Book Summaries

I am reading a lot of books these days but am finding that I need to summarize what I have learned from them in writing, otherwise my head will explode… Here I will share summaries of the summaries.
I apologize for the length of the entries but I have not been able to get the more tag to work. I use it in the entries but this page obviously ignores it. Please contact me if you know how to fix that!



Foucault’s History of Sexuality

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In the second and third volume of his History of Sexuality trilogy, French philosopher Michel Foucault documents a change in the way marriage factored into (men’s) personal growth: From a minor role in the training for self-governance to the primary focus of self-care. In Ancient Greece, marriage was seen as a way to learn to govern ourselves so that we can govern others, though the boy-man friendship was more central in this training for self-mastery. Foucault also shows that the Greeks moved from the debate over whether to marry to making marriage a duty (154-5). Foucault traces the change of focus from outside the house – through the relation of the man and boy as preparation for citizenship – to the inside – through the increasing focus on marriage as the key to self.

The focus of Ancient Greece was the ethical domain of pleasure (Vol 2, 91). Channeling this pleasure was compared to a battle from which the victorious came out in control of themselves, ready for political participation. In general, Foucault contends that pleasure, including sexual pleasure, was seen as positive, as a route to freedom, at least once it was mastered (78). Mastery was not achieved by following a set of rules, though, instead the work suggested depended on variables such as age and status of the person working on himself. Developing certain attitudes that were reflected in interaction with others was seen as more important than figuring out specific rules (93). Foucault places this view on sexuality into the general philosophy of Ancient Greece that was more concerned with fostering the good life than to determine specific rules to follow. He identifies three areas for this care of the self: diet, household, and sexuality. Interestingly, the household was viewed as a setting of the economic world. It was a part of larger society through its economic contribution to it, not through the emotional support it lend, as it will be seen when the idea of separate spheres emerges (93). Despite this fairly positive approach, Foucault observes anxiety around sexual activity since perceived abuses could result in too much sperm being lost, which was seen as highly detrimental to the life force of the man (130). This anxiety was not, however, grounded in the perception of an inherent evil but rather stemmed from practical beliefs, such as the wasting of bodily resources, and the tie procreation established between the procreator’s own death and his immortality through children (136).

Marriage was seen within the context of the economic unit of the family. Foucault describes this unit, headed by the husband, as the provisioning of resources from the outside by the husband and their management by the wife inside of the house (157). Additionally, the fidelity of the spouses were an important aspect of citizenship. Unlike modern notions of the duty for fidelity based on the respect of the other spouse, Foucault stresses that fidelity was seen as a result of respect for the law and one’s honor, an aspect of a city’s stability, rather than the stability of a marriage (170). Fidelity would also ensure a clean lineage that could be traced back to the gods – as long as no children were born outside of wedlock (171). However, Foucault outlines that the laws applying to husband and wife were different. The obligation for fidelity for the wife was legislated by her deference to the authority of the husband. The husband’s fidelity instead was part of his quest for moderation, thus it was his choice – highly encouraged, as it was (182). Foucault points out that this asymmetry is historically important since it disappeared as early as the Roman period he investigated in volume 3. Again, though Foucault reminds us that the obligation to fidelity was not established by the marital relationship but rather connected the spouses to the community at large, especially the city (183).

The husband’s other tie to the city came through his relationship with a teenage boy. This relationship was crucially important for the development of both boy and man into citizens as it combined the mastery of one’s desires and the building of a friendship, which would outlast the sexual relationship between the two men (201). This friendship had all the hallmarks of what would later be folded into the marital relationship: a deep, supportive bond. Socrates elevated this friendship above the physical pleasures of the sexual relationship arguing that it was the highest form of connection (233-4).

The theme of sexual expression as a care of self was intensified during the Roman period of the first two centuries CE (Vol 3, 43). Foucault leaves philosophy to describe the emerging medical views on sexuality, which he contends in turn were integrated into philosophical ideas. Additional, Foucault documents a shift in attitude toward the sexual act from something that has to be moderated to avoid overexpenditure to something that could tax the body too much. Although the shift is slight, Foucault sees this as the first steps toward pathologizing sexuality (122). Together with an increased valuation of virginity, this emerging view would later develop into the Christian doctrine of sexuality as evil.

At the same time as the role of sexuality in personal growth shifted from training in moderation to abstinence, the place of marriage in a man’s life changed. Foucault first describes the institutionalization of marriage as public authority increased over the previously largely private celebrations (73). Furthermore, marriage became more widespread (74). With that, marriage was viewed as a “voluntary union” rather than a necessity if one has property or reputation to pass on to heirs (75). Foucault claims that with this change, the inequality between husband and wife lessened although this claim is not supported by Coontz who stresses the continued patriarchal role of marriage as the wife passed from dependency to the father to that of the husband. Husbands were the rulers of the family (Coontz 79). However, the obligations of the husband and the wife became more similar, suggesting more equality at least in that regard (Foucault, Vol 3, 76). Either way, the roles of both were more heavily regulated as in the past (76). Additionally, these obligations were based not in respect for the law or one’s honor – as they had been in Ancient Greece – but in respect for the partner. Foucault characterizes these developments in the marital practice as “a stronger force for binding conjugal partners and hence a more effective one for isolating the couple in a field of other social relations” (77). The role of conjugality in the form of marriage had become center stage. It was no longer a way to establish oneself as a citizen. It had become an end in itself. With that, though, came increased privatization. This continued throughout history as Coontz documents.


Man’s Search for Meaning

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Victor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, is a classic little book on meaning, which was originally published in 1946. His development of logotherapy is woven throughout his tale of survival of numerous concentration camps during the later years of the German occupation of Austria. As historical research has shown, Frankl did not develop logotherapy in those concentration camps. Frankl underscores that as well when he recounts the destruction of an important manuscript that he had smuggled through the showers of Auschwitz, the real showers. It did not survive very long, though, and Frankl’s observation in the other concentration camps – he was only a few days in Auschwitz – was partly driven by his wish not to forget the contents of his manuscript. The situation in the concentration camps also made for an ideal test-ground of Frankl’s main hypothesis, which is summarized in his favorite Nietzsche quote: “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.” Logotherapy tries to provide guidelines on finding reasons to live: “If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering” (p. 67). The ability to choose how we react to even the most dire circumstances, Frankl calls this “spiritual freedom,” cannot be taken away from us. It “makes life meaningful and purposeful” (p. 67).

Frankl contents that we will not find meaning by letting it find us but rather that we have to find meaning: “We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life-daily and hourly. [...] Life ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.” (p. 77, my emphasis).

Frankl also introduces the idea of an existential vacuum: a feeling of “inner emptiness, a void within themselves” created by a “lack of awareness of a meaning worth living for” (p. 106). An increase in people who suffer from an existential vacuum, Frankl traces back to two reasons: 1) We have to make choices, we cannot simply rely on our animal instinct, which would give us a sense of security; and 2) traditions that have been guiding people’s lives for centuries have diminished (p. 106). The result is a state of boredom that people often attempt to overcome by doing what others do, Frankl calls this conformism, or comply with the wishes of others, Frankl calls that totalitarianism (p. 106). Addictions are often used to hide the existential vacuum. Often people resort to more socially acceptable “masks and guises:” a will to power, a will to money, and a will to pleasure (p. 107). Logotherapy’s answer to the existential vacuum is a call for people to take on the responsibility to answer life’s questions: “logotherapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of human existence” (p. 109). Frankl goes on to point out that “the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his psyche, as though it were a closed system” (p. 110). Meaning needs to be something concrete, grounded in reality, rather than a metaphysical abstraction. Frankl calls this “the self-transcendence of human existence” (p. 110).

According to Frankl, “we can discover meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering” (p. 111). Thus, as he later points out, meaning can be found as much through experiencing as it can be found through achieving (p. 145). Frankl is quick to add to this list that if suffering is avoidable, we act masochistic rather than heroic if we try to endure the suffering rather than change the situation (p. 113). But with unavoidable suffering we retain the “freedom to choose how to respond” (p. 158).

The search for meaning, according to Frankl, is a prerequisite for finding happiness: “Once an individual’s search for meaning is successful, it not only renders him happy but also gives him the capability to cope with suffering” (p. 139). Again, Frankl points to “fatal conditions” if we do not find meaning (p. 139). He observes a “universal phenomenon” of the feeling of meaninglessness, which resulted from “a frustration of our existential needs” (p. 140). Although people have “enough to live by [they have] nothing to live for” (p. 140). However, he argues that this is not a symptom of a mass pathology; rather it is a sign of our humanness (p. 141). The answer to this is, of course, a search for meaning that is “dormant in all the single situations one has to face throughout” our lives (p. 143).


Making Meaning: The Van Gogh Blues

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In his book “The Van Gogh Blues,” Eric Maisel introduces an intriguing idea: Instead of searching for meaning all over the place, we can simply make our own meaning. Far fetched? I think not. In fact, I agree with Maisel that this is the only reliable way to lead a meaningful life: we answer the question “what does my life mean” rather than the metaphysical – and probably unanswerable – question “what is the meaning of life?”

There are three central and interconnected aspects of the meaning-making process: Creating a life plan, doing meaningful work, and deciding how each and every second of our life can be meaningful. The primary tool that Maisel offers in our meaning-making quest is cognitive psychology: we need to really look at our thoughts! Only if we start paying attention to what we are thinking, look at whether a thought is helpful, and then actively arguing with unhelpful thoughts can we successfully integrate the three aspects of meaning-making. This tool is also useful when fighting anxiety. Again, Maisel states the obvious that I too often forget (maybe it’s not that obvious then…): Anxiety is part of life. We would not survive if it weren’t for anxiety because it triggers the fight or flight response, which is crucial when we try to escape from a saber tooth tiger. Although what creates anxiety in us now is just as real as that tiger, it probably is not as dangerous. So, we can accept that we’re anxious and then courageously face our anxiety and still do what scares us. Maisel cautions, though, that in order to do that, we really need to dig into the causes of our anxiety, which in the context of the book are largely internal. If we do not dig deep enough, we can still fool ourselves and thus are unable to face the anxiety.

Maisel also calls upon us to opt to matter. Rather than spending agonizing hours trying to figure out why we exist, he proposes to simply state the obvious: we exist and that’s what matters. We can then take that fact and make it matter – we can give our own answer to why we exist by deciding on what answer we want to give. Maisel urges us that this has to be grounded in ethics. Without ethical grounding, Maisel contends, we will simply experience emptiness by living non-authentic.

I find Maisel’s book very helpful and his ideas of deciding to make meaning and opting to matter are simple, yet profound and just what we need in today’s world, when the old sources of meaning have become often rather meaningless. And he touches on something that those of us who do not believe in a God or god need to flesh out because only by offering a rational alternative can we help answer the question of meaning.

If you are interested in these ideas, in addition to checking out Maisel’s book, you can check out his website. You can also check out a brief interview with Eric Maisel at YouTube. I found especially the last part of the interview important: It is crucial for us to shift from “searching for meaning” to an attitude of “making meaning.”

Also, please check my post on Meaning Making in Action.


A Historical Perspective on Happiness

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There are two aspects I want to focus on in my summary of Jennifer Hecht’s Happiness Myths: Wisdom gathered from history about happiness and the influence of money on our society. The book is very well written and contains much more insights, gained through taking a historical perspective, than I will touch on here.

Hecht outlines three different types of happiness:

  • Good day: The things that bring us momentary happiness without necessarily considering their long-term consequences, such as a piece of chocolate cake or a one-night stand.
  • Euphoria: Intense experiences, which create lasting memories and often require “risk and vulnerability” (10)
  • A happy life: Creating our life over the longer term. This might require a lot of work but it brings a sense of contentment and happiness. Examples include walking to keep the body lean or building a relationship.

Hecht stresses that “we cannot do everything we want to do in order to be happy [because] the three kinds of happiness conflict with one another.” She encourages us to maximize our happiness by thinking about how we want to devote our time toward each of these types of happiness. All three are important aspects but because they conflict, we need to set our priorities and ask ourselves for each given moment which type of happiness is most important (314).

Underlying the work toward the happy life are “four doctrines found in all happiness theory from wisdom literature, philosophy, psychology, and self-help” (17). The four doctrines, which when ignored create a strong barrier against happiness, can be summarized as:

  • Know yourself: We need to live an examined life in order to be happy.
  • Manage your desires: Sometimes it might be more conducive to a happy life to abstain from chocolate cake. This aspect also involves letting go of the desire for revenge, practicing forgiveness and acceptance. Moderation seems to be the key in this area (36)
  • Take what’s yours: Play the role that life presents you with, which also involves discovering that role since it is “rarely obvious as a well-worn path” (45). Take what’s yours also includes being “willing who you are,” which essentially means accepting all aspects of yourself (46).
  • Remember death: Accepting the reality of death helps us put our focus on life.

Hecht underscores that it is work to master these four areas but if we do, she suggests that we are much happier (67).

In her chapters on money, Hecht develops the idea that the middle level of our interactions disappeared. With the ideas of the Enlightenment came the focus on the individual. Although originally this focus included interacting in associations, those associations disappeared when “the next generation didn’t show up” (161). Instead, the nuclear family evolved, providing an escape from the oppression of the “demands of the extended family, or the town or local church” (162). On the other side of the spectrum was the growing importance of the nation, partly because information about the other side of the country was easily available. Individual freedom and happiness was to be pursuit within the nuclear family with a solid grounding in the nation but without reference to associations or community (163). This left a vacuum that was filled, according to Hecht, by consumption.

People’s average wealth increased after World War II beyond any precedents in history (168). We changed our public behavior by going shopping, with sports and television following as replacements for associations and “public conversation” (166). It is safe to discuss sports and television shows in public; no great ability for discourse is required and critical thinking is not necessary. Television is also important because of advertisement perpetuates the idea that money can buy happiness. Money does buy happiness if you’re in poverty but once we are out of poverty the correlation becomes increasingly weaker (134). Yet, we continue to believe in the “abundance inference,” the mistaken belief that more money will continue to increase our happiness, just like it did when we left poverty (134). Advertising seems to tap into the abundance inference well, thus keeping consumerism going (148).

Combining consumerism with television has gotten us off the street and out of associations. Hecht suggests that talking about the shows we watch and parading our possessions have replaced these middle level aspects (175). Consumerism is now our way of connecting in public and defining ourselves. Hecht describes this as an attempted replacement: We think that we have found an alternative for the midlevel that can provide us as much happiness as being involved in associations and community used to give us. Yet, she also points out that people in the 2000s do not report higher levels of happiness than our 1950s counterparts (133). The importance of the nuclear family gained a hold in our culture in the 1950s, thus the replacement of the midlevel started then. If this shift had been a sustainable one, wouldn’t we stop our perpetual run for money? Maybe consumerism is a cultural trance that keeps us away from a happy life because it ignores our role as social beings. We might exchange symbols by displaying certain brands but we are not involved in dialog, in communal barn raising or problem solving. Thich Nhat Hanh‘s example of the Americans as hungry ghosts comes to mind: we try to fill a void with our consumerism but we never really can fill that void because stuff cannot fill it. Something else has to fill it. I would suggest this something else is a renewed focus on the middle level, on community and associations, without the oppression involved in the past. As human animals, we are essentially social beings and need to connect with others on deeper levels than discussions about soap operas or the latest sales event allows. And, as Hecht points out, this will require work, “drawing on inner resources” (135). Using shopping to fill this void, this vacuum, is focusing on good day happiness, whereas building connections, relationships, and community is work toward a happy life.


Journey to the Adaptive Unconscious

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Timothy Wilson‘s book Strangers to Ourselves is a fascinating journey to our adaptive unconscious, which he defines as the “mental processes that are inaccessible to consciousness but that influence judgments, feelings, or behavior” and have adapted through evolution (23). Wilson contents that we cannot observe these processes because they are simply inaccessible to us: “a lot of the interesting stuff about the human mind – judgments, feelings, motives – occur outside of awareness for reasons of efficiency, and not because of repression” (8). He argues that this is similar to other processes, such as perceptual processes or even digestion, which we know are happening but are not observable through introspection. In contrast to Freud, modern psychological research suggests that the unconscious cannot be explored no matter how deep you dig. This is not a bad thing, Wilson points out, but it is a reflection of the mind’s power: a lot of information can be processed very quickly and efficiently (although not always accurately) (16). Our minds are parallel processors because we process quite a bit of information unconsciously. Instead of looking inward, Wilson suggests a much more powerful way to self-understanding: observing our behavior (16). In addition to not being able to understand ourselves well through “navel gazing,” we might even be driven by goals from our adaptive unconscious that we are not completely aware of (34). Wilson summarizes: “We know less than we think we do about our own minds, and exert less control over our own minds than we think. And yet we retain some ability to influence how our minds work. Even if the adaptive unconscious is operating intelligently outside our purview, we can influence the information it uses to make inferences and form goals” (48).

The key to acting most beneficial to ourselves is to actively use the adaptive unconscious by observing what our nonconscious needs and goals are and then act with them in mind (52). We basically create situations for informed gut decisions. Before describing ways to do this, Wilson takes us along to further explain the role of the adaptive unconscious and the trouble it can get us into.

The adaptive unconscious controls automatic thinking, which “has five defining features: it is nonconscious, fast, unintentional, uncontrollable, and effortless” (52). In contrast, of course, to conscious thinking, which “occurs more slowly, with intention (we typically think what we want to think), control (we are better able to influence what we think about), and effort (it is hard to keep our conscious minds on something when we are distracted or preoccupied)” (53). As an evolved processing house, the adaptive unconscious is older than the conscious mind. It has evolved to trigger fast reactions, especially when there is danger. It can detect and learn patterns quickly. Yet, it does not unlearn patterns well and thus influences our behavior in rather rigid ways. The conscious, on the other hand, develops slowly and never quite catches up, especially with pattern detection. We really have to stop and think in order to evoke the conscious and reflect on the direction the adaptive unconscious is sending us (66). This might be one reason why racial and sexist stereotypes remain pervasive, including in people who consider themselves open-minded.

Because we best understand the adaptive unconscious through our behavior, Wilson suggests that other people might know our personality better than we know ourselves. He presents research that supports this conclusion: there is low correlation between our own rating of our personality traits and those of others. This would not necessarily mean that others are right, however, others also agree more amongst themselves, so there is consistency in peer ratings (84). Predictions are also better when they are based on peer reports rather than on self-reports (85). One of the reasons for the strength of other people’s reports is that they rely on observation of our behavior constraint by the situation. When we predict our own actions, we rely instead on what’s inside. This causes us to ignore outside information, especially situational constraints and the inside information is not always accurate (85-6). We have come to believe that our self-understanding gives us an advantage because we have come up with good post-hoc explanations for our behavior driven by our adaptive unconscious (107). However, what several studies have uncovered is that this privileged information does not really give us an advantage: “the amount of accuracy obtained by people about the causes of their responses is nearly identical with the amount of accuracy obtained by strangers” (112). Wilson summarizes this with “Extra information does not always give people an accuracy advantage” (114), which is good to remember not only in the context of understanding ourselves.

The adaptive unconscious plays also an important part in what Wilson calls our “psychological immune system.” We create stories about the events that affect us emotionally and “once emotional events have been explained, tied into a neat little package, and stored away in our minds, we think about them less, and they lose much of their emotional power” (152). Wilson calls this the “ordinization process” – making novel events ordinary, especially those events that carry strong positive or negative emotions. This process is very important to our emotional well-being because it keeps threatening information at bay. And this “psychological immune system operates largely outside of our awareness” (154).

Wilson also argues that many of our feelings remain unconscious, just like personality traits and goals. Therefore, approaches such as shining a beam of the flashlight, going on an archeological dig – metaphors used by Freud and Jung – or any other from of introspection will not help us uncover truths (161). Wilson likens introspection to literary criticism because there is not one true way of seeing the unfolding of our lives, “so there [are] many truths about a person that can be constructed” (162).

Introspection has its place. However, Wilson would like us to write our biographies actively instead of trying to uncover something: “We weave what we can observe (our conscious thoughts, feelings, and memories, our own behavior, the reactions of other people to us) into a story that, with luck, captures at least a part what we cannot observe (our nonconscious personality traits, goals, and feelings)” (162). Thus, “introspection is best thought of [...] as writing a self-biography, with limited source information” (163).

As decision making guides, Wilson dismisses traditional pro-con lists as unreliable. We can do a fairly poor job of analyzing our reasons behind our behavior, often leading us to make decisions we regret later (170). Instead, Wilson proposes to rely on our gut feelings. He cautions that we need to ensure that our gut feeling is informed by as much information as possible. After gathering enough information, we can let the adaptive unconscious make the decision for us (172). It is not quite clear, though, how we can tell that we have enough information or how we can distinguish a well-informed gut feel from a poorly informed gut feel. Also, Wilson does not address our ability to manipulate the information by only seeking out information that we feel is consistent with the decision we should be making. Wilson does not suggest any ways of safeguarding our decision making, which seems to contradict his earlier findings that our adaptive unconscious does not always make the most open-minded decisions.

We can utilize the adaptive unconscious in the process of healing. Based on research, Wilson explains that writing about an emotional experience can help us make sense of it. Although it causes more short-term distress, in the long-term it has quite a bit of positive benefits (177). He contents that writing exercises are so helpful because through the process of writing, we construct a story that helps us deal with the experience.

If many of our feelings remain unconscious, is there a way to figure out how we feel? Wilson suggests there is. Daryl Bem’s self-perception theory can help. Bem theorized that we often figure out how we feel by observing our own behavior – a post-hoc analysis. This theory works well if we are trying to “reveal feelings of which we are previously unaware. It is not such a good strategy if it results in the fabrication of new feelings” (206). The primary danger with using the self-perception process is that we often misunderstand our responses and the reasons behind them and we make wrong interferences. This is why Wilson suggests limiting the usage of the self-perception process to situations where we are not fully aware of our feelings (209). One important job of the adaptive unconscious is to make inferences, thus it will. Therefore, it is important that we perform the self-perception process consciously, in parallel with the adaptive unconscious. This will lead to a better match between our conscious self-narrative and our adaptive unconscious’ interpretation (210).

We can also influence and even change our adaptive unconscious, though not directly. Because observing behavior is the primary means of discovering the adaptive unconscious, changing our behavior is the best way to change our nonconscious influences. Wilson notes that “to fashion a satisfying, functional, self-narrative, however, and to establish a desirable pattern of habitual, nonconscious responses, the best advice is to practice, practice, practice” (216).

A personal narrative can help us to change by creating characters for ourselves. It can also help us understand our history, with its “many ways of telling a person’s story, and not just one historical truth that must be discovered before positive self-change can be achieved” (216). A good self-story conforms to three criteria: accuracy, peace-of-mind, and believability. To be accurate, a self-story must explain a person’s adaptive unconscious: our conscious conceptions of ourselves need to be “in synch” with our unconscious (218). The peace-of-mind criterion is satisfied when a story allows us to stop thinking about ourselves (219). The last criterion, believability, simply means that the self-biographer can “believe the story that he or she is telling [thus, they are not] arbitrary constructions” (220). Wilson summarizes the criteria: “What matters is that people commit themselves to a coherent self-narrative that corresponds reasonably well to their adaptive unconscious” (221).

Thus, although we can never completely know our adaptive unconscious, there are ways of learning more about it by observing ourselves. We can also change ourselves by changing our story and with that our adaptive unconscious (221).


Peaking with Maslow

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Chip Conley’s book “Peak: How great companies get their Mojo from Maslow” applies Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to the world of work. He summarizes Maslow’s famous pyramid: “Maslow believed that each of us has base needs for sleep, water, and food (physiological), and he suggested we focus in the direction of fulfilling our lowest unmet need at the time. As those needs are partially fulfilled, we move up the pyramid to higher needs for physical safety, affiliation or social connection, and esteem. At the top of the pyramid is self-actualization, a place where people have transient moments called ‘peak experiences’” (p. 9). Conley collapses Maslow’s five pyramid levels into three: Survival (Maslow’s physiological and safety), success (social/belonging and esteem), and transformation (self-actualization). He then adapts this transformed pyramid to the three primary stakeholders to every business, using his hospitality company as the development example: employees, customers, and investors. Each stakeholder, Conley argues, has a unique pyramid and the role of a successful business is to move each stakeholder up the pyramid to the transformation level.

Because I read this book on my meaning at work quest, I only read the sections on employees. Before summarizing those, let me present the three pyramids in their high-level forms.

Generic Employee Customer Investor
Transformation Meaning
(Creates Inspiration)
Meets Unrecognized Needs
(Creates Evangelism)
Legacy
(Creates Pride of Ownership)
Success Recognition
(Creates Loyalty)
Meets Desires
(Creates Commitment)
Relationship Alignment
(Creates Confidence)
Survival Money
(Creates Base Motivation)
Meets Expectations
(Creates Satisfaction)
Transaction Alignment
(Creates Trust)

Just as Ilene Philipson has observed in “Married to the Job,” Conley sees work as an opportunity for employees to be in a community and to grow. (Unlike Philipson, he does not see the dark side of that approach). Money is the necessary base level because “dissatisfaction with money grossly demotivates” as Peter Drucker is quoted (p. 53). Next, environmental factors have to be managed, such as employee-management relationships, comfort of the work space, or HR rules. However, as Fredrick Herzberg points out, that is not enough. “People are motivated, instead, by interesting work, challenge, and increased responsibility. These intrinsic factors answer people’s deep-seated need for growth and achievement” (p. 53).

Conley points out “while money may pay the bills, it doesn’t necessarily buy happiness” (p. 54; it would be interesting to get an example of money buying happiness – I would remove the “necessarily,” although Daniel has a good point about “buying happiness” at the lower levels of the pyramid):

  • Real income increased 16% in the last 30 years
  • Happiness has fallen from 36% to 29% (percentage of people who describe themselves “very happy”)

I am not quite clear how Martin Seligman’s observation fits here, who Conley references right after providing these statistics. Seligman argues that we’re changing from a money economy to a satisfaction economy. It looks to me that we’re getting the money but not the satisfaction. (For an excellent critique of Seligman’s work, please see Tim LeBon’s write-up. Bella DePaulo also takes issue with Seligman’s link between happiness and marriage in her book Singled Out.).

Money is the base of the employee pyramid. Conley suggests using a survey like “100 Best Companies to Work for” to monitor how a company’s climate survey compares to the remainder of the industry (p. 55). In addition to receiving information to compare the company’s stance with its peers, the survey is useful to get general trends, such as “the trend toward compensation benefits that address work/life balance” (p. 56). Ironically, Conley mentions the same perks that Ilene Philipson identified as the things that marry us to our job: creating a company campus that offers everything from dry cleaning to take-out food. Conley points out that employees in the US earn less GDP per hour worked – because we work so many more hours. He concludes that time off is one of the greatest benefits an employer can give. Conley focuses the discussion on unique benefit offerings from providing classes during rush hour to “quality of life” allowances. Interestingly, he never suggests a reduction in hours per week.

The middle part of the employee pyramid consists of recognition. Conley stresses that it is important to recognize employees in ways that are meaningful to them. He makes it the responsibility of his managers to figure out those ways and then implement them.

The top layer of the employee pyramid is the “Meaning” layer. Conley starts the chapter with a quote from Jim Collins who says, “it is impossible to have a great life unless it is a meaningful life” (p. 81). According to Collins, the centerpiece of a meaningful life is meaningful work, something that is “of intrinsic excellence that makes a contribution.” Conley follows up this quote with one from Maslow that again stresses that meaningful work needs to connect us to something larger. He points out that meaningful work results from finding one’s calling, instead of a job or even a career (p. 84).

Conley argues that meaning has become more important in the workplace for three reasons:

  1. We are interested in corporate transformation, which has to be based on personal transformation: using the “workplace as a playground for who [people] are and who they want to become” (p. 86).
  2. Work has replaced other social structures that used to give us a sense of belonging and meaning. With increasing social isolation in the rest of our lives, we look to work for a “sense of social connection” (p. 87).
  3. Successful companies have a “deep sense of mission.” When people are a part of a “heroic enterprise,” a company that works toward a greater cause than simply to make money, they are called upon to become heroes.

I would argue that only the second point is a reason for the importance of meaning in the workplace to employees. The other two are relevant for the company – why a company might try to force people to find meaning where there is none in a mistaken belief that the company’s success can be forced. While a company might think it is great – few would admit that they’re in the marketplace simply to make money – most companies, as Conley points out, have not reached that level.

For his outline of the components of meaning at the workplace, Conley heavily draws on Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and Frankl’s argument that a reason for living (why) can draw a person through almost any circumstances (how). Based on Frankl, Conley proposes two sources of workplace meaning: Meaning at work and meaning in work (p. 89). Meaning at work is derived from the role an employer plays in a person’s life and how the company’s mission is integrated. Meaning in work is derived from the specific tasks a person has to perform on the job. The Hierarchy of Needs is satisfied when meaning at work is satisfied. By believing in the company one works for, even the work we do can become meaningful. An opposite “halo effect” is less likely: the meaningful day-to-day does not create a sense of being part of the larger picture.

Conley’s suggestions rely on tweaking the system rather than on transforming it. Ilene Philipson in her book Married to the Job has clearly outlined the dark-side of using the workplace as our source for meaning. I suspect that many of the companies Conley hails as great companies are in Philipson’s book as employers who divorced their employees (Philipson disguised the companies her clients worked for). Conley misses that, without a two-sided commitment that assures that employees cannot find themselves suddenly without a job, investing our meaning at work is dangerous to our health.

Conley’s employee hierarchy while it sounds good on paper is rather unconvincing. It skirts the underlying issue – the lack of meaning and community in our modern society – while providing solutions that essentially amount to window-dressing. Where a paradigm shift is necessary, Conley calls for printed mission cards. Meaning will remain illusive for most employees as long as companies remain the feudalistic, hierarchical behemoths they are now. A participatory democracy, which in the current economic environment would be suicide, would engage all employees in what is essential for the existence of meaning: Meaning making.

I think Conley is, like so many management consultants, missing the big pink elephant in the room: The way our economy is structured, most people will have jobs that are meaningless to them, that cannot lead to transformation and peak experiences for them. Reality is that our economy is built on perpetual growth, which requires more and more output on the one hand, enabled by increased productive and more compartmentalization of tasks, and more and more consumption on the other. Yet, we’re quickly reaching the limits of this model: There is no place to grow anymore. There are only so many gadgets people can have. At the same time, some people are waking up to the reality that money does not buy happiness, no matter how hard ads try to suggest otherwise. To claim that our jobs can become more meaningful simply by greater awareness – and buy-in – of the company’s mission statement is naïve. As long as employees remain pecks in the machine of growth, meaning and self-actualization will be limited to those at the top of the pyramid, I mean, hierarchy.


Marrying our Jobs

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In her book, Married to the Job, Ilene Philipson takes us on an eye-opening journey through today’s work-world. Philipson argues that the loss of community from the historical sources – neighborhood, church, clubs – drives many people to marrying their job, not only spending lots of hours there but also letting the job and the company’s culture define who they are and our worthiness (1). She calls this phenomenon “dangerous from the individual’s, the corporation’s, and society’s perspective” (32). Through case histories and societal analyses, Philipson paints a rather bleak picture to which she can only offer a partial solution since ultimately society’s approach to work will have to change.

One of the fascinating points Philipson raises is how new our current societal structure is. “Family and community began to dissolve in the 1960s and 1970s, in part due to a desire in our culture for greater personal freedom, individual expression and self-fulfillment” (73). Ironically, our quest for freedom “has been thwarted as we all – mean and women alike – are more tethered to work than ever before” (73). A strong hook to work is our need for relationships, which current theories in human development also emphasize by stressing that a solid relationship network is a sign of a mature adult. Because the rest of our lives are often lacking relationships, relationships at work have become extremely important. Philipson cites research that underscores this: quality of relationships is more important than pay and other perks (91). At the same time, though, work is changing, giving us less security but more opportunity to harness our own strengths by creating the Brand You, as Tom Peters put it (98). Many people find this liberating; others however are left hanging (100). Philipson summarizes the old and new ways employers relate to their employees with this table on page 116:

The Old Way The New Way
Security   Opportunity
Detachment   Total Commitment
Hierarchy   We’re All Equal
Work and Fun Don’t Mix   Pamper Me
It’s Just a Job   It’s So Much More

Jobs now offer a means to a prefabricated life, complete with a neighborhood like campus feel. This is especially beneficial for people who are looking “for a means of anchoring themselves in a fragmented world” (133). And management gurus seem to encourage that. Work as a community-replace comes at a very high cost, though, because jobs today no longer offer security: the community can evaporate the moment we’re laid off. If we cannot thrive on the new way by creating the Brand You, for whatever reason, this new way is a catch-22: we are asked to define ourselves through work, yet that definition might “crumble when it is revealed that their employer ultimately has to respect the bottom line over care, culture, and comforts. Their pain is often rooted in the contradiction between what employers tell their employees they are doing, that is, working together as a team, creating a family or community where everyone’s opinions are valued, promoting a shared purpose – and what they actually do – that is, lay off, demote, transfer, promote, and downsize based on the needs of shareholders or venture capitalists, rather than those of employees” (144). In other words, they are not really keeping their end of the bargain: we are asked to give our all for nothing long-term. And there’s even a more insidious side to this: “because of the decline of family life, communities, labor unions, civic life, and trust in the authority of the sate, there are simply no countervailing voices to question the power of business and faith in the market” (146). Corporations are viewed as the provider of answers to our social ills and we are lulled into believing that what is good for business, is good for us all.

Most of the cases Philipson dealt with who were disenchanted by the new economy when their assumption of an implicit contract was breached are women. Philipson suggests that as women, we are especially vulnerable to the attractions of the new economy. We love to belong and feel needed! We are quick with defining ourselves through outside sources. But, as Betty Friedan before her, Philipson argues, “the woman who is married to her job can be seen as suffering from a problem that has no name” (177). The problem is made hers, though: “The expectation that she should work ceaselessly but with few institutional anchors, little care or attention and often no economic security is never raised. Because to work in such a fashion, today, in the United States, is natural God given” (177). Philipson argues that this is also how women, especially, get trapped. Be it from nature or nurture, we tend to “have greater interests in emotional and economic security from [our] jobs” (181). She summarizes “I am suggesting that on the continuum of fit – who better fits the requisites of the new economy- women may be more askew” (182). Because of this, women are more likely to be married to the job, the problem that now has a name.

Philipson proceeds to provide us with guidelines on how we can become less married to our jobs, which include setting clear boundaries and keeping to a to your hours (188-190). She also encourages us to find a safe place where we can talk about our experience at work, such as psychotherapy (191). In addition to teaching us to set boundaries, for example, it also can help us heal from the unrealistic expectation that led us to be married to the job by giving us a vocabulary to talk about our experience. Simply finding the words, naming the problem, can help us heal. But Philipson also acknowledges the limitations of this approach: after we describe what is happening, set boundaries, then what? (217). How do we meet our needs for belonging and identity can only be met by our jobs because the fragmented world around us cannot meet them (217)? Philipson emphasizes that talking can only be the beginning, when need to “question our basic cultural assumptions and values” (217). Only then can we create new ways of relating that avoid the trappings of living to work. To underscore this call for deep dialog, Philipson recounts the story of one of her clients, Lin, an Asian-American of second generation who displayed all the outward signs of success, including receiving numerous employee-of-the-year awards. She had been admitted for a suicide attempt because her life has lost all meaning after she had been laid off from her job. Behind the façade of success, there was “a life without depth, connection, or meaning” (220). The American dream had turned into a nightmare. Having had the rug pulled out from under her by losing the job she had given her all to, Lin saw herself as a total failure because she could not make it on her own. Philipson points out that the requirement to make it on one’s own has only recently become a societal value (225). We used to be plugged into a large network of support that assisted us in our lives. By tying our worth as a human being to whether we can make it on our own, we have introduced indifference into our social fabric (226). Indifference defines market transactions, which is how we see work, and it is in opposition to love and connection, leaving us alone and isolated. However, the most deep-seated belief that prevents us from creating a more caring, connecting, and meaningful society, is our belief that we are “shallow, fundamentally consumerist, and blindly self interested” (234). Only if we start acknowledging our needs and interdependence and question our current ways of meeting them can we change our society. Philipson ends her book with a call to “finding ways of connecting with, committing to, and caring about each other” (235). Adopting this as our individual and societal goal allows us to find new answers defining the way we live and how we derive personal worth.

This is a rare book because it addresses both the personal and the system side. While Philipson outlines ways we can counteract our temptation to marry our job, she also points out the limitation of those ways because of society’s influence on us. Philipson does not stop at describing those influences, she also points to ways we can change the underlying values by starting to ask crucial questions. Her book is especially important because we are barraged with books that attempt to increase our connection to work, to make it more attractive to be married to the job without looking at the dark side that Philipson so eloquently described in her book.


Not So Great Turning

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I was excited when I started reading David Korten’s book “The Great Turning” because I agree with his assessment that we are currently at a crossroad: we either make some changes in the way we live soon or global warming will wreak havoc on civilization. Korten frames this as the choice between Empire and Earth Community. He does, in my opinion, and excellent job describing the perils, injustices, and dangers of Empire. However, the book becomes largely unrealistic, steeped in wishful thinking, when he begins talking about “evidence” that we are moving toward an Earth Community. I decided that I must be living on a different planet and that the Earth Community will not just happen, as Korten seems to suggest. Korten’s sense of hope seems to stem from two sources: An increase in people’s awareness that we need to change something and the existence of an Earth Community prior to the onset of Empire, which he equates with the beginning of patriarchy. Unlike in his chapter on the travails of Empire, he hardly cites any evidence for these sources of hope – other than his anecdotal experience. He also does not make any suggestions about how a 5,000 year jump in societal structure can be accomplished, i.e., how do we overcome 5,000 years of Empire? Feeling that my time would be better spent by reading other material, I abandoned the book, disappointed in what seemed such a promising beginning.

Another issue I have with Korten’s book comes from his integration of religious views into his proposed solution. He develops a hierarchy of culture and consciousness that implies that the highest form of being is spiritual . His fourth order, Cultural Consciousness, has all the elements necessary to build a society that is consistent with the Earth Charter‘s principles. Including a fifth order, Spiritual Consciousness, seems to suggest that somehow spiritual people are at a higher level than non-spiritual people.

I like that Korten doesn’t buy the idea that we are now living in a democracy that is far advanced from the autocratic rule of kings (and queens): there was a transition from “imperial rule by the power of the sword to imperial rule by the power of money” (p. 140). Korten’s writing about the money system is clear and does not avoid naming the issues: That publicly traded corporations are now yielding the power that kings used to have (and then some), keeping Empire alive and well.

I also agree with Korten when he bemoans that our current democracy lacks the “expansive view [of Athenian democracy] on questions relating to human perfectibility, the good society, civic participation, and the role of the state in supporting each individual in achieving the qualities of wisdom and moral judgment that are foundations of the more robust and mature democracy” (p. 155). A mature society cannot be made up of immature citizens who do not participate in society building.

Korten lost most credibility in my eyes, though, when he makes an intellectual feat of trying to lessen the tension between religion and science by suggesting a compromise solution between creationists and evolutionists. He claims, without giving any evidence, that there are “a considerable number of scientists and theologians [who] hold positions all along the continuum between these extremes” (p. 257). First, evolution is not an extreme. It is not in opposition to creationism. Creationism is not a scientific theory. Evolution is a scientific theory, well supported by a lot of evidence. Second, claiming that a “considerable number of scientists” are non-evolutionists is contradicted by the facts. Of all U.S. scientists, only about 5% are creationists, 95% evolutionists (1991 Gallup Poll). Worldwide, creationist scientists make up less than 1%. Hardly a “considerable number”…

Korten then proceeds to present intelligent design (ID), with a twist, as a viable alternative theory to evolution. He observes that most ID supporters view the creator who supposedly set evolution in motion as extrinsic, apart from his creation. Instead, Korten suggests, “creation may be the manifestation of a creative intelligent consciousness intrinsic to all being, and most particularly to all life” (257). Support for his idea, as Korten points out, comes from religious mystics, not from science. In fact, Korten ignores that ID, no matter what you call the “designer,” has no evidence. It is simply a clever reformulation of creationism, which exploits a gap in current scientific knowledge. The National Academy of Sciences wrote “Creationism, intelligent design, and other claims of supernatural intervention in the origin of life or of species are not science because they are not testable by the methods of science. These claims subordinate observed data to statements based on authority, revelation, or religious belief” (NAS 1999). It appears that Korten’s highest order of consciousness ignores scientific evidence and thus returns to thinking similar to the middle ages, when the earth was flat.

My take-away from the book:

It is dangerous to avoid facing the issues of the Empire, to continue using Korten’s terminology. And, ultimately, Korten’s book does just that. Instead of giving concrete steps we can take to change things, Korten escapes into mysticism and wishful thinking. His website, where I went in hopes of finding like-minded people to start moving toward an Earth Community, lacks any such networking capabilities, which is in stark contrast to Korten’s celebration of the electronic connectedness of all people. Although Korten sees the issues clearly, describes the ways of the Empire with a refreshing candidness, he does nothing to resolve those issues. Instead he tries to paint a delusional picture that everything will be just fine, that we’re already moving in the right direction, that earth and/or the intelligent consciousness will make everything come out alright in the end. That is, in fact, supporting the Empire because we are not doing anything significantly to challenge it.

Korten is doing some wonderful work at Yes Magazine, which documents encouraging developments that show real world alternatives to the workings of Empire. In order to bring about the Earth Community, we need more than that, though. Instead of relying on earth or some sort of mystical consciousness to save us, we better roll up our sleeves and do it ourselves. And that’s where the real short-coming of Korten’s book becomes clear: Nowhere did he address the question of “how:” How do we move from Empire to Earth Community? That is the question I hoped the book would answer but doesn’t and that is where my disappointment in the book comes from.


Another, more detailed, review that I largely agree with: http://www.radicalmiddle.com/x_korten.htm


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