Book Shelf: Focus


  • Applying three categories of focus – “inner, other and outer” – is essential for a highly functioning life.
  • “Selective attention” is the ability to focus on one task in spite of “sensory and emotional” distractions.
  • Staying on target suppresses any emotional interference and helps you to remain cool under pressure.
  • Emotions intrude on focus; completing a task is more difficult when you’re upset.
  • Attention grows stronger and sharper with use, exercise and practice.
  • In a “wandering” state of mind, you pause for self-reflection, contemplate future scenarios, hatch ideas or question assumptions.
  • Self-awareness comes from recognizing internal cues and interpreting them accurately.
  • Focused empathy takes three forms: “cognitive, emotional and empathic concern.”
  • Today’s youth, members of the first digital generation, are growing up more attuned to devices than to people.
  • Every leader must focus a firm’s attention where it’s most needed and most productive.



Daniel Goleman, author of the groundbreaking, mid-‘90s classic Emotional Intelligence, turns his attention to the subject of attention – and explains why focus is essential for navigating life, performing at your best, leading others and, ultimately, improving the world for future generations. His illuminating explanations of brain functions will be useful to businesspeople and educators. Ironically, Goleman digresses often, and his efforts to incorporate issues that matter to him – such as climate change and economic inequality – prove confusing. Still, he’s superb at thoughtfully explaining how people think and feel. His simple explanations of the workings of the human brain, and his depiction of focus as a triad of attention paid to “inner, other and outer” targets make reading his work more than worthwhile. Goleman compares attention to a muscle you can flex and strengthen. For a buff psyche and enhanced mental tone, try this attention workout.

Key Points

  • How your brain exerts attention;
  • How to use three kinds of focus; and
  • How to build your focus to enhance your learning, performance and leadership.


Paying Attention
How well you pay attention affects every aspect of your life. Effective focusing skills enhance mental processes, including understanding, learning, listening, being creative and reading other people’s signals. Most people underestimate focus or overlook its importance.

You need to exercise all three categories of focus – “inner, other and outer” – to function well in life. Inner focus refers to heeding your gut feelings, values and decision-making abilities. Other focus pertains to how you relate to and connect with other people. Outer focus allows you to get by in the larger world.

“Focus is not just selecting the right thing, but also saying no to the wrong ones.”

“Selective Attention”
Someone writing poetry on a laptop in a busy coffeehouse is demonstrating selective attention – focusing on one task and ignoring external stimuli. Such distractions are either “sensory” or “emotional.” Sensory distractions like shapes, colors and sounds stimulate your senses. Emotional lures cut through the clutter to draw your attention, like hearing your name called in a crowded restaurant. Emotions intrude on focus; completing a task is more difficult when you’re upset.

“Though it matters enormously for how we navigate life, attention in all its varieties represents a little-noticed and underrated mental asset.”

The brain’s prefrontal region is responsible for selective attention. The more you focus on one thing, the better your performance. Staying on target suppresses emotional interference and helps you remain cool under pressure. Controlling your attention by focusing on one thing, then moving on to the next, indicates sound mental health. Jumping from one thing to the next multiplies any feelings of helplessness and anxiety.

You focus more easily when you’re doing something you enjoy. Feeling in the zone or the “flow” results from immersion in an activity you find rewarding, inspiring, stimulating or intellectually challenging. In contrast, repetitive, unfulfilling tasks cause disengagement, boredom and apathy.

“While the mind sometimes wanders to pleasant thoughts or fantasy, it more often seems to gravitate to rumination and worry.”

Two semi-independent systems make up the human brain. The lower brain’s massive computing power operates just below consciousness, coming into the forefront only when jarred by something unexpected. At such moments, the bottom brain, active in the subcortical circuitry, communicates with the top brain, or neocortex.

“People who are tuned out not only stumble socially, but are surprised when someone tells them they have acted inappropriately.”

Bottom brain activity is involuntary, reflexive and fast. It functions constantly, handling rote behaviors and filtering information and stimuli. As it continually learns, it adjusts your perceptions. Emotion sways the bottom brain. The top brain, which is under your conscious control, is the locus of voluntary focus, active when you choose to watch a sunset, plan your day or learn a new task. Sometimes the bottom and top systems share mental activities to optimize your results with a minimum of exertion. For example, as you master a task like driving, the top brain learns and then the bottom brain takes over. Performing the task becomes almost instinctive.

Midbrain circuitry notices things on a neural level, such as a baby’s cry or a spider on the floor, and signals to the top brain. The brain’s amygdala checks your surroundings for threats and sends alarms when it spots danger. When your amygdala senses a threat, it commandeers your emotions until the top brain analyzes the danger; then it defends you or sends calming signals.

“While the link between attention and excellence remains hidden most of the time, it ripples through almost everything we seek to accomplish.”

Never Mind
Your “wandering mind” – where your thoughts travel when not engaged in a mental task – is the brain’s default setting. In this state, people pause for self-reflection, contemplate future scenarios, hatch ideas, dwell on memories or question their assumptions. Brain scans show that the area for focus – the “executive system in the prefrontal cortex” – activates during downtime.

“Setting aside some regular reflective time in the daily or weekly schedule might help us get beyond the firefight-of-the-day mentality, to take stock and look ahead.”

While your mind wanders, your sensory systems dim. Doing activities that do not require a laser focus frees your mind to ramble. Focusing sharply on one activity quells outside stimuli, such as buzzing phones. Sustaining deep attention can be draining. To replenish, take breaks, meditate, exercise or do something fun.
Self-Awareness and Self-Control
Self-awareness comes from recognizing internal cues and interpreting them accurately. “Gut feelings” are messages from the insula, the area in the brain’s frontal lobes that acts as a nerve center for your internal organs. People in sync with their emotions have high-functioning insulae and a strong inner voice. The insula’s signals help you intuitively form a value system, which becomes more concrete as you articulate it to yourself and practice it.

“Video games focus attention and get us to repeat moves over and over, and so are powerful tutorials.”

Self-awareness is a focus that works as an internal compass. It governs your actions and aligns them with your values. Willpower and self-regulation are functions of “executive attention.” Focusing on achieving a goal requires exercising self-control to subdue your impulses and ignore intrusive emotions. An iconic study by the psychologist Walter Mischel in the 1970s measured the willpower of young children. In the “marshmallow test,” researchers told four-year-olds they could eat a marshmallow right away or they could wait a few minutes and get two marshmallows. Left alone with one marshmallow, the children who successfully waited for the extra treat succeeded by distracting their focus from the marshmallow by using fantasy play or singing songs. The continuing study eventually showed that the children who could delay gratification at age four performed better in all aspects of their adult lives.

“Kids who can ignore impulse, filter out what’s irrelevant, and stay focused on a goal fare better in life.”

I Feel for You
“Cognitive empathy” is a top-down brain function that enables you to look at things from another person’s point of view, understand what that person is thinking and feeling, and manage your emotional response. When your emotions align with someone else’s, you experience the bottom-up response of “emotional empathy.” A top-down/bottom-up response, called “empathic concern,” leads to taking helpful action.

You have to focus to tune in to other people’s nonverbal cues such as facial expressions and to perceive their emotions. You feel another person’s suffering – a hardwired physiological response – in your amygdala. Attention centers inside the brain connect with its areas for social sensitivity, giving humans the ability to feel compassion and manage their emotional reactions. Compassion and concern grow naturally from empathy, the feeling people want and expect from doctors, bosses and family members. For example, patients are more likely to sue for malpractice when their physicians share fewer signs of empathy and consideration, even if their rate of error matches that of more outwardly empathetic doctors.

“Self-awareness…represents an essential focus, one that attunes us to the subtle murmurs within that can help guide our way through life.”

Everyone’s social acuity falls on a continuum from socially oblivious to highly intuitive. People who fail to notice social cues often act inappropriately, missing nonverbal messages or misreading context. They’re often unaware when they make social gaffes, such as being rude or speaking too long or too loudly. Where you fall on the social hierarchy affects your ability and desire to read others. Columbia University research reveals a direct correlation between power and attention: The higher your rank, the less heed you pay to other people’s thoughts and feelings.

“While we are equipped with razor-sharp focus on smiles and frowns, growls and babies, as we’ve seen, we have zero neural radar for the threats to the global systems that support human life.”

System Navigation
No single area of the brain deals exclusively with system recognition and comprehension, but the mind uses the brain’s parietal cortex to recognize patterns. The ability to read and navigate systems is a learned process, separate from self-mastery and empathy. System navigation is an essential life skill. People understand systems indirectly, by developing mental models during firsthand experiences and by absorbing distributed knowledge.

Pandemics and climate change are systemic problems that people learn about by gathering data, identifying patterns, and noticing peaks and disturbances. For example, “big data” collected by Google and analyzed with sophisticated software identified areas of flu outbreaks within 24 hours. The brain readily perceives immediate threats, but your perceptual system is blind to long-term dangers, such as the thinning of the ozone layer.

“Directing attention toward where it needs to go is a primal task of leadership.”

Practice Makes Perfect, SometimesPsychologist Anders Ericsson’s research about expertise laid the foundation for the “10,000-hour rule,” which holds that achieving the highest possible level of performance takes at least 10,000 hours of practice. Unfortunately, the rule is only partly true. Practice makes close-to-perfect only if it’s conducted in a “smart” way – that is, if the person who is practicing uses that time to make adjustments and improvements. How much attention you pay during practice is crucial. Productive practice includes feedback, which is why dancers practice in front of a mirror.

“The power to disengage our attention from one thing and move it to another is essential for well-being.”

Professional athletes, experts and other high performers counteract the brain’s natural inclination to make routines automatic and to transfer them to the bottom mind. They use focus, skill development, refinement and positivity to strengthen their brain circuitry. Feeling upbeat is a crucial requirement for productive practice. Positive emotions ignite the brain’s left prefrontal area, making people feel motivated, aware and energized.

Mindfulness refers to the practice of paying “attention to attention.” Meditation focuses on your inner state and develops your capacity to observe yourself in the moment without judgment. It strengthens focus by improving your ability to sustain attention. The meditation cycle rotates through the following four steps: “The mind wanders, you notice it’s wandering, you shift your attention to your breath and you keep it there,” until your mind wanders again.

“Attention works much like a muscle – use it poorly and it can wither; work it well and it grows.”

Games and Cognitive Skills
Playing video games generally diminishes brainpower. Certain games do improve some cognitive abilities, including “visual acuity and spatial perception, attention switching, decision making and the ability to track objects.” “Smart games” that improve focus and boost cognitive function may become educational tools. Such games provide:

  • Specific goals for different levels of play.
  • Feedback and pacing geared toward each user.
  • Challenges that progress in accordance with players’ skills.
  • Different contexts for applying a particular set of skills.

In the Classroom
Some schools are adding “social and emotional learning” (SEL) practices to their curriculum in order to help children self-regulate. For example, the “stoplight” exercise instructs kids to think of a traffic signal when they become upset or overstimulated. The red light means: Take deep breaths and try to calm down. A yellow light cautions kids to pause first, then reflect and come up with alternative behavior. A green light encourages them to try a solution.

The constant lure of technology waylays young people’s attention and compromises their interactions with other people. Today’s youth, the first digital generation, grow up more attuned to devices than to people. They may develop cognitive skills for navigating the virtual world at the cost of the kind of person-to-person attentive skills needed to build rapport, empathy and social dexterity. Adults are not immune. They may find it hard to read more than a couple of pages, listen to a speech longer than five minutes or stop constantly checking their smartphones. However, the ability to pay attention grows stronger with use, exercise and practice.

Attention in Organizations

Every effective leader must focus a firm’s attention where it’s most needed and productive. Triple focus provides direction. First comes inner focus: Heed your behaviors and the effects of your actions. Leadership requires knowing your values and communicating your vision to inspire and motivate others. Other focus means developing an organizational strategy to provide a road map of issues and goals that require attention. Great managers develop interpersonal skills and can effectively listen, respond and collaborate. Using outer focus, leaders absorb the big picture, visualize complicated systems and foresee how their decisions will play out in the future.

About the Author

Science journalist and two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee Daniel Goleman wrote The New York Times bestseller Emotional Intelligence.


Book Shelf: Ego is the enemy


  • Ego seems necessary for success, but vesting in self-importance impedes your career.
  • Being great is different from doing great things.
  • Engaging in building a “personal brand” confuses accomplishing something with talking about it.
  • Cultivate restraint to manage your feelings of pride or anger.
  • “Clear the path” for others, and you’ll help determine the path they take.
  • Ego undermines the connection and engagement with others that both allow success to grow.
  • Goal visualization helps at the beginning of a project, but it can produce a misleading impression of progress.
  • Maintain “a student mind-set” to keep your ego in check by acknowledging that you always have more to learn.
  • Ego is “the disease of me”; this world is far greater than you.
  • Abandon ego’s attachment to success and commit to a path of constant improvement.

Key Points

  • Why ego does not help you succeed and
  • What strategies you can use to avoid the trappings of ego.


Best-selling author Ryan Holiday recommends that people stop jabbering, forget their narratives, restrain their passions, learn from everything they do, accept failure and never stop working. He offers anecdotes about professional athletes, politicians and business leaders who learned hard lessons about the dangers of ego as well as tales of quiet workers who made enormous differences and remained unknown. Holiday’s conversational style reads like getting advice from a good friend. His chapters are short and easy to understand, though some entries cover similar topics. The partial bibliography directs readers to an extensive reading list on Holiday’s website. His alternative approach is great for people with an interest in self-improvement, not self-aggrandizement. He believes that the best way to move ahead is keep learning and to tame your ego – and he shows you how.


What Is Ego?

Anyone with ambition has ego. People who marshal their skills to meet their goals have ego. Artists, athletes, scientists and entrepreneurs achieve their objectives by harnessing the focus and desire to create and discover. But, too often, ego drives these activities. Ego is necessary for getting ahead. But “an unhealthy belief” in how important you are has the opposite impact and blocks your progress.

Ego encourages lazy, self-congratulatory fantasizing. Defined as “self-centered ambition,” ego undermines the connection with others and the engagement that both allow success to grow. To assess your strengths accurately, embrace a blend of confidence and humility. Recognize that ego offers the comfort of self-satisfaction, but it’s self-absorbed and can blind you to opportunity.

“What makes us so promising as thinkers, doers, creatives and entrepreneurs, what drives us to the top of those fields, makes us vulnerable to this darker side of the psyche.”

Aspiring to Greatness

Greatness is often a quiet act. The late US Air Force fighter pilot and strategist John Boyd helped revolutionize modern warfare across the US armed forces, but the general public doesn’t know of him. To emphasize the difference between working for recognition and working to get something accomplished, he asked the soldiers he commanded if they wanted “to be or to do.” Just being somebody is much easier than actually getting things done.

“Ego is the enemy of what you want and of what you have: Of mastering a craft. Of real creative insight. Of working well with others. Of building loyalty and support. Of longevity. Of repeating and retaining your success.”

Though popular wisdom encourages people “to find their passion,” that can be the wrong advice. Passion leads to enthusiasm at the expense of thoughtful deliberation. Passion’s energy and excitement can hide weaknesses that will eventually appear. Instead of impatient passion, seek purpose with reasons and goals.

Practice restraint. Anger, resentment and pride cloud your thinking. You’re not special just because you went to a good school, work hard, or came from a rich or influential family. You may dislike it when your boss is rude or your colleagues are frustrating, but being reactive and claiming that you deserve better will get you nowhere. Such behaviors stem from ego. Being restrained lets you focus on the work at hand and value the lessons that emerge along the way.

“We start out knowing what is important to us, but once we’ve achieved it, we lose sight of our priorities.”

“The Canvas Strategy”

The canvas strategy builds on the notion of restraint, of being “a canvas for other people to paint on.” Shift away from the short-term satisfaction of resentment and move toward embracing the long-term enrichment of self-development. To follow the canvas strategy, keep these ideas in mind when first starting out in the world of work:

“Once you win, everyone is gunning for you. It’s during your moment at the top that you can afford ego the least – because the stakes are so much higher, the margins for error so much smaller.”

  • You will probably need to improve and cultivate a better attitude.
  • You “aren’t as good” as you may believe, nor as important.
  • You don’t know everything, and you need to learn more than your education taught you.

Your success often will come alongside the success of others. Work to make other people’s jobs easier. While an initial sense of subservience might confound your ego, starting at the bottom gives you an opportunity to learn how something really works. Overcome your ego by finding ideas to share with your boss. Introduce people who might collaborate. Do the small tasks others avoid. When you “clear the path” for other people, you help determine the course they’ll take.

“The more difficult the task, the more uncertain the outcome, the more costly talk will be and the farther from actual accountability.”

Problems with Narratives

Be someone who does things rather than someone who talks a lot. Social media encourage talk instead of productivity. Posting updates on Facebook and Twitter misleads you into focusing on speech over action. Filling boxes with text promotes the false presentation of confidence, ability and accomplishment. Don’t believe your own self-promotion. That’s your ego inflating itself.

“It takes a special kind of humility to grasp that you know less, even as you know and grasp more and more.”

Gawker blogger Emily Gould described the challenge she faced in completing her novel. She had a “six-figure book deal,” but her writing bogged down because she was always posting on Tumblr or Twitter or scrolling through websites. These were distractions from the real work she had to do, but she convinced herself that it was work: she was building her personal brand. In the relentless pursuit of building, curating or refining a personal brand, people lose sight of the difference between actual accomplishments and fictional advertisements of themselves. All that posting and all that talk use up the energy you need for your real work. Some people like to mutter the thoughts that are leading them through solving a problem, but some studies suggest that talking aloud slows the process of discovery. Likewise, goal visualization helps at the beginning of a project, but after a while it produces the misleading impression of progress. When a project is hard, talk does not help.

Stories of success make success seem inevitable. Looking back at your own story is dangerous because you can reject all the pieces that don’t fit the narrative you want to tell. Such a narrative can offer false clarity and distract you from remembering the work that enabled you to attain your goals. Narratives of success mislead by suggesting they are conclusive, that the story ends after success. But in life, the story continues. After you succeed, everyone wants to beat you. More than ever, you must work hard to maintain the success you strived to achieve.

“Ego needs honors to be validated. Confidence…is able to wait and focus on the task at hand regardless of external recognition.”

Learning Focus

Pride is dangerous. It inhibits learning. Instead, maintain “a student mind-set” to keep your ego in check by acknowledging that you always have more to learn. Success doesn’t make you a master. Frank Shamrock, a mixed martial arts world champion, teaches that everyone needs “a plus, a minus and an equal.” Learn from someone who has more skill than you, someone who acts as a teacher. Gain from teaching someone who knows less than you, because being a professional requires understanding your task well enough to describe it to others. Working with someone at your level helps you cultivate finesse and dexterity.

“The need to be better than, more than, recognized for, far past any reasonable utility – that’s ego.”

Maintaining a student mind-set is easier in the beginning of your career. Success brings the temptation to overestimate your knowledge. John Wheeler, a physicist who helped develop the hydrogen bomb, said, “As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.” The more you know, the more you realize you need to learn.

Jazz great Wynton Marsalis once told an aspiring musician to be humble, explaining that humility is evident in those who don’t believe they already know everything. As you learn, discover the processes that enable you to learn most effectively. Repeat those procedures to ensure your continuous education.

“A smart man or woman must regularly remind themselves of the limits of their power and reach.”

The “theory of disruption” proposes that every industry will eventually encounter a change that no one predicted. When that happens, established business models – already too comfortable with their familiar approach – won’t respond effectively because they’ve stopped learning and growing. Newcomers are more agile; since they’re still in a learning mind-set, they see an opportunity to fill a market need and take advantage of it. They study their competitors to learn which changes would help them grow.

“Impressing people is utterly different from being truly impressive.”

“Standard of Performance”

Professional football coach Bill Walsh established a Standard of Performance as general manager of the San Francisco 49ers. Over the course of three years, he took a team that earned ratings as one of the worst in the league and made it a Super Bowl champion. People told the story of this climb by saying Walsh had a vision of the team’s Super Bowl win and executed it. He refused to buy into that narrative. Instead, Walsh described how he focused on what the team members needed to do, when they needed to do it and how they should do it.

Walsh instilled a sense of excellence by insisting on small behavioral rules: Players must stand while on the practice field; coaches must appear in tucked-in shirts and ties; the locker room must be clean. Bill Walsh expected the team to perform well on the field and off. After winning the Super Bowl, the team had two terrible years because the players became overconfident and self-satisfied. The team had to accept that the Standard of Performance was their route to victory before they started to win again and became recurring champions.

“Unless we use this moment as an opportunity to understand ourselves and our own mind better, ego will seek out failure like true north.”

Accept Failure

Mistakes are inevitable. Being an entrepreneur or creative person requires taking risks, and risks don’t always work out. The problem isn’t failing. The problem is identifying with failure. Ego believes that the only options are success or failure. That is ego confusion. Failure isn’t indicative of who you are, only of what you did. Ego tries to prove that failure is, or will become, success.

“At every step and every juncture in life, there is the opportunity to learn – and even if the lesson is purely remedial, we must not let ego block us from hearing it again.”

When Dov Charney was the CEO of American Apparel, his practices cost the company some $300 million and the reputational damage of multiple scandals. When the board asked Charney to step aside, he refused. He then wasted a fortune on a useless lawsuit to vindicate himself. He lost, and faced public humiliation when the media published details that the case revealed about his behavior.

Steve Jobs was fired from Apple, the company he founded, because of his huge ego. Jobs was angry and fought the company’s decision, but he didn’t let it ruin him. He sold all but one share of Apple and decided to try again. Learning from his management failures, he funded the animation company Pixar and slowly rebuilt his reputation. He eventually returned to Apple, and made it an even better company than he could have built before learning such hard life lessons.

“You can’t learn if you think you already know.”

As with Jobs, failure is an opportunity to learn. When success begins to wane, don’t attach yourself even more tightly to your job, project or goal. Recognize that something went wrong; try to identify how your behavior contributed to that error and begin to change.

Check Yourself

When people first succeed, they may indulge in wild behavior. Success can transform that confusion and erratic conduct into self-assurance and bravery. If your success came from a surprising guess, recognize that you didn’t know what would lead to success. When others applaud your greatness, stay sober.

Consider Germany’s Angela Merkel, one of the most powerful women in the world. When Russian president Vladimir Putin tried to intimidate her by allowing his hunting dog to interrupt a meeting, she didn’t take it personally or react badly even though her dislike of dogs is common knowledge. In the midst of adversity, she remained “firm, clear and patient.” As Merkel once said, “You can’t solve…tasks with charisma.”

Success has the adverse effect of making people feel larger than life. Stress reinforces their sense of importance. Similarly, rebukes or failures hurt people’s inflated egos. Tame your ego by observing the vastness of the universe; “meditate on immensity.” Observe nature. Find something that allows you to connect. Let go of ego’s desire for retaliation or its efforts to reinforce its value. See how grand the world is. Ego is “the disease of me,” but the world offers much more than you.

Do things for the purpose of doing them. Let the effort be enough. When a project becomes focused on success alone, your ego is in control. Your work might incur ridicule or sabotage. Recognition may never arrive in the forms you seek: public praise, financial success or approval from the one person whose respect you want. Focus on your expectations, not someone else’s. Ego drives the desire to succeed. Let the effort you put into your work be success enough. If it’s not, then maybe this isn’t the work you should be doing.

Learn What Matters to You

Ego makes everything about the self. Genuine self-awareness diminishes ego by allowing the self to grow and change. Ask, “What’s important to you?” so that you focus on self-evaluation and not on external measures. Learn what matters to you so you can be true to yourself. Recognize that the world has much to continue teaching you. Abandon ego’s attachment to success. Commit, instead, to a path of constant improvement.

About the Author

Ryan Holiday is the former director of marketing at American Apparel and a best-selling author. He wrote The Obstacle Is The WayGrowth Hacker Marketing, and Trust MeI’m Lying and co-wrote The Daily Stoic with Stephen Hanselman.

Book Shelf: Strangers in Their Own Land


  • In a “great paradox,” Conservative red-state voters often oppose government programs that could benefit them.
  • Generally, members of the American Right oppose federal programs such as welfare and Medicaid even while participating in them.
  • Louisiana, where the author interviewed people holding rightist views, is the second poorest state and one of the most polluted.
  • Louisianans’ primary motivators are “taxes, faith and honor.”
  • Right-wing voters in Lake Charles, Louisiana, match a profile of the “least resistant personality,” those most likely to accept “unfavorable land use” nearby.
  • Oil provides only about 10% of jobs in Louisiana.
  • Louisianans interviewed felt liberals “badgered” them to feel particular ways.
  • They also felt as if they followed the rules to reach the American Dream while others broke in line in front of them.
  • Rightists might vote to promote their emotional – rather than economic – self-interest.
  • President Donald Trump makes his supporters feel part of an inclusive group.

3 Key Points

  • In this summary, you will learn:r1) How a “great paradox” shapes conservative politics and drives some Louisiana voters’ choices,
  • What economic and environmental challenges the state faces, and
  • Why conservative voters oppose some government programs that help them.


More and more, Americans feel like strangers to one another over what sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild calls “an increasingly hostile split” in attitudes. A professor emerita of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, Hochschild traveled to Louisiana repeatedly over a five-year span starting in 2011 for field research on the American Right. She attempts to analyze and understand the emotional motivations of her new “Tea Party friends.” Conservatives might feel Hochschild failed to take their perspectives on board; liberals might see a paradox in her effort to develop empathy for people who can appear to lack empathy for themselves. getAbstract recommends Hoschchild’s fascinating research and conclusions to US voters of any ideology and to all non-Americans who seek greater insight into the sometimes contradictory, sometimes inexplicable behavior of the US electorate.


The “Great Paradox”

Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild undertook 10 research visits to Louisiana between 2011 and 2016. She gathered 4,690 pages of transcripts from interviews with 60 research subjects. Hochschild sought to understand her subjects’ lives and their feelings to gain insight into “the emotional draw of right-wing politics.”

Hochschild chose environmental pollution as the issue through which she hoped to gain broad insights into rightist points of view. She asked why Louisianans, whose state suffers pollution, tend to oppose regulations to clean it up. Generally, sociologists wonder why conservative red-state voters fail to support government programs that could help them – sometimes even if they are beneficiaries of those programs.

“My keyhole issue had taken me 4,000 feet down into the Earth. And following it down the hole was the Great Paradox: the Tea Party feared, disdained, and wanted to diminish the federal government. But they also wanted a clean and safe environment – one without earthquakes sending toxins into aquifers or worse.”

Environmental protection is an example of this great paradox. Across the US, people who live in highly polluted states – often Republican-dominated – tend to vote against environmental protection measures that could improve their communities. At the county level, exposure to pollution correlates inversely with concern about pollution as an issue – even though people in these counties recognize that it poses a danger. Hochschild sought to understand why right-wing voters so regularly and passionately vote against their own interests.

“The Tea Party was not so much an official political group as a culture, a way of seeing and feeling about a place and its people.”

Louisiana Poverty and Pollution
Louisiana is the second-poorest state after Mississippi. It ranks number 49th in the 50 states on an index of human development – based on measures of life expectancy, education as well as income – and 46th on public education spending per student. The federal government provides 44% of the state budget – only Mississippi relies more heavily on federal funding. Yet Louisiana also hands out a greater percentage of “taxpayer money than any other state.”

In 2014, Governor Bobby Jindal awarded $1.6 billion in incentives to industry, along with decade-long tax exemptions. Louisiana slashed its state budget an equivalent amount and laid off 30,000 workers, including teachers, nurses and safety inspectors. Louisiana ranks among the most polluted states in America. Its men suffer from cancer at rates far higher than average. Yet Louisiana allocates only 2.2% of its state budget to environmental protection.

“Louisiana was poor before oil came, and we’re poor today.” (Dr. Paul Templer, former head, Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality)

Lake Charles
Hochschild conducted her fieldwork mostly around Lake Charles, Louisiana, about 30 miles north of the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The site of the largest chemical spill in US history is a few miles to the west along the Mississippi River where, in 1994, workers discovered a leak that had released 1½ million tons of ethylene dichloride into the water.

“One has the police to protect one’s property, Rush Limbaugh to protect one’s pride and God to take care of the rest.”
In 2012, at nearby Bayou Corne, the Houston-based Texas Brine company was drilling – contrary to state regulations – into an underground salt dome under the Bayou and inadvertently drilled through a side wall. The accident caused a sinkhole that by 2015 had spread to 37 acres, bubbled up with methane, released oil and toxins into the aquifer, and necessitated the relocation of an entire once close-knit community. The so-called “sacrifice zone” encompassed the homes of 350 residents, now turned into “energy refugees.”

One family had farmed 40 acres on the edge of Bayou d’Inde for generations; then, industry moved to their locale. Afterward, all but one member of the family suffered cancer; only two survived. Their animals all perished after drinking bayou water. Even the cypress trees died.

“When I was a kid…if someone was hungry, you fed him. You had community. You know what’s undercut all that?…Big government.” (Louisianan Mike Schaff)

Conservative Louisianans
The people Hochschild surveyed in Louisiana cared about their faith and the church, their community and traditional values. Nearly all of them attended church, some twice a week. Many voted on the basis of political candidates’ religious views rather than based on their economic policies or environmental commitment. Some Louisianans told Hochschild that they believe in “end times.” One expressed his desire that his “10 great-grandchildren” live on a healthy, thriving Earth, but admitted to recognizing that the Earth may no longer exist. Lake Charles’s churches assume roles in their congregants’ lives that the government fills for more secular people, providing playgrounds, fitness centers, summer camps, sport teams and soup kitchens. Many people believe the government undermines or destroys a sense of community.

Louisianans “are actually victims, doing emotional work and suffering damages so that we can all have the products of the petrochemical industry.”
Many of those on the right felt taxes were too high and resented having to pay them. They believed their taxes often paid for benefits that went to undeserving people. Many viewed the government as greedy, incompetent and corrupt. They dramatically overestimated the portion of the population that the government employs, as well as the level of federal spending on Social Security, Medicare and welfare. In spite of their opposition to such federal programs, many Tea Party supporters participated in them. As Lousiana Mike Schaff said, “Most people I know use available government programs, since they paid for part of them. If the programs are there, why not use them?”

These Louisianans are primarily motivated by their views about “taxes, faith and honor.” They derive honor from “work, region, state, family life and church,” as well as sacrifice, endurance, hard work and charity. Given their belief in accepting what you can’t change and carrying on, those studied found honor in having the necessary “moral strength” to persevere.

“Louisianans are sacrificial lambs to the entire American industrial system.”

“Locally Undesirable Land Use”
Many Louisianans resign themselves to an extraordinary degree to living with unpleasant circumstances. They closely match a definition of the “least resistant personality” that a California consultancy developed for California’s Waste Management Board. According to the consultants’ report, individuals who accept rather than resist locally undesirable land use tend to hold conservative views, vote Republican, advocate for the free market, lack college education, and live in small Southern or Midwestern communities, among other traits.

“That’s not the Mississippi’s water. That’s Monsanto water. Exxon water. Shell Oil water… Industry owns the Mississippi now.”
Often, these Louisianans believed the oil industry brought the state jobs and economic progress. Their opposition to government regulation seems to stem from the belief that regulation hampers industry and reduces jobs.

In truth, the petrochemical industry provides only about 10% of jobs in Louisiana. Rigorous environmental protections, in fact, make a state more competitive globally. After 40 years of oil drilling, the state’s poverty rate has decreased by only one percentage point. “In 1979, 19% of Louisianans lived below the poverty line; in 2014, it was 18%.” Some Louisianans believed unfettered free-market forces could bring about safe conditions without regulation.

“The Sabine River is a public river. But if you can’t drink in the river, and you can’t swim in the river…then it’s not your river. It’s the paper mill’s river.” (Louisianan Paul Ringo)

Many conservatives believe liberals are trying to make them accept left-wing rules and browbeating them to feel a certain way. One woman pointed to TV journalist Christiane Amanpour crouching beside a sickly African child. In the woman’s view, Amanpour implied the US caused the child’s plight. The woman objected to any message suggesting she was morally inferior if she didn’t feel compassion for the child. Some Louisianans thought they might feel misplaced sympathy for seemingly deserving people who might be deceiving them.

“A company may be free to pollute, but that means the people aren’t free to swim.” (General Russel Honoré)

Louisianan Republicans’ Emotional Life
Many of Hochschild’s subjects agreed that the following imaginary “deep story” conveys their feelings. A deep story shows symbolically “how things feel” to people. Its intent is to provide a nonjudgmental framework for helping people who disagree to understand each other’s views.

In this fictitious story, many people stand in a long line waiting to reach the American Dream, and thus gain security and honor after long hardship and suffering. That the line has stalled conveys the frustration that older workers – particularly white men without a college education – might feel. Since the 1970s, their wages have dropped 40%. The people in line feel liberals are attacking their morality and values.

“In a period of political tumult, we grasp for quick certainties. We shoehorn new information into ways we already think.”
They notice other people aren’t obeying the rules. Some cut in line. Some immigrants, women, refugees and even animals get undeserved benefits at the expense of those who play by the rules. They imagine that President Barack Obama cuts in line. The resentful, obedient people see Obama helping other line-cutters. Feeling suspicious, dishonored, disparaged and taken advantage of, they band together. In this vision, the right sees the US government as an “ally” of the line-cutters. They view the free market, on the other hand, as their ally.

“Partyism, as some call it, now beats race as the source of divisive prejudice.”
Because they cling to this mirage, Hochschild’s subjects fail to perceive the truth about corporate power and interests. Lake Charles’s conservatives support industry, Wall Street, deregulation and the free market. In reality, these interests do not align with theirs. They don’t support federal programs that could, and do, help them.

“Team Players”
Some people in Hochschild’s study group show endurance and willingness to work hard. They feel that the “team” – be it the Republican Party, a corporation or the free enterprise system – brings good things to their lives and merits their loyalty. Willing to endure the downsides of the system, these Team Players work long hours and accommodate difficult working conditions without complaining. In their view, environmentalists dwell on negative conditions that a Team Player would face with bravery, while focusing on the positive. Team Players view willingness to work as a moral quality that confers deservingness. They feel little or no sympathy for people who don’t work.

“What I discovered was the profound importance of emotional self-interest.”

“Worshippers” and “Cowboys”
Other rightist Louisianans – call them Worshippers – focus on the necessity of making difficult choices. They accommodate to their situation and willingly renounce some desires for the sake of others, such as sacrificing a clean environment for economic progress. Some right wingers – Cowboys – value daring and stoicism. They believe in taking risks to create as much good as possible and then, if things go badly, accepting the outcome.

Some players choose a new team and become Rebels. While remaining members of the right wing, they align with environmental causes or political reform. One Rebel became an environmental activist after losing his home to the Bayou Corne sinkhole, but he stayed in the Tea Party. A man who’d worked dumping Pittsburgh Plate Glass’s toxic waste developed disabilities as a result of chemical exposure. The firm fired him for absenteeism. But, still, he remained an active Tea Party member and supported an anti-EPA congressional candidate.

President Donald Trump
While many of Hochschild’s subjects respect Trump’s business accomplishments, as voters they broke about half for Trump and half against. His supporters admire his leadership. His detractors find him frightening or “mean.” Emotion is the crux of Trump’s appeal. Some right-leaning people developed certain emotions, including grief, discouragement, shame and alienation, in the face of various cultural, economic and demographic trends. They find that Trump replaces these feelings with hope, elation, and a sense of security and respect. These emotions arise partly from the unity that Trump fosters among his supporters. Trump serves as a “totem” his supporters can rally around. His persecution and expulsion of out-group members strengthens this feeling of unity.

The right-wing Louisianans’ elation also results from Trump supporters’ sense of release from rules about what they are supposed to feel. Trump allows and encourages them to feel just as they do, validating their anger, bigotry, misogyny and racism. His supporters feel righteous, superior and vindicated. Their elation grows into an “emotional self-interest.” Here, finally, Hochschild finds the answer to the great paradox: Members of the right wing seek to promote their emotional, not their economic, self-interest.

About the Author

Influential sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s nine books include The Second Shift, The Time Bind, The Managed Heart and The Outsourced Self. Three of her books were New York Times Notable Books of the Year.

Book Shelf: A Beautiful Constraint


In this richly anecdotal, conversational and groundbreaking approach to problem solving, iconoclastic marketing consultant Adam Morgan and co-author Mark Barden help you learn to identify your habitual thought and emotional patterns so you can sidestep them when you face obstacles. They show how a tiny shift in perspective can bring enormous changes. The authors offer remarkably perceptive advice, with insight into and compassion toward the almost infinite roadblocks people put in their own way when trying to overcome a limitation. Unlike most authors who combine the psychological and the practical, Morgan and Barden never exclude themselves from those who need help. They discuss overcoming their own patterns of pessimistic self-regard. The authors’ practical guidance applies to career and personal situations. g

3 Key Points

  • How to embrace your “constraints” as inspirations,
  • How to recognize and transcend your habitual thought and emotional patterns,
  • What role emotion plays in motivation, and
  • How to balance obstacles and rewards to achieve your goals.


  • “A constraint is a limitation that materially affects” your ability to act.
  • Faced with constraints, people become “victims, neutralizers or transformers.”
  • To approach a constraint in a new, imaginative way, reframe the question it contains.
  • To cope with limits, know your “dominant path” and think outside it.
  • Place unreasonable demands on yourself, your suppliers and your customers.
  • Learn the value of your available resources to yourself and others so you can make mutually beneficial exchanges.
  • Being happy activates mental flexibility and openness to new associations.
  • Efficiency, not resources, drives results.
  • IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad’s motivating constraint is that making expensive products is easy, but making something inexpensive that endures is difficult.
  • Abundant business activity can limit the time you have available for the leisure activities that stimulate strategy and creativity.


“Beauty in Constraint”

“A constraint is a limitation that materially affects” your ability to act. Most people chafe at any boundary, even those they impose on themselves. Confinement feels “restrictive and adversely limiting.” But approached with a proper attitude, a limit can broaden your thinking and potential. For example, both worthy parenting and lean business improvement owe much to constraints. You may face time, technique or budget constraints. You may have to respond to a boundary you can’t control. Or, you may impose a limit on yourself to spur new ideas. Consider how shoe retailer Zappos deals with a primary limitation: its online customers can’t try shoes on to see if they fit. The firm’s success comes from its innovative solution: Zappos does not charge for shipping and accepts returns with no questions. Buyers can test shoes and send them back easily.

“Constraints…are liberators of new possibilities, and we need to have a completely new relationship with them.”

However, not every constraint has a beneficial resolution. Today’s human endeavors take place at the intersection of “scarcity and abundance.” Technology allows you to learn anything or to connect to anyone in the world, any time of the day or night. That’s abundance. Yet every business today, whatever its size, must cope with a scarcity of time, resources or opportunities. Faced with balancing ever-new challenges of different types, you – and everyone else in business – must put conscious constraints on your ambition.

“We sit at a nexus between an abundance of possibilities on one hand and the reality of scarcities on the other.”

The Stages of Dealing with a Constraint

When a constraint appears in your path, do you allow it to stop you? To “make the constraint beautiful,” respond, instead, by becoming more ambitious and finding ways to move forward despite limitations. The “tension” between the forcefulness of your drive and the force of the constraint fuels creative solutions. People respond to restrictions in three sequential “stages”:

“Personal motivation is crucial to the transformation process, and that can be sourced from the larger narrative of the organization, as well as our own makeup.”

  1. A “victim” reduces his or her ambitions and pulls back when constraints appear.
  2. A “neutralizer” maintains ambition and goes around the constraints.
  3. A “transformer” views a “constraint as an opportunity” and grows more ambitious.

Resource owners are “people or companies with whom we currently have little, if any, relationship, but who have an abundance of a particular kind of resource that we need.”

Learn to recognize which stage defines your current response to a barrier, and try to move forward by understanding why you are at that stage and what you can do to move past it. Be on the alert not to slip into a victim mind-set at the first appearance of a constraint. Asking why this is happening to you is a reflexive response, so ask, but then keep going. Deliberately identifying and leaving behind victimhood to become a transformer demands strength of mind, “method and motivation.” Accept that you can deal with the problem. Compare it to ways you’ve surmounted similar roadblocks in the past. Method means figuring out how to “frame the challenge” and deal with the constraint. Motivation means finding the willpower to face the constraint, a step that might demand breaking out of old patterns.

“The composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein remarked that ‘to achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.’”

“Break Path Dependence”

If you rely on established practices, you may suffer path dependence. Your “dominant path” is the proven problem-solving approach you’d generally follow to deal with obstacles. In the past, this course of action has produced positive results for you. Following the dominant path is a sound strategy for larger organizations, which must replicate their successes “at scale and speed.” Larger firms lack the time or energy to reinvent the wheel for each new situation.

“Scarcity and abundance are more accurately seen as an infinite loop, one side constantly feeding and stimulating the other.”

To cope with new constraints, you need to know your dominant path and think outside it. To change your habits, you first must recognize them. The limits most likely to paralyze you spring from your existing assumptions about yourself and from relying too much on your dominant path. Companies, teams and individuals all suffer from reflexive responses. Use self-examination to identify your automatic reactions and patterns. Then you can break free and think more flexibly.

“This desire to look for entirely new ways to arrive at answers is part of a cultural sense that ‘it is more fun when things are really hard to do’.”

“Ask Propelling Questions”

In 2006, when automaker Audi sought to win the legendary, 24-hour Le Mans road race, its engineers didn’t ask how to make their car faster than anyone else’s. They asked how they could win if their car wasn’t the fastest. Their radical solution was to design and build a high-performance diesel engine. The revolutionary Audi R10 TDI was no faster than its competition, but its diesel engine provided a significant boost in fuel economy and required fewer pit stops than its rivals. That margin led to victory.

“If we let them, the decisions we made yesterday will determine what is possible tomorrow.”

The way you frame questions makes the difference between success and failure. Ask questions that parallel your dominant path, but that still generate new solutions. IKEA did this when it offered a striking, sturdy table and kept the price down by having customers assemble it. Use the “Four Sources of Unreasonableness” to spur propelling questions:

“A world of too much data, too many choices, too many possibilities and too little time is forcing us to decide what we value.”

  1. “The unreasonable regulator” – You may feel that regulators impose unreasonable limits on commerce, such as limiting the use of fossil fuels. But the regulations drive efficiency and spur alternatives, such as the development of electric cars.
  2. The unreasonable consumer” – People reject “trade-offs” when they are buying. They want what they want when they want it. Each commercial category must find ways to meet its consumers’ wishes. City Car Share, for example, rents automobiles by the hour.
  3. “The unreasonable customer” – Retailers are often very demanding with their suppliers. Walmart demands more innovative goods, lower prices, simpler transactions and higher standards from every supplier. To keep Walmart’s business, suppliers comply.
  4. The unreasonable challenger” – In 2014, Airbnb rented out more rooms than Hilton Hotels. Why did Hilton miss this threat? If “legacy” organizations mistake their positions as unassailable, the market will teach them when they’re wrong.

“We need a particular kind of persistence – a creative tenacity, full of willing and adaptive experimentation.”

“Can-If Sequences”

Don’t talk about whether a goal is possible, talk about how it “could be possible.” Don’t say you can’t do something. Say why you can do it, no matter how far-fetched the reason. This attitude inserts the “oxygen of optimism” into your outlook. It makes every person in the conversation search for answers, not obstacles. It helps people regard themselves as seeking resolutions, not problems. Can-if sequences follow specific, structured “types,” like these:

“We are not suggesting that all constraints have the potential to be beneficial.”

  • “We can if we think of it as…”
  • “We can if we use other people to…”
  • “We can if we access the knowledge of…”
  • “We can if we resource it by…”

“Inventiveness, and the small and big breakthroughs it generates, will be at least as important as innovation to the future of what we do and how we progress.”

“Creating Abundance”

Improvisational comedy depends on all of the performers maintaining an open mind and being willing to build on what the other players offer to move their shared scenes forward. Mutual acceptance of each other’s ideas builds abundance into the process. Recognizing the “tradable value” in what you give others and in what they give you is the essence of resourcefulness.

“Those who refused to scale back ambition in the face of constraint…seemed to be the ones most likely…to make the constraint beautiful.”

You block your resourcefulness when you find benefit only in matters that are under your “immediate control,” when you don’t purposefully draw on fresh resources, when you let limits define your situation and when you don’t recognize the valuable exchanges you can offer. To gain access to the value in another person’s resources, think creatively about the value of your own. Sidestep your dominant path and regard your contributions through the prism of the other person’s needs. Those who can help you may include your stakeholders, outside partners, competitors, and those who “have a lot of” what you need and who want what you’ve got to swap. Approach them with a “mutually beneficial hustle” that serves your mutual needs.

“Activating Emotions”

Joy and delight “fuel increased cognitive flexibility” by unleashing dopamine and noradrenaline, which speed the movement of cerebral data and form links among diffuse bits of knowledge. Being happy makes you feel safer and less oppressed, which frees your thinking. Rage and dread make you tighten up and work harder and longer. Try to balance contentment with the right amount of anxiety to nourish your flexibility and increase your desire to attain your goals. Use the “science of mental contrasting” to balance a situation’s positives and negatives. Compare “indulging,” which means fantasizing about what your life will be like when you reach your goal, and “dwelling,” which means visualizing all that can go wrong. The most productive motivational state toggles between those two poles to balance obstacles and rewards. This process prepares you to create a strategy to fulfill your “implementation intention.”

Making Something Out of Nothing

When the McLaren Formula One racing team lost its major sponsors due to the EU ban on promoting tobacco, it faced a huge budget shortfall. Team leader Ron Dennis recognized the opportunity to do more with less. He had his team look at every detail of its operation to find ways to become faster, leaner, more efficient and more aware of costs. McLaren employees – from garage floor-sweepers to superstar drivers – saw that money alone isn’t what makes a team great. Efficiency and dedication drive results. Dennis also realized that his team could no longer be passive about sponsorship. Instead of just painting the racecar to promote their sponsors, McLaren’s people wore sponsors’ “logos, hats and watches” for maximum visibility. With this enthusiasm, McLaren scored a major sponsorship deal with the giant phone company Vodafone.

In the “fertile zero,” you have fewer resources than you want or need, but the seeds of creativity can grow. This “Zero Constraint” can be inspirational. If you must ration your advertising, every statement must be powerful. If you can’t afford to boost yourself, “get others to talk about you for you.” If your main media outlet is too costly, maximize what you can get from a cheaper channel. Push your teams to find innovative solutions and create new partnerships; spur conversation about your product; and draw on “other people’s money, time and resources” to propel mutual goals. For instance, the citizenM “budget hotel with luxury aspirations” formed a partnership with Vitra, a Swiss furniture firm, to turn its hotel lobbies into furnishings showrooms at no cost.

“Constraint-Driven Cultures”

Large organizations can make constraints work for them as effectively as individuals and small companies can. IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad preaches that building expensive products is simple, but building inexpensive products that endure is a difficult and worthy mission. He revels in asking “impossible questions.” For example, when he saw rows of featherless chickens hanging in a Beijing market, he wondered what use he could make of the feathers. He turned “a food waste product into the stuffing for more affordable duvets.”

Nike has always been a leader in sports shoes. But in the mid-1990s bad publicity about working conditions in its Asian factories – and its CEO’s initial defensive response – damaged its brand. When Nike discovered a constraint – that it could not monitor every factory to protect workers from toxic glue – it reinvented the glue. After Nike succeeded with this solution, the process of dealing with other constraints challenged and improved its business operations. For example, it reshaped its manufacturing process to cut the amount of waste materials left on the factory floor.

“Scarcity and Abundance”

Everyone must ask, “Is this the Age of Scarcity or the Age of Abundance?” Commonly seen as opposing forces, scarcity and abundance are, in fact, an “infinite loop,” fueling each other in an unending yin-yang spin. Scarcity means increased competition for dwindling material resources. Abundance means vast computing power, connectedness and the ongoing “reinvention of business.” An abundance of action can lead to a scarcity of time or concentration, and vice versa. If you don’t think deeply enough, your strategy and creativity will suffer. In business and in your personal life, discover where you have scarcity and abundance. Consider how they balance and nourish each other. Continued rebalancing is a constraint that can drive your inventiveness.

About the Authors

Adam Morgan wrote the bestseller Eating the Big Fish and founded the global marketing consultancy Eatbigfish; business speaker Mark Burden heads the firm’s West Coast operation.

Book Shelf: Peers, Inc. by Robin Chase


Robin Chase, the co-founder of the trailblazing car-sharing company Zipcar, proves uniquely qualified to describe the collaborative – as well as powerful and disruptive – a business model she calls “Peers Inc.” It’s revolutionizing commerce by matching “excess capacity” with a “platform for participation” and a diverse user spectrum. The “Inc” is the organization with the resources to develop a platform; “peers” are the individuals who use that platform as a springboard for innovation. Chase’s ambitious work covers a lot of ground, and readers might struggle to keep up, but she challenges people to create platforms and contribute their talents.  



3 Key Points

  • How a “Peers Inc” organization differs from conventional enterprises,
  • How Peers Inc structures change business for individuals and companies, and
  • What challenges Peers Inc companies face.


  • In 2000, Robin Chase co-founded the revolutionary car-sharing platform Zipcar.
  • “Peers Inc” is the name she chose for her business model. An “Inc” has the resources to develop a platform, and “peers” are the participants who create by using the platform.
  • The building blocks of Peers Inc are “excess capacity, platforms for participation and peer power.”
  • Companies such as Airbnb and Zipcar found new uses for the untapped potential of something that already exists.
  • Opening up excess capacity accelerates the pace of innovation.
  • Platforms organize, simplify and standardize, making participation easier and cheaper.
  • Peers become microentrepreneurs and enjoy greater flexibility and independence.
  • Peers Inc organizations benefit from high-paced iterative and exponential learning.
  • The four developmental stages of Peers Inc organizations are “controlled kernel, everybody welcome, power imbalance and power parity.”
  • The Peers Inc paradigm renders many existing regulations and business models obsolete.


The Birth of Zipcar

One morning in 1999, Robin Chase’s friend Antje described watching someone hop into a shared car in Berlin. Antje wondered if the shared-car concept would work in her New England city of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Chase grasped the idea’s potential because she was its target market. Her husband drove their car to his office, where it sat in a parking lot. The couple didn’t want the hassle and expense of owning a second car. Chase co-founded Zipcar believing that renting a car should be as easy as withdrawing money from an ATM. Users could rent cars as needed, and their availability would be cheaper and more convenient than owning a car.

Initially, investors were wary of the sharing-based business model. They didn’t agree with the three building blocks pivotal to making Zipcar work: first, that people would be willing to share cars; second, that the technology enabling the service would not be too expensive or complex; and third, that users would respect the rules. Zipcar’s initial investment dollars went to developing and perfecting Internet and wireless technology that cut transaction costs to almost zero – in contrast with expenses of $8 to $12 each for a traditional car rental. Reserving a Zipcar on the website took registered users around 20 seconds. Technology also ensured that only the person who booked a car would be able to unlock it.

“Peers Inc combines the best of people power with the best of corporate power.”

When Avis purchased Zipcar some 13 years after its launch for $500 million, the company boasted more than 750,000 members using 10,000 cars in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

“The collaborative paradigm values economic agency, resilience, passion, learning, autonomy and unique contribution.”

“Peers Inc”

Since Zipcar’s inception in 2000, firms such as Airbnb, BlaBlaCar and Lyft have raised billions in capital. The Peers Inc economy has three drivers: “excess capacity, platforms for participation and peer power.” On the Inc side, businesses, governments and organizations provide resources, “industrial strength” and expertise to create platforms. Peers contribute “individual strength”; they engage with the platforms and share their knowledge, networks, time and energy to create products and services.

Excess Capacity

BlaBlaCar founder Frédéric Mazzella recognized the surfeit of empty seats in privately owned automobiles. He developed a platform matching motorists and ride seekers. In 2013, more than 10 million travelers used BlaBlaCar to find transportation across Europe.

“For most people, opening up assets – letting strangers play in your yard – means a loss of control, a loss of quality and lost value in a hard-won brand.”

When Apple released the iPhone in 2007, users were stuck with AT&T’s network and SIM cards. Hackers and application developers resented Apple’s exclusivity and sought to bypass the lock. Within a few months, Steve Jobs and Apple released a software kit so developers could create their own apps. The iPhone app store opened in 2008; by 2015, it offered more than 1.2 million apps. Developers created a similar number of apps for Google’s Android.

“We are all helping each other learn from experience now, without quite so much painful learning from our own mistakes.”

Google originally created Google Maps for in-house use. When it gave developers access to its map data in 2005, hundreds of innovators generated new services. Finding novel utility for excess capacity harnesses the untapped potential of something that already exists.

Platforms and Peers

Platforms organize, simplify and standardize a new business model. A platform’s creators invest time, money and resources during development. An entity such as a company, university or government does the technical work and then releases the platform for peer participation. Platforms render excess capacity accessible by “slicing it, aggregating it and opening it.”

“Nimbleness is the asset, I tell entrepreneurs, that wins out over the money and scale of established companies.”

Companies such as Zipcar take available assets and reformat their use into segments that match consumer needs. Zipcar customers can rent a car for 30 minutes, one hour or several hours. Other firms such as Airbnb and BlaBlaCar produce value by aggregating untapped capacity. Airbnb enables people to rent out rooms or their entire homes. Within four years of launching, Airbnb was competing with giant established hotel chains. Airbnb could not have succeeded if it had had to build physical assets from scratch. By unlocking the surplus of existing rooms and homes and empowering hundreds of “micro-hoteliers,” Airbnb came to host 25 million guests by 2014.

“We are at the beginning of the new collaborative economy, which thrives on sharing, openness and connectedness.”

Under President Barack Obama, the White House launched the website, which unsealed government data to developers. People and organizations employed the collected and paid-for statistics in many ways. The Weather Channel uses federal climate data; SaferCar makes it easier for people to check the safety ratings of new or used vehicles; and Trulia uses district and park data to improve real estate searches. Not-for-profit firms created the Global Hunger Index and established Aqueduct, a water-mapping tool.

“Peer Power”

An accountant in Copenhagen named Carsten leased a spare bedroom in his home through Airbnb. Seven months later, he quit his job to manage the two rental apartments he’d purchased. Mohammed, an Uber driver in New York City, works as much or as little as he needs to supplement his income. Gretchen sells crafts on Etsy, enjoying the flexibility that her corporate job lacked.

“When public or private assets are newly pooled, it allows us to extract more value out of previously inaccessible excess capacity.”

Jordi Munoz was living illegally in San Diego with his pregnant wife when he cobbled together an autopiloted drone from Wii and toy helicopter parts. Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired, saw a video of the drone and contacted Munoz. They set up 3D Robotics, which had more than $21 million in revenue in 2014.

“Opening assets up delivers more value and more innovation than keeping them under lockdown.”

Peer participation has many advantages. People can choose when to work rather than waiting for an employer to hire them. They advance according to merit and performance. They enjoy independence and flexibility. Opening excess capacity accelerates innovation. Drawing from the intelligence, talent and expertise of a large number of people elicits more problem-solving power than closed organizations can offer. For a readily apparent and amazing display of creativity, consider the millions of iPhone apps people developed in the first six years of its platform, or the millions of individuals making videos for YouTube or creating audio files on SoundCloud. The ability to contact others when you need them lets you gain from their experiences instead of having to learn from your own mistakes. For example, telemedicine systems facilitate real-time collaboration among doctors worldwide.

Peers Inc organizations benefit from exponential learning that outpaces traditional business formats. Compare two language-teaching businesses: Rosetta Stone promises the equivalent of a semester of a language class through audio and print lessons that you absorb over 55 to 60 hours. In contrast, Duolingo reduced that time to 34 hours. Duolingo compiled data showing where users struggled and made corrections accordingly. Having thousands, if not millions, of people use a single platform reduces the time and effort developers need to identify and correct gaps, weaknesses and problems.

“There are always more smart people outside your organization than inside.”

Peer diversity and customization offer consumers other benefits. Previously, people had to choose between one-size-fits-all offerings from a big supplier like a hotel chain or a customized item from a smaller but more expensive provider. Peer companies provide the full range of products and services. Their offerings are local, flexible and tailored to each customer.

“Companies that are organized as Peers Inc will grow bigger, learn faster and be smarter than their closed, we-do-it-all-ourselves counterparts.”

Phases of Development

Peers Inc organizations progress through four stages, from inception to maturity:

  1. “Controlled kernel” – The Inc develops the platform for participation and strives to engage as many people as possible while ensuring a minimum level of quality. Developers face myriad decisions and challenges in shaping the platform to facilitate peer participation. Calculating the appropriate amount of structure involves trial, error and adaptation. Some platforms place limits on peer choices. For example, Zipcar users participate via a specific range of options. In contrast, open platforms such as Android place few constraints on users.
  2. “Everybody welcome” – The platform gains traction and begins to steeply climb up the growth curve. While developers may savor the first wave of success, growth brings issues. A few peers may become power players and curb access to entrants or to those who participate at a lesser level.
  3. “Power imbalance” – The Inc side of the Peer Inc equation starts to operate in its own interests rather than share equal value with its peers. For example, Lending Club began as a site facilitating peer-to-peer lending. Its success drew the attention of institutional lenders, and they began using the platform. Today, the majority of loans from Lending Club and its rival Prosper come from entities such as hedge funds and foreign banks. As lending platforms increasingly cater to the power players, individual investors don’t enjoy the same benefits.
  4. “Power parity” – Founders and developers establish equality by advocating, supporting and protecting peers via open standards, enabling users to organize and communicate.

“Institutions have internalized lessons that no longer apply and they continue to rely on strategies that no longer make sense.”

Peers Inc Issues

The US government is an Inc that has created massive platforms, including the Global Positioning System (GPS) and the Internet. Opening these to public use bred an infinite variety of applications. In 1996, the United States allowed partial access to GPS, and in 2007 it opened the system completely. By 2013, two billion navigation systems bringing in $200 billion in revenue were in operation. Millions of peers have devised creative uses for GPS, from tracking whales, children and cattle to finding lost keys.

“Where the industrial economy concentrates power and wealth, the collaborative economy succeeds by distributing it.”

The Peers Inc paradigm renders many existing rules and regulations obsolete. The meteoric rise of Uber spotlights its drivers’ struggle for fair treatment and the resistance of traditional taxi services to the new competitor. The government should protect peers, microentrepreneurs and freelancers by guaranteeing them access to health benefits, minimum wages and safe working environments. Governments should permit new platforms to form and experiment, revise tax and regulatory standards to ease compliance for platform creators, decouple benefits from full-time employment and develop a “contractor’s bill of rights.”

Established businesses resist the changes the Peers Inc model introduces. Large companies find it difficult to make the transition from producing proprietary knowledge, systems, products and services – that patents, contracts and copyrights protect – to participating in a format of shared abundance. Peers Inc organizations are already jeopardizing established industries, however, many forward-thinking firms are welcoming the change. For example, when Lego users hacked the software for Mindstorms in violation of its copyright, Lego embraced their initiatives, and the company regained its slipping popularity.

“When you can connect and share assets, people and ideas, everything changes, not just how you rent a car.”

Big businesses have legitimate reasons for resisting change. Wall Street investors pressure public companies to produce short-term results, making it difficult for them to make modifications that need months or years to bear fruit. Excess regulation hampers some types of organizations, such as utilities. Well-known firms are vulnerable to the lawsuits that a small start-up may avoid. For example, YouTube ignored copyright issues that the more established Google Video could not.

The Costs

Platforms raise capital in three ways: “public financing, private investment financing and crowdfunding.” Private investor money often comes with strings attached. The platform must provide shareholder value even to the detriment of external concerns like sustainability practices. Balancing a responsibility to investors with a commitment to peers remains an ongoing challenge.

Some companies manage to please shareholders while improving society. “Beneficial corporations” or “B corps” have social and environmental goals as well as financial objectives. These companies include The North Face, Patagonia, Etsy, Warby Parker and

About the Author

Co-founder and former CEO of Zipcar Robin Chase has started three more businesses. Chase is one of Time’s “100 Most Influential People in the World.”

Book Shelf: Brain Rules by John Medina


This book is partly an academic-style introduction to brain research and partly a jauntily written practical “how-to” about getting the most from your brain. John Medina has a warm, upbeat persona, and skillfully incorporates stories from his experiences to illustrate points he makes in the book. From time to time he forgets to connect the dots for readers who are new to the material, and so doesn’t always articulate the full point or parallel he is making. However, he successfully gives a broad overview of brain research and makes a conscious effort to practice the rules he preaches. He repeats information, as research says he should, and uses lively, varied examples to engage the reader. Medina summarizes his key points, and touches briefly on the real-world implications and applications of the findings he covers.


3 Key Points

  • How researchers understand your brain;
  • How you can help your brain perform better; and
  • How schools and workplaces could improve performance and productivity by taking brain research into account.


  • Your brain may look like a big, soft walnut, but it’s really a beehive of activity.
  • Your brain believes you are still fighting for survival against a saber-toothed tiger.
  • Knowing 12 rules about brain function can help you learn better and stay smarter.
  • Your brain evolved to need exploration and exercise. You are capable of remaining able to learn forever, but physical activity is crucial.
  • No two brains are alike. Male and female brains are distinctly different.
  • People cannot give full attention to dull information.
  • To recall data short-term, “repeat to remember”; to recall it long-term, “remember to repeat.”
  • To be your smartest, sleep well and regularly.
  • Your brain needs information from all your senses, but vision is king.
  • A child’s brain doesn’t function at its best in a conventional classroom trapped in rote learning. Children learn better in a home that is emotionally stable.


Your Brain Is Complex and Amazing

Researchers are using brain scans and other techniques to learn more and more about how the human brain works. Although more is left to discover, 12 basic “rules” capture much of what science knows about the amazing computing device in your head.

1. “Exercise” – Your Brain Slows Down When You Sit Still

Physical activity is vital to keep your body and mind working well. Retired television exercise guru Jack La Lanne is a great example. For his 70th birthday, he swam across California’s Long Beach Harbor pulling 70 boats with passengers onboard. His history of exercising and eating well contributed to his perennially quick wit and agile humor.

“My goal is to introduce you to 12 things we know about how the brain works.”

Anthropologists note that the first humans covered dozens of miles a day seeking food, so their brains evolved to handle regular physical activity. Because our brains “were forged in the furnace of physical activity,” if you want to use your entire IQ you must exercise. Couch potatoes lose mental facilities and physical capabilities. To regain your mental abilities, get aerobic exercise, even if you have neglected yourself. Just walking half an hour a few times a week will boost your cognitive output and reduce your risk of dementia.

Children who find concentrating difficult will benefit from physical activity. Exercise makes oxygen flow more efficiently through the blood and into the cells, cleaning up toxic wastes left behind by food metabolism. When you move you’re keeping your brain cells healthy. More than food or water, your brain, which consumes 20% of your body’s energy, requires oxygen to function. Exercise also makes your mental engine run cleanly. Unfortunately, modern civilization requires people to sit for long periods without moving. If schools and offices incorporated physical activity, students and staffers would get smarter, healthier and more productive.

“The need for explanation is so powerfully stitched into babies’ experiences that some scientists describe it as a drive, just as hunger and thirst and sex are drives.”

2. “Survival” – Your Brain Is an Evolutionary Triumph

The human species is weak, but brainpower helped people survive and thrive. Your brain has three parts where many survival and learning tools are hardwired: a “lizard brain” or amygdala, a “mammalian brain” and the cortex for higher reasoning. Humans have a great capacity to adapt. Over thousands of years, thanks to their powerful brains, people adjusted to changes in climate and food supply, and came to dominate the planet. Their advanced brains also allow them to “read” each other and negotiate. Your brain’s memory is an informational “database,” and you use mental “software” to improvise and solve problems. You may perform best with encouragement and be unable to perform as well near someone who threatens you. Your primitive lizard brain is always watching out for your safety.

3. “Wiring” – Brains Are “Wired” Individually

Nerve cells, known as neurons, look a bit like fried eggs that have been stepped on. The yolk holds important genetic coding. The long tentacle-shaped edges transmit and receive electrochemical messages at blinding speed. This is the cellular basis of learning. The brain’s neural connections are in constant flux. Your specific brain structure depends on your culture and other external inputs. A musician’ brain has different cellular “wiring” than a scuba diver’s. As children grow, so do their brains. Key brain growth occurs up until the early 20s and changes can continue for decades. Many researchers have worked to understand intelligence and to map how the brain functions. Some believe there are multiple types of IQ. One person might be great at math while another excels at physical movement. Different parts of the brain are activated for different memories and skills, so your brain scan looks different than anyone else’s, even your twin’s. Since each brain is individual, educational programs should be customizable.

“Easily the most sophisticated information-transfer system on Earth, your brain is fully capable of taking the little black squiggles on this piece of bleached wood and deriving meaning from them.”

4. “Attention” – If It’s Not Intriguing, Your Brain Isn’t Interested

When you find something boring, you don’t pay close attention and you can’t retain the content – so when you’re giving a presentation, capture the audience’s interest as soon as you can. You want your audience to focus. Multitasking is a recipe for inefficiency and danger. In fact, multitaskers are prone to 50% more errors and take 50% longer to finish a task than people who do one thing at a time. Studies say that chatting on your cell phone while you’re behind the wheel of an automobile is as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol.

People remember emotional situations longer than calm ones for neurochemical reasons. During emotional events, your brain releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which is associated with attention and rewards; it helps you cement the memories. At stressful moments, the brain doesn’t pick up details. It focuses on the big picture. If you’re trying to teach someone, present “the key ideas and, in a hierarchical fashion, form the details around these larger notions.” Provide information in 10-minute chunks and use entertaining hooks between those chunks.

“To accomplish this miracle, your brain sends jolts of electricity cracking through hundreds of miles of wires composed of brain cells so small that thousands…fit into the period at the end of this sentence.”

Researchers who study stroke victims have found that the left side of the brain can only pay attention to visual stimuli on the right, but the right side takes in the entire visual field. So a stroke patient will recover better if the stroke occurs in the left hemisphere of the brain.

5. “Short-term Memory” – The Case for Connection

When you can recall a piece of information immediately, it is stored in your short-term or “working” memory. To make a memory last longer, repeat it and link it to something familiar. For instance, students forget 90% of a classroom lesson in less than a month, but going over the material at regular intervals and associating one piece of data with another will improve their retention rates. Information in a list of unrelated items is harder to recall than material with meaningful connections to something familiar. Thus, people learn better when they can refer to familiar examples. To be more memorable, engage your listeners’ elaborately and substantively.

“You accomplish all this in less time than it takes to blink. Indeed, you have just done it. Yet most of us have no idea how our brain works.”

6. “Long-term Memory” – The Case for Repetition

Sound and images enhance short-term memory, but you won’t retain information in your long-term memory without a stabilizing process called “consolidation,” and subsequent recall and repetition, or “reconsolidation.” Stored memories are more malleable than you might expect. Today’s fresh memories can fade after a few years, forcing your brain to struggle to recall the specifics of events that once were clear.

Studies show that “the brain might cheerily insert false information to make a coherent story.” This has disturbing implications for the value of witnesses in a court of law, among other things. If you want to retain something, be deliberate. For example, ignoring your homework and then studying all night before a test is counterproductive. You will do better by spacing out multiple study sessions.

“Some schools and workplaces emphasize a stable, rote-learned database. They ignore the improvisatory instincts drilled into us for millions of years. Creativity suffers.”

To retain specific information, you need to:

  • Think about the information within the first hour or so after you learn it.
  • Immediately speak to other people about it in great detail.
  • Have a good night’s sleep and “rehearse” the information again afterward.

“We started our evolutionary journey on an unfamiliar horizontal plane with the words ‘Eat me. I’m prey’ taped to the back of our evolutionary butts.”

7. “Sleep” – Snooze or Lose

The human body increasingly malfunctions when deprived of sleep. If you are sleepless for a few days, in addition to severe fatigue, you will experience stomach upsets, crankiness, poor memory recall, disorientation, and eventually paranoia and hallucinations. For about 80% of the time you spend asleep, your brain doesn’t really rest. Brain scans show enormous electrical activity among the neurons, even more than when you are awake. The body has a delicate control process, called the circadian cycle, which keeps you alternating between wakefulness and sleep periods.

An individual’s preferred sleep timeframe varies genetically:

“Knowing where to find fruit in the jungle is cognitive child’s play compared with predicting and manipulating other people within a group setting.”

  • Early birds (called “larks” and “early chronotypes” by scientists) make up about 10% of the population.
  • Another 20% of people are late nighters (called “owls” and “late chronotypes”).
  • Everyone else falls midrange on the continuum.

Your brain slows in the afternoon, but a nap can work wonders. Napping for 45 minutes will turbo-charge your brain for six hours. Conversely, students who skip even an hour of sleep each night face a dramatic drop in academic performance. Sleep deprivation impairs “attention, executive function, immediate memory, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning ability, general math knowledge.” Wouldn’t it be great to match job schedules with people’s inherent sleep patterns? Plus, a later school day would address teenagers’ normal tendency to sleep late.

“The body seems to be clamoring to get back to its hyperactive Serengeti roots. Any nod toward this history, be it ever so small, is met with a cognitive war whoop.”

8. “Stress” – Chronic Tension Makes It Harder to Learn

A little bit of stress heightens your ability to learn, but ongoing, chronic stress damages brain function. Chronic stress can cause a phenomenon called “learned helplessness,” in which people simply give up hope and no longer engage their brains or try to solve problems.

During times of stress, people experience a “fight or flight response.” The resulting blood pressure rise and racing pulse are detrimental over the long term, raising the risk of strokes and heart attacks. Chronic stress worsens your ability to work with numbers and language. When you are seriously stressed, you don’t learn as well and have difficulty concentrating, remembering and solving problems. Chronic stress can lead to acute depression.

“When couch potatoes are enrolled in an aerobic exercise program, all kinds of mental abilities begin to come back online.”

One kind of stress has serious implications for children: Kids who live in homes where parents fight constantly “have more difficulty regulating their emotions, soothing themselves, focusing their attention on others,” and are more often absent from school. Their ability to learn, study and remember is so diminished that their test scores drop. A program called “Bringing Baby Home,” by researcher John Gottman, Ph.D., teaches fresh marital communication skills to expectant couples. As a result, their newborns have healthier brain chemistry than infants who live with fighting parents.

9. “Sensory Integration” – For Best Results, Use All Your Senses

Your brain gets crucial sensory input from your eyes, ears, nose and skin. For enhanced learning, bring all your senses into play. For example, you will retain more of what you read when pictures accompany the text. The more inputs your brain has to work with, the better you will learn and recall information.

“Our schools are designed so that most real learning has to occur at home. This would be funny if it weren’t so harmful.”

You also remember things better if you first encounter them in the presence of distinctive sensory clues, like smells or sounds. That’s why Starbucks doesn’t want its employees to wear perfume, because it could conflict with the aroma of coffee in the stores.

10. “Vision” – The Eyes Have It

Expert wine testers can be fooled, and made to ignore their sense of taste and smell, if you change the color of wine they are testing. This illustrates how the brain prioritizes the sense of sight. The human vision-processing system is highly complex, and when the brain encounters blind spots it actually interpolates the visual field. Reading is a complex mental activity, because the brain processes each letter as an individual visual symbol.

“Blame it on the fact that brain scientists rarely have a conversation with teachers and business professionals.”

11. “Gender” – Your Sex Affects Your Brain

Scientists find subtle anatomical and functional differences between male and female brains. For example, women synthesize the feel-good neurotransmitter, serotonin, more slowly than men. The genders respond somewhat differently to acute stress: Women often assume a caring role, while men isolate themselves. However, no given individual necessarily conforms to group statistics.

12. “Exploration” – A Sense of Wonder Promotes Learning

As infants become toddlers, they act like little scientists, constantly examining their environment, and testing cause and effect. Their brains are busy gaining data and concepts to help them navigate their circumstances. The adult brain remains flexible and plastic. People are able to learn throughout their life spans.

About the Author

John J. Medina directs the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University and teaches in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine.