Monday, June 30, 2008

The Eye of a Needle

Last Friday's Financial Times brought us a new case study from Lucy Kellaway. This one concerns a man who is having a midlife crisis. Having worked in banking for 20 years he has begun to realize that he has reached something of a dead end. While others are advancing up the career ladder, he seems to be stuck.

Already something does not feel quite right. A reasonably perceptive individual will not need 20 years to see that he is being passed over for promotions. Evidently, this man does not especially care about whether he is advancing.

Now he is looking for explanations. And he has had something of an epiphany. He writes that he is "plagued with the idea" that he is not getting ahead because he has too much integrity. He is bitter because the bank runs seminars on integrity and does not promote the person who has the most... him. By his lights his more successful colleagues are "selfish." They lack "backbone" and "feel no guilt about their actions."

And yet, he adds, these selfish, spineless, guiltless people are "happier and better suited to professional life."

Here is a man who presents himself as a paragon of moral virtue, but who is surrounded by a band of ruthless psychopaths. Now he has realized that he is simply too good for the cut-throat world of London banking.

Is that what he means by integrity? At the least, his integrity seems to make it impossible for him to cooperate with others, to be a team player. And it does not allow him to respect his colleagues. Apparently, his integrity does not allow him to follow the basic ethical principles that govern workplace relationships. Thus, he sounds self-absorbed, self-righteous, and infatuated with his own moral superiority.

His integrity also precludes his competing. If he had possessed a normal quantity of ambition it would not have taken him 20 years to notice that he was not getting ahead.

If competition is the name of the game, then refusing to compete does not mean that you have too much integrity. It means that you want to play by your own rules.

Or perhaps this man has simply made a different choice. He believe that a rich man will have as much trouble getting into Heaven as a camel will have getting through the eye of a needle. He might have decided that it is more important to go to Heaven than to gain the key to the executive washroom.

That is his prerogative. Complaining about the consequences and expecting to be rewarded for it in the here-and-now are not.

Of course, he does not have to be very religious to believe that working in a bank is an affront to his integrity. He might simply believe that capitalism, commerce, and mortgages are corrupt and corrupting.

Consciously or unconsciously he may have chosen to fail. He may believe that success will threaten his immortal soul. Or else, that it might alienate him from people whose company and opinions he values.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Dr. Forni on Civility

I just received Pier Massimo Forni's new book: The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude. It is a must read. I recommend it highly.

Forni has written clearly and cogently about a vital issue. In the great cosmopolitan metropolis I call home, rudeness is an everyday fact of life. A goodly portion of my work as a life coach involves helping people to learn how to deal with it effectively.

Deal with rudeness badly or ineffectively and you will suffer psychological and physical stress. Deal with it well, as Forni argues, and your self-respect, character, and relationships will improve.

If this is true, then you have to wonder why the psycho-professions have not flooded the world with similar manuals. Why has the topic drawn the attention only of sociologists and etiquette experts. Knowing how to deal with rudeness is surely more important than rummaging through your memories, developing your spiritual side or getting in touch with your inner child.

Perhaps the psycho-professions cannot bear to lower themselves to teach people social skills. Or else, they might be so enamored of the myth of the asocial individual that they are blind to the complexities of human life in community. Their one-size-fits-all solution-- express your feelings-- almost guarantees that people will become socially dysfunctional.

From a theoretical standpoint, the error is egregious. There is no such thing as a human being that does not belong to a social group, and whose identity does not involve his or her place in the group. After all, isn't that what is at stake with rudeness.

The other reason therapy has missed the mark is that it has failed to understand trauma. Ever since Freud therapists have imagined that psychic trauma must involve criminal activity and must be understood as a detective story. The consequence is that therapy has ignored the need to learn how to respond to rudeness and has preferred teaching people how to fold all such events into appealing fictions.

Rudeness aims at one's place in society. In a community like New York where the extraordinary mix of peoples and cultures makes any determination of status and standing ambiguous at best, rudeness is a way to see how we stand in relation to others. Rudeness tests who is up and who is down, who is putting on airs and who is up to the task.

Ups and down are part of the way we talk about the issue. We know that we should stand up for ourselves when others are trying to put us down. When someone is rude to us, we should not slap him down; we want to allow him to back down voluntarily.

This is what Dr. Forni means when he recommends that we answer rudeness with civility. We do not want to answer rudeness with aggressiveness, contentiousness, litigiousness, or argumentativeness. And surely we should not indulge in histrionic displays, displays that draw so much attention to ourselves that our offending neighbor does not even have the chance to reflect on his own bad behavior.

Perhaps Dr. Forni is overly optimistic when he recommends that civility can diminish the sting of rudeness and restore relationship harmony. I have often been accused of the same myself. But while civility is not the appropriate response to every imaginable act of rudeness, it is surely the place to start and the resource that needs to be exhausted before trying more radical methods.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Husband Hunting

Now the magazine that taught women how to find "his G spot," and that regaled its readers with stories about "Sex Sessions that Ended in the ER" has discovered another burning issue: "Why Guys Marry Some Girls (but Not Others)." Of course, I am talking about Cosmo.

So, Cosmo is offering advice on how to turn a meaningful relationship into a marriage. Unfortunately, precious little of it points out the royal road to the altar. Examine Cosmo's suggestions.

No. 1. Cosmo says that men marry women who are unpredictable, surprising, and spontaneous. Men are looking for women with Protean personalities, who can change personas effortlessly.

A man who has married such a woman will feel like he is living with a one-woman harem. And we all know that this is the stuff that male dreams are made of.

Not quite. While an occasional surprise is great fun, the sorry truth is that men are creatures of habit; they love routines. Disrupt their routines and they will become confused, disoriented, and detached.

The way to the altar involves establishing consistent couples routines. A woman may think that it is boring to have the same breakfast every day with each person absorbed in Cheerios and the paper, but for a man that morning ritual provides comfort and security. It's what he needs to transition into his work day.

Only when a relationship has been solidified by good couple routines can surprises be real fun.

No. 2. Next Cosmo says that men marry women who really, really like sex. After all, this is the magazine that once offered "75 Sex Tricks," only to follow up several months later with: "67 New Sex Tricks."

Sorry to say, but if a woman needs 142 sex tricks to keep a man fired up, then, to coin a phrase, he is just not that into her.

Besides, any woman who is involved in a relationship and who has mastered all 142 sex tricks is not marriage material. She is a cheap trick.

When a woman is inordinately skilled at sex the male response is going to be: Where did she learn that?

Nevertheless, man are apparently worried that the passion will drain from their marriages, and thus, they want to marry women who really, really like sex. The trouble is, a woman who wants sex three times a day every day and who enjoys it each time is a cyborg, not someone you want to take home to Mom.

Usually, it is better for a woman to keep a man wanting more. A woman who is somewhat demure and modest, who pretends not to be overly interested in sex, who doles it out parsimoniously, will more likely keep her man around than one who follows all of the advice she reads in Cosmo.

Sexually aggressive women often succeed in the short term. As every man knows it's rude to turn down an offer of free love. Over the longer term this aggressiveness is simply a turn off. Even Cosmo should have figured this out by now.

No.3. This "tie-the-knot" trait is a page out of a manual of psychobabble. Cosmo declares that a woman who is likely to get married is not clingy or dependent and does not make her man the center of her world. She does not detach herself from friends and family and make her man the entirety of her social life.

Surely, this is true. Unfortunately, it is the wrong angle. Getting to the altar is not about what you should not do; it is about what you should do. And that is becoming part of the social and family world of your significant other. Relationships that are going toward marriage will be socialized. Organizing events with friends and family will do much more than reflecting on how you can be less clingy.

No. 4. Cosmo declares that she must convey how important he is to her. This has something to recommend it, even though it does not mean that she must keep telling him how important he is to her.

What this is really about, as the Cosmo examples show, is loyalty. Men are far more likely to marry women who are loyal to them, who are on their side, who are playing on the same team.

When a couple is at a party and a man gets into an argument, it is a chance for her to demonstrate support, no matter whether she agrees or disagrees. It's not about right and wrong; it is not about expressing one's opinions; it's about loyalty.

She can also express how important he is by showing respect. How does she do that? By showing up on time, by keeping appointments, by honoring her commitments. If she makes him late for an important business dinner because she needs an extra 30 minutes to put together the perfect outfit, she is showing that he is not important to her.

And, of course, if she talks about herself all the time and pays little attention to the topics that he wants to discuss, then she is saying that he is not very important to her.

No. 5. Cosmo says that a woman who is going to get married wants him to be the best man he can be. There is something to this: men marry women who admire them, who think well of them, who see the best in them. They do not marry women who see them as reclamation projects, defective organisms who have spent decades waiting for the right woman to come along to change them.

As it happens, this is not exactly what Cosmo is getting at. It is recommending that young women offer constructive criticism of their men. It adds that men are often grateful for this good advice.

And this might be true, up to a point. Even Cosmo readers should know by now that if a woman helps a man to transform himself into a far better version of himself, the odds are good that another woman will get the benefits of the transformation.

Criticizing people is humiliating. Try your best to avoid it. If a man does not know how to dress himself, it is best to express admiration for a picture of a well-dressed man in a magazine. If a man has wretched table manners, she can sign them both up for a course in advanced etiquette.

These are subtle hints. They allow the man to think that the idea to change might be his own. If a man is incapable of taking these hints, then it would be a good idea for the woman to move on. Why stay with a man whose manners are likely to undermine his career and cause her to lose friends? Bad manners and a slovenly appearance are disrespectful. She deserves better. The best way to assert that is to refuse to marry a man who does not meet her standards.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

How to Keep Your Job

Recently, a thirty-year-old analyst, working in a bank, wrote to Financial times columnist Lucy Kellaway asking for advice on how to keep his job. The letter and many excellent comments are dated June 12.

This man calls himself a "solid performer," but not a "star." He has a child, a pregnant wife, and an excessively large mortgage. It is not a good moment for him to lose his job. He asks Kellaway whether he should play the sympathy card or whether he should embark on "a shameless bout of self-promotion" at the expense of his colleagues?

So, how does he keep his job?

First, by doing it. Several respondents emphasized that he must work harder and make himself more essential to the business in ways that are quantifiable.

Surely, he should make himself more visible at work. He should be the first in the office in the morning and the last to leave in the evening. The extra time will allow him to work harder on his reports, and hopefully, this will produce better results. If he is a stock analyst his work will be judged by the way the stocks he recommends perform. Harder work, coupled with less time wasted in self-pity, will surely improve his performance.

Second, he should act like he respects himself. As several respondents noted, playing the sympathy card is a bad idea. Telling his boss that he is incompetent at managing his personal finances does not inspire confidence. No boss is going to base his decision on pity. The fact that this analyst would consider begging for his job does not speak well of his character.

Third, he should avoid psychological manipulation. Anyone who promotes himself at the expense of his colleagues is going to sow dissension in the ranks. At that point, firing him will contribute to group morale. No one should ever put himself in the position where his absence will contribute to the good functioning of the group.

Besides, every boss worth his bonus knows that people who self-promote shamelessly are probably not doing their job.

This analyst should not make a spectacle of himself and cause the office to descend into drama. He should make himself someone others can trust and rely on. His goal should be to become the go-to person on projects. If his boss knows that when he takes on an assignment it will be done effectively and efficiently... to the point that the boss does not even have to worry about it, then he will be less likely to fire this man.

If shameless self-promotion leads him to bad-mouth others, then they will likely return the favor. At that point he will not only have more difficulty holding on to his present job, but he will have problems getting a new job in the future.

Fourth, as a respondent noted, praise and compliments work much better than self-promotion and confrontation. Offering praise for the good job that his boss or colleagues is doing will make it far more likely that they will return the favor. If he does it well he will become a source of office harmony and general good feeling.

Finally, the fact that his solution to the problem involves manipulating his boss and promoting himself at the expense of his colleagues tells us why he is not a star performer. It also suggests that he is about to lose his job.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


Modern psychotherapy began when Freud decided that his patients were suffering from forgotten traumas. His cure: remember the traumas and tell them as stories.

It turned out that this did not work, but it persists in what are called recovered memories and debriefing therapy.

Yet, as recent research and common sense tells us, the problem with traumas is not that we forget them, but that we are haunted by their memories.

I recalled this point as I was reading an advice column by one Karen Karbo. Karbo is a writer, a mother, and a horse owner, thus she gives advice in Redbook.

Her column was reprinted in MSN Lifestyle where I found it. It begins with a letter from a married woman who had had an affair with a married colleague. Now two years after he ended the relationship she still cannot stop thinking about him. For our purposes I will call her Callie and will call him Chester.

Callie also confesses that she is "madly in love with him," and that Chester broke it off because he wanted to stay married. Today, two years after the end of the affair, they are both working in the same firm, but he barely talks to her.

Callie adds that she has tried psychotherapy and antidepressants, but to no avail.

What does Karbo offer as advice? Nothing other than mental gymnastics. She advises Callie to spend 5 minutes not thinking about Chester; then ten minutes; then an hour. After a time, his memory will have vanished from her mind.

If Callie is having a problem concentrating on not thinking about Chester, Karbo advises her to try thinking about her third grade classmates. Surely, that will get her mind off of the man she is madly in love with.

Is this bad advice? Let's say that it is not the worst. If you want to try it, by my guest. If it helps out, more power to you.

The problem is that Karbo is unaware of the fact that it is devilishly difficult to find a mental exercise that will get you to not think about someone.

Why? Because when you are telling yourself not to think about Chester you are thinking about Chester.

Surely, we can do better.

First, let's reframe the problem. We do not know why Callie still believes that she is in love with Chester. It might be that their was a love for the ages. Perhaps the stars were conspiring against them, but let us not be too fast to assume that Callie is deluded.

She knows how she feels and she knows how she felt and she probably knows what Chester felt too. Her mistake might be in thinking that being in love means that two people must be together forever. She missed the lesson where we learned that during the course of human history the coincidence of marriage and true love is the exception, not the rule.

Second, if it was not a love for the ages, then that might mean that he did not love her as much as she loved him. In that case she allowed herself to be used, and this is surely not the most flattering way of seeing oneself. Would it not be better to think that he loved her or to think that they could communicate he would discover that he really loved her... or else, that she really loved him.

Third, if this was not true love, then perhaps Callie thinks that on top of being an adulteress, she was acting like a tramp. My guess is that she is repudiating this label by being obsessed with Chester. Better to be madly in love than to be a tramp.

Now, for the more immediate problem. Let us say that she wants to forget Chester. Let us imagine that she was dumped unceremoniously and needs to find closure, as people call it.

Frankly, I do not think that mental gymnastics are the way to go. A better approach is to remove all reminders of Chester from her life. This is surely more difficult when they are working together and might have occasion to communicate.

Worse yet, people, places and objects in the office can serve as permanent cues reminding her of her time with Chester. Did they meet at the water cooler or the coffee urn or in the cafeteria? Did they gaze longingly at each other in the conference room on the third floor? Did they hold hands in the elevator or share a stall in the rest room? Was any of it caught on surveillance video?

You get the picture. As long as Callie is in a place that is filled with memories of Chester, she will have much more trouble getting him out of her mind. Sad to say, but in her circumstances, a change of scenery, even a change of jobs, might be a good thing.

A lost relationship that occurred outside of the workplace is easier to forget. Someone who cannot get an ex-- out of her mind would do well to start by taking down all the photos of the two of them together, putting away all of the gifts he gave her, and giving away the souvenirs they amassed on their vacation.

If his behavior was especially bad she might send a box of them back to him. Obviously, she should also avoid the places where they spent quality couple-time. Whether it is a favorite restaurant or coffee shop, the botanical garden, or Grant's tomb... she should not revisit their old haunts. And she should not continue rituals that she used to perform with him: whether it is Sunday afternoon football or playing tennis at the local courts.

If you really want to forget someone, the best place to start is in you behavior, not your mind.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Desperately Seeking the One

Surely, today's young people have more relationship options than any similar group in human history. This is especially true in any great cosmopolitan metropolis.

Vast numbers of young people congregate in the great cities. This, in itself, would provide many, many romantic options. Add internet dating to the mix and the number of possible connections grows to the point where it becomes unmanageable. This causes the system to break down.

Apparently, young people have now dispensed with the formality of ritualized dating. They hang out, roam in packs, hook up at random, and occasionally form relationships. When it comes to choosing a mate, however, they defer the decision, often saying that they are waiting to find the One.

They say things like: Maybe, he's the One. She isn't the One. I'm too special to settle for anyone less than the One.

Are they looking for true love? Are they hopeless romantics who will settle for nothing less than the real thing?

Some psychologists would say that they are looking to repeat that grand developmental moment when an infant looking at an image in a mirror realizes for the first time: It's me! Is that what it means to find your soul mate or your perfect complement?

Or, perhaps, it just means that there are too many options. That would be the point of some recent psychological theory.

In his book The Paradox of Choice Barry Schwartz outlined the problem: it is easier to choose among three kinds of detergent than it is among three thousand.

With apologies to those who recoil at comparing their hunt for a mate with a trip down the detergent aisle, the analogy does clarify the problem.

With hundreds of thousands of potential mates out there, you will say to yourself that you do not need to compromise or settle. Surely, among such a vast number you can find the One who is perfect for you, who is a dream come true, who fits you like a bespoke garment.

When it comes to choosing a mate, small communities offer the path to an easier, more adult, choice. If there are a dozen or so suitable prospects you will likely exercise rational judgment in deciding which one is best for you. You will not be seeking perfection, you will not be thinking that everything has to be right before you can make a commitment.

With a limited number of prospects you will know that you have to compromise and that you will have to negotiate. The fact that the two of you do not always complete each others' sentences will be of lesser import.

Making an adult decision means weighing the good and the bad; knowing that you will have to accommodate another person's faults, flaws, and foibles; knowing that you will have to accept idiosyncracies and tastes that you do not like. You will enter your relationship with the right attitude, without blinders.

Too often people imagine that once they find the One, they will ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after. There will be no disputes to negotiate, no faults to accommodate, no differences of taste and opinion to mollify.

In that case you will not really be involved in an adult relationship. This has one advantage: when and if you lose the One it will not be a great loss.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Mental Health?

It's been said before, but it's worth repeating: there is no such thing as mental health. Not because everyone is partially neurotic, not because it is a fiction perpetrated by the ruling elite, but because the term is a metaphor.

Since a mind is not a living organism, you cannot logically say that it is healthy or sick. This means that it makes no sense to have a science of mental health, a science whose object is a metaphysical entity like a mind.

Why then are we comfortable with the term? Perhaps we have used the term to describe certain conditions that were manifested by defective mental functioning but that we did not understand medically. Neurological and metabolic illnesses sometimes cause abnormal mental processing or bizarre behavior. It is not crazy or dishonest to use the term "mental illness" until we find out the nature of the physiological condition.

The real problem arises when psychotherapy defies "mental health" as its goal. What exactly does that mean? When we speak of biological organisms, health refers to a normally functioning organism. It matters most when you do not have it.

But you do not expect that someone will love or marry or hire you because you are mentally healthy.

When you lack mental health you may be unable to perform on the job or to be a good spouse. Yet, its presence does not enhance your resume. Mental health has no moral or ethical dimension.

According to Confucius, your goal should be to become a good person.
Your ability to be responsible, reliable, trustworthy, competent, and focused... matters far more than whether you are mentally healthy. How many therapists, trained to diagnose and remove mental illness, know how to help people to build their character?

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Wherefore Courage?

Ever since Freud psychotherapists have had a special aversion to giving advice. They have imagined that patients who were trying to solve their problems by taking action were making it more difficult to gain insight into their mental functioning. The Freudian solution to the mind/body problem is simply... to forget about the body.

Many therapy patients have embraced this aversion. They make treatment an excuse for inaction. Wanting to be good patients, then introspect and criticize themselves... all the while ignoring real world dilemmas. They have bought the promise that inaction will lead to insight and that insight will point the way to good decisions and good feelings.

This is a variation on a Freudian theme. Freud insisted that his patients should avoid all major life decisions while in treatment. He believed that an unanalyzed mind would always err, and thus, that doing nothing was better than getting it wrong. Apparently, it never crossed his mind that he might point the way toward getting it right.

Patients accepted this rule because, for many of them, it was a welcome relief from responsibility. It also deprived them of their courage, and undermined their character.

Courage is the character trait required to take action, especially when outcomes are uncertain and when risk is involved. When faced with a seemingly insoluble dilemma, you need to screw up your courage before taking action. More courage is required if the risk is higher.

It takes courage to put yourself out there, to engage with others, to compete and contend. Without courage you will simply be led around by your bliss.

Aristotle said that you only build courage by acting courageously. You cannot enhance your courage by understanding what it means to be courageous. Nor can you become more courageous by understanding why you are afraid to defend yourself.

Of course, Freud could not allow people to think that he was leading them down a road that would diminish their courage and their character. So, he allowed them to believe that it takes more courage to criticize themselves than to step into the arena. Uncovering your darker motives, facing the horrors of your unconscious mind... for Freud these showed "true" courage.

Surely, he was mistaken. Courage is a social virtue; it evinces itself in the way you act in the world. A person who backs down from competition because he is involved in intense self-criticism is a coward. If he calls his self-criticism a higher form of courage he is indulging in narcissistic self-aggrandizement.

If a person's only courage lies in self-criticism, how do you, living outside his mind, know its extent? How do you know whether or not you can rely on this person in time of trouble. You would be wise to conclude that you do not want to be on his team.

Next question: How do you know when you are being courageous and when you are just making a show of your bravery? How do you know when you are being a coward and when you are judiciously avoiding a meaningless showdown?

Go back to Aristotle. His idea was simple: true courage lies somewhere between being gun-shy and being trigger-happy. A person who is gun-shy never takes risks and never asserts himself. He is more than happy when his therapist tells him he must withdraw into his mind.

The person who is gun-shy avoids competition, confrontation, and conflict. He might well try to excuse his cowardice by criticizing the "system," but that is merely a rationalization.

A person who is trigger-happy makes a spectacle of his courage. He insists too much on his bravery, regardless of the circumstances. He might become enraged and pick a fight when someone jostles him on the subway. This does not show his courage; it shows that he is foolhardy and thin-skinned.

Finding the mean between these two extremes requires considerable human experience, and reflection thereupon.