Category Archives: Psychology

Autobiography in Five Short Chapters by Portia Nelson

Last week someone shared with me a wonderful poem, “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters” by Portia Nelson.

I

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.

II

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place
but, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

III

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
my eyes are open
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

IV

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

V

I walk down another street.

Context: We were discussing a phenomenon that I call the “willful confusion mindset,” which is a kind of cognitive learned helplessness where a person seems to deliberately seek obstacles to comprehension when it comes to a particular matter. This is something that workshop facilitators can face due to external factors beyond their control — politics, personalities, etc. — in and among the participants that they work with. Facilitators are also capable of triggering this state in participants if they push the wrong psychological threat/reward buttons. That’s the part I was trying to figure out.

Hence the poem.

I loved the poem so much I decided to share it with others.

One person asked, “I don’t understand this poem. Why don’t they just cover up the hole?”

Why, indeed.

What purpose does the hole serve, especially for those who seem to be stuck in chapter two?

Postscript

There are other people walking down the street, too.  Some are moving in different directions, some are operating in a later chapter, some in an earlier chapter. Some are repeating a lesson previously learned and some are just taking a break, reflecting in a private space of their own making.

All of these people have the potential to help or hinder each other as individuals… and also have the potential to coalesce or disband as an impromptu collective that will work (or not) through its own series of chapters, at a larger scale.

Not only does the sidewalk provide more than one path from A to B., but it is also a dynamic, fractal landscape.

 

Adam Grant: A Giver and an Original… and a Generalist?

Adam Grant OriginalsAdam Grant’s new book is coming out this month and it already looks like a best seller… and not just because of the amazing marketing machine that is already in place.  This guy is on fire.
Grant’s style combines the rigor of research with a semi-autobiographical tone that is compelling and enlightening. On a more personal level, Grant is teaching me important lessons in my exploration of the generalist mindset and how it relates to patterns of success or failure in the contemporary economy.

 

Adam Grant Give and TakeHis previous book, Give and Take  looked at different reciprocity styles and strategies.  His new book, Originals  discusses themes of creativity and nonconformity… with perhaps a dash of novelty-seeking / openness-to-experience traits. Grant is plumbing the depths of under-appreciated aspects of human personality — more technical details on that below.

Givers in a Taker’s World, Generalists in a Specialist’s World

Adam Grant is a Giver, an Original, and a Generalist.  He seems to live the values (and struggles) of the Givers he describes in his earlier book, and very likely, exhibits many of the tendencies of the Originals showcased in his new book. Certainly the being a magician part. He also seems to characterize the mindset and skillset of a highly successful generalist.

Back in late 2008, during the long tail of the global financial crisis, I was talking to an investment banker named Fred.  I told him I was researching the subject of “the relative career success of generalists versus specialists” in a world of hyper-specialization and rapid change (a long-standing fascination – nay, obsession — of mine).

Here’s what Fred said:

“Yes, we live in a hyperspecialist age, but as a result, generalists can be overpaid or underpaid.”

Fred elaborated that there are circumstances where it’s not good to be a specialist. He asserted that being a generalist is a matter of disposition… and therefore inescapable. He later noted that having a generalist mindset can also be the result of one’s education style.

Fred’s language of “overpaid or underpaid” struck a chord in me at the time.

What separates unsuccessful generalists from successful generalists?  Especially in an economy that seeks to perfectly compensate “perfect fit” specialists for each and every function?

Another way of phrasing the question: What’s the difference between a wannabe Malcolm Gladwell from an actual Malcolm Gladwell?

…apart from Outlier circumstances and the embracing of a specialty (aka the 10,000 hour rule)?

Short answer:  It’s about having the right mix of Conscientiousness and Openness to Experience.

Longer answer:  It’s kind of like Adam Grant’s successful versus unsuccessful Givers… and very likely something to do with his Originals.

Personal Tendencies + Adaptive Strategies

In Givers & Takers, after giving props to Robert Benchley and his Law of Distinction, Grant proceeds to define a proposed “reciprocity style” spectrum between “giving” and “taking,” with “matching” somewhere in between.   He then goes on to show how the Givers occupy the bottom and the top of the career ladder.

Grant notes that while Givers at the bottom get walked over, there are a few things they can do to enable themselves to make it to the top without sacrificing their natural tendency to give. As they approach the top of the ladder, people will tend to root for them and push them even higher.  Structurally this resembles the following:

(values-or-temperament-based trait) + (skill-based behavior) = (outcome)

or

PERSONALITY + STRATEGY = WIN

Thank you Adam.    This potentially answers my conundrum about generalists vs. specialists which Fred characterized as “overpaid or underpaid.”

It’s more than just luck, circumstances, talent or IQ. My hypothesis is that, just like Grant’s Givers, generalists have a temperament at keeps them at the bottom due to the often unforgiving nature of business.

However, generalists can also occupy the top tier of organizations, especially when they adopt the right strategies and develop certain skills.  Also, part of it is about moving across the generalist-specialist spectrum and becoming an Eclectic.

I suspect some of the winning skills and strategies for generalists will be mentioned in Grant’s about-to-be released book, Originals. I also suspect that his notion of an “Original” may be a closely related concept to my beloved “Eclectic” type. We shall see.

Finally, according to some personality research studies there is a troubled relationship between high Conscientiousness and high Openness-to-Experience.  My view is that learning to turn on or off obsessive focus by pairing it (or decoupling it, as needed) with distracted curiosity is the key to building an eclectic and useful portfolio of expertise.

For those who identify with being an Original, an Eclectic, an Eccentric, or even just a run-of-the-mill Creative, understanding and mitigating these personality and behavioral distinctions can make all the difference between frustration and fulfillment.

 Adam Grant vs. the BFF (Big Five Factors)

From a bigger picture perspective, Grant is a high functioning generalist who is exploring a series of under-appreciated aspects of human personality.

To phrase it in Five Factor Model of human personality terms, his first book  and related stories of “Powerless Communication” describe behavioral strategies characterized by high levels of Agreeableness. His recent New York Times article, “Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate,”(cf.  wandering and letting things stew), draws out the relative merits of low Conscientiousness… and provides a direct lead-in to his new book that pokes around some corners of the domain of Openness to Experience.

As of this moment, Adam Grant’s marketing bio says he “specializes in building productive cultures of generosity and originality.” Let’s wait and see his niche expand further. Will the book he writes in about 2-3 years shine a light into the adaptive goldmines of low Extroversion and high Neuroticism? Or have those mountains been stripped bare already by others? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, it’s wonderful to read and be inspired by this arch-generalist who has mastered and braided for himself an eclectic and intertwining set of skills, interests and domains of expertise.

Photo essay: Sublime Sublimation

01 - twelve foot high snowbanks

 

Sublime (adj.) 1580s, “expressing lofty ideas in an elevated manner,” from Middle French sublime (15c.), or directly from Latin sublimis “uplifted, high, borne aloft, lofty, exalted, eminent, distinguished,” possibly originally “sloping up to the lintel,” from sub “up to” + limen “lintel, threshold, sill” (see limit (n.)).The sublime (n.) “the sublime part of anything, that which is stately or imposing” is from 1670s.

– from the Online Etymology Dictionary

01a - snow strata

 

Giant snowbanks pile up with geological strata of precipitation and street grime. Their surfaces evaporate directly into thin air, leaving behind fantastic fractal landscapes.

02 - buried fenceposts

05 - mount sublime

Freeze. Thaw. Plow. Evaporate. Melt. Shovel. Freeze. Snow. Evaporate again.

The sun carves sculptures out of ice and air.

03 - iceshroom

04 - sublime sculpture

06 - crystal layers

“Sublimation is part of the royal art where the true gold is made. (…) It is not a voluntary and forcible channeling of instinct into a spurious field of application, but an alchymical transformation for which fire and prima materia are needed.”

– Carl Jung

07 - crystal contrast

08 - snow yinyang

The snow and ice crystals capture dirt and then evaporate, forming a crusty layer of grit that compresses back down into the earth.  As we live and breathe, so do we compress our experiences and impulses into acts of creation.

09 - snow grit

10 - dirty snow lungs 1

11 - dirty air filter

Some of these snowbanks are like dirty air filters, overused through a long winter.

12 - dirty snow lungs 2

13 - groundmelt

It’s the pure stuff that sublimates. The rest of it lingers and melts into oil slick.

13a - dirtmelt

14 - parkinglot snow

Come on, it’s time to put this winter away, already.

15 - sublime sidewalk

Darkness begone. Spring forward into the light.

16 - sublimated shadow

Photo essay: Breaking the Dam

1-IceDam-Roof-Gutter-Mansard-Dormer

Underneath the dreamy pleasure of sunny freeze-thaw icicles trimming a snow-laden roof, there lays the nightmarish pain of ice dams and massive interior water damage.

2-Ice-Damage

Sharp, sparkling rows of glass stalactites may look ornate and perfect, but to be managed well, they require a firm hand. The dam must be broken.

3-1-Icicle-Trim-Strip

3-2-Ice-Damage-Strip

Dam –  n. – A large reservoir of stuff trapped inside a person’s psyche: ideas, energy, and aspirations; concerns, criteria and conditions; wants, desires and passions. Normally these feed in and flow out reliably. However from time to time the floodgate gets frozen shut and a self-reinforcing build-up occurs. As the blockage persists, intervention becomes increasingly necessary.

4-Ice-Dam-Corner

The first rule of being an Ice Dam Master (or Mistress):  At first, you will fail.  You will not completely subdue the ice dam. You will also cause physical damage to the building and possibly to yourself as the intervener.

6-Hammer-Dont-Hurt-Em

This does not diminish you – in fact it provides you with the starting point of your credibility. Know that the vast majority of people won’t even step up and try their hand. They’ll call you crazy, but pay them no heed. The title ‘Master’ is one that is continually earned, continually improved upon.

5-Ice-Hammer

There is a difference between being ‘dominant’ and being ‘domineering.’   The icy core of confidence is a deep sense of humility and fearlessness. True confidence is a big part of that difference.

There is also the critical difference of having compassion and a purpose that is greater than yourself. A compassionate, purposeful focus on others makes (almost) all the difference.

8-Hammered-Ice-Dam

As you sculpt the ice and strip away its unnecessary blockages,

know that it does those things for you, too.

9-Ice-Dan

Turning Pain into Pleasure

(#23 of 27, continuing on the discussion of how optimists and pessimists choose to use their memory and imagination)

A smart optimist knows that it would be a mistake to blithely tell someone who is in a dark place to simply “look on the bright side.”   Glass half empty half full whatever, there is such as thing as reality. The reality is that some people have an experience of pain — past or present — that is coloring their ability to see into the future.

icy trees

With enough tact, class and emotional intelligence, a smart optimist can navigate those situations, demonstrating grace and empathy, with no need to “fix” the other person or “teach” them a “better way to see things.”

But what happens when the smart optimist is feeling the pain themselves?  What happens when “they should know better,” but nevertheless, don’t?    This is where cognitive restructuring comes in.

Cognitive restructuring is the ultimate Jedi mind trick that all smart optimists must be equipped with.  Simply put: cognitive restructuring is a way to turn pain into pleasure. 

All thinking is subject to reframing — it is impossible to think something without somehow giving it meaning and context. Every time we remember something, we reassemble the memory and give it shape, color, flavor, texture.  Same goes for thoughts of the present and imaginings of the future.

Given that there’s no way to avoid reframing, it behooves us to get good at doing it.  Cognitive restructuring is the smart and optimistic way to channel our natural propensity to reframe thoughts.

Once we get good at this skill, we can perform magic. Pain can be transmogrified into pleasure. Humiliation converts into honor. Agony can be made exquisite.

hsbc-ad-pleasure-pain

There is no pain, there’s only the frame.

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