Consulting to a Family Owned Business, Jimmy Maloney – Founder of the Williamburg Pottery Factory, Williamsburg, Va.

Also there is available a video which I did with my uncle, Jimmy Maloney in 1993

James E. Maloney (1912 – 2005)

A brilliant, difficult, complex man, my (paternal) Uncle Jimmy was the inspiration that led me to understand how business leaders emerge from their families and apply their knowledge to their work. – A.M.S.

My uncle Jimmy was a tall, skinny guy with glasses who never seemed to be able to wear matched socks or coordinated clothes of any kind. Who could tell he was a genius? Part country nice guy and part geek (long before that word became popular), he never used a calculator. His sharp, calculating mind was well hidden under a baseball cap and an ever-present smile. He was a charmer, calling most of his 700 employees “hoss.”

Jimmy became a leader the hard way, working through the Depression armed only with a high-school diploma. Nonetheless, he forever changed the business landscape by originating the first factory-outlet mall. Jimmy’s store, his baby, was the Williamsburg Pottery, located in Williamsburg, Virginia. By the 1960s, it was the largest U.S. importer of home goods from China, Japan and other Asian countries; by the early 1980s, Jimmy was serving up happy customers with low-cost plates, glassware, vases, statuary, silk flowers, crystal and almost anything else you can imagine to the tune of $60 million to $70 million a year.

The following is taken from the Williamsburg Pottery site:

The saga of the Williamsburg Pottery is rooted in the American enterprise system. In 1938, James E. Maloney founded the business, making eighteenth-century saltglaze reproductions to sell at low prices. As time passed, Maloney added china and glassware, discounting prices so that shoppers would return. Bargain hunters soon flocked to the place and an amazing expansion was underway. Now, the Pottery has mushroomed into 200 acres with 32 buildings and an inventory of 70,000 items gathered from all over the world.

Learning From Your Family

By the early 1990s, I had become more aware of just how exceptional Jimmy was. We tend to take our family members for granted, but how many people can build a business like Jimmy’s from a roadside stand? Not many.

Earlier, during the 1980s, I had documented the work of my boss, Murray Bowen, M.D. After Dr. Bowen’s death I thought, “Why not do something similar with my uncle and learn about business leaders?” To my way of thinking, Jimmy—a memorable character if ever there was one—was worthy of being studied, interviewed and analyzed. So in 1991 I began visiting him at least once a month—trailing around after him, talking to him and taping him at work. This time with Jimmy and his business ended after Gloria, his first wife, died in March 1993.

I am going to divide this story of Jimmy Maloney into three parts. First, my memories of him from when I was a child, with a brief overview of his family background and the world events that had shaped Jimmy and his family in earlier eras; second, the two-year period during which I conducted my interviews with Jimmy, which includes parts of a videotaped interview done during the early 1990s; and third, a discussion of Jimmy’s life and death and possible successors. I’m also including a copy of his obituary.

Memories of a Family Loyalist

Right side, white shirt Andrew, my Dad and then Jimmy next

My father, who died when I was 27, was Jimmy’s older brother. Jimmy became the replacement father figure for all four of his sibling’s children. He was the survivor. And he took no great pleasure in that. On the surface Jimmy was a business genius, but he was also a complicated man—a husband to two wives, a father of four, a grandfather, a friend to many, and a potter. My first impression of Jimmy was of a hard working, serious man. You could get his attention if you played sports or were interested in making pottery.

When we were kids, my brother and I loved to wander around Jimmy’s store, taking pleasure in the 10-cent table full of wondrous items, and a wooden money drawer with a chalk board poised ready to tally up the cash each customer was willing to spend. At the pottery, the customers were kings and queens, we kids were worker bees, and nobody minded the dirt floors that represented serious savings in overhead costs.

Central to Jimmy’s idea of how to succeed in business was to sell the goods as cheaply as possible and get more customers through word-of-mouth advertising. And he was lucky in that he had a ready supply of workers—people in the community were always looking for jobs, and they had the right attitude to work at the Pottery: Be happy and keep your customers happy.

In those early years, Jimmy was an extreme family loyalist. He loved to build unusual buildings, so when he had saved the cash, he build a round house for his family. I have no idea what was so important about the house being round, but I did see that it was home to an ever-expanding family. His mother-in-law lived there for many years. After WW II, my father lived in a separate house, right by the basketball court, with his parents. And of course there were chickens, dogs, cats and kids running everywhere. Meanwhile, my grandmother would busy herself planting whatever would grow in a wide variety of pots and then sell the pots and plants for her son at the store.

Those were simpler years where hay rides and boat trips were the rewards for hard work. We kids would pile in a truck and off we would go. One time when we went out in Jimmy’s old boat to water ski, Jimmy tossed me a big, old board to stand on and a rope to hold onto. Confused because I had never skied on a big board, I told him it was not “regulation,” He said, “If you don’t like it, get out of the water.” Keeping things simple was one of his set points: You were either in, or you were out.

Family Factors and the Historical Context

I would like to convey a thoughtful picture of Jimmy, the man, as I knew him. The challenge is that he was 30 years older than I and subject to social changes spawned in the years after 1912 that I can only imagine. The Maloney family had settled in Newport News a generation earlier. Jimmy’s mother, Cecilia Roth, left Elyria, Ohio, in her early twenties and, despite parental objections, married James L. Maloney. They raised their five children in Newport News, then moved to Washington, D.C.

Jimmy Maloney was their third child, born on April 5, 1912.

His dad, James L., was born in 1886 and his mother in 1887. More than dates, these years represent a very different era, one that saw vast social change. The following are just a few examples of those changes, allowing us momentarily to imagine what life was like for these two generations:
o September 4, 1886 – After almost 30 years of fighting, Apache leader Geronimo surrenders with his last band of warriors to General Nelson Miles at Skeleton Canyon in Arizona. This is the year Jimmy’s father was born.

o 1893 – After experimenting for several years in his leisure hours, Henry Ford completes the construction of his first automobile; in 1903 he founds the Ford Motor Company. Jimmy’s father is seven years old.

o January 6, 1912 – New Mexico is admitted as the 47th U.S. state. This is the year Jimmy is born.

o February 14, 1912 – Arizona is admitted as the 48th U.S. state.

o April 15, 1912 – The Titanic sinks 10 days after Jimmy is born.

o 1912 – Democratic presidential challenger Woodrow Wilson wins a landslide victory over Republican incumbent William Howard Taft.

o 1914 – 1918 – The First World War, also referred to as the Great War. It was supposed to be The War to End All Wars. If only—.

o 1918 – About half the states have granted women full or partial voting rights.

o June 4, 1919 – The 19th Amendment giving women the vote is passed by Congress; it is ratified on August 18, 1920.

o 1922 – The first public radio broadcasting station is opened in Pittsburgh. One of the most important inventions of the 1920s, radio not only brings the nation together, it is a whole new way for people to communicate and interact. Jimmy is 10 years old.

o 1929 – The Great Depression begins. Jimmy is 17.
I can only partially imagine the impact that Jimmy’s early family relationships had on him, and how the social forces and changes in the world he lived in shaped him. It is hard, perhaps impossible, to know his deeper values and viewpoints, formed under the influences of another era. But I can try.

Jimmy’s rise to the top was not determined by his sibling position. He was a middle son; but it’s interesting that his father (also a James) was also a middle son. Jimmy’s mother was the eldest of eight and initially thought her eldest son was going to be the family star. Jimmy surprised his mother, and a few others, by taking on that role after his older brother fell down. This brother—my father, Andrew—was gregarious and good-looking and early on showed his leadership skills. But Andrew returned from WW II unable to function. Jimmy, whose flat feet had kept him out of the war, stepped up and helped out his brother with a job and a house: Their roles had reversed.

Birth of a Family Business

Jimmy set up his outlet mall on Route 60 in 1938. The business took off slowly after WW II. But while growth was slow, it was steady and real, based on a new concept—the factory outlet. By the 1960s, the Williamsburg Pottery Factory was growing by millions of dollars each year. By the time of his death, Jimmy, his family and the greater Williamsburg community had derived great financial benefits from this determined man’s ideas.

Jimmy believed that one of his jobs was to teach his kids to work. College was for people who were not interested in making a real living. He knew he could make his children into millionaires if only they would do what he said. And indeed, they all went to work in the family business after high school. Over time, however, all of them were bought out of the business. Many of them went back to school on their own. But I am getting ahead of the story.

When I first began to think about interviewing Jimmy, my primary interest was to learn how Jimmy had accomplished so much. I was interested in how business leaders function, how they emerge from their families to become leaders. But before I approached Jimmy, I wanted to make sure his wife, Gloria, was behind my effort to pick Jimmy’s brain.

At the time, Gloria was very ill and struggling with her own issues (not the least of which was to whom she should leave her shares of the company stock). Eventually, however, she came to trust me enough (or, some might say, she was desperate enough) to say, “Why don’t you go help out your uncle. He is over at the James City Firehouse. You know, we gave them the land for the new firehouse, and he is a making speech. He would be glad to see you.”

So I did go over there, and I did ask Jimmy that day in 1991 if I could learn about his business. His response was simple: “We meet on Mondays at 7:00 a.m. in the cafeteria.” I was there.

Consulting and Videotaping – Showing Me the Business

During those Monday-morning meetings, I would listen to what was going on and then share some of my ideas with Jimmy. He would immediately make me repeat my ideas to the group, most of whom would disagree with me.

It was a clever tactic—using triangles to get on the outside and then watching as the group struggled to work together—and Jimmy was an expert at it. It was immediately clear to me that there would be no special relationship with Jimmy: I was on my own. If there was something he did not want to hear or deal with, he would refer me to the group and then step back to watch how I dealt with them. His staying on the outside pushed me in with the others, forcing me to learn how to deal with them. This left Jimmy relatively free to observe, think, and make his decisions.

During these meetings, I discovered all kinds of fascinating things—how alliances were formed, who could talk to whom. Afterwards, I would follow him around as he dropped in on people to see how they were doing their jobs. He often stopped people in the middle of their tasks and asked them to explain just what they were doing. If he didn’t like the answer, he would get mad. No surprise: The people part of a business is always hard, while the more rational aspects can be accomplished with less emotional excitement.

Jimmy was determined to write up how to run the business, in case something happened to him. Therefore, he developed a shortcut inventory system to let people know how much merchandise was left and when to reorder, how to keep inventory close to displays, how to keep the warehouse organized, how to strike the best deal for merchandise, how to transport and price it right, how to highlight the best deals in the shop, how to scope out what the competition was up to, how to get people to wrap more effectively, and—always—how to make the staff remember to be nice to the customers, especially when the staff was real busy.

For Jimmy, who was a fabulous potter, the most fun part of the business was in the pottery building. There he would experiment with glazes and stacking pottery, and contemplate all those wonderful ideas that continually popped up in his busy mind.

(He also liked to test the assorted children and grandchildren on the potter’s wheel and could decide in one minute if someone had it in them to be a potter. I did not. But I could play a mean game of basketball and that earned me a bit of respect. Anyone who came to sell Jimmy dishes or other goods during a game would have to wait—Jimmy was “playing ball with his family.”)

By the end of a day trailing behind Jimmy—observing, questioning, thinking—I would return to Gloria and, very enthused, tell her everything that had transpired. Because her illness was progressing, Gloria was unable to attend the 7 a.m. meetings or do much else in the business, and so was especially interested in what I had to say. My reports and videos also gave her a new insight into just how deeply her husband loved the business, which in turn may have shaped her decision to vote her shares of the company stock to Jimmy, rather than to her son. This was a critical decision, because Gloria’s shares would maintain Jimmy’s interest at over 51 percent.

The Courage to Ask

At that time I was a big believer in videotaping as much as possible—partly for history, partly so I could review and reflect on what had happened. From Jimmy’s point of view, video seemed like a good teaching tool, so he agreed to it. Eventually, however, I got the courage to ask Jimmy if he would talk with me one-on-one about his leadership in the family business. We set a time to meet make the video, and I was hopeful that he would answer all my questions. Silly me! The next thing you know, I’m making a training tape for potters.

The first part of this fabulous video shows Jimmy’s focus and determination and his love of the potter’s art. It also reveals the skill required to be a maker of great pottery. (To give you a clue, it would take the uninitiated about a year just to learn to throw a pot with some semblance of skill.)

While taping the pottery-making, I kept reminding my impatient self that Jimmy liked to do everything his way, and that if I waited, eventually it would be my turn. True enough, after he made about 20 pots in 30 minutes, Jimmy was ready to burst my bubble of assumptions about how he “learned” his business skills.

I wanted to document how leaders emerged through—I thought—a family tradition. And I was pretty sure Jimmy must have learned his skills from seeing how his paternal uncle Fred had run his clothing store in Elyria, Ohio. After all, Jimmy had worked with his uncle during high school. In addition, both his mother’s and father’s family had long histories of owning small businesses—a butcher, a baker, a furniture maker, a saloon, a winery and even a funeral business (but no candlestick maker). Jimmy’s paternal grandfather, yet another James, had owned a small brick company in Newport News, Virginia. Jimmy’s dad was a machinist at the Newport News Shipyard and worked with his hands. All told, I assumed there must have been some family influence there. But none of this made much sense to Jimmy.
“Well, Punkin [my family nickname], you want to put the focus on my family, but unfortunately I did not learn anything from them. My family is three-quarters Irish and one-quarter German. I am sure my genes contain some German. The Irish are great people, but they are not organizers. My Dad was a wonderful person, but he was not an organizer.

“In retrospect, I guess I learned more from B.M. Gresner [he may have been Jimmy’s first boss]. I went to work for him in the early thirties as an apprentice making bricks and pottery. He was a son of a gun. He would come out in his old Pontiac and throw his hat on the ground and say, ‘Hell’s bells it’s 5 o’clock and nothing’s done.’ But he taught you to work—such things as how you shovel in one motion. Unfortunately, he was not a good businessman. I had to leave him after several years, as he could not pay my $6 a week.” [This might have been around 1935.]

Forging Ahead

So how does the interviewer recover from disappointment and continue posing honest questions without getting thrown off by busted assumptions? I listened and laughed and tried to think, think, think. Jimmy didn’t like conversations unless they were about sports. The less time he had to spend talking, the better he liked it. And here was my chance at an in-depth conversation with him. I was determined to keep it going, even if it wasn’t going along the lines I had anticipated.
Prior to this conversation, there had been years of a tentative, superficial relationship. My own dad had really liked to talk, and after he died, Jimmy was a taciturn disappointment to me. Over scores of holiday meals I had learned to appreciate Jimmy’s constantly clever mind and unfailing energy, but was confused by his distance. We played tennis together, but Jimmy’s game was not great. He was a challenge to me on and off the court with his tricky moves. And now here I was in the middle of my first chance to talk to my uncle alone about what he was interested in, and I did not want to blow it. So I recovered and smiled when he seemed to say the “wrong” things, and was able to ask a few good questions to get him to really think. After all, I did know a bit about Jimmy.

Jimmy had always been a good observer of how people operate, for example. During WWII, Jimmy found a job working as a hired hand on a construction crew. He noticed that the supervisor had a small pad of paper and made notes on it and then told people what to do. Jimmy went out, got a small pad of paper, and became boss of a small construction crew. He was well on his way to being a leader wherever he went.
A Niche in Time
To continue with the video, Jimmy noted he had found his niche. He added that he believed that once you find a niche, it’s your job to stay there. Then he explained how it all happened: “In the beginning there was always someone who would help build the kiln, cut the firewood to burn in the kiln, and dig clay from the ground. So all we had to buy was salt.

“I first started out in Charlottesville with my friend Jonnie Venerable. We saw some nice local girls and convinced them that we had money buried and got them to help us dig the clay. Well, we married our help. These girls were sisters, so now Jonnie was my brother-in-law—and he was a very good potter.

“I saved my money, a thousand dollars, and in 1938 we moved to Lightfoot. With that money I bought some land, dug a good well, and built a good outhouse and a shop and a house. Then the war came along and shut us down.”

Jimmy explained that all the potteries were closed during the war because a form of uranium that the government needed to build a bomb was used in the pottery glazing. He read about it, he said, in an article in Life magazine. Then, he said, “the government confiscated all the copies as it told exactly how they were making the bomb!”

Jimmy went on to describe the growth of his business: “After the war ended, Colonial Williamsburg cooperated with us. We made 14 or 15 [Colonial reproduction] pieces for them, which they sold in their shops. Paul Hudson was the archeologist there for many years. Noel Hume did research for Colonial Williamsburg and he also helped us.”

One rumor about Jimmy and his business was that at some point after he started selling dishes, a cracked plate gave him the idea to go to the factories to buy seconds. Wrong. The truth, he told me, is that when someone offered to sell him a lot of chipped dishes cheap, he took a chance and put them out on the hillside for 10 cents each. They sold right away. After that, he began driving the truck around to the various factories in Pennsylvania to buy their seconds.

This was good business and it solved a problem for Jimmy: He did not want to be a slave to the five potters he employed, a dilemma he escaped by acquiring more retail goods to sell. Then in the 1950s he thought about expanding further and began importing goods from Asia. This successful growth came from networking.

Networking may not have been an official concept in Jimmy’s time, but it was a technique he used with great skill. Here’s what he had to say about it: “There is nothing like friends. I had about given up on finding good places to buy from when I saw Sid Darwin [an old friend from Williamsburg] at the Hilton in Japan. I had $400,000 to spend, and the bankers were giving me nothing but bad tips. I told Sid and he introduced me to the right people. Then we expanded to silk flowers and crystal. As we got money [from that], we built and expanded. Banks wouldn’t lend us money in those days, so we did it on a cash basis. Now things are different—now we use the capitalist system. We use the bank’s money to buy real estate. This gives us leverage. Capitalism is a great system, so why not use it? Borrow from the bank if the bank will trust you.”

Jimmy continued: “My goal was to have my fate in my own hands. I wanted to stay in my niche, and keep the good will of the devil, as good relationships make for good business.”

Jimmy listed the four principles that all his employees learn about work and relationships with customers: (1) Be nice, (2) Plan ahead, (3) Work steady and (4) Share the profits.”

By this point in the interview I was getting bold and thought I might as well get into the family problems. So I said, “Well, most of your family has taken the profits and left the business.”

Jimmy didn’t blink: “Those are all good problems,” he said, “the open-door problem. What really matters is your health. I have a lot of friends whose health has gone, and I am still here working and that’s great.”

Continuing about the influence of family, Jimmy added that in the early years, “the family was helpful in taking care of the kids while Gloria and I went out and hustled.”

On the subject of bosses, Jimmy said, “My dad was a great storyteller, but he did not want to tell people what to do.”

“I don’t mind being a boss,” I replied, “but my brothers do.”

“You have to have mean streak in you to be a boss,” Jimmy said.

“Mean or strict?” I asked. “I notice that people get good posture when you ask them what they are doing. It seems more strict than mean.”

“Maybe so,” Jimmy said. But strict or mean, “I was just dumb enough not to take a better job somewhere else. Still like to stick to my niche.
“Is there anything else Punkin? I got to run.”

“No. Thanks for your time,” I said. “I think it will be a good tape.”

And it was.

Family Conflicts

There are many people who now say that because other businesses, like Pier 1 and Wal-Mart, picked up on Jimmy’s genius ideas and grew, Jimmie’s business, too, should have grown. This question of niche versus growth was one of the big issues that led to a family split that never really healed. The details vary depending on who you talk to, but some of the facts are straightforward.

By the time business reached a peak of $60 million or $70 million in annual sales, the distant rumblings of Wal-Mart began to be heard. The children, by this time in their forties and fifties, were ready for something new. After lobbying unsuccessfully for changes, they finally went behind Jimmy’s back and, in the late 1980s, brought in a consultant from an Ivy League business school. Jimmy was furious. He promptly left, leaving the next generation in charge.

The consultant had many suggestions: clean up the area where people come to buy, build office spaces, rent their land to create more malls. However, nothing much happened to make for a different future. Eventually, the husband of one of Jimmy’s daughters sold his interest to Jimmy for several million dollars. This made Jimmy the majority stockowner, and he once again took charge of the business. All of his children were eventually bought out.

In March 1993, Jimmy’s wife, Gloria, died. Three months later, he married his second wife, Kim. He explained to his children that he needed to marry as soon as possible to take care of any possible future tax problems that his own death would create. (And he advised Kim to follow his good example and marry someone young and healthy when she became a widow.) I think Jimmy was happy with Kim. He laughed and took himself less seriously.

A Season of Change

After that chapter of my working experiences with Jimmy ended, I continued to visit him as I traveled between Washington, D.C., where I worked, and Virginia Beach. The last time I saw Jimmy was a week before he died. At that time, he was 93 and near the end of a long, slow, graceful walk toward death. He was frail and shrunken, yet the inner wizard of this man, my uncle, still raised his head and smiled at me. His death was as gentle as the day passing into the night, or so those close to him said about that day.

For family and friends, “slow” is a kind way to go because it gives everyone time to adjust to the idea of death. Death, when it comes, is no surprise. When word came on July 16, 2005, that Jimmy had died, there was sadness, but no shock. An era had simply ended.

Jimmy had always been a far-thinking man, and he had well-thought-out ideas about how he would spend his declining years. A nursing home was not part of the picture. He and Kim had picked a good staff to help with his care, and when he died at home, he was with his family. How many of us will be so fortunate?

Overall, Jimmy did an exceptionally good job of keeping his business going. If, to some extent, his family came second to his business, it’s only fair to note that the family world is a lot messier than the business world. In terms of accomplishments in the business world, he would be in the top 1 percent of people who really know how to make money. In terms of successfully handing over one’s business to the next generation, only 10 percent of families can do this into the third generation.

As to what will happen to the family and to the pottery, we’ll have to wait and see. The death of a leader like Jimmy will require at least a two-year adjustment. But there are possible family leaders waiting to emerge and fill the leadership vacuum. Who will that be? Only time will tell.

Jimmy used to say that the answer to any problem is to “just go to work.” Those interested in family work will have no problem finding lots of interesting challenges to work on. My goal is to stay focused on being a good observer, while being as authentic, low key and positive as possible. – Andrea Maloney Schara
Jimmy’s official obituary is below.

Pottery founder James “Jimmy” Maloney dies
Friends say his rags-to-riches story and great business sense personified the American Dream.

July 19 2005
JAMES CITY — James Eugene “Jimmy” Maloney, who built a multimillion dollar family dynasty from a roadside pottery stand outside Williamsburg, died Monday. He was 93. The success of the Williamsburg Pottery Factory predicted the modern “outlet mall.” The Pottery was founded in 1938 and still attracts hundreds of visitors daily – a monument to Mr. Maloney’s forward-thinking ability, said Gil Granger, former Williamsburg mayor and a longtime accountant and friend of Mr. Maloney’s.

“They called it the Bizarre Bazaar. People come here from all over America,” Granger said.

Mr. Maloney’s success came partly from his hardscrabble roots, Granger said. He was born in Newport News in 1912, the son of a shipyard worker and grandson of an Irish immigrant, and came of age during the Depression.

“He’d try to make a couple pennies on everything,” Granger said. “He wasn’t after the highest price he could get. He was after the lowest price he could get and still make a profit.”

Mr. Maloney learned the pottery trade in Jamestown and bought a half-acre of land off Route 60 for $150 in 1938. With his wife, Gloria, he began selling pottery on the side of the road.

Instead of discarding flawed pottery, he sold it more cheaply. When a truck driver wanted to get rid of a load of flawed Ohio pottery, Mr. Maloney realized he could sell other people’s discards as well.

Selling cheaply attracted customers – and more discount merchandise. He created a huge company that now sits on more than 200 acres and invested millions in overseas buying. The Pottery has 32 buildings and sells 120,000 items, according to the company.

“He is the epitome of the American Dream,” said Mike Maddocks, a senior vice president at Sun Trust bank who became friends with Mr. Maloney eight years ago. “He was a completely self-made man. He would never tire out. Everything he did, he did it until he was successful.”

Mr. Maloney’s four children – Fred, Joan, Alice and Rebecca – all have worked at the Pottery.  Family relations sometimes have been strained. In 1995, Joan Maloney was arrested for trying to blackmail her father for $6 million, police said. She later pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct. In 1997 the Pottery sued Fred Maloney, a former president of the Pottery who left in 1992, for $500,000 in dividend payments. The suit was dismissed. “Every family always has a tiff now and then,” Granger said. “When you have four children and they all have spouses, there’s always bound to grow up little differences of opinion.”

Mr. Maloney could see opportunity, said David Burris, a friend of Mr. Maloney’s and another senior vice president at Sun Trust bank.

“When the horse racetrack was first getting approved in New Kent County, Jimmy was at the table, and he said, ‘David, you know what we’re gonna do? I’m gonna grow mushrooms. You grow them in horse manure. We’ll grow the mushrooms, sell the mushrooms and charge the stables in New Kent to bring us the manure,’ ” he said.

Burris’s favorite story is this: “One morning out of the blue he pounded the table and said, ‘David, you know how they’re gonna transport stuff in the future? Straight up. We’re just gonna lift it straight up and let the Earth rotate underneath it. Everything can get where it needs to go in 24 hours.’

“I thought, well, the Earth does rotate. He thought like that routinely,” Burris said.

Maddocks calls Mr. Maloney a “slight, unassuming man” who never kept a desk – he told Maddocks, “Desks collect paper” – and who held basketball games for Pottery employees every day. “He wanted to keep moving and thinking.”

Mr. Maloney often donated money and land anonymously to charities, Williamsburg Community Hospital and the College of William and Mary, said a county administrator.

Kim, Maloney’s second wife, will remain CEO of the Pottery. The Pottery will continue running as it does now, said grandson George Wright, a general manager.

Except for Thursday, when the Pottery will be closed in memory of Mr. Maloney. A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday at St. Bede’s Catholic Church. Internment will follow at Williamsburg Memorial Park. A reception will be held from 2 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at Nelson Funeral Home.

Copyright (c) 2005, Daily Press

Thich Nhat Hanh Helps Us Overcome Fear
Adapted from True Love, by Thich Nhat Hanh (Shambhala 2004).

“We have great fear inside ourselves. We are afraid of everything—of our death, of being alone, of change. Fear is born from our concepts regarding life, death, being, and nonbeing. If we are able to get rid of all these concepts by touching the reality within ourselves, then nonfear will be there and the greatest relief will become possible.”

Gathering Systems Knowledge: The Third Point on the Mindful Compass

The following blog is a longish chapter for my new book, Interrupting and Mindfulness: Two Keys to Living in Social Systems. 

I think it’s important to understand how our knowledge of human behavior has been erected stone by stone, life by life.  The third point on The Mindful Compass, acquiring systems knowledge, makes us less vulnerable to life’s challenges. It is one fabulous way to steady one’s self against the disinformation (gossip and bias) and the emotionality we see and hear everywhere.

One of my heroes of the information revolution, Steve Jobs died last week.  I was one of his early fans, buying my first Mac in 1986, and still love all things Apple. His story will be told in many ways, but his life, like all of ours, is bounded by time, relationship skills, and courage. There are other elements, perhaps intangible, like spirit or grace or a gift from the gods.  Like Jobs, each of us has a limited time to tell our story and deal with the forces that impinge on us, especially our assumptions and beliefs. This is a simple appreciation for his genius and the inspiration he is.

“Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.” ~ Steve Jobs





The Third Point on the Mindful Compass: Gathering Systems Knowledge

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else-by some distinction sets aside and rejects.

Francis Bacon, January, 22 1561 – April 9, 1626



A good scientist is a humble and listening scientist and not one that is sure 100 percent in what he read in the textbooks,” according to Nobel laureate Daniel Shechtman.  Schechtman never doubted his findings and considered himself merely the latest in a long line of scientists who advanced their fields by challenging the conventional wisdom and were shunned by the establishment because of it.  Robert Lee Hotz, Wall Street Journal. 2011



Investigating the Nature of Man:  A Short Overview

In the first chapter we saw how the Mindful Compass can help us see the natural process that influences us as we make our most important decisions, especially family processes impacting our near and dear.  Chapter two shows us the link between our actions and the inevitable resistance we experience, and gives us the opportunity to alter our responses and create a more positive story about our lives.  The third chapter focuses on systems knowledge, the third point on the Mindful Compass.   This chapter does two things.  First it traces the important trends in thinking in psychology from focus on the individual as the primary locus of issues and answers to a systems view of the human and the influences of the family on the human.  Second, it considers the challenges in looking at our assumptions to question our own versions of truth.

Initially I thought I should warn people not to read this chapter unless they are interested in an overview of those who have influenced the development of psychology.  But I think it’s important to understand how hard it is to develop insight into the nature of the human, particularly when an insight may be contrary to the conventional wisdom of the time.   Having an overview of the development of ideas in psychology gives us a picture of how varied the discoveries have been and how difficult it has been to carve out room for new ways of thinking.

The Development of Psychology from 1850’s to WW II : Wundt, James and Freud





Darwin published his book, On the Origin of Species, in 1859 providing compelling evidence for evolution.  He traced the evidence for evolutionary principles back to the writings of Aristotle.  It may be that Darwin influenced the thinking of William Wundt, William James, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, much as Aristotle had influenced him.  What are the roots of our thinking in psychology today?

Wilhelm Wundt, (1832- 1920) was the first person to use scientific research to consider how the mind influences the body. Wundt’s thinking was based on Darwin’s idea that we humans have a great deal in common with other forms of life.

From the standpoint of observation, then, we must regard it as a highly probable hypothesis that the beginnings of the mental life date from as far back as the beginnings of life at large. Wundt [1]

He did painstaking research observing the relationship between the body and subjective thoughts. He set about to connect the mind and body in a very scientific way. In his own words: Hence, even in the domain of natural science the aid of the experimental method becomes indispensable whenever the problem set is the analysis of transient and impermanent phenomena, and not merely the observation of persistent and relatively constant objects.

Few people now give Wundt credit for the work he did looking at the physiology of consciousness.  He highlighted the importance of people’s experiences, subjective as they are, and described how the physical body was affected by (and in turn affected) consciousness, feelings, emotions, volition, and ideas.  He believed that self-examination of the content of one’s mind could be evidence for understanding behavior.

Wundt established psychology as a separate science, exploring in his lab the nature of religious beliefs, self-identity and mental disorders. In his book, Principles of Physiological Psychology, published in 1902, he presented beautifully detailed drawings of the nervous system and explanations of how consciousness could arise.[2] He published over 490 works, becoming one of the most prolific scientists of all time.

Did his family life have something to do with the questions that puzzled him?  A few clues follow.

Wundt’s father was an Evangelical pastor. Wilhelm was an only child due to his siblings’ death from malaria. Since his youth Wundt was labeled as a daydreamer which left him alone and out casted from the other children. When Wundt’s parents heard of this they sent him to live with his aunt. Here Wilhelm began to flourish and graduated at the age of nineteen. Wundt attended medical school at Tubingen where he became interested in his uncle’s course in brain anatomy.

I mention Wundt’s family life as just one example of how early family life can set up a person to become a more independent thinker.  Wundt and his parents suffered the loss of his sibling from malaria. We do not know how that altered the relationship configuration in the family, however it appears he was isolated and it took time for his parents to notice him. Eventually they took action, sending Wundt off to live with others who must have had more time and energy to deal with him.

How often do we see that a person who has the go power to establish a different professional direction either directly suffered family losses early on or had parents who disappointed them or who themselves had early losses. Frank Sulloway took up this subject in his book, Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives.

An assumption is that early life challenge and disruptions in relationships may allow individuals to question the status quo.  All of this depends on the family and the go power of the individual, as losses can also promote great fear and the inability to grow due to increasing levels of dependency.

Many of the people I interviewed, some of whom you will meet later in the book, noted that they felt very alone and different as a child.  These factors: early loss, disappointment in parents and feeling different, may increase the opportunity for autonomy and may be prominent in the lives of those who establish a new way of thinking. I will leave it to the interested reader to investigate the early lives of the other pioneers and draw their own conclusions.


William James, (1842-1910)

Known as the “great explainer” of psychology, James focused on how behavior actually functioned to help people live in their environment.  He founded the Pragmatist movement. Some of his ideas exist today in outcome-based research in which any method of therapy that works will be paid for. No theory or explanation is required.

James was anxious to uncover what true beliefs amounted to in human life, what their “Cash Value” was, what consequences they led to. A belief was not a mental entity, which somehow mysteriously corresponded to an external reality if the belief were true. Beliefs were ways of acting with reference to a precarious environment, and to say they were true was to say they guided us satisfactorily in this environment. In this sense the pragmatic theory of truth applied Darwinian ideas in philosophy; it made survival the test of intellectual as well as biological fitness. If what was true was what worked, we can scientifically investigate religion’s claim to truth in the same manner. The enduring quality of religious beliefs throughout recorded history and in all cultures gave indirect support for the view that such beliefs worked. James also argued directly that such beliefs were satisfying — they enabled us to lead fuller, richer lives and were more viable than their alternatives. Religious beliefs were expedient in human existence, just as scientific beliefs were.[3]

James also developed a theory of emotions published in 1884 in the paper entitled, “What Is an Emotion?” He conceived of an emotion in terms of a sequence of events and used the story of a bear to explain his views.  He posited that we fear the bear simply because we run away from the bear.  Fear is generated by the act of running.

To some extent current research has found that muscle activity does occur before thinking and that the brain is mostly autobiographical. In other words mental reactions follow bodily actions and therefore it follows we must still the body to calm the mind.

James was open to many ideas. His reputation suffered because of his inquiries into spiritualism and psychic phenomena. We do not know if his thinking was influenced by Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, but he did write that humans had more instincts than many other animals and that these instincts were often conflicting. His bottom line was that automatic habits, including those triggered by traumatic events, could always be overridden by new experiences.  All that was required was to wake up.

Compared to what we ought to be we are half awake.

William James




Sigmund Freud, (1865-1939)

We are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love. S. Freud

Freud was born fourteen years after James, but he lived until 1939, giving him twenty-nine more years than James to influence society. Darwin too influenced him.  Freud’s ideas were shocking and his influence pervasive, perhaps because he conceptualized the locus of human problems in the human’s primitive nature and emotions.  Sex sells.  People find it intriguing to think sexual primitive urges are ruling our unconscious, and by association, us.

“It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that that is so. King Oedipus, who slew his father Laïus and married his mother Jocasta, merely shows us the fulfillment of our own childhood wishes… Here is one in whom these primeval wishes of our childhood have been fulfilled.  While the poet, as he unravels the past, brings to light the guilt of Oedipus, he is at the same time compelling us to recognize our own inner minds, in which those same impulses, though suppressed, are still to be found.” S. Freud[4]

Freud was well aware of the Greek myths in which portrayals of our hidden instinctive wishes were easy to see and understand.  He used these stories to explain our blindness to our deepest motives that drive our actions, the unconscious.  What a leap from the way others had described the human condition.

Freud’s writings were compelling and his thesis of our everyday behavior, linked to early childhood memories, was another step in highlighting the importance of reflecting and understanding each individual’s life story.  Freud wrote up his cases, which included the lives of well-known people.  In addition Freud even analyzed fictional characters like Hamlet to help us understand our hidden selves.

“The play is built up on Hamlet’s hesitations over fulfilling the task of revenge that is assigned to him; but its text offers no reasons or motives for these hesitations and an immense variety of attempts at interpreting them have failed to produce a result. According to the view which was originated by Goethe and is still the prevailing one today, Hamlet represents the type of man whose power of direct action is paralyzed by and excessive development of his intellect.” S. Freud [5]

Freud believed the intellect was suspect and the only way to knowledge of our instinctual strivings was through free association, where the undisguised truth could emerge.  It did not matter if a person’s stories were fact or fiction.  Each patient could disguise the truth, but over time, with the help of the therapist, the threads of deeper truth would stand out from the clutter and be analyzed for the insights they offered.

Everyone is telling a story and Freud thought people could gain insight through an analysis of their dreams and through slips of their tongues and even through the jokes they told or laughed at.  More importantly he saw the way that the mere telling of one’s story could captivate and polarize an analyst.  The ego of the analyst was at risk of becoming a part of the patient’s story.  To be captivated by the patient’s story ran the risk of linking the therapist’s self with that of the patient.   Patients loved and hated the analyst as they loved and hated their parents.  Freud accurately described the danger of (and warned other analysts about) getting caught up in other people’s stories and activating the counter-transference.

Transference (the patient relating to the therapist as if he/she were a significant someone else, a father, for example) and counter-transference (the therapist relating to the patient as if he/she were a significant someone else, a mother) are now accepted as part of our popular culture. Those who have been through long years of analysis like Woody Allen, use their knowledge of transference and counter-transference to make humorous movies, demonstrating the confusion in seeing our love objects for who they really are.  Since we are a bit removed from the interactions as movie viewers, we can laugh as we see versions of ourselves exaggerated or diminished in his portrayal of human problems.

Every normal person, in fact, is only normal on the average. His ego approximates to that of the psychotic in some part or other and to a greater or lesser extent. S. Freud

Freud’s bottom line was to interpret the meaningfulness within a person’s story to enable his patient to accept the ordinariness of reality. At the same time both therapist and patient had to remain aware of the instinctual strivings for sexual pleasure or romantic adventure based on idealized feeling states. Freud encouraged us to look for the daily hero within self, not in the other, and to accept the tension of failure while striving to be realistic.

Freud and his followers saw the family as a complex web of relationships that were partly to blame for the problems of the patient. Freud believed that the family had interests other than the well being of the patient, the result of which was the sealing off of the patient and analyst from the corrosive influence of the family.   The family was assigned to social workers, creating a split that persists today.  The treatment time for Freudian analysis was three to five times a week, over three to seven years, allowing for natural maturational changes to solidify the on-going integration of perception and feeling. Freud’s method therefore could not be used for the general population. In addition his opinion that religion was a drug for the misery of the masses is evidence of the profound differences that led to, if not created, Freud’s split from Carl Jung, his once hoped for successor.

Another interesting twist is that Freud’s choice for best thinker in his group was Carl Jung.  Would he have picked him if he had known more about his family history and not just his intelligence and psychological strength?  Perhaps we can figure this out by looking at Jung’s family life.







Carl Jung (1875-1961)

Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to a better understanding of ourselves. C. Jung

Born in 1875 in Kesswil, Switzerland, Jung was the only son of a Protestant clergyman.  Jung’s mother came from a family that believed in séances and communing with the dead.  His father was a far more traditional man. Jung could not mange the conflict between the two. After his father’s death Jung had a dream, which he told to Freud, who interpreted it as Jung’s disguised wish for his father’s death. Jung instead saw it as his need for his father as a spiritual guide.

In Jung’s autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1961), Jung explains that his father “suffered from religious doubts” himself and could offer “nothing but the same old lifeless theological answers” to his questions.  When Paul Jung died in 1896, his 21- year-old son was left without a strong father to guide him into psychological and spiritual maturity. Jung looked both inward and to the external world studying religious traditions around the world.

Jung studied biology, zoology, paleontology, and archaeology. His explorations did not stop with that.  He looked at philosophy, mythology, early Christian literature as well as religion. His interest in religion could be attributed to his heritage as well as watching the demise of his father. C. Jung[6]

Like Bowen, Jung was more focused on the health of the individual or the wholeness of the psyche. By studying word association in his patients, he saw repression at work, as did Freud.  But Freud and Jung split over the role of sexuality and the nature of the unconscious. Their relationship ended when Jung published “Psychology and the Unconscious” which argued against some of Freud’s ideas.  Jung’s focus was on understanding the symbolic meaning of the contents of the unconscious. He clarified his differences with Freud in explaining the mechanism of personality in his book Psychological Types.  A popular psychometric instrument, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), has been developed principally from Jung’s theories.

Jung’s advice to us about the nature of reality and change follows

Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes. There is no coming to consciousness without pain.  We cannot change anything until we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses.   C. Jung

Like Freud, Jungian therapy deals with dreams and fantasies but transformation occurs when opposite tendencies are integrated to achieve wholeness. As in Bowen theory, integrating the feeling and thinking systems is key.  This requires us to understand how the fast brain (the reptilian and or limbic older parts of the brain) and the slow brain (the frontal lobes, which can inhibit the more primitive reactive parts of the brain) coordinate their actions. Current research explains how slowing down the more reactive parts of the brain and using our memory, allows us to shortcut the runaway reactivity in the lower parts of the brain, like the amygdala. At its best, the way the brain integrates information allows us to make more thoughtful decisions.

You can think about Freud and Jung as trying to unlock the unconscious through analysis, which over time promotes integrating conversations allowing people to learn to see their reality more accurately. Eventually this analytic relationship leads to more thoughtful, less reactive relationships.

People interested in Bowen Theory have found that Jung’s interest in spirituality adds to areas only beginning to be addressed in Bowen Theory.  Bowen explored his thinking about this area in his ninth concept, Towards a Systems Concept of Supernatural Phenomena.  The videotape is available at The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family.[7]

The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed. C. Jung





The Behaviorists

There are as many theories in psychology as there are people who have investigated different parts of the human and used scientific tools to make a case for their findings. After Freud appropriated the feeling life of people by interpreting their subjective reports, along came the behaviorists who stripped the human of any subjective take on life, going in an entirely different direction.  Many people working in psychological labs began to think about behavior as learning or conditioning. What mattered to these researchers was observable behavior, not the feelings or the unconscious mechanisms of the individuals.


Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) investigated classical conditioning. You may recall that in his famous experiments, the dog salivated when food was brought to it at the same time a bell was rung.  Eventually just ringing the bell caused the conditioned dog to salivate. Pavlov rejected introspective methods, instead seeking to restrict psychology to experimental (and observable) methods.


“It is clear to all that the animal organism is a highly complex system consisting of an almost infinite series of parts connected both with one another and, as a total complex, with the surrounding world, with which it is in a state of equilibrium.”Don’t become a mere recorder of facts, but try to penetrate the mystery of their origin.” Perfect as the wing of a bird may be, it will never enable the bird to fly if unsupported by the air. Facts are the air of science. Without them a man of science can never rise.”[8  Ivan Pavlov


B.F. Skinner, (1904-1990) conducted research based on his theory of operant conditioning and also rejected unconscious feelings as drivers of behavior.  He saw behavior as a natural science, like physics, in which one does not examine the inner state of the object being studied.  A few B.F. Skinner quotes below explain his thinking

“Give me a child and I’ll shape him into anything.

“I did not direct my life. I didn’t design it. I never made decisions. Things always came up and made them for me. That’s what life is.”

“If you’re old, don’t try to change yourself, change your environment.”

“Society attacks early, when the individual is helpless.

“A failure is not always a mistake, it may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying.”

“We shouldn’t teach great books; we should teach a love of reading.”[9]

The behaviorists’ work has become the basis for recent behavioral cognitive therapies, including behavior modification for children and adults, and many therapeutic feedback systems like biofeedback and neurofeedback.



Bion and the Tavistock Clinic

During WW II, the military in England needed better ways to identify leaders. In addition, soldiers with war trauma needed help.  There were more people disabled by trauma than by physical injuries. Neither psychoanalysis nor behaviorism as it was then conceived, offered answers to either set of problems.

The Tavistock Clinic had taken on similar problems during WW 1.  They developed psychological treatments for shell-shocked soldiers and these methods were greatly expanded in the nineteen thirties. Wilfred Bion, one of the leaders of the Tavistock Clinic during WW II experimented with leaderless groups, eventually writing Experiences in Groups.  His observed that emotional states could disrupt any task because of feelings of dependency, or the urge to fight or flee.  The priority of the leader of any group, he suggested, was to deal with the emotional states of people in the group.

These observations began the transition in psychology and psychiatry from focusing on a two-person therapeutic relationship to observing and working in the context of group dynamics. Now researchers could see how the behavior of one impacted, not just one other person as in the transference, but was key to influencing the actions of the whole group.  A different world emerged when people could see the influence of one person on all kinds of people who needed to interact to complete a task.

The ability to problem solve and be a leader in a peer group seems to have little to do with the story one person might tell their analyst about their family life. There was little correlation between one’s neurosis and the ability to lead.  Bion saw that people assigned to groups would make the group itself into a kind of a family.  Group members would act out in defensive ways unless the leader could keep them working on the task.  Bion concluded that those who function as leaders in their families, despite their neuroses, are far more likely to become leaders in the group. The capacity for mental growth is based in an emotional experience, in the family or in a group. Leaders are not without their problems, but some individuals are far more capable than others of standing up for a way to solve problems and they are leaders.[10]

During World War II, when the death toll and scale of human misery were extreme, “leadership savvy” was the key skill that the British Army sought in its new recruits. They needed individuals who could remain calm, optimistic and solve problems. The Tavistock Clinic, using the ideas of Bion, developed a plan to find those with these attributes who could be officers and leaders for the war department.

Based on Bion’s ideas about the leaderless group, the Tavistock Clinic advised the British Army to institute use of an observer, not a trainer, to identify individuals with the skills and behavior to become leaders. A consultant (observer) would be sent to watch a group of men as they gathered. There was no plan; there were no directions, no uniforms, nothing, just a consultant with a clipboard. The consultants’ job was “not to permit themselves to insist even subliminally that the group adopt their way of proceeding.”[11] The consultant simply took notes on how the leadership emerged and whom the group would listen to. Once a thoughtful leader emerged, the group quickly became calmer and more capable of figuring out what needed to be done. Clearly the influence of relationships on individual functioning was beginning to be seen.  It was not a huge leap now to observe the emotional process in the family.



Murray Bowen

Family Systems Theory contains no ideas that have not been a part of the human experience through the centuriesMurray Bowen, Introduction: Family Therapy in Clinical Practice

Bowen chose psychiatry due to his experiences in WW II.  He had seen more people suffering from what was then called “shell shock” than with physical wounds and thought he could make the greatest contribution in psychiatry.  He gave up his cardiac surgery residency and applied to the training program at the Menninger Clinic where he became convinced that Freud had not gone far enough to create a science of human behavior. Bowen determined that a science of human behavior had to be linked to understanding the human as a part of evolution.

Observing family members at Menninger’s as they came to visit their grown children led to his budding research interest in the ongoing relationships between family members which evolved into his keen interest in carefully observing several family members living together. Later, in 1956, he accepted a position as the head of a research unit at National Institute of Health (NIH) in Washington DC, where he was able to observe families actually living together there.  During the next four years he observed how individual members of a family (and their “helpers”, the staff) functioned in relationship to each other.  This long period of observation led to the development of Bowen’s Theory, based on the nature of the emotional system, with all its interlocking parts.

Among other discoveries, Bowen saw that when the staff avoided diagnosing individuals, and refrained from taking sides or providing “answers” to the family, growth was possible.  The nursing staff led by example.  They observed and gave feedback about what the family issues seemed to be, how they saw the family members functioning and trying to manage self in the interactions with family members.  The family members listened to the staff as the staff worked on their own issues. Eventually one person in the family, often the father, made up his mind about what he thought and what the family would do.  Bowen saw that the family could heal itself twice as fast as anyone he had seen in psychoanalysis. This was a totally new way of seeing what happened between people and led to his theory, of human behavior.

Bowen described how family members are connected to each other in the following quote.

“Emotional reactiveness in a family, or other groups that lives or works together, goes from one family member to another in a chain reaction pattern.  The total pattern is similar to electronic circuits in which each person is “wired” or connected by radio, to all the other people with whom he has relationships.  Each person then becomes a nodal point or an electronic center through which impulses pass in rapid succession . . . Each person is programmed from birth to serve a certain set of functions and each “senses” what is required or expected, more from the way the system functions around him than from verbal messages . . . Each person . . . has varying degrees of ability for handling impulses . . . and an intellectual awareness . . . for understanding the operation of the system.  There is another important set of variables that have to do with the way the family unit functions together.  Each person becomes aware of his dependence on all the other nodal points. To be remembered is that each nodal point is “wired” to the others with two-way circuitry. There are a wide variety of subtle alliances for helping each other, refusing to help, or hurting the other.  The larger unit can punish a single member, and a single member in a key position can hurt the whole unit.

The electronic model has the potential and the flexibility to accurately account for almost every item of human functioning . . . except for that which is determined by biology and reproduction and evolution.” [12]



A Playful look at Bowen and Freud’s Imaginary Relationship

It has been a short ninety-nine year journey from Wundt’s 1902 publication, Principles of Physiological Psychology, to the present.  A paradigm shift has occurred during that period, from diagnosing what’s inside an individual’s mind a la Wundt and Freud, to Bowen’s understanding of the individual as a player in a sensitive, reactive, linked and interdependent system.

A playful way to consider the differences from Freud to Bowen is to imagine Mother Earth on the couch. Of course Freud really wants to know what’s up with Mother Earth and why she is spinning the way she is. In the first session, Freud is fascinated to find out why Mother Earth has covered up so many layers of unconscious “dirt,” and why that “dirt” has made the earth spin as she does.

Freud tries to remain objective as he listens to Mother Earth’s stories about how she spins. His assumption is that if only Mother Earth would let the dirt rise to the surface through free association, she could be real with her feelings and get her affect, the emotional tone, correct about why she is spinning the way she is. She could deal with the buried unconscious dirt once she could see it and feel it. And then of course, all would be integrated and she would be able to see how to spin in a more natural and authentic way.

Freud plans to focus the sessions on allowing the dirt to be seen, and also noting how he himself reacts to Mother Earth’s dirt.   Freud will let Mother Earth know a bit about what he thinks, but not too much as her spinning self may be too weak for the whole truth.  Slowly over years, the trust will be built, the dirt uncovered and the healing process will take hold.

Right after the first session, Dr. Bowen comes into the room to consult and says to Freud, “Would you like a different view of Mother Earth’s path?  OK, so let’s see what happens when we back up and ask Mother Earth what kind of relationships she’s been in with the Sun and with Jupiter and Mars?  Think about it, didn’t she say all this trouble started when Mars jumped out of his orbit and all the relationships changed?  I would like to know how the pull of the Sun and her relationships with the other planets have influenced her path.”  Freud responds saying, “Let’s keep looking at relationships and see where we end up.”

In fact, Freud himself experienced a version of this story with his daughter Anna.  Anna had a conflict with Melanie Klein, who believed that the imagination and primitive instincts of people created their mental health issues.  Anna Freud, on the other hand, saw that children could recover from trauma without analysis if they had caring relationships with caretakers in the Hampstead orphanage.  After looking at the evidence that she brought to him, Freud said to Anna there was not yet enough evidence to show which direction was best to liberate the psyche from neurosis, the intense relationships encountered in life or psychoanalytic treatment.[13]

We find the same problem today; not enough data has been gathered in a scientific manner to demonstrate clearly what type of interventions work, Freud or Bowen’s.

The scientific method can be costly to conduct, because we must find control groups so that we can compare the differences in methods. Eventually systems research may be able to compare many variables in some kind of factor analysis.

Right now the scientific method is set to find the cause, the one variable that makes a difference.  We can see how the scientific method has led researchers to turn a blind eye to a system with its interacting variables.  It is too confusing and confounding for proper research analysis.   Once research developers are able to consider the function of multiple variables, then systems behaviors will come into view and we will have moved closer to a scientific study of the family as an emotional unit. [14]


We’ve come a long way baby, or have we?

It is very hard to understand we humans in an objective way. It is easier to learn more about the behavior of planets than to consider how we orbit around one another in our social systems

The well-known investigators of human behavior had not, until Bowen and others in the late 20th century, even seen the influence of the family on the individual. Perhaps it’s far easier to see the individual, rather than to see a relationship system. We have been shaped over multiple generations to see and respond to other individuals, but how our multigenerational families influence us has not been seen or possibly the real problems is that the data does not fit into a cause and effect model.  We may not be able to make science out of human behavior but we can enlarge our viewpoint about human behavior.

What good does it do to question our beliefs, values and even our ways of making decisions?  How much do we know or need to know about human behavior?  Can others’ work give us courage to be more aware of our own journey? Who among us wants to see how relationships are impacting us or how we impact others?  Much of our current thinking has status because it’s old and it’s what we “know”.  We are attracted to what has been because it seems to work for us now and again.  We are not so sure about the “new”.

New knowledge in any field is like the new kid on the block with no status.  So it is in the field of psychology and science in general.  There is considerable resistance to changing any prevailing theory or point of view. Sometimes one of us sees something new, but we have no idea how to adequately respond.

A classic example is the reactions of some folks on September 11, 2001.  People from Europe were staying at my home at the time. They could not believe that planes had become weapons and that their flights would be canceled for weeks. They begged me to take them to the airport.  Despite my most rational and logical arguments, the emotional belief that the past was the future was firmly in place.  Driving to the airport, past the empty roads and parking lots, with no sound or sight of planes in the sky, finally they were able to see that indeed the world had changed.

There are many factors inhibiting our ability to see the so-called reality of situations. Personal traumas such as a death or a divorce can extract a toll on our ability to think well. Such pressure and anxiety diminishes our ability to perceive and think well. Besides history and trauma, there are other mechanisms in the brain that diminish our ability to see “what is” and instead to react in automatic ways.

Evolutionary pressures have designed our brain in a cobbled together way not unlike a Rube Goldberg machine.  We are hamstrung by assumptions and the status quo.  Our brain is designed to make even simple decisions activate a lot of reactive bells and whistles. The struggle to be a self in our family is ongoing, as our brains are tuned to react in a stimulus-response way to others.  Reactivity gives us little room to see complexity. The automatic response is to focus narrowly, defend self and blame others. Our brains are full of all kinds of interlocking emotions, instinctual needs and reflexes such as jealousy, aggression, hatred, competition, cooperation, and of course the overriding need to be loved. By understanding a bit about reactivity we can see again the challenge in remaining mindful.


The Brain and Playful Interrupting

Paul MacLean, a physician and neuroscientist, made the discovery that we humans share with reptiles our mating mechanisms and obsession with territory.  Not a pretty thought.  Since evolution also gave us language allowing us to speak and sometimes to actually communicate, we can mute our more primitive responses. Sometimes we can interrupt our old habits of thinking by being playful with one another.  Play is a by-product of raising children notes MacLean. Both play and the separation cry are responses to the new. [15] One issue is that our perception is tilted to respond to threats in defensive ways, choking off the opportunity to play.

Evolution designed our brain with bells and whistles that can go off at the perception of the slightest threat.  We fear, a snake or a bear and then our physiology changes when we see one.  We may have been taught that our aunts or stepfathers or others are somewhat like bears.  We cannot see or think well in the presence of those whom we see as a threat or when we are actually reacting to a threat.

In order to respond more playfully it helps if we can observe our reactions and thereby interrupt the programmed fear response.  For example, if we think we see a snake as we walk along, if we can pause and look carefully we can decide if it is a snake or a stick.  There is the fast brain response and the slow one.  The slow one takes more time to develop.

It takes time to know the difference between over and under-reacting.  Over-reacting is when we react to each possible stick as a snake. We can also under react, especially when it comes to threats that seem distant in time or space such as addictions to drugs or money or threats like global warming.[16]  Our brains prefer short-term pleasures and/or profits and cannot really comprehend the danger from long-term problems

Unfortunately our ability to reason things out does not exist in a separate province of the mind where emotions are banned from influencing us.  Antonio Damasio in his book, Descartes’ Error, carefully explains to us that the neurobiology of our thinking processes is deeply intertwined in our emotions, feelings and beliefs. [17]

If you say I am thinking, well, you are also feeling. As most of us know, although people think that their religious beliefs and political views are rationally based, these beliefs are grounded in deep emotional feelings.  All that we believe and think is highly influenced by our emotional system.  Our state of mind and our psychology is often run by the way our brain is organized.

We are wired differently depending on our relationships and our sensitivities. We may not feel our blood pressure rising, but we know messages are sent from the heart to the brain.  The soma of the body is linked to our mental process but not in a linear or straightforward way as Wundt noted long ago.


“Certainty” can blind us to “what is”

One thing that makes it so hard to see accurately, or to see what really “is”, is this stubborn belief that our views are more correct than the views of others. We do have empathy, therefore most of the time we can understand that others hold different and valid viewpoints.  But especially under pressure, we see the “right way” and are sure that the others are “wrong”. To put it bluntly, we are often over confident that our way of seeing things is the correct (and only) way.

Unfortunately it turns out, overconfidence is a burden.[18] But for survival purposes evolution handed us a brain able to make decisions with as little information and as much certainty as possible. [19] Instinct made it possible for this behavior to persist and so it does, even in our more modern social jungle. How we perceive threats and take action springs from the emotional system, which we share with all other species.  It is our primitive guidance system, springing into action as a response to stimuli.

Most species do not have the luxury to wonder about their Rube Goldberg, instinctually designed brain.  They do not pause to reflect and self regulate.  They may spring to attack whomever is near when problems arise.  They can freeze or run or just take any action when instinct requires it.  But we humans can, to some extent, self regulate.   We know now that our perception is formed by many kinds of internal mechanisms and biases and that our brains, unfortunately, do not see accurately all that is right before our eyes.  Knowing this enables us to have reasons to gather knowledge, to question what is accepted, and to be more responsible for how we participate in social systems.




In this chapter we have heard about the effort to gather knowledge about human behavior. We have looked at some of the discoveries in psychology over the past 150 years. We see that the overriding focus of psychology during this time has been on the individual, not on the relationship system. It wasn’t until the 1950s that researchers saw the family as an interactive relationship system.

It’s safe to say that there is still no consensus on who sees the big picture, or just what is driving or influencing human action and how to understand human behavior.   Given the divisions in psychology, and that various groups are backed by both beliefs and research papers, organizations and political movements, we must live with conflicting data and types of analysis that are available.  There is no tool that can consider multiple variables interacting over long periods of time as more than correlations.  We don’t know it all.  But we are simply more aware that there are different lenses through which to see human behavior.





1) The Triune Brain in Evolution: Role of Paleocerebral Functions, Paul D. MacLean, 1990, Springer.

2) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, 2005, Jared Dimond

3) Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives, 1996, Frank Sulloway

4)  Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, Antonio Damasio, 1994

5)Fischhoff, Slovic and Lichtenstein (1977) gave subjects a general knowledge test and then asked them how sure they were of their answer. Subjects reported being 100% sure when they were actually only 70%-80% correct.

6) Daniel Kahneman, psychologist and Nobel laureate, notable for his work on the psychology of judgment and decision-making, behavioral economics and hedonic psychology.

7) Principles of Physiological Psychology, Wilhelm Wundt (1902) 
Translated by Edward Bradford Titchener (1904)

8) Pragmatism, From the introduction to William James’s  by Bruce Kuklic

9) The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud, tr. James Strachey, Avon, N.Y. 1965. p.296.

10) Principles of Physiological Psychology, Wilhelm Wundt (1902) 
Translated by Edward Bradford Titchener (1904)

11) Jung’s Collected Works in English, Bollingen Foundation in New York and Routledge and Kegan Paul in London.

12) Experiences in Groups, W. R. Bion,  (London 1980) Introduction, pp 5-6                  13) The Shaping Of Psychiatry By War (1945) Rawlings Ress John. P 70                    14) Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (pages 420 – 421) Murray Bowen, (1977)           15) Anna Freud: A Biography, Young-Bruehl, Elizabeth, (1988).                                    16) Natural Experiments of History, 2011 Jared Diamond, James A. Robinson

17 Fischhoff, Slovic and Lichtenstein (1977) gave subjects a general knowledge test and then asked them how sure they were of their answer. Subjects reported being 100% sure when they were actually only 70%-80% correct.

Web References:


[2] Principles of Physiological Psychology, Wilhelm Wundt (1902) 
Translated by Edward Bradford Titchener (1904)

[3] From the introduction to William James’s Pragmatism by Bruce Kuklic

[4] Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, tr. James Strachey, Avon, N.Y. 1965. p.296.

[5] Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, tr. James Strachey, Avon, N.Y. 1965. p.298.

[10] W. R. Bion, Experiences in Groups (London 1980) Introduction, pp 5-6

[11]The Shaping Of Psychiatry By War (1945) Rawlings Ress John. P 70

[12] Murray Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (pages 420 – 421)

[13] Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth (1988). Anna Freud: A Biography.

[14] Natural Experiments of History, 2011 Jared Diamond, James A. Robinson

[15] The Triune Brain in Evolution: Role of Paleocerebral Functions, Paul D. MacLean, 1990, Springer.

[16] Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, 2005, Jared Dimond

[17] Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, Antonio Damasio, 1994

[18] Fischhoff, Slovic and Lichtenstein (1977) gave subjects a general knowledge test and then asked them how sure they were of their answer. Subjects reported being 100% sure when they were actually only 70%-80% correct.

[19] Daniel Kahneman, psychologist and Nobel laureate, notable for his work on the psychology of judgment and decision-making, behavioral economics and hedonic psychology.