Scienceing the sh1t out of it

I met some old professional friends for an annual reunion yesterday; and was pressed (as we all were) to recount my year. This made me think. 

First what did I want to say, why and to what purpose? Second, write it down (good old Chris Croft at work here again).

So I chose to describe my last year/18 months through five books:

1) Fierce Conversations

Gifted me by some free coaching from my previous employer, I was far more honest than I normally would be in workplace assessment; and was suitably diagnosed as: perfectionist, passive/aggressive and chronically unassertive with a strong tendency to take the problems of the world on my slender shoulders.  

Prescription: more ‘fierce conversations’ to assert my needs and proactively and reasonably manage the expectations of others.  

2) Depressive Illness – The curse of the strong

Faced with the first sight of what my new job entailed, I realised I’d made a horrible mistake… Massive construction projects with big problems, chronically unhappy people, no status, no power, no levers and probably hired as a fall guy. 

A very deep and sudden slump in my mood was explained and then arrested by this priceless little book. And since I’ve helped three other people by buying it for them. 

The essence: if you always work harder when more pressure comes on, and you don’t feel you can escape, you will blow a fuse. Simple and unavoidable; your body does for you what your mind won’t and cuts the power.

Prescription: ‘leave the Hoover in the middle of the room’ as I’ve written before; learn to deliberately leave some tasks undone, and some people potentially disappointed, as the inevitable reality of more demands than you can possibly meet.

3) Learned Optimism

Now this has been a BIG change… having written on it before I won’t rehearse it again.

Prescription: unless you are an Air Traffic Controller or a Loss Adjuster, as Eric Idle famously sang ‘always look on the bright side of life…’

4) The Anatomy of Peace

The simple if obvious discovery, that, nearly everything that happens to you, spirals out from your own attitudes and behaviour towards others. Correcting the behaviour of other people directly (however selfish, antagonistic or hurtful) is impossible; the only way to change things in others is by startling with yourself. 

As I said to someone this week, quoting Oogway from the marvellous Kung Foo Panda: “a man often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it” as here

But I have discovered progressively (since an epiphany half way through this book on our family holiday in Italy last summer) change how you yourself are ‘being’ and everything else changes for the better. 

Prescription: stop trying to correct things in others and invest in listening, understanding and accommodating them.

5) The BIG Book of Happiness – 87 Practical Ideas

My current favourite – there’s just so much to learn from this as here

Having reeled of my five books and the linking story, one of my pals said: ‘it’s quite impressive how you’ve analysed, researched and read stuff and figured out a way through all this.’

That struck me as very kind. I’d simply thought of it as ‘installing new upgrades’ and a few ‘power ups’ as my son would say. 

But on reflection later in the day, I concluded I’ve largely followed Matt Damon’s advice from ‘The Martian’ when he was faced with a hostile climate and a low apparent chance of survival – I’ve scienced the sh1t out of it. 


I read a fascinating article this week which gives the theoretical underpinnings – and even an equation – to make transparent why we are opaque.

Indirectness, innuendo, plausible deniability and nuance are all tricks of language we learn. But on the face of it they seem inefficient, unclear and downright unprofessional.

I’ve often felt put out – particularly at work – when people pull me up and say ‘what exactly do you mean’, or ‘what exactly are you suggesting?’ I sometimes find these sorts of questions irritating – even scalding. When the topic is complex or involves others, being suddenly pulled up can leave me feeling undermined, impugned or misunderstood. What’s going in feels far worse than a simple accusation of imprecision or rambling. Now I know why.

Steven Pinker of Harvard explains it all very straightforwardly in his 2007 paper ‘The logic of indirect speech’ which is vividly brought to life in an RSAnimation. Paraphrased in a [I admit large] nutshell, he writes:

Humans employ several, mutually incompatible, modes of cooperation and, as a result, are extremely touchy about their relationships. With some (typically family, lovers, and friends), they freely share and do favours; with others, they jockey for dominance; with still others, they trade goods and favours.

The ‘dominance’ relationship is governed by the ethos, “Don’t mess with me.” It has a basis in the dominance hierarchies common in the animal kingdom, although in humans, it is based not just on brawn or seniority but on social recognition: how much others are willing to defer to you.

The ‘communality’ relationship conforms to the ethos, “What’s mine is thine; what’s thine is mine.” It naturally arises among kin bound by shared genes, within monogamous pair-bonds, bound by their shared children and by close friends and allies bound by shared interests. It can be extended to others by nonverbal cues of solidarity such as physical contact, communal meals, and shared experiences.

The ‘reciprocity’ relationship obeys the ethos, “You scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours.” It has an evolutionary basis in reciprocal altruism. It is usually signaled by fair exchanges or division into equal portions but, unlike the other two relationship types, can be negotiated by people via explicit verbal contracts.

People distinguish these relationships sharply, and when one person breaches the logic of a relationship with another, they both suffer an emotional cost. Nonetheless, humans often have to risk these breaches to get on with the business of life, and they often use language to do so. In exploring the boundaries of relationship types, humans anticipate what other humans think about the relationship: what the other party in the relationship thinks; what any gossipers think; and what the other party thinks about what they think about what the other party thinks about what they think, and so on.

The need to preserve our relationships while transacting the business of our lives can thus explain humans’ tendency to fill their lives with innuendo, hypocrisy, and taboo.

So now I understand why I sometimes say things in less than transparent ways at work – and feel put out when people don’t get my subtle drift. There’s always a complex interplay of ‘dominance’, ‘communality’ and ‘reciprocity’ in the workplace. It’s the most obvious place where the constantly shifting balance of cooperation and competition between humans means clarity isn’t always appropriate, realistic or welcome.

As Pinker shows, human relations are too just complex for plain speaking, sometimes we have to take the indirect route.