Aha! Moment in the Culture Wars

bullshitJournalists and commentators covering the 2016 presidential election seemed at a loss to explain how Trump’s supporters could jeer at “Lyin'” Hillary Clinton and cheer a man a man whose speeches were filled with easy to recognize falsehoods. I scratched my head until I read Brene Brown‘s newest book, Braving the Wilderness.

On page 90, Brown begins to describe bullshit. (I am not going to pull any punches with language here.) In her research in how people struggle to maintain their authenticity and integrity when engaging in debates and discussions driven by emotion rather than shared understanding of facts, she found that we all rely on bullshitting from time to time. We bullshit ourselves and we bullshit others, sometimes simultaneously. In our “need to fit in culture” we often jump into an argument and start arguing even when we don’t really know anything about the matter.

Also people are increasingly cynical and growing tired of having to sort through information to figure out “how things truly are.” So we say whatever and we put up bullshit and stop asking questions. This quickly devolves into you’re either with us or agin’ us.

Brene Brown also found her research participants made a distinction between lying and bullshitting. I found this intriguing enough to go to the source. Brown leaned heavily on the scholarly work of Harry G. Frankfurt, an emeritus Princeton professor who wrote On Bullshit in 2005.  I downloaded the short book and struggled through the first part, then hit pay dirt.

The liar makes his/her statement with the intention to deceive. Generally it is perceived that this person generally cares about the truth and facts, but practices deception on occasion. Ms. Clinton’s lawyerly parsing of the truth probably “feels” like a purposeful deception to many people, whereas, I imagine she sees it as walking finely along the boundary of truth.

The bullshitter, on the other hand, has a more distant relationship with the truth. He/she may not know what the facts actually are–as when we bullshit our way through a college essay exam. Or they may not have much interest in becoming informed but find themselves quizzed on their opinion. Bullshit can rely mostly on an emotional argument, and if the facts are false, they only have to fit with the bullshit narrative.

The bullshitter and the liar are both trying to get away with something. But the bullshitter is trying to make a connection, get us to like him/her, bluff, or other motive. His/her “statement is grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth–this indifference to how things really are–that I regard as the essence of bullshit.” (Frankfurt, p. 33)

We also have much more forgiveness for a bullshitter than a liar. “We may seek to distance ourselves from bullshit, but we are more likely to turn away from it with an impatient or irritated shrug than with the sense of violation or outrage that lies often inspire.” (Frankfurt, p. 48) Trump supporters saw Trump bullshitting, but with much greater consequence, perceived Clinton as a liar. Furthermore:

The LIAR is concerned with truth values. “In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth.” (p. 50)

Whereas, the BULLSHITTER has much more freedom. “His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared…to fake the context as well… What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise…he misrepresents what he is up to.” (p. 53)

It seemed strange at first that Frankfurt calls the bullshitter the greater enemy of the truth than the liar. The liar still has a nodding acquaintance with the authority of truth. The bullshitter pays no attention to truth at all.

It is not clear that there is more bullshit in the world today than in previous times; however, bullshit can do more damage, because as our access to correct information proliferates, there is more skepticism about what actually makes up objective reality. This loss of confidence cascades into a retreat from the disciplines of acquiring knowledge and instead we value sincerity or authenticity.

With minds dulled by entertainment and gossip, how do we discern between what is sincere and what is bullshit? Especially when people prize their own opinions so highly.

More to the point of leadership, what is to be done in our own conversations when we encounter speakers who use “us vs them” and look askance at facts in favor of emotion? Brene Brown encourages two behaviors (besides avoiding bullshit): get curious and stay civil. This is also good advice when you are triggered. Hmm, I doubt it’s a coincidence that someone else’s bullshit can easily trigger me. “Generosity, empathy, and curiosity (e.g., Where did you read this or hear this?) can go a long way in our efforts to question what we’re hearing and introduce fact.” (Brown, p. 95) And civility is treating others as you’d like to be treated or caring for one’s identity without degrading someone else’s in the process.

Get curious. Stay civil.


Author’s note:  Growing up around horses, I have always found the word bullshit to be non-offensive and an accurate description of what happens when someone piles the nonsense higher and higher. Frankfurt mentions that in Britain, it is more likely to be called humbug. Does humbug have the same meaning? And does it carry the same “slightly dirty word taint”?





Most Impactful Books of 2016

I am enjoying reading the lists of books, podcasts, and movies that people compile at the end of the year. People’s tastes are idiosyncratic, so I figure if I find one or two things that are new and interest me then it was worth the time reading their list. Whilst reading the New York Times Book Review survey of writers and their favorites of 2016, I found quite a few new things to read in 2017 (more on that at the end).

Three journals from 2016 and my current composition book… on my desk in winter’s light.

The challenge is always remembering what I have read in Q1 or Q2. This is why I write down the titles in my journal. Please allow me a moment to pause and say a word on behalf of journaling. I have been writing in a personal journal for most of my life. Okay, so when I was in third grade I called it a diary and it had a key that I lost somewhere over the years. Sometimes they devolve into a book of lists. Sometimes I take notes on a particularly moving podcast or documentary or copy passages from a book.

I also use composition notebooks for work. I learned this technique from Dr. Henry Vaux at the University of California. It is easier to look for notes based on the timeline of meetings and associations than to keep them in separate files by topic. When I begin a new comp book, I tear out a few of the most important pages from the old one and tuck them in the back. I hang on to the old one for about a month and then shred it because I find I rarely go back to find information. It is more important as a tool in the moment–writing helps me process information and improves my memory. I never understand the people who never write down a single word in a meeting. How can they relinquish so much power?

Back to the book list! I know a book has impacted me greatly when I give it as gifts to one or more people. So while Toni Morrison said that Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me was a must read, I couldn’t stop thinking about Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre. I gave it to 3 people and I have one more copy to give away.

I participated in the Jane Austen Reading Group that meets at the McClatchy library in Sacramento. I read two books that I shared with others:  Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen: a life in small things, and William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education. This almost made up for the other months when I had to read the muck that passes as Jane Austen tributes, mysteries, etc.

Lynne Twist came to Sacramento to speak at our church and to nonprofit leaders about The Soul of Money. I reread her book and gave several copies to others to encourage them to attend her presentations. You have to be ready to hear the message. I know I didn’t cotton to her ideas the first time I read it. I just recently watched the documentary Minimalism on Netflix, and while it touches on a lot of topics shallowly, I still found it compelling.

Thanks to the podcast On Being, I discovered some new writers including David Whyte. I shared chapters of his book with friends and colleagues and used them as the focal points of discussions. One discussion of “boids” in The Heart Aroused led to reading the 1992 book Complexity by M. Mitchell Waldrup. I found so many of the ideas about complexity theory of interest to the challenges of managing a megaproject that I shared copies with our team before we went on holiday break.

One of the books that moved me most profoundly was Carla Power’s If the Oceans Were Ink about the modern Muslim faith. It really helped me fill in a giant gap in my knowledge and to see similarities to my faith in Jesus. I want to know more.

What is in my pile to read in 2017? Waking Up White by Debby Irving; Lit by Mary Karr; Evicted by Matthew Desmond, Tribe by Sebastian Junger; Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell. There are more on my wish list: Ann Pachett’s Commonwealth, and Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad.

One final note, Brene Brown’s book Rising Strong had a real impact on me at the time I read it. And then the nastiness of the election overwhelmed the public space and now the world just doesn’t feel safe enough to be vulnerable except among friends and trusted colleagues. I still believe that Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability is hugely important in our world today. So if you haven’t read it yet: give yourself a New Year treat and download or pick it up today.

Power and Vulnerability

Grendel as imagined Betterlifethroughgrendel

In David Whyte’s book, The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, he takes up the story of Beowulf to illustrate power and vulnerability in the workplace. I never read the story before. It is a fascinating tale of a warrior Beowulf asked by the King of Denmark to slay Grendel, a monster coming up from the lake and dragging people from the castle to tear them limb from limb. Grendel is also a metaphor for the inner demons that keep us from living the life we were meant to live. The fears that keep us from living wholeheartedly.

Beowulf slays Grendel, but then Grendel’s mother appears even more fierce than her son. Isn’t that how it often goes? We address some surface fears only to have more difficult demons take their place? The first was a quiz, this is the final exam.

Beowulf must enter the dark lake to reach Grendel’s mother. The dark lake is so scary that a stag pursued by hunting dogs would rather die a certain violent death than enter it and be saved. The only way for Beowulf to be powerful is to be vulnerable first. Find his voice, speak out against a bad idea or injustice.

It isn’t hard to remember a time when I’ve sunk down on our haunches like that stag at the shoreline. I am human and it is not easy to face down the demons every time. There is help available if I am willing to tap into the ancient feminine wisdom found in vulnerability and self-compassion.

This is where Brene Brown so marvelously illuminated the path to becoming more vulnerable. I have read all of her books and participated in her online courses and recommend any of her books. In her most recent, Rising Strong, she explores what happens when you take a risk or enter the arena. At some point when we risk vulnerability we will slip and fall. The key is to remain wholehearted and continue to stay open.

It is a choice to continue to put my faith in the long game or eternal story because my life is at stake. “The mythologist Joseph Campbell used to say that if you do not come to know the deeper mythic resonances that make up your life, the mythic resonances will simply rise up and take you over. If you do not live out your place in the mythic pattern consciously, the myth will simply live you, against your will.” (Whyte)

Be the hero of your own story; not a side character, as Sara in Katrina Bivald’s novel would say.

Practical Wisdom on Trust

The marble jar is a key metaphor for trust…

I have been grappling with how to create a culture of trust in the workplace for the last 3 years. I have led one team in discussions about Stephen M.R.Covey’s book The Speed of Trust and Charles Feltman’s The Slim Book of Trust.

There is another solid contribution on trust now available. Brene Brown, who broke into the public consciousness with her research on shame and vulnerability, is hosting a website called Courageworks.com. Here you can find massive open online courses (MOOCs) based on her research. The first course is The Anatomy of Trust.

Without tromping all over Brene Brown’s copyright, she provides a handy acronym for remembering the basic elements of building trust: BRAVING. The first three are Boundaries, Reliability, and Accountability. You will have to take the class to learn the rest. There are exercises tailored to individuals, teams and groups and organizations.

boundariesThe Anatomy of Trust is available free of charge at http://www.courageworks.com. As with most MOOC’s you work at your own pace, so if you want to you can watch all of the videos at midnight and do the exercises at 2:00 a.m. There are two instructional videos for a total of about 27 minutes. The five exercises took me a couple of hours to complete, and your time of completion will depend on how much you want to think about the questions or discuss them with others. This is also a 27 minute Q&A session recorded in January that is optional but recommended. As with all learning, you get out of it commensurate with what you put into it.

BB Boundaries quote

I am still “rumbling with trust”. Like all of Brene Brown’s teaching, you have to be prepared for some messy middle stuff before you experience the reward of transformation. I am grappling with really getting boundaries in my bones. I definitely recommend the investment of your time in this course.

How to Give Without Burnout

On BeingHow do you give to others without overextending yourself? I have struggled with this question since I left my job as Executive Director of Housing California and moved to New Zealand to redesign my life. I liked my choices to work for an important cause and to give to friends and family with love and service. This extended to my church family and to others in the world. The cumulative impact over time was stress and burnout. I started listening to Krista Tippett’s podcast On Being at my friend Gigi Johnson’s recommendation. I just recently went back into the archives to hear her interview with Adam Grant.

Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist and teaches at Wharton School of Business. His research is on the givers, the takers, and the matchers of this world and he has learned that we find meaning in any kind of work if we feel that we can be of service. Furthermore, failed givers help anyone; successful givers are more intentional and keep good boundaries.

Ah boundaries. I have been taking Brene Brown’s on-line classes at Courageworks.com and watching various interviews with Professor Brown. This video from the Work of the People website is a great summary of the importance of boundaries.

Give and Take book thumbnailMy challenge is converting my head knowledge to practice. In fact, this is true in almost every area of my life: eating, finances, exercises, work/life balance. I know what is in my long term interest and yet I make choices based on short term emotional needs. Boundaries–established and practiced–could make this all much less fraught. The “knowing-doing gap” is great in this area of my life and leadership.

This is my new practice. I feel a sense of urgency because I get great joy from giving and I do not want to be stingy out of some misguided sense of fear that I cannot maintain healthy boundaries. I want to be living into each day with joy and anticipation, knowing I can begin again tomorrow if I blow it and that balance is an ongoing act (not a static state).

I am going to check out Adam Grant’s book Give and Take and see if I can learn any more good ideas for avoiding burnout.


Rising Strong Should Come With Warning Label

Brene Brown is the author of a trilogy of "Self Help" books that will rock your world.
Brene Brown is the author of a trilogy of “Self Help” books that will rock your world.

Brene Brown’s Rising Strong completes her trilogy of books on overcoming shame and living wholeheartedly. Each book builds on the next and is grounded in her research. Rising Strong is a powerful book; however, it should come with a warning label. “Shit storm will inevitably ensue as you read this book.”

If you read the book in any kind of earnest you will reaffirm your commitment to living wholeheartedly and as a result you will better define your boundaries and stay in touch with your emotions. Ultimately this will clash with someone else’s expectations or values in variance with yours. Someone you care about. Let me explain with my own story.

Rising StrongI received Rising Strong as a gift from my dear friend Mara V. Connolly who is an executive coach trained in the Daring Way. She knows I am a Brene Brown enthusiast and it was a delightful surprise to open an unexpected Amazon package and see her note. I was heading to Los Angeles so I tucked the book in my bag and began reading it almost immediately.

I was only a few chapters in when I found myself triggered and face down in the dirt. While still in the whirlpool of embarrassment and hurt, I sent an angry, hurt-you-back text to the person in my “Rumble” in the cab rushing from to the airport. I risked airsickness while I wrote what I called my “first story” in my journal on my Southwest flight home. The next morning I realized that I needed help and I reached out to Mara to process.

Over the next few days I figured out what triggered such a strong emotional reaction and the values that were stepped on. This helped me get clear about what new boundaries I needed to set with the friend in the Rumble. I wish I could report that my friend and I were able to be curious about each other’s triggers and clear. It did not go down that way and I have been processing the heartache that comes when a relationship is not what we hoped.

As I read the rest of the book I kept referencing my Rumble. It was such a powerful learning opportunity. I especially struggle with the question, “Are people in general doing the best they can?” This cracks open my own harsh self-judgement for the times when I stumbled and did not live up to my own standards. Was I doing the best I could in that moment when I sent the angry text? I do not think so.

The key to the question is “in general”. I am not asking: are people infallible? Instead I am choosing a more compassionate life philosophy. If I assume that people are in general doing the best they can in this moment, then I can extend grace and live life more wholeheartedly, that is a life defined by courage, engagement and clear sense of purpose.

This assumption that people are doing their best first came up when I was coaching with Marj Plumb. The CTI Co-Active Coaching curriculum says every client is creative, resourceful and whole. I remember really challenging this with Marj. What about the people who are mentally ill? And Marj encouraged me to continue to start from the assumption that people are doing their best. Like forgiveness, starting from this place of grace and compassion is as much for my own benefit as the other person’s.

If I assume that I am doing my best, I can be curious about my own triggers and extend grace to myself. This does not mean I never need to repair with someone for something I said thoughtlessly. It does mean I can lay down that incident as a lesson learned instead of continually using it as a lash to whip myself for my inadequacy. And get on with the business of leadership.