Book Reviews

This section features interviews with those who have published books on altering patterns in the family or in groups, and a few books that offer ways to change self in a way that seems to fit with Bowen theory.   There are many paths to changing self through mindful actions.  The following are books that appealed to me and I hope you find something useful here for you.  The newer books are first and you can scroll down to see the others.


The Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports, and Investing

 By Michael J. Mauboussin

Wondering what makes it so hard to make good decisions?  Here is a book I found to be a fascinating education in how the brain misperceives the environment in predictable ways. We can see that our brain is a big inventing reality, conformation machine.  If you innocently “believe” that the brain  easily discern reality then read on.

Mauboussin identifies the ways we can be tricked by short cut thinking and rules of thumb decision-making. He even makes it seem possible, before breakfast, to understand a bit about correlations and decision-making linkages, statistical thinking and reversion to the mean.

By carefully explaining the difference between luck and skill and how we often mistake one for the other, Mauboussin helps us enhance our ability to perceive the world.

For example, it makes sense but still requires untangling luck and skill to acknowledge that luck plays a significant role in which team wins the Stanley Cup or the Super Bowl.

Once skill is evenly matched among the participants, there is some room for luck to make a difference. There can be interplay between skill and luck when one is very disciplined in acquiring skill.

Often people mix up luck and skill as in a coin toss. The fact that one event is not influencing another is lost when people begin to feel lucky and believe that a hot hand can influence outcomes.

Good luck in coin tosses or other activities where one event is not influencing another, can automatically cause our brains to revert to cause and effect thinking, leading us down a rabbit hole where we can easily misperceive the world around us.

For example, it is common to think that because you flipped a coin and got heads seven times you are somehow a bit lucky but mostly skilled and therefore you are willing to bet that heads will come up on your next toss. We actually have to learn that one coin toss is not influencing another, no matter our feelings or the story we tell ourselves about our hot hands.

A warm and fuzzy feeling about our hot hand cannot predict the next toss of the coin or the next team that will win or the next great stock, but luck can play a role in our success (or failure).

In the old days we could rely on stories we heard, or even gossip from a neighbor, to predict the future and understand others. But Mauboussin reminds us that serious scientists are careful about sources of evidence and the challenges of prediction.

To overcome habits of believing stories, he suggests we need a disciplined approach.

Mauboussin references the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the foremost authorities in the psychology of predictions, to give us well-tested examples. Mauboussin helps us increase our ability to get beyond automatic ways of sensing how the world works and engage in more challenging ways of perceiving the environment.

Mauboussin notes that we can, with some effort, break down the function of the brain into two parts, an automatic system (that can be influenced by the higher centers of the brain), and the analytic system.

The latter can analyze and make complex computations that over time may become an automatic response that is skillful. Feedback is an essential part of altering our automatic responses. Those who want to become a strong and skilled performer can work on:

1) the analysis of how to do things properly,
2) the psychology of the effort, and
3) the influence of the social system that one is a part of. To learn a new skill may take only 50 hours, but to become more of an expert requires a thousand hours of effort.

Many of our automatic ways of thinking are based on the way our ancestors managed to survive. Now days there are dangers that lurk in ignoring a more fact based and mathematical way through the social jungle. We have to learn how stories that mix up luck and skill can lead us astray.

Be careful when your friends tell you which stock to buy or when your doctor tells you how his last patient did, without benefit of knowing the base rate of how most patients did.

Calling into question our automatic ways of understanding the world costs our brain a lot of energy. Comprising only 2% of our bodies in weight, the brain requires 20% of our energy so we tend to want to conserve energy and therefore question embracing the mental effort.

One-way around this problem is to makes it fun to look at processes that enhance out ability to predict. Mauboussin does this by using sports examples and creating web-based games that connect to his book.

You can watch one tennis player win a point to see how this influences who will win the match. […] Then just what can we learn from Colonel Blotto about spreading our resources to defeat Goliath? […]

My favorite is trying to beat the mind reader. […] But I probably should spend more time understanding how the reinforcing property of success works. […]

Another challenge Mauboussin discusses is the idea of a continuum for predictions.

Even if we are reasonably good at figuring out the likely outcome in sports, when we move into larger social systems there are more unusual events that can occur and for which we cannot prepare.

Tail events, which are outside our expected range of possibilities, like 9/11 are “black swan” occurrences that by definition not only cannot be predicted but are difficult to prepare for.

Think how many people are angry because they believe that someone should have seen “it” coming. There are many possible outcomes Mauboussin shows us to any one event. History is not destiny. Moreover, if you do see it coming then you still have to have an emotional backbone in order to hold onto one’s beliefs in the face of intense opposition.

Benjamin Graham said, “Have the courage of your knowledge and experience. If you have formed a conclusion from the facts and if you know your judgment is sound, act on it – even thought others may hesitate or differ”. (Mauboussin, Page 172)

A few knowledgeable leaders can alter the social system and its habitual way of doing business. In the book Money Ball, recruiters used insider information to hire the best people. They talked about how the players looked, hit and fielded, but there was not a fact-based process to look at the link between behaviors and team wins. By correlating behaviors, like: when do they hit, how often did they get on base, and when did they drop the ball, Billy Bean began to see patterns of behaviors correlate with team wins.

Bean not only identified some links between the talents of individual players and team outcomes, he then altered the way players were selected. He used facts to show a connection between who gets on base and the team’s ability to win a game, and this was a more successful perception of success than highlighting a player’s batting average. Billy Bean was able to see the more complex variables using statistics and seeing connections.

Mauboussin notes the importance of understanding reversion to the mean. Reversion to the mean identifies system level properties enabling us to consider an individual’s very good or bad performance outcomes over time. Put another way, extreme results are unlikely to continue, like the upward trajectory of the price of Apple stock. Regression analysis allows us to see how individual performance, which in some case may be influenced by luck, smooth out over time. Out performing may be luck, but in some cases, as in mutual fund success, superior skill can be clearly distinguished. In that case it takes long periods of time to see who can do better than luck alone would predict. You can see some of this in game format on Mauboussin’s web site.

Mauboussin usefully suggests ways for readers to improve skills, such as using checklists, encouraging feedback and/or hiring a good coach to give an outside viewpoint and help manage “magical thinking”. He also suggests writing down the outcome we expect when making decisions. These disciplines enable us to learn from mistakes and exercise humility about our ability to evaluate risk and to predict outcomes.

As Mauboussin points out, we are all in the business of forecasting. Considering the psychological, analytical and procedural barriers to untangling luck and skill, this book gives us clarity on processes involved in decision-making and tips to improve performance.

Consider these ideas they can help us to break nasty habits of convenience. Use knowledge to train your to learn about deep processes that are not commonsense or intuitive. It is great to know that we can develop discipline about decision-making processes that impact our lives and have fun while we are doing it.

Or we can also depend on skill and hope for luck.

Andrea Schara



1) Alfred Rappaport in his new book, Saving Capitalism From Short-Termism: How to Build Long-Term Value and Take Back Our Financial Future, takes a look at what happens when economic common sense is eroded, principles forgotten and decisions driven by incentives. I found myself cheering as Rappaport used his analytic prowess to penetrate the nature of these overlapping factors, pointing to how vulnerable we humans are to the temptation to achieve quick results in social systems. He would like to realign incentives to refocus on better outcomes for society and suggests thoughtful ways to understand and alter structural problems, which currently reward investors for short-termism.  Without deep understanding of the downside of the focus on quick results, there is little hope that a consensus can be built to alter policies and nudge people towards more rational behavior. This is not a small problem.

Recall when Alan Greenspan, an intellectual powerhouse, confessed to Congress and the American people that his model for managing the economy was broken. “Badgered by lawmakers, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan denied the nation’s economic crisis was his fault on Thursday but conceded the meltdown had revealed a flaw in a lifetime of economic thinking and left him in a ‘state of shocked disbelief’.”

Obviously no one has found a new model for managing the economy, but Rappaport makes a solid case for refocusing on feedback loops and the nature of our interlinked system to understand what is plaguing our ailing capitalist world. He highlights the importance of principled behavior and suggests that among other problems, short term trading has spawned a multitude of unintended consequences that are not trivial.  High frequency trading still accounts for roughly 50 percent of all transactions in the United States. The way incentives work for investing capital via the market is to drive management focus to the short term. Jobs are at stake and careers are damaged if short-term (e.g., quarterly, or even annual) results are not met. In both corporate America and on Wall Street, today’s profits matter and the long term focus on compounding capital by investing in great companies has become old fashioned.

This short-termism has crept into all of our lives during the last credit rampage. Many ordinary people found it impossible to self regulate and resist the temptation of easy money. It is not so far off to consider the current problems plaguing capitalism to be a problem of self-regulation, occurring at many levels.

The question, if Rappaport’s points are valid, is how many will be willing to alter their behavior to address the ways that businesses, boards, investors and consumers behave? And finally if they do alter their behavior, how will we the investors, know which companies are self-regulating? For even if we can find solid ways to alter the impact of short-term incentive driven behavior, we also have to consider if such a long-term focus will lead to investment successClearly, expectations and results vary from time to time and it is rare to find those with the skills needed to achieve investment success over any long-term period. Some of the problem has to do with how long it takes an economy, a company, or even a family to recover from downward spirals. The pressures and expectations for short-term results can create dysfunction in many kinds of social systems from the stock market to the family.

In addition, even if the incentives encourage thoughtful investments with companies that have incentives aligned for longer-term performance, markets will still misprice stocks providing opportunities and traps. In an earlier book, Expectations Investing, Rappaport and Michael J. Mauboussin, considered ways to explain the gap between how the stock market prices businesses and the intrinsic value for those businesses.

Investing success requires more than seeing clearly how incentives drive behavior. Rappaport also notes that luck itself may produce what might look like investment success over the short term.  He makes the case that differentiating skill from luck is crucial in measuring investment outcomes. One take away is that investors may be taking unknown risks and heading over a long term cliff when they follow the short-term and/or lucky investors.

Markets are almost impossible to predict so discovering which companies will be worthwhile investment vehicles is a challenge that few have been successful at over the long term. For example, only a small percentage of mutual funds beat their benchmarks over the long haul. These few investors find ways to identify companies that are able to return capital to investors despite the surrounding economic conditions. What is their secret? What do these investors look for? Or are they guided by principles similar to the ones that Rappaport identifies? Would it be possible to develop a computerized sorting mechanism that could identify the risks he notes along with the surrounding changes in the economy?

Rappaport’s common sense, principle-driven ideas are, as of now, left up to individuals to implement in their investing or their business. We as investors have to find ways to identify these principle driven companies and take a guess at how the pressures in society will impact investments. Is it possible that if more of these indicators were easily identifiable that we too as investors could drive change in corporate behavior?

Currently, creating this kind of change is slow. It takes a long time for one company or mutual fund at a time to see how poor the outcomes are when the incentives of their own firms or the firms they invest in, or indeed the economic conditions for the market place are signaling warnings or just going in the wrong direction. Perhaps large-scale change can take place but I would hazard a guess that it will take a significant number of people to become more aware of how short-termism is a perceptual bias leading to emotional blindness.

Rappaport’s position seems to be that those who are aware of these incentive-based traps can make more rational choices. His analysis further clarifies how the financial system has become a biased betting machine not an investing machine. Short term investors/traders reward companies for making the “accounting” look good for this quarter, often sacrificing the future by cutting research or jobs.

As John Bogle notes in his foreword to the book, “When Wall Street’s role of providing funding for the most promising projects… takes a back seat to countless waves of trading activity, we have to be concerned about whether the best interest of our society are being served.” Rappaport makes the case that the faith of investors has been betrayed and that their voices are barely heard as short term, irrational thinking sways the herd.

Capitalism will always face shortsighted traders with sharp knives. However by clarifying the measurements of financial statements, (cash flow, bonuses for managers, insider buying or selling, options and expirations, amount of debt carried forward, these and other measurements may make it possible to tie the tenure and rewards of company officers, and board members, to long term performance. Can clarifying important linkages between incentives and performance keep short-term traders from undercutting the stock price of the more solid and transparent companies?  Is it significant to focus on returning value to shareholders in the age of the quick short?

Rappaport has confidence that the problems that bedevil capitalism are not found in the cognitive limits of decision makers but rather from the use and abuse of incentives. His hope is that, “if we change incentives, in the above mentioned areas, we should expect a change in behavior.”

My concern is that we need more clarity and focus on the corporate and or Wall Street people who are willing to change towards a longer-term perspective. It is a difficult discipline for mutual fund and other financial managers and corporate leaders to shun a short-term orientation and return to a long-term focus, when short-term traders can undercut the future of their companies. As long as the short-term music continues to play, in this game of musical chairs, who will find a seat for the long term? Will understanding the feedback loops driving Mr. Market allow us to grasp a long term out look sustaining our companies and markets?

Rappaport notes that from the nineteen-twenties on, managers were enabled, by “diffuse and mostly passive investors” to maintain high degrees of autonomy, along with limited accountability. This historical trajectory, along with habit, makes it harder to self regulate and change the incentive driven relationship between investors and managers. Clearly incentive-driven behavior is based in our evolutionary roots, where we see the winner takes all strategy as highly influential in the competition for mates and resources.

People are highly influenced to win through the brain’s reward system. A study by Georgio Coricelli appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,  measured activity in the regions of the brain associated with rewards and with social reasoning while participants in the study entered  lotteries. The researchers found that the striatum, a part of the brain associated with rewards, showed higher activity when a participant beat a peer in the lottery, as opposed to when the participant won while alone. The medial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain associated with social reasoning, was more activated as well. Those participants who won in a social setting also tended to engage in more risky and competitive behavior in subsequent lotteries. These findings suggest that the brain is equipped with the ability to detect and encode social signals, make social signals salient, and then, use these signals to optimize future

behavior.  As Coricelli explained, in private environments, losing can more easily be life-threatening. With no social support network in place, a bad gamble can spell doom. [1]


The gambler is driven by an automatic preference to win, despite risks, when in social groups. Of course this can lead to increasing risky behavior and poor outcomes. Will being aware of these dynamics help us to decide when to risk and when to cooperate and perhaps even let others win?

Both family and economic systems are driven by mechanisms that are out of awareness. The increasing anxiety in society, the competition for declining resources, and threats of all kinds, drive short-term behavior. To the degree that social systems, and the individuals in them and leading them, have an alerting mechanism about when they are following short-term incentive prizes, they may be able to think more clearly and function with more stability and principle-driven behavior during anxious times.

Short-term thinking leads to behavior that sabotages families too. We hear short-termism threaten to dominate in such statements as: “Why can’t I stay out with my friends,” “Everyone is doing it”, “I need a drink,” “You make me mad” and “All this is your fault.” Just as parents need to self regulate during times of great pressure so too our leaders have to understand which of their behaviors lead to failure, especially in the longer term.

Social research backs Rappaport, making the point that the wiring of the brain is what makes us vulnerable to risky behavior in social settings.  Human nature itself is tilted to reward people who take risks, the end result being big organizations and capitalism itself failing to rationally use rewards to incentivize productive behavior.

It may be that just as in a family, where one person has to separate from the anxiety-driven behavior of the group, leaders in one company after another will have to step up to demonstrate that they are willing to reorganize their accounting methods and to demonstrate more clearly to investors the power of cash flow analysis.  Perhaps investors will be more interested in looking at the accounting methods and the principles of corporate officers and board members.  And perhaps mutual funds’ investment criteria will include rigorous cash flow analysis and analysis of the extent to which the companies they invest in are led by principle-driven boards and corporate leaders.

Will changing the incentives and behaviors of corporate leaders result in more viable organizations and a more adaptable society? Will expectations for investors be on solid footing with better analytic skills devoted to the measurements? Will this allow people to make long-term investments and thereby compete with short-term traders looking to make an even faster buck?

Humans have the ability to self regulate and to some extent control emotionally driven short-term thinking and action.  But not all individuals are able to control reactivity.  Rappaport’s book notes that controlling the rush to “short termism” will give capitalism a new life.  The bottom line is that investors have to be able to see the reasons for self-regulating as they consider the role of incentives in driving behavior.  Those systems driven by short-term incentives will have a different, and less positive outcome than organizations run with a more long-term focus.

Rappaport follows the money, warning us of the long-term problems when responsibility is lost in a rush to collect the short-term (trading) incentives rather than follow the principles of sound investing.  It does take time to discover how incentives drive behavior and can corrupt both companies and people. But this is a necessary discipline for investors to undertake.

Investors who read this book will have a different take on the “tells” of mutual funds, companies, and managers plus ways to support capitalism itself.  People will want to read this book to know how to clarify their own thinking about human behavior and how they go about placing their bets on the various forms of investment vehicles while understanding the vulnerability of capitalism.

[1] “Medial Prefrontal Cortex and Striatum Mediate the Influence of Social Comparison on the Decision Process” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, viewed September 7, 2011

Read more at Suite101: Research Explains Why People Give in to Peer Pressure |

2) Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counter Intuition a fantastic book by my son-in-law Michael Mauboussin. The goal: understanding the challenges in becoming more rational.

3) Sylvia Lafair – Don’t Bring It to Work: Breaking the Family Patterns That Limit Success

4) Blythe McGarvie -Shaking the Globe: Courageous Decision Making in a Changing World

5) Jeffrey Miller’s book explains his observation of how anxiety functions in organizations. The Anxious Organization: Why Smart Companies Do Dumb Things, is now in its second edition. As the title suggests, it is for people looking for ways to be more aware of how relationships fall apart in a crazy system and the consequences of those relationship disruptions on the organization. Jeff’s theme of staying calm, clear and collected while understanding the magic of process sheds another bit of light on interactions at work.

Each of these books focuses on the overall point that the more we can observe, the more knowledge we have, the greater the opportunity to make the world a better place. And, each of these books provides the reader with a “can do” approach to solving issues. Each one helps us look at a part of the system or part of the global elephant.

1) Mauboussin’s book fits with how Bowen thought about becoming a more integrated individual by integrating the feeling and thinking system. In addition learning about how we make decisions is crucial to anyone mental health.

Murray Bowen wrote: Man’s ability to think, his intellectual system, is a function of the newly added cerebral cortex, which has developed last in his evolution, and which is the main difference between man and the lower forms of life. The emotional and the intellectual systems have different functions, but they are interconnected, each influencing the other.[1]

One example of the effort to integrate feelings and thinking is Bowen’s move from psychoanalytical thinking to seeing and describing the family as an interactive system.

Bowen was able to move away from his on going training in psychoanalysis, to focus on the patient, and broaden his observations to the relationships between family members. He spent 12 years and over 10,00 hours observing families, in his version of family psychotherapy with two or more family members, before he considered he had developed a way of understanding the family and as an emotional system.[2]

Of course Bowen was the first person to develop a theory about the family as a system. It should be easier for the rest of us.

By directly observing families as they relate to each other a whole new world of clinical data came into view. This information did not fit with the still dominant medical/individual modal. More fundamentally Bowen’s interest was not confined to the nuclear family. He wanted to get beyond Freud’s use of Greek plays to explain internal dynamics. By emphasizing the interlocking nature of the family over the generations he saw how families were a part of evolution. As he noted any system is dependent on the functioning of the larger system of which it is a part. This linked observations of a living system to the biological sciences.

The role of the psychotherapist also underwent enormous change. Bowen regarded himself as a “consultant” in family problems for the initial problems and then as a “supervisors“ of the family effort over the long-term process. This was along way from the method of provoking change through the well-described steps in the individually -focused transference.

You can imagine the difficult in training psychiatrists to become non-participant observers and to regard the family as a phenomenon. This was learning to think twice about the acceptable way of understanding psychotherapy. This was a fundamental alteration in the way of thinking.

The overall goal became to “help family members become system experts who could know the family system so well that the family could readjust itself without the help of outside experts, if and when the family was again stressed.”[3]

Bowen spent years training people to move from thinking about the individual to thinking about the system of relationships and to mange self in the outside position. His overview of the problem was that, “the psychotherapist is trained to hear, understand and identify and to form a therapeutic relationship with the patient.” [4] The transference “cure” is very different from being a consultant to the family.

The challenge is for the “consultant” to learn from the family and to allow the family to learn from the consultant while still the consultant remain free enough to relate to any family member at any time.

This is a formidable task due both to the way our brains work and due to the predictable resistance. Family members can trip up the consultant, especially if he or she is trying to think with the family in a disciplined way, rather than agree with the blame game or heal the family, as in the transference.

Bowen highlighted the overall problem in understanding how we think or how the emotional system functions. Man has done less well when his intellect is directed at himself. The main problem in learning the secrets of emotional illness lies more in the way man denies, rationalizes and thinks about emotional illness. [5]

Perhaps his words will offer solace to those who are willing, again and again to embrace the beginners mind. After all being rational is often blocked by emotional system. By understanding how to be more rational this will enable us to function emotionally. Being rational and seeing how to think well about the future is a skill well worth spending time to develop.

In his new book Think Twice, Michael Mauboussin aims to give investors and business people a clear exposé of how our brains can trick us. I give this useful book 5 stars as it enables any motivated person to be aware of mental traps giving us a bag full of tools to make better decisions. Of course the really big question is how long will it take for any of us to learn to Think Twice?

We all get in the habit of understanding decision making from our own perspective. I am Michael Mauboussin’s fan and his mother-in-law so take what I say as you will. I have also spent the 34 years of my professional life working as a family therapist and in so doing have learned about the challenges of thinking rationally

Sherlock Holmes was a master of looking at the facts and calculating reasons leading him to solve all kinds of problems. He could observe and make sense of many clues that most people missed. Emotions and preconceived ideas never hindered his judgment. Sherlock was a fictional character. His author, Colon Doyle had his own issues with rational thinking.[6] Over the ups and downs of ones life it is harder for our rational thinking to remain clear.

Poor decisions can provide clues about significant hidden biases or hidden emotional pressures either of which can overpower our more rational side. Most of us know that stress contributes to poor decision-making. Of course if the people you love die, or if you get divorced, you might not be at the top of your rational game. But now we know that it is just not stress or mental illness that creates the conditions for poor decision-making, it’s the way the brain has evolved from ancient humans and their environments which contributes to the way we make decisions.

Now, by pausing to Think Twice, it becomes possible for us to avoid many irrational “slippery slopes” that we simply couldn’t see before we stopped to think twice.

Mauboussin sweeps away worries about being neurotic or stressed-out as the only cause of poor decision-making, and notes that learning to be rational is a challenge for us individually and as a society. We do not value introspection, flexibility or the ability to properly calculate evidence sufficiently to test for these rational abilities in standard IQ tests. The pressure is on for individuals to understand the brain’s vulnerabilities and to see our mistakes without negative judgment.

After reading the book once, I read it twice. My goal: make this information work in my life. Chart the appearance of these mental traps with examples from my life and the news media.

If rational thinking is to increase we have to notice how our brain immediately responds to clues. By looking carefully at these clues and wondering about their impact on us we can often re-think any problem. Pride goes before the fall if we tend to see each situation as unique and ignore the statistical similarities in problems. Mauboussin asks what happens when companies merge. A large percentage of mergers do not work but people still think, “My merger will be different”.

Our brain follows an old path without the practice of seeing our situation compared to many others, or the inside, outside views as Mauboussin calls them.

It requires less energy for the brain to reduce the number of alternatives, or for one’s behavior to be shaped by incentives, or to cling to the words of experts and/or to follow the crowd. It is difficult for us to see the extraordinary influence of the crowd, family, colleagues and society on us. It is hard for us to see that to be wise we need to maintain our autonomy in the crowd.

Professional investors and business people will have an incentive to turn Mauboussin’s book into a disciplined course to increase anyone’s ability to recognize and apply these lessons. But I would like to see a version of his ideas available for middle – school children. Learning how your brain functions early on would be a wise investment for young minds.

As easy as it is to read the book once, if you put the book down without making the ideas yours, the book will not have done its job. Some may say, “I read the book now, of course, I will be more aware and rational.” If only it were that simple.

Mauboussin observes how the wizards of the world have been led astray. Of course anyone can allow his or her guard down. People can easily trust the wrong doctors, brokers or experts. As he notes, even highly trained financial experts, the best people at NASA and psychologists like Stephen Greenspan, author of Annals of Gullibility, can be fooled by the brain’s easygoing, automatic ways. Greenspan lost 30% of his money in the Madoff Ponzi scheme.

Word to the overconfident: both smart and ordinary people can be tricked by not thinking twice in a disciplined way.

It would be one thing if just one or two of us were irrational, but since we live in a highly interactive world a lot of people can join an irrational bandwagon. Societal irrationality has a long history. Mark Twain noted: “History may not repeat itself but it rhymes a lot.” He would have enjoyed the examples in this book of how the brain tricks itself.

Most of us can find stories of not thinking twice in the news everyday. In the chapter, “Unintended consequences: Feed an Elk, Starve an Ecosystem,” a decision made in 1886 led to complex problems for the entire Yellowstone national park. Do you think this focus on fixing only a part a system might be a fluke? Think again.

The New York Times, September 20, 2009, tells us how health officials in Egypt focused on getting rid of pigs to diminish the spread of swine flu. Brains were tricked. The complex system was ignored and this lead to a different health crisis for Egyptians. Cairo now has tons of garbage in the streets that the pigs use to eat

Fixing one problem and not comprehending the system-wide affect reflects the kind of blindness, which led to the decision to let Lehman go. Those very smart decision makers awoke to finding the financial world about to topple over. By the time they realized how interconnected the system had become it was too late. Seeing the system rather than one or two bad guys is still a stretch for most of us.

Mauboussin, a synthesizing detective, gathers knowledge demonstrating how the brain works its short-cut thinking magic. As a system thinker he points out the difficulty in understanding complexity when one believes in such sacred cows such as:

(1) Seeing problems as unique and not seeking the statistical outside viewpoints.

(2) The way we are programmed by events to have tunnel vision and reduce options.

(3) The inconsistent performance of experts in predicting the future.

(4) The dominant role of cause and effect thinking even in complex systems.

(5) The inability to see the difference between cause and correlations. There are a lot of churches in high crime areas but churches do not cause crimes.

(6) The difference between skill and luck, and harder yet understanding the implications that what goes up will come down, or revision to the mean.

(7) One of my favorites is what Mauboussin calls “the grand Ah-Whooms” or the tipping point in non-linear systems. Water boiling is a phase transition as are traffic jams and stock market crashes.

All of these concepts are hard for people to understand, much less master, without practice. As Mauboussin notes: “ Our brains are not wired for the process of moving from preparation to recognition. Indeed typical decision makers allocate only 25% of their time to thinking about the problem properly and learning from experience.”

People are more comfortable looking at the outcomes, which can be due to chance, rather than taking time to understand the process of decision-making. It is more automatic for us to decrease the number of discrepant ideas and to limit the number of people to whom we listen.

The individual and the group march toward a quick consensus. This will remain a formidable intellectual/emotional stumbling block in solving complex issues. But the bright side is that we will all be together in harmony and happy in the short term.

Mauboussin helps us understand, recognize and even appreciate our vulnerabilities with humorous explanations. He reassures us that we can become more rational by recognizing the traps and applying tools to better cope with the realities of life. Many of his ideas about being more rational are not such hard medicine. Best of all, those who take his work seriously will become more autonomous in the maddening crowd.

Preparation offers us an early warning system. Mauboussin suggests: 1) keep a decision journal, 2) have a checklist and 3) be aware of the brain’s tendency to take clues from the environment leading us into back alleys. He explains that there is a clear path through the tangled web of deceit the brain weaves as it tries to interpret how to quickly understand and respond well to its environment. We may prefer short cuts to the more difficult, time and energy consuming, unfeeling calculations needed to see risk and properly access outcomes. However, now we have a well-written guide to being able engage the process of thinking Twice.

My take away is to understand the ancient roots of irrationality as they surface in my day-to-day life. Perhaps this will help retool my brain, reducing my deep need to feel good and to be right at the expense of long-term solutions to complex problems.

Many thanks to Judy Ball for again, excellent attention to details in her editing.

[1] M. Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, (1977) p. 197
[2] M. Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, (1977) p. 152

[3] M. Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, (1977) p. 157

[4] M. Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, (1977) p 157

[5] M. Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, (1977) p. 198

[6] After the death of his wife Louisa in 1906, and the death of his son Kingsley, his brother Innes, his two brothers-in-law (one of whom was E. W. Hornung, the creator of the literary character Raffles), and his two nephews shortly after World War I, Conan Doyle sank into depression. He found solace supporting Spiritualism and its alleged scientific proof of existence beyond the grave.

2) Sylvia Lafair – Don’t Bring It to Work: Breaking the Family Patterns That Limit Success

I found Sylvia’s effort to bring greater awareness of family patterns to motivated people, encouraging and useful. She offers a unique map of the way family and work systems mutually influence our ways of functioning.</em

I first learned about or “met” Sylvia by reading the letters to the editors in The Harvard Business Review. The January 2009 issue was focused on Leadership. I was not expecting to see the word “family” much less “family as a system” mentioned. Much to my surprise, someone had written a letter encouraging people to see awareness of family patterns as a way of enabling profound change in work situations.

Hooray! I almost jumped up and clicked my heels but I was wearing boots. Being somewhat grounded I just paused and wondered who was this person shining a sliver of light on the basics of human behavior? HBR is a professional journal that seemed to me to stay away from family ideas. But perhaps no one had written a compelling piece for them? So I asked myself,, who is this person that can write such a concise note and get it printed?

Of course I wrote to say “WOW” and “thank you”. I thought, here is a woman, brave and clever enough to thread the needle between one’s personal life and one’s business roles. She wrote back immediately telling me about her training with Iván Böszörményi-Nagy and her great respect for Murray Bowen. She sent me a galley copy of her book. I thought it would be interesting to read her book and to interview her to see how her family life had impacted her professional focus.

It is long jump, for most people, to see relationships between the impact of family life and how he or she functions at work. Was it Descartes who said that one’s personal and family life are to be kept separate? No, it was not his doing. He simply rationalized the separation of mind and body, giving us all good reason to put subjective data into a pile that would be safe for scientists to ignore for centuries.

Needless to say there is long history of compartmentalized observations about human behavior that we all live with today. Human resource people are stuck trying to understand human behavior surrounded by all kinds of rules and regulations about privacy and family life that are barriers to understanding human functioning.

There are also many enterprising people, usually away from the workplace, who have found ways to bring up family dynamics, in seeking to understand human behavior. Many of them are my friends and colleagues.

I am pleased to have found a new voice who has been able to engage corporate leaders with the compelling message that family awareness and knowledge enables people to increase needed skills at work. In her book, Sylvia offers practical steps to enable anyone to be a more flexible individual. Her thesis is that the silent and heavy burden of family baggage can be lifted if one makes the commitment to learn to 1) observe, 2) understand and 3) transform repetitive patterns of behavior. She has seen that it is the automatic patterns that are out of our awareness that drive our reactions to one another. She does not wonder whether we have free will, but whether we are awake or willing to wake up and thereby be freer?

When I called Sylvia, I started by noting that both of our mentors, Bowen and Nagy, were probably up in heaven laughing about how we found one each other. She said she wondered if people ever really die? What a wonderful question about the shadows cast on future family members. In both families and organizations the roles people play are remembered and influence the future long after people have died.

Let’s take both Darwin and Lincoln who coincidently share the same birthday. They influence us in terms of our thinking but may not require us to play out a parent-child role with them. People die but their ideas and even their functional footprints linger on in these newly recreated systems of relationships. The closer people are, the greater the influence in some interdependent way. And to Sylvia’s point, we do take this family experience and reenact it, in some form, at work. If so, then the challenging question is how does one step off this family stage, which has been so artfully constructed?

First, as she notes, you have to see it. Being an observer takes practice. Sylvia’s book tells us about her ideas and how her solutions have been useful to people. Many people fail to see and deal with life patterns. If it is hard to see then you can understand how much harder the process is to change.

Sylvia’s hypothesis is that people are more motivated to work on understanding and observing their family patterns, because doing so has a beneficial outcome on their paycheck. Sylvia’s book is not about psychotherapy; it is about how to be more effective at work. She describes three patterns (gender, race and cultural background) to show how people are sensitized to understand the world around them.

You know the gender stereotypes: the strong silent type and the woman warrior, or the big shot and the modern goddess or perhaps the jock and the cheerleader. There is great deal of research about how our behavior is influenced by these kinds of stereotypes.

One compelling example of this is when older people heard the word “old person” whispered as they walked down a hallway, that whisper affected the speed of their walk. Our behavior can be affected by the social situation and the way we are seen or believe we are seen by others. The way we behave in social situations is vulnerable to social pressure and to very old rules of thumb that tell us how to react.

By looking closely at the influence of stress on individual’s behavior or clues activating an old program, Sylvia constructed her initial “types” or roles: the persecutor, the avoider, and the denier. Her thesis is that due to the pressure of survival and family loyalty, people have invisible parent child and sibling roles. Examples of these abound: the smart, pretty, weak, funny, bad, compliant, good, industrious, or even overly-social person.

These personality characteristics are short cut ways to understand who the other is and what impact their personality might have on us. We do, after all, react to the people we are with. Some of us are at ease with the funny person, and find the weak or “bad” person has the power to makes us crazy.

There it is, the parent-child dynamic being played out at work. People who participated in her program (The Total Leadership Connections) saw how they stepped into stereotypical roles and further, that there was something they could do to step outside those roles. She eventually developed thirteen descriptive roles to identify how patterns automatically play out. We are “given” or take a role and play it out in an old emotional play.

All this seems to go on without out our advice or consent. For those who would like all of this to stop or at least change a little, Sylvia offers a way to explore one’s family roots to see what might be influencing our functioning. She has developed a tool which she refers to as Sankofa Mapping. As she said, “this tool enables people to heal the past to free the present.” The map is her way of understanding three generations of family members and how they relate to one another over time.

One of my interests has been in emotional blindness. I wonder why people can’t see what they are doing? Family diagrams sometimes help and sometimes they are like so much dust before a steamroller of anxiety. I give a lot of credit to Sylvia’s ability to relate well to people so they feel comfortable seeing their map. Psychological information is not just information. It is information that can carry a charge. It is often hard for people to hear personal information.

Having a good coach who is able to stay with you while you learn makes a big difference in how well people can use the Sankofa Map. Sylvia has her way of reaching people with an explanation of how psychological blindness comes to be. She has a track record that people find useful. In addition she frames her ideas in ways that allow people to see how they have taken on a particular “role” in the family and how this role has come to dominate his or her response when working at a job.

Working still requires interacting and interacting can become a very automatic or old habit. Before one can develop a new sense of self, they have to be able to see where they are and the impact they are having on themselves and others. Some leaders are “born observers.” Often, I have noted in the history of leaders, that something happens early on that makes people better observers of relationships.

Always curious, I asked Sylvia how she thought her family life might have influenced her career and her leadership abilities.

Sylvia Lefair’s Interview

SL: I was fortunate to be raised in a family that knew how to encourage dialogue. Even as a child we were allowed to have a viewpoint and people did not move away from conflict.

Conflict was not seen as a bad thing. And so I think you could say I was a kind of gentle rebel as the youngest in my family. I have a brother who is five years older. He was slated to become a doctor from early on.

My mother, Rebecca, was born into the middle of a large family, the sixth of nine children. I see her as a gentle rebel. She was not a strict feminist but she was for women becoming aware of being free to choose a life. Since my mother wanted to explore, she did not marry until she was 24. She was a great influence on me until her death, when I was in my forties. I was also influenced by the social consciousness of both my parents.

I still recall as a child driving through some very poor areas and my parents saying things like, “We want to make a difference. We do not want to accept this kind of poverty.” This idea of making a difference stayed with me.

My father was the oldest of three brothers. His mother was having a lot of trouble getting pregnant and went to a spa in Baden-Baden Germany which she thought made the difference in her getting pregnant. A few years ago I went there and thought, “Oh my God this is part of my family heritage”. It is interesting how being there made me feel in better contact with my grandmother.

My grandfather started a family business named Lafair. It was a clothing accessories factory. His three sons worked there and there was always tension among the family in the business. I remember the conflict between my father and his brothers. Since I have a love of family business, perhaps you could speculate that in some ways I entered the area of family business to heal my own family experience.

Unfortunately my father died of a heart attack when I was fourteen. One day we were a family and the next day we were preparing for his funeral. My mother had the ability to carry on and keep us all going. Early on in my work with families I worked with one family that had a similar conflict between the brothers after the father’s death. I told them about my own experience in the hope that they could make a different choice.

AMS: Are you saying you look at what happens to us and see that often we learn from pain how to solve future issues? Do we think that we learn not to make the same mistakes that were made either early in our lives or in a previous generation?

SL: We are all standing on the past. We have to see the patterns so that we do not carry these disappointments forward into the current work situation. I saw my sensitivity in the family business and was able to use this to enable others to see. My motto is: Go back, learn and go forward. We learn to stay too much in the present. We are not learning well enough from the past.

With my husband I decided to change my work from therapy to strategic planning. I had to learn to change the language so people could understand the past. My first goal is to meet people where they are. It took years of trial and error to not let words in psychotherapy, like projection, slip out into the conversation. If I used one of these words, people would hold out mental garlic as though I were a vampire.

AMS: So you are saying that people tell us their story and we have to be able to relate to them so they can understand their story?

SL: I saw a situation today in which a woman’s family had adopted a foster child and when her son was ready to adopt she became fearful. It took her awhile to see how her old family situation was affecting her in the present. Of course she knew she had to make some sacrifices in her childhood when this foster child was in her family. But she was not at all aware that this might influence her NOW. She thought it would not bother her because that child was only in her family for a few years.

I encouraged her to think about it. Eventually she was able to share her early experience with her son. This also influenced the way she worked with people. She admitted that she was sensitive to people saying they might not be there forever. If she felt people were not loyal she would be more critical of them.

AMS: How are you brought in to work? Is it by individuals or by companies?

SL: Usually someone refers us to one person in a company, and then we begin to work long term with the company on how people are making decisions in the work place.

AMS: As you help them see their roles, it appears you clearly see people as being on a continuum. In other words, the roles people become stuck in can be and are transformed.

SL: People are so complicated. They are far beyond one role. I call it strength training to gain more flexibility. We also have about 12 professional trainers in our group. Very few come from the therapy world. The language is so different. The essence is that the way out is to become a better observer and to see how these patterns come to be. We have several programs to enable people to do their Sankofa map. We do not put people in the same group if they work together. Work colleagues do not need to hear personal information. I think it is important for people to feel safe when they tell their personal story to others.

AMS: Perhaps you might be more capable of leadership because you survived the loss of your father at an early age. SL: I know his death had an impact on me. For example, after 9/11 I wanted to go and help but it was impossible. I was upset and my husband reminded me that this could be due to the feelings I had when I was fourteen and not able to do much for my father. His comment made a difference. I also knew that during that time after my father’s death my mother was able to hold us together.

AMS: Perhaps I might think of your mother as a non-anxious presence.

SL: There are many stories in my book of how people discover the way real events in their lives have made them more vulnerable. But once they see it they can alter their responses.

AMS: I hear you saying that there is a great deal of hope in knowledge of how the past has influenced us. I also see my time with you is up. Thank you so much. I enjoyed being able to talk with you and hope we can continue in the future.


Shaking the Globe: Leading with Courage

Developing A Self in Your Organization

I met Blythe McGarvie in 2004. One of my friends, Laura Martin, told her about a meeting on developing leadership skills based on knowledge gathered in the far distant world of family therapy.  (Laura also wrote up the one page outline of the concepts in Bowen Theory:

Being curious and brave Blythe left the comfort of the corporate world and came to visit the people in the relatively obscure world of family systems theory. She had published one book called Fit In, Stand Out when we met and continued her board work and public speaking, since then, she has published another book on the development of leadership skills. We have continued to have intellectually alive exchanges.

In Shaking the Globe Blythe considers the unique challenges of leading in our global community.

“ Success requires a new and different set of competencies, particularly the ability to coordinate, communicate, and cooperate across borders and cultures.

Executives must be able to transcend their biases to adapt to today’s economy, learn to establish opportunities for future growth, and lead multinational corporations with strategies unrestrained by culture or nationality.”

I would add family knowledge to that list of needed competencies.   We form early on our basic skills in how to relate.  No one seems to get away without some sensitivity to his or her family of origin.  In addition, I would hypothesize that those with deeper roots and knowledge of their multigenerational family would have greater competencies in adjusting to different cultures and values.

Shake the Globe: Thoughtful Courage and Actions in
Difficult Times

When people are deeply emotional they seek emotional
answers. This path results in more primitive behavior by the people most in
need of help and least able to accept help. Yet as noted, when the group is
confused there is also the opportunity for new courageous voices to
arise.  If the voice is one that inspires optimistic thinking then there
is genuine hope that the anxiety of confusion will be subdued.  As Blythe
notes throughout her book, to arise as a leader now requires that leaders be
willing to Shake the Globe.

Another of Blythe’s hypotheses is that market laws are
universal.  We know that both people and markets can undergo unexpected
changes. We also know there are paths to a brighter future. For example
she sees the opening of markets through free enterprise as promoting
opportunities for woman and other minorities. Change one significant factor in
the system and you see a tipping effect. Educate woman and you see lower
fertility, reduced maternal and child mortality and better heath.

One way of seeing how social systems operate is to look at
the numbers and see what happens when change occurs. Her book contains many
examples of how one change influences other positive changes.  Another one
of my favorite examples from her book is that research shows that companies
that have several vs. one-woman board member, report better financial
results.  Clearly leaders need courage to risk doing something new based
on a deep value like equal opportunity.

There is much to be gained in using relationship knowledge
in order to be a more effective and efficient leader in an
organization.   As the world changes ever more quickly, many people
become stressed and are unable to adapt well to the new conditions. 
Adapting often demands changes of habits, and assumptions. People are looking
for ways to think well and make better decisions.  Therefore a book like Shake
the Globe offers us a broader view and reasons for courageous optimism for
those willing to both fit in and stand out.

My belief is that it often helps people to comprehend the
future by learning about the past. So whenever one can take the time to learn
more about their personal history, strengths and sensitivities, it is possible
to deeply address and improve our ways of relating to others.

Dr. Bowen used to advise people to get to know all the
living members of their family. If they could do it there was no better way to
gain emotional maturity.  Due to
variations in functioning among family members one can easily gain broader
knowledge of human functioning and compassion for self and of course others.

Another plus is that going to visit your family mindfully can
be a kind of free group therapy. They can and often do tell you stores of the
unresolved emotional issues and of course of what they and others really think
about you and your line of the family.   This kind of effort is only for
the courageous who would like to have a stronger emotional backbone. 
President Obama took seriously the idea of getting to know his extended family
and it served him well.  If you read his book you may laugh, as I did, at
the somehow recognizable misadventures in getting to know his extended family.

Interview with Blythe

Andrea: Sometimes it is hard to see what our early
life in our family has to do with our leadership skills. But just
suppose you could go back in time and imagine coaching your parents to resolve
one of their conflicts that you might have been caught up in?

I ask this because I wondered what it might be like to have
learned enough from the past, that you know what you would say to your Mom or
to your Dad today, to enable them to cooperate and be more understanding of the
other one’s position?

Blythe: Coach them to have been a more effective

Andrea: Yes, to be a more effective team, because
conflict that undermines people’s functioning goes on all the time. People
often tell me they feel like a child with their boss and there seems little
they can do to alter the relationship with them.  But there are other
times when individuals do have the courage to step up and enter into a
different kind of conversation with the boss or the authority/parental figure.
Often this happens after they have made some kind of change in relationships
with their parents or other authority figures.

Blythe: I think if I were coaching my mother
and father as if they were working with me in an organization I would have a
goal to enable a more effective team.  If they had this conflict dynamic
going on, and needed to work together I wouldn’t tell them anything at first.
But I would ask a lot of questions and listen.  After the questions would
be some kind of challenge to try and get them to look at the situation

I think with my father, I would say, “Can you try to speak
up instead of avoiding the situation.  If you just do what you want to do
and avoid it and go away for a day, the problem can get worse.” I might remind
him of how he would say, “I’m just going to go to the cleaners, hon,” and then
he’d take the kids with him, and we’d all go to different places with him and
we’d be gone for sever hours instead of one hour.  All this to just get out of the house, we’d go to the bank,
the cleaners, maybe the park, you know, everything.

In the past I would have gone along. Now I would be more up
front, and I’d say, “Help manage the expectations of your teammate who knows
you’re not just going to the cleaners. 
Can you do more to manage expectations?  Go ahead, speak up, and
confront the situation.  If she (my Mother) says, “No, I don’t want you to
do that, I want you to stay home and repair the garage” then say “I’ll get to
that,” or “I understand your needs, but these are some things I need to do.” So
I would encourage my father to speak up, manage his teammate’s expectations,
and maybe just observe a little bit more if he wanted to achieve things a
little sooner in life rather than later in life.

On my mother’s side, and I know because she struggled with
the principals of her schools for years, it was hard for her not to react to
them and say things she wished she had not said.  Therefore she had a lot
of difficult relationships. So seeing that I’d say, “Mom, you were never cared
for as a child, you were shunted off to a boarding school in high school,”
which she always thought was the peak of her life.

On the one hand she thought that the best time of her life
was in high school at this Catholic boarding school because she had some
stability there. But there were a lot of difficult issues for her.  By
observing how she was caught reacting to her history I would say, “Mom,
work on yourself, go to therapy, recognize some of the issues that you’re
carrying forward, as you have a lot to give. Old stuff gets in your way. 
You are a brilliant storyteller. You have a way of teaching that people want to
learn from you. They want to hear your stories.” I know because I used to
listen to the stories that she told me in that double bed until I fell asleep.

So I would be positive and also alert her to the power of
her negative reactivity.  I would try to be wise in how I advised her to
try to change these reactions. I might say, “Just keep your temper out of it,
because you have so many sharp barbs, that people shrink away from you. 
If you can drop the barbs, and just show the sweetness and the passion in a
positive manner instead of a negative manner, it would be a lot more
productive, and you might even be happier.”

Andrea: She might not need therapy if you talk to her
like that.

Blythe: In fact at one point we did finally convince
her to go to therapy, and she trusted the Catholic priest.   However
this is a story with a sad ending. I still have hard time believing it. It took
us years to convince her to go therapy, and she finally went to the Catholic
priest, and she came home from her first session and she said, “He didn’t
listen to me.” And we said, “C’mon Ma, he must have listened to you, this is
his profession.” “He fell asleep!” He fell asleep and she never went back.

Andrea: It is hard to convince people to do
something for you and have it work out in a positive way. The
majority of successful women whose stories I’ve heard seem to have almost
always related well to their fathers and were not interested in their mothers’
professions. Most did not have early fantasies of wanting to stay home and have
children either.  Often career-oriented woman saw their mother as not
really being as happy as she might have if she could have been out in the world
doing her own thing.

Blythe: In my case my mother was out in the world.
She was working when I was age 3 – I got dropped off at the nursery school and
she went to teach the 3rd grade.  She was never a housekeeper.
We had clothes from the dryer in a big pile on the dining room table. She would
say when I was very young, “Blythe, let me tell you a secret.  Hang up clothes, the wrinkles fall out,
don’t leave them on the dining room table.” And when we lived in Virginia with
lots of humidity, she said. “You never have to iron clothes if you hang them
right up.”  So she was not a very good housekeeper.

My father was the one who was at home more.  He was a
college professor, and so he had more flexibility. I used to joke, “Dad, you only
have to be at college 7 hours for an entire week.” He said, “Oh, but I have
meetings and I have office hours.” I said, “Yes, but technically, if I
understand your class schedule, you only have to be there 7 hours a week,
that’s a pretty good job!”

Now he worked a couple of other side jobs when we were
young, to make more money, and they were able to save. They were thrifty, very
thrifty. My parents bought three apartment buildings at different times and
then sold them.  That was their retirement money.   My Dad would
shovel the coal at the first apartment building – so not only raising a family,
working 2 jobs, getting his master’s, but also shoveling the coal so the
tenants would have heat in that six-flat apartment house.

Both of them worked hard. I actually admired that Mother was
able to raise a family, work hard, and get her master’s in English. She went to
school at night. On Wednesday night, when she went to class, Dad would throw in
the chicken, boil it, and that’s when we ate boiled chicken. He’d throw out the
broth, and we’d eat an hour-boiled chicken, not knowing we should have been
drinking the broth too.

Andrea: So you learned early on from career-oriented
parents. How about your grandmother?

Blythe: My maternal grandmother did not work when I
was around but she married several times. She had worked for over 33
years at the Western Union until reaching retirement. My grandmother was such a
strong force in our life, and was around for us when mom was working.

Andrea: It is worthwhile to see the social forces
operating differently on both your mom’s and your grandparents’ generations.
There were many different career paths taken by the women in your family. 
 How helpful were their experiences in your finding your path?

Blythe: I think it depends, like so many things – you
may say, “Oh I saw this parent work but I wish they had been home more” and
maybe then you rebel. Or you can decide to stay home because that is what you
want to do and that makes sense to you.

Andrea: Did you rebel or did you do what made sense
to you?

Blythe: I don’t think I had to be as rebellious. My
younger sister was the rebellious one. My mother doted on Brian, my older
brother. My father doted on me. And then Marge was kind of like,
whatever.  In fact, Mother used to say, “Brian, you’re going to be a
doctor. Blythe, you’re going to be a CPA because you’re very analytical, good
with numbers, you like to count things. You count all of your Halloween candy
and have it all organized. I can’t steal Snickers from you, I can steal from
Brian and Marge, but you always know exactly how much Halloween candies you

I remember that, I thought, “Yes, I know, metrics, this is
how you get things done.” And then Mom would say, “Marge, I don’t know what
you’re going to be.” Today Marge still does not have a satisfying life. 
She hasn’t worked consistently in many years.  She has floated around
different jobs the few times she decided to work. So I think it’s very
interesting when you think about that family dynamic.

When my parents first married, they lived on the North side
of the city, because my father lived on the North side.   My mother lived on the South
side. My maternal grandmother, who was very strong said, “You live on the North
side, but you should be near me.” So a year later they moved to the South side.

Another funny thing was how my mother and father made decisions:
“We want to have all of our children’s names start with the letter ‘B’.” Just
some kind of code – Brian – unusual names – Blythe, they wanted a more unusual
name than Brain as it turned out there were more Brians than my mother

My grandmother said, “You had a daughter and didn’t name her
after me?” So the third child, the second daughter Marjorie was named after my
grandmother.  She was a major matriarch in our whole family. She died at
age 73.  But even when I was in my 20s and I had a couple of weeks’
vacation, I would make sure I visited my grandmother. She had a condo in

I went to see her a) because it was warm, and b) she was
fun! The only time in my life I took Prozac was one day I was depressed because
I had 4 days in Florida and I didn’t have much vacation. I said,
 “Grandma, it’s my 3rd day on vacation, it’s rained, I’m going
back without a tan. I’m so depressed.” “Take half of my pill,” she said. She
gave me half of her pill, and a half-hour later she said, “Why don’t you take
an umbrella and go walk in the rain?” So I felt like Gene Kelly walking in the
rain. And I came back and I thought, “Never take these drugs again.”  I
never want to walk in the rain! And I hate getting wet!

But my grandmother was fun! You know, she’d give us sips of
the foam on her beer. Every Friday night they used to have beer parties, all
the relatives and she said, “Here just take the foam, that’s not dangerous.”
She was just fun.

Andrea: I really appreciate, and I wish we could hear
more from you, but our time is running down.  In the spirit of openness, I
would say if you have someone in your family who can be fun even a bit
rebellious, I don’t think you take life so seriously, or rules so seriously, or
authority so seriously.

Blythe: Sometimes you’re forced to make up your own
rules. Grandmother was forced to make up her own rules, because her husbands
were not functioning well. So she had to support herself and her

Andrea: She may have influenced you to be a good

Blythe: Three and a half years ago, I started
my own company, so I guess I am.

Andrea: Now you can make up your own rules.

Blythe: But then I have to follow them. But that’s a
very good point. I still do a monthly status report, even though I report to no
one.  I write down my monthly status report, and at the end of the month I
look at what I’ve done, check it off, and then I create the next monthly status

Andrea: Like a budget?

Blythe: Like a budget – to me, it’s my rules, I have
to know:

Am I working toward the right things?

Am I using my time wisely?

Andrea: The main point that I get out of your story
is, that your quest to enable people to function better, may arise, partially
at least, from watching the dilemma that was unsolved between your parents.

Blythe: Absolutely, I think it’s grounded in that.

Andrea: Every person who is a leader has to deal with
their followers and has to enable them to function better.

Blythe: If you have people working for you, they
don’t work for you, you work for them. You have to figure out how to get them
to use their potential the best way– and hopefully efficiently, so that you
don’t lose the opportunity – because we’re only on this earth for a short time
and you have to focus on what you can do to bring out people’s potential today,
not tomorrow.

Andrea: Thank you for this interview and for your
time and good thinking.

I would also like to thanks Judy Ball for her kind and effective editing efforts.

She is a thinking person’s editor.   Andrea

[1] Fit
In, Stand Out: Mastering the FISO FACTOR -… by Blythe McGarvie

[2] Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View by Stanley

[3] The
Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by
Philip Zimbardo

Incorporating Fairness into Game Theory and
Economics, Matthew Rabio

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