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Expectations vs. Reality

I have a friend who is fond of saying, “Low expectations are the key to happiness.”

We always have a laugh when she says it, and I agree—to a point—with her perspective. Over time, I have learned the hard way to keep my expectations low around things I don’t control. Take  the Washington Nationals, for instance. As long as the Lerners (the owners) and Mike Rizzo (the General Manager) . . .

  • fire and hire managers without regard for their records or experience (see: Baker, Dusty and Martinez, Davey);
  • refuse to spend money to acquire help in the bullpen when the team obviously has a need (see: bullpen meltdown in the heat of a pennant race vs. lowly Marlins on Saturday and Sunday, September 21-22 and aforementioned Davey Martinez); and
  • expect some of the best players in baseball (see: Rendon, Anthony) to give them a hometown discount instead of offering what they are worth on the open market . . .

I find I enjoy the experience of Nationals baseball a great deal more when I don’t “expect” a world championship or for some of my favorite players to get long-term deals.

But this isn’t a post about baseball*.

To look at the opposite of low expectations, a recent Friday Forward column by the self-described “serial entrepreneur” Robert Glazer argues for the importance of having high expectations for yourself, your family, and your teams at work. Again, I find myself agreeing—up to a point—with his perspective. He writes, “The notion that people are likely to rise or fall to the level of our expectations—and that our subtle positive or negative reinforcements can significantly impact outcomes—is something that both leaders and parents should seriously consider.” So far, so good. But too many times leaders and parents put high expectations on their teams or on their children and hold it over them, without offering assistance to get over the bar. For a classic case, read almost any book by the late Pat Conroy. I have seen Glazer’s perspective succeed in my life—where teachers, supervisors, and mentors both conveyed and supported high expectations of me—and I’ve also seen instances where high expectations by a supervisor, without corresponding positive reinforcement, can absolutely demoralize a team.

Expectations are funny things. Perhaps one of the major challenges in this area is the way we tie our happiness to the outcomes of those expectations. John Johnson, a professor at Penn State University, has written a telling piece on The Psychology of Expectations. He notes that, “Unrealistic expectations are premeditated resentments” and then explains how this plays out time and again in our lives.

Johnson works through the “magical thinking” of expecting something good to happen just because we wish for it. While we should outgrow this mindset by age 7, too many adults live their lives under this fallacy. Johnson also explores how many of us pin happiness on fulfilled expectations. The problem of expectation, he notes, “occurs when we expect something to happen without good reasons for that expectation.” This is exacerbated when our expectations involve other people.

Oh my, have I ever seen that problem in action!

First, the admissions. I have tied happiness to expectations in the past. No surprise here, it often doesn’t work out (e.g., the first round of the 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2017 National League playoffs.) Also, I sometimes (perhaps regularly?) assume someone will do something because I think they should act a certain way. I may never communicate that expectation, but it is there in my head, so it is obvious . . . right? An example which many may find instructive is when we reach out to someone via email or text expecting a reasonably quick response simply because we usually respond quickly to email and texts. When the other person doesn’t respond on our preferred timetable (or at all), then our expectations haven’t been met. In response we become resentful. Or worry. Or take some other non-productive approach that takes up space in our head when we should be focused on other things.

Of course the opposite is true as well. I know that there are those who have expectations as to how I will act or respond, without conveying those expectations to me. Or worse, as Johnson notes, “it is unrealistic to think that merely communicating your expectations clearly is going to get people to behave the way you want them to.”

Just because you told me how you want me to act doesn’t mean that I’m going to take your perspective. Each of us has our own desires, goals, values, and worldviews.

Johnson writes about the huge difference between realistic and unrealistic expectations.

“Believing that an unverbalized expectation will bring you what you want is magical thinking and is unrealistic. Expecting that doing what in the past has reliably brought about a result you want is realistic. Expecting others to do what is in your interest, but not their interest, is unrealistic. Expecting others to do what is in both of your interests can be realistic.”

We can—and, indeed, should—have expectations. However, Johnson suggests that if we find things to be grateful about, even when our expectations are not met, we will experience “serenity rather than resentment.”

I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I,
and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.
If not, it can’t be helped. —Fritz Perls, ‘Gestalt Therapy Verbatim,’ 1969″

When used effectively, expectations can challenge us and improve the way we work with our families and teams. Just don’t tie expectations to being happy.

Perhaps a better mantra moving forward would be “No expectation should be your key to happiness.” Find your happiness elsewhere.

Have a good week.

More to come…


*Sorry. I just got carried away, as we’re in the final week of the regular season with eight  games to go and the Nationals are tied with Milwaukee for the two wild card slots, with the Cubs four games behind. It is nail biting time. The Nats will probably get in the wild card game, but I don’t have any expectations that they’ll end up with the better record and get to play at home.

How Email Can Boost Your Success. (Seriously)


Email (Designed by Freepik –

I seldom agree with every point in the countless “self improvement” articles one finds online at business sites. Scott Mautz’s recent article on six emails to send each week to boost your success was the rare exception.

Several years ago I made the decision to stop hating email and find ways to use it more effectively and—most importantly—to use it to meet my goals. Mautz’s overall point is similar: that emails can be used proactively to fuel success. I know this sounds implausible for those who may get hundreds or thousands of emails each month and struggle just to manage the volume. But I think he’s on to something.

Emails are often seen as a necessary evil. If you think instead of how they can be used for both real and affirming communication, the connection to this tool and your success becomes clearer. While I encourage you to read Mautz’s article in full, here are my takeaways about the different emails he champions.

1. The summation email — I always value someone who steps forward to pull the various strands of a meeting together, with coherent outcomes and proactive next steps. Don’t assume that the leader of the meeting will do so. It takes a special skill. If you can be the one in your meetings to pull the story together, your value to the team, organization, or company will quickly rise.

2. The email to yourself — Martz’s recommendation here is to make your final email on Friday a note to yourself with one of your core, non-negotiable values in the subject line. The thought is that it will be among the first things you open on Monday morning and you’ll be reminded to be kind, or to collaborate, or whatever else is your value of the week, right out of the box. We can all use reminders, and this is a quick way to focus.

3. The appreciation email and #4 The thank you email — I’m lumping these two together, although Martz has them as separate emails for a very good reason. The appreciation email is to let someone know how much you appreciate their work / effort / attitude or something similar. The thank you email is just like it sounds: to thank someone for doing something for you. As I noted in lesson #59 of the 60 Lessons from 60 Years post, I became intentional several years ago about saying “thank you” to someone every day. Often that happens through email. It is one of the smartest things I ever did. If you follow Martz’s advice, you’ll thank him (and perhaps me).

5. The growth email — I’ve been slow over time to reach out to ask mentors and other friends for advice, or to get together for coffee, or simply to pick their brain. However, in my gap year I’ve increased that type of outreach and it has been very rewarding. I’m simply sorry I took so long to make this a habit.

6. Email a friend for no reason — Relationships are one of the keys to a healthy and happy life. Bernadine Healy, M.D. made the following statement in a May 1994 commencement address at Vassar College:

“As a physician who has been deeply privileged to share the most profound moments of people’s lives, including their final moments, let me tell you a secret. People facing death don’t think about what degrees they have earned, what positions they have held, or how much wealth they have accumulated. At the end, what really matters is who you loved and who loved you. The circle of love is everything and is a good measure of a past life. It is the gift of greatest worth.”

If you drop six emails you are sending out now (and I bet you can identify six each week without much effort), and in their place send out these six emails each week, I agree with Scott Mautz: you’ll directly enhance your prospects for success at work (or in your volunteer capacities, gap year, or retirement years). You’ll also feel better about your life.

Have a great week.

More to come…


A Weird Night at the Ballpark

Full moon over Nats Park

A full harvest moon on Friday the 13th over Nationals Park

Maybe it was the full harvest moon over a packed Nationals Park on Friday the 13th.* Perhaps it was the insertion of Jason—the villain with the hockey mask from the Friday the 13th movies—into the President’s Race. (He favored Teddy for some reason unbeknownst to me.)

Who knows for sure . . . but it was a weird night at the ballpark. Beginning with the national anthem.

Did I mention that Washington was highlighting National Truck Driver Appreciation Week? Well, the singer of the Star Spangled Banner was a trucker who brought his guitar to the stadium. After strumming the opening chord, he sang an enthusiastic—if not exactly on-key—version, which would have been okay if he had dropped the idea of bringing the guitar back into play while still singing. Suffice it to say, our friend did not quite match the pitch of the guitar at the end of the anthem, which I could see coming. It was a “don’t give up your day job” moment.

While it was a Friday night in September, it was not just any Friday night. No, I don’t mean that it was Friday the 13th (although it was). It was “Tony Two Bags” bobblehead night! And the crowds were lined up at 5 p.m. when the gates opened.

Tony Two Bags

The “Tony Two Bags” bobblehead takes a place of honor on my baseball shelf in the Man Cave.

Nats fans love Anthony (Tony Two Bags) Rendon. The nickname comes from his ability to hit doubles all over the yard (not to mention home runs). Yet we are afraid because of the inherent cheapness of the Lerner family, owners of the Nationals, that we may be seeing the last month of this MVP-caliber player in a Washington uniform. Losing Tony would be devastating to our fan base.

Unfortunately, on his bobblehead night, Tony could barely get the ball out of the infield. Among the weirdness from the night is the fact that Tony Two Bags—who is leading the league in hitting—had two infield pop-ups, a line-out to left field, and a strikeout. Perhaps the fact that the team arrived back in DC from a rain-delayed late-night game in Minneapolis at approximately 7 a.m. on game day had something to do with it.

The Nats couldn’t catch a break all night. When they hit balls hard, they were right at a Braves fielder. Rookie Mike Soroka was dealing for the Braves, and his fine effort was backed up by the Atlanta bullpen.

Finally, I’ve often said that when I attend a live baseball game, I usually see something I’ve never seen before. Last night, it was watching an umpire throw the first base coach out of the game. You read that right: not a player or the manager, but the first base coach! Here’s how Washington Post beat reporter Sam Fortier described it:

“Frustration, caused by a lack of sleep or not, spilled over in the eighth inning. Howie Kendrick thought he checked a swing, and first base umpire Tim Timmons believed otherwise; Nationals first base coach Tim Bogar agreed with Kendrick. Bogar argued until Timmons ejected him and Martinez sprinted out to corral his coach. The manager later said he thought his coach was protecting the player because Kendrick had yelled down the line at Timmons.”

Weird. Just weird.

The Braves are a very good team. So we need to go back out and battle them again on Saturday.

Play ball—weirdness or not!

More to come…


*The Nationals announced a sellout but not every seat was filled. It was still great to be with that many people at the ballpark.

Religious Freedom and the American Experiment

Sacred Liberty

“Sacred Liberty” by Steven Waldman

Few things set my father into action more than news of some fellow Baptist or other Evangelical Christian trampling over the doctrine of the separation of church and state in order to advance the views of their personal brand of religion or to persecute a faith community they saw as un-American.

That rare breed of liberal Southern Evangelical Christian, my father was a regular on the Letters to the Editor page of the local newspapers, as he worked to tell his neighbors why Baptists—of all denominations—should cherish religious freedom. Just before he died, my father—a proud member of the Religious left—sent in his last letter on the topic, in response to Tennessee’s consideration of naming The Bible the official State Book. As one of his neighbors described the letter to me at his funeral, “It was a good one!”

Suffice it to say that Tom Brown would have appreciated Steven Waldman’s new book, Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom as a welcome addition to our understanding of this important right.

Waldman’s 2019 work is a companion, of sorts, to his earlier Founding Faith, and it stands as an impressive overview of America’s long struggle to craft a new way forward in supporting religious freedom. He begins by showing how the colonies originally used traditional approaches to religious tolerance. In other words, the majority religions—all Christian and usually of the Anglican or Congregational denominations—persecuted those whose faith differed from the government-sanctioned variety. Waldman’s style ties together historical considerations with modern-day issues. Thus, he writes that the devout Puritans, who brought their antipathy to Catholicism and Paganism with them to America, “launched the first war on Christmas” under the direction of their leader, Cotton Mather.

“The Bible did not sanction the holiday, which in their eyes was both papist (invented by Catholics, they believed) and pagan (in that it co-opted the winter solstice festivities of pre-Christians). And people tended to get excessively, well, merry. . . .  ‘Men dishonored the Lord Jesus Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas’ than during the rest of the year, (Mather) declared. So in 1659, the Puritans made Christmas illegal.”

Thankfully the war on Christmas soon went away until it was rejuvenated in another day and time by FOX News as a false political wedge issue.

More importantly to our story, James Madison stepped on the scene as the Constitution was being drafted. Waldman goes into some depth to describe Madison’s “ingenious, counterintuitive, and often-misunderstood blueprint for the religious liberty we enjoy today.”

Madison argued that the best way to promote religion was to leave it alone. That was—and still is—a radical concept. Instead of government, as under the Puritans in New England or the Anglicans in Virginia, favoring one denomination or belief, Madison argued that the state should neither “constrain nor coddle” religion. His feelings on this point, Waldman suggests, came from his interactions with Virginia’s Baptists, who were very much persecuted by the ruling Anglican church. Madison also believed that religious liberty would arise from a “multiplicity of sects” with different denominations all working to find converts and followers. He wanted open competition. He also wanted rules so that the majority religions could not use their status to hold down the newer and smaller sects. Throughout the book, Waldman holds up Madison, with his belief in the free market of religious ideas, as a true hero of religious liberty in America.

One of the book’s main selling points from my perspective is the ecumenical nature of Waldman’s worldview. The stories of persecutions of Catholics, Mormons, and Jews in America are fairly well known. Yet even in his detailed telling of these stories I found new information. Did you know there was a Donald Trump before Donald Trump? In the 1830s,

“One prominent New Yorker got a great deal of attention for his nationalist tirades. A celebrity who used his fame in the commercial sector to launch a political career, he argued that a foreign country was intentionally sending us ‘their criminals’ because America did not have sufficient ‘walls’ and ‘gates’ to keep them out. While acknowledging that some immigrants might be good, he said, ‘we must of necessity suspect them all.’ What’s more, he advocated restricting the entry of those immigrants practicing one particular religion that was, he said, associated with violence and tyranny.”

Who was this herald of our current president? None other than Samuel Morse, an inventor of the telegraph and the Morse Code. And was he fighting against Islam? No. He was assailing “Popery.” It is clear that what goes around in terms of religious bigotry can very well come around again.

Waldman’s work is important for his examination of the groups often left out when we consider religious freedom from only the Christian context. African spirituality and Islam were purged from the religious practices of the slaves, creating what one scholar calls a “spiritual holocaust.” Waldman notes that at the time of the nation’s founding, about 10% of the slaves—literally hundreds of thousands of people—were Muslims. There were probably more Muslims in America at the time than Jews or Catholics.

Mount Taylor

Mount Taylor in New Mexico, a site threatened with uranium mining. Visible from up to 100 miles away, it is a pilgrimage site for as many as 30 Native American tribes and it has special religious significance to the Acoma people.

Waldman also looks seriously at Native American spirituality, which—like the fight against the spirituality of the slaves—was purged primarily with violence. The majority religions pushed to “Kill the Indian and Christianize the Man.” One scholar quoted in the book notes that the Jesuit missionaries first had to convince the Crow Indians that “there was such a thing as sin, which was not a concept in the Crow religion.” Without sin we wouldn’t need a redeemer. This confused the Crow, who could not fathom why God would create people in his own image and yet have them be steeped in sin. And, of course, fights between denominations also came into play, as Catholic missionaries complained that Indians were being sent by the government to Protestant schools, and vice versa. They argued that “the First Amendment guaranteed the parents’ right to choose . . . between Christian religions.” Waldman’s explanation of the fight against the Ghost Dance and the subsequent massacre at Wounded Knee led him to the conclusion that “Whites didn’t view their war on the Ghost Dance as an assault on religious freedom, but the Indians surely did.”

The First Baptist Church

The First Baptist Church in America, in Providence, RI – a key landmark for religious liberty and the separation of church and state

Each chapter in this book has a wealth of information. Waldman looks at the history of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (and the dozens of important court cases they fought to gain their freedom); the alignment of Jews and Christians during World War II; the fight over prayer in public schools (where the Supreme Court ruled, in a core idea that some Protestants have long resisted, that the majority religion doesn’t get special privileges); the impacts of the entry of millions of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists into our society; the political alliance of conservative Catholics and Evangelicals after decades of fighting each other; the approach taken by the majority Christian religion to cast themselves as a persecuted minority; and the current attacks on Islam (despite the work of George W. Bush following 9/11). There is much to discover and ponder in this thoughtful book.

Touro Synagogue

Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI – a landmark of religious liberty associated with the rights of non-Christian denominations; an affiliate site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation (Photo: National Trust)

Where I found Waldman’s work lacking is in his approach to nonbelievers. To his credit, he is not hostile to the 23 percent of Americans who are unaffiliated with a religion, but it is clear that he favors a country with strong religious beliefs, even as he makes the case for pluralism. He chides secularists for seeking the same type of space that he argues religious adherents need in the public realm. When speaking of court decisions about LGBTQ issues, Waldman doesn’t make a strong effort to differentiate between the individual’s practice of a religion and the push by corporations and others to discriminate, because of the religious beliefs of the owners or managers, in the private business sector where we all live and work under a secular system of laws, public investment, and taxation. In reading reviews online, I found some evangelical readers felt that in discussing the rights of LGBTQ individuals and communities Waldman went too far in the other direction. Waldman, of course, might argue that being challenged on both sides of the issue means that he hit his target.

The final chapter—in which Waldman lays out his thoughts on how we can preserve religious freedom from the current threats that are all around us—is one that is certain to bring both delight and despair, often to the same reader. It is a thoughtful list, and I will just mention a few to whet your appetite.

First, he begins this chapter by surveying the status of religious liberty in other countries. Most would agree that we remain a beacon of freedom in this area, even with the threats we are facing. Waldman also notes how quickly the persecuted become the persecutors in America, recalling that “Puritans fled religious harassment in Europe and then hanged Quakers in America” while “Evangelical Christians led the way for religious freedom early in our history, but many of their leaders have turned against it in our own time.”

Waldman moves on to his prescriptions with the reminder that we are a nation of religious minorities. No one dominates, and our system should reflect that fact. Unfortunately, the biggest threat we face at the moment is the powerful effort to demonize, marginalize, and persecute Muslims in the United States. Not only does it harm Muslims, but in Waldman’s view it “represents a disintegration of the basic compact that sustains religious freedom for everyone.” The lines of attack today against Muslims are strikingly similar to those used in the past against Baptists, Mormons, Catholics, Jews, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

To strengthen religious freedom in America, Waldman calls for

  • Religious groups to cultivate a heartier all-for-one, one-for-all solidarity around religious freedom.
  • Americans to appreciate each person’s right to seek God, even when they “detest” the person’s theology.
  • Better understanding of religious freedom by the press.

Three other prescriptions call for more explanation (or pushback).

First, Evangelical Christians should work to regain their position of moral leadership. 

Throughout his book, Wardman rightly points to the work of Evangelicals in the push for religious liberty. But he sometimes glosses over the past role of these groups in some of the nation’s worst sins, such as slavery, the devaluation of women, and LGBTQ persecution. There is also no real discussion given to the current Evangelical support for separation of immigrant children from their families and for unrestricted access to assault rifles and other weapons of destruction. Waldman also assumes the best from some evangelical leaders who—to my eye—are clearly con men and hucksters out to make a buck. Religious beliefs have little to do with the core of their work.

I was also frustrated that Waldman does not highlight the role of the “Religious (or Christian) left” as a beacon for moral leadership. The Christian left was a force during the Civil Rights era (think of The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray—member of the LGBTQ community, Civil Rights and Women’s Rights activist, the lawyer responsible for producing what Justice Thurgood Marshall called “the Bible of Civil Rights law,” the first female African American Episcopal priest, and an Episcopal saint—or the seminarian and martyr Jonathan Daniels) and the work of these believers continues to be a force today. Waldman—like the press in general—unfortunately gives those Christians very little airtime. Franklin Graham is quoted throughout the book (in both positive and negative ways). The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II of the Moral Monday and Repairers of the Breach movement and theologian Jim Wallis of Sojourners never get a mention.*

Second, LGBT rights advocates should drop the assumption that anyone who opposes same-sex marriage is a bigot.

There may be some (or many) gay-rights advocates who feel this way, but I found Waldman to be “over the top” on this point. First, he writes, “for two millennia organized religion has been the leading force in marginalizing, criminalizing, and destroying the lives of LGBT people” (emphasis added). Thus, he is asking for an extraordinary sense of graciousness on the part of gay-rights advocates with this prescription. Yet, as the father of a gay son, that is exactly what I’ve found among many who support LGBTQ individuals and their rights. I know there are people of faith who believe strongly about this issue. I don’t think they are all bigots. But I do believe—as Timothy Egan wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed—that many of those who feel this way are being very selective in what church doctrines they choose to enforce.** Waldman never really addresses that issue.

Finally, the devoutly religious should “show a little more confidence in God.” 

This is the crux of Waldman’s argument, and I couldn’t agree more. He writes, “Madison decried the ‘unchristian timidity’ of those Protestants who wanted government support to prop up their church. Believers need to embrace the idea that in a free arena, their faith will triumph or at least reach the right people, even if it does not have the help of an assistant principal leading schoolchildren in prayer.” Christians—especially of the right-wing variety—convey an image of a “faith that is petty and a God who is insecure.” I would also add that the image conveyed by the so-called “Christian right” is one more focused on power than Christ-like politics.

Religious freedom is an important topic, and I’m glad Waldman’s book has come forth at this time. Clearly, we need to understand the importance of religious liberty—including the freedom not to worship, if we choose—in these troubled times.

More to come…

*The Repairers of the Breach seek “to build a moral agenda rooted in a framework that uplifts our deepest moral and constitutional values to redeem the heart and soul of our country. We challenge the position that the preeminent moral issues are prayer in public schools, abortion, and property rights. Instead, we declare that the moral public concerns of our faith traditions are how our society treats the poor, women, LGBTQ people, children, workers, immigrants, communities of color, and the sick. Our deepest moral traditions point to equal protection under the law, the desire for peace within and among nations, the dignity of all people, and the responsibility to care for our common home.”

**Egan writes: “In Indiana this summer, Archbishop Charles C. Thompson stripped a Jesuit prep school of its Catholic identity for refusing to fire a gay, married teacher. The same threat loomed over another Indianapolis school, until it ousted a beloved teacher with 13 years of service. He was fired for getting married to another man—a legal, civil action.

The archbishop claimed he was upholding Catholic teaching, an example of the kind of selective moral policing that infuriates good people of faith.

Catholic teaching also frowns on divorce. But when a divorced teacher, at the same school where the gay teacher was fired, remarried without a church-sanctioned annulment and posted her status on Facebook as a dare, the archbishop did nothing. For this is a road that leads to thrice-married, politically connected Catholics like Newt Gingrich, whose wife Callista . . . is now Donald Trump’s ambassador to the Vatican.

Archbishop Thompson says he tries to be ‘Christ-centered’ in his decisions. If so, he should cite words from Christ condemning homosexuality, any words; there are none. That may be one reason a healthy majority of Catholics are in favor of same-sex marriage, despite what their spiritual sentries tell them.”

Feedback on Feedback

What do you do when someone else is providing you with feedback? Do you feel defensive? Thankful? Worried? Antagonistic? Relieved?

Hearing feedback

Receiving feedback

It depends, of course, on the situation.

We all get feedback from parents, spouses, siblings, partners, bosses, co-workers, friends, or even perfect strangers. Most of us also give others the benefit of our perspective. Yet, as you give advice, have you ever stopped to take the other person’s point of view and consider the ways in which you react and respond to feedback from others? Have you changed your approach in order to treat others as you would want to be treated?

Providing and receiving feedback has been on my mind recently. As one navigates through more and more stages of life, I sense a natural tendency to increase the number of times we dole out our wisdom to others. Perhaps it is human nature, but we act as if we want to ensure that what we’ve learned throughout our lifetime doesn’t go with us when we head off to our reward.

Sharing experiences and insights with others is a critical part of life; yet, these conversations are also freighted with challenges, as both participants often operate under an illusion of validity. When it comes to providing and receiving feedback, I’ve both observed and participated in the good, the bad, and the ugly. All can be instructive.

In thinking this through, I came up—naturally—with some advice to pass along. Consider this my giving feedback on the topic of feedback.

First, accept our differences — Recognize that each of us provides and acknowledges suggestions and criticism in different ways. That may sound basic, but I fear that too often we believe that the person we are engaging will clearly see (and support) our point of view, if only they have the benefit of hearing it directly from us. The reality is that one’s first instincts upon receiving critiques will differ based on the relationship they have with the other individual, security in his/her own skin, comfort level with the action or  request in question, respect for the person making the suggestion, and personal values, among a host of other factors.

Like it or not, our amazing ability to make a cogent analysis followed by a transformative suggestion may be far down the list of how and why others choose to receive and accept our thoughts.

Next, take feedback seriously — When I’m at my best, my general response upon receiving feedback is to listen patiently and acknowledge that I’ve heard the suggestion. I try and give the advice serious consideration, perhaps talk with others to get a broader perspective when appropriate, and attempt to change my behavior when warranted. However, I’m often not at my best, or perhaps I’ve engaged my documented case of selective hearing.* If that’s the case, I may need to return to the individual and have a “seek first to understand” discussion before jumping to conclusions. But I have to be intentional no matter my mental state because our instinct is to quickly make up our minds based on what Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow, calls the WYSIATI (what you see is all there is) rule. The confidence we have in our beliefs depends “mostly on the quality of the story” we can tell about what we see, even if we see just a little. This is true when both giving and receiving feedback.

Be positive —When providing feedback to others, I have learned that the old adage of “you catch more flies with honey (than vinegar)” holds true here as in so many areas of life. I will try and put the suggestion in a positive context, perhaps leading with something I admire before moving to the observation at hand.

Check your motive — Especially when giving advice, stop to think about why you believe it is important for you to impart some of your wisdom on your co-worker, partner, child, parent, sibling or friend. We may believe we have the best of intentions, but the one receiving the input may have an entirely different take on the conversation. Are you really working to improve a situation, or are you simply trying to make a point? There’s a big difference in how effective you will be given your motivation.

Finally, framing and stories matter — Kahneman notes that different ways of presenting the same information can evoke different emotions. “The statement that ‘the odds of survival one month after surgery are 90%’ is more reassuring than the equivalent statement that ‘mortality within one month of surgery is 10%.'” We all have very different mental maps of how the world works, and our mind is a machine for jumping to conclusions. When giving feedback, it is important to understand that the individual receiving it likely has a very different story in his or her head about how the world works. This is true even in the most intimate of relationships. Think about what you want to say before the moment arrives.

When we get into what seems like an endless feedback loop, it may be useful to stop to examine the issue together (especially with a family member or intimate friend), using a more deliberative, logical, and slow way of thinking. We don’t take that approach because we find it much harder than the normal intuitive, emotional, and fast way of approaching problems. Our disagreements may relate to how the problems are framed, and yet we passively accept the framing provided by others. Kahneman suggests that we “rarely have an opportunity to discover the extent to which our preferences are frame-bound rather than reality-bound.” The moral feelings at the heart of so much advice and feedback are “attached to frames, to descriptions of reality, rather than to reality itself.”

The next time you hear “you’re not the person I want you to be,” or when you are inclined to tell someone else how you want them to live or work, stop. Then, think of ways to engage that deliberate, logical, slow way of thinking to ensure a more reality-based conversation. And finally, make certain you are not simply imparting your wisdom in an effort to ensure that it doesn’t go with you when you end your days on earth. Your children, partner, friends, or co-workers will thank you for that consideration.

Have a good week.

More to come…


*My father was a master at selective hearing, and I am pretty sure I’ve inherited that gene. In fact I have the medical documentation to prove it. As I told the story five years ago on More to Come…, I mentioned to my boss that I had an upcoming appointment with an ENT, in part because, “My wife says I don’t hear too well anymore.” My boss replied, “Well I think you hear just fine. You know, selective hearing is a documented phenomenon.” We both laughed, and I forgot about it, until I was in the chair at the ENT’s office. After pleasantries, Dr. Picken asked why I was there. I told her, in part because “My wife says I don’t hear too well anymore.” She just smiled and asked me, “Does anyone else think your hearing has deteriorated?” I remembered my boss’s comment, and relayed that. She said, “Your boss is right. Selective hearing is a documented phenomenon, and it almost always happens in conjunction with our families.” Guess whose hearing was determined to be fine that day? Whoops.



Jerry Douglas

The Jerry Douglas Trio at Rams Head in Annapolis

Jerry “Flux” Douglas is among a handful of innovators whose life work has defined, transformed, and elevated the dobro, taking it from a little-known instrument used primarily in bluegrass to the point today where it is heard and welcomed in a wide variety of musical styles. Much of the credit for the dobro’s growth in popularity results from Jerry Douglas’s skillful musicianship and free-wheeling approach.

Several years have passed since I last heard Douglas take front and center in the instrumental spotlight. He is much more likely to be showcased playing his role as sideman extraordinaire, as with Alison Krauss + Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas (longest band name ever) or on more than 1500 albums.

Thus, last evening promised to be special. I joined friends at the Rams Head in Annapolis to hear Douglas front his own trio and show off his monster instrumental chops (and idiosyncratic singing voice). He didn’t disappoint, playing a generous set of almost two hours and covering a range of musical styles. A couple of my favorites were from those old-time bluegrass stars Jimi Hendrix (Hey Joe) and Chick Corea (Spain). There was also a great version of the Tom Waits tune 2:19. How can you not love a tune with the verse:

“On the train you get smaller, as you get farther away
The roar covers everything you wanted to say
Was that a raindrop or a tear in your eye?
Were you drying your nails or waving goodbye?”

The trio included two other stellar musicians: drummer Doug Belote and bassist Daniel Kimbro. I was floored by Kimbro’s masterful work on the double bass, which even elicited some appreciative looks from Flux.

Douglas mentioned, after one extended jam, that he’d spent the summer playing with The Earls of Leicester (the Flatt & Scruggs tribute band that he founded), and that this opportunity to play with his trio at the Rams Head was like receiving a “Get out of Jail Free” card. He did return to his bluegrass roots (in a sense) to wrap up the main portion of the set with his blazing tune, Who’s Your Uncle?

I first heard Jerry Douglas in the early 1980s, and he remains one of the most adventuresome and eclectic musicians around. Take the chance to see him live. It will be worth it.

More to come…


Resisting the Pressure of Reality

Labor Day is a time to refocus and rejuvenate. Facebook feeds are full of pictures of students heading off to the first day of school. Summer vacations are wrapped up and business activity picks up. After the news lull of the summer months . . .

Wait . . there was no summer news lull?

Unless you were disciplined enough to cut off your electronic devices and stop your newspaper deliveries, I suspect you know about Greenland and Denmark. The proposed nuclear (as in bomb) response to hurricanes. Our where-do-we-stand-this-hour trade war with China. Immigrant children dying in U.S. custody. Home-grown domestic terrorists killing men, women, and children in never-ending mass shootings. An unwillingness on the part of one of our political parties to protect our system of electing the country’s leaders. Dismantling of critical environmental protections. Selling off public land to the highest bidder. Disarray in the G-7. Staggering income inequality and a wildly fluctuating stock market. And that was just last week.


I fear we are coming to a point where many will give in to despair from the never-ending chaos of the news cycle and the dysfunction it portrays.

I want to discourage you from becoming discouraged. As the poet Wallace Stevens wrote in the midst of World War II, we need to “resist the pressure of reality.”

Stevens’s quote came to my attention when reading Steve Almond’s book Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to our Country. Almond calls on Stevens as he considers the “manner in which our souls become desensitized by the grim and unending procession of accounts we call news.”

I believe in the power of stories. Our brains are wired to use stories to absorb all that is around us and to help establish meaning from what could be chaos. And while the human race’s embrace of reason and science have saved millions of lives, we still choose stories to construct our own realities.

The result is that we tell ourselves stories that are fraudulent and frivolous; stories designed to sow discord and spread fear. Some stories we ignore because they are too frightening to confront. Almond’s bottom line: “Bad stories arise from an unwillingness to take reality seriously. If bad stories become pervasive enough they create a new and darker reality.” Yet, while we need to take reality seriously, we also need to resist the pressure we feel from that reality.

The final “bad story” of Almond’s book is entitled, “America is Incapable of Moral Improvement.” This is the doom and despair fiction we tell ourselves, and Almond returns to one of the causes in a recent online commentary:

“. . . the fundamental media bias these days is conflict bias: a relentless compulsion to focus on arguments and accusations to the exclusion of shared interests. We’re living in the age of the sick burn.”

And he suggests a way forward:

(T)he candidates (for president) should aim their passion at the causes most Americans support, as they did in the midterms: a tax system that selects need over greed, greater access to health care and education, a climate policy based on science, sensible gun control, an immigration system that secures our borders without abusing families seeking asylum and so on. . . . I’m eager to identify the candidates who recognize that this election isn’t about their individual fate, but about a common belief: that government should be a force for good in the lives of the disenfranchised and vulnerable.”

We cannot leave this solely up to the candidates. Can enough of us “confront our bad stories and divine their meaning, and begin to tell better ones?” I am far from a Pollyanna, but I believe we can.

A critical way to move past despair is through action: how we use our conversations with others to listen first, and then tell our stories about what America means to us. How we support policies and actions that move us toward the common good. How we hold our current elected officials to account, and how we support candidates who focus on what we should be as a people. Almond makes the case that “Our fundamental challenge as citizens of good faith is to move beyond the passive consumption of politics. Opinions don’t win elections. Actions do.”

I believe the question we have to ask ourselves is a simple two words: Why not?

Hope that is grounded in memory tells us that people have changed things that seemed intractable many times in the past—from ending slavery to giving women the vote to allowing LGBTQ+ individuals to love and marry whomever they please. As a country, we have shown moral improvement over the years in dealing with racism, immigration, religious freedom, and income inequality. George Packer, in his riveting and sad 2013 book The Unwinding, provides an example out of the Great Depression.

“Starting in 1792 with George Washington, there were financial crises every ten or fifteen years. Panics, bank runs, credit freezes, crashes, depressions. People lost their farms, families were wiped out. This went on for more than a hundred years, until the Great Depression, when Oklahoma turned to dust. ‘We can do better than this,’ Americans said. ‘We don’t need to go back to the boom-and-bust cycle.’ The Great Depression produced three regulations.

The FDIC—your bank deposits were safe.

Glass-Steagall—banks couldn’t go crazy with your money.

The SEC—stock markets could be tightly controlled.

For fifty years, these rules kept America from having another financial crisis. Not one panic or meltdown or freeze. They gave Americans security and prosperity. Banking was dull. The country produced the greatest middle class the world had ever seen.”

Improvement, like many things in life, is a process. Over time, we forgot why these rules were important. Greed took over. Suddenly, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, regulations became too much of a bother and too expensive. The S&L crisis was the harbinger of the 2008 financial meltdown, and it was the American people—not Wall Street or the bankers—who paid the bills. Just because we dealt with a problem almost 100 years ago doesn’t mean that it won’t resurface.

James Baldwin reminds us that, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Perhaps it takes a full-blown crisis for us to rise up and say, “We can do better than this.” We have in the past. It is time once again to resist the pressures of reality and—as Teddy Roosevelt proposed in 1910—work for a system that values human welfare above property rights and a federal government that safeguards social justice against corporate greed.

It is up to each of us individually—in whatever way is most meaningful to us— to act so as not to become discouraged.

Have a good week.

More to come…