Book Review: “Radical Candor”

Author: Kim Scott

Direct feedback, no problem – right?

The military does feedback­­­—hardcore. Tasks have clear standards. Failure to meet the standards results in direct, swift feedback – written, verbal (perhaps this is too gentle a word), and physical. As a leader, I provided clear, objective feedback to my personnel and my unit.

Out of the military, I found my “direct” approach was not as well received (again, likely too gentle a word).  Additionally, I thought that everyone around me either gave no feedback or the feedback was trivial. ­ Transitioning from the military means interacting in a new, unfamiliar world. Without a feedback loop, I couldn’t tell how I was doing. The more uncertain I got, the more defensive I became — labeling people as “passive aggressive,” “super-introverted,” or “indecisive. ” I could not read them so I thought they were all wrong or just chickenshit. Then one day, I finally got some direct, candid feedback

It crushed me and it was exactly what I needed.

Kim Scott’s book, “Radical Candor,” fundamentally changed how I view feedback.  “Radical Candor” is written as a guide for managers, but the book spoke to both my need for feedback and the mistakes I was making when I gave it. Scott uses quadrants based on caring and directness to define approaches for delivering feedback.  Too direct – and you’re a jerk.  Too caring – and you are ineffective.

I was, what Kim Scott called, “obnoxious aggression” (aka jerk).

Scott argues that the most effective quadrant from which to give feedback is both direct and caring – which she calls “Radical Candor.” Be direct and specific with your feedback. Apply the same level of specificity to both the good things an employee does and areas where they aren’t cutting it. Make clear for your employee how they can improve.

Easy right? The tricky part comes with caring. Give feedback ONLY if you care about the growth and success of the other person.

When you care about another person, it doesn’t matter who is right and wrong. It’s not a contest for the best grades or the fastest times. Success is more than just winning – anyone can win. “Radical Candor” means defining success by growth.

When I framed feedback in terms of helping others grow, I fundamentally changed. I stopped competing with them and I started truly caring about the person. My ego and the desire to be right was replaced by my drive to help others overcome struggles and be better.

The funniest, most unexpected thing happened next ­— I got better at receiving feedback! Viewed through the lens of improvement rather than being right/wrong, I started to listen more closely to what a person was saying. I endeavored to really understand their assessment because I was myself on a relentless path to improve.

Slowly, my new world became a little less unfamiliar. I began to see hints of feedback all around me. The path was now defined by improvement and growth. I confidently stepped into the non-military world knowing that whatever it threw at me, and no matter my shortcomings, I would be just fine as long as I kept trying.

So bring on the feedback!

Book Review: “The Happiness Hypothesis”

Author: Jonathan Haidt

Choosing Curiosity, Taking Control

Emotions are flares to guide your path. They will help direct your journey, but be careful to not let the heat consume you.

I learned anger after my first deployment. Anyone who sat through a command&staff with me, or was there when the local police called – again – about one of my soldiers, certainly saw my anger. My husband saw my anger. My friends saw it. In the military we hide anger with jokes, and cynicism, and booze – but it sits there – seething under the surface.

I learned isolation from traumatic family events. For all the calls I didn’t return, the help I refused to take, and the nights I did not sleep worrying about everything that I didn’t know how to handle – I still refused to let any of it go. I put everyone else before me, isolating myself in the name of protecting and caring for my wounded family.

Jonathan Haidt’s book, “The Happiness Hypothesis” was my first exposure to thinking about the source of my emotions. Haidt uses a powerful metaphor to describe the relationship between our “conscious mind” and our “emotional response”. He describes the relationship as a rider (conscious mind) trying to steer an elephant (emotional response). The rider thinks he has control but really – come on – at the end of the day, the elephant will do what it wants!

“What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is a creation of our mind” – Buddha (taken from Haidt’s book, Ch 2)

Haidt describes 10 Great Ideas drawn from his studies of the world’s major religions. He talks about how even across oceans, humans approach concepts like reciprocity, seeking happiness, love, the power of adversity, and many more Great Ideas in very similar ways. He explores how our rituals, our art, and our social customs shape our perceptions of the world around us. Using the metaphor of the rider and elephant – it is pretty clear how a lifetime of experiences ultimately train our elephants.

As I walked with Haidt on his Great Ideas adventure, I began to see how my life experiences – from my education, to my family traumas, to the experience of war – had shaped the way I interact with the world fundamentally. I began to see that my world shaped my thoughts yet my world was also created by my mind.

Finally, with this kinda confusing, “chicken and egg” realization – the words of a good friend finally started to make sense. “The Trauma happened only once. We then experience that Trauma a thousand times over as our minds struggle to process it. That is the cycle of PTSD.”

About the same time I was reading the “The Happiness Hypothesis,” I was also exposed to the concept of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) at a Veteran retreat. CBT is a tool used to help people learn methods for interrupting negative feedback loops to help control responses that are physically or emotionally harmful.

Situation – Thought – Emotion – Physical Response – New Situation

There it was again. My thoughts. Armed with the confidence that I could deliberately shape my thoughts, I realized I might be able to re-learn how to responded to the world. I did not have to be angry. Or feel isolated. I became curious about my thoughts – without judgement. I learned to pause in the emotion and wonder why it was there. What experience from my past had trained my mind to respond in such a way?

“The whole universe is change and life itself is but what you deem it.” – Marcus Aurelius (Haidt, Ch 2)

Learning to be curious about my emotions – to catch them and investigate them – was the first step in taking control of my subconscious. I was riding an elephant yes – but I was training him along the way. My emotions were my guides – now telling me to pause for exploration and giving me control over how I responded.

Little by little, I chose to stop being angry. I decided to stop feeling isolated. And so – I wasn’t. My world is my thoughts. My world is created by my mind. I chose my world.

I am the elephant.


Here is the VA’s page of resources on PTSD and the VA Crisis Line

These are just a couple amazing Veteran retreat options I know:

Book Series: Expeditionary Force

Author: Craig Alanson

Voice Actor and Narrator: R.C. Bray

Skippy –

Sometimes I need the space and time to grow. So I pick up a science fiction – to be entertained and maybe grab a leadership lesson along the way.

Craig Alason’s book series Expeditionary Force both entertains and sometimes make makes me think. I started listening to these books as my PhD dissertation was getting into the tough stage – trying to end but not yet there. The books gave my mind a rest for a bit. In 30 – 60 minutes, I could mentally rest. Listening was key to this series because the narrator – R.C. Bray – truly makes the books come to life, especially one of the main characters, Skippy the Beer Can. I highly encourage you to listen to the audiobook version of this series.

I have only listened to the first 5 books in Expeditionary Force but there are at least 8 main storyline books, and some spin off stories, which is pretty common in science fiction. The premise of the series starts out in Book 1 with a simple science fiction plot: alien race comes to earth, aliens treat us badly, humankind fights back.

Enter: “Joe”

Joe is a grunt. An Army Grunt – E5. He is a normal guy from New England that happened to make some lucky, albeit telling decisions, during the invasion, and save earth. The young NCO finds himself rewarded with a trip to a far off world to fight for an alien species that turns out to be embroiled in universal war far greater than humans ever could have known.

Enter: “Skippy the Beer Can

Truly there is no better character in modern science fiction than Alanson’s “Skippy the Beer Can.” The first book takes about half the plot to get to Skippy – wait – wait for him. It is worth it.

Skippy is an all-knowing, all-powerful, artificial intelligence that despite his infinite knowledge and winning personality, is physically limited by the absence of hands and feet. Joe finds Skippy on a far off world and the two of them proceed to embark on a hero’s quest together – with humor and humanity all in one.

The book is light mostly, but sometimes deep. Joe must lead his crew, and with that comes choices that challenge his values and morals. Skippy learns that human connection and love are the one thing that cannot fully understood through writing code. It must be gained by personal interactions with the crew and Joe. Together, these characters lead a crew across the galaxy, finding themselves in a fight that is as old as the universes itself. The book is hilarious and I am grateful to the talent of R.C. Bray, who brings the characters to life.

Growth isn’t immediate. I find that I have to give myself the space and the time to grow. Reading books takes me some time – more time than blogs or social media. But I also need time to experiment with lessons, try out an idea, mull over concepts, fail, succeed, and try again.

Frequently, I just need an emotional rest. To give my mind a place to lay down, perhaps after a long week or challenging encounter. I need to give myself the forgiving minute – to breath.

Criag Alanson’s books give me just a few more minutes. Through humor and a damn good story, I can find the space to rest, recover, and grow.

I breath. I laugh. I grow.

Book Review: “Braving the Wilderness”

Author: Brené Brown

Being Me is scary. To not be Me is torture.

Alone, in the silence of the woods, I have only myself. And I will be just fine.

Brené Brown’s “Braving the Wilderness” came to me when I was having what I call a “self-awareness hangover.” This usually happens when I have read too many self-help, leadership, or business books causing my trips into self-awareness to wander into traps of self-doubt. I start to worry about how I handled past conversations, led my former teams, and interacted with fellow parents. Geez – how did I managed to get out of bed and parent at all?

Self-awareness hangovers leave me certain I will never fit in and will always be upsetting someone. Feeling terrible and keenly aware of the many ways I can offend nearly everyone – I withdraw. I hide my True Self. 

“You are only free when you realize you belong to no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great. ~Maya Angelou

“Braving the Wilderness” told me, “Stop. Be yourself.” Brené Brown opens the book with the Maya Angelou quote as she reflects on a life-long desire to fit in. She describes sacrificing her True Self in order to belong.  Fit in or be left alone in what she calls The Wilderness. Terrifying.

Naturally, we resist abandonment at our most primal level. The Wilderness is where we go when cast out, never to return. But Brené argues deciding to bravely enter The Wilderness alone is how we find True Belonging. For in the quiet of woods, only self can be heard. True Self finally gets to stand alone.

And True Self belongs to no one.

From this powerful realization, immense courage and confidence is found. Brené then calls upon the reader to, without fear, open their True Self to others. It is only through this most honest effort to connect with other people that we will find the purest quality of humankind – unconditional acceptance of True Self and others. And we will truly belong. To everyone who seeks truth. And to no one but ourselves.

And with that – hangover was gone.

Book Review: “The Obstacle is the Way”

Author: Ryan Holiday

The hard path is the true path.

Life is hard. Excellent! My struggle is my advantage.

Challenge, setback, failure, loss, and rock bottom are not exactly comfortable. Once you’ve experienced any of these, you likely learned a strong lesson about avoiding them in the future.  That hurt! We have visible and invisible scars. We likely lost friends and status. We probably lost money. Most of all, we failed ourselves. — But did we?

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way. -Marcus Aurelius

Ryan Holiday’s book “The Obstacle is the Way” opens with this powerful quote from one of history’s greatest thinkers telling us to stop running away.  Instead, we must turn boldly into our challenge and see it as an opportunity rather an obstacle.

Holiday lays out a path for turning what he calls “trials into triumph” by teaching us to control our perception of events. First, we must learn to master the only controllable part of any situation – our emotional response to it. Armed with this surprisingly powerful insight, Holiday then calls upon us to act. Deliberate, precise action that could fail, and fail again. This path is not one of reckless failure but rather it is a decision to act despite an unknown outcome. Finally, Holiday calls us to have the will continue forward. Our will fuels our courage to repeat the cycle – perceiving obstacles as advantages and motivating us to act–until we achieve our goals.

We are defined by what we do, not what we say we do. You know your obstacle. You now know your path.

Act.

Book Review: “Grit”

Author: Angela Duckworth

Find your Work. Find your Grit

We marvel at people who do hard things and get after challenging goals. People like you…if you choose it.

Do something hard! All around us, we see people seeking to find their own personal challenges. We are offered new quests daily, ripe for the taking! Read some “X number” of books this summer (library). Only eat cabbage soup and juice for a month (diet industry…and seriously?). Conquer physical trials such as marathons, Ironman events, Spartan races (Sports industry). And many, many, more.

It doesn’t really matter what the goal is – as long as it is your goal.

In a world with many challenges from which to pick, what do we actually seek? How do we achieve our goal AND is really our own? How do we see the goal all the way through to the end? What is the end???

Angela Duckworth’s book “Grit” provides insight into how we sort, prioritize, and achieve our most difficult goals. She has made a career of studying how groups of people – from West Point cadets to National Spelling Bee winners to professional sports teams – accomplish hard goals. Duckworth identifies the trait of Grit – the drive to maintain a long-term focus on one objective no matter the obstacle. She then digs deep into the foundation of Grit to reveal four cornerstones traits of some incredible people.

Duckworth identifies Gritty people as first having goals defined by a strong interest. You know this feeling – the topic or passion you simply cannot stop studying, daydreaming about, or clicking on. She then describes how to turn that interest into your life’s Work (sound familiar – see “The War of Art” post) through deliberate practice. Gritty people are internally driven to practice by a motivation, which Duckworth identifies as their purpose. Purpose is so central to the nature of the Gritter, that they often can’t quite articulate it beyond to say that they must matter. Finally – those with Grit have an eternal well of hope. It is hope that moves them past failure, setbacks, and obstacles, to see tomorrow as the next day forward in achieving their goal.

So go find your challenge.

Don’t wait for someone to make it up for you. Listen to your interest. Feel for your purpose. And then get after it with deliberate practice and the hope – knowing each day will bring you one step closer to your life’s work.

Landing 01

On very rare occasions, themes from a few books come together – forming one single coherent thought. The thought forms slowly as the mind tries different combinations of words and ideas.  The closer the thought to forming, the more the mind will race and wrestle with it. Then, in what feels like a flurry– for the briefest of moments – the thought lives.

In that moment the mind sighs, rests, and is content. This is a landing.

And then it is gone.

This is the first of what I will call a Landing Post. It is a summary of themes pulled from a few different books into a lesson or an idea.


I am not a good writer. Or at least that is what I have been told or made to believe. I am a scientist and engineer by training. This means I am to hate writing and love math. Math and science are certainly noble justifications for my poor writing. At nearly every stage of my adult life, I have been told me that I am a poor writer. “Don’t worry,” they tell me – this is totally okay given the rigor of science and math.

That is, it was okay – until I decided I wanted to write a book. No. I needed to write a book.

The last three books reviewed helped me chart a path to the realization that maybe I am not as bad a writer as I had been telling myself for decades.  Here’s how it all went down…

“The War of Art”

Read: December 2018

Everyone is afraid to create. Everyone is afraid to try something new. Everyone is afraid of judgement. Everyone has fear.

And everyone has Work to do.

And in response to that fear, we create an incredible weave of distractions to keep us from doing what we know – deep down – we need to do. Our life’s work.

I am not saying this kind of writing is my life’s work. But writing anything at all is lightyears away from what everyone has told me my work should be. Thank you Steven Pressfield for helping me use my fear as a guide – and point me away from a life hiding to a life of trying.  

“The Coaching Habit”

Read: September 2018

Unlike writing, I have been told since I could speak, walk, and point a knife-hand that I was a leader. I led in high school in sports, and work, extracurricular activities, and of course, my siblings. Leadership drove me to join the military.  Leadership then, became my living. Multiple deployments, hundreds of soldiers, and countless missions reinforced and refined my leadership methods.  Leading was me. I nailed it.

Until I didn’t.

Leaving the military forced me into a situation where my results oriented, single-person decision-making leadership (so many hyphens!) style didn’t work. I was efficient at planning and executing missions. I was a professional at “leading-by-driving.”

Learning how to use listening as a tool to help people find their own solutions meant I too was building deeper trust and finally seeing people at their best – that is – when they learn and grow.  “Leading-by-driving” became “leading-by-guiding” as people chose on their own, the right spot rather than me just putting them there.  And WOW – so much better!

Thank you Michael Bungay Stanier for opening my mind to 360 degree leading. Mostly guiding, pushing when I must, and listening always.  

“Originals”

Read: October 2016

Read again: July 2019

What is courage?

You’d think I would have a pretty clear answer for this with the whole “military, war, deployment” thing. I thought I did.  But I actually only knew OF courage. People who were courageous. Actions that were valorous. Courage as a trait observed – but not known or felt.

Until I was afraid.

And a little lost.

Courage

Thank you Adam Grant for giving me the courage to be myself.

Turns out I am just human. Afraid of failure, sharply attuned to judgment, and terrified of criticism.

I also have Work to do. I decided to stop hearing fear and start listening openly. With that choice, I took the first step toward doing my Work.

This is courage.