Work vs. life


I called Mari over to show her this magazine cover that was being advertised as we walked through an airport recently. Work vs. Life. Why the split? Since when is work not an integral part of life? Is it because we don’t enjoy our work? Has work become drudgery that we only endure for the paycheck, with hopes of retiring someday and only then following our dreams?

This headline says so much about the culture in the United States, and it makes me sad. So many of us feel like we can’t bring our whole selves to work each day (we’re exhorted to “leave our baggage at the door”). We’re treated like animals, incented with rewards and punished when we don’t hit arbitrary targets set by management. We live under constant fear of judgement, etc…

As an aside, I hope the elephant on the cover gets to retire in Tennessee someday.

Elephants can teach us something about reward systems

Recently Mari and I spent the weekend in lovely Tennessee and spent some time with the folks at the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald. This sanctuary practices protected contact, which is a form of control that is based on trust instead of dominance over the animals. In circuses it’s typical to see a bullhook used whenever an elephant is performing – the audience can’t see the sharp spikes on it from where they sit, but it’s used during training to instill fear in the animals. Elephants perform because they know if they don’t they’ll be poked or pulled with the hook, which is painful. Protected contact eschews the use of tools like this in favor of positive reinforcement – using rewards when the animal does what the caregiver wants. It’s still a form of control, just a gentler, kinder form. In order to care for an elephant, the caregiver needs it to willingly come to the fencing, maybe put a foot through a hole in the fence for a pedicure for example.

Each elephant is different – each one has a favorite food, and the caregivers soon discover what that is (elephants love jelly beans, apparently). These “high value” rewards are used to give the elephants a big pat on the back for choosing to conform with the caregiver’s request.

After watching a training session with Tange, one of the African elephants, I asked the caregivers about rewards. “Do you ever get to the point with a behavior where you can skip giving the treat?” They looked at me curiously, and one of them answered that, while they can move from higher value treats to lower value treats over time, they never stop giving the treats.

This is one of the points that Alfie Kohn makes in his book, Punished by Rewards, which is about reward systems for humans, and how they end up being more about conformance (control) than performance. Once you start giving someone a reward for a behavior, you’d better be ready to keep giving out those treats, because once the rewards stop, the behavior stops. The carrot and stick approach delivers quick short-term results, but often comes with devastating unintended consequences.

While it was a joy to see these elephants living out the rest of their lives on 2700 acres of beautiful Tennessee wilderness, free from fear of the bullhook, it’s important to note that the caregivers here wish that there were no elephants in North America. They don’t believe that elephants belong in captivity, period. The only reason they use these techniques to gain conformance from these animals is to care for them. These elephants wouldn’t survive in the wild.


Want to add a new discipline to your life? Try doing it small. Really small. And tie the new discipline to something you’re already good at remembering. Say you want to start brushing your teeth after every meal. At first it’s going to feel like a major annoyance to have to walk to your bathroom after eating, pick up the toothpaste and toothbrush and spend those couple of minutes every single time.

So instead, start small. Just walk to the bathroom after every meal. Then walk back out! It’s remarkably easy to do something this small, and it’s easy to get in the habit of doing it. Then, once that is established as a habit, tie something new to it. Open your drawer and pick up your toothbrush and toothpaste, set them on the sink, then put them back. Do that for awhile – it’s such a small addition to  your existing habit that it’ll feel like nothing has changed. Once that is established as a habit, try brushing your lower left teeth. That’s only an additional 30 seconds for the brushing, plus maybe 10 for putting the toothpaste on the toothbrush. Easy! From there it’s easy to add the lower right teeth, and then the uppers, and pretty soon you’ll be brushing after each meal and feeling pretty darn good about yourself.

Imagine you wanted to floss your teeth each time you brush. How would you start that as a microhabit?

Thanks to my friend Ed Roman for teaching me this technique. It works!

The Art of Exceptional Living

Back in April, Michael Niblack introduced me to Jim Rohn‘s book, The Art of Exceptional Living. He shared the audio book with me – Jim’s got a great speaking voice and is fun to listen to. Lots of great stuff in here; it’s something I’m encouraging my kids to listen to.

I’ve been thinking it’d be nice to outline some of the major sections of the book for my own reference, and since I just listened to the book again today, while the material is still fresh in my mind, now’s the time.

Three treasures to leave behind

  1. Your pictures
  2. Your library
  3. Your journals

Four major lessons of life

Life and business are like the changing seasons. You cannot change the seasons, but you can change yourself.

  1. Learn how to handle the winters. They come right after the fall, with regularity.
  2. Learn how to take advantage of the spring. Spring is opportunity, and it follows winter.
  3. Learn how to nourish and protect your crops all summer. All good will be attacked.
  4. Learn to reap in the fall without complaint/apology. Take full responsibility for your life.

Five abilities

  1. Ability to absorb (get from the day; be present).
  2. Ability to respond. Let life touch you (I recommend Brene Brown to raise your emotional IQ).
  3. Ability to reflect (over your notes, on your day, your week, your month, your year).
  4. Ability to act. When the idea is hot, when the emotion is strong, action immediate.
  5. Ability to share. Empty your cup and your cup will grow.

Thanks, Michael!

Goal setting considered harmful

targetThere are facts of life, and then there are goals. It’s important to know the difference. A fact of life may be, “Our customers are demanding not more than 3% defective – if we can’t reach this level we’ll be out of business.” A goal is an arbitrary number that is pulled out of the air. Facts of life will always be with us – there’s no escaping them. However, we can choose whether we want to set goals for ourselves and others. My aim in this post is to get you thinking about the harmful effects of goals and to suggest an alternative.

This paper from the Harvard Business School documents the dangers of goal setting. Every manager of people should read it. Here are some conclusions you’ll find there:

While influenced by a goal, we’re more prone to risky behavior, short-term thinking, unethical methods, lying, and cheating.

If we hit the goal, we tend to relax. If we don’t hit the goal, we feel shame, which reduces our ability to learn from any mistakes we made while pursuing the goal.

Goals distract us from important long-term aims, and encourage competition in the workplace, destroying cooperation and fostering resentment between departments.

Goals are an extrinsic motivator that, if used enough, will eventually replace intrinsic motivation. Goal setting leads to a culture of overjustification – everybody needing an incentive in order to be motivated to do anything, which increases costs to the company while turning employees into mercenaries.

What about setting goals for ourselves? Take a common example: weight loss. How many times have you seen people set a goal for themselves to lose weight? Say 10% of your body weight, or some number, like 10 pounds. And how long does it last? This is a great example of how goals without a method can lead to short-term behavioral changes that aren’t sustainable.

Rather than setting a goal for losing 10 pounds, a more sustainable approach would be to set an aim to live a healthy lifestyle, then study health, nutrition, exercise, etc. and come up with a method for accomplishing your aim. A goal is just a number without any method of accomplishing it. By studying health, you’ll gain the knowledge you need to predictably change your life. And as you faithfully execute your method, you’ll see results.

Think for a minute about the difference between an aim and a goal. One sets a direction, the other sets a destination. Very different. However, just having an aim is not enough. You must determine a method for accomplishing the aim, otherwise you’re just a dreamer. In a company setting, management is responsible for providing these methods. Holding people accountable for numerical targets without giving them a method is abdicating that responsibility.

Goal setting can wreak havoc on companies (the article referenced above provides a bunch of examples). Numerical goals include quotas, targets, “stretch goals”, dates, and so on. Often we see companies that try to optimize each department’s output by giving each of them numerical goals. Sales has a quota. Marketing has a target for number of leads. Engineering gets a date for delivering a feature. This is not how you optimize the whole system; indeed this destroys the system as every department selfishly chases their own goals, without thinking of the longer term consequences or the impact on others in the organization. Everyone is pulling in different directions in order to hit their goal.

Note that time-boxing is different than goal-setting. Sometimes you want to limit cost while you explore options, and you might give yourself or your team a certain amount of time for exploration. You’re not telling them what they have to deliver – they’ll deliver whatever they can to you in that time frame. But fixing both scope and time is a recipe for long-term disaster and short-term demoralization.