Category Archives: Psychology

Above All, Don’t Wobble

In walking, just walk. In sitting, just sit. Above all, don’t wobble.
– Yúnmén

The companies I’ve worked for have been neurotic. They dither. When decisions are made they have an irrational and anxious quality about them.

My experience of work can be described as a shuddering paralysis. In an effort to take everything into account teams I’ve been on enter into an infinite regression of analysis that often takes us off course, delaying action. (I have been guilty of contributing to this.) However, the essence of a business is to act, to do.

When we do act, we don’t just act, but worry about whether that action is the best possible; we complain about all the flaws we find in the method; we even wonder whether the goal is the right goal. So our attention is split, bouncing between acting and thinking. Instead of moving gracefully toward our goal, we wobble. I wobble.

Perhaps Yúnmén wouldn’t mind if I rephrased his quote as “In planning, just plan. In doing, just do. Above all, don’t wobble.”

Retraining Can’t Fix This

In the course of an average workday we make hundreds of decisions. Some of those decisions require engaging our conscious awareness. In my previous post I described how the quality of those decisions deteriorate as that awareness or willpower fatigues with use.

However, there are decisions where human error occurs with certainty even if our attention is totally focused on the task. Consider the Muller-Lyer[1] illusion below:

The two vertical lines are of the same length. Even after knowing this, we all continue to perceive the line on the left to be longer than the line on the right. The “fact” that the two lines are of different lengths is simply obvious to us. Because of its obviousness we don’t stop to check our judgment before acting on it. Such actions, based on erroneous perception, are likely to produce faulty outcomes.

This error in our human perception/cognition system is hard-wired into our brains. No amount of retraining or conscious effort will correct it. So corrective actions that identify retraining as the way to prevent recurrence of this type of error won’t be effective. It will only serve to demoralize the worker. What, then, is an effective corrective action for such errors?

We can develop and use tools and methods that circumvent the brain’s perception/cognition system, for example with an overlay (red lines in the figure below), or actually measuring each line and comparing those values to one another. This does add a step to the evaluation process; an after-the-fact fix to a faulty design. Ideally, though, we would want our designs to take into account human limitations and avoid creating such illusions in the first place.

[1] Muller-Lyer illusion Retrieved 2017-06-22

Personal Willpower, Communal Impact


We seem to make decisions in more impulsive ways than before. Many of us don’t seem to practice any reasonable amount of self-control. I feel this may be because most of us today just don’t have strong willpower.

Last year I read a book called “Willpower”[1] by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. In it the authors liken willpower to muscle. And just like a muscle willpower can wear out from fatigue. When willpower is worn out, we behave more impulsively. How quickly we drain our willpower depends on how strong it is.

In using our willpower to make decisions we’re using our conscious mind or “System 2” as Daniel Kahneman refers to it in “Thinking, Fast and Slow”[2]. Conscious decision making or thinking is hard! It requires effort and uses a lot of energy in the process.

The body, however, has a limited store of energy. When we are low on energy, this conscious decision making process shuts down and decision making is shunted to the brain’s default decision making process or “System 1.” It doesn’t require much energy; it’s automatic and occurs outside of our conscious awareness. Many of the decisions we make in the default mode are driven by habit.

Conscious decision making generally produces reliable outcomes. We make better decisions with it. Not so with automatic decision making, which has been shown to be error-prone, often in systematic ways. So it’s important that we exercise our willpower; build it up, and make it stronger.

No one can make you exercise your body or mind. That’s a choice you make for yourself. But the results of your choice affects your behavior which in turn affects society. We live in communities and we have an obligation to them: to be the best version of ourselves.

[1] Baumeister, Roy F., John Tierney (2012). Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.
[2] Kahneman, Daniel (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow.

The Context for Concepts

In my last post I might have left the impression that conceptualizing the real place is bad or that we should avoid it. This is not a correct impression.

We cannot avoid conceptualizing the real place. It’s automatic; part of our biological structure and the structure of our language. Concepts are how we make sense of the real place. They provide insights into the real place. We need those insights to respond appropriately to the real place. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that concepts are the mind’s representations of the real place and not the real place itself! We can call them images, idols, models, data, or symbols.

D. T. Suzuki[1] shared, “To point at the moon a finger is needed, but woe to those who take the finger for the moon…” Alfred Korzybski[2] wrote in Science and Sanity, “A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.” George E. P. Box[3], in Statistics for Experimenters, put it pithily that “all models are wrong; some models are useful.” These reminders, to be consciously aware of the difference between the real place and our mind’s abstractions of it, is the thread that runs through science and religion.

Problems only arise when we hold onto a concept long after it has stopped representing the real place and a gap has developed between what is and what we conceptualize it to be. To know what is, we must first “go and see” the real place. Without that direct experience with the real place, we cannot hope to act in ways appropriate to it. This is my understanding of what Zen and lean teach.

[1] D.T. Suzuki
[2] Alfred Korzybski
[3] George E.P. Box

The Real Place

My study of Buddhist thought, and especially Zen, have so far taught me that I am often unaware of the real place. Decades of schooling and acculturation to society have taught me to ignore the real place in favor of concepts manufactured by the human mind; to create and be hypnotized by images and models. Right, wrong, god, devil, me, you, husband, wife, mother, father, boss, servant, friend, enemy, success, failure, good, bad, us, and them are all concepts. These are all creations of the mind. It gives them meaning. They’re not real.

Concepts are static–unchanging and easy to grab a hold of and cling to, while the real place is dynamic–ever changing; sometimes in predictable ways, most times in unpredictable ways. The real place offers nothing to grab on to; nothing to cling to. It is inevitable then that the two will eventually diverge from one another. I believe that that gap between what I see and what I think I see is the source of much, if not all, my suffering–frustration, anxiety, feelings of helplessness, exhaustion, and such. To experience the real place, I must let go of concepts, or rather I should not cling to them. Only then will my actions be appropriate or right for the real place.

Zen has been useful in ferrying me back to the real place every time my mind drifts to concepts.

My most direct experience of this gap, or at least one that I am most aware of, has been in the workplace. Data, charts, procedures, policies, concepts abound. Again, most, if not all, are disconnected from the real processes and systems. How work actually happens. However, like me, organizations remain mostly unaware of the disconnect. They thus suffer in a mire of internal conflict and frustration, too.

Lean can be useful to get organizations back to the real place.

Dysfunction Junction

Initially, when they hired me, they thought I was deeply knowledgeable. They were impressed with my solid understanding of quality and the breadth of my experience. Now they were wondering if I fit in. There are doubts about whether I mesh with others well enough to be productive; whether I wasn’t gumming up projects instead. They tell me people are afraid to engage with me. I’m trying, I respond, laying out a dozen examples of efforts I’ve made. I want to help reduce the time it takes to complete a project. I care deeply about my coworkers. But not so far back in my mind I’m wondering the same things.

I do want to help complete projects faster, but I also want them to be done well. I truly care deeply about my coworkers, so I want them to develop. It’s a challenge for me to contain my frustration with sloppiness and laziness. Despite my best efforts, what I feel is plainly apparent on my face. As I grind through each workday I think about the choices I’ve made: living apart from my family, postponing relationships, and foregoing vacations. I think about how hard I’ve worked to build my expertise–countless nights, weekends and holidays spent studying textbooks and papers–and how demoralizing it is to not be able to put it to practice. For what?

My values and actions have remained consistent with one another. The struggle is to keep them aligned when doing so means not fitting in with a group. I have stood on my own a long time. It’s exhausting.

Book Review: “The Bonobo and the Atheist”

“Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”
— Socrates asks Euthyphro in Plato’s “Euthyphro”
TheBonoboAndTheAtheist In “The Bonobo and the Atheist“, Frans de Waal argues that the source of our morality is not religion. Morality is much older. It arose with life. It has been built into it. So much so that it is seen in apes, monkeys, canids (dogs), whales, and dolphins. Morality isn’t an exclusively human trait.I found de Waal’s explanation compelling and uplifting. At this time when there is such confused, often heated, disagreements over what religion is and what role it should play, it is reassuring to know that nature has built in several backstops to prevent us from complete devolution into anarchy. de Waal’s style in making his points is warm, not confrontational. That made them more compelling than the abrasive condescending approach of neo-atheists like Dawkins or Hitchens.

To be clear, I am not a believer, but I do want to understand the role religion has played in our history. Why does it have such a strong grip on so many of us regardless of culture? I don’t want to displace religion without having something else to take its place and serve the needs it has done up to now. The good news is many civic institutions are rising up to the task. I expect that trend to continue into the future freeing us from the need to believe in something supernatural.

I enjoyed the book. I agree with de Waal’s message. But, I didn’t think it was as fun to read as Robert Wright’s “The Moral Animal“. Still, I would recommend it for you to check out. I would love to hear what you think :)



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Book Review: “Confession of a Buddhist Atheist”

ConfessionOfABuddhistAtheistEvery religion I’ve been exposed to is steeped in rituals and traditions that reach deep into history. I have no doubt that the various beliefs came to be with purpose. They solved a particular problem of the time. They were useful and brought tangible benefits. We carry them on now because we believe they worked in the past and that they will continue to work now and into the future.

What we fail to recognize is that the world is not static. The context for a given ritual or tradition has changed. Reality is like a slow boiling cauldron. Looking in, you think you have identified the surface of the liquid. It looks about the same from moment to moment but it is perpetually bubbling, always shifting. You need to be aware of its shifts and match them to stay on top. The Buddha had this insight 2500+ years ago: all things are conditionally arisen. Our actions need to meet the present reality.

The irony is that while the Buddha’s teachings questioned the validity of rituals and traditions of other religions of his time, Buddhism itself has became steeped in rituals and traditions over the ages. In “Confession of a Buddhist AtheistStephen Batchelor shares his experience of them with Tibetan and Zen Buddhism; his disillusionment with both, and his personal journey to find the historical man that came to be called the Buddha. Along the way he identifies what he believes were the Buddha’s core teachings.

I found the book very readable. I was sympathetic to Batchelor’s story and I gained from his insights.

Perceptions Dictate Actions

Abraham Maslow proposed a theory on human motivation outlining an hierarchy of needs we all move through. Whether the hierarchical structure strictly applies may be questionable, but his categories of needs can be accepted as defined with an appeal to personal experience.

At various points in our lives we have felt a need for food, water and shelter, safety and security, stability, friendship, love, respect, and growth. Maslow grouped these needs into five categories: physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. While he organized these categories in an hierarchy, I find it more meaningful to think of them as factors that combine and interact to give rise to various mental states.

Personal experience has led me to believe mental states affect perception. A given situation will be perceived differently under different mental states. And, how you perceive affects how you react. If your mental state is dominated by a sense of insecurity, you will perceive your situation as threatening and react accordingly. Futhermore, no other category of need will feel worthwhile until the one dominating your mental state has been attended to.

It has also been my experience that people with dissimilar mental states have difficulty relating to one another in a productive fashion. Because mental states affect perception, dissimilar states result in different perspectives of the same issue. Differing perspectives are not conducive to forming the common understanding necessary to cooperatively face a situation. People talk past one another. Messages are misunderstood. Communication doesn’t take place.

Given that it’s unlikely two people will share similar mental states at any given time, how does one move across this emotional minefield? Meditation and self-reflection have helped me to characterize my mental state. This awareness has opened up a choice for me unavailable before: how do I want react to things? At the very least I have an option to not make things worse. I can also attempt to ascertain the other person’s mental state and work towards common understanding.