Tag Archives: Psychology

Albert Bandura on Acquiring Self-Efficacy and Personal Agency

Albert Bandura

Psychologist Albert Bandura is famous for his social learning theory which is really more of a model than a theory.

He stresses the importance of observational learning. Who you spend time with matters. “Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do,” Bandura explains.

There is an excerpt in Stronger: Develop the Resilience You Need to Succeed that explains how we can acquire and maintain the factors of personal resilience.

1. Seek to successfully demonstrate and repeatedly practice each of our five factors of personal resilience. Success is a powerful learning tool—Just do it! If the challenge is too large or complex at first, start by taking small steps in the desired direction. Don’t try to achieve too much at first. And keep trying until you succeed. The first success is the hardest.

2. Observe resilient people. Use them as role models. Human beings learn largely by observation. Frequent venues where you can watch people exhibiting the skills you wish to acquire. Read books about people who have overcome obstacles similar to those you face. Call or write them. Ask them to share their lessons learned. Their successes will be contagious.

3. Vigorously pursue the encouragement and support of others. Affiliate with supportive and compassionate people who are willing to give of themselves to be supportive of you.

4. Practice self-control. In highly stressful times, myriad physiological and behavioral reactions occur. Physiologically, people experience the fight-or-flight response we mentioned in Chapter One. This cascade of hormones such as adrenalin better prepares you to fight or to flee a threat. They increase your heart rate, muscle strength, and tension. They dramatically improve your memory for certain things while decreasing your ability to remember others, and they cause your blood vessels to shift their priorities. This often results in headaches, cold hands and feet, and even an upset gastrointestinal system. The most significant problem, however, is that this very basic survival mechanism also tends to interfere with rational judgment and problem solving.

According to Bandura we need to control the stress around us so that it doesn’t become excessive, in part because we often act without thinking in stressful situations.

People often act impulsively in reaction to stressful events, sometimes running away from them. Remember the 1999 movie Runaway Bride, starring Richard Gere and Julia Roberts? It was the fictional story of a woman who had a penchant for falling in love and getting engaged, then developing cold feet and leaving her fiances at the altars. On a more somber note, after the conclusion of the Vietnam War, many veterans chose to retreat to lives of isolation and solitude. The stress of war and the lack of social support motivated many to simply withdraw from society.

Similarly, over many years of clinical practice, we have seen individuals who have great difficulty establishing meaningful relationships after surviving a traumatic or vitriolic divorce. It’s hard for them to trust another person after having been “betrayed.” They exhibit approach-avoidance behaviors—engaging in a relationship initially but backing away when it intensifies.

Contrary to these patterns of escape and avoidance, sometimes people will impulsively act aggressively in response to stressful situations. Chronic irritability is often an early warning sign of subsequent escalating aggressive behavior. Rarely, although sometimes catastrophically, people will choose to lie, cheat, or steal in highly stressful situations. For years, psychologists have tried to predict dishonesty using psychological testing. The results have been uninspiring. The reason is that the best predictor of dishonesty is finding oneself in a highly stressful situation. So in highly stressful times, resist the impulsive urges to take the easy way out.

Also, remember to take care of yourself, physically as well as psychologically. Maladaptive self-medication is a common pattern of behavior for people who find themselves in the abyss. Alcohol has long been observed as a chemical crutch. Others that have only recently emerged are the myriad energy drinks on the market. Both of these crutches have been linked to numerous physical ailments and even deaths. If you are looking for the best single physical mechanism to aid you in your ascent from the abyss, it’s establishing healthy patterns of rest and sleep.

But note the distinction between controlling and suppressing. Often controlling is impossible so we suppress and fool ourselves into thinking we’re controlling. And suppressing volatility is often a horrible idea, especially in the long-run.

Instead of what’s intended, we create a coiled spring that most often leads to negative leaping emergent effects. In the end this moves us toward fragility and away from robustness and resiliency.


If you’re still curious, The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: How Risk Taking Transforms Us, Body and Mind discusses a bit of this topic as well.

The Single Best Interview Question You Can Ask

In Peter Thiel’s book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future — more of an exercise in thinking about the questions you must ask to move from zero to one — there is a great section on the single best interview question you can ask someone.

Whenever Peter Thiel interviews someone he likes to ask the following question: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

This question sounds easy because it’s straightforward. Actually, it’s very hard to answer. It’s intellectually difficult because the knowledge that everyone is taught in school is by definition agreed upon. And it’s psychologically difficult because anyone trying to answer must say something she knows to be unpopular. Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius.

The most common answers, according to Thiel, are “Our educational system is broken and urgently needs to be fixed.” “America is exceptional.” “There is no God.”

These are bad answers.

The first and the second statements might be true, but many people already agree with them. The third statement simply takes one side in a familiar debate. A good answer takes the following form: “Most people believe in x, but the truth is the opposite of x.”


What does this contrarian question have to do with the future? In the most minimal sense, the future is simply the set of all moments yet to come.

We hope for progress when we think about the future. To Thiel, that progress takes place in two ways.

Horizontal or extensive progress means copying things that work— going from 1 to n. Horizontal progress is easy to imagine because we already know what it looks like. Vertical or intensive progress means doing new things— going from 0 to 1. Vertical progress is harder to imagine because it requires doing something nobody else has ever done. If you take one typewriter and build 100, you have made horizontal progress. If you have a typewriter and build a word processor, you have made vertical progress.

best interview question peter thiel

At the macro level, the single word for horizontal progress is globalization— taking things that work somewhere and making them work everywhere. … The single word for vertical, 0 to 1 progress, is technology. … Because globalization and technology are different modes of progress, it’s possible to have both, either, or neither at the same time.

Peter Thiel
Here is Thiel’s answer to his own question:

My own answer to the contrarian question is that most people think the future of the world will be defined by globalization, but the truth is that technology matters more. Without technological change, if China doubles its energy production over the next two decades, it will also double its air pollution. If every one of India’s hundreds of millions of households were to live the way Americans already do— using only today’s tools— the result would be environmentally catastrophic. Spreading old ways to create wealth around the world will result in devastation, not riches. In a world of scarce resources, globalization without new technology is unsustainable.

Listening and the Learning Lens

Seneca Friendship
In Pebbles of Perception: How a Few Good Choices make All the Difference, there is an excellent chapter on listening.

When it comes to describing much of what currently passes for personal communication, the analogy of the crocodile is an apt one: all mouth and no ears.

So this is why mom and dad used to tell me that I had two ears and one mouth. Yet no one has ever taught me how to listen. I mean really listen.

Communication is arguably the most important life skill of all. The quality of human relations is in large part determined by the quality of communication. There are talkers and there are listeners, but we don’t learn much, if anything, while we are talking.

Communicating means both transmitting and receiving. We receive through our ears, eyes, feelings, and perception.

But information doesn’t enter the brain directly. It passes through our eyes, ears and other sense organs before being processed by our brain. We receive information through the “lenses” we are wearing. We are going to consider two types of communication lens: what I call the lecturing lens and the learning lens. Each of us has a default tendency towards one or the other. Which is your default mode?

First let’s talk about the lens distorters.


The Lens Distorters

These inhibit clear communication. Here are some of the most common ones.

The limits of language. There are a few distorters at work here. To begin with, verbal communication represents just a small part of overall communication. When we speak to each other we are essentially blowing air at each other – albeit in a highly sophisticated fashion. Phone calls are far less effective than face-to-face encounters. Secondly, we are not always able to find the right words. Words are often not specific enough. We have a word for friend and a word for enemy. What about someone in between? An acquaintance perhaps? What about a work colleague that you respect and trust but would not want to socialise with? Even black and white are not black and white. I recently met the head of an international thread manufacturer that produced over 200 different shades of “white” thread!

Different histories and cultures. Your lens and my lens will have been shaped by our individual histories and conditioning. Words, gestures or tones that may seem humorous and harmless to me could seem offensive to you.

Different contexts. In addition to unique histories, everyone has a different current context and emotional state. …

Irrational expectation of rationality. When we communicate we expect that logic is what drives other people’s behaviour. The reality is that much more is at play and you will waste a lot of time in this world trying to move people through brute logic.


What Is Your Default Lens?

Are you a talker or listener?

Animated or observant? Focused on yourself or on the other person? I characterise those of us who are more likely to be talkers as wearing the lecturing lens. Gaps in conversation are simply periods during which we gather our thoughts to continue our lecture – me and my story. Others are better listeners and tend to communicate through a learning lens. I suspect that good listeners are in the minority, which makes defaulting to the learning lens all the more effective. There can be no real understanding without listening. We feel honoured when others take a genuine interest in understanding our position. When people understand us we are psychologically validated. Our opinion matters. We matter.


Suggestions For Better Communication With Others

Make the learning lens your default setting. Approach every conversation with an open mind. OK, I have a view and I believe it to be the correct one, but, what might I be missing here? What if the other person has some insight that can illuminate my own? What if I am wrong? We listen intently not just with our ears, but with our eyes and our senses. We are paying attention, striving to perceive what is really going on in the other person’s mind. And they know and appreciate it. The whole conversation is a journey of discovery not a battle of wits.

Make them a star. Try to bring out the best in other people. This is not false flattery, but helping people get their views properly heard and understood. Do not seek to show off how smart you are.

Be courteous. There is no need for rudeness. Respect the right of someone to have a different opinion from yours. Leave unconstructive criticism at the door. There is no good in it. It merely creates resentment and distorts the other person’s lens, often for a long time. If you call a person an idiot, both you, and the person you insulted, have changed. No apology can take back the words. Avoid criticising people in print or in front of others.

Double check your gut feelings. For example, first impressions can trigger subconscious negative emotions. The person resembles someone you had a problem with, and you suddenly dislike them. Abraham Lincoln understood this risk. When he met someone he didn’t like, he resolved to get to know them better.

Find your words. Once you have demonstrated a full understanding of the other person’s view, think carefully about what you want to say and then don’t say it! Try instead to figure out what the other person is likely to hear. In other words, try to make some allowance for the distortions in their lens. Your opinion on something is more credible when you can also clearly articulate the contrary view. Good communicators are thoughtful in how they choose and arrange their words.

Words are never enough. Your tone and demeanour should be consistent with, and supportive of, the whole message.

Choose quality over quantity. Don’t always feel there is a need to fill every moment with communication.

Know when to give or accept an apology. A genuine apology, offered sincerely and accepted, is one the most emotionally mature human interactions.


To Sum Up

Don’t be a crocodile, all mouth and no ears. Choose a learning lens over a lecturing lens. Be aware of the differences between your lenses and those of others. To truly listen to others is a gift to them. Give it with courtesy and humility. The payback is real understanding.


I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Pebbles of Perception: How a Few Good Choices make All the Difference.

How People Make Big Decisions

We all go through psychological steps when we make big decisions. Some people call this the “existential cycle,” which really has four stages: doing, contemplating, preparing, and experimenting.


Echoing Tolstoy on regret avoidance, Sebastian Bailey and Octavius Black write in Mind Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently:

These four stages are much like exercises in risk management. No one wants to look back on his or her life at some point and say I wish I would have or If only I had.

While there are other ways, the existential cycle helps us make life changing decisions — like who to marry, where to work, and where to live.

The first stage, “doing,” is where you spend most of your life: It is your settled, equilibrium position. The doing may be all sorts of things— writing emails, riding horses, reading books, washing up, going to meetings, listening to lectures, cooking, dancing, running, sharing stories with friends, telling jokes, or making love. Of course, these are not done all at the same time (not unless you’re really talented). Whatever the activity may be, and however enjoyable or dull it is, you are doing it and it tends to keep you occupied.

Sometimes we get to “contemplating,” where we consider whether or how things would be different. What would life be like if you move to California? (Hint: It won’t make you happier.)

Then occasionally we move to “preparing.”

You search on the web for real estate agents in San Diego or Key West, find out what property prices are, check weather patterns, possibly even visit your preferred destination on your next vacation. You have moved beyond imagining how things could be different to investigating the practical options for how to make them different.

Finally you make the change.

You leave your job, buy a house, and move all your possessions. This stage is called “experimenting.” After you’ve settled in and started the beachside bar you’d dreamed about, this becomes your normal way of living, and you are once again in a state of doing.

The process isn’t overly complicated or hard. The challenge becomes moving through it at the right pace in a way that aligns with your principles.


The Doing Magnet

As you travel around your cycle, you will have conversations with yourself that stop you from moving on to the next stage and instead take you back to doing.

Sometimes these thoughts can be very sensible and prevent you from wasting time or following the wrong path. But sometimes, unfortunately, they prevent you from both spotting and taking opportunities that could dramatically improve your life. The trick lies in recognizing the internal conversations and being able to make an informed decision about whether to listen to them or to ignore them and move on.

When the Doing Magnet is Weak

Irrational exuberance are those people who are forever saying things like I wish I hadn’t rushed into that or If only I’d thought about it first. Rather than never crossing the Rubicon, they’re happy to head over far too easily— without ever considering the size of the army on the other side. In terms of the existential cycle, their doing magnet is relatively weak— the centrifugal momentum of the next new thing is stronger than the gravitational force of the status quo.

If you find that you can’t hold down a job, you can’t keep a relationship, you spend money on a whim, or you haven’t gotten around to making your home into a place you like living in, and you regret it, then you may be suffering from a form of irrational exuberance. The best advice in this situation is this: spend longer at the preparing stage before wading across your Rubicon.

For example, consider one of these choices:

  • Think through all the possible disadvantages of taking this course of action as well as the advantages— really make an effort to present the case for caution on this occasion.

  • Contrast the allure of the new situation with how your existing life might improve even if you don’t make this big change. People who are always moving on to new jobs often fail to consider how their current jobs could get better. A new job may be attractive, but it is wrong to assume the old one will stay the same. New possibilities could open up. What happens when your boss moves on?

  • Contemplate the bigger and better gains and pleasures you could have if you didn’t always go for instant gratification. Could the gratification get more gratifying?

  • Consider any decisions you made in the past that led to situations you later regretted. What can you learn from these that will help you make a wiser decision this time.

If you Want to Improve, you have to Cross the Rubicon

“Do. Or do not. There is no try.” — Yoda

You have a choice in how you run your life. There is no “can’t,” only “will” and “won’t.” The trick is knowing why you are, or aren’t, moving around the existential cycle and, in particular, crossing your Rubicon. Like we’ve said, the right thing isn’t to always cross or always not cross. The right thing is to understand why you want to cross or don’t want to cross, and then make your decision.

Nevertheless, none of us want to live our lives in a constant state of doing. I might not be in good enough shape today to swim 2.4 miles, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be in the future. Plus, our reasons for remaining in one state may not be strong. At some point, in certain aspects of our lives, if we want to progress, we must cross the Rubicon.

A decision to not cross the Rubicon based on the wrong reasons— when catastrophic fantasies rule our mind-sets— is what causes people to look back on their lives and think If only. … All of us who have looked back and been proud of what we have done have crossed the Rubicon at least once and maybe many times.

There’s a famous Latin maxim, carpe diem, which translated means “seize the day.” The question you have to ask yourself is, When it comes to crossing Rubicons, just how much of a Caesar am I prepared to be?

Stronger: Developing Personal Resilience and Becoming Antifragile

How is it that some people come back from crushing defeats while others simply give in? Why does adversity make some people and teams stronger and render others ineffective?

These are the questions that George Everly Jr., Douglas Strouse, and former Navy SEAL Dennis McCormack explore in their book Stronger: Develop the Resilience You Need to Succeed.

According to them, there are five factors of personal resilience.

1. Active Optimism. Optimism is more than a belief, it’s a mandate for change. It’s the inclination to move forward when others are retreating. This mandate can be so strong that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

2. Decisive Action. Optimism is not enough. You must be decisive and act in order to rebound. As Clare Boothe Luce observed, “Courage is the ladder on which all the other virtues mount.” You must acquire the courage to make difficult decisions.

3. Moral Compass. Use honor, integrity, fidelity, and ethical behavior to guide your decisions under challenging circumstances.

4. Relentless Tenacity, Determination. Persistence can be omnipotent. As comedian Jonathan Winters once quipped, “If your ship doesn’t come, swim out to meet it!” Be persistent, while at the same time knowing when to quit.

5. Interpersonal Support. Who has your back?

Resilience, as you’d expect, has a biological as well as psychological background.

Before you can develop resilience, however, you need to know yourself.

Sun Tzu, the Chinese military strategist, wrote, “He who knows the enemy and himself will never in a hundred battles be at risk.”

Increasing Decisiveness and Taking Personal Responsibility

The authors talk about how to overcome indecision and increase personal responsibility.

1. Problem: Paralyzing fear of failure

Solution: Never forget this simple guiding principle: Anything worth having is worth failing for. And don’t forget the words of Friedrich Nietzsche: “What does not kill me makes me stronger.”

As I wrote in my post on mistakes: “Just because we’ve lost our way doesn’t mean that we are lost forever. In the end, it’s not the failures that define us so much as how we respond.”

2. Problem: Fear of ridicule for being different. It’s no fun to be laughed at.

Solution: Most people ridicule what they do not understand. In his 2008 bestselling book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell makes a cogent argument that extraordinary success is often predicated upon being different. Gladwell describes people who were not only different but possessed what many thought of as liabilities.

3. Problem: Procrastination. Waiting too long to act. The desire to wait until the moment of absolute certainty before making a decision can be compelling.

Solution: What we too often fail to understand is that almost all opportunities come with time limits. As we wait for that moment of absolute certainty, we also see the window of opportunity become smaller, until the opportunity is lost. In the words of Mark Twain, “I was seldom able to see an opportunity until it had ceased to be one.”

If you are procrastinating because a task seems overwhelming, simply use the “Swiss cheese” technique. This is a method recommended by time management expert Alan Lakein in his book How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life. Rather than avoiding something because it seems overwhelming, break it into smaller, more manageable, component tasks and do the more manageable tasks at a time. (Also see my webinar on how to be way more productive.)

I’ll skip a few and hit on information overload.

6. Problem: Being overwhelmed by too much information, too wide a scope, or too little time.

Remember the 80/20 Rule: 80 percent of your problem comes from 20 percent of the potential sources. It’s a derivation of the skewed (non-Bell-shaped) distribution of Power Law statistics. For example, 80 percent of all healthcare costs come in the last 20 percent of your life. Eighty percent, or more, of polluting vehicle emissions come from only 20 percent of all vehicles. Eighty percent of casualties in a terrorist attack will be psychological as opposed to physical. You get the point. So rather than view problems as being universal and paralyzing, search for the applicability of the 80/20 Rule. Focus on the minority of potential sources that may account for the majority of the problem. Then, if appropriate, apply your resources to the 20 percent. Malcolm Gladwell concludes that if you use this approach, you may actually be able to solve a problem rather than simply palliatively manage it.

Try practicing Occam’s razor (a.k.a. the law of simplicity): When faced with competing alternative courses of action or competing conclusions, choose the one that rests upon the fewest assumptions.

Also consider whether the problem is a mystery or a puzzle.

In the end the authors sum up the lessons they’ve learned on human resilience.

The seven characteristics of highly resilient people are:

1. Optimism
2. Decisive action
3. Honesty
4. Tenacity
5. Interpersonal connectedness
6. Self-control
7. Calm, innovative, nondogmatic thinking.

The authors spend a great deal of time on the first 5 factors which they see as sequential.

Coming back full circle to the five factors they now re-write them:

1. Active Optimism. Active optimism is more than a hope or a belief. It’s a mandate to bounce back, to be successful, to avoid being a victim. Active optimism is the belief that you can be an agent of change. Optimism breeds self-confidence that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy when it is honed with a dose of realism. Optimistic people are often viewed as more attractive to others than are pessimists. But the optimistic mandate to be resilient alone is not enough. It must lead to …

2. Decisive Action. You must act in order to rebound. You must learn to leave behind the comfort of the status quo and make difficult decisions. To paraphrase Mark Twain, if all you do is sit on the right track and wait for something to happen, it will. You will get run over. Or, perhaps at least an opportunity will be lost. Being decisive is hard. That’s why it’s rare. But by being decisive you distinguish yourself from others, usually in a positive way. As such you may then become the beneficiary of the halo effect, a lasting positive regard in the eyes of others. Making hard decisions to act is made easier when based upon a …

3. Moral Compass. There are four points to our moral compass: honor, integrity, fidelity, and ethics. Use them to guide your decisions under challenging circumstances. Simply do what is right and just. Your actions always have consequences. Consider the consequences of your actions not just for you but for others as well. Once your decisions have been made, employ …

4. Relentless Tenacity, Determination. In 1989 Woody Allen was credited with proffering the notion that about 80 per cent of success is showing up. We can modify that notion somewhat and say success often comes to those who not only show up but tenaciously show up. Show up and carry with you a relentless defiance of failure (but keep in mind that success may have to be redefined occasionally). Marine General Oliver Smith is quoted in Time magazine about his change of direction during the Korean War’s Battle of Chosin Reservoir. He said, “Retreat, hell! We’re not retreating, we’re just advancing in a different direction.” To find hidden opportunities and aid in physical and psychological energy, rely upon . . .

5. Interpersonal Support. Remember, no person is, nor ever should be, an island. Great strength is derived from the support of others. Going through life alone means no one has your back. Surround yourself with those of a compassionate heart and supportive presence. Knowing when to rely upon others is a sign of strength and wisdom. Supportive relationships are most commonly earned, however. Give to others. Be supportive without any expectation of a return. It will be the best external investment you can ever make.

Stronger: Develop the Resilience You Need to Succeed goes on to explore these five aspects in greater detail.

Map and Territory

“(History) offers a ridiculous spectacle of a fragment expounding the whole.”
— Will Durant in Our Oriental Heritage


In 1931, in New Orleans, Louisiana, mathematician Alfred Korzybski presented a paper on mathematical semantics. To the non-technical reader, most of the paper reads like an abstruse argument on the relationship of mathematics to human language, and of both to physical reality. Important stuff certainly, but not necessarily immediately useful for the layperson.

However, in his string of arguments on the structure of language, Korzybski introduced and popularized the idea that the map is not the territory. In other words, the description of the thing is not the thing itself. The model is not reality. The abstraction is not the abstracted. This has enormous practical consequences.

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