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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 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.


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.


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.


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


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?


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.



Clear Ideas, Tangible Feelings — Alphabet versus Emoji

(#11 of 27)


Revisiting a quote from Gustave Flaubert,

“The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.”  

If Flaubert were alive today, he would be absolutely appalled by the rampant usage of emoji.

He’d say that emoji are a verbal crutch, a way to get out of clarifying and communicating exactly what we think.

“Vague. Lazy. Trite. A slippery slope to incoherent illiteracy,” he’d declare… except he’d declare that in French… and no doubt deploying le mot juste to deliver a devastating denouement of instant messaging patois.


Yet, for all my Flaubertian appetites and tendencies (minus some of his personal choices — we can discuss that another time), for all my aspirations of becoming a worthy wordsmith, I happen to think that emoji have great potential.

Untapped potential, in fact.


Emoji after RockwellBut first, please read the New York magazine article, “Smile, You’re Speaking EMOJIThe rapid evolution of a wordless tongue,” by Adam Sternbergh. It provides an essential understanding of what emoji are, where they come from and how they can be used.

For Sternbergh, emoji are…

  • a new form of punctuation
  • non-verbal communication frozen and standardized into unicode characters
  • a constructed language that breaks through global linguistic barriers
  • user-specified hieroglyphs
  • yet another example of the disproportionate influence of Japanese culture, with all of its positivist biases and kawaii peculiarities, on the rest of the world  (not unlike the disproportionate British influence on world culture via the English language… what is up with these island nations…)
  • an efficient compressor & transmitter of complex, unspeakable emotions

I’d add to that list the following possibilities:

Let’s be clear, however:  Some people don’t like emoji, and don’t want to be usin’ none of this newfangled language.

emoji-angrypurpledevilEmoji Haters

“The word, although prevalent in our day, has lost its reasoning value, and has value only as an accessory to images.


“These related images provide me with practical content: a common truth that is especially easy to swallow because the ready-made images that showed it to me had been digested in advance.

Make no mistake here: this is how modern people usually think. We are arriving at a purely emotional stage of thinking.”

– Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word (1981)

There are people who avoid using emoji out of a desire to maintain clarity of thinking… or at least, clarity of a certain kind of thinking.  The concern here is that, by using emoji instead of words, they will miss opportunities to refine their thoughts and improve their ability to articulate themselves in writing. According to this view, the round-faced glyph is an enemy of reason and rationality. McLuhan would agree, albeit gleefully.

However, I’d offer that if a person refuses to use emoji — but then uses emoticons anyway — then they’re not so much sticklers for language and reason as much as they’re mainly/vainly concerned about not being taken seriously.

Is there really that big a difference between this… emoji-wink

…and this…?   emoticon-wink



*smiles and winks*


Well, okay, I sorta get it… maybe it’s similar to the way that I’m a font snob. My distaste for tasteless typefaces might be analogous to their eschewing of smiley faces… and girly-girl bubble-hearts, shooting stars, rainbows, blue diamonds… emoji are often used like stickers, only without the scratch-and-sniff.

That said, even with my puritanical zeal for Helvetica, I can’t fully empathize with the emoji-haters. There is absolutely no reason (no reason!!) to use the abomination known as Comic Sans (or its close cousin, the horrible Hobo STD!!) in ordinary graphic communication, whereas expressing immediate visceral adoration for something with the image of heart-filled eyes is truly indispensable. How ELSE can you do THAT??


But, that’s just, like, my opinion, dude.

Question for you, the reader, to reflect upon: As you read this blog post, does the fact that it is interspersed with emoji-related images make it easier for you to read, or harder?

Do the pictures break up the monotony of text for you, or do they otherwise distract from your reading focus?

Also: How does your understanding of the author’s tone and intent get affected by all of these goofy little pictures?

A new dictionary definition to consider:

Emoji – n. – A way to connect directly between limbic systems, circumventing the pesky, stifling cerebral cortex.

emoji-lightbulbHow do I emoji? Let me count the ways…

Here are just three of the ways we can say good night, via text message:




Although each of the above messages conveys the same general idea using the same medium (instant text messaging), each message also provides a different feeling and activates a different sub-medium, i.e. a different form of reading/looking and thinking.

McLuhan differentiated between television, large-screen television, and stadium-television-with-instant-replay.  If he were around today he’d have a field day with all the different ways we can play with our emoji.

A good rule of thumbing:  Use the style and type of emoji that your conversational partner is comfortable with.  Just as you would with other aspects of communication, over time you’ll tend to develop a distinctive dance with each of your conversational partners.

Another idea that, if it hasn’t already been done, will be done:


Build your own library of emoji using your own pictures. This would make the communication feel more personal and less trite… although it would also undercut the power inherent to cartoons, i.e. how a simple drawing causes the reader/viewer to project themselves into the image and fill it with the details of their own head-universe.

emoji-finger-to-fingerClash of the Text Titans, and a conclusion

It’s true, I love Flaubert. I aspire to his command of language and to his discipline of clearly defining and articulating what he really thinks. I enjoy his elegant economy of words. Flaubert wants his reader to become an aristocrat.

However, I also love McLuhan and share his not-so-secret disdain for the unimaginatively fragmented style of thinking inherent to alphabetized hyper-literacy, as well as his crush for sensual new forms of multi-modal, multi-faceted communication.  And yes, I enjoy his dense, heavily referenced and meta-aware sentence style. McLuhan wants his reader to become an anthropologist.


I think Flaubert and McLuhan would agree on some things, though.

I think they would agree that the alphabet and the icon are two completely different things.

They’d also agree that being lazy sucks.

So go ahead… use emoji.

Hell, use expletives too.

But try to use them artfully and with purpose.

“The art of emoji is the art of letting others embrace what you’re feeling.”

– Not Flaubert

How does that grab you?


These Six Sentences Reveal How Quickly Your Brain and the Internet have Grown Together

What happened next, after everyone started using cheesy “click-bait” headlines, was unbelievable, or was it…


We embraced the (important and useful) blurry line between entertainment and learning (see this other an easy-to-read-article, here) which made it easy for us to quickly consume information and ideas.



There was a veritable Arms Race of “click-bait” — words and images competing for our eyeballs and thumbs — one shark jumping over the next, endlessly…

shark jump


..but we became cognitively fat and lazy, because there was little nutritional substance behind those empty “snackable” headlines…

fat cat on couch


..and the repeated experience of getting “tricked” by a headline that wasn’t exactly representative (or even true) to its content caused us to become even more cynical and suspicious of online information sources.


Ultimately, with our reduced expectations of what the Internet had to offer, we looked more and more to our personal friends in the real world for authentic sharing and learning experiences.

maya and kristen dancing

Unsatisfied with this ending? Still hungry for more? Click below to share and re-post this.

The Art of Handling Difficult Behavior

The art of handling difficult behavior begins with the realization that every behavior has a positive intention, for the person doing it… and that intention can be boiled down to certain basic needs.

In his popular TED Talk, “Why We Do What We Do,” Anthony Robbins shares his distillation of what he considers to be the four universal, basic human needs :

  • Certainty
  • Variety
  • Significance
  • Love

..and two more spiritual needs:

  • Growth
  • Contribution


(For less concise distillations of fundamental human needs, see Abraham Maslow, Manfred Max-Neef, and Donald Brown. among others. Brown’s list of Human Universals has been effectively analyzed and applied by Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate. In The One Thing You Need to Know, Marcus Buckingham extracts five fear-need pairings from Brown: Death-Security, Outsiders-Community; Future-Clarity; Chaos-Authority; Insignificance-Respect. )

I’m a fan of Robbin’s list of 6 basic human needs, in that it is succinct and yet comprehensive, with an interesting interplay between the elements on the list. I would just add the concept of fulfilling a “life script” into the mix — i.e., we not only seek to fulfill certain needs, but we also seek to confirm a set a beliefs about who we are and what is our life story. What we seek and how we seek it are what characterize our deepest patterns of behavior.  (Robbins and others would assert that one can challenge and rewrite a life script — and I’d agree — but let’s save that discussion for another day.)

In any case, one of the ways to effectively deal with another person’s difficult behavior is to

  1. determine the positive intention behind that behavior; and then
  2. lead them towards a better way of fulfilling that intention.

The rest, as they say, is mere commentary.

Thought du Jour: We Cannot Not Communicate

You Cannot Not Communicate - Peacock Facing Fence

“One cannot not communicate.”

– Paul Watzlawick (1921-2007)

This is a maxim of any professional communicator or designer… and leaders, too.

Everything we do is communication.

Furthermore, every response to every communication is itself a form of communication.

This includes the lack of a response.

If we try to avoid communicating, we communicate avoidance.
If we try to suppress feelings, we communicate suppressed feelings.

So we might as well decide what we want to communicate — what we truly want our message to be — and become better communicators.

Go for it.

boy chasing peacock

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