Who Can You Trust?

Who Can You Trust?  How Technology Brought Us Together and Why It Might Drive Us Apart
By Rachel Botsman
Public Affairs, New York, 2017

Trust is like engine oil: when it’s present everything runs smoothly, but when it’s not they grind to a halt and quickly catch fire.  Much of modern life would be impossible without trust.  Without it you would never drive your car because you couldn’t be sure the other drivers would stay in their lanes.  You’d never, ever get on a plane. You’d have to grow your own vegetables, otherwise how could you be sure they’re safe for you and your family to eat?  And online shopping?  Forget about it!

Consciously or not, we make decisions to trust people and machines and systems hundreds of times each day. But what exactly is trust?  How do we make these trust decisions?  And how is technology helping to enable new forms of trust?

Rachel Botsman explores these questions in her book, Who Can You Trust?  How Technology Brought Us Together and Why It Might Drive Us Apart.  Botsman is a writer, researcher and lecturer at Oxford University’s Said School of Business.


Who Can You Trust - Cover

The book is incredibly timely. These days it seems like more and more of the people and institutions we used to trust can’t be trusted anymore.  Nobody ever trusted Wall Street much, but during the Great Recession, banks, mortgage lenders, credit rating agencies and government regulators all betrayed our trust.  Politicians and journalists, priests and bishops, drug companies and oil companies have all joined the rogue’s gallery of the untrustworthy.  Yet at the same time, it’s become normal to get into cars with strangers, invite strangers to sleep in your home, and hire strangers to babysit your kids.  As Botsman says in her TED Talk, we’ve stopped trusting institutions and started trusting strangers.  Why?  And how?

What is trust?

Botsman defines trust as “a confident relationship with the unknown.”  When we decide to trust something or someone, we’re making an assessment of how likely it is that some future outcome will be favorable to us.

“Trust enables us to feel confident enough to take risks and to open ourselves up to being vulnerable.  It means we can commit to people before we know the precise outcome or how other people will behave.”  [p. 16]

Trust operates at three levels:  local, institutional and distributed.

  • Local trust is the kind we’re most familiar with. It operates within small, local communities, among people we know.
  • Institutional trust is trust that flows vertically through intermediaries such as governments, corporations, universities, courts and regulatory bodies. We tend to trust leaders, experts and brands (at least we used to) because of their position or association with these intermediaries.
  • Distributed trust flows horizontally between individuals mediated through systems, platforms and networks. The entire sharing economy, from rides to rooms, is built on distributed trust.

In recent years we’ve seen a massive shift away from institutional trust towards distributed trust.  Botsman suggests three reasons why institutions have lost our trust.  The first cause, she says, is an asymmetry in accountability.  During the Great Recession, thousands of people lost their homes, and millions saw their retirement savings decimated; but governments bailed out the big banks and not one of their executives went to jail.  Second, organizational hierarchies have flattened, reducing the distance (although certainly not the wealth) between the elites and everyone else.  Lastly our community has fragmented into homogeneous “echo chambers” that exclude people we don’t like or don’t agree with, regardless of whether they hold some position in an important institution.

But why have systems of distributed trust become so successful?  To understand this part of the picture, we need to look at how people make “trust leaps.”

Trust leaps

How do you decide to take a risk and try something new?  The first time you typed your credit card number into a web page, you didn’t know how things would turn out.  Your confidence might have been low.  Maybe it was of a leap of faith, or rather a leap of trust.

man person jumping desert

Photo by Stokpic on Pexels.com

So how do you decide when to make a trust leap?  Botsman says we do this by climbing the “trust stack.”  We first have to trust the idea, new though it may be.  Then we have to trust the platform it’s built on.  Lastly, we must trust the specific individual or organization we’re dealing with.  Idea, platform, individual:  that’s the trust stack.  Botsman examines each layer in detail.

To trust a new idea, like getting into a car with a complete stranger, Botsman says it must be “strangely familiar.”  (Or, to use another term I like, it must be an “adjacent possible.”) For example, ride hailing services like Uber and Lyft are really just like taxis but without their corporate shell.  If the driver showed up on a horse, or on a drone, it would be a much more difficult leap.  We need to see benefits such as cost savings or convenience.  And we need some degree of certainty that we’ll actually receive those benefits.  Are there guarantees, warranties, regulations or other mechanisms in place to reduce risk?  Lastly, we often want to know who else might have made the trust leap.  Are any of our friends using the new product or service?  What about experts, celebrities or other influencers?

OK, you’ve accepted the idea of getting into a car with a complete stranger despite your parents’ dire warnings.  Now what about the practicalities?  How does it actually work?  This is where we need to trust the platform, the systems that actually deliver the idea.  We need to know who’s responsible when something goes wrong.  Who do we complain to if our driver never shows up?  What happens if there’s a crash while we’re in the car?  Do the operators of the platform run their business ethically and transparently?

Finally, we need to trust the specific individual we’re dealing with, in this case the driver of the car that’s come to pick us up.  What we’re looking for, Botsman says, is competence, reliability and honesty. When we meet someone in person for the first time, we try to assess these qualities, that is, we make trust judgements based on a variety of signals: their appearance, their clothing (uniform, lab coat, badges and insignia, etc.), who they’re associated with (affiliations, alma mater) and mutual acquaintances.  There are online equivalents of these signals too, like ratings and reputation, and social graph proximity.  In fact, that’s one of the main functions of the platform; to aggregate huge amounts of data to help us make these trust decisions.  You could say that trust and reputation are emergent properties of this data.

The success of online platforms like Uber and Airbnb, and the reputation systems they’re built on, have enabled the shift to distributed trust.

In the last few chapters of the book Botsman looks at some of the trust issues around leading edge technologies like artificial intelligence, chatbots, and the blockchain.  Take self-driving cars for example.  As they get smarter and more capable, Botsman points out that they evolve from doing things for us to deciding things for us.  Can we trust their decision-making?  It’s one thing to trust the car when it picks one route over another to avoid traffic backups.  It’s another thing entirely when the car decides to swerve into a ditch, possibly injuring you in the process, in order to avoid hitting a pedestrian who’s just run into the middle of the road.

How is the AI in the car making these ethical or moral choices?  What values or biases are embedded in their algorithms and programming?  And who were the people responsible for selecting those values or biases?  What other information do we need to know about the algorithms, designers and programmers in order to make a trust leap?  Oh, and one more tiny little thing:  who’s liable if the car makes the wrong decision?

These questions are becoming increasingly urgent as AI technologies spread into more products and more areas of our lives.  Kudos to Rachel Botsman for raising them in Who Can You Trust?

Unsolicited Feedback

Who Can You Trust? is a timely book about a critically important topic.  I’m probably not a typical reader because I work in the area of internet security and I’m quite familiar with many of the technologies and issues around online trust.  Perhaps that’s why I found the book frustrating and disappointing.

Rachel Botsman handles most of her subject quite well.  She does a great job describing how we make trust leaps by climbing the trust stack.  And she traces the evolution of trust from local to institutional to distributed in clear language.  Her description of the concepts and technology behind the blockchain were confusing, but I’ll overlook that because the blockchain is definitely not “strangely familiar” for most of us.  The best and most important part of the book are the issues I’ve noted above that she raises in the final chapters.

Her definition of trust, “a confident relationship with the unknown”, sounds grand and all-encompassing.  But I don’t think it’s very useful.  Too vague.  I prefer the definition from a book called The Thin Book of Trust, by Charles Feltman.  He says trust is “choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions.”  I think this does a better job capturing what’s at stake in a trust decision and the fact that trust decisions are highly contextual.  Of course, this definition needs to be broadened to include the actions of machines, systems and platforms as well as people.

My main complaint about the book is that at just over 250 pages it’s about twice as long as it needs to be.  Each idea in the book is illustrated with lengthy examples complete with largely irrelevant biographical details of the people involved.  I didn’t need to read Alibaba founder Jack Ma’s life story in order to understand his overriding concern for the reputation of his brand, for example.  And I couldn’t care less what kind of tea the author was served while interviewing this or that expert.  It’s one thing to provide brief character sketches to bring dry technical details to life or to humanize complex stories.  But there’s so much of this padding in Who Can You Trust? that I found myself becoming annoyed at the distractions impeding me from getting to the important ideas of the book.

I think you can learn most of what’s contained in the book by watching the two TED Talks listed below, and in much less time.

Related Links

We’ve stopped trusting institutions and started trusting strangers, TED Talk by Rachel Botsman

How Airbnb designs for trust, TED Talk by Joe Gebbia, Airbnb co-founder

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Radical Candor

Radical Candor:  Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity
By Kim Scott

St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2017

Search the web for “top 10 reasons people quit their jobs” and you’ll find “bad boss”, “terrible boss”, or “relationship with boss” at or near the top of every list that comes up.  I don’t believe anyone sets out to become a bad boss, but there sure seem to be a lot of them out there.  And for every truly horrible, psychopathic, soul-destroying boss there are thousands of simply average or first-time bosses who could use some help.  (I’ve been one of these myself.)

Radical Candor is about how to be a better boss.  Author Kim Scott has been a senior manager at Google, a co-founder of her own Silicon Valley startup, and an advisor to Apple, Dropbox, Twitter and other tech companies.  Her book, Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, takes all that experience and packages it up into a neat framework and a set of detailed instructions to help you become a more effective boss.

radical candor cover

Scott uses the word “boss” deliberately, to cover both “manager” and “leader.”  She has an equally concise description of the boss’s job:

“Bosses guide teams to achieve results.”  [p. 6]

From this one simple definition, she spins out an entire book full of step-by-step instructions for giving guidance, building teams and getting results.  More on those elements in a moment.

Caring and Challenging

These days, bosses won’t get the best performance and the deepest engagement from their employees just by barking out orders.  It’s not the boss’s power that counts, it’s their relationships with their employees.  What’s needed are relationships based on mutual trust.  To develop these relationships, Kim Scott says bosses must care personally and challenge directly.

  • Bosses must care personally about their employees. They have to treat each employee as a whole person, not a fungible resource.  They need to get to know their employees well enough to understand what their dreams are and what motivates them.  And they need to open up and share something of themselves to show that they too are whole human beings.  This helps to build trusting relationships.
  • Bosses must also directly challenge their employees. This means giving them challenging assignments, and also, when necessary, challenging the quality of their work or the thoroughness of their research, or the soundness of their decisions.  Challenging employees and encouraging them to challenge you, helps build trust because it shows you’re committed to helping them improve and to improving yourself.

These two dimensions, care personally and challenge directly, form the framework for the book.  Get the balance right, and bosses can establish relationships built on radical candor, shown in the upper right quadrant of the figure below.  With radical candor, bosses care personally enough to give employees specific, meaningful and sincere praise when it’s due, and at the same time to challenge directly with specific, clear and actionable criticism when it’s needed.

radical candor 2x2-whiteSource: https://radicalcandor.com

Too much emphasis on challenging directly, without caring personally, results in obnoxious aggression.  These are the bosses who belittle employees, criticize or humiliate them in public, and freeze them out of important discussions and decisions.  They’re the people the “no asshole” rule was designed to filter out.  They can sometimes achieve great results in the short term, Scott says, but they inevitably leave a trail of traumatized employees and damaged careers behind them.

On the other hand, caring too much without challenging directly can result in ruinous empathy.  When a boss doesn’t give enough criticism, they might end up letting poorly performing employees skate by.  This is unfair to the employee who never gets the guidance they need to improve.  It’s also unfair to the rest of the team who end up doing extra work to cover for their under-performing colleague.  Ruinous empathy can prevent bosses from asking for criticism too.  This means they won’t get the feedback they need to mature as bosses.  Finally, a boss who is more concerned with everyone getting along may not encourage the healthy, sometimes contentious debate between team members that results in ideas getting clarified and sharpened.

Bosses who neither care about their employees personally nor challenge them directly often display manipulative insincerity.  Possibly these bosses just want to be liked or they’re just plain fake, Scott tells us.  They don’t provide necessary feedback because they don’t want to offend anyone, or don’t want to be perceived badly.  So they give insincere praise and vague, useless feedback.

Radical candor helps bosses guide teams to achieve results.  The second half of the book provides tools and techniques for doing just that.

Giving Guidance

Guidance consists of praise and criticism.  It’s part of the boss’s job to give, get and encourage guidance.  In fact, Scott wants bosses to foster a “culture of guidance.”  It starts with bosses asking for criticism from their employees.  Since most people will feel reluctant to criticize their boss, Scott proposes a number of strategies such as asking a question like, “what can I do or stop doing to make it easier to work with me?”  She advises bosses to listen for understanding rather than listening to refute.  And it’s important for bosses to act on the feedback quickly to demonstrate their sincerity and to encourage more.

When bosses are giving guidance, either praise or criticism, it should be clear, specific and grounded in facts.  Scott suggests a situation-behavior-impact format.  Criticism, in particular, should focus on the work not the person.  And it must be actionable.  “It’s not mean, it’s clear,” she says.  Most guidance should be impromptu, in the moment, and Scott offers plenty of suggestions for how to do this.  Some situations, such as annual performance reviews, are more formal and require preparation.  She has tips for delivering this type of guidance too.

Scott includes a section on gender and guidance.  Women are often perceived, treated and evaluated differently than men in the workplace, usually to their detriment.  For example, assertive behavior by men is considered “normal” but the same behavior by women is often criticized as “abrasive.”  Another example:  male bosses can feel uncomfortable challenging female employees as directly as they challenge males.  This denies women both the opportunities and the feedback they need to develop in their careers. Over time small differences can accumulate and contribute to wide gaps between men and women in salary and rank.  She offers some suggestions for both men and women on how to address these gender differences.

Building Teams

Since it’s impossible to accomplish anything significant by yourself in most organizations, bosses need to be adept at building and motivating teams.  Contrary to a lot of current leadership thinking, Scott says it is not the boss’s job to inspire their employees.

“Sure, it’s the boss’s job to put the team’s work in context, and if you share why the work gives you meaning, that can help others find their own inspiration.  But remember, it’s not all about you.” [p. 51]

Instead, bosses have a more practical job:  to get the most out of each employee, bosses need to understand what motivates them, find out what dreams or aspirations they hold, identify the skills the employee needs to advance towards their dream and then provide the assignments, training and mentoring to help them develop those skills.  This is an intensely pragmatic approach.  It recognizes that the employee’s goals and the team’s goals may not be perfectly aligned and that it’s the boss’s job to align them as much as possible for as long as possible. If they don’t align, the employee may need to move to another team or to another organization where there is a better match.  Scott notes that people change over time, so bosses need to regularly re-connect with their employees to check on alignment and adjust accordingly.

Bosses have another key responsibility:  assessing the performance of team members.  Scott presents a useful framework for doing this, noting that healthy teams have a mixture of “superstar” performers with steep career growth trajectories, and steady “rock star” performers with slower growth trajectories.  Bosses need to reward and accommodate both.

Getting Results

Bosses can’t get the best answer, or design or solution by telling people what to do, so they must collaborate and they must get their teams to collaborate.

Scott provides a detailed framework for getting results that she calls the “Getting Stuff Done” wheel.  The GSD wheel consists of seven steps:

  • Listen – give everyone on the team, especially the quiet ones, the opportunity to be heard and to contribute. Use the “strong opinions weakly held” model.
  • Clarify – create a safe space to nurture and clarify new ideas
  • Debate – subject ideas to vigorous debate and criticism to strengthen and polish them
  • Decide – the people closest to the facts, not necessarily the boss, should decide on a course of action
  • Persuade – enlist the support of the rest of the team, especially those who might disagree with the decision.
  • Execute – help the team execute by staying involved and by shielding them from distractions and organizational “taxes”.
  • Learn – Collect feedback, learn and adjust.

Scott compliments the GSD wheel with suggestions on how bosses can balance meeting time (1:1, team, all-hands) and execution/thinking time to maximize results.

Unsolicited Feedback

Radical Candor is relentlessly pragmatic.  It starts with a crisp and clear definition of the boss’s job, to guide teams to achieve results.  Then it provides simple and practical frameworks for thinking about the three components of the job: giving guidance, building teams and getting results.  And lastly, it’s full of detailed, roll-up-your-sleeves tips and techniques for doing these things.

I think it’s an especially useful book for new managers or for individual contributors aspiring to be managers.  (I prefer the term manager to boss.)  It could also be helpful to anyone who just wants to make a bigger impact on their team.  You don’t have to be a manager to use and benefit from many of the strategies Kim Scott presents in Radical Candor.

However, I do think there might be a quadrant (or maybe a small wedge) missing from the care personally / challenge directly grid.  Sometimes the boss just doesn’t know how to handle a given situation.  They might care personally and want to challenge directly but just don’t know what to do.  The guidance they give when this happens can be maddeningly vague.  Radical Candor doesn’t deal with situations like this where the boss needs help and I think that’s a gap in the book.

One of the key points in the book is the need to really get to know what motivates the people on your team.  When I first became a manager, I tended to focus mainly on task assignment and coaching to help team members advance up the career ladder.  That’s not a terrible approach, but it doesn’t really get to the heart of understanding each individual’s motivations and aspirations.  Radical Candor helps you get that deeper level of understanding.

The book is also highly personal.  It’s based mainly on Kim Scott’s own career and consulting experience.  Many of the examples come from her own jobs.  To her credit she doesn’t hide or sugar coat her mistakes.  But if you’re looking for a book that’s backed by academic research or industry-wide surveys of Fortune 500 executives, or similar data, Radical Candor is not that book.

There are some similarities between Radical Candor and other leadership books I’ve read recently, such as Dare to Lead by Brené Brown (book, review).  Both books stress the need for clear, actionable feedback.  Scott says, “It’s not mean, it’s clear.”  Brown says, “Clear is kind, unclear is unkind.”  

There are some differences too.  Dare to Lead goes deep into the psychological aspects of building trust in the face of vulnerability, and it presents strategies for developing a trusting culture across the whole organization.  Radical Candor is focused mostly on the relationship between a boss and their team members.  While it talks about developing a “culture of guidance” and a “culture of listening” the book is not really about the relationships between team members themselves.  In other words, there’s less emphasis on building an overall team culture.

But that’s OK.  Radical Candor contains plenty of pragmatic, nuts-and-bolts advice to keep you busy for quite a while learning to be a better boss

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Super blood wolf moon lunar eclipse

2018-01-20 lunar eclipse (2)

Tonight’s rare “super blood wolf moon” lunar eclipse coincided with an equally rare clear January night in Seattle.  My little point-and-shoot digital camera didn’t do it proper justice, but it gives you an idea of what we saw.

Eclipses are transcendent events.  First and foremost, they’re beautiful.  I love the coppery glow of the moon set against a backdrop of stars.

Eclipses teach us humility. They remind us that no matter what’s happening in our lives, no matter the hustle and bustle or the trials and tribulations, the universe is unfolding at its own stately, majestic pace, just as it should.  I find this comforting.

Eclipses remind us how far we’ve come. It’s amazing how accurately we can predict exlipses now — this one, for example, beginning at 7:35 p.m. Pacific Time, total eclipse at 8:40 p.m., ending at 10:45 p.m. Centuries ago, an astronomer would be lucky to predict an eclipse within days! Jesuit missionaries in China during the 1600’s gained influence with the Emperor because they were able to predict a solar eclipse much more accurately than the Emperor’s own Chinese astronomers. (Ironically, the Jesuits’ success was based upon the Copernican model of the solar system, a model which the Church in Europe deemed heretical at the time.)

Eclipses were one of the first phenomena to attract our attention to the night sky.  And what a powerful attraction they have been! The prediction and explanation of eclipses has been a driving force in astronomy since ancient Greece. Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, all of them contributed to our knowledge of the universe by working to improve our ability to predict eclipses.

Finally, eclipses remind us how far we still have to go. Yes, we have binoculars and telescopes to bring images of an eclipse closer to home. And yes, we’ve put a few men on the Moon and even sent a couple of tiny spaceships beyond the solar system. But we have yet to venture beyond our own Earth to the stars.

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Dare to Lead

Dare to Lead:  Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts
By Brené Brown
Random House, New York, 2018

Brené Brown’s latest book, Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts, is about courage.  The book is pitched towards managers and executives to help them build the courage they need to lead their organizations.  But I think the book could just as easily have been called Dare to Live because it applies to many aspects of our lives. 

Brené Brown is a research professor in social work at the University of Houston.  She’s spent about twenty years researching vulnerability, shame, courage and empathy.  I first heard of her when I saw her 2010 TED Talk, The Power of Vulnerability

Dare to Lead builds on several of her earlier books including Daring Greatly and Rising Strong, and on seven years of research into courage and leadership.   

Brown defines a leader as:

“… anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes and who has the courage to develop that potential.”  [p. 4]

Leadership isn’t about power, or titles or promotions.  It’s about courage. 

It turns out courage isn’t some innate quality that you’re either born with or not.  Courage can be developed.  Brown teaches us four skills needed for courage:

  • Rumbling with vulnerability
  • Living into our values
  • Braving trust
  • Learning to rise

I’ll take a brief look at each of these and then circle back to a few themes from the book that I found especially important.

Rumbling with vulnerability

The core skill for building courage is the ability to “rumble with vulnerability.”  This is such a key concept that I want to unpack its meaning.

First, when Brené Brown uses the word “rumble” she’s not referring to some kind of West Side Story street brawl between rival gangs.  Rather, it’s a kind of conversation, a tough, potentially contentious and emotionally loaded conversation.  One that requires courage and also curiosity and generosity and the will to lean in to vulnerability.  It could be about an important business decision, a performance review, or about the division of chores at home.  I think a rumble is a lot like the “crucial conversations” described in the book of that name by Kerry Patterson and his associates (book, review). 

Next, Brown defines vulnerability as,

“…the emotion that we experience during times of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.”  [p. 19]

“Vulnerability is not winning or losing. It’s having the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome.” [p. 19]

In her 2010 TED Talk, The Power of Vulnerability, she says,

“Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”  [12:30]

You can’t be courageous without being vulnerable, she tells us. 

Rumbling with vulnerability, then, is a commitment to having the tough, contentious, emotionally loaded conversations not just in spite of our vulnerability, but fully embracing it.  Just over half the book is devoted to learning how to do this.

Living into our values

Living into our values, the second skill for courageous leadership, means aligning our thoughts, words and actions with our values.

“A value is a way of being or believing that we hold most important.” [p. 186] 

First we have to identify our values.  There’s an exercise in the book to help you do this.  You’re asked to pick at most two values from a list of about 120.  Usually I skip over these sorts of exercises or self-tests but I went through with this one and I’m glad I did.  I started by circling about fifteen of the values.  I found I could cluster them together pretty easily into just a few groups.  For example, I put the values of learning, competence, truth, wisdom, curiosity, and humility together in one group.  From each group I then selected the one that I felt was the source or the driver for all the others.  In the end I arrived at curiosity and reliability as my two core values. 

I wouldn’t say the exercise was a great revelation, but distilling the list down to just two values did leave me with some newfound clarity. 

The next step is aligning our behaviors with our values.  There’s another exercise for this:  identifying two or three of your behaviors that support or align with your values, and two or three that undermine or wriggle away from them. 

Regardless of your values, Brown says,

“… daring leaders who live into their values are never silent about hard things.”  [p. 194]

Our values must be our guiding lights that tell us how to act and lead.  When we’re faced with a tough decision, or a tough conversation, it’s our values that should point the way.  Living into our values takes courage. We do not always succeed.  Brown says that to support us in this work we need help: empathy from one or two people who know us really well, and self-compassion – being generous and caring towards ourselves when we fail or feel inadequate.

Braving trust

We can’t rumble with vulnerability if we don’t trust the people we’re rumbling with.  If we get even the slightest hint of untrustworthiness, we shut down, raise shields, and put on our battle armor. 

But what are trust and distrust?  Brown uses the definitions from The Thin Book of Trust, by Charles Feltman. 

Trust is “… choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions.”  [p. 221]

Distrust is deciding that, “what is important to me is not safe with this person in this situation (or any situation).” [ibid.]

She presents an inventory of behaviors for building trust.  It has the convenient acronym “BRAVING”: 

  • Boundaries – respecting each other’s boundaries
  • Reliability – doing what you say you’ll do
  • Accountability – owning your mistakes
  • Vault – keeping confidences
  • Integrity – living into our values, choosing courage over comfort
  • Non-judgement – so that we can ask each other for help without fear of being judged
  • Generosity – giving the most generous possible interpretations to the actions and intentions of others, also known as assuming positive intent

In order to trust other people, it’s necessary that we first trust ourselves.  So the BRAVING inventory should also be used as a tool to develop self-trust.

Learning to rise

Last but not least, to build courage we need to know how rise, how to get back up after we’ve fallen.  The failures and setbacks we encounter in work and life can be large or small: a project we’re leading misses a deadline; we don’t get the promotion we were hoping for; someone says something snarky at a meeting or at home and we take it personally.

Our first reactions are typically emotional and the first step to rising is recognizing that we’ve been triggered, that something has set us off.  When that happens we need to get calm and then get curious.

To regain calm, Brown recommends breathing, specifically box breathing, a technique used in mindfulness meditation and apparently by Navy SEALs.    

Brown notes that in the absence of data our minds will inevitably make up stories to fill in the gaps.  Those stories are often driven by our worst emotions — fear, anger and shame.  We make up worst-case scenarios.  We catastrophize.  If we’re not careful, our made-up stories can spin out of control into full-blown conspiracy theories.  Borrowing a term from writer Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird, Brown calls these stories shitty first drafts.  She suggests we actually write down our shitty first drafts and then ask ourselves, “What more do I need to know about the current situation, the other people involved, and myself?” 

Then get curious. Talk, or rather rumble, with others to get the answers and fact-check our stories.  Start by saying, “The story I’m telling myself is…”  That way you’re taking ownership of your stories and you’re asking for help rather than making accusations. 

Knowing how to get back up helps give us the courage to dare. 

Shame and empathy

Brené Brown started her research career looking into vulnerability, shame, and empathy and these themes are woven through Dare to Lead.  I think they’re a really important part of the book.  I’ve covered vulnerability earlier so I’ll just mention some highlights about shame and empathy here. 

Shame is the fear of disconnection. 

“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, belonging, and connection.” [p. 126]  

It’s universal; the only people who never feel shame are sociopaths.

Shame is different from guilt and humiliation.  Shame makes you feel, “I am bad,” while guilt makes you feel, “I did something bad,” and humiliation is what you feel when something bad happens to you that you didn’t deserve. 

The opposite of shame and the antidote for shame is empathy.  Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings and experiences of others.  Ir’s different from sympathy.  “Empathy is feeling with people.  Sympathy is feeling for them.”  Empathy builds trust and increases connection. 

Brown says that showing empathy to someone helps dispel their shame, but it takes skill. We need to take their perspective, to see the world as they see it.  We need to become the learner, not the knower, to truly understand another’s perspective.  We also need to be non-judgmental.  We have to try to understand the other person’s feelings and communicate our understanding back to them.

Shame says, “I’m never good enough.”  Empathy says, “you’re not alone.”

Okay, so what do shame and empathy have to do with leadership and organizational cultures, the focus of Dare to Lead?

Shame drives behaviors like perfectionism, bullying, harassment, blaming and cover-ups that not only contribute to a toxic organizational culture but are also the opposite of daring leadership.  It creates an environment where people don’t feel safe, don’t trust each other and cannot rumble with vulnerability.  Teaching people empathy skills, on the other hand, builds connection and trust and enables daring leadership.

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Dare to Lead is a “full stack” book about leadership.  It looks at leadership from psychological, behavioral and organizational angles.  More broadly, it’s about how to build healthy, trusting, fruitful relationships with others, whether they’re colleagues, friends or family members. 

I’ve tried to highlight the ideas I found the most important, but I know I need to re-read the book a couple more times to get the most out of it. 

I really like the central ideas of the book, that leadership requires courage, and courage requires vulnerability.  It’s not just the courage to make big, bold bets, or to strike out in new directions.  Yes those are important, but the courage Brené Brown is talking about in Dare to Lead is more about the courage to have tough conversations, give clear feedback, hold people accountable, learn from failure and setbacks without blaming, tackle sensitive issues like diversity and harassment, and to do all that in the full knowledge and acceptance of our own vulnerability. 

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The Deepest Well

The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effect of Childhood Adversity
By Nadine Burke Harris
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2018

zoo bear
Photo by Rasmus Svinding on Pexels.com

“Imagine you’re walking in the forest and you see a bear.”

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris asks us to think about this scenario early in her book The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effect of Childhood Adversity.

“Immediately your body sends a bunch of signals to your adrenal glands … saying, “Release stress hormones! Adrenaline! Cortisol!” So your heart starts to pound, your pupils dilate, your airways open up and you are ready to either fight the bear or run from the bear. That’s the response commonly known as fight or flight. It has evolved over millions of years to save your life.” [pp. 48-49]

We’ve all had experiences like this, maybe not meeting a bear in the woods exactly, but experiences that make your heart pound and time seem to slow down. It’s a normal, healthy yet primal response to a stressful or threatening situation. You probably know from experience that it can take a while to calm down, for your heart and your breathing to go back to normal. Those stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, are powerful and their effects can be lasting.

But then Dr. Burke Harris asks, what if you don’t just encounter a bear in the forest? What if the bear lives with you? What if “the bear” is really physical or sexual abuse in your home, neglect or violence or other conditions that make your life hell?

You’re going to have that stress reaction, hormones flooding your body, often, perhaps dozens of times a day. The stress will go from tolerable to toxic.

As an adult you might be able to cope for a while. But how do children cope under such adverse conditions? How does toxic stress affect our kids?

The main point of The Deepest Well is that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can dramatically impact health over an entire lifetime. The book is about those impacts, how to recognize them and how to treat them.



The term adverse childhood experience comes from a 1998 study by Dr. Vincent Felitti, Dr. Robert Anda and their colleagues which looked at the relationship between traumatic childhood experiences and health outcomes for about 17,500 men and women in the San Diego area.

Felitti and Anda identified ten ACEs:

  1. Emotional abuse
  2. Physical abuse
  3. Sexual abuse or contact
  4. Physical neglect
  5. Emotional neglect
  6. Alcohol or substance abuse in the household
  7. Mental illness in the household including depression or attempted suicide
  8. Mother treated violently
  9. Parental divorce or separation
  10. Incarceration of a household member

Your ACE score is simply the number of ACEs you experienced before the age of eighteen.

ACEs touch people in all levels of society and from all backgrounds.  67% of the US population has at least one ACE and about 12.5% have four or more.  Dr. Burke Harris stresses this point because the American culture of individualism can sometimes lead to people being blamed for their health problems.  In other words, health problems are sometimes attributed to a person’s own behavioral choices, or neglect, or carelessness, without recognizing that environmental or developmental factors beyond their control can also have significant influence. 


High doses of toxic stress during childhood development have a range of impacts:

Neurological: Affecting brain function including cognition, executive function and impulse control leading to learning difficulties and high risk behaviors like smoking, and alcohol and substance abuse.

Hormonal: Hormone imbalances contributing to obesity or occasionally stunted growth.

Immunological: Unbalanced immune system responses making people more susceptible to colds, flu and other infections, and even to autoimmune disorders such as arthritis, diabetes and celiac disease.

Epigenetic: Influencing how your DNA is read and transcribed. (I’ll come back to this one.)

According to the study, when compared to adults with zero ACEs, people with four or more ACEs are:

  • 2.2 times as likely suffer from heart disease
  • 4.6 times as likely to suffer from depression
  • 10.8 times as likely to inject drugs
  • 12.2 times as likely to attempt suicide


One of the most interesting, and maybe controversial, ideas in the book is that ACEs can affect how your DNA is read and transcribed. Exposure to toxic stress doesn’t directly change your DNA, but Dr. Burke Harris says it can impact which parts of your DNA are switched on or off, and therefore impact which proteins are expressed when cells reproduce, and even how cells might function. These impacts are known as epigenetic.

Epigenetics, particularly in humans, is a hotly debated topic among scientists, as this article suggests. I can see that it would be advantageous for organisms to have a way to adapt to changes in their environment more quickly that random genetic mutation which takes many generations. Wouldn’t it be great if coral or whales could adapt more quickly to warming oceans, or if trees could adapt to hotter, drier climates? Still, the exact mechanisms by which such impacts are transmitted from parent to child don’t seem to be fully understood yet.


Dr. Burke Harris advocates combining both medical and public health approaches to treating childhood adversity.

She outlines the medical approach throughout the book when she describes her work at the Bayview Child Health Center, and the Center for Youth Wellness, both in San Francisco. It’s a holistic, multi-disciplinary approach that addresses sleep, exercise, nutrition, mindfulness, mental health and healthy relationships.

On the public health front, we’re still in the very earliest stages. Dr. Burke Harris urges early and regular screening for ACEs, for example at a child’s annual check-up. We need more research on ways to reliably detect the biological signs of toxic stress, perhaps through blood tests. And there probably needs to be greater coordination between doctors, schools and caregivers to ensure that children with ACEs are quickly identified and given the proper comprehensive care.

She concludes by urging everyone to recognize that how we’re affected by adversity is not a “referendum on our character.”

“… I know that the long-term impacts of childhood adversity are not all suffering. In some people, adversity can foster perseverance, deepen empathy, strengthen the resolve to protect, and spark mini-superpowers, but in all people, it gets under our skin and into our DNA, and it becomes an important part of who we are.” [p. 218]

The important thing isn’t “overcoming” whatever childhood adversity you may have experienced, but rather understanding the impacts it has had on you, and developing mechanisms to support yourself and the people you love.

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Most of us understand that our experiences growing up have profound impacts on who we become as adults. Did our parents read to us as kids? Did they encourage us to participate in sports, or get involved in drama club at school, or robotics club? Were they religious or secular, conservative or liberal? The Deepest Well opened my eyes to the profound ways that childhood experiences can influence not just personality or career choices, but also physical and mental health.

The idea of ACEs and their impact is really important, and not just for medical practitioners and caregivers. I think it’s an important tool for self-understanding too. My parents divorced when I was a kid and I probably experienced some emotional neglect growing up, so I’d give myself 2 ACEs. Over the years I’ve come to understand how profoundly those experiences have shaped my life. But I never realized how much they could also be affecting my health.

Dr. Burke Harris does a great job throughout The Deepest Well putting a human face on the impacts and the suffering caused by childhood adversity. She presents detailed case studies of several of her patients to illustrate their symptoms and their responses to treatment. The stories are sometimes tragic and hard to read.

She also explains technical details well. She takes us on a fascinating tour deep inside the brain, tracing how stress responses are handled by the brain’s various sub-systems. She gives a good introduction to the field of epigenetics, something I’d never heard of before reading this book.

My one caveat is about the structure of the book. It’s semi-autobiographical, organized around the story of Dr. Burke Harris’s career. She takes us through her journey learning about ACEs and their impact, about how to care for her patients who have them, and about her work advocating for ACE screening. I was less interested in those parts of the book (sorry, Doctor!). There’s plenty of worthwhile scientific and medical detail throughout The Deepest Well, but if that’s your main interest, as it was mine, then you’ll have to untangle that information from her biography.

Related Links

Nadine Burke Harris’s TED Talk: How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime

Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study

New Yorker profile: The Poverty Clinic

New York Times article, Can We Really Inherit Trauma?

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Origin Story

Origin Story: A Big History of Everything
By David Christian
Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2018

Every religion, every culture, and every nation has its origin story. Origin stories tell us who we are, where we come from, how we got here, and how we should live with one another. They give us a common understanding of our place in this beautiful but sometimes frightening world.

The problem is traditional origin stories, especially religious ones, no longer reflect today’s modern, globalized world. They’re just myths and fables that few people believe anymore.

Origin Story - cover

Origin Story: A Big History of Everything is a global origin story for a modern, secular world. The author, David Christian, is Distinguished Professor of History at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.  He explains at the outset,

“Within the creative hurricane of modernity, there is emerging a new, global origin story that is as full of meaning, awe, and mystery as any traditional origin story but is based on modern scientific scholarship across many disciplines.” [p. ix]

The fundamental idea of Origin Story is that history is all about the development of complexity in the Universe. It’s a story that spans 13.8 billion years from the Big Bang right up to today.


Christian arranges his origin story around a few pivotal events that he calls thresholds. Each threshold is a milestone that marks the creation or emergence of a new, increased level of complexity in the Universe.

“The thresholds give shape to the complicated narrative of the modern origin story. They highlight major turning points, when already existing things were rearranged or otherwise altered to create something with new, “emergent” properties, qualities that had never existed before.” [p. 11]

Christian identifies eight of these threshold moments when the correct conditions – “Goldilocks conditions” – gave rise to something new and more complex. The bulk of the book tells the story of these thresholds. Let’s take a quick tour.

Threshold 1: The Big Bang. In the beginning … all the matter and energy of our Universe was contained in a single point smaller than an atom. It exploded 13.8 billion years ago, kick-starting the Universe with an enormous, unimaginable blast of energy. Electrons, neutrons and protons emerged within seconds. About 380,000 years later the first atoms, hydrogen and helium, congealed out of the rapidly expanding cloud of matter let loose by the Big Bang.

Threshold 2: The stars light up. The thin fog of hydrogen and helium atoms created by the Big Bang began to form clumps as gravity drew neighboring atoms towards each other. Eventually gravity made these clumps so dense and so hot that some hydrogen atoms began to fuse together into helium which in turn released more energy and more heat. At about 10 million degrees, hydrogen fusion becomes a self-sustaining chain reaction. A mere 600 million years after the Big Bang, a star is born. And not just one star; billions, and trillions of them. Under the guiding hand of gravity they grouped together to form the complex structures we know as galaxies.

Threshold 3: The elements. As stars age and die, the gravitational forces at their cores recreate the ultra-high temperatures and pressures that existed only in the first moments after the Big Bang. Hydrogen and helium start to fuse into larger, more complex elements like carbon, oxygen and iron. When dying stars finally explode in novae and supernovas, they spread their exotic contents into the universe, seeding it with the potential for even more complex structures, like planets and people.

The solar system, our Earth, and all of life only became possible when stars began to die.

As Carl Sagan famously said,

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”  Carl Sagan, Cosmos.

Threshold 4: Our solar system. In the same way that hydrogen and helium atoms clumped together to form stars, larger atoms began to assemble into more complex chemicals. They formed molecules, including water and silica, essential for the creation of rocks, asteroids and planets, and they formed amino acids, essential for the emergence of life. Our solar system formed this way about 4.5 billion years ago.

Threshold 5: Life. Life on Earth began about 3.8 billion years ago, probably in the salty oceans near volcanic heat vents. Equally important, and perhaps even more miraculous, was the emergence of a way of encoding the templates for life: DNA. All organisms, even single cells, have an emergent property called agency; they act on their own behalf. They manage energy and they manage information. They seek certain outcomes (food, reproduction) and avoid others (obstacles, poisons, predators). Here, Christian notes, “are the beginnings of desire, caring, purpose, ethics, even love.”

Threshold 6: Humans. Homo sapiens emerged as a distinct primate species in Africa somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 years ago. Today, there are more than 7 billion of us. We don’t just dominate every other species on the planet, we have the power to shape and even destroy Earth’s entire biosphere. What gave Homo sapiens such a decisive advantage? Christian argues that it was language that set us apart.

“Whatever happened, our species seems to have been the first to cross the linguistic threshold beyond which information can accumulate within communities and across generations. Like a gold strike, collective learning unleashed a bonanza of information about plants and animals, about soils, fire and chemicals, and about literature, art, religion, and other humans. Though some information was lost every generation, in the long run, human stores of information accumulated, and that growing wealth of knowledge would drive human history by giving humans access to increasing flows of energy and increasing power over their surroundings.” [p. 174]

Threshold 7: Farming. Early humans were nomadic or semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers. Collective learning helped them to increase their population, but ultimately it reached a limit, bounded by the amount of energy humans could forage from the land around them. Then about 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age and the beginning of the current geological epoch known as the Holocene, humans began farming. Farming is such a difficult and chancy business that it’s quite possible we took to it reluctantly. But it created what Christian calls an “energy bonanza” that enabled humans to support a huge increase in population.

Here’s where collective learning really paid off. When humans reached a plateau on the population growth curve, they had an option not available to any other species on the planet: they could innovate. Using knowledge, collectively accumulated and passed from one generation to the next through language, Homo sapiens were able to escape population restrictions imposed by the limited amounts of energy that could be gained from foraging. In other words, humans innovated their way out of an energy crisis.

Threshold 8: The Anthropocene. About 200 years ago with the discovery of fossil fuels, first coal and then oil, humans unleashed another energy bonanza, ushered in the industrial era and crossed the eighth and final threshold.

“Without really intending to, we have introduced changes so rapid and so massive that our species has become the equivalent of a new geological force.” [p. 259]

We are now living in what some geologists call the “Anthropocene”, the human epoch.

Christian ends Origin Story with a question: can humans transition to a more sustainable world in which we deliberately and carefully manage Earth’s entire biosphere. In other words, can we cross Threshold 9?

“For us humans, the next one hundred years are really important. Things are happening so fast that, like the slow-motion time of a near accident, the details of what we do in the next few decades will have huge consequences for us and for the biosphere on scales of thousands of years. Like it or not, we are now managing an entire biosphere, and we can do it well or badly.” [p. 289]

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Prof. Christian’s modern origin story really is as meaningful and awe-inspiring and mysterious as any traditional one. The fact that it’s not complete, that there are still gaps in our knowledge, makes it even more compelling and more believable for me. A story spanning 13.8 billion years that had no gaps and no inconsistencies would seem far too perfect to be credible. More important, there’s room for the story to improve and grow over time. It invites inquiry rather than demanding faith.

It’s an origin story that has no creator god. It doesn’t need one. I wholeheartedly agree. If humanity is to unite in the shared task of taking care of our Earth, then we must set aside many of our differences including religious differences. It doesn’t matter whether you believe in one god or many gods or zero gods, the Earth is warming, the seas are rising and we must act together. A global origin story built on our accumulated scientific knowledge is a great place to start. Gods just divide us.

One possible criticism of the book is that ethics and morality are largely absent from this origin story. Christian alludes to the agency in all living organisms as the basis for ethics and morality but he just touches on the subject and then moves on. I think this is deliberate. Origin Story covers 13.8 billion years of history. That’s enough for one book.

A consistent theme running through the whole book, and across all the thresholds, is emergence, the idea of new things with new properties and new levels of complexity arising from the evolution of existing things. I really love this idea. It tells us that evolution, growth and novelty are embedded in the fabric of the universe.

Christian tells his origin story beautifully. He explains scientific ideas from many disciplines clearly and without over-simplifying. Yet the book isn’t just dry technical detail. It’s compelling, even exciting in places. The thresholds form a great organizing framework. Throughout the book, he does a wonderful job giving you a sense of just how enormous the universe is, how long it’s been in existence, how much energy and matter it contains, and how sudden and recent and precarious human history really is. It’s breathtaking.

Finally, I get the sense that Prof. Christian is fairly pessimistic about our chances of crossing Threshold 9 to a more sustainable world. He’s right to be concerned, and right to sound the alarm.  There’s no question the challenge we face now is greater and more urgent than anything we’ve dealt with before. But his own book tells us that we humans have repeatedly innovated our way out of crises, and that we, alone of all the species on the planet, are capable of doing this.  That gives me hope.

Related Links

Origin Story is based on a course Prof. Christian taught at Macquarie University and later turned into a web site called The Big History Project. It’s available for anyone to study online.

David Christian’s excellent TED Talk, The History of Our World in 18 Minutes is here:

Bill Gates’s review of Origin Story:

If you want a deeper exploration of how a scientifically-based origin story could serve as the foundation for ethics and morality, then I’d highly recommend Reinventing the Sacred by Stuart Kauffman. (My review)

Christian refers to the idea of “planetary boundaries”, a set of red lines that we should not cross if we want to sustainably manage Earth’s biosphere. That’s the central idea of the outstanding book Big World, Small Planet. (My review)

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On Writing

On Writing:  A Memoir of the Craft
By Stephen King
Scribner, New York, 2000

I’ve posted before that there are two kinds of books about writing: those that focus mainly on the craft of writing, and those focused on the act of being a writer.

Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft tilts towards the former but it’s also heavily laced with autobiography.

On Writing

King goes into depth about a writer’s most commonly used tools: vocabulary, grammar and paragraph.  He talks about the three most important elements of fiction writing: narrative which drives the story forward, description which gives sensory impressions to the reader, and dialog which brings characters to life.

Even though I don’t write fiction, I found lots in the book that applies to non-fiction too.  Good writing is good writing.

He also touches on what it’s like to be a writer.  He says the first key to success as a writer is to read a lot and write a lot.  There are no shortcuts.  He aims to write about 2000 words or 10 pages every day.

I like how he describes what fiction writers do:

“Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world.  The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground as intact as possible.” [p. 163]

But mainly I like what he says writing is:  “Telepathy, of course.”

Across space and time the writer is trying to put their thoughts into the mind of the reader.  It’s not something to be taken lightly.  In fact he says so,

“Come to it [writing] any way but lightly.  Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.”  [p. 106]

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A confession:  I’ve never read any of Stephen King’s books nor seen any of the movies based on them.  Call me a coward, but I don’t like horror.  Not being a King fan, I wasn’t all that interested in the autobiographical sections of the book.  If you are a fan, you’ll learn plenty about his life and the origin of some of his stories.

I don’t know if this is true of his fiction, but in On Writing King writes in an incredibly natural voice.  It’s relaxed and informal yet clear and passionate.  You could imagine yourself sitting beside him on the porch of his house in Maine (assuming it has a porch) just listening to him talk for hours about writing as if he was reminiscing about his childhood, which he also does in this book.  It reads so easy, but of course that’s a sign of true mastery.


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