It is a great principle in psychiatry that “all-symptoms are overdetermined. This means that they have more than one cause.
I want to scream this from the rooftops: “All symptoms are overdetermined.” Except that I want to expand it way beyond psychiatry. I want to expand it to almost everything. I want to translate it, “Anything of any significance is overdetermined. Everything worth thinking about has more than one cause.” Repeat after me: “For any single thing of importance, there are multiple reasons.” Again, “For any single thing of importance, there are multiple reasons.”
M. Scott Peck, In Search of Stones: A Pilgrimage of Faith, Reason, and Discovery
If only we could get (come up with) the right __________.
We keep looking for the magic bullet. In every arena, we want the answer to the problem, to come up with the solution for all time.
Probably not gonna happen!
There is always more to it – more to add to the equation. So many books make this point.
For the demand creator, building a magnetic product is essential, but it isn’t enough—you also need to understand the customer’s hassle map and figure out how to connect the dots in ways that reduce those hassles or eliminate them altogether. Making an emotional connection with the customer is crucial, but it isn’t enough—you also need to make certain that all the backstory elements are in place, so that you can be sure to avoid the Curse of the Incomplete Product. And even that isn’t enough—you also need to find the most powerful triggers and deploy them effectively if you hope to overcome consumer inertia and transform potential demand energy into real demand. What’s more, great demand creators instinctively understand that even creating a powerful stream of demand isn’t enough—not unless you make a commitment to intense, ongoing improvement so as to meet, and exceed, the ever-rising expectations of your ever-changing customers.
For practically every family, the ingredients of poverty are part financial and part psychological, part personal and part societal, part past and part present. Every problem magnifies the impact of the others, and all are so tightly interlocked that one reversal can produce a chain reaction with results far distant from the original cause.
If problems are interlocking, then so must solutions be. A job alone is not enough. Medical insurance alone is not enough. Good housing alone is not enough. Reliable transportation, careful family budgeting, effective parenting, effective schooling are not enough when each is achieved in isolation from the rest. There is no single variable that can be altered to help working people move away from the edge of poverty. Only where the full array of factors is attacked can America fulfill its promise.
We look for that magic bullet, in our own lives, in our business lives, in our relationships… There simply may not be that magic bullet. The problems are many; the causes of the problems are many; the solutions are almost always “both-and,” and very, very seldom “either-or.”
So, keep looking. There is probably something else to add…
Let’s say that you are not as effective as you would like to be. It does not matter what your deficiency is, but let’s say that you know what your area of weakness, need, deficiency is. If you know where you are weak, if you know what you need to work on, then consider yourself ahead of the pack. Way ahead. Because, I am now convinced that I know the number one problem that can derail you on your path to success. Here’s that number one problem:
A lack of awareness of your weak areas – your ignorance, your incompetence, your growth areas.
Here’s a quote from Peter Senge that points this out rather vividly: “People with a high level of personal mastery are acutely aware of their ignorance, their incompetence, and their growth areas.” And I wrote along a similar vein in this blog post, Michael Jordan, Defensive All-Star — A Business Lesson For Us All, describing how Michael Jordan recognized his defensive weaknesses, and how he tackled that challenge with such focus and resolve. After describing how he developed great defensive skills, I asked: But what should you add?
So what prompted this blog post, and spurred me on to state the “number one problem” with such certainty? It was this passage in the book, Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter by Liz Wiseman.
Perhaps one of our biggest surprises was realizing how few Diminishers understood the respective impact they were having in others. Most of the Diminishers had gown up praised for their personal intelligence and had moved up the management ranks on account of personal – and often intellectual – merit. When they became the “boss,” they assumed it was their job to be the smartest and to manage a set of “subordinates.” …As one executive put it, “When I read your findings, I realized that I have been living in Diminisher land so long that I have gone native.”
In other words, a Diminisher does not know that he or she is a Diminisher.
I think if I had a chance to visit with Liz Wiseman, I would ask her, “why in the world were you surprised?” Because, if we have learned anything by now, it ought to be this – very, very few people know their own weakness(es) well enough to even identify and acknowledge such weakness, much less to develop a strategy and then follow that strategy to actually make the needed changes.
If you want another word for this, you can call it laziness, thinking of the word the way Scott Peck used it. Laziness is not “doing nothing,” it is “avoiding what you need to focus on” (my paraphrase of his idea, as I remember it, from his book The Road Less Traveled).
Think of the beginning of the 12 Steps, the one that prompts this introduction, “Hello, my name is ___, and I am an alcoholic.” You know, the first step: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable..
Maybe we need many more groups, which all begin with a parallel “first step,” like:
I admitted I was a Diminisher – and this derailed me on my path to success.
I admitted I was a:
poor team player
poor time manager
poor money manager
poor encourager of others…
The list could be rather long. But the solution for any and every weakness/deficiency goes back to that first step: I saw my weakness/deficiency, I acknowledged my weakness/deficiency, and then, and only then, could I design a path to overcome that weakness/deficiency.
To Wiseman, she focuses on a specific failure: the failure to become a leader who is a Multiplier. And that failure is exacerbated by an individual’s own blindness to his or her own tendency to be a Diminisher.
Let me quote again Senge’s wisdom: “People with a high level of personal mastery are acutely aware of their ignorance, their incompetence, and their growth areas.”
Do you know yours? If you do, you are ahead of the pack – now get to work on it.
If you don’t know yours, then discovering it, identifying it, is definitely the new item on your to do list!
It’s been a while since I quoted from The Black Swan on this blog. I presented this book at the September, 2007 First Friday Book Synopsis. It still pops up in the “let’s discuss” and even some “best-seller” lists. Here’s my description from my handout:
• A Black Swan is an event which follows three attributes:
• First, it is an outlier. (rarity)
• Second, it carries an extreme impact.
• Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable. (retrospective, though not prospective, predictability).
In the New York Times Magazine this past Sunday, we find this article: Spillonomics: Underestimating Risk by David Leonhardt. Here’s an excerpt:
When an event is difficult to imagine, we tend to underestimate its likelihood. This is the proverbial black swan. Most of the people running Deepwater Horizon probably never had a rig explode on them. So they assumed it would not happen, at least not to them.
Similarly, Ben Bernanke and Alan Greenspan liked to argue, not so long ago, that the national real estate market was not in a bubble because it had never been in one before. Wall Street traders took the same view and built mathematical models that did not allow for the possibility that house prices would decline. And many home buyers signed up for unaffordable mortgages, believing they could refinance or sell the house once its price rose. That’s what house prices did, it seemed.
The point of the article is fairly clear: if we can’t imagine that something will actually happen, then we think it won’t ever happen. It does not matter that someone somewhere has said, “this might really happen.” If it’s beyond what we think can happen/will happen, then we act as though it will never happen.
Big mistake. Big mistake!
“No one could have imagined them taking a plane, slamming it into the Pentagon into the World Trade Center, using planes as a missile.”
As I said to you in the private session, I probably should have said, “I could not have imagined,” because within two days, people started to come to me and say, “Oh, but there were these reports in 1998 and 1999. The intelligence community did look at information about this.”
To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Chairman, this kind of analysis about the use of airplanes as weapons actually was never briefed to us.
I cannot tell you that there might not have been a report here or a report there that reached somebody in our midst.
I think that Ms. Rice was being very truthful – in spite of the fact that there had been plenty of “imaginings’ of this kind of attack. Tom Clancy had imagined something similar in a best-selling novel. There had been some reports discussing the possibility of just such an attack. Whether Ms. Rice had read the novel, or heard about the reports, was beside the point. Since it had never happened, it “never could happen,” – at least, to our thinking. This is the black swan problem.
The oil rig disaster, the subprime mortgage meltdown, are events that should tell us all—“we’d best expect the next unimagined possibility to actually happen at some point.”
It sort of reminds me of the opening paragraphs of M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled:
Life is difficult.
This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend. It. Once we truly acknowledge that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Becasue once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.
Most do not fully see this truth that life is difficult. Instead they moan more or less incessantly….
Discipline is the basic set of tools we require to solve life’s problems.
Without discipline we can solve nothing.
So, I think we need to learn to think this way:
The Black Swan, the impossible to believe it will actually happen bad event, will probably happen. The worst case scenario is very likely to happen – if not this time, then soon. Let’s prepare for it; let’s be ready for it; let’s not be surprised when it happens — because it will happen. The black swan will visit our company, our project, our life – and when it does, we should not be surprised.
Update: I just read this article, Countervailing power: After the BP catastrophe and financial market collapse: Taking back the sway big business has over our government by Robert Kuttner, which adds a few elements to the conversation. I do not think it takes away from my point — but it does help us understand why the people who are saying “this could happen” are not listened to very well.
More than half a century ago, the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith coined an important concept — “countervailing power.’’ Big business, Galbraith observed, had immense economic influence. But countervailing forces such as the trade union movement or activist citizens groups could neutralize that economic power by harnessing government to keep business’s less savory tendencies from overpowering its benign ones.
But that was then. Despite a seemingly formidable environmentalist movement, the oil industry overwhelmed its regulators. Americans for Financial Reform, the coalition of consumer groups pushing for better banking regulation, is outspent by Wall Street lobbyists by at least 100 to one.
There has been a lot of commentary lately contending that we have a tendency to underestimate risk. Truly catastrophic events occur only rarely — they are “black swans.’’ In the meantime, a lot of money can be made by betting that disaster won’t occur, or that it will occur on somebody else’s watch.
But who, in this account, is “we’’? In fact, plenty of voices in the wilderness were warning against the risk of a catastrophic oil blowout, or a financial one. These critics did not lack prescience or insight. What they lacked was political power.
It’s true that technologies, both financial and oleaginous, are becoming ever more complex; and this does create new kinds of risk. But the cure is less technical than political.
Citizens need to act more vigorously to restore Galbraith’s countervailing power. Otherwise, private business acting in its short run self interest will ruin us twice — once when private markets pay no heed to the risks they are imposing, and a second time when they corrupt our regulatory institutions.
The Rise of the “Stupider”
The Rise of Substitute Intellectual Activity – a Plague!
Roger Ebert has written a column, The quest for frisson, in which he describes some of the ways we function differently with the arrival of the Web. One way: we read full, actual books less often. We are too easily distracted.
As the Signals guys put it in ReWork:
And the reason is interruptions… you can’t get meaningful things done when you’re constantly going start, stop, start, stop.
Instead, you should get in the alone zone. Long stretches of alone time are when you’re most productive. When you don’t have to mind-shift between various tasks, you get a boatload done.
During alone time, give up instant messages, phone calls, e-mail, and meetings. Just shut up and get to work. You’ll be surprised how much more you get done.
Ebert printed a response from a student from Harvard named Daniel Goldhaber. The student argues that people are getting, for lack of a better word, “stupider” (his word).
“Every year I’ve seen go by has become – for lack of a better word – stupider,” he writes.
Here are a few more thoughts from the student
I go to Harvard University and chose to go instead of accepting a scholarship at USC Film School. My thought process was that even though I want to be a filmmaker, I thought it would make more sense to try to surround myself with people who – like me – enjoy thinking, talking, and reading about the world at large, not just film.
However, what I found stood in such stark contrast to the Harvard of the 70s and the 80s that I had read about in my youth. I found a place where superficiality was prized not just socially, but INTELLECTUALLY. It’s not about the number of books you’ve read, but the number of wikipedia articles on books that you’ve skimmed so that it appears as if you’ve read a lot of books (I’ve succumbed to this as much as anybody else – it’s a plague.)
I don’t know what to do with all this. These thoughts remind me of Scott Peck’s charge that the basic human flaw is laziness – not lazy, as in doing nothing, but lazy as in not doing the things you should be doing, not working on your life in the specific areas that need such work.
Maybe we are lazy. And maybe we want Wikipedia to do all of our thinking and reading for us.
Back in my preaching days, there were two kinds of preachers. Those who got their illustrations and quotes from books of famous illustrations and quotes. And those who read history, biography, philosophy, and built their own inventory of stories and quotes breathed in from wide, varied reading. Such preachers always had more depth.
You might say – “so, Randy, how do you justify your book synopses? You announce that you read the books so that we don’t have to.” I don’t know if I can justify what I do. But I have always held to the fantasy that my presentations will whet your appetite enough that you want to simply read and learn more. I see myself as a “keep learning” ambassador.
I think I know this. The rise of the “stupider” is a threat to our depth, our ethics, our very way of live. We really do need to fortify our defenses, to help us all keep learning.
Yesterday, Bob Morris and I both weighed in on this blog with our “best business books” list from 2009. (Our lists were very different – mine here, Bob’s here). So I started thinking about which books I have read that have had true, lasting impact on my thinking, and even occasionally my behavior. I keep thinking back to one book. I read it in the 1980’s, and though I do not live up to its teachings, I certainly remember them — frequently. I might even call it the best book I have ever read, because it gives me such profound life lessons.
The book is The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth by M. Scott Peck. (You can purchase the 25th anniversary edition at Amazon here). My well-read and fully-marked-up copy is in storage, but thanks to Amazon’s preview feature, I here include the greatest first page of a non-fiction book that I have ever read:
Life is difficult.
This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.
Most do not fully see that truth that life is difficult. Instead they moan more or less incessantly, noisily or subtly, about the enormity of their problems, their burdens, and their difficulties as if life were generally easy, as if life should be easy. They voice their belief, noisily or subtly, that their difficulties represent a unique kind of affliction that should not be and that has somehow been especially visited upon them, or else upon their families, their tribe, their class, their nation, their race or even their species, and not upon others. I know about this moaning because I have done my share.
Life is a series of problems. Do we want to moan about them or solve them? Do we want to teach our children to solve them?
Discipline is the basic set of tools to solve life’s problems. Without discipline we can solve nothing.
From this book, I remember two great truths:
1) Life is difficult. When you accept this truth, then you can “expect” the next difficulty to arrive, and tackle it as it should be tackled – as the next difficulty on your list of difficulties. There is no life without difficulties! This is truly a great truth. (And, yes, very Buddhist – although you can find plenty of confirmation in Christian Scripture).
2). You (and all of us) are lazy – seek to overcome your laziness! In the book, Peck does not define laziness as doing nothing (couch potato laziness), but rather, laziness is spending time on the “wrong thing.” And the “right thing” is always beckoned by love. Here is the principle: Even if we work diligently on work that needs to be done at some point, if it is not the thing you should be working on at this moment, it is laziness. Avoiding the challenge that we most need to tackle is laziness.
Peck defines laziness as a failure to love. Here is a quote (lifted from a quotes page from the web; as I said, my copy is in storage): evil is laziness carried to its ultimate, extraordinary extreme. As I have defined it, love is the antithesis of laziness. Ordinary laziness is a passive failure to love.
So, as we think about the best books we have read in the last year, maybe it is time to revisit books that most shaped us – and to remember their valuable lessons. And if you have never read The Road Less Traveled, let me encourage you to do so. I believe it is worth the investment of time.
What got us into this mess?
First, an admission. I, like all of you, have too many books on my “I should read this” list that I simply will never get to. In my case, I prepare a minimum of two new book synopsis presentations a month, and that means that there are other books that I simply do not have time to delve into. At this moment, the books that I am not getting to are books that try to answer these two questions, both related to our current economic meltdown and ongoing crisis:
Question number 1: What went wrong?
Question number 2: How do we fix it?
There are a lot, a mean a whole lot, of answers to the first question being thrown out for our consideration. (Not quite as many for the second question).
Business Week has a review up of one of the many new books tackling these questions. (One of the many I do not know when I will find time to read). The book is How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities by John Cassidy . (Read the review here).
Here’s a quote from the book (taken from the review):
Between the collapse of communism and the outbreak of the subprime crisis, an understandable and justified respect for market forces mutated into a rigid and unquestioning devotion to a particular, and blatantly unrealistic, adaptation of Adam Smith’s invisible hand.” And it was this faith, he goes on to say, that led Alan Greenspan, among others, to turn a blind eye to what was happening in the real world of money and business.
This book calls for greater government regulation as one part of a solution. Chris Farrell ends his review with this:
More important, the reader comes away persuaded that reality-based economics can play a critical role in what the 18th century British conservative Edmund Burke called “one of the finest problems in legislation, namely, to determine what the state ought to take upon itself to direct by the public wisdom, and what it ought to leave, with as little interference as possible, to individual exertion.”
Let’s hope the legislators in Washington share this principled view of their role. Cassidy makes a compelling case that a return to hands-off economics would be a disaster.
As I stated earlier in this post, there is much being written about what went wrong. A provocative piece in The Atlantic points to an unexpected but specific contributing cause: the role of pastors in fundamentalist/prosperity gospel churches on the sub-prime mortgage crisis. The article, Did Christianity Cause the Crash? by Hanna Rosin, argues this:
America’s mainstream religious denominations used to teach the faithful that they would be rewarded in the afterlife. But over the past generation, a different strain of Christian faith has proliferated—one that promises to make believers rich in the here and now. Known as the prosperity gospel, and claiming tens of millions of adherents, it fosters risk-taking and intense material optimism. It pumped air into the housing bubble. And one year into the worst downturn since the Depression, it’s still going strong.
The article chronicles how some banks partnered with some churches, especially some pastors, to help people get into houses. Houses they could not afford, and ultimately could not keep. Here’s the conclusion of the article, referencing Pastor Fernando Garay from Virginia:
And there is Garay’s kind of hope, which perhaps for many people better reflects the reality of their lives. Garay’s is a faith that, for all its seeming confidence, hints at desperation, at circumstances gone so far wrong that they can only be made right by a sudden, unexpected jackpot.
Once, I asked Garay how you would know for certain if God had told you to buy a house, and he answered like a roulette dealer. “Ten Christians will say that God told them to buy a house. In nine of the cases, it will go bad. The 10th one is the real Christian.” And the other nine? “For them, there’s always another house.”
I don’t know that there is one cause. As Scott Peck stated, it is “overdetermined.” The cause of most problems is overdetermined – that is, there is no one cause, there is a constellation of causes. And, thus, there is no one solution.
But finding the causes, so that we can avoid them in the future, and then finding the solutions, so that we can dig out of this mess, seems to be the necessary agenda at this time in our history.