You Can Call Me (Antisocial) Al

Al was one of my substance abuse clients at the methadone clinic where I used to work. I knew he was a Type 5 because I managed to persuade every single one of my clients to complete an Enneagram questionnaire. With his shaved head (usually covered by a baseball cap) and multiple tattoos, Al was a little off-putting, appearance-wise. He had spent more than one stint in San Quentin where he joined an Aryan Brotherhood gang. As he—and several other ex-con clients—explained to me, you had to belong to some group in prison in order to survive. He never seemed very committed to the white supremacist thing, and being a 5, he certainly wasn’t part of any gang on the outside.

Somewhere along the way, Al had encountered a psychiatrist who diagnosed him as having Antisocial Personality Disorder. I’m not sure what the psychiatrist was thinking. Did he believe that because Al had committed antisocial acts, he must therefore have Antisocial Personality Disorder? I don’t know. And I wouldn’t have cared, except the doctor was so convincing Al took on the diagnosis as part of his identity. It was almost as if he introduced himself by extending his hand and his diagnosis, “Hi, I’m Al. I have Antisocial Personality Disorder.”


The disconnect for me was that Al was unfailingly prompt for his counseling appointments and far more considerate of me than many of my less-sinister-appearing clients. He’d knock softly on my door and stick his head into my office after the client ahead of him had left. “I just wanted you to know I’m here,” he’d say. “Take your time. If you need a break, I’ll wait.”

He knew I was a big San Francisco 49ers fan when Steve Young was the quarterback (possibly because of the red jersey with the huge number 8 I wore to the clinic every game day). So when he came across a used set of 49ers sweats at a thrift store, he got them for me.

He once spent a few months in an East Bay correctional facility, during which he wrote me several droll letters. He also sent a card with a kitten in a wicker basket on the front. On the inside it said, “Just want you to know how much I miss you!” In pencil (the only writing implement allowed), he’d added, “I’m out before you can say ‘meow!’”

After months of weekly counseling sessions, I figured that if Al had a mental health diagnosis it was probably Avoidant Personality Disorder. Although I’ve never been in prison, joined a gang, gotten tattooed (something I’m still threatening to do), or committed any felonies, based on Enneagram type alone I’m a much better candidate to develop Antisocial Personality Disorder than he was.

Avoidant Al

Eventually, I pulled out the DSM IIIR (a version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), and during one of our sessions we read through both diagnoses. It seemed clear to me he met the criteria for Avoidant Personality Disorder—which also fit with his Enneagram type—and he agreed.

To some extent, it was a matter of exchanging one label for another. What difference did it really make? Well, it was subtle at first, but once Al started to see himself in that different light, he began to open up more. He developed some insight into his behavior and especially into his feelings. Before I left the clinic, he got involved in a relationship with a woman who had a young daughter, and I saw him access the healthy side of Type 2, which is part of his triad. It was a wonder to behold.

The Enneagram gave me another lens to look at my clients through—ultimately one that was more humane and more useful than some of the other lenses through which they’d been seen.

Ready to Amp up Your Creativity?

An article in 99U offered its readers 10 “creative rituals” used by various creative professionals, including writers, entrepreneurs, and designers. Of course, you don’t have to be a creative “professional” to be creative. Creativity is an approach to being in the world.

And, as the article’s author Sean Blanda says:

Sustained creativity doesn’t come from a flash of brilliance or a single afternoon of inspiration. It comes from a consistent routine that serves as the bedrock for getting things done.

There’s a difference between rituals, routines, and habits. Jack Kerouac touching the ground nine times before writing is a ritual. Writing every day is a habit. “Brainstorming at the bar” (item 9 below) is a routine. There’s value to be had from all of these suggestions, but some are more valuable than others. (Hint: Don’t miss #7.)

#1 Take a Quarterly Vacation

Venture capitalist Brad Feld says that taking a week off every three months with his wife is the most impactful thing he’s done. He leaves his computer at home and turns his smart phone over to his wife for the duration. While away from home, Feld reads, relaxes, sleeps, and generally enjoys himself, returning home refreshed.

Maybe taking four weeks of vacation a year is feasible for you, but even if it isn’t, the recommendation to take time away from your regular work and routines is a good one. The amount of time you spend away isn’t as important as getting away—and really disconnecting when you do.

#2 Hold a “Retrospective” After Projects

Harper Reed (former Obama campaign CTO) said his team relied on meeting at the end of each project to ask what the experience was like, what went right, and what went wrong. They didn’t wait till the end of the campaign to do it; they conducted many such meetings along the way. That allowed them to pay attention to feedback and adjust course.

It may be easier to hold a retrospective meeting with a team, but even if you work solo you can incorporate a reflective activity into your workflow. It’s difficult to identify what’s working and what’s not working if you don’t stop, even briefly, to assess. Another way of using this process is to stretch your thinking by asking those questions near the start of a project or goal from the perspective of having completed it.

#3 Write Every Day

Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, is a professional writer who also uses writing “as a tool for self-discovery” when she’s trying to work through something or make a tough decision. She believes that “writing forces you to locate your clarity.”

I’m a big fan of developing a writing practice, but I think writing only leads to clarity if you use it deliberately and intentionally. As I wrote in W Is for Writing, “in order to get the best results, you need to be clear from the outset about what you want from your writing.”

#4 Create an “Interesting People Fund”

Writer and entrepreneur Ben Casnocha invests in an “interesting people fund,” which he describes as a pre-commitment strategy. He pre-commits both time and money to meeting interesting people to make it more likely that he’ll actually do it. As he says, it takes time to develop any kind of relationship.

I think that allocating resources (time and money) to cultivate relationships with interesting people can, over time, alter your mental model. You’ll be on the lookout for people who interest you and you’ll get into the habit of reaching out to them to make a connection on more than a superficial level. This may be more important in our high-speed, digitized lives than it has ever been!

#5 Keep “Tear Sheets” to Get Inspired

Designer Sarah Foelske gets stuck once in a while; that’s when she “visits her tear sheets.” (Tear sheets are pages clipped or torn from a newspaper or magazine that show a client’s ad.) She’s saved things she likes or that inspire her, including books, beautiful packaging, or pages from magazines. She finds that getting away from the project she’s working on and flipping through her tear sheets, even if for a few minutes, can spark new ideas.

This is really an inspiration file, so it could take almost any form, depending on what inspires you. There’s such an abundance of new brain and behavior information that my habit is to either bookmark or print copies of the articles that interest me to check out later. That may seem like research more than inspiration, but it’s really both. I often get new ideas from what I read and make new connections, which energizes me—and that, I think, is the point of an inspiration file.

#6 Nap Every Day

News anchor Pat Kiernan takes a nap. Every day. He says he’s “super protective” of his nap and keeps a hard line about it. “You have to learn how to say no.” He wants to be rested and healthy, so he has learned to resist the temptation to do everything he’s invited to do.

There’s a lot of research to support the benefit of daily napping, and I know several people who swear by it. But I confess that I’m not one of them. If a nap during the day recharges you, then take Kiernan’s advice to heart and treat nap time as you would any other important appointment on your calendar. If you’re intentional about making it a habit, you’ll find that much easier to do.

#7 Envision What You Will Be Remembered For

Rapha founder Simon Mottram writes “faux business pieces,” articles for Financial Times or Wall Street Journal as if the company had already accomplished their current goals. In one article, he described how Rapha had revolutionized the cycling market and was “leading more people to discover road racing as a lifestyle and a fundamental part of their lives.” He was very specific about what that looked like and how many customers the company had. Five years later, he says, the article pretty accurately described the company’s reality.

“Envision what you will be remembered for” doesn’t go far enough. This is an example of identifying and visualizing your desired outcome clearly and specifically enough to try it on for size—and to use as a benchmark to tell when you’ve gotten to where you wanted to go. The desired outcome is not the same thing as the goal. A good goal is S.M.A.R.T., but that’s not enough. You have to identify what’s going to be different afterward and what it’s going to feel like and look like—for you and for others. (Essentially, why do you want to achieve this goal or create this thing?) Taking the time to identify your desired outcome is a habit that pays spectacular dividends and one that you can incorporate into planning anything of any nature in any area of your life.

#8 Brainstorm at the Bar

Designer James Victore says he does his “think-work” at the bar and his “work-work” in his studio. He sketches on paper, usually in a bar or restaurant. His routine includes going to the park to write (longhand) for an hour or so in the morning and then taking his writing to the studio to work on. Afterward, he goes to a bar or restaurant, has a beer, and refines his idea or does some sketching. He uses his studio for “putting stuff together” rather than coming up with ideas.

I can relate to this one! I discovered that while I can do all kinds of work in my home office, one thing I cannot do there is any kind of long-range planning. I’d tried taking the planning to various coffee shops, but that wasn’t effective, partly because I don’t—and apparently don’t want to—equate coffee shops with work. But I discovered, almost by accident, that taking my planning materials to the nearby library allows me to get an amazing amount of work done in a relatively brief amount of time. So notice how your environments affect you and figure out which environment is the most effective for the task or process you’re working on. Develop a routine around what works rather than around what you think should work.

#9 Get Out of the Building

Garrison Keillor credits getting out into the “observable world”—as opposed to sitting and looking at a blank page—as providing him with “the start of something.” He recommends walking around with scrap paper and pen to take notes on what you see in the world. These observations and notes are valuable even if they don’t make it into your final work because “everything—everything—starts with the observable world.”

Your brain usually determines what you pay attention to, so you attend to things selectively. We all do. Check out The Invisible Gorilla video on YouTube for verification. Creating a practice of not just noticing what you notice (the usual suspects), but consciously directing your attention can definitely change your perspective. Tell your brain what kinds of things to look for and it will find them. It will also make connections and see patterns that might otherwise have been invisible.

#10 Engage in “Morphological Synthesis”—or Not

Artist and filmmaker Ze Frank uses morphological synthesis to segment his thinking process into parts. He says, “You take 4-5 adjectives or characteristics and then brainstorm in that direction.” He then “flips back and forth between extremes until something interesting comes out of it” and then repeats the process. He likes it because it “forces you to explore the outside boundaries of things.”

OK, that’s interesting, but what Frank also said in the same interview is that he makes something every single day. He said it’s the only design habit he has. “No matter what, I make something.” Developing the habit of making something every day is awesome. It doesn’t have to be big. It doesn’t have to be “successful.” It doesn’t have to be totally original. Just make something. If you’re a writer, write something. If you’re a cook or a chef, cook something. The result doesn’t need to be a tangible object, however. This is about creativity, after all. Create an idea or a concept. Make a new connection between ideas, objects, or people. Have some kind of impact.

I think this is a wonderful agenda to take on: what did I make today?

Think INside the Box

The concept of thinking outside the box is a metaphor for thinking differently, unconventionally, or from a new perspective. It’s also a cliché about clichéd thinking. You can’t actually think outside the box, anyway, since you are constrained by the mental model your brain constructs and maintains for you. The mental model is the box, and you are always inside it. Contrary to some branches of popular thought, that’s not a bad thing.

Here’s a story that’s meant to illustrate thinking outside the box but that’s actually an excellent example of just the opposite—thinking inside the box.

Island of Safety*

On August 5, 1949, 15 firefighters and their foreman, Wag Dodge, were airlifted to Mann Gulch in Montana to extinguish what they thought would be a relatively small brush fire on one side of the gulch. They parachuted onto the opposite side of the gulch, joined one fire guard, and began descending with the wind at their backs.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, the wind reversed, and the fire jumped over to ignite the grass on their side. As the flames rapidly approached them, the men began to climb the slope to try to outrun the fire, pausing only to drop their heavy equipment.

But Dodge, the foreman, realized the fire was moving too quickly for that to work. He stopped and lit the grass in front of him with a match. The dry grass immediately caught fire and the wind blew the fire up the side of the gulch, away from him. That left a patch of charred ground Dodge crawled onto. When the advancing fire arrived, it flowed around and then away from his island of safety.

The other men misunderstood what he was doing and in spite of his exhortations for them to join him, continued up the slope. Only two, who had found shelter in a narrow crevice, survived.

Notice that it was the foreman who had the idea to fight fire with fire.

As the foreman, Dodge presumably had more experience and knowledge than the men he was supervising. The other firefighters not only didn’t come up with the idea, they also didn’t understand it when he showed it to them. The “box” Dodge was thinking inside was different from the boxes of the other men.

While you can’t escape thinking from inside your own box, you can continually remodel and expand it, thereby increasing your possibilities for original, innovative, and creative thinking.

Here’s another thinking-inside-the-box example.


Andrew Stanton of Pixar Animation Studios was working on the screenplay for WALL-E, about the last robot left on a hopelessly polluted earth abandoned by humans. He was struggling with the design of WALL-E’s face, which he wanted to be both machinelike and expressive.

At a baseball game one day, he borrowed binoculars from someone sitting next to him. When he mistakenly turned them around so that the lenses were on the wrong side, he realized the binoculars looked like a face. After flexing the inner hinges several times to create different facial expressions, he decided WALL-E would look like a “binocular on a stem.”

Stanton had been writing and directing animated films for 20 years by the time he started working on WALL-E. He had already framed—and attempted to solve—the problem of WALL-E’s appearance before his binocular incident. And just as Wag Dodge did, he had a vast reservoir of experience and knowledge to draw upon.

The contents and the connections inside his box made it possible for him to come up with the solution.

The best things you can do for yourself to live a healthy (on every level) life also happen to be the best things you can do to expand your mental model: learn, move, create, challenge yourself; repeat.

*The two stories were drawn from The Eureka Factor by John Kounios and Mark Beeman.

W Is for Writing

Writing is such an effective tool for change that I use it in all of my classes and workshops. It can help you clarify intentions or goals and assist you in staying on track. It’s also extremely useful for helping you calm down, focus, and develop clarity about troubling or difficult issues.

The pen compels lucidity. —Robert Stone, novelist

The catch is that in order to get the best results, you need to be clear from the outset about what you want from your writing. You could just fill page after page in a notebook (something I did for quite a few years until I chucked the lot), but after you’re finished you may not be any clearer than you were to begin with. You might even be more confused.

Starting out with a question or prompt, maybe just a keyword or key phrase, can allow you to access some of the thoughts that may be swimming below the surface. Using a multi-part exercise can help you get even deeper and reap greater rewards.

The two basic approaches to writing—flow writing and deliberate writing—involve using the two different parts of the brain (System 1 and System 2). The problem with completely unstructured writing is that it can muddle these two approaches so that you don’t get the full benefit of either.

Flow Writing:
Making Use of Associative Thinking

The unconscious (System 1) excels in associative thinking. It detects patterns and connects dots quicker than the conscious part of your brain (System 2) can. It’s a fast processor that sometimes sacrifices accuracy for speed. But it also has access to lots of information the conscious brain isn’t aware of.

Flow writing, which is also called free writing, is non-linear, non-rational, and non-logical. You put your pen to paper and write quickly, letting the words “flow” without censoring or editing them. You don’t stop to think about what you’re writing. The best way to free your mind for flow writing is to set a page limit or use a timer.

Flow writing is a good choice if you’re not entirely sure what the problem is. If you have a lot of thoughts swirling around in your head, you can get them down on paper and take a look at them. But even with flow writing, you’ll get better results if you begin with a specific question, prompt, or keyword.

Deliberate Writing:
Making Use of Logical, Linear Thinking

The conscious part of the brain is rational, logical, and linear. It operates at a much slower—more deliberate—speed than the unconscious. A good way to engage conscious thinking is to respond to a series of questions or prompts. While flow-writing casts a wide net in search of answers or information, deliberate writing narrows the search.

This 8 Step Problem-Solving exercise is an example of using deliberate thinking to gain clarity. You proceed through the sequence of questions or statements with the intention of reaching some resolution.

Integrated Writing:
Making Use of Both Kinds of Thinking

Sometimes flow writing or deliberate writing alone is sufficient, but integrating them can be much more powerful. Integrated writing is synergistic rather than additive, which means the whole (the result) is greater than the sum of the parts you used to get there. A few examples of integrated writing include:

10 minutes of flow writing (System 1 associative thinking) followed by writing the answers to a series of questions (System 2 logical, linear thinking). You can create your own set of questions or use the ones in the 8 Step Problem-Solving exercise.

Write Your Way Out of the Story. For instructions scroll to Antidote #3 in this post on rumination.

Go Deeper: This is a 4-part exercise that’s best to do in one sitting. Begin by writing a question at the top of a blank page and then flow write in response to it for 8-12 minutes. Next, reread what you wrote (engaging System 2), select a sentence or phrase, and write it at the top of another blank page. Flow write in response to this sentence or phrase for 8-12 minutes. Finally, reread both pieces (System 2), find a question—either one you asked in your writing or one that occurs to you after reading—write it at the top of a blank page, and flow write in response to it for 8-12 minutes. Then reread all three pieces and write a one-paragraph summary (System 2).

No matter which type of writing you decide to use, remember to have an intention. Be clear about what you’re doing and what you want to get out of your writing.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Even if writing doesn’t come naturally to you or seems like punishment, if you want to create habits that serve you, follow through on your goals and intentions, and develop your self-awareness, it’s worth exploring and experimenting with it.

As with any tool you want to master, regular practice makes all the difference. When you set and keep the same general time and place to write, you encourage (or prime) your brain to respond.

When you go into a restaurant, your brain is focused on deciding what to eat. When you get into your car, your brain is focused on driving. This is one of those obvious things you probably don’t really think about it. When you go into the restaurant, your brain is not focused on driving because it isn’t presented with environmental cues related to driving.

Another reason for developing a writing practice is that the real benefits of writing are cumulative. They are gained over time, not as the result of any individual exercise or piece of writing.

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

T Is for Thinking

What exactly is thinking? It turns out this is an area where you can’t trust dictionaries to provide meaningful definitions. If you consider the various definitions of the word—or the process—you’re likely to either be confused or to grab one that fits your existing concept so you (and your not-necessarily-thinking brain) can move on.

I don’t want to get philosophical about it, but I think there’s value in acknowledging the confusion. Being able to think clearly and effectively is essential for anyone who wants to lead a satisfying and meaningful life. It’s the difference between using your brain and letting your brain use you.

Warning! Metacognition* Ahead.

One definition equates thinking and opinion. But that source also equates opinion and judgment, so my opinion is that their thinking is sloppy and can’t be trusted. Are they referring to opinions and judgments rendered as a result of careful deliberation or are they referring to off-the-cuff (and often off-the-wall) moment-to-moment opinions and judgments that result from jumping to conclusions based on little or no evidence?

Another source says thinking is the action of using one’s mind to produce thoughts. This sounds reasonable, but I’m not sure what they mean by “using one’s mind.” Based on the way the two parts of the brain work, we know that the majority of thoughts we have are suggestions from System 1 (the unconscious) rather than the result of conscious deliberation.

Yet another definition equates thinking with having a conscious mind. But there’s a difference between consciousness and both the contents of consciousness (what you’re aware of—see above) and conscious processes. You’re conscious of all kinds of things you’ve never given any particular thought to.

For example, I’m aware that I dislike the color pink and rainy climates. I’m also aware that I’m suspicious of people who prefer rainy climates. But I’m not under the impression that any actual thinking was involved in the development of those so-called “thoughts.”

How Do I Think?
Let Me Count the Ways.

Some of the confusion undoubtedly results from the fact that, as with memory, there are so many different types of thinking that the term needs adjectives to clarify and differentiate them. Variations on the theme of thinking include:

  • Critical thinking
  • Associative thinking
  • Ruminative thinking
  • Creative thinking
  • Default-mode thinking
  • Counterfactual thinking
  • Overthinking
  • Positive thinking

Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly, rationally, and objectively and to understand the logical connection between ideas. It’s an active rather than a passive process. Because it requires System 2 (conscious) attention, it doesn’t come naturally and isn’t easy. In order to make an important decision or solve a significant problem, you need well-developed critical thinking skills so you can effectively evaluate both the information at hand and the “intuitive” suggestions spontaneously arising from System 1.

Associative thinking is the process System 1 (the unconscious) uses to link one thing (thought, idea, experience, etc.) to another. Associative thinking is much faster than logical, linear thinking, and there are times and places when quick, non-reflective responses are required. But there are some built-in problems with associative thinking. It sacrifices accuracy for speed, so the patterns it sees and the connections it makes don’t always lead to useful conclusions. It doesn’t discriminate very well, preferring clear-cut distinctions rather than shades of gray. And it takes numerous cognitive shortcuts known as cognitive biases.

Ruminative thinking is the tendency to passively think about the meaning, origins, and consequences of negative emotions (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991). One negative incident or thought leads to another, and the escalating intensity of negative thoughts can result in depression, aggression, or even an increase in physical pain. You can ruminate about situations, other people, or about yourself (self-rumination). Rumination can feel like problem-solving, but all it does is keep you focused on the problem. The danger is that it can become a habit—and habits are notoriously difficult to change.

Creative thinking (or creativity) is the ability to see what already exists in a new light, to think of new ideas, and to make new things. This is less a talent or gift than an approach to life, and it provides many rewards apart from the products of creativity. Creative thinkers are less likely to be bored, more likely to have greater problem-solving abilities, and are very likely to get more general enjoyment out of life. The key to creative thinking is to know when to use logical, linear (System 2) thinking and when to use associative (System 1) thinking.

Counterfactual thinking is thinking that runs counter to the facts. It consists of imagining outcomes other than the ones that occurred: the way things could have been—or should have been—different from the way they turned out.  Being able to imagine different outcomes is an enormous evolutionary and practical advantage. It’s integral to being creative or inventive and in not continuing to make the same mistakes over and over again. Counterfactual thinking can be either functional (helps you figure out what to do next time) or nonfunctional (leads to blame, stress, anxiety, etc.). And it can be either upward (how could things have gone better?) or downward (how could things have gone worse?).

Default-mode thinking is the opposite of mindfulness. Although you can sometimes direct your mind to focus on what you want it to focus on, at other times it just wanders along a winding path on a trajectory of its own. That’s because whenever you’re not focused on an external task—and even sometimes when you are—the network of brain structures referred to as the Default Mode Network (DMN) is active. Mind wandering isn’t the same as being distracted. In fact, default mode thinking is essential for consolidating memory and maintaining your sense of self (who you are).

Overthinking is often the result of believing you can fully determine—or even guarantee—an outcome based on the amount of thinking you do about it. It often consists of making multiple lists of pros and cons, running through if/then scenarios, trying to gather as much information as possible, or attempting to approach an issue from every conceivable angle. This is not an effective approach to planning or decision making because thinking more or thinking harder doesn’t lead to clarity, only to confusion and possibly a headache. Too much logical, linear thinking can be as bad as too little.

Positive thinking is usually defined as a mental attitude that accentuates the positive and eliminates the negative. Supposedly, positive thinking can help you succeed and better deal with life’s upsets and challenges. However, a considerable amount of research has come to a different conclusion, which is that positive thinking may be more of a hindrance to success than a help. Positive thinking isn’t the same as optimism, which is a character trait. Positivity and optimism are desirable, but not to the point where your glasses become so rose-colored you’re unable to see through them.

*Metacognition means thinking about thinking as opposed to reacting to it or being at the effect of it. The part of the brain that runs you most of the time (the unconscious) initiates both thoughts and actions that serve to maintain your personal status quo. So if you want to change the status quo, you need to determine what kind of thinking you’re doing—or what kind of thinking is “doing” you.

Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.