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December 2010

The Stories We Make Up About Ourselves

TheStoriesWeLiveBy Several years ago, I read a book by Dan P. McAdams on narrative psychology, describing identity as a personal myth we create in order to construct a sense of meaning, unity and purpose in our lives. In The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self, McAdams argues that we consciously or unconsciously compose a heroic narrative that integrates our remembered past, our perceived present and our anticipated future in a way that illustrates essential truths about ourselves. For much of the past year, I've been wrestling with a revision to the story I make up about myself, as I iteratively recalibrate my self perceptions in response to the feedback I've received from others. Throughout this time, I have been increasingly reminded of McAdams' insights - and becoming aware of other related insights - and thought it might be helpful (at least to me) to compile some of them here.

According to McAdams' story, storytelling is not just a way for us to make sense of ourselves, it is the primary vehicle through which we communicate with others. Stories provide a way for others to make sense of us - "what's your story?" - and a way for all of us to make sense of the world ... which may help explain why our predilection for primary sources of stories - e.g., Fox News vs. MSNBC - can lead to such radically different perspectives of reality.

One of the most valuable insights I gleaned from the book was McAdams' discussion of human motivation. Some theories posit a single, grand motive that explains why we do the things we do, whether that motive be religiously inspired or more secular in nature (e.g., Carl Jung's notion of self-actualization). Other theories propose a panoply of potential impulses that prompt our behavior (e.g., William James' list includes fear, sympathy, sociability, play, acquisitiveness, modesty, nurturance and love). A middle way casts motivation as a fundamental conflict between two opposing forces, e.g., power and love, or agency and communion. I've encountered this dualistic tension in my own experience and in a wide variety of other accounts of human behavior (e.g., intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation and acceptance, striving and interdependence), and this characterization by McAdams really resonates with me.

Power and love are the two great themes of myth and story. Protagonists and antagonists are striving, in one way or another, to do one or both of these two basic things: (1) to assert themselves in powerful ways, and (2) to merge themselves with others in bonds of love, friendship and intimacy. ... Characters in stories [desire] to expand, preserve and enhance the self as a powerful and autonomous agent in the world, and to relate, merge and surrender the self to other selves within a loving and intimate community. ...

This motivational duality in human existence is probably best described by the psychologist David Bakan, who distinguishes between agency and communion. According to Bakan, agency and communion are the two "fundamental modalities in the existence of living forms", organizing a great variety of human wants, needs, desires and goals. Agency refers to the individual's striving to separate from others, to master the environment, to assert, protect and expand the self. The aim is to become a powerful and autonomous "agent", a force to be reckoned with. By contrast, communion refers to the individual's striving to lose his or her own individuality by merging with others, participating in something that is larger than the self, and relating to others in warm, close, intimate and loving ways.

McAdams proceeds to offer a timeline for how the stories we make up about ourselves tend to develop throughout the arcs of our lives: childhood, adolescence, adulthood, middle age and the later years. As we age, we have increasingly more fodder for our stories ... and a keener awareness of the importance of the stories that - we hope - will eventually outlive us: "good lives, like good stories, require good endings". We want to live not only a memorable life, but a memoirable life.

To a large extent, the good life is justified by the good story. And the good life story is one of the most important gifts we can offer each other.

For those who are concerned about crafting memoirable accounts of their lives, McAdams identifies six features that are present in good identity stories:

  • coherence: the characters, their actions and motivations, and the events in which they participate unfold in a way that makes sense, although a good story often accommodates ambiguity
  • openness: the characters change and exhibit growth over time, often accommodating some measure of ambiguity
  • credibility: although creative imagination and biased interpretation is inevitable, the story is grounded in reality
  • differentiation: the story has a rich characterization, plot and theme, and becomes both more complex and better differentiated from other stories over time
  • reconciliation: a good story raises tough issues and dynamic contradictions, but harmony and resolution must ultimately prevail amid the multiplicity of self
  • generative imagination: the best personal myths represent an integration with a social world that is larger and more enduring than the self, enhancing the mythmaking of others; "Ideally, the mythmaker's art should benefit both the artist who fashions the myth and the society that adorns it."

FiniteAndInfiniteGames-original A recent post by Valeria Maltoni on ConversationAgent reviewing 3 books on leadership, a vision of life as play and acting on what matters includes a brief summary of James Carse's Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility, a generative and inspiring book that I first read when it was published in 1986. I periodically re-read the book during different life chapters, each time finding new insights that speak to my new context. In re-reading it this time, after being prompted by Valeria's post, I came upon a quote that also speaks to the power and generativity of stories ... and storytellers.

True storytellers do not know their own story. What they listen to in their poiesis [creative activity] is the disclosure that wherever there is closure there is the possibility of a new opening, that they do not die at the end, but in the course of play. Neither do they know anyone else's story in its entirety. The primary work of historians is to open up all cultural termini, to reveal continuity where we have assumed something has ended, to remind us that no one's life, and no culture can be known, as one would know a poiema [artifact, or product of creative activity], but only learned, as one would learn a poiesis. [79]

Great stories cannot be observed, any more than an infinite game can have an audience. Once I hear the story, I enter into its own dimensionality. I inhabit its space at its time. I do not therefore understand the story in terms of my experience, but my experience in terms of the story. Stories that have the enduring strength of myths reach through the experience to touch the genius in each of us. But experience is the result of this generative touch, not its cause. So far as is this the case that we can even say that if we cannot tell a story about what happened to us, nothing has happened to us. [95]

TheGiftsOfImperfection-cover I first encountered McAdams' book (first published in 1993) while reading and reviewing Sam Gosling's book about the story our stuff tells about us - Snoop, an investigation into possessions, perceptions, projections and personalities - in 2008. More recently, I viewed and wrote about Brene Brown's TEDxHouston talk on Wholeheartedness: connection through courage, vulnerability and authenticity, and started reading the associated book - The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are - in which she talks about the importance of not just composing but embracing our stories:

If we want to live fully, without the constant fear of not being enough, we have to own our story.

I was also inspired by a recent tweet by Seb Paquet,

The stories we tell ourselves can serve as straitjackets for stagnation, or scaffolding for transformation.

This confluence of stories - and microstories - about the power of stories, coupled with own struggle with stagnation and transformation, prompted me to revisit McAdams' book, and share some of the insights he shares about narrative psychology.

Returning to The Stories We Live By, toward the end of the book, McAdams offers a roadmap for identifying, living and perhaps even changing our personal myths, based on the intimate interviews he and his colleagues have conducted over the years. The central element of his approach is interpersonal dialogue: the telling of one's story to a sympathetic listener, a witness who is willing and able to be enthusiastic, affirming and nonjudgmental (someone I would call a speed dial friend). The Life Story Interview process [available online] involves the elicitation of life chapters, key scenes, future script, challenges, personal ideology, life theme and reflection. I have not participated in this full and formal process (yet), but do plan to delve into some of these issues in an upcoming post about the latest life chapter I am currently drafting.

Reflections on Reviews, Rebuttals and Respect

image from image from Having recently served as associate chair for both the CSCW 2011 and CHI 2011 Papers & Notes Committees, I've read a large number of papers, an even larger number of reviews, and a slightly smaller number of rebuttals. In participating in back-to-back committees, a few perspectives and practices that impact the process of scientific peer review have become clearer to me, and I wanted to share a few of those here. I believe all of these boil down to a matter of mutual respect among the participants, and wanted to delve more deeply into some resources that offer guidelines for respectful practices.

TheFourAgreements I want to start out with a brief review of The Four Agreements, by don Miguel Ruiz, as I believe they provide a strong foundation for how to best approach the review process, as well as other areas of life and work (and I'll include links to earlier elaborations on three of the four agreements):

  1. Be Impeccable With Your Word: Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.
  2. Don't Take Anything Personally: Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won't be the victim of needless suffering.
  3. Don't Make Assumptions: Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.
  4. Always Do Your Best: Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse and regret.

I see examples of these agreements being violated throughout all aspects of the review process. Reviewers say hurtful things about authors, their work and/or their papers in their reviews and/or online discussions. Some reviewers appear personally offended that authors would have the audacity to submit a paper the reviewers judge to be unworthy. Many reviews reflect implicit or explicit assumptions the reviewers are making about the paper, the work described by the paper, and/or the authors who have written the paper. Some reviews are so short that I have a hard time believing that the reviewers are really doing their best in fully applying their skills and experience to help us make the best possible decision on a paper (but I acknowledge this is an assumption).

image from Another framework that I believe is helpful to apply in this context is nonviolent communication (NVC), which is predicated on the assumption that everything we do is an attempt to meet our human needs, that conflict sometimes arises through the miscommunication of those needs, and that further conflict can be avoided by refusing to use coercive or manipulative language that is likely to induce fear, guilt, shame, praise, blame, duty, obligation, punishment, or reward. The Wikipedia entry for nonviolent communication offers four steps (that are very similar to some earlier distinctions I'd written about between data, judgments, feelings and wants):

  • making neutral observations (distinguished from interpretations/evaluations e.g. "I see that you are wearing a hat while standing in this building."),
  • expressing feelings (emotions separate from reasons and interpretation e.g. "I am feeling puzzled"),
  • expressing needs (deep motives e.g. "I have a need to learn about other people's motives for doing what they do") and
  • making requests (clear, concrete, feasible and without an explicit or implicit demand e.g. "Please share with me, if you are willing, your reasons for wearing the hat in this building.")

Drawing on both of these sources for inspiration, ideally, a well-written review would have the following characteristics:

  • Focus on the paper, vs. the underlying work or the authors. All comments address [only] what is written in the paper. They should not address the work described by the paper or the authors who have written the paper. In a blind review process, reviewers typically do not have first-hand knowledge of the work described in the paper beyond what is written; reviewers who do have first-hand knowledge should recuse themselves due to a conflict of interest (i.e., they were co-authors or collaborators on the work). Thus, any comments about the work (vs. what is written about the work) are based on assumptions.
  • Follow the principles of non-violent communication (NVC). In particular, use "I" statements wherever possible, and void any direct references to the authors. For example, rather than saying "You don't say how you do X", an NVC phrasing might be something more like "It is not clear to me from the paper how X was done", or rather than saying "Why didn't you do X?", re-phrasing this as "I believe this or a future paper would be strengthened if it included X, or at least a compelling argument as to why X was not done".
  • Be compassionate and generous. Assume that the authors were doing their best in composing the paper, and look for reasons to accept in addition to reasons to reject (the latter usually being more readily identified by people trained in critical thinking). I was particularly inspired by the use of generosity in the directives issued by the CHI 2011 Papers & Notes Chairs at the committee meeting. Perhaps it's the proximity to the holiday season, but I found the use of that term more resonant throughout the meetings than the more traditional (and technical) "reasons to accept" that are often promoted by chairpersons.
  • Reverse the golden rule. The golden rule is "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you". A variation on this theme - which I first encountered in a book about positive psychology called How Full is Your Bucket? - is "Do unto others as they would have you do unto them." Particularly in a multi-disciplinary conference, different norms may be at work. I've had some strong disagreements with reviewers who are used to receiving terse and potentially offensive reviews, who implicitly apply the golden rule and figure if they can take it in reviews of their own papers, so should the authors whose papers they are reviewing. I always try to convince them to break the cycle of violent communication, with varying degrees of success. In a blind review process, of course, reviewers don't know the identities of the authors, and so can't really know how they would "have you do unto them". But I believe it is best to err on the side of nonviolence.

The rebuttal process also offers an opportunity for applying these practices. I won't go into as many details about the rebuttals, but I will say that if there was a category for "best rebuttal" (along the lines of "excellent reviews" and "best paper awards"), I saw two rebuttals among the papers we discussed that were outstanding exemplars of effective rebuttals. These had several factors in common:

  • a heartfelt expression of gratitude for the constructive feedback provided by the reviewers (and the reviews for these submissions were excellent)
  • the correct, gracious and effective identification of misinterpretations by reviewers, and a gentle articulation of the intended interpretation
  • an honest acknowledgment of correctly identified errors or omissions by the reviewers, and an explicit statement of how these would be addressed in a revision (if accepted)

I also witnessed some angry rebuttals, some of which included disparaging remarks about the committee and/or the conference community, none of which had any positive influence on the ultimate decision made on those papers. I won't go into any further details, as I do not believe that would be constructive. However, I would encourage all authors to wait at least 24 hours after they recieve their reviews to even start composing their responses, as I believe this will lead to a more constructive engagement.

Due to the desire to respect confidentiality agreements, I won't disclose any specific reviews or rebuttals from the CSCW or CHI conferences as positive or negative examples, but I will conclude with a few rather extreme examples of negativity - which are so extreme they are humorous - in a blog post on Twisted Bacteria about peer review of scientific papers:

  • This paper is desperate. Please reject it completely and then block the author’s email ID so they can’t use the online system in future.
  • The biggest problem with this manuscript, which has nearly sucked the will to live out of me, is the terrible writing style.
  • The writing and data presentation are so bad that I had to leave work and go home early and then spend time to wonder what life is about.
  • The finding is not novel and the solution induces despair.

There are several more examples of violations of The Four Agreements and the principles of nonviolent communication available at Twisted Bacteria, and I'm grateful that the reviews I've seen (and written) in the CSCW and CHI communities do not reflect the extreme expressions found in this selection from the environmental microbiology community.

I hope that highlighting some of the more positive and constructive approaches one might take to peer reviewing (and rebutting) will promote a more mindful, respectful and effective process for all participants.

Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind, Strength and Vulnerability

JoniMitchellWomanOfHeartMind I've always been impressed with the incredible range of Joni Mitchell's music - her voice, guitar virtuosity and the different genres she has explored - but after watching a documentary about her life and work, I have a whole new level of appreciation. In fact, I watched the video - Joni Mitchell, Woman of Heart and Mind: A Life Story - three times in two days ... and see many other parallels with another inspiring video I watched three times in two days: Brene Brown's TEDxHouston talk on wholeheartedness: connection through courage, vulnerability and authenticity.

I've been experiencing a long series of dark nights of the soul recently, and so am perhaps even more drawn toward - and inspired by - expressions of courage, vulnerability and authenticity than I might be under normal conditions ... whatever normal might be (or become) at this point. I don't seem to be able - or willing - to muster the gumption to delve very deeply into my own darkness at the moment, and so will continue hovering near that edge while sharing some notes on others who are more willing to reveal (and release) their shadows.

The documentary offers a rich blend of Joni Mitchell's music along with interviews with her and many of the people who know or knew her at various stages her career. After various contributors provide background information about her - she was born in Maidstone, Saskatchewan, had polio at age 9, wanted to be a painter, attended Alberta College of Art and began to sing in a coffee house in Calgary called the Depression - Joni shares one of many illuminating insights:

Although as a painter I had the need to innovate, as a musician it was just a hobby. I didn't think I had the gift to take it any further than that.

"Just a hobby" - wow!

She goes on to share her some details of her [initial] descent:

I lost my virginity and got pregnant, and entered onto the "bad girls" trail, which was a trail of shame and scandal, and I had to kinda hide myself away ... I was living a lie, and felt like I'd been betrayed ...It was very difficult for me, and so I began to write. I think I started writing just to develop my own private world, and also because I was disturbed ... I feel, every bit of trouble I went through, I'm grateful for ... Bad fortune changed the course of my destiny. I became a musician.

Her willingness to be courageous, vulnerable and authentic in her music - bringing all of who she is to her art - created the connection that so many people have felt. As novelist, journalist and singer Malka Marom puts it:

She sang it so real, so true, as if she was singing for me. She was my voice, you know? She was everybody's voice. She was like a universal voice. ... She lives with a great respect for this mystery, and with an openness, inviting this mystery. This is her great strength. Because I think it requires tremendous strength to really believe in something that you cannot put your finger on.

But this vulnerability comes at a cost, as Joni notes:

During the making of Blue, I was just so thin-skinned and delicate, that if anybody looked at me I'd burst into tears. I was so vulnerable and I felt so naked in my work.

My individual psychological descent coincided, ironically, with my ascent into the public eye. They were putting me on a pedestal and I was wobbling. So I took it upon myself, since I was a public voice, and was subject to this kind of weird worship, that they should know who they were worshiping.

I was demanding of myself a deeper and greater honesty. More and more revelation in my work, in order to give it back to the people, where it nourishes them and changes their direction, and makes light bulbs go off in their head, and makes them feel, and it isn't vague, it strikes against the very nerves of their life. In order to do that, you have to strike against the very nerves of your own.

After delving into the depths in music, she finds release in painting:

Any time I make a record, it's followed by a painting period. It's good crop rotation. I keep the creative juices going by switching from one to the other, so that when the music or the writing dries up, I paint. You rest the ear a while and you rest the inner mind, because poetry takes a lot of plumbing the depths. I mean, the way I write, anyway, it takes a lot of meditation. Without the painting to clear the head, I don't think I could do it.

And then after a painting period, she's ready to plumb the depths in and through music again:

The writing has been an exercise, trying to work my way towards clarity. Get out the pen, and face the beast yourself and what's bothering you and write. Well that's not exactly it. Well OK, let's go a little deeper. Well that's not exactly it. It's very hard, peeling the layers off your own onion. When you get to the truth, well do I want to say that in public?

So you're really doing a tightrope walk to keep your heart alive, to keep your art alive, to keep it vital and useful to others. This is now useful because we've hit upon a human truth.


It's been a very kind of subjective, I guess you'd say, journey. Subjective but, hopefully, universal. That was always my optimism - that if I described my own changes through whatever the decade was throwing at us, that there were others like me. And it turns out that there were.

... and still are.

I highly recommend watching the video, for both the additional commentary by illuminating luminaries who were involved personally and/or professionally with Joni - e.g., Graham Nash, David Crosby and James Taylor - and, of course, for the scenes of Joni performing her incomparable music (many of which can be found in the Video Library on her web site):

  • All I Want (Blue, 1971)
  • Urge for Going (Song to a Seagull, 1968)
  • Little Green (Blue, 1971)
  • Both Sides Now (Song to a Seagull, 1968)
  • Night in the City (Song to a Seagull, 1968)
  • I Had a King (Song to a Seagull, 1967)
  • Cactus Tree (Song to a Seagull, 1968)
  • Circle Game (Ladies of the Canyon, 1970)
  • Chelsea Morning (Clouds, 1969)
  • California (Blue, 1971)
  • Just Like Me (?, 1967)
  • Marcie (Song to a Seagull, 1968)
  • Morning Morgantown (Ladies of the Canyon, 1970)
  • Woodstock (Ladies of the Canyon, 1970)
  • Our House (CSNY, Deja Vu, 1970)
  • Get Together (cover of Jesse Colin Young song, with Crosby, Stills & Nash, Big Sur Celebration, 1969)
  • Blue (Blue, 1971)
  • A Case of You (Blue, 1971)
  • River (Blue, 1971)
  • You Turn Me On (I'm a Radio) (For The Roses, 1972)
  • Raised on Robbery (Court and Spark, 1974)
  • Amelia (Hejira, 1976)
  • Wild Things Run Fast (Wild Things Run Fast, 1982)
  • Underneath the Streetlights (Wild Things Run Fast, 1982)
  • Come in from the Cold (Night Ride Home, 1991)
  • Dog Eat Dog (Dog Eat Dog, 1985)
  • Sex Kills (Turbulent Indigo, 1994)

The Power of Pull: Institutions as Platforms for Promoting Individual Passions

PowerOfPull There are a number of interesting and provocative ideas in The Power of Pull, by John Hagel III, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison. I've already tweeted about a number of articles by the authors - based on their book - that highlight the importance of physical places, the ways we can shape serendipity and the essence of leadership as connecting people with similar and complementary passions. Here I will focus primarily on what I see as one of the most radical ideas in the book:

Rather than molding individuals to fit the needs of the institution, institutions will be shaped to provide platforms to help individuals achieve their full potential by connecting with others and better addressing challenging performance need ... Rather than individuals serving the needs of institutions, our institutions will be crafted to serve the needs of individuals.

When I first read this passage (on page 8), I was excited about encountering another example of platform thinking. However, I also thought that it was extremely idealistic, and even though I tend to be extremely idealistic, I was very skeptical about applying this idea to the business world ... or at least aboiut its prospects for realization.

LifeInc-cover_small Having also recently read Douglas Rushkoff's book, Life Incorporated: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back, I came to understand the history of the corporation as an entity designed for extraction, exploitation and externalization, existing for the primary benefit of shareholders who often have no stake in the actual work done by the corporation or its employees. I believe many corporations today - as well as many other organizations (and individuals) that Rushkoff argues have adopted a corporatist perspective - exhibit these behaviors, but as many investment offerings warn: past performance is not a reliable indicator of future performance.

In The Power of Pull, these engines of extraction are described as "push" organizations, with centralized decision-makers utilizing top-down approaches to forecast demand and supply passive consumers with products and services. Employees of such organizations are treated as standardized parts of a predictable machine, who suppress their intrinsic creative instincts in return for extrinsic rewards, resulting in a "curious combination of boredom and stress".

However, the authors argue that a Big Shift is underway, where knowledge and power is devolving from large, centralized and stable "stocks" toward smaller, decentralized and uncertain "flows". This shift is being propelled, in part, by technology, and is increasingly disrupting economics and politics and the traditional institutions that participate in these domains. Organizations that have succeeded through achieving scalable efficiency will increasingly need to promote more scalable learning, which will call for a new set of perspectives and practices.

Many of these perspectives and practices will flourish along the edges rather than at the core of organizations: 

Edges are places that become fertile ground for innovation because they spawn significant new unmet needs and unexploited capabilities and attract people who are risk takers. Edges therefore become significant drivers of knowledge creation and economic growth, challenging and ultimately transforming traditional arrangements and approaches.

This shift of focus - and prospects for value creation - from the core to the edge will require new approaches:

Rather than trying to pull the edges into the core, as many management pundits recommend, the key institutional challenge will be to develop mechanisms to pull the core out to the most promising edges.

BeyondTheEdge And the best way to pull the core of an organization toward its edges is to more fully draw the core potential within individuals to the surface(s), which can only be done by tapping into their passions and creating a trusting environment in which they are continually willing to stretch themselves toward the edge - or, ideally, beyond the edge.

To build this level of trust, we must begin the process of reintegrating ourselves, and often, in the process, rediscovering ourselves, so that we can present ourselves more fully and authentically to others around us. ... It requires us to get in touch with ourselves, to relearn how to be, in order to more effectively become.

The authors conclude with a compelling vision for integrating the personal with the professional: as institutions evolve to provide "platforms individuals to amplify the power of pull", we will have "the ability to shape a world that encourages and celebrates our efforts to become who we were meant to be". As I said at the outset, this is an incredibly idealistic perspective, but having finished the book, I'm more willing to believe in the prospect of its realization ... or as David Whyte might put it, its incarnation.

DavidWhyte-RiverFlow-cover The poetry of David Whyte - who also often writes about flows - came to mind at several times during my reading of this book, and this passage at the end reminded me of one of my favorite poems, Working Together, which he wrote to commemorate the presentation of The Collier Trophy to The Boeing Company marking the introduction of the the advanced 777 widebody twinjet. I'm not sure where Boeing stands on the push vs. pull spectrum, but their willingness to hire David Whyte, who was described by former CEO Phil Condit as "a storyteller, someone from outside our system saying that there are other ways of looking at the way we do things" - very much in the spirit of The Power of Pull - leads me to suspect that they may be more open to transformation than some other large institutions. In any case, the poem seems like an appropriate ending for this post.

We shape our self
to fit this world
and by the world
are shaped again.

The visible
and the invisible
working together
in common cause,
to produce
the miraculous.

I am thinking of the way
the intangible air
passed at speed
round a shaped wing
holds our weight.

So may we, in this life
to those elements
we have yet to see
or imagine,
and look for the true
shape of our own self
by forming it well
to the great
intangibles about us.