liberal arts education teaching you to think is truer than they might want to believe. He warns that one of the biggest challenges the graduates will face in life is to challenge their self-centered view of the world – a view that we all have by default.

Using some of life’s more mundane and annoying activities like shopping and commuting, Wallace writes:

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being “well-adjusted”, which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

The recognition that we are inherently self-centered and that this affects the way in which we interpret the world seems so obvious when pointed out, but how often do we stop to consider it? This is our hard-wired default setting, so it’s quite a challenge to become willing to think differently.

As an example, Wallace describes a situation where he is disgusted by the gas guzzling Hummer in front of him in traffic. The idea of these cars offends him and he starts making assumptions about the drivers: they’re wasteful, inconsiderate of the planet, and inconsiderate of future generations.

Look, if I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.

But then he challenges himself to consider alternative interpretations, something often described as making the Most Respectful Interpretation (MRI). Wallace decides to consider more respectful interpretations of the other drivers – maybe they have a legitimate need to be driving a large SUV or to be rushing through traffic.

In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you’re “supposed to” think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it’s hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you’re like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to. But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options.

A big part of learning to think is recognizing our default reactions and responses to situations — the so-called “System 1” thinking espoused by Daniel Kahneman. Learning to be “good-tempered” and “well-adjusted” requires us to try to be more self-aware, situationally aware, and to acknowledge our self-centered nature; to put the brakes on and use System 2 instead.

So the next time you find yourself annoyed with your colleagues, angry at other drivers on the road, or judgmental about people standing in line at the store, use it as an opportunity to challenge your negative assumptions and try to interpret the situation in a more respectful and generous way. You might eventually realize that the broccoli tastes good.

Richard Restak: A Simple Exercise To Read The Emotions of Others

One of Charles Darwin’s less famous works, his The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, released in 1872, kicked off the idea that emotions carry distinct facial expressions. We read these emotions naturally, from birth, all the time — it’s part of our innate wiring, and how to relate to and understand others. But we can learn to read them better with some practice.

One of the complicating factors in learning to read the emotions of other people is that we’ve been taught from a young age to conceal all emotions. We shouldn’t talk about them, display them, or feel them. Reading humans is a lot trickier than any other species, because we can conceal, confuse, hide.

As a result of this, offers Richard Restak in Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot: Unleashing Your Brain’s Potential, “[T]he reading of other people’s emotions from their facial expressions is a subtle and arcane art that not everyone learns successfully.”

And this is odd considering that a lot of success in life comes from the ability to accurately read the emotions of other people and (simultaneously) control your own.

Restak provides a simple exercise to improve our ability to read the emotions of others based on the fact that “when a person pretends an emotion, he or she activates the same brain areas that would be activated in circumstances when the emotions are naturally and spontaneously expressed.”

Start by grabbing a trusted and interested friend. Sit on the floor about 3 feet apart, and have your friend close her eyes.

Then, while gazing into her face, ask her to think about the saddest moment in her life. She shouldn’t speak or otherwise respond by sighing, touching, or frowning. Study her face for the subtle changes that accompany her recall of the sad experience.

After a minute, ask her to clear her mind and think of nothing in particular. … Observe any facial changes that may occur as her thoughts shift from sad to neutral. At this point, ask your friend to open her eyes and look directly into your eyes. Ask her once again to think about her saddest experience, then of an emotionally neutral experience, and finally her happiest experience. Keep focused on her face, particularly her eyes as she shifts from one internal experience to the other. What changes do you observe?

Now shift roles.

Let your partner observe you first with your eyes closed as you think sad, indifferent, and happy thoughts. Then open your eyes and repeat the sequence. At this point in the exercise, both of you should spend one minute mentally organizing your impressions. Then share your observations and impressions.

Here is where things get interesting. What did you observe and how does it compare to what she tells you?

Does hearing the details of what she was thinking enrich your observations in any way? While she’s speaking of the sad experience, try to see once again those earlier changes in her eyes and face. Can you now detect something in her eyes or facial expression that escaped you when you were observing her a moment ago? Listen closely while she describes how you appeared to her when you were recalling the saddest and happiest moments in your life.

The most common reason the exercise fails is that, as if by force of nature, we try to conceal our facial expressions.

Both of you must remain psychologically undefended, vulnerable. It’s also important that during the eyes-open part of the exercise you continue to maintain firm but gentle eye contact; not the eye contact of a salesperson or an interviewer, but that of a curious child who remains relaxed and open to a new experience. You’re not trying to “stare down” your partner, but intuitively enter into and participate in his or her inner experience.

This exercise is really intense. Pick your partner carefully. You’ll be dealing with subtle displays of emotion that we all have, however, unlike in social situations, you will get to test the accuracy of your emotional perceptiveness with the other person.

Still Curious? Check out Konstantin Stanislavsky’s An Actor Prepares to help the development of your emotional memory.

Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Art of Living

“I am a person who listens for a living. I listen for wisdom, and beauty, and for voices not shouting to be heard.”

***

Krista Tippett, the host of the compelling podcast On Being, is an incredible conversationalist. From poets and physicists to neuroscientists — her show offers conversations that traverse time and disciplines. At the heart of her inquiry lies space to explore what it means to live a meaningful life.

In Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Tippett, who listens for a living, offers an illuminating slice of these conversations. As a illuminating guide, her reflections walk us through the work of a lifetime exploring love, compassion, and forgiveness.

The book is organized around virtue and “gentle shifts of mind and habit.” She explores five raw materials for living a meaningful life:

Words — The language we use to tell stories to ourselves and others;
Body — “The body is where every virtue lives or dies”;
Love — More than something we fall into or out of, love is “the only aspiration big enough for the immensity of the human community.”;
Faith — “Literal reality is not all there is.”;
Hope — Hope has nothing to do with optimism or wishing, rather it reflects reality and reveres truth. Hope is a habit.

Tippet resurfaces questions many have explored before us. “What does it mean to be human? What matters in life? What matters in death? How to be of service to each other and the world?”

Each person explores these questions at one point or another in the context of our age and ourselves. The questions are not independent. Who we are to each other is a reflection of what it means to be human.

Wisdom leavens intelligence, and ennobles consciousness, and advances evolution itself.

Life is where we explore the mystery of ourselves and others. Here Tippett offers a voice to “those raw, essential, heartbreaking and life-giving places in us, so that we may know them more consciously, live what they teach us, and mine their wisdom for our life together.”

In the introduction Tippett refuses the false duality and headlines that drive so much of our divide.

[M]any features of national public life are also better suited to adolescence than to adulthood. We don’t do things adults learn to do, like calm ourselves, and become less narcissistic. Much of politics and media sends us in the opposite, infantilizing direction. We reduce great questions of meaning and morality to “issues” and simplify them to two sides, allowing pundits and partisans to frame them in irreconcilable extremes. But most of us don’t see the world this way, and it’s not the way the world actually works. I’m not sure there’s such a thing as the cultural “center,” or that it’s very interesting if it exists. But left of center and right of center, in the expansive middle and heart of our life together, most of us have some questions left alongside our answers, some curiosity alongside our convictions.

Imagination and nuance and the spaces between headlines is where we live. The book is an exploration of these spaces.

I have yet to meet a wise person who doesn’t know how to find some joy even in the midst of what is hard, and to smile and laugh easily, including at oneself. A sense of humor is high on my list of virtues, in interplay with humility and compassion and a capacity to change when that is the right thing to do. It’s one of those virtues that softens us for all the others.

She also offers a sobering reminder of our capacity to control.

We are never really running the show, never really in control, and nothing will go quite as we imagined it. Our highest ambitions will be off, but so will our worst prognostications.

No section of the book is more compelling than exploring words — “I take it as an elemental truth of life,” she writes, “that words matter.”

This is so plain that we can ignore it a thousand times a day. The words we use shape how we understand ourselves, how we interpret the world, how we treat others. From Genesis to the aboriginal songlines of Australia, human beings have forever perceived that naming brings the essence of things into being. The ancient rabbis understood books, texts, the very letters of certain words as living, breathing entities. Words make worlds.

On our affinity for tolerance she challenges us:

We chose too small a word in the decade of my birth— tolerance— to make the world we want to live in now. We opened to the racial difference that had been there all along, separate but equal, and to a new infusion of religions, ethnicities, and values. But tolerance doesn’t welcome. It allows, endures, indulges. In the medical lexicon, it is about the limits of thriving in an unfavorable environment. Tolerance was a baby step to make pluralism possible, and pluralism, like every ism, holds an illusion of control. It doesn’t ask us to care for the stranger. It doesn’t even invite us to know each other, to be curious, to be open to be moved or surprised by each other.

Words are containers.

The connection between words and meanings resembles the symbiosis between religion and spirituality. Words are crafted by human beings, wielded by human beings. They take on all of our flaws and frailties. They diminish or embolden the truths they arose to carry. We drop and break them sometimes. We renew them, again and again.

In one illuminating conversation, Tippett talks with one of her favorite thinkers about the failure of “official language and discourse” the poet Elizabeth Alexander, who read at the first Obama inauguration.

Alexander offers:

Here’s what we crave. We crave truth tellers. We crave real truth. There is so much baloney all the time. You know, the performance of political speech, of speeches you see on the news, doesn’t it often feel to you like there should be a thought bubble over it that says, “what I really would say if I could say it is . . .”

And how we are drawn to words that shimmer.

I learn so much every day from being a mother. My sons are 11 and 12, and you see the way children know when they’re being bamboozled. And they also are drawn towards language that shimmers, individual words with power. They will stop you and ask you to repeat a shimmering word if they’re hearing it for the first time. You can see it in their faces.

Words are the backbones to stories — the ones we tell others and the ones we tell ourselves.

The art of conversation I’m describing here is related, but it is something subtly and directionally different— sharing our stories in the service of probing together who we are and who we want to be. To me, every great story opens into an equally galvanizing exchange we can have together: So what? How does this change the way you see and live? How might it inform the way I see and live? I believe we can push ourselves further, and use words more powerfully and tell and make the story of our time anew.

“The world,” says physician Rachel Naomi Remen in an interview with Tippett, “is made up stories; it is not made of up facts.”

And yet we tell ourselves facts to piece together stories. Stories are how we make sense of life. Remen continues:

Well, the facts are the bones of the story, if you want to think of it that way. I mean, the facts are, for example, that I have had Crohn’s disease for 52 years. I’ve had eight major surgeries. But that doesn’t tell you about my journey and what’s happened to me because of that, and what it means to live with an illness like this and discover the power of being a human being. And whenever there’s a crisis, like 9/ 11, do you notice how the whole of the United States turned towards the stories? Where I was, what happened, what happened in those buildings, what happened to the people who were connected to the people in those buildings. Because that is the only way we can make sense out of life, through the stories. The facts are a certain number of people died there. The stories are about the greatness of being a human being and the vulnerability of being a human being.

[…]

There’s a powerful saying that sometimes we need a story more than food in order to live. They tell us about who we are, what is possible for us, what we might call upon. They also remind us we’re not alone with whatever faces us.

Becoming Wise is for those of us who want to explore the great questions of life with imagination and courage, realizing that much of life is lived in nuance that changes with who we are and, importantly, where we are standing.