Beyond Simplistic Solutions

In a world of confusing complexity it is quite natural that we try to boil our problems down to a single and simple solution. NY Times columnist David Brooks addresses this topic in today’s column “The Danger of a Single Story.” Brooks, in part, is addressing the propensity of politicians to reduce many complex human issues to a single explanation. He writes,

“They reduce pretty much all issues to the same single story: the alien invader story.”

The tendency to oversimplify human problems is found on many fronts.

“Become a vegetarian” – the solution to everything from obesity to cancer

“Just say no” – the solution to drug addiction.

When we lived in Mexico, many people North of the border saw Mexico only as the land of illegal immigrants and drug lords.

Are these approaches simple or simplistic?

For instance, a person addicted to drugs cannot “just say no”. They take the drug that eventually takes them. You cannot “will” your way out of an addiction.

What about the fact that Mexico is a culturally rich country with many sophisticated people and has much to teach other nations like the value of family and community?

In all instances a pony with one trick, practitioner with one solution, or researcher with one pet theory, may have part of the solution to the problem for some people some of the time. Or he/she may be dead wrong.

Ultimately a single solution approach can be dangerous to our health, reduce us to simplistic thinking, demean our humanity, and  does not comprehensively solve the challenge we face in our lives or business.

So beware of people who tell you “all you need is!”

 Breaking Free 

Learning a more comprehensive approach to our solutions implies that we,

  1. Recognize the depth of our addiction to quick answers in every realm of life. I call this the “bumper sticker” syndrome. Just examine any of the social media outlets that are filled with such slogans.
  2. Realize that there are evidence-based solutions to many of life’s thorniest problems. For instance research on the science of happiness indicates that making a meaningful contribution to the common good and having healthy social networks are the chief contributors to human happiness.
  3. Acknowledge the complexity of most of the challenges we face. For example, healthy living comes from more than just jogging and eating well. Nor is health just based on case studies from the longevity of a few outliers like Jack LaLanne.
  4. Learn to tolerate ambiguity that comes with living the questions rather than having the answers. A sign of maturity is the capacity to live gracefully in the face of ambiguity. Let’s face it. Most of life falls into the gray zone.
  5. Pay the price of bucking the “one solution” system. One does not win popularity contests or enhance one’s marketing campaign by subscribing to points 1-4. Imagine telling your boss that the quick answer she wants is not immediately available but you need time for a deeper root cause analysis.
  6. Balance your rapid analytic thinking with slower more deliberate thought that includes unconscious processes as sometimes revealed in dreams. Note also how many problems find solutions when you are not working on them or while you are jogging. So slow down to move ahead.
  7. Adopt a multi-modal diverse approach to dealing with challengesBroadening your horizons in your search for knowledge must include philosophy, theology, literature, the arts, the quiet of nature, exposure to other cultures, and other disciplines/positions outside of your own. Be willing to change your position in the light of new and more compelling data.

Instead of having a pony that only manages to pull off one trick, expand the range of capabilities that go outside of your as well as the pony’s comfort zone.

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Joy Happens

What percentage of our time do we actually experience joy?

By joy I mean that deep down, beyond happiness, make you cry or laugh out loud, or quite serene experience.

I write about joy because it is one of my aspirational goals. Many of us cannot sustain joy for more time than we can hold our breath. Or else it comes in a flash and then disappears.

Why so? Because joy requires that we

  1.  Being present is more the exception than the rule for most. We live with the detritus of hurts and struggles of the past or ambivalence about the future rather than being here now.
  • Embrace the world of opportunity. For joy to occur we need to view the world as one full of exciting possibility rather then as a dangerous place where people cannot be trusted.
  • Get over the joy killer beliefs. Our Puritanical background or our superstitions dampen any possibility of joy. Our internal script goes something like this; “If you have fun and let go (the prelude to joy), something bad will happen.”
  • Manage our stress levels. Our stressed out life style crowds out any chance of joy.
  • Regulate our inner critic. When we are feeling anxious, down, afraid or whatever the negative mood of the moment we add insult to injury by judging ourselves. And that inner critic is joy-killer #1.

How then does joy happen?

Most of need support in the quest for joy. We need to surround ourselves with nurturing people who can accept us just as we are and not try to change us. In that way we are more likely to be joyful.

Find places where we can practice being fully present and get off life’s treadmill. The setting for joy could be in nature or at our meditation or prayer group. It is also helpful to design a tranquil and nurturing living space.

Acknowledge our inner judge and let it sit in the corner of our mind.  Let what the critic says be neither good nor bad. It just is. So take nothing personally, least of all yourself.

Despite all the common vicissitudes in life, joy is lurking in the wings waiting to come to center stage.

In the end, despite the above pointers, we cannot choreograph joy. It just comes in and takes over. At the birth of a child, a moment of wonder in nature, the gratitude of a friend, joy just happens. Ultimately we can’t ignore it.

How have you been surprised by joy?

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Think Before You Blurt

We live in a “tell it like it is culture” where politicians and business leaders alike blurt out their opinions without thought of the consequences. They just seem to open their mouths and let the wind rattle their tongues.

Such a lack of impulse control by many may be “oxygen” to some news outlets but can have negative consequences in the worlds of organizational leadership and friendship.

As Warren Buffet was reported to have said “It takes 20 years to build a reputation. Five minutes to ruin it.”

To counter this tendency to blurt out stuff we may later regret saying some have set up their own firewall.

I knew of a CEO who programed a 3-minute delay on his email send button. Hence the “on second thoughts I should not have sent that” rarely happens to him.

Next to self-awareness, self-regulation is the second foundation stone of emotional intelligence. The old “count ten” before you speak or “would you want this published on the front page of the NY Times?” is really a sign of self-control and leadership maturity.

I rarely tell people sitting next to me on the plane that I am a psychologist. On the long trip to London one time I told someone that I was a psychologist. What I got was a long tale of woe. I wished I’d said, “I’m from the IRS”  Maybe it would have secured some privacy.

Self-disclosure has its place. I wrote about this in another posting. (

But blurting out without being conscious of the needs of one’s audience, examining the consequence of uncensored confessions, being careful about the dangers of not keeping confidences, and practicing self-indulgent “dumping” does not recognize that blurting has no place in the repertoire of  mature and effective people.

Awareness of what it takes for us to drop our guard and blurt include;

*  Mindfulness of what our hot-button issues are e.g unfair criticism

*  Knowing when we are most vulnerable to blurting e.g. exhaustion

What effective strategies have you adopted to regulate uncensored speech?



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Imagination a World Where…

To some, imagination is black box stuff, pure mystery. But think about it. What does it really take to imagine something?

We used to imagine all the time when we were children. But somewhere some of us were told, “Stop imagining things!” That voice became our inner critic that suppressed musings like

“I wish”

“What if I tried this?”

“Just suppose that”

“Who says it can only be done this way?”

These statements are a way of seeing in our mind’s eye or exercising our imagination.

For those of you who would follow the creative urges of your imagination here are three parts of your being that have to be engaged. They are your,

Head – The plausibility factor centering on facts/data

Heart – The emotional driver of imagination 

Feet – The action component where the job gets done through others with vigorous and disciplined effort.

Recently an executive invited her team to an all-day off-site discussion on the group’s strategy. She used the question “Imagine a world where!” At that time her team was unfocussed, demoralized, and unmotivated.

As the group brainstormed and imagined possibilities, a vision for their future slowly began to emerge. The “imagine” question energized the group to see a new path ahead . They are now well on the way to the realization of their dream.

Here are some questions you may ask that will bring your imagination to life. They involve the activation of your head, heart, and feet.


What data (customer surveys, industry trends, scientific findings) inform your imagination?

What resources (people, technology) do you have/need to execute on your plan?

Can you articulate this vision in a concise statement?


What inspirational need (contribution, excellence) does this imagined idea meet in you and others?

What story do you tell that captures the imagination?

What gut feelings are generated by your imagination? (e.g. this is really important).


What do you have to do to make your imagined idea a reality?

What initial steps will you take to ensure some early wins?

Who are the stakeholders that can make this vision a reality?

So make sure that your imagination is grounded on data, appeals to people’s hearts, and generates action.

In the words of Captain Jean-Luc Picard in “Star Trek”

“Make it so!”

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Try Radical Empathy

So you want to be empathic. Exactly what does that mean?

Just telling someone that you “feel his or her pain” is not necessarily empathy.

For instance,

  • As someone who was once downsized, it is not helpful for me to tell someone going through a RIF “I know what you are going through”
  • I have lived in a number of different cultures but that does qualify me to speak with full comprehension about another ethnic group
  • I have observed sexism all my life but I don’t fully understand what it means to be a female executive blistered by the sexism of her male boss.

The plain truth is that when it comes to empathy we have to confess ignorance about the inner emotional world of another. Every person is different and every story has its own spin.


We err in our understanding of empathy when we make our experience and our inner world the center for that supposed knowledge of the other.

If the true measure of empathy is whether the other person feels deeply known, then empathy driven by the ego gets it wrong every time.

The times in our lives when we really knew at a deep level that we were understood was when the listener displayed radical empathy which is,

  1. Totally other oriented.

“I want” can never be a part of empathy. And empathy fails when it is “all about me”. Any benevolence or attempt at identification on our part with another person’s pain (or joy) must be detached from the rewards like gratitude we hope to reap. As the saying goes in the Hindu writings “Do your duty without your eyes on the fruit of your actions.”

2.  Deeply emotional

Empathy is not a rational grasp of what it means to be in another’s shoes. It is an emotional response where we resonate with the other. And the more positive that feeling response that includes caring, compassion, and concern, the more likely that there will be a sense that “we are all in this together”.

I remember a very painful time in my life when I thought my life was coming apart at the seams.  A close friend walked in silence with me for hours on a beach near his home as I blabbered away about my lot in life. He listened to me with uttering a word. Now that was empathy!

If you have experienced radical empathy you will have no doubt about what happened. It will have been one of your most remarkable and memorable human experiences.

What is your story about radical empathy?

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My Family of Origin – My Work Culture

There are basically three relationship patterns in work and life; dependent, independent, and interdependent. Each is shaped by your family of origin and can, consciously or unconsciously, be found in your corporate culture as well.

Check yourself out against each of these styles of relating and determine whether you are in sync with your organizational culture or not.

  1. Dependent (Enmeshed)

In your family, the boundaries between you and other members were often blurred. The dependent parent is overly invested in the welfare or wellbeing of the children. The self-esteem of the parent rises and falls depending on how well the children are doing. Such parents have difficulty letting go of their children.

At work, leaders from such a background often prefer an enmeshed organization. They often call their workplace a family. Conformity is prized above individual initiative. Often the leadership is authoritarian with a preference for top-down decisions. There is constant pressure to “fit in” with the cultural norms of the organization. I heard of one CEO who literally demanded that his employees vote for a certain political party. The culture of such an organization can censor you if you don’t go along with the norms set by the leaders. Employees are expected to be dependent and compliant.

  1. Independent (Disengaged)

In this family system there is a strong demarcation of the boundaries between the individual and the group. Independence of thought and action is prized above conformity. Often the children live far away from the family of origin and tend not to visit very often.

In the workplace, leaders shaped by this type of family system, prize independent thought and give team members a lot of leeway on how they execute on core business initiatives. They leave it to the employee how to get the job done. They do not micro-manage. Quite often employees prefer to work independent of each other and find it difficult to work on teams.

  1. Interdependent (Balanced)

The interdependent family style values both autonomy as well as loyalty to the family unit. There is a balance between individual needs and the needs of the group. Ultimately, this is the more psychologically healthy family system.

Leaders from such families walk the tightrope between I-ness with we-ness in their organization. They give employees a lot of personal freedom but also have clear expectations around the larger issues like the corporate strategy. They have clear expectations for certain business outcomes. There is a balance between team and individual work. Generally these organizations also have a flatter management structure and defer to domain knowledge rather than rank in decision making.

The Challenge

We cannot fully compartmentalize people or workplaces into one category of relating or another. However there are observable behaviors that reveal which of the three relationship systems you prefer and which ones show up at work. Leaders also can bring their family dynamic to work and shape the organizational culture.

Your imperative is to be awake to

  • What type of work culture surrounds you
  • The degree to which it works for you or not
  • Whether or not you should be flexible and adapt to the prevailing corporate culture
  • Any changes you need to make


Your comments on this topic will be highly valued. 



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Silence Please

“All the unhappiness of people, arises from one simple fact: that they cannot sit quietly in their chamber” – Pascal

My need for silence is almost up there with my need for Oxygen. Maybe that is a bit of an exaggeration. Suffice it to say that my need for stillness has informed many of my decisions about places I visit and live and people I seek out.

I have all sorts of theories as to why I prefer silence. My introversion makes me prone to avoid noisy and busy parties and restaurants. My attention challenges necessitate stillness for maximum thinking efficiency. But above all, I just like stillness because it makes me slow down, feel alive, and pay attention.

We don’t have a television or radio in the house. We live on five acres in the country and cherish the solitude and connection with nature.

I have concluded over the years that I am not different from everyone else with my need for solitude. Extraverts need to find periods when they isolate from others and recharge their emotional and physical batteries. Busy executives need to close their office doors to minimize interruptions so they can engage in deep thought.

I am reading essayist, novelist, and travel writer, Pico Iyer’s book “The Art of Stillness”. In so doing I realize how difficult it is to find a place of quiet rest. Even as I write this article my two dogs a fighting over a dirty old bone that one of them just dug up in the garden. Give me patience!! That’s the real world however. Even monasteries can be places where interpersonal conflicts, daily interruptions, and internal dilemmas distract to some degree or another.

But here are some facts about our need for silence.

Fact #1 We are constantly bombarded by external stimuli like the phone and email that demand our immediate attention. Some people take a weekly Sabbath from them to reign in these disrupters of quiet.

Fact #2 Every time we are interrupted it takes at least 20 minutes before we return to our level of efficient thought. Furthermore, interruptions are the most stressful thing we encounter in our world no matter how important the issue or pleasant the person. This perspective is supported by the whole new field of Interruption Science.

Fact #3 Don’t run through or from life with your schedule so packed with activity that you have no time to face yourself in silence? Why? Because the true self is often experienced in those gaps we create for ourselves. Healing also comes from being awake.

Fact #4 No matter how you choreograph your life to embrace solitude it is important not to make interruptions a catastrophe. Tomorrow is another day.

Reflect on the profound words of Pico Iyer.

In an ago of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow.

In an ago of distraction, nothing could feel more luxurious that paying attention.

And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.

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Find Your Voice

There is a time to be silent and there is a time to speak out.

Think of a situation where you wanted to express an opinion but  were afraid of the consequences. Maybe your senior leaders were espousing a business decision, people were expressing a political opinion, or you saw a social injustice and you adopted an overly cautious approach in your response.

After it was all over your wiser self told you “You should have spoken up”.

Let me say that sometimes discretion about speaking out is the better part of valor. In certain circumstances it would be unwise to “shoot your mouth”. I know, because I tend to go after sacred cows and get myself into hot water.

What was going on with your silence? Why did you opt for a muted or absent response when your voice should have really been heard? Here are some possibilities.

Your culture penalizes frankness.

“Question authority” is not the watchword in your organization. Some of your leaders have a huge ego investment in their position and don’t want to even hear the most balanced “devil’s” advocate.

Advice: Treat this situation like driving on black ice. Do it slowly, carefully, and diplomatically.

Your background muted your voice.

Maybe your family or culture of origin placed a high premium on conformity to the dominant position (usually by  male leaders or parents).  In such a situation it was easier to lose your voice.

 Advice: Recognize that this may be a new day for you. Your leaders are not your parents.  Your bosses want your input even if it goes against their stated position. Learn the skills of a devil’s advocate.

You gravitate to the old familiar censoring/abusing ways.

You really don’t have to habitually jump into the swamp with the alligators. There are better options for your life. Not everyone needs rescuing (codependency) and not every bully needs you for target practice.

 Advice: Choose healthier work environments, friends, and partners.

So go ahead and have the courage of your convictions. Speak out in safer places where frankness will be rewarded and strong opinions will be reinforced.

Good luck!

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Celebrate rather than Compare

We live in a world where comparisons are the norm.

Your performance is compared to that of your peers

You look at your bigger house and feel superior to the other

You scan another’s weight and smugly view yourself as better

You get more “likes” on your posting than I do on mine

 The result.

On one hand, that comparison can spur one to greater effort and a drive to excellence.

But more than likely it can be dispiriting, demotivating, and separate us from others.

In discussing the impact of the grading system on students Ros and Ben Zander in “The Art of Possibility” write,

“competition puts a strain on friendships and too often consigns students to a solitary journey.”

 Furthermore, the dark side of competition can lead to

Pride rather than humility

Contempt rather than respect

Exclusion of differences rather than diversity being leveraged

Avoidance of a challenge rather than risking a new adventure

 A friend told me of a highly competitive academic institution where researchers hid their work from each other for fear that their work would be stolen. If they had celebrated each other maybe they would have realized the Spanish saying “juntos is mejor” (together is better).


 Would it not be more productive, respectful, and empowering for us to choose to celebrate others?

 What do we lose and what do we gain by choosing celebration?

 What do you think?






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New Year Resolutions That Succeed

It’s that time again when we start to make our resolutions.

What are yours?

To lose weight, exercise more, avoid toxic people, learn to dance?

Why are such resolutions typically a waste of time and usually have a short shelf-life?  Two reasons.

  1. They are self-focusedAnything about “me-only” is an exercise in diminishing returns. It leaves one empty and looking for more. Remember that our commitment to behavior change that is not other-focussed prevents us from learning that at the heart of all there is no distinction between “you” and “me”.
  2. They are not designed to inspireNew year resolutions are often not based on life-inspiring principles. We need big reasons that touch the heart, convince the mind, and get our feet moving to make our plans happen. Getting to one’s inspirational edge changes lives. Ours and others.

So try formulating resolutions that factor in

What makes a contribution to the lives of others?

What brings out the best in your character?

What utilizes your strengths?

What sets the bar of living high for you?

What facilitates living in the now?

May you have a purpose filled New Year.

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