— The Power of Thinking Without Thinking — 

Three intriguing premises underpin Blink, Malcolm Gladwell’s recent examination of human interaction. First, “decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.” Second, “when should we trust our instincts, and when should we be wary of them? …When our powers of rapid cognition go awry, they go awry for a very specific and consistent set of reasons, and those reasons can be identified and understood.” And third, Gladwell wants to convince us that “our snap judgments and first impressions can be educated and controlled.” In fact, he says that’s his most important task.

As in his first book, The Tipping Point, Gladwell is ever the cultural storyteller. His examples in Blink are many and varied — as is human nature and the circumstances in which it acts. Gladwell begins with a situation in the art-and-museum world and takes us on a journey through the realms of gambling, car sales, furniture design, food tasting, music, acting, medicine, police work, the military, and athletics, to name just a few. By the time we finish reading, the connections are not as far-fetched as that simple listing might seem.

Gladwell opens by describing an artifact being considered for acquisition by a famous museum. Was this ancient statue the real thing — and if it was, how could the museum be certain, since its provenance was incomplete? An intensive review process lasting fourteen months involved geologists and legal experts, as well as tests with electron microscopy and X-ray diffraction, among others. But while scientists and lawyers immersed themselves in analysis, many art experts said the statue just “didn’t look right.” When seeing the piece for the first time, their initial reactions — the blink of Gladwell’s focus — told them something was wrong. And ultimately, those initial two-second impressions proved right. The statue was a modern forgery.

So how could all the analysis have been wrong? That’s the dilemma of “rapid cognition,” or “thin-slicing.” We’ve been conditioned to disregard snap judgments and put our faith in thorough investigation. Gladwell contends that we can achieve greater benefit from intelligently combining those two modes of knowing. In fact, we can gain the most by educating ourselves about our ability to thin-slice and by appreciating the context for our snap-judgment perceptions.

Most humans have the capacity for instantaneous assessment — snap judgment — of the information contained in facial expressions. Based on the entire range of muscles used in a human face, scientists Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen identified a total of forty-three movements they termed action units.

Action units can be combined or layered to create as many as ten thousand “visible facial configurations.” Of these, about three thousand seem to ‘mean’ something, resulting in an “essential repertoire of human facial displays of emotion.” That knowledge accumulates in each of us from birth and is critical to our existence because most of us get most of our information about the world and our place in it from ‘reading’ emotions on others’ faces.

A very thoughtful description of what happens — or doesn’t — in the case of autism serves to highlight the survival value of what Gladwell calls “mind-reading,” which, in this context, is a sensitivity to the information conveyed through slight changes in facial features. Most of us “read” faces and quickly extrapolate what people are thinking. An autistic person sees only objects — a person’s face is the same as a light switch or a car. Autistic people don’t generate a context for what they see and are clueless about what may be going on in someone else’s mind.

At the other end of the spectrum, Gladwell points out that children who grow up in homes where alcoholism or other forms of physical and emotional abuse are prevalent become extremely sensitive to fleeting changes in facial expression because their lives truly depend upon the ability to “read” the alcoholic’s or abuser’s mind and get out of the way.

Whether we’re consciously aware of it or not, the contents of our minds show most often on our faces. That’s not an argument for becoming a stone-face; it points out the need to educate ourselves about when we can trust our instincts and when we can’t.

The range of Gladwell’s examples makes the information he presents useful to virtually everyone. He shows how a counselor can predict divorce using only four factors (defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, contempt) through ‘sideways’ observation of married couples talking about their pets. Another study found that the doctors who are likely to be sued for medical malpractice can be identified by their personal treatment of patients: do they rush through patient interactions, ignore them, or treat people poorly? If so, they’re more likely to end up in court.

Gladwell also dives into the speed-dating phenomenon and shows how we can be accurately assessed — as much as 95 percent of the time — by strangers whose only knowledge of us comes from time spent looking around our homes or personal spaces.

Also debunked are myths about two police officers in a car being more effective than one (one person has to wait for back-up, which reduces the possibility of violence, while two officers often succumb to peer pressure and bravado under stress, which can lead to injuries that didn’t have to happen), and the marketing opportunities lost by a blind dependence on focus group information.

In one key Blink section, we see the effects of rapid decision-making, especially the kind required in military combat. In a war game, Blue Team (US and allies, with access to all the information in the world) is skunked big-time by a “rogue commander” with minimal resources (Red Team, headed by a “gunslinger” — a retired US Marine with two tours in Vietnam under his belt), who recognizes that survival, let alone winning, means he has to be creative. Blue Team, on the other hand, succumbs to ‘analysis paralysis.’

Another important Blink topic deals with “priming” — demonstrating how bias (for or against) can be induced through strategic placement of words and pictures. Gladwell describes the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which examines the role “unconscious [i.e. implicit] associations play in our beliefs and behaviors.” Several interactive examples are provided in the book, or you can try your hand at an online version.

Gladwell was astounded at his own responses to the test — and his inability to change his responses, no matter how many times he repeated the test. But awareness is critical, because awareness of bias can help us avoid the “Warren Harding Factor,” where we project leadership or other capability onto people simply because they’re tall, handsome/beautiful, or sound authoritative, even if they may not have skill or substance. As communicators who work on many levels, that awareness can help us be more effective in our interactions.

Gladwell makes us aware of the value of snap judgments, as well as how they can be distorted. Why do these judgments become corrupted and why are we usually so oblivious to that fact? “Because we are often careless with our powers of rapid cognition. We don’t know where our first impressions come from or precisely what they mean, so we don’t always appreciate their fragility. Taking our powers of rapid cognition seriously means we have to acknowledge the subtle influences that can alter or undermine or bias the products of our unconscious.”

When confronted with such prejudice, what must we do? “Solve the problem,” says Gladwell. Don’t be “resigned to what happens in the blink of an eye.” Learn to “control the environment in which rapid cognition takes place,” and thereby “control rapid cognition.” When we control rapid cognition, “we can prevent the people fighting wars or staffing emergency rooms or policing the streets from making mistakes.”

More is at stake than just the obvious, too. We don’t need a lot in order to improve situations and opportunities. We don’t necessarily have to reinvent the wheel, invest huge sums of money in the problem, or build new facilities. We just need to blink.

By “paying attention to the tiniest detail, the first two seconds” of the interaction, we can see people and situations for who and what they truly are. In just the blink of an eye.

Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Published: New York: Little, Brown and Company ©2005

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos

99.3 Random Acts of Marketing

Bite-sized business tips in a regular-sized package. What a deal!

Written by the owner of an ad agency in the central United States, Random Acts serves as both a reminder of what you may already know about marketing your products, services, or organization, and a gently humorous nudge to get busy about putting that knowledge to use.

Whether we like it or not, in our 24/7 constant-contact world, all business owners and employees are de facto marketers for the places they work, the clients they hold in relationship, and the products and services they provide.

Totally new ideas may be few and far between, but, as author/marketing guru McLellan points out, success often comes by doing the obvious and the mundane consistently and regularly. He quotes facts and figures — also an appropriate thing to do in marketing materials that cry for specificity instead of glittering generalities — and he mixes in anecdotes, bullet points, and references to other useful resources.

More than once, we are treated to the admonition to think of our audience(s) instead of ourselves when developing marketing materials and approaches. That’s a reminder that never grows old, especially in our ultra-consumer-driven world. Just because we’ve seen the ad or heard the story a hundred/thousand times doesn’t mean our potential customers have encountered it at all.

“According to a study by Thomas Publishing Company,” states McLellan, “most marketers give up too early. The study reveals 80% of sales to businesses are made on or after the fifth contact, but only 10% of all marketing efforts go beyond three times!

“When planning your marketing efforts, remember that frequency is critical to success. You have to get your customers’ attention, pique their interest and create the need for your product or service. Then, you have to stay under their nose until they are ready to buy. No single ad or direct mail piece can be expected to accomplish all that in a couple of attempts.”

The book is set up in an interesting format: all the information nuggets are on the right-hand pages. All the left-hand pages are blank, with the heading “Random notes:” — leaving plenty of space for you to doodle your own ideas and applications.

Random Acts is an easy read, but don’t let that fool you. You’ll learn everything from how using the two-letter U.S. state abbreviations can save you money on your direct mail projects to the value of thinking about marketing campaigns, not just brochures or one-off splashes. Like the adage about the irresistibility of potato chips or chocolate chip cookies, take just one taste of these Random Acts and you’ll stick around for the whole book.

Author: Drew McLellan
Published: Des Moines, Iowa: Innova Training & Consulting ©2003

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos

The Drunkard’s Walk

— How Randomness Rules Our Lives —

Full disclosure: I’m about as far from a mathematician as real person can get. Arithmetic, yes. Calculus, statistics, probabilities — not so much. Yet, awareness of the principles of this latter group, turns out, is critical to daily functioning, especially as life gets both more complex and simpler. Who knew?

Well, apparently, Mlodinow and a lot of others, who have a hard time getting through to the rest of us. But Mlodinow, holder of a doctorate in physics — and a writer for television series such as MacGyver (yes!) and Star Trek: The Next Generation — is that rare breed of specialist who can also describe his subject in an engaging way, a way that can make mind-boggling concepts relatively more accessible to average citizens who may never think “math” past the chore of balancing the checkbook. Yes, some of us still use checkbooks.

So here I am, intrigued by the blurb about this book recommended by another author I found interesting (Daniel Gilbert of Stumbling on Happiness) and hoping I can make heads or tails (more about the odds and probabilities of coin tossing inside) of a discussion of chance, probability, and randomness — even as I, like most humans, want to believe there is logic and reason, as well as magic, at large in the world.

I’m not yet ready to give up on the value of intuition. Neither is Mlodinow, interestingly enough. But after a number of metaphorical whacks on the side of the head — encounters with ostensibly known quantities that proved to be anything but — it seemed important that I learn as much as possible about whether or not the odds were ever going to be on my side. The answer, according to Mlodinow, is that they are about as much as they are not. Good to know.

“The theory of randomness is fundamentally a codification of common sense. But it is also a field of subtlety, a field in which great experts have been famously wrong and expert gamblers infamously correct. What it takes to understand randomness and overcome our misconceptions is both experience and a lot of careful thinking.” Mlodinow provides information about both. Just because something happens in proximity to something else doesn’t mean one is the cause of the other, even if we would like that to be so. It may be, but then again, it may not. We must take care to make the distinction.

Think bell curves. Regression to the mean. Sample space. Coefficient correlations. All these seemingly esoteric phrases describe real activities of real human beings, unpredictable lot that we are. Mlodinow’s gift is that he can describe these mathematical concepts in actual and often humorous examples. We get a fascinating history lesson, too, with stories of overlapping effort, often mutually unknown, starting as early as the ancient Greeks and Romans and moving through the likes of Galileo, the Bernoulli family, Descartes, Fourier, Pascal, Fermat (he of the Last Theorem), Lavoisier, Newton, Poincaré, Einstein, and other lesser known but no less important minds at work on everything from astronomy observations, rates of mortality during the Black Plague, games of chance, and the chest measurements of soldiers being fitted for uniforms.

You might not think it’s true — and many people didn’t/don’t — that the wisest decision is to change your selection of Door #1, Door #2, or Door #3 on Let’s Make a Deal if you missed the correct answer the first time and Monty Hall offered you the opportunity to switch. The odds of success are truly different than seems logical, because most of us actually base our “logic” on the intuition humans get from our skill at pattern recognition and 20/20 hindsight. We’re hard-wired to fill in the blanks of the missing detail we can’t see at a distance. But then we get in our own way by seeing only what we expect to see, even when confronted with the facts.

Given its obsession with statistics, sports is rife with examples of randomness, even if we might want the outcome to be otherwise. Just review the 1961 home-run race between Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. Then there are all the other aspects of life and business we wish we could predict with certainty. How else to account for market-research focus groups, political polls, and such?

So when it comes to determining whether a CEO is worth the salary, a Hollywood movie will succeed at the box office, or a book, even by a well-known author, will turn into a best-seller, we can use all the numbers in the world, but we may miss the mark by a mile.

And what about that most legal of gambling opportunities — stock trades and market performance? Or the wizardry of financial advisors? Along with automobile accidents, wine ratings, SAT scores, insurance rates, and weather forecasts, we have a lot to learn about how randomness influences everything. Even the iPod’s “randomizer” algorithm had to be adjusted mathematically to be less random in order to make it seem more random to its human listeners. Go figure.


Although the awareness that “human intuition is ill suited to situations involving uncertainty was known as early as the 1930s,” only recently has “a new academic field…emerged to study how people make judgments and decisions when faced with imperfect or incomplete information. [This] research has shown that when chance is involved, people’s thought processes are often seriously flawed.” The Drunkard’s Walk is the name of the principle, an apt visual description of the phenomenon. It’s also Mlodinow’s attempt in book form to get this academic work into the mainstream of society where it can do the rest of us some good.

Says Mlodinow: “A lot of what happens to us — success in our careers, in our investments, and in our life decisions, both major and minor — is as much the result of random factors as the result of skill, preparedness, and hard work. So the reality that we perceive is not a direct reflection of the people or circumstances that underlie it but is instead an image blurred by the randomizing effects of unforeseeable or fluctuating external forces. That is not to say that ability doesn’t matter — it is one of the factors that increase the chances of success — but the connection between actions and results is not as direct as we might like to believe. Thus our past is not so easy to understand, nor is our future so easy to predict, and in both enterprises we benefit from looking beyond the superficial explanations.”

Let The Drunkard’s Walk be your guide.

Author: Leonard Mlodinow
Published: New York: Pantheon Books ©2008

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos

Creating the Innovation Culture

— Leveraging Visionaries, Dissenters, and Other Useful Troublemakers in Your Organization —

Although the word innovation may be part of most current corporate mantras, the manifestation and acceptance of it for millions of workers and their organizations often seems far away. It’s also interesting to discover some in the business press who have long touted the “i” word as gospel are now, apparently, qualifying their statements. Case in point is the January 2004 cover story in the business magazine Fast Company about Apple Computer’s Steve Jobs.

Fast Company is by no means decrying innovation — it is, after all, their stock in trade. But the article presents a cautionary tale and some useful perspective on the drive to innovate your way to business success. While Steve Jobs and Apple’s computers may always stay at the far-out end of the innovation spectrum, most companies would do well simply to allow even a breath of modestly fresh air into the organizational atmosphere. If that’s the situation in your shop, Frances Horibe’s book Creating the Innovation Culture offers another way to look at the world.

Every organization needs to innovate — develop new products, services, customer experiences, delivery methods, processes, procedures, etc., etc. — to keep from rapidly dying the dinosaur death of stultifying irrelevance. But innovation is essentially incompatible with the average organizational structure, behavior, and sustenance. By definition, organizations institutionalize and standardize whatever it was that originally brought them success — and they just keep doing it. That may have worked for Henry Ford, but that approach doesn’t work any longer.

As David Carlson, an Alcatel vice president, states in the dust cover blurbs for this book, “It was George Bernard Shaw who once remarked with undeniable logic that all progress has to depend on the ‘unreasonable man’ because they are the ones who don’t adapt to the world as it is. This, of course, makes perfect sense, but only up to the point where one is faced with having to deal with the reality of it in an organization.” Aye, there’s the rub.

Creative behavior — dissent — is both the challenge and the opportunity. But how do we manage to swallow that whole cookie without choking? Horibe offers many suggestions. She recognizes that innovation is about “different ideas that challenge traditional assumptions and ways of doing business,” that being different is too often perceived as “dissent, which leads to conflict.” Dissenters are those unwelcome folks who may be seen as the “wild ducks of the organization, because they won’t fly in formation,” but who can also bring new ideas and fresh perspectives. Managers, however much they say they want to encourage these new thoughts, must have appropriate ways to deal with the delicate balance between innovation and status quo, avoiding the conflict that can paralyze forward movement.

Horibe shows how to encourage dissent (innovation), how organizations knowingly and unknowingly stifle dissent, how to recognize when healthy dissent turns into unproductive conflict, how middle managers can become brokers for opportunities in innovation and collaboration, how to coach dissenters, and how to create processes that support innovation. Not one who’s lost in the Pollyanna permafrost that denies any problems inherent in the nature of innovation, Horibe provides excellent examples, sample dialogues you can practice with your colleagues and direct reports, and end-of-chapter summaries that cut to the chase.

If you’ve been wondering how to keep a handle on your organization at the same time you’re trying to evolve it into the next phase, you’ll pick up some useful strategies in this book. Then, it’s up to you to actually do something with them.

Author: Frances Horibe
Published: Toronto: John Wiley & Sons Canada Limited ©2001

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos

The Spiral Staircase

— My Climb Out of Darkness — 

The Universe has a way of getting our attention — guiding us into the life for which our gifts are best suited. Idiosyncratic humans that we are, we often struggle against these messages, thinking we know better, determined to do whatever it is in our own way, intent on “making our mark,” or “going it alone.” Even so (perhaps, especially because of this attitude?), many of us spend lengthy periods in bewilderment and angst, wondering what is our true purpose in life. We seek guidance, direction, help from activities or work or the latest celebrity or book or guru. We want “The Secret” without the requirement of effort. But knowledge, particularly self-knowledge, does take effort. The unfolding can be messy, unpleasant, filled with anxiety, or challenge, even if the outcome is ultimately brilliant.

Karen Armstrong, one of the world’s best-known writers on matters of religion, myth, and spirituality, seems not to consider her life one of brilliance, satisfied instead to find something akin to a soft glow with staying power, even if it flickers occasionally, as most do, in strong winds. In The Spiral Staircase, Armstrong shares her journey of discovering purpose and making a life despite (because of?) the challenge of undiagnosed illness and the violence to her spirit done by years of harsh emotional conditioning. This elegant, authentic, very readable memoir picks up where Beginning the World, Armstrong’s earlier (and unsatisfactory to her) attempt at autobiography, leaves off. Staircase explores what has happened to her since she left the convent after seven years of studying to become a Catholic nun.

Although the outcome of that experience was a loss of faith, Armstrong regained her spirit and has become a leading figure in worldwide interfaith dialogue. Her books on various aspects of Christianity, as well as Islam, Buddha, Muhammad, Jerusalem, the Crusades, Genesis, St. Paul, and others, offer an ecumenical perspective on the world’s important wisdom traditions and their impact on believers and non-believers alike. Especially since the events of September 11, 2001 in the United States, Armstrong has been a sought-after resource on the true nature of Islam, the challenges of fundamentalism in all faiths, and opportunities for common ground across doctrines.

As a British teenager in the 1950s, Armstrong grew up in a period of radical change, one where “many of my generation, born in the last years or in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War” had an “inchoate yearning for transformation.” She is all too clear that “postwar Britain was not an easy place to grow up. We may have defeated Hitler, but the war had ruined us. Britain was now a second-rate power, and food, clothing, and petrol were strictly rationed well into the 1950s. Because thousands of homes had been destroyed during the blitz, there was a grave housing crisis. Our cities were scarred with desolate bomb sites and filled with towering heaps of rubble. The center of Birmingham was not completely rebuilt until after I left for the convent [in 1962]. After the war, we were in debt to the United States for 3 billion pounds, our empire was dismantled, and though we were fed on a surfeit of films celebrating Britain’s endurance and victory, nobody seemed prepared to look facts in the face and decide what our future role in the world should be. Young Britons, like myself, who came to maturity in this twilight confusion of austerity, repression, nostalgia, frustration, and denial wanted not only a different world but to be changed ourselves.”

While Armstrong’s journey of transformation took her into the convent, she likens it to “the quasi-religious fervor inspired by the rock ‘n’ roll records that fell like manna from heaven between 1954 and 1959 on a country that had no tradition of Afro-American music. It seemed to promise a new world…. In the world conjured up by rock ‘n’ roll, nobody had to do national service or listen to endless stories about the war….” Having been a product of a convent school and uncomfortable with the raucousness of the rock ‘n’ roll 1960s life that seemed to be unfolding in Britain and elsewhere, Armstrong opted for God and religious study as her path to a purposeful life. Needless to say, things didn’t work out quite as she envisioned.

Clear-eyed in her description of the challenges, successes, and personal devastation of her convent experience, Armstrong nevertheless acknowledges that the choice to take this path was hers and hers alone. In fact, family and friends actively discouraged her, although her parents finally relented. What no one knew, however, was the toll it would ultimately take on this impressionable seventeen-year-old, especially since the prevailing religious philosophy was that any difficulties were the result of inappropriate emotionality. In the book, Armstrong details her struggle with this attitude, with the philosophy, and with recurring physical symptoms no one knew how to interpret. When she encountered medical professionals, they opted for psychological approaches that contributed to Armstrong thinking herself nearly mad and unfit for gainful employment — completely misunderstanding for many years what would finally be diagnosed as temporal lobe epilepsy. Today, with medication, her symptoms are controlled; her work and life have stabilized.

The stability brings Armstrong full circle — or up another rung on the spiral staircase. The book’s title comes from “T.S. Eliot’s Ash-Wednesday, a sequence of six poems that traces the process of spiritual recovery.” Armstrong describes it as “central to my journey…. In Eliot’s Ash-Wednesday, we watch the poet painfully climbing a spiral staircase. This image is reflected in the twisting sentences of the verse, which often revolves upon itself, repeating the same words and phrases, apparently making little headway, but pushing steadily forward nevertheless. My own life has progressed in the same way. For years, it seemed a hard, Lenten journey, but without the prospect of Easter. I toiled round and round in pointless circles, covering the same ground, repeating the same mistakes, quite unable to see where I was going. Yet all the time, without realizing it, I was slowly climbing out of the darkness.”

In addition to the story of Armstrong’s personal journey, we are also treated to a taste of her ‘new’ path — her scholarship regarding the world’s wisdom traditions, their points of commonality, and their emphasis on “practical compassion.” Although she felt ready to abandon her study of God and religion upon leaving the convent, Armstrong found explanations both profound and understandable as she continued to encounter several religious experts. Armstrong recalls a conversation with Hyam Maccoby, Judaic scholar and librarian at London’s Leo Baeck College, in which “he had told me that in most traditions, faith was not about belief but about practice. Religion is not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but about doing things that change you. It is a moral aesthetic, an ethical alchemy. If you behave in certain ways, you will be transformed. The myths and laws of religion are not true because they conform to some metaphysical, scientific, or historical reality but because they are life enhancing. They tell you how human nature functions, but you will not discover their truth unless you apply these myths and doctrines to your own life and put them into practice.” Hence, “the one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrinal statement, spiritual experience, or devotional practice was that it must lead directly to practical compassion. If your understanding of the divine made you kinder, more empathetic, and impelled you to express this sympathy in concrete acts of loving-kindness, it was good theology….”

Armstrong also recognizes the useful and necessary mythological analogies to what Joseph Campbell describes as “following your bliss” or what Parker Palmer urges in his book Let Your Life Speak. Palmer talks about “way closing” and “way opening” and how, regardless of the amount of effort we put into the search, we often cannot discover our true purpose (“way opening”) until we look back and inventory the avenues that closed to us for any number of reasons. Those paths probably evaporated because our ideas for ourselves cannot compare with the wonder of what the Universe has in store for us, once we get our egos out of our own way. Armstrong states: “The great myths show that when you follow somebody else’s path, you go astray. The hero has to set off by himself, leaving the old world and the old ways behind. He must venture into the darkness of the unknown, where there is no map and no clear route. He must fight his own monsters, not somebody else’s, explore his own labyrinth, and endure his own ordeal before he can find what is missing in his life. Thus transfigured, he (or she) can bring something of value to the world that has been left behind.”

“In mythology,” says Armstrong, “stairs frequently symbolize a breakthrough to a new level of consciousness. For a long time I assumed that I had finished with religion forever, yet in the end, the strange and seemingly arbitrary revolutions of my life led me to the kind of transformation that — I now believe — was what I was seeking all those years ago, when I packed my suitcase, entered my convent, and set off to find God.”

Author: Karen Armstrong
Published: New York: Alfred A. Knopf ©2004

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos

The Extraordinary Healing Power of Everyday Things

— Fourteen Natural Steps to Health and Happiness — 

Are we too clean — and making ourselves sick in the process? Don’t roll your eyes just yet. The “hygiene hypothesis” is of serious concern to the scientific and medical communities as they try to help us get well and stay healthy. It may actually be our modern desire never to be sick that is, in fact, making us more so. Such a premise nicely coincides with an assessment by my maternal grandmother of the blessings my siblings and I received as children playing outdoors: “A little good clean dirt never hurt anyone.” Maybe that’s why the chapter titled “Dirt” in Larry Dossey’s book, The Extraordinary Healing Power of Ordinary Things, really resonates. As one of the “fourteen natural steps to health and happiness,” a little good clean dirt has a lot to recommend it.

Growing up on a Midwestern American farm in the 1950s turns out to have conferred an array of interesting and useful benefits, not the least of which might be a relatively healthy immune system. At the time, it was hard to comprehend such advantages of living without indoor plumbing, with well-water and rainwater from the catch-barrel and cistern for drinking and washing, with tantalizingly unknown mysteries, plants, and animals to explore in the farmyard and in the grove of trees at the edge of the cultivated fields.

Or living through an early childhood winter where two of my siblings and I slogged through mumps, measles, and chickenpox in a blur of itch-filled days, fitful nights, and parental angst. But as Dossey describes, farm families learned from their connection to the natural world, just as humans have for millennia, about how to foster the health of themselves and their communities. Exposure to dirt, germs, and an assortment of diseases in childhood actually helps us build the immune systems that keep us healthy later in life.

The steps of the book’s subtitle seem a bit mislabeled, since there’s really no sequence to the resources examined. But it’s a diverse and useful collection, nonetheless. In addition to dirt, Dossey investigates optimism, forgetting, novelty, tears, music, risk, plants, bugs, unhappiness, nothing, voices, mystery, and miracles. Ordinary though they may be, they’re all, in some way, involved in healing and helping humans stay healthy. The first lines of the book’s introduction speak to the surprise of finding value in the everyday: “There is an old saying: If you want to hide the treasure, put it in plain sight. Then no one will see it.” How true!

In typical Dossey fashion, the definition of healing and health remain broad. Over a long medical and writing career, he has found that ‘healing’ and ‘curing’ are not necessarily the same thing, that someone can be healed without regaining health. Dossey is willing to consider the value of a thing (music, mystery, novelty) that adds to “life’s fulfillment” as much as things (bugs, plants) that may act to rid the body of an infection.

As a medical doctor and the former chief of staff at the Medical City Dallas Hospital, Dossey knows the science. He’s also been willing to address the human element of health and listen to what his patients tell him about who they are, what helps (or doesn’t help) them heal, and what “healing” means to each of them. He has continually supported a deeper look into what’s now called the “mind/body connection” and “alternative therapies,” serving as co-chair of the Panel on Mind/Body Interventions in the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health.

Stories his patients shared with him led Dossey to investigate the power of prayer (Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine) and to champion new research areas related to nonlocal healing and intentionality, among others.

Mindful of the value of all the resources at our disposal, Dossey asks us to put things into perspective:

“While we should be grateful for the high-tech, life-saving developments of modern medicine, there is a dark side to these approaches, which we ignore at our peril. Some scholars say that modern hospital care has become the third leading cause of death in America, after heart disease and cancer, because of deaths due to medical errors, mistakes, and the side effects of drugs. Moreover, surveys suggest that three-fourths of those who go to doctors’ offices have nothing wrong with them physically, meaning that they are largely beyond the reach of what complex, modern medicine has to offer. These facts should give us pause to ask whether there are not simpler and less lethal ways of approaching healing. I believe these ways are all around us — treasures hidden in plain sight.”

Whatever condition of health you and your loved ones may currently experience, Dossey’s review of the medical research that validates these fourteen simple remedies demonstrates that by “aligning ourselves with the wisdom of nature,” we can “allow true healing to take place.”

Author: Larry Dossey, M.D.
Published: New York: Three Rivers Press ©2006

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos

Monkeyluv and Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals

With wit, humor, and not a few pop culture references, Robert Sapolsky offers a very readable exploration of the science behind the behavior of humans — and other creatures, too. In the process, he debunks some myths, skewers much of “conventional wisdom,” and develops convincing explanations for why we do what we do and how our inner and outer worlds interact.

The essays in Monkeyluv were first published between 1997 and 2005 in scientific and general-interest magazines ranging from Discover, Natural History, The Sciences, and Scientific American to Men’s Health and The New Yorker. For the book, Sapolsky grouped the essays into sections on “Genes and Who We Are,” “Our Bodies and Who We Are,” and “Society and Who We Are.” In each essay, new commentary is provided if the original seemed dated, and all are wrapped up with “Notes and Further Readings,” which turns out to be a classy way to provide bibliographic references and new material related to the original. No more flipping to the fine print in the back of the book or ignoring that mass of data altogether. Nice nuggets can be found here. And an introduction to each section gets the reader on board for what follows.

No need to be a science nerd to enjoy this book, either. Sapolsky takes us back to high school biology and then gently, clearly, brings us forward into what’s happening in research on depression, DNA and cloning, the human genome project, primate studies, bad moods, gender differences, the effects of stress, brain parasites, child abuse, cultural effects of deserts and rain forests, why “maybe” is harder to handle than “yes” or “no,” dreams, death, and why we tend to reject the new and novel as we age. Life.

Especially in the section on genes — but running throughout the book — is an awareness of (and attempt to correct) misperceptions of the subject matter that arise from garbled communication (and lack of understanding) by non-scientist writers and publications.

Sapolsky starts right off tackling the issue of how our “reductionist” problem-solving approach (“…if you want to understand a complex system, break it into its component parts”) works very well in some areas (vaccines, DNA research) but not so much in others (human behavior). He shows “how little genes often have to do with the biology of who we are.” While poking fun at his own profession, Sapolsky reminds that “you can’t begin to understand the functions of genes without appreciating how the environment regulates those genes.”

No, human behavior is not “innate, instinctual,” unpreventable, doomed to happen no matter what. The environments we live in, starting before birth and lasting until we die, interact with and affect genetic influences on behavior. Nature-versus-nurture is the wrong question. Instead, genes “produce tendencies to respond to the environment in certain ways.” We have more than semantic distinctions at work here. “…What knowledge about those genes keeps teaching us is that we have that much more of a responsibility to create environments that interact benignly with those genes.”

Sapolsky has long been at work on the issue of stress and how it affects the life of the planet. His book from the mid 1990s, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: A Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping, was one of the first to let laypeople in on the workings of stress in everyday life and how it contributes to many modern diseases. That book’s focus is “the dichotomy between the stress-response being adaptive when it is mobilized transiently for an acute physical stressor [commonly known as the fight-or-flight response], and increasing the risk of disease when it is mobilized chronically for reasons of psychological stress.” Although science now knows that adult brains do make new neurons all the time to replace those lost, certain chemicals, such as hydrocortisone, that wash over our brains during stress, can actually kill whole sections of cells that will not be replenished. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), no matter what its source, is real and deadly to brain health.

One of the last essays in the book deals with game theory — “issues of altruism, reciprocity, and competition.” That sounds pretty highfalutin until you realize it describes such topics as crime and punishment or our sense of cooperation and cheating. After setting up games where people could either 1) collaborate and succeed or 2) take a chance to “pay to punish” cheating (although that choice would soon lead to greater collaboration), researchers were surprised to learn that virtually everyone opted to pay to punish.

“Think about how weird this is. If a bunch of people were willing to incur costs to themselves by being spontaneously cooperative, that catapults you into an atmosphere of stable cooperation where everyone profits. Peace, harmony, Joan Baez singing as the credits roll. But people aren’t willing to do it. [Emphasis added.] In contrast, establish a setting where people can incur costs to themselves by punishing cheaters, where punishing doesn’t bring them any direct benefit or lead to any direct civic good…and they jump at the chance. And then, indirectly, an atmosphere of stable cooperation emerges from this frothy, emotional desire for revenge. …If I were a Vulcan researching social behavior on Earth, this would seem like an irrational mess. But as a social primate, this makes perfect, ironic sense. Some social good occurs as the emergent, mathematical outcome of a not particularly attractive social trait.”

Humans. Go figure.

Author: Robert M. Sapolsky
Published: New York: Scribner ©2005

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos

Managing Humans

— Biting and Humorous Tales of a Software Engineering Manager —

Despite what you might think from its title (and subtitle), Managing Humans has a lot to say to all types of businesses, all types of managers, and, really, anyone who wants to lead or is trying to be a leader anywhere.

Tell the truth now. Wasn’t it just yesterday (or maybe earlier this morning) when you were buried nose-deep in the latest stats from Google Analytics or the quarterly reports from accounting and you blew off the real, actual person hovering outside your door? Or your boss yelled at you about some missed or slipping deadline and you passed that kick-the-dog behavior down the line to your direct reports? Welcome to management. Welcome to business. Welcome to humanity. Welcome to life.

At one point or another, if you’re in a leadership position (whether inside a business or out), you’ll probably get wrapped up in the nuts-and-bolts of everyday events and forget that work gets done through people — the messy and inspiring, frustrating and amazing hot-bodies-with-brains-and-feelings who work for and with you. No matter how challenging these folks can be — and we recognize them when we look in the mirror and see that they mirror us, too — we all work better, and work better together, when we’re seen for the real people we are.

In addition to the messiness of our humanity, manager/leader wannabes must deal with another confounding factor — technology (namely, computers) — which leads to the time-sink of e-mail, social media, and the pervasive black hole of electronic gadgetry and software. Today’s companies and independent road warriors run on some flavor of Windows, Linux, OS X, iOS, Android, Google, assorted mobile apps for smartphones, text messaging, and a Web browser or two. Nerd heaven. The rest of us are just the complicating interlopers in this space, but we’re tethered to it because we must use the magical black box with the related QWERTY keyboard or beam-me-up-Scotty system — or die trying.

Enter Michael Lopp, a k a Rands (his alter ego appearing in the form of a Weblog — blog), a manager of 15 years from Silicon Valley, California’s software development partyland. He worked at the likes of Apple Computer, Netscape Communications, Borland International, and Symantec Corporation, and has been as involved as anyone in the thick of our workplace culture’s latest incarnation.

As a person deeply immersed in technology and the science of computers, you might be surprised to find Lopp saying things like, “Your traditional management book is based on the idea that there is a science behind management. It suggests means of reducing managers and management activities to a pleasant set of rules that, if followed, will result in organizational happiness. This is not that book.”

You’ve just been given fair warning, as you listen in on the (mostly) boys’ club, to expect more than a bit of attitude and a smattering of four-letter words in the fictionalized-but-essentially-true war stories of corralling the nerd herd. Don’t be put off by the occasional raunch or rant or by the technology focus. What soon becomes obvious in Managing Humans is that people are people and management is management, tech-focused or not. And people are the most important ingredient in any company’s success.

Here’s a taste from early on:

“My definition of a great manager is someone with whom you can make a connection no matter where you sit in the organization chart. What exactly I mean by connection varies wildly by who you are and what you want and, yes, that means great managers have to work terribly hard to see the subtle differences in each of the people working for them.

“See. See the people who work with you. They say repetition improves long-term memory, so let’s say it once more. You must see the people who work with you….

“Being a manager is a great job (I mean it), but it’s your ability to construct an insightful opinion about a person in seconds that will help make you a phenomenal manager….

“Every single person with whom you work has a vastly different set of needs. Fulfilling these needs is one way to make them content and productive. It is your full-time job to listen to these people and mentally document how they are built. This is your most important job. I know the senior VP of engineering is telling you that hitting the date for the project is job number one, but you are not going to write the code, test the product, or document the features. The team is going to do these things, and your job is the team….

“Organizations of people are constantly shifting around. They are incredibly messy. In this mess, judgments of you and your work will be constructed in moments — in the ten-second conversations you have in the hallway, and in the way you choose to describe who you are.

“Meanwhile, you need to constantly assess your colleagues, determine what they need, and figure out what motivates them. You need to remember that what worked one day as a motivational technique will backfire in two months because human beings are confusing, erratic, and emotional. In order to manage human beings in the moment, you’ve got to be one.”

If you don’t do anything else, check out this little Flash video. Then, for other clues about care and feeding, read Lopp’s blog, where you’ll find the eminently useful Nerd Handbook.

Oh, yeah. Welcome to life.

Author: Michael Lopp
Published: Berkeley, California: Apress ©2007

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos


— The New Competitive Advantage in a World of More, Better, Faster — 

Are you running on information overload? Too much to do and not enough time? How do you figure out what’s important, how to get things done, make successful decisions, work productively?

Bill Jensen’s Simplicity: The New Competitive Advantage in a World of More, Better, Faster draws on a study of over 2500 people in 460 companies and states the crux of the problem: “The hardest work is figuring out what to do in a world of infinite choices.”

According to Jensen’s sources, “cognitive overload” costs U.S. industry $1.3 trillion through problems such as work complexity’s drain on the economy, the cost of stress-related problems, business’ tab for remedial education, and yearly fees for management consulting. In striving for clarity and simplicity, however, people can work smarter by recognizing what’s valuable and ignoring what’s not important. And Jensen practices what he preaches in this relatively small, clearly written handbook for “simple” success. Just remember: “simple” doesn’t mean it’s easy. You still have to do the work of change.

In slightly over 200 pages filled with chapter punchlines, one-page summaries, short quizzes, discussion points, theory corners, simple notes, models, examples, meaningful graphics, and typographical shifts that get attention and highlight key points, Jensen describes the concept of simplicity, helps us appreciate how work got to be so complex, and offers solutions for what to do about it, including a call to change how we structure companies.

“Simplicity,” says Jensen, is “the art of making the complex clear,” and it “can give us the power to get stuff done…. It’s a prerequisite if we want to leverage the untapped energy, innovation, creativity, and ideas that already exist in our organizations.” But in order to achieve this power, we have to change some habits, especially how we use time. “By changing how you organize and share what you know, you’ll spend a lot less time on…things that don’t matter and a lot more time on things that do.” Workplaces must organize time both so work can get done and so people can think — or you’ve lost your creativity, innovation, and competitive advantage, all of which reside in your workers.

Senior executives can facilitate simplicity by “working backward from what people need. People will trust the corporate infrastructure to help them work smarter if tools, processes, and information are grounded in their needs. Simpler companies start where employees and customers meet, then work backwards into business needs.”

While most work is no longer done with brute strength, many businesses operate as if it was. We’re knowledge workers now, and “productive knowledge work,” states Jensen, “is all about how we use each other’s time and attention as we try to get stuff done. Your worst competitor is day-to-day confusion — the time it takes everyone to figure out what to do and what not to do.” A shocking “60 to 80 percent of us can’t find or translate the info[rmation] we need for decisions.” To get simple, we must compete on clarity by using time differently, we must design smarter work by working backward from what people actually need, and we must lead through navigation — structuring companies according to the questions people ask, creating maps that follow human nature.

Jensen has written several other books, the newest of which is The Simplicity Survival Handbook, and he’s recently contributed as a guest editor to the staff blog at Fast Company magazine.

Author: Bill Jensen
Published: Cambridge, Massachusetts: Perseus Publishing ©2000

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos

How to Become a Rainmaker; The Invisible Touch

These two little books pack a big wallop that can benefit your business in many ways if you do even some of the things they suggest. Don’t let the easy-to-read, one-minute-manager approach fool you. Each author is at the top of his field and, therefore, able to boil down years of painfully acquired experience into the critical elements of success.

The rainmaker in Jeffrey Fox’s title is aimed at sales professionals. But as all business people worth their salt should know by now, we’re all sales people all the time — or we don’t have a business. Before he even gets to the heart of his subject, Fox reminds us that “the most important success factor in any business or organization is having a customer.” No surprise there. But just think how often customers are discounted in your company. We forget, as Fox says, that “it is customer money that pays everyone’s salary” — and benefits, and rent, and office furniture, and sticky notes, and telephone calls, and so on. It doesn’t even matter whether your company delivers the next killer app or the most brilliant business idea, if you don’t have customers, your business can’t survive. Hel-lo.

In Fox’s estimation, rainmakers are made, not born. That should be good news. It means you can learn these skills and techniques, even if you consider yourself the farthest thing from an effective sales person. After all, the way you answer the telephone and help customers solve their problems is part of the sales process. Every contact has the potential for creating a long-term relationship between current/potential customers and your business. Whether your company manufactures a product or delivers a service, it’s important to start simple and think big.

One of Fox’s key points is that rainmakers sell money rather than products or services. Rainmakers serve the customer’s self-interest in solving problems, which usually translates into some kind of dollar savings — better known as “value.” And as always, because the fields of sales and business are full of people, and people rely on relationships, good communication is a huge component of any rainmaker’s success.

How to Become a Rainmaker uses short chapters, to-the-point stories, and “killer questions” to explain “The Rainmaker’s Credo.” Here are a few of its points:

  • Cherish customers at all times.
  • Treat customers as you would your best friend….
  • Show customers the dollarized value of what they will get.
  • Teach customers to want what they need.
  • Make your product the way customers want it….
  • Thank each customer sincerely and often.
  • Help customers pay you, so they won’t be embarrassed and go elsewhere….

Harry Beckwith’s approach to marketing in The Invisible Touch focuses on people, relationships, and good communication, too. After all, he says, “work is not about business; it’s about us. The human dimension of business — the messy, emotional, utterly human dimension — is not merely important; it is all-encompassing. As a result, we must plunge into the world of feelings….” And he spends a good chunk of this book exploring the ways interpersonal communication affects business relationships and the ability of organizations to do effective marketing.

We are reminded in the introduction to The Invisible Touch that Beckwith’s also excellent first book, Selling the Invisible, explored a key concept: the difference between selling products and selling services. He explains that:

  • “Products are made; services are delivered.
  • Products are used; services are experienced.
  • Products possess physical characteristics we can evaluate before we buy; services do not even exist before we buy them. We request them, often paying in advance. Then we receive them.
  • And finally, products are impersonal: bricks, mortar, pens, car seats, fruit — things with no human connection to us. Services, by contrast, are personal — often frighteningly so.”

As a result, Beckwith feels we must approach the marketing of services — and the development of a productive, long-term business relationship — as if we are humanities scholars asking, “What does it mean to be a human being?” Because “no one knows exactly…,” and because “we cannot wait for the Absolute Truths…, we must settle for some Apparently Useful Premises: assumptions that usually produce good results.” Sounds like a reasonable way to get our feet wet in this messy work of creating, nurturing, and marketing relationship-based service businesses.

Simply reading the Table of Contents in The Invisible Touch offers a good idea of Beckwith’s style and philosophy. From the first three major headings (Research and Its Limits; Fallacies of Marketing; What Is Satisfaction?), let alone some of the intriguing subtitles (The Unreliable Subject; Data Misleads; When Butterflies Turn Ugly; The Fallacy of Best Practices/Imagination/Leadership/Competition/Quality; If They’re Satisfied, You’re Doomed), his heretical — and incredibly effective — approach to marketing (especially to marketing service businesses) challenges you to open up a new box of crayons.

Oh, and here are Beckwith’s “four keys:” price, brand, packaging, and relationships. But you really need to read this surprising, enjoyable, and well-written, kick-in-the-pants book for yourself. Perhaps you don’t expect a marketing guru to spend most of his time talking about the critical value of relationships and the importance of the good (and effective) communication on which they are built. But keep that attitude and the rest of us will benefit. You and your company will miss the boat. Which is just another reason to put Beckwith in your business library.

How to Become a Rainmaker:
The Rules for Getting and Keeping Customers and Clients
Jeffrey J. Fox
Published: New York: Hyperion ©2000

The Invisible Touch: Four Keys to Modern Marketing
 Harry Beckwith
Published: New York: Warner Books ©2000

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos