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Month: May 2019

The Fable of the Box Blocker

The Fable of the Box Blocker

By Mike Gonzalez (TheCoffee) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I’m reading another Terry Pratchett book, A Hat Full of Sky, and, as usual, it is hilarious and brilliant. At one point, a wise old witch tells a wise young witch that:

“Learning how not to do things is as hard as learning how to do them. Harder, maybe. There’d be a sight more frogs in this world if I didn’t know how not to turn people into them.”

Granny Weatherwax to Tiffany Aching in A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett

As a recovering addict (to what? oh, you name it) I can attest that this is true on many levels but in this post, I want to relate it to driving.*

Or, more specifically, not driving. As in not driving into an intersection if you can’t get all the way through it because the car ahead of you is still in the intersection or if there isn’t room for your car to clear the intersection when you move forward.

This requires paying attention to what you’re doing with a bit more awareness than normal driving does. You’re not just making sure you don’t run into the guy in front of you. You’re also paying attention to where you will end up being if you keep going even if the light is green and you seem to have the right of way.

Because if you get stuck in that intersection when the light turns red, you will be blocking traffic going perpendicular to you – blocking the box, in other words.

If you’re reading this blog, which you are (funny how I can tell that from miles away and sometime in the past), you are a thoughtful, intelligent person and you never block the box and cause city-wide gridlock. This I know (it is known). What I was thinking about was the best and appropriate response to a box blocker who is sitting in the intersection in front of you.

What should you do?

Clearly, they are participating in the downfall of civil society and need to be informed that their behavior is unacceptable. Therefore you should honk at them. A lot.

But, they have already made the mistake and certainly clear to them that they screwed up so honking at them (a lot) will do nothing but make them feel worse than they already do. They’ll get out of the way as soon as they can and honking will just create noise pollution.

On the third hand, maybe they have no idea that what they did was the wrong thing to do. There are a lot of ignorant people in the world who either never learned or forgot about the problem of box blocking. I learned to drive in New Hampshire and I’m fairly sure it wasn’t mentioned in my driver’s ed class. It just didn’t happen in the early 80s where I grew up. So someone had to tell me. So maybe the thing to do is to get out of your car and walk over and explain to the errant driver that in the future they need to pay more attention to the overall situation BEFORE they enter an intersection.

To make a clear connection to the quote that started this post, the box blocker needs to learn that sometimes it’s best not to drive forward.

It’s a tough one. Clearly none of the options available to the blocked driver are all that good. It’s tough to point out to someone that they screwed up after they screwed up.

Actually, it’s not tough to point out a screw up. What’s tough is to point it out in such a way that they will learn and not get defensive.

I explained the problem of the blocked driver to my son this morning as I drove him to school. Then I asked him if he understood the metaphor. He looked at me in surprise as it dawned on him that I was explaining the difficulty of pointing out planning mistakes to him after the fact in a constructive way. For instance, how could I point out that saying yes to extracurricular lighting design jobs in the middle of finals was counterproductive without him getting defensive and angry such that he didn’t see and learn from his mistake?

He’d already driven into the box, honking at him would just make him mad.

Being a clever (too clever by half, in fact) young man, he said that the best approach was to introduce the subject with a long, rambling explanation of something that seemed to have nothing to do with him and then bringing it back to his situation in a surprising way so that he could make the connection on his own.

And now, as I write this, I realize that that’s exactly how and why 12 step meeting shares, group therapy and biblical parables work.

Two things to take away from this today.

  1. Don’t go forward without consideration. You might end up blocking the box and/or filling your calendar with things that are not a priority.
  2. If you think someone needs to learn something, don’t tell them they are wrong first. That tends to make people defensive and (usually) impervious to learning. Tell them a story about someone else being wrong (use yourself whenever possible) in the same way first.

Feel free to share this with someone who needs to learn something but you don’t know how to tell them.

If you’re reading this and someone shared it with you, you should now take a deep breath and call them and humbly ask them what they think you should learn.

*Yeah, I was only pretending to relate it to driving. Hopefully that’s clear by the end.

Changing Failure From a Bug to a Feature

Changing Failure From a Bug to a Feature

Everyone fails. You probably don’t remember the first time you tried to walk, but I can guarantee that you failed on the first attempt. You also failed the first time you tried to talk.

Imagine if you stopped trying after that first failure. Imagine if fear of failure stopped you from even trying the first time.

Of course, this is ridiculous, yet the fear of failure (atychiphobia) often keeps tons of us from trying tons of stuff.

This would be fine if failure was deadly or likely to leave you wounded or maimed. In the defense of atychiphobia, this outcome was more likely back in the good old paleolithic age when our brains were evolving. The fear is reinforced by our culture where we learn that failure is something to be ashamed of. The message is that failure is cute if you’re under the age of six but after that, it’s not acceptable. In school, failure is often met with implicit or explicit ridicule.

But failure is incredibly valuable. Successful inventors and scientists and entrepreneurs and artists and athletes will all tell you that they achieved what they achieved by first failing, then getting up and trying again with the lessons learned from that failure. Thomas Edison created thousands of lightbulbs that failed before he came up with one that worked. Even the best hitter in the history of baseball (Ted Williams) failed to get on base more than half the time they got up to bat.

Imagine that you’re playing basketball and you take a shot and you miss. If the rebound come right back to you the best thing you can do is to take that same shot again immediately because you know what you did wrong the first time.

“Winners are not afraid of losing. But losers are. Failure is part of the process of success. People who avoid failure also avoid success.”

Robert T. Kiyosaki

“Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.”

Napoleon Hill

“You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don’t try to forget the mistakes, but you don’t dwell on it. You don’t let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space.”

Johnny Cash

“Failure is so important. We speak about success all the time. It is the ability to resist failure or use failure that often leads to greater success. I’ve met people who don’t want to try for fear of failing.”

J.K. Rowling

We want to learn from our failures rather than be stopped by them. So my goal is to take the morality out of failure so we can look at it as something that we tried that didn’t work rather than something that proves we are unworthy or shameful.

The metaphor that works for me is to think of any project as an experiment. In experiments, failures are just unexpected, unsuccessful results that we can learn from.

An experiment is the foundation of the scientific method. The scientific method can be summed up in six steps:

  1. Make observations.
  2. Formulate a hypothesis.
  3. Design and conduct an experiment to test the hypothesis.
  4. Evaluate the results of the experiment.
  5. Accept or reject the hypothesis.
  6. If necessary, make and test a new hypothesis.

The final step would be to share or publish the results of your inquiry.

So let’s use the scientific method to reach a goal.

I want to exercise every day.

The first thing is to make observations. I notice that I exercise when I schedule a time to exercise and if I don’t put it in my schedule I usually don’t do it.

Next, I formulate a hypothesis*. A hypothesis is usually expressed as an if/then statement. In this case, I am hypothesizing that:

I schedule a time to exercise every day
I will exercise every day.

Next I will design an experiment. In science there are three kinds of experiments:

  • Natural experiments where you just observe what happens in the world to test your hypothesis
  • Controlled experiments happen in the lab where every variable is controlled
  • Field experiments happen in the world but the investigator controls as many variables as they can

So we’re doing field experiments. So we want to set it up so that we can control as many variables as possible to test our hypothesis. Now we want to set up and record our materials and methods and see what happens.

So this initial experiment will last for one week after which I will evaluate the results and, if necessary, make a new hypothesis and design a new experiment. Every morning at 7:30 am I will look at my schedule and put in a block of at least 40 minutes to exercise. For this experiment, I will define exercise as any movement that causes me to sweat.

I will share this with an accountability partner (let’s call him or her my LAB PARTNER!) and I will text them every time I schedule the exercise time.

Now I can imagine that there might be more to exercising daily than just scheduling the time but I can also imagine that it’s as simple as putting it in my calendar. We’ll see.

Already I feel a little different about this. I feel like I’m investigating something to find out what works rather than setting myself up for a moral test. Failure in this context will be interesting rather than evidence of my inadequacy, laziness, moral turpitude, or general awfulness.

So please give this a try if you’re afraid of failing at something. There’s no shame in failure but sometimes it’s hard to believe that. So set up an experiment that you’re going to learn from instead. See how that works and let me know know!

*The difference between a hypothesis and a theory is that a theory has been experimentally tested so feel free to use the word theory instead of hypothesis if you feel like you’re doing something that been tested before.

Remembering Memorial Day

Remembering Memorial Day

A friend of mine, Pete Huh, has started a non-profit to remember, honor and support Veterans. He asked me to make a video to explain his project so I did.

You find out more here:

Please take a moment to remember the reason for this holiday. Remember those who have died in service to this country. Shelley and I went to the Los Angeles National Cemetary this morning where over 80,000 veterans are buried to join in the memorial ceremony. It was lovely.

If you are moved to do something to honor and thank those who have given so much, go to the link above and sign up to adopt a grave.

Success Has Always Been the Great Liar

Success Has Always Been the Great Liar

There is a myth about genius. A damaging myth. We watch the talented musician and see the virtuosity, not the hours of practice. We see the book on the bestseller list but not the dozens of rejection letters and the hundreds of drafts.

This myth appeals to the successful because it grants them special powers. They are successful because they were born special. It also appeals to the audience (us) because it gets us off the hook. We can’t achieve greatness because we were not born great.

But this is what Pele, the legendary soccer player said:

“Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.”


So work hard.

But if you do what you enjoy, much (but not all) of the hard work will not occur as onerous. It will be a kind of pleasure.

I was thinking about grit and the idea of applying yourself as I watched a high school student (a friend of my son) perform with the school orchestra under lights that she designed. She’s a talented actress and singer as well and is off to an Ivy League school next year. She makes everything look effortless. Then this morning I listened to an episode of Hidden Brain about the “overlooked factors that contribute to success.” One of those factors is hard, consistent work.

In the episode, the host referenced a quote from Nietzche that pointed out the myth I referenced earlier. Neitzche said that “Success has always been a great liar” because the hardworking creator is hidden behind his (or her) successful creation and becomes associated with that creation. The completed creation appears as inevitable and easy when in fact:

“The most fulfilling human projects appeared inseparable from a degree of torment, the sources of our greatest joys lying awkwardly close to those of our greatest pains…

Why? Because no one is able to produce a great work of art without experience, nor achieve a worldly position immediately, nor be a great lover at the first attempt; and in the interval between initial failure and subsequent success, in the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. We suffer because we cannot spontaneously master the ingredients of fulfilment.

Nietzsche was striving to correct the belief that fulfilment must come easily or not at all, a belief ruinous in its effects, for it leads us to withdraw prematurely from challenges that might have been overcome if only we had been prepared for the savagery legitimately demanded by almost everything valuable.”
— Alain de Botton (The Consolations of Philosophy)

I think de Botton overstates the torture of creation, at least in my experience. Hard work can be just as pleasurable as hard play and often they are the same thing.

The main point is valid. Awesome is not free. There may be a few things that have seemed effortless but usually they are not. Alexander Fleming left out a dish full of bacteria and the mold killed the bacteria. He noticed that and studied it for a decade before he “serendipitously” discovered penicillin and “lucked into” a Nobel Prize. Einstein came up with the thought experiment that led to his theory of special relativity in an afternoon. Then he spent years figuring out the math so he could publish the idea.

So if something is hard. Don’t give up.

Triangulating Yourself Back To Life

Triangulating Yourself Back To Life

I’m currently listening to a course on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that I got out of the library. I’m not taking any quizzes or writing any papers, I’m just listening to the recorded course that’s being delivered by Professor Jason Satter.

So I’m not a therapist or anything, I’m just interested in how my mind works.

But if you’ve read any of this blog you know that.

This course is chock full of interesting stuff but here’s one thing that I want to share today.

A central idea of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) is the notion that thoughts, feelings and behaviors influence each other. This is called the CBT Triangle or the Cognitive Triangle.

If you think about it for a minute its easy to see how this works. Thoughts influence feelings and vice-versa. Feelings and thoughts obviously influence behavior. What’s not instantly obvious is that behavior influences thoughts and feelings.

But numerous clinical studies and anecdotal evidence shows that the way we behave changes the way we feel and the way we think. Even on a very basic level. Smiling, for example, makes you feel better. Power posing can actually make you feel more positive.

Feelings and thoughts can be strangely intractable. If you want to change your internal life, it may be easier to change your behavior.

And it’s easier to change your behavior with a coach or a sponsor or a partner. Most of us will almost instinctively resist if someone tells us to change how we’re thinking or feeling and, if you don’t want to change what’s in your head, you’re not going to.

On the other hand, you can change what you do at the direction of a coach without wanting to. That change in behavior will influence how you feel and how you think.

For example, if you want to be in better shape you can wait until you feel like exercising and, if you’re like most people, you never will and you’ll never exercise. If you engage a friend or a trainer to tell you to exercise, you will do it and pretty soon, if you’re like most people, you’ll start to like it enough to keep doing it.

More on this soon. Sorry I’ve been away for a couple weeks! Things are going very well and I’m back to daily (week-daily) blogging.

You’re Welcome!!!

A Stumble

A Stumble

In case you were under the impression that I’m perfect, I’m here to disabuse you of that notion.

This weekend, for reasons that are baffling even to me, I re-qualified myself as an alcoholic and got very drunk.

I won’t go into the details but it was bad. I made a very bad initial decision to have some wine. I convinced myself that I could do that. Of course, I then proceeded to drink way more than some because I am an alcoholic and while I was abstaining my inner addict was doing push-ups.

That’s how it works.

That’s why we say we’re in recovery rather than saying we’ve recovered. You don’t really get over an addiction, you just abstain from the behavior one day at a time.

So, I am going to (at least) 30 AA meetings in 30 days (2 down, and attending a 4th step workshop on Friday and re-reading the Big Book and working on restoring trust to my relationships with my family.

The Upside and Downside of Being a Victim

The Upside and Downside of Being a Victim

Here’s a quiz. What is the drama triangle?

  1. An area in Hollywood with lots of small theaters bound by Santa Monica Blvd, Highland and the 101.
  2. A technique of blocking a scene with 3 people.
  3. The result of an implementation of the triangle offense when the star player doesn’t like it.
  4. A dynamic model of social interaction and conflict developed by Dr. Stephan Karpman.

While I’m proud of coining this term for option number 1, the correct answer is 4.

I learned about the drama triangle from my therapist and it’s a pretty powerful model. Basically, Karpman (a student of Eric Berne, the founder of transactional analysis and the author of Games People Play) pointed out that in nearly any dysfunctional, emotionally charged interaction, the participants are playing one of three roles. That of the persecutor, the victim or the rescuer. People play these roles unconsciously and they can switch roles from moment to moment.

The way it works is that the persecutor attacks the victim and the rescuer defends the victim. Pretty simple. People get into their roles and focus on the roles relationships and the drama inherent in this game rather than listening to each other as people and solving the actual problem.

If you think of any thorny situation in your life you can probably identify the roles that people are taking on. You can also probably recognize how those roles change through the interaction. For example, the persecutor attacks the victim and the rescuer intervenes. The persecutor then takes on the victim role and casts the rescuer as the persecutor and then the former victim rescues the persecutor.

Here’s the secret. The victim is the one who has the most power in this game. The victim gets the pity and compassion of the rescuer and makes the prosecutor look like the bad guy. On top of that, the victim gets all the attention. So the goal of the game is to be the victim as much as you can. If no one is victimizing you, you can cry “poor me” and boom, your a victim. If that doesn’t work you can persecute someone until they or someone else fights back and then you can take the victim role. Finally, you can jump into an argument that’s none of your business as a rescuer and, like magic, you’ll get attacked and viola! you’re a victim.

Congratulations! You won the game!

Victimhood has other perks as well. A victim can justify or divert attention from their own transgressions and attacks. Karpman’s drama triangle originally assumed that participants are taking on these roles subconsciously but it’s very clear that many people take on the role of victim on purpose. On the political front, our national dialogues have turned into struggles to claim the title of The Most Aggrieved. Just take a look at the twitter feed of our Victim-In-Chief. Hard to believe he’s the most powerful man in the world when he’s really just a victim of a bunch of bullies.

Poor, poor, pitiful me…

So that’s why people like to play the victim. It seems like a powerful thing to be. It also puts all the blame for your troubles on someone else.

But it only seems powerful. It’s powerful if you’re playing the drama game and you’re manipulating persecutors and rescuers. But that’s not real.

Being a victim is certainly a good way to avoid taking responsibility for your life.

The problem is that being a victim is a good way to avoid taking responsibility for your life.

If you don’t take responsibility you can effect change. You can’t make anybody else do anything (believe me, I’ve tried). So if you think someone else holds the keys to your happiness then you’re screwed. I just opened up a fortune cookie today and inside is said “if you don’t want people to drive you crazy, don’t give the keys.” My message for today is the basically the same. When you play the victim, you give other people the keys to your life. That’s no way to live.

Get out of the game.

Unless Phil Jackson is the coach and Jordan’s on your team.

Victim? I don’t think so…

Then you can play the triangle all you want and you’d better know your ring size, champ!

Four Steps to the Summit: An Introduction

Four Steps to the Summit: An Introduction

I love learning and I love making things. I really love creating communities that make things.

Over the years I have formed amazing artistic communities that have continued to grow and create long after I left them. I have also overcome devastating personal problems of my own making. Looking back I realized that there were commonalities in every successful project I was involved in. After taking a look at what worked, I organized those common techniques into a framework I originally called the Three Simple Steps. Recently I realized that a fourth step was needed so now it’s The Four Steps.*

  1. Step Back – The Creativity Step
    • Looking at the big picture and the temporal, cultural and personal context, articulate where you want to go and how you want to get there. Stepping Back is about defining your dreams and creating concrete goals.
  2. Step Up – The Integrity Step
    • Take responsibility for what you are responsible for and create structures to hold you accountable for what you say you’re going to do. Stepping Up is about taking control of your life.
  3. Step Forward – The Productivity Step
    • Take action and create good habits that will help you reach your goals.
  4. Step Out – The Community Step (this is the new one)
    • Involve other people in your project. Expand your circle of friends and colleagues. Get out of your comfort zone.

Here’s how the 4 Steps came to be.

Growing up, I had some wonderful teachers, Mrs Olney in first grade, Mr Petillo in Fifth and Ms Martin in 6th, who admired and nurtured my love of reading and math and science. My parent’s marriage started falling apart just as I started kindergarten. As a result of the emotional chaos at home, I took refuge in the relative safety of school and I developed a strong interest in academics.

For various reasons, I ended up attending 4 different schools from Kindergarten through 3td grade. Without a consistent peer group and with my parent’s focused on their own problems, I worked on winning the approval of my various teachers. Luckily, I had some great ones. Mrs Olney, Mr Petillo and Ms Martin were especially amazing.

I was a bit of a loner as a kid, happiest when I had my nose in a book. In fifth grade, I kept track and I finished 100 books between September and June. By eighth grade, however, I’d had enough of being a geeky outcast. When I got to a new high school the next year I consciously reinvented myself as a more social person.

I spent the first few months of freshman year observing social interactions and I realized people appreciated being listened to. If you were interested in other people, they would be interested in you. I also realized that the biggest barrier to social acceptance was my own shyness. Social rejection was much less likely and, when it did happen, less painful than I thought it would be. Applying these two principals I became a person who could cross the invisible boundaries between cliques and as a senior, I was elected as my schools first Student Body President.

I high school I also started doing theatre and in college that developed into a passion. Interestingly, I fell in love with creating theatre. I didn’t really love seeing theatre, at least not theatre in houses that are big enough to pay actors a professional wage. I loved and still love tiny spaces where you can reach out and touch the people in the front row.

The theatre and improv I did in college gave me a sense of family and belonging that I had when I was very little. When I graduated I was shocked (SHOCKED) that everyone I worked with didn’t want to start a small theatre with me. The members of my improv group wanted to go to law school or start real careers. I was very like a bassist from a college rock group who kept saying “what about the band, man!?!” at graduation.

So I moved west at the invitation of a classmate named Bryan Cole and helped re-start Bainbridge Island’s Annex Theater in downtown Seattle. There I found a new family and I fell in love with the woman who later became my wife.

Six years later, she and I moved to Los Angeles. After a couple of lonely years, I needed an artistic family so I created one. It was clear to me that what the city (and I) needed was another small theatre. I invited everyone I knew who did theatre to my living room one Sunday afternoon and we invented Sacred Fools Theater.

A few years after that I teamed up with Peter Lebow and Charles Papert and we created Instant Films, a company that randomly connected filmmakers, writers and actors to create short films over the course of a weekend. It worked like magic and after less than a decade we had made over 250 films with some of the most talented people in Hollywood.

Looking back at everything that worked, from plays I directed to communities I founded, and the many things that didn’t work, it became clear that having a clear goal and a strong team was crucial to success. Having a high level of integrity and staying in action was also vital. About 10 years ago I invented these Steps as a fun way to remind me of these important components of achievement.

Creating all this community could not plug the holes in my heart that were there since childhood and so while I was doing all this great stuff, I ate too much and I drank too much and I did other things to try to heal these psychic wounds that I didn’t know I had. In short, I became an addict.

Luckily, no one (including me) had to die before I reached rock bottom and started to deal with my problems. I ended up using 12 step programs, therapy, hypnosis, medical intervention and a lot of hard, hard work to recover and to stay in recovery. Along the way, I learned a lot about what works. All of this has gone into the 4 Steps.

I listened to and read a lot of Ziglar, Robbins, Covey and others while trying to solve my problems and get things done. I also took classes and seminars (I highly recommend Landmark Education to anyone who wants to look at their life in a new way) and studied religious ideas and behavioral economics. All of this has influenced the ideas in the 4 Steps.

So now I’m codifying the 4 Steps and creating a workbook so that I and others can use the 4 Steps as a guide to creating a life that is full of creativity, integrity, productivity and community.

*If you are interested in getting an advanced copy of the 4 Steps to the Summit Workbook, put your email on the mailing list or send me an email at