“Alone in The Universe”: John Gribbin’s Argument for Why Most of the Milky Way Galaxy is Uninhabitable

By Cory Davis

This is a breakdown of John Gribbin’s argument as made in his book Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet is Unique (2011) for why most of the Milky Way Galaxy is uninhabitable.

Alone in the Universe -- Why Our Planet Is Unique.jpg
Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet is Unique (2011) by John Gribbin

On December 19, 2020, I wrote a review of this book, giving it 4/5 stars. I thought it was a fun thought experiment which made me wonder and ponder our existence in the universe. If you are interested in checking it out, please find it here.

Later on I tried to summarize the author’s consicely into 12 premises and a conclusion for why we are alone in the Milky Way Galaxy as a technological civilization. If you are interested to check it out, please find it here. His argument first reduces the the amount of stars that could harbor life from 100% of the Milky Way to just 10%, based on metallicity and location. This blog post breaks down his argument for why.

Chapter two of Alone in the Universe is dedicated to explaining why the Milky Way is “special”. This chapter outlines why our galaxy is able to accommodate technological civilizations, whereas many galaxies in the universe cannot. This can simply be inferred by their metallicity content. However, even in our special galaxy, conditions are violent and often inhospitable to life, even in the most habitable regions.

Accumulating Heavy Elements in the Galaxy

Galaxies like the Milky Way formed within the first three to four billion years after the big bang. Through many generations of stars in the Milky Way, the content of heavy metals built up, accumulating to the point where it could form rocky planets. The process of building up heavy metals took billions of years leading up to the birth of our solar system. Therefore, it must have taken billions of years to develop conditions that allow for the evolution of life.

  • 3-4 billion years after the big bang – galaxies like the Milky Way form
  • 6-9 billion years after the big bang – the Milky Way develops enough heavy metals to sustain rocky planet formation. Our sun is born
  • 13.2 billion years after the big bang – complex life begins to emerge on planet earth

It took our solar system around five billion years to produce complex life, followed by technological civilization. If this is a regular amount of time it would take to do that, then we could be one of the first in the Milky Way.

As noted in the “cosmic calendar” (see previous image), it was not until mid-May that the thin disk of the milky way formed. The development and accummulation of heavy metals occurred in the galaxy’s disc. This disc produces stars that make heavy elements essential for complex life, rocky planets and technology.

The disc is a feature of spiral arm galaxies. Most galaxies are not this type, and the Milky Way wont be one forever. The Milky Way may become elliptical, through a collision course with the Andromeda galaxy billions of years in the future.

So, how did heavy metals build up over time in the Milky Way’s disc? As noted above, it was through the succession of generations of star birth and death.

Larger stars than the sun [at the ends of their lives] will collapse creating heat and pressure fierce enough to fuse heavy elements like nickel and iron then blow a bunch of it away in clouds of dust. The biggest stars in the universe will create and disperse even heavier elements in supernovae explosions. John Gribbin highlights the importance of supernovae. He says that supernovae are what create the heavier elements like iron. When our sun dies, collapsing into a white dwarf, it will only be able to fuse together elements up to carbon and oxygen. Whereas more massive stars will collapse further and create materials required not only for rocky planet formation, but also for essential biochemical reactions.

Supernovae and time are required for technological civilization as the metallicity (or amount of metals) in stars increases over generations. However, too much metallicity could be a bad thing. Stars with higher metallicity, are more likely to have a large-Jupiter planet orbiting close to it. These large “Hot Jupiter’s” would orbit as close as earth is to our sun or even closer, which would disrupt orbits of earth-like planets close by.

The Galactic Habitable Zone

Currently, there is a narrow region within the Milky Way Galaxy that has enough metallicity to sustain rocky planet formation. This region accommodates 10% of all stars in the Milky Way. This is what some call the galactic habitable zone. The area is thin, short in width, not near the galactic centre, or the outer edge.

  • The outer part of the galaxy consists of old stars that formed 10 billion years ago (twice the age of the sun) that don’t even have 10% the metallicity of ours. You likely need around 40% the metallicity of our sun to develop rocky planets.
  • The galactic centre has a bulge around it that make up most of the stars in the galaxy. The bulk of the stars in the bulge are old and low in metal content. There are few younger stars in there. Because it is so dense and close to the centre, the radiation would be far too high to accommodate life, reducing the probability of life occurring even more. The number of encounters with other solar systems would also result in many more extinction level impacts.
  • The galactic habitable zone is a thin disc in between the outer edge and inner bulge no more than 1000 light years thick. This area contains young stars like the sun. It is currently the only area within the milky way producing new stars and enriching it further with heavy metals.

The galactic habitable zone idea was put forward due to the link between metallicity and the likelihood of forming planets such as Earth, Mars, or Venus. However, it is not constant, expanding over time. Charles Lineweaver (Senior Fellow at the Planetary Science Institute, Australian National University) postulates that the galactic habitable zone emerged roughly 8 billion years ago from a ring roughly 26 thousand lightyears from the galactic centre. Now he postulates that it extends from about 23 thousand lightyears to 29 thousand lightyears from the centre.

However, the galactic habitable zone depends not only on metallicity, but also on the frequency of potential hazards that star systems would encounter when they travel around the Milky Way Galaxy. Supernovae and the supermassive black hole at the galactic centre are two of them:

  • Supernovae are a hazard.
    • Supernovae are more common in the galactic centre because it is more dense.
    • They likely occur on average about once every 100 million years in our galaxy and could be devastating to life on earth even from across the Milky Way. The author says that it could be possible for a supernovae to even sterilize an entire galaxy – but it has been pointed out that they are very short-lived. So, the side of the planet facing away from it could be shielded from the more harmful effects although there will be setbacks, such as a large hole in the ozone.
    • Supernovae were more common in the earlier galaxy, which could be a reason that intelligent life took so long to form on earth. So, it would be easier for intelligent life to form now by not having as many gamma ray burst events slowing things down.
  • The supermassive black hole at the galactic centre is a hazard.
    • Radiation hazards don’t just come from supernovae, but from the galactic centre itself where the supermassive black hole is located. Although it is not very active today, there are signs it was more active in the past.
    • Active black holes studied in other galaxies show that when they swallow material (such as stars or gas clouds), it gets sucked in at an extremely high speed and results in intense radiation shooting into the bulge. Unfortunately, stars in the bulge tend to have elliptical orbits around the black hole, so they end up coming very close to the centre. Either way, any planet bombarded with this kind of radiation will suffer immensely.

Most of the galaxy is thus uninhabitable. Only the thin disc has the metallicity required to sustain the evolution of technological life. However, the galactic habitable zone is still a violent, life-threatening place to be.

The Galactic Habitable Zone is a Dangerous Place to Live

Passing Through the Galaxy’s Spiral Arms

The sun is located about 27,000 light years from the middle of the milky way, and takes roughly 225 million years to make a complete orbit. So, since the sun formed, it made about 20 complete orbital rotations around the centre of the galaxy. We are currently near the inner edge of a spiral arm called the Orion arm, or otherwise known as the Local Arm. The author notes that spiral arms are not permanent, that they get smoothed out over time – it just seems permanent since we are just a snapshot in time, as he puts it – “like snapshots of the spiral patterns of coffee”. But the bulge can also kick back up a spiral pattern, so they may come and go and set of a process of star formation in the arms when they do. This process is very good at mixing metals in the thin disk of the galaxy when it occurs. The spiral density waves, like the one that makes up the Orion or Local arm sent off from the bulge actually moves slower than the stars do. So, we are not just existing within the Local Arm, we are literally just about to pass through it.

Spiral arms are where supernova occur. If the solar system was impacted by one, it could destroy our ozone layer and cause serious harm to life on earth. If the solar system was within 30 light years of a supernova explosion, it would likely destroy most life on the surface. So, the likelihood of an extinction event caused by a nearby supernova explosion increases as we go through spiral arms. That is because more supernovas occur in them.

So, stars closer to the bulge would pass through more arms over time because they are closer together near the middle. We are further from the middle. So the risk of extinction by supernova or other hazards in the spiral arm decreases the further away from the centre you are located.

Last time the solar system passed a spiral arm was about 250 million years ago. The Palaeozoic era ended around 250 million years ago in a mass extinction. This could be related to the spiral arm encounter, or it could not be. But that is just another indicator that some regions in the milky way are more accommodating to life than others, and the probability of technological life developing or continuing to exist varies depending on where you are located in space and time.

Comets

The problem with comet impacts like the one that killed off the dinosaurs is that they could potentially sterilize a planet of all complex life. If the comet was larger than the one that killed the dinosaurs, it could have. But what if the comet was much smaller? The trajectory of evolution would be vastly different and we would likely not be here today to talk about it.

Where there are lots of comet-impacts, these extinction events would not provide enough time to evolve intelligent life.

We are surrounded by a massive Oort cloud around our solar system, presumably most star systems are. The Oort cloud is a halo of rocky and icy debris with trillions of pieces larger than one kilometer in diameter, and billions of pieces over 20 kilometers in diameter.

A close encounter with any large body like a solar system or black hole could perturb the Oort cloud sending them toward our sun, where earth is in its path.

  • This will be much more common in the bulge where there is a higher density of solar systems
  • This will also be more common in the spiral arms where the density of gas clouds would give the Oort cloud a “hydrostatic jump”

We are on a collision course with another solar system right now. The star Hipparcos 85605 will pass by our solar system very closely within the next 250 to 500 thousand years. The star Gliese 710 will pass by in approximately 1.3 million years. Both of these encounters will interact with our Oort Cloud, increasing the risk of impact with the earth.

Conclusion

We are not just located in a good spot in the milky way, we are in a good time as well. Life most probably occurs in the galactic habitable zone and becomes exceedingly less likely the further you travel out. So, for an intelligent civilization to colonize or explore the galaxy for life, they would only need to reach 10% of the stars. This makes that Fermi Paradox question more impactful. If we could practically send robots (like Von Neumann Probes) to explore the galaxy, it would take much less time to explore the the galactic habitable zone than the entire thing. So where are they?

This discussion has all been about the Milky Way, but what about other galaxies? About 80% of other galaxies are fainter, star birth and star death  is occurring less frequently – so the process of increasing metallicity is weaker, possibly too weak for earth like planets. From observations, only about 20% of galaxies seem to have the metallicity required for rocky planet formation. 

Final Thoughts

Do I agree with the author’s conclusion? Well, I can agree that the probability of complex life should decrease where the frequency of hazards increase. I also agree that the probability of complex life decreases the further away from the galactic habitable zone you are interested in. However, it accommodates 10% of the stars in the Milky Way. That still leaves between 10 – 40 billion stars to consider as potential systems to harbour life. However, the author easily shreds this down from 10% to 0.06% in his discussion about habitable star systems and types, a topic for a later post.

All in all, I am not necessarily conviced that we are alone in the Milky way, but found it to be persuasive, forcing me to think big and reflect about our place in the Milky Way Galaxy, or even the universe. I could agree that it is possible for us to be alone in the Milky Way as a technological civilization. However, I would not state is as fact. I am not convinced that we are alone as such in the universe, but would that even matter if we are spatially disconnected to the point where we could never make contact?

Thank you for reading this blog post. I had fun reviewing John Gribbin’s argument for the galactic habitable zone and why most of the galaxy is uninhabitable. However, I am more interested to hear your thoughts and opinions. If you have any thoughts, ideas, disagreements, or insights to the topic, please share them in the comment section below.

If you enjoyed this post, please give it a like, or subscribe. You can follow me @interestpeaks on Twitter too. Please stay tuned! I will return later to discuss John Gribbin’s argument why most stars systems and types are uninhabitable in the Milky Way galaxy.

“Alone in the Universe”: Breakdown of John Gribbin’s Argument for Why We Are Alone in the Milky Way Galaxy

By Cory Davis

This is a breakdown of John Gribbin’s argument as made in his book Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet is Unique (2011).

Alone in the Universe -- Why Our Planet Is Unique.jpg

On December 19, 2020, I wrote a review of this book, giving it 4/5 stars. I thought it was a fun thought experiment which made me wonder and ponder our existence in the universe. There were four reasons that I did not give it a 5/5: (1) there was no summary of the argument, (2) there was no clear outline about why it is important, (3) the conclusion was extreme, and (4) the title of the book is not honest.

For those of you who felt the same, or are just curious, I will break down John Gribbin’s argument for why we are alone in the Milky Way Galaxy. The conclusion of the book is not that we are alone in the universe as you may have inferred from the title, just that we are alone as a technological civilization in our galaxy.

This is one possible solution to the Fermi Paradox, which poses the question that if technological civilizations are common, where are they? John Gribbin argues, we cannot detect them because they are not there.

The Argument

The argument here has been simplified drastically into 12 premises and one conclusion for the purpose of this post. In later posts, I will elaborate on each premise to provide you with context.

#1 Alien technological civilizations are not close enough in time or space to detect.

  • We cannot detect them now, therefore (1) they are either not here, (2) are not here yet,  (3) have been here and are already dead, (4) have never been here (5) will never be here, or (6) are so far away that we cannot detect them easily

#2 Most of the galaxy is not currently habitable.

  • The galactic habitable zone makes up the region of the galaxy where metallicity is high enough to produce rocky planets
  • Complex life requires heavy metals to function efficiently enough to sustain themselves
  • Technology necessarily requires available heavy metals
  • The galactic habitable zone contains 10% of the stars in the milky way

#3 The galaxy was not always habitable.

  • The galactic habitable zone’s metallicity was built up over time
  • Five billion years ago, it was less metal-rich and had a higher frequency of supernova explosions
  • It took earth almost five-billion years for earth to evolve technological life
  • If that is a usual amount of time, we could even be the first

#4 The galactic habitable zone is a violent place that threatens the long-term sustainability of life.

  • Stars orbit the galactic centre faster than the Milky Way’s spiral arms do.
  • Supernovae occur more frequently in the spiral arms
  • The solar system has passed spiral arms about 20 times since its formation
  • The risk of a supernova encounter threatening life on earth increases as we pass a spiral arm
  • We are surrounded by a massive Oort cloud [of debris] around our solar system, presumably most are
  • A close encounter with any large body like a star system or black hole could perturb the Oort cloud sending them toward our sun, where earth is in its path
  • The spiral arms could also disrupt the Oort cloud with a hydrostatic jump

#5 Technological life can only form in the habitable zone around a star where liquid water can be sustained on a planet’s surface.

  • Habitable zones are not constant, they change over time
  • Water is essential for life
  • The habitable zone also accommodates rock weathering, which is important for the carbon cycle
  • Not all habitatable zones are habitable for complex or technological life
  • Not all stars have rocky planets in their habitable zones

#6 Most stars in the galaxy regardless of the region of the Milky Way they inhabit are inhospitable to technological life.

  • Most stars in our galaxy are red dwarves (M-Stars) (75%)
  • The habitable zone of an M-Star is extremely close to it
  • M-Stars are also much more active than the sun blasting the habitable zone with deadly radiation
  • Large stars are also very dangerous
  • The range of habitable stars consist of K-Type, F-Type and G-Type stars
  • Most stars exist in binary star systems (80%) which threaten stable planetary orbits and result in fluctuating habitable zones
  • Stars that have depleted refractory elements at their surface (like the sun) tend to have rocky planets, stars who have not tend to have gaseous giants in their inner solar system. Only 10% of stars exhibit refractory element patterns.
  • Stars live and die, leaving a temporary window of time for technological life to emerge

#6 Our solar system is uniquely accommodating to technological life.

  • Our solar system has rocky planets in the inside, gaseous planets are on the outside. Most star systems do not.
  • All planets in our solar system orbits in the same direction as the rotation of the sun. Some systems have Hot Jupiters orbiting in the opposite direction which would endanger the stability of orbits in the habitable zone
  • Hot Jupiters, regardless if they orbit in the opposite direction or not are dangerous. 1% of star systems have  a Hot Jupiter.
  • Our solar system is structured and relatively stable, many are full of “violence and drama”
  • Planets usually have elliptical orbits (which could bring them in and out of the habitable zone regularly. Whereas our solar system’s planets have relatively circular orbits
  • Our solar system received a blast of material from a nearby supernova in its very early formation period, enriching it with beneficial materials.
  • Our planets are far enough away from each other that they don’t dramatically influence their orbits
  • Changes in the initial conditions of our solar system formation could have easily led to chaos, or absence of complex life
  • Jupiter has been beneficial for earth, but only in the context of stable orbits

#7 Our planet is uniquely hospitable to technological life, but if initial conditions were slightly different it may not be.

  • We have a relatively low amount of carbon on earth. Most stars with planets have a higher carbon to oxygen ratio.
  • Carbon dominated planets would be built out of carbon materials like graphite on the outer surface and diamond in the centre. The atmosphere would not sustain O2 like on earth, the little oxygen available would form carbon monoxide and methane. The oceans and lakes would be filled with tar
  • We have tectonic plate activity that is rare and essential for life
  • We have a magnetic shield that is rare and essential for life
  • Similar planets to ours are dead – just look at Mars and Venus. So, just because planets are “earth-like” does not mean that they are alive, let alone have complex or technological life
  • We have a very unique moon, without which we would be doomed. The creation of the moon was the same event that led to plate tectonics.
  • The moon does and did produce three critically important things for technological life on earth: tides, planetary tilt and plate tectonics.

#8 The evolution of the Eukaryotic cell was a rare event.

  • The evolution of the eukaryotic cell was an extremely unique event, taking over two billion years to achieve

#9 The evolution of complex life was an extremely rare event.

  • It took an enormous amount of time for simple life to become complex (almost 3.5 billion years)
  • This indicates that evolving complex life is a very long process, as life must slowly compile and gain the required adaptations to do so in the right environments

#10 The evolution of complex life does not guarantee that a technological civilization will emerge.

  • Complex life emerged out of the Cambrian explosion, but that is not the only scenario that could have played out
  • If different kinds of complex life emerged, there is no guarantee that they could accommodate complex structures within their interiors
  • Evolution is not goal oriented, so technological civilization is no guarantee even with complex life and an accommodating planet
  • Any change in the condition of earth during our evolutionary history could have produced radically different lineages
  • Mass extinction events play a critical role in evolution. Slight variations in timing and circumstance could have produced radically different lifeforms, and we would not be here

#10 Human level intelligence is rare, even in the context of complex life

  • Human-level intelligence is rare on earth, and would not have necessarily happened if conditions varied even slightly

#11 There are several looming existential threats to humanity. Some cannot be avoided.

  • Even in our uniquely accommodating solar system, there are several immediately concerning (today to a couple thousand years) existential threats that challenge our long-term sustainability as a technological civilization.
    • Global Warming
    • Ocean Acidification
    • Asteroid impacts
  • There are many existential threats that can and/or will destroy life on earth from
    • Earth will be burned up by the sun
    • Data suggests that a “kill-all-life-on-earth” event should occur roughly once every two-billion years or so. We are overdue for one, and should consider ourselves very lucky.
    • We are on a collision course with several other solar systems, and about to enter a galactic spiral arm.

#12 There is likely no second chances for evolution to produce another technological civilization on earth if we are wiped out.

  • If we are wiped out – earth does not have a second chance to evolve technological life
  • It may not be possible without huge reserves of fossil fuels and accessible ores.
  • We depleted these resources dramatically. To make them accessible again would take billions of years, that the earth does not have.

Conclusion

The last note from the author addresses the Fermi Paradox by stating that technological civilizations are not here in the Milky Way. The reason why we are here, is that a string of highly improbable events occurred, so rare that the probability that other technological civilizations exist in the Milky Way Galaxy at the exact same moment in time as us, is extremely small. Thus “We are alone, and we better get used to it”.

What are your thoughts on the Fermi Paradox? Do you agree with John Gribbin’s argument? Or are you more optimistic? I sure thought it was a fun exercise. But I am more curious to learn about what your thoughts are. If you have any thoughts, ideas, or opinions, please share them in the comment section below. I am sure it will create an interesting dialogue.

If you enjoyed this post, please give it a like or subscribe. You can also follow me on twitter @interestpeaks. Please stay tuned! In my next post, where I will break down the premises of John Gribbin’s argument in more detail.

Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet is Unique – Book Review

Book Review by Cory Davis

This is a book review of author John Gribbin’s “Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet is Unique” (2011) published by John Wiley & Sons Inc. out of Hoboken, New Jersey, originally published by Penguin Books Ltd. In Great Britain.

4/5

“Alone in the Universe  will make for interesting conversations and leave you awake at night pondering our fragile existence and place in the cosmos.”

Alone in the Universe -- Why Our Planet Is Unique.jpg
Alone in the Universe by John Gribbin Book Cover

About the Author

John Gribbon is a visiting fellow in astronomy at the University of Sussex, UK with a PhD in Astrophysics, M.Sc. in Astronomy and B.Sc. in Physics. Notably, John Gribbin worked as a research student for Fred Hoyle, a famous scientist known for developing the theory of stellar nucleosynthesis and opposition of the big bang, in favour of the steady state model.

However, he is most well known for being a science communicator who wrote many books including “Before the Big Bang”, “In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat: Quantum Physics and Reality”, and “Richard Feynman: A Life of Science”.

What the Book is About

First and foremost, “Alone in the Universe” is not an argument that we are literally alone in the universe. It is an argument that we are alone as a technological civilization in the Milky Way Galaxy. It answers the Fermi Paradox, which is essentially, if technological civilizations are common, then “Where are they?”. Perhaps using Occam’s Razor, the most-simplest explanation is that technological civilizations are not common, and they are not here.

Along the same vein as “Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe” By Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, this book explores the conditions and series of events that made complex life possible here on earth, and the many possible ways it could have gone sideways if it occurred slightly differently.

Indeed, the universe is a violent inhospitable place for life, and even more so for complex life. The series of events that led to the fragile state of conditions we currently inhabit were very unlikely. Earth could have easily turned out differently. If we ran the clock back and changed the initial conditions only slightly, we may not be here today to talk about it.

The book is structured into eight chapters. The first chapter felt like an argument that life is common. He does this throughout the book, giving the reader support for an opposing view, before arguing against it. The second chapter is about the Milky Way Galaxy and its habitability. He does go beyond the Milky Way at times, noting that not all galaxies are habitable. Just based on metallicity alone, we can conclude that most galaxies are not very accommodating to technological life. The third chapter talks about the stars and their influence on life in worlds that orbit them. The fourth chapter focusses on factors that influence the habitability of solar systems, such as orbits and the influence of large Jupiter-like planets in different locations within them. The fifth chapter is dedicated to the conditions of earth such as plate tectonics and how they influence habitability making comparisons to other planets such as Venus and Mars. The sixth and seventh chapters are dedicated to evolution, highlighting the fact that it is not goal-oriented (intelligent technological life is not a goal of evolution), rather it is a series of adaptations to changing environmental conditions, which vary over time differently in various locations on earth. Here, the author also highlights the several unlikely events throughout our evolutionary history that led to complex life. The last chapter focusses on us as a technological civilization, why it is a unique feature and the possibility of it occurring again.

All eight chapters support the final conclusion: that we are alone in the galaxy. Not that technological life never existed before in the galaxy, or that it won’t happen again sometime in the future. He is not arguing that we are alone in the universe. He is arguing that in the short sliver of time that we exist, it is highly improbable that another technological civilization inhabits the Milky Way at this particular moment.

What I Liked About the Book

Alone in the Universe communicates science in an easily digestible way. It outlines a suite of scientific information to provide context to the inferences used to establish the premises of the author’s argument.

The argument itself is thorough. From the chemical structure of the galaxy, planetary orbits, rotation, and tilt, to the evolutionary circumstances that resulted in our civilization, orientated in the vast expanse of time, it is clear to see that complex, technological life like ours is relatively rare.

There were many moments throughout the book where my mind was racing. Excited, I stayed up at night pondering our existence and what earth would be like if pivotal moments in our evolutionary or cosmic history went slightly different. This is why I gave this book such a high rating. It was fun and it engaged the reader, giving me lots to think about.

Whether you agree with the conclusion or not, that we are alone in the Milky Way Galaxy as a technological civilization, the argument itself makes for a fun thought experiment that will fuel interesting conversations on topic.

Alone in the Universe makes for an excellent addition to the Fermi-Paradox and Rare Earth Hypothesis compendium, putting forth an argument for why it may be the case that intelligent life in the universe is exceedingly rare.

What I Disliked About the Book

The argument itself was not summed up in an easily accessible way. After reading the book, I will have to go back through all my notes to summarize the argument. The end of the book does not do this for you, which was disappointing. After getting through the whole book, it just would have been really nice to sum it up in a one-or-two-page reflection piece to really hit the message home.  

The introduction was initially bland. It talked generally about the milky way, how big it is, how many stars there are and so forth. It talked about the observable universe and how many galaxies there are, how many light years accross it is, etc. He states that we can see a diameter of 27 light years or so, because the universe is about 13.8 billion light years old. I was getting bored because this is old news. However, those new to the topic, could find it to be a feature, rather than a bore.

As I kept reading though, I started to find gems of knowledge that were new to me. For example, did you know that the first direct evidence that planets form out of clouds of debris was around a pulsar? Pulsars form from stars much larger than the sun who go supernova. Some of these stars, if they are big enough, form black holes. But if not, they can form pulsars, neutron stars or possibly other exotic forms such as quark-stars. Apparently, some planets cannot survive a supernova, the event is much too violent. However, researchers Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail of Penn State University found planets orbiting a pulsar that could not possibly have survived a supernova. Therefore, the planets were formed out of the material discharged from the supernova explosion. My mind is blown.

There were a couple times I was lost in the book, having to re-read paragraphs to try to understand what he was saying or why it supports his argument. This mostly occurred in the last few chapters, where the material became a little more complex.

The book is structured well, but it did not come together for me in the end.  My four main criticisms are a follows:

  1. I would have appreciated a diagram or summary of the argument. Each chapter was like a premise leading the reader toward a conclusion. The end of the book does not summarize the argument for you. You need to take notes and formulate his argument yourself.
  2. Some of the premises did not necessarily lead to the conclusion as there are still so many unknown variables. All in all, it was a strong argument, but the conclusion was extreme. I think a fairer conclusion would have been “therefore, the probability that more than one technological civilization exists in the Milky Way Galaxy at this precise moment in time is very low”, rather than “we are (authoritatively and definitively) alone in the Milky Way Galaxy”.
  3. The book was not written very purposefully. I understand that the purpose is to argue that we are alone in the galaxy, but why is this important? He indicates that the earth is fragile so we should probably take care of it, but is this why he wrote the book? That is not clear. In my opinion, the book should have had one final chapter, that sums up the argument and outlines why we should care. What is the agenda? Should we defund SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence)? Should we save the planet? Does the conclusion that life is rare indicate some kind of greater responsibility for humanity? What is the point of this book and why is it important? I would have appreciated some ending that drove the message home.
  4. The conclusion is not that we are “Alone in the Universe”, it is that we are alone in the Milky Way Galaxy. He makes this clear when you read the book, but the cover is dishonest, like a catchy title to lure the reader in.

For the above four reasons, my rating was reduced from 5 stars to 4 stars.

Conclusion

I really enjoyed reading this book and recommend it to anyone curious about the subject, especially for those who hold opposing views. If anything, it will inform you of the other side to an argument that you may not have heard explained in depth before. Enter it with an open mind, make notes and develop a more substantiated opinion of the topic, even if you don’t reach the same conclusion. Alone in the Universe  will make for interesting conversations and leave you awake at night pondering our fragile existence and place in the cosmos.

If you are curious about life in the universe, and our place within it, then this is a must read. But this is not the only book I would recommend on the subject. Below are some books and audiobooks that I thoroughly enjoyed on the topic and would recommend to anyone who is interested in no particular order:

  1. Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee
  2. Lucky Planet by David Waltham
  3. The Eerie Silence by Paul Davies
  4. Aliens: The Worlds Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life by Jim Al-Khalili
  5. The Contact Paradox: Challenging Our Assumptions About the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
  6. The Copernican Complex: Our Cosmic Significance in a Universe of Planets and Possibilities by Caleb Scharf
  7. Goldilocks and the Water Bears by Louisa Preston
  8. Light of the Stars by Adam Frank
  9. Confessions of an Alien Hunter: A Scientist’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence by Seth Shostak
  10. All These Worlds Are Yours: The Scientific Search for Extraterrestrial Life by John Willis
  11. Extraterrestrial Intelligence by Jean Heidmann

If you would like me to revisit any of these for a review or breakdown, please let me know in the comment section below.

Thank you so much for reading my review for Alone in the Universe by John Gribbin. I found this material super interesting. But I am more interested to hear your thoughts and opinions. If you have any thoughts about life in the universe, or comments about this book, please share them below. I promise to read them, and am sure they will make for interesting dialogue.

If you enjoyed this post, please give it a like or subscribe. You can also follow me on twitter @interestpeaks. Please stay tuned! In my next post, where I will break down the author’s argument for why we are alone in the Milky Way Galaxy.

Breakdown: How to be a Good Motivator – Highlights from “Bringing Out the Best in People” (1985) Ch. 12-14

If you are like me, you may never get a chance to read all the books you would like to. There is just not enough time in a single lifetime to absorb it all. That is why I wanted to breakdown “Bringing Out the Best in People” (1985) by Alan Loy McGinnis to share the key takeaways that I got out of it.

Image result for bringing out the best in people mcginnis

“Bringing Out the Best in People” (1985) is a guide to be a good motivator. It provides the reader with 12 principles to bring out the best in people through motivation. The 12 principles are as follows:

  1. Expect the best from people you lead
  2. Make a thorough study of the other person’s needs
  3. Establish high standards for excellence
  4. Create an environment where failure is not fatal
  5. If they are going anywhere near where you want to go, climb on other people’s bandwagons
  6. Employ models to encourage success
  7. Recognize and applaud achievement
  8. Employ a mixture of positive and negative reinforcement
  9. Appeal sparingly to the competitive urge
  10. Place a premium on collaboration
  11. Build into the group an allowance for storms
  12. Take steps to keep your own motivation

In this post, I will break down chapters 12-14. These chapters capture principles 11 and 12 to bring the best out of people. If you like it, please check out my previous post capturing chapters 1-11.

Chapter 12: How to deal with an abrasive troublemaker

This chapter highlights principle #11, build into the group an allowance for storms. Right off the bat, the term “troublemaker” should be avoided all together because it attacks another person’s character rather than addressing the problem – the behaviour. So in order to attack problems, rather than people, this chapter should be titled “How to deal with continual problematic behaviours”.

This chapter emphases how problematic behaviours can destroy team synergies and drain their enthusiasm. Unfortunately, too often we see these behaviours come from positions of authority such as supervisors, or managers. So as a leader who observes these behaviours, you need to act quickly. Your response should not be fire them first, then hire someone else later. If that is your philosophy, then you will be running from this problem your whole life. The best leaders will only replace an employee as a last-ditch effort after all other options have been exhausted. The cost of staff turnover financially, on morale, time and relationships is too high.

One option to manage problematic behaviours is to diffuse them through ventilation. Good leaders are prepared to absorb a heavy load of complaints. For your team to function smoothly, they need to vent all the junk out of their systems. You are the leader who needs to absorb it. So the point here is to build a corridor for others to steer their grievances through so that negativity does not infect the office. That corridor is your gentle, attentive ears. Don’t let the complaints bring down your enthusiasm – you are listening for a good cause – for the team.

For the continually observed problematic behaviours, here are seven pieces of advice to manage them:

  1. Allow some disruptive behaviour. Build into your team charter an acceptance of the storming phase, an allowance for temporary periods of insanity. We will all laugh about it later on.
  2. Uncover the underlying reasons for the behaviour. J.P. Morgan once said it bluntly, “There are two reasons why anyone does anything – the good reason, and the real reason.”
  3. Identify how harmful the problematic behaviour is. You may find out that the individual exhibiting the behaviour is loved and adored by his or her colleagues – for their honesty and bravery to state how they truly see things. Do not degrade him or her at the expense of your damaging your relationships with your team.
  4. Ask for help. This is straightforward, ask others for advice. Remember though, never attack the person – especially in front of others. Seek help about the problem. Maybe others have experience managing similar behaviours or have exhibited those behaviours themselves at some point.
  5.  Weigh the individual who is exhibiting problematic behaviour’s contribution to the team. It may be the case that their performance is incredible and outweighs the damage that they did. That does not mean that you should not address the behaviour, it just helps evaluate the situation.
  6. Appeal to the good side of the person exhibiting the behaviour. Remember, most of us have good intentions. Don’t assume the worst of the other person. You do not know their circumstances. If anything else, give them good intentions to live up to. Say, “I know you mean well, you are a good person. I noticed XY behaviours, that is not your usual self. I hope you are doing well. But if there is anything I could do to help out, even if it is just an ear to listen, I am here for you.”
  7. If the problematic behaviour is severely harmful, you may need to remove the person.

Chapter 13: The personality of the motivator

This chapter highlights principle #12, take steps to keep your own motivation high. This chapter is all about you as a motivator. It is difficult to be motivated by someone who is unmotivated themselves. McGinnis asserts that to lead people successfully, you need to understand what makes your team tick, and have a “spirit that spreads excitement and energy to those around you”. You cannot spread excitement and energy if you cannot take care of yourself. Don’t let anger, bitterness, resentment, exhaustion, or hatred dominate your soul. You need positivity to drive your motivation of others.

McGinnis provides five tips to keep yourself motivated to motivated others:

  1. Surround yourself with positive and successful people and minimize contact with those who exhaust you or bring you down.
  2. Be careful about what you let enter your mind. Any statistician or computer scientist will tell you: “garbage in – garbage out” or “your conclusions are only as good as the data you put in”.
  3. Take advantage of credible podcasts, audiobooks, and paper books. Or, as McGinnis put it, there is a “wealth of information on audio cassettes.”
  4. Go to conferences, seminars, lectures, or other networking events.
  5. Keep a journal. Record your leadership journey and reflect on them. Develop lessons learned and document your thoughts.

Chapter 14: Why Helping Others Can Become Life’s Greatest Joy

This chapter is supposed to inspire the reader to continue their efforts to motivate others. He notes the all-too-real experience we have, starting out on a mission to save the world – then end up just fighting to survive. Don’t let life bring you down. Remember to celebrate your wins – even small ones. Keep chipping away at your dreams and idealistic aspirations. Giving up now will mean you have wasted a lot of time for nothing. You may not see the change now, but big change is built upon an aggregate of small ones – keep making them.

Remember that motivating others is about seeing the best in them. Other people have potential that has yet to be acknowledged – and you are there to do that. It is very impactful for people. Try it. See if you can inspire someone today. Let them know that you genuinely believe in them and that you know they can and will do great things. You can change lives and inspire a better world because of it.

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed my breakdown of Alan Loy McGinnis’ “Bringing Out the Best in People”. I loved this book. It challenged my behaviours and forced me to reflect on my personal experiences. I hope you got a lot out of it too. It was a pleasure for me to share these chapters with you and I look forward to next time.

If you enjoyed this read, please subscribe to my blog, give it a like or follow me on Twitter @interestpeaks. I found this content interesting. But I am more interested in what your thoughts, opinions or advice on motivation are. If you have any thoughts, ideas, or feedback, please share them in the comments section below. I would love to hear them.

“Sea in the Sky” by Jackson Musker Audible Original Review

5/5

“…gripping from beginning to end. “Sea in the Sky” is a rollercoaster of emotion. It starts out light-hearted and funny then descends into a depressing madness.”

Image result for Sea in the sky jackson musker
Retrieved from Audible.ca

This is a review of “Sea in the Sky” by Jackson Musker, an Audible Original. I don’t know what to call this. An audio-book, a story-based podcast, an audio-play? There is no narrator, it is not like a novel. It is purely voice actors playing out each scene with audio effects to portray movements, machinery, or other immersive effects.

I have been an Audible subscriber since 2011. I like to listen to audio books while I go for walks, hikes, jogs, or just before to bed. But my audible playlist is made up of only non-fiction books. Mostly science and social science stuff. I find that it is difficult to retain the information from science-heavy audio books though, which makes them hard to review. That is, until I found this audible original in their “Podcast” section. All the podcasts are free for audible subscribers.

I was blown away by the audio effects and professional voice actors. I truly felt like I was watching a movie, but in my own head. It engages the listener’s imagination this way. You don’t need the visuals to be entertained by this story – in fact, I think it may take away from the experience. It made me realize how powerful our imaginations are and that I should use mine more.

This is a story about Bianca and Tye. Two astronauts who head off to Enceladus, a moon that orbits Saturn. Enceladus is an interesting place. It is the sixth largest known moon in our solar system. Not only is the surface covered in ice, underneath that ice, Enceladus has a global ocean, and a rocky core. On October 3rd, 2019, Science Alert reported that organic compounds were pluming out of the icy surface. That does not mean that life exists on Enceladus. But it does mean it is geologically active and that there is interesting chemistry going on. It only entices our imagination about the possibility of life in our universe.

Image result for wiki enceladus
Enceladus, Moon of Saturn

We first meet Bianca and Tye when they arrive on the icy moon after a grueling three-year journey. Their interactions are funny, cute, and even touch on sensitive topics such as religion. Bianca, an atheist and Tye, an unorthodox Christian. Tye’s view is that God is the force that set the big bang into motion, some force outside the confines of our universe. There is some place, he says, outside of the universe where that force (or God) resides, where it all started, and when we die, we go back there. Bianca states that she only believes in what we can see, touch, study and infer with science. The rest of what is out there is just waiting to be discovered. But how can you believe in something that we have not yet discovered? – like some unidentified force outside the universe. It may be there, but belief is to be convinced of something. You cannot be convinced of something without good evidence.

I agree with them both in a sense. I am not sure there is a place outside the Universe, or a force that exists there. But I am convinced that it is a good possibility, that there could be an area (if you could call it that) between universes in the multiverse where natural forces operate. But I don’t understand why or how we would “go back there” to that area, and I don’t know why we would convolute the notion of God with a force that exists there. But it is an interesting dialogue, and I am glad they went no further into the subject than they did.

The purpose of their mission is to find life on the icy moon. I thought this was a little bit too unrealistic. There was such a push from home-base to find life – like if they didn’t find it, the entire mission would be a failure and would mean the end of space missions altogether. Literally, that was case. The politics were just hyper extreme in this sense. They did not have evidence of life on Enceladus prior to the mission, but somehow placed the success of the mission on their ability to find it. I think it should be successful either way, if the astronauts are able to return with good data. Biology is just one reason to investigate other worlds. There is so much more we could learn about its chemical composition, chemical processes, geological processes, etc. This part kind of threw me off-guard. But I guess it makes for some good story-telling.

I don’t want to reveal what happens in the end. Although I will say it was very suspenseful. Do they find life? Do they survive? What awaits in the deep oceans of Enceladus? Listen, and find out for yourself. If you are subscribed to Audible, its free! Nothing to lose if you try.

I found this Audible Original Podcast riveting. It was gripping from beginning to end. “Sea in the Sky” is a rollercoaster of emotion. It starts out light-hearted and funny then descends into a depressing madness. I highly recommend it.

The ending was good. I had to sit with it for a while and let it sink in. I was not sure how to feel. I guess it made me feel lost, hopeless, and craving for a more complete finish. It screams sequel to me. I desperately wanted one. But as I let it all sink in, I became more accepting of the finish.

I thought this Audible Original Podcast was great – 5/5. But I am more interested to hear your opinions of it. How did it make you feel? Did the ending work for you? Do you want more? Please let me know in the comments.

Thank you so much for reading this review. If you enjoyed it, please give it a like and subscribe.

Breakdown: How to be a Good Motivator – Highlights from “Bringing Out the Best in People” (1985) Ch. 9-11

If you are like me, you may never get a chance to read all the books you would like to. There is just not enough time in a single lifetime to absorb it all. That is why I wanted to breakdown “Bringing Out the Best in People” (1985) by Alan Loy McGinnis to share the key takeaways that I got out of it.

See the source image

“Bringing Out the Best in People” (1985) is a guide to be a good motivator. It provides the reader with 12 principles to bring out the best in people through motivation. The 12 principles are as follows:

  1. Expect the best from people you lead
  2. Make a thorough study of the other person’s needs
  3. Establish high standards for excellence
  4. Create an environment where failure is not fatal
  5. If they are going anywhere near where you want to go, climb on other people’s bandwagons
  6. Employ models to encourage success
  7. Recognize and applaud achievement
  8. Employ a mixture of positive and negative reinforcement
  9. Appeal sparingly to the competitive urge
  10. Place a premium on collaboration
  11. Build into the group an allowance for storms
  12. Take steps to keep your own motivation

In this post, I will break down chapters 9-11. These chapters capture principles 8-10 to bring the best out of people. If you like it, please check out my previous posts capturing chapters 1-8 and look out for another post where I will cover the last two principles.

Chapter 9: When to Praise and When to Reprimand

This chapter highlights principle #8, employ a mixture of positive and negative reinforcement. Here the author emphasizes the need to use more positive reinforcement than negative reinforcement, but there still needs to be elements of both.

The good person in us will cringe at the thought of negative reinforcement. We all had bad experiences with it. However, negative reinforcement does not have to be mean, aggressive or result in a loss of morale.

McGinnis offers the Scorn/Reinstruction Method of negative reinforcement as an example. Using this method, when you see something that was done wrong, say something like “Don’t do it that way, do it this way”. Then you can proceed to show them exactly how it is supposed to be done. It seems reasonable.

McGinnis offers several pieces of advice for giving negative reinforcement:

  1. Teach them to avoid disruptive behaviours. Don’t teach them to avoid you. You still need to be approachable, respectful, and tactful.
  2. Be timely and give negative reinforcement immediately after the bad behaviour. The longer you wait, the less effective the negative reinforcement will be at correcting the behaviour.
  3. Stop any negative reinforcement effects as soon as the poor behaviour stops. If you punish your child for 30 days for a bad behaviour, there is little incentive to change those behaviours quickly because there are still many days of punishment to go.
  4. If negative reinforcement does not work for undesirable behaviours, then use positive reinforcement for any desirable behaviours. Give positive reinforcement for anything other than the bad behaviour. Once the undesirable behavior stops, then begin to withdraw any additional positive reinforcement.

The last thing discussed in the chapter is the use of guilt as a motivator. There are two schools of thought along a spectrum. At the extremes, one perspective is that guilt is not a good motivator, and the other is that guilt is a good motivator. Both schools of thought have some criticisms. Guilt is a valid emotion for people to have. So, who are we to say it is wrong to feel? On the other hand, if you use guilt against people excessively it can result in disturbed relationships. The bottom line is that leaders should not be there to control people. What we need to do is objectively point out consequences of certain behaviours. It is up to the those you wish to motivate whether they will feel guilty about it.

Chapter 10: The Will to Win

This chapter highlights rule #9, appeal sparingly to the competitive urge. People love a challenge. McGinnis used the exact same example as in Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” to demonstrate this.

There was a series of mills all owned by the same company. One of the mills had very low productivity. When the boss from headquarters came to visit, he asked the manager about it. The manager said that he tried everything to get his staff to work harder and nothing worked. So, at the end of one team’s shift, he asked how many tonnes of steel they produced, they said 4. He took a piece of chalk and wrote 4 on the wall, big and clear where most will see. When the next shift arrived, they asked about the number 4. They were told it was how many tonnes of steel the last crew produced. At the end of their shift, 4 was rubbed off and replaced with a 6. The next day there was a 7, then 8. You get it. The boss gently provided the workers with an opportunity to compete, and they took it. That mill became one of the most productive.

The competition here was not forced, it was only gently encouraged. Healthy competition can boost morale, but remember not to create a competitive arena that accommodates unethical or mean-spirited behaviour.

Chapter 11: How to Get People to Cooperate with Each Other

Chapter 11 highlights rule #10, place a premium on collaboration. It emphasizes that people have a need to belong and are more attracted to high morale teams than even its leadership. So good leadership will go above and beyond to create a good, positive, enthusiastic, and collaborative atmosphere. This will facilitate solidarity and kinship, a sense of pride and loyalty shared by the group, or as the French would say esprit de Corps.

So how do you create esprit de corps? McGinnis provides four suggestions:

  1. Reward cooperation. Some organizations would rather reward individuals for their successes rather than high functioning teams. However, this creates incentives for individuals to exaggerate their successes and downplay their teammates successes. This may facilitate a mean-spirited competition resulting in poor morale and unethical behaviour.
  2. Assign responsibility for cooperation to the team as a whole rather than a project champion, team lead, or other individual member. This makes accountability everyone’s responsibility.
  3. Plan some occasions for the team to travel outside of the office together. When you place a team together outside of the office, an interesting thing happens. They tend become more creative, open to each others’ perspectives, build respect and form bonds with each other. It allows them to see each other as people, rather than just employees. So send them to a conference, resort or something like that to build team comradery.
  4. Do not undervalue good communication. Often times distance and petty arguments between teammates is caused by a misunderstanding or a lack of consideration for each other which can escalate rapidly into a massive grievance.

Conclusion

I hope you liked this breakdown of the key highlights from Alan Loy McGinnis’ “Bringing Out the Best in People”, chapters 9 –11. If you would like more tips on how to be a good motivator, look out for my future posts which will cover more of this material. Or better yet, buy his book!

If you enjoyed this read, please subscribe to my blog, give it a like or follow me on Twitter @interestpeaks. I found this content interesting. But I am more interested in what your thoughts, opinions or advice on motivation are. If you have any thoughts, ideas, or feedback, please share them in the comments section below. I would love to hear them.

Engaging the System: Tapping into Diversity

By Cory Davis

In a previous post, I discussed tips and tools for engaging teams. Now, I would like to discuss some tips and thoughts about how to engage the system at work.

As always, I want to give credit where it is due. This blog post is inspired by Bob Chartier’s “Handcrafted Leadership” (2015) about the art of facilitation and engagement. If you are interested in the tips and tools that I share with you here, please check out his book.

Engaging the System

What do I mean when I say “the System”? I mean everyone at your organization. Not just your team or department. The system refers to all available departments or employees. The idea of engaging the system is designed to tap into different perspectives from all available angles or viewpoints.

There is power in numbers and diversity. Interesting ideas, stories, and knowledge stored in the system can spur innovation and creative problem solving if you can dig it out. By opening yourself up to data burried in the system, you can get a broader range of perspectives to address challenges and tackle problems.

Bob Chartier gave an example that resonated with me, demonstrating the value of diversity in problem solving. The operations department at an energy company in northern Canada regularly incurred massive damages to its powerlines in one particular area due to snow piling up on the lines that underwent melting and freezing. This was very expensive for the company. Furthermore, it created a dangerous and harsh work environment for repair crews. One employee from the health and safety department shared a story about her previous job in Vietnam. She worked at a hospital where helicopters regularly caused harsh drafts, which caused problems for them. Would flying a helicopter to blow the snow off the powerlines right after it snowed help? Yes, it would… and it saved the company a fortune.

The point here is to engage the entire company, community, or organization. However, engaging such a large audience can be tricky. Without a carefully designed approach handy, it can become a daunting task. There are too many large meetings designed around a problem, issue or task that result in no tangible deliverables.

That is why I wanted to share two facilitation tools from Bob Chartier’s “Handcrafted Leadership” to engage the system:

1. The Open Space

This is not your traditionally structured company meeting, with a power-point, strict agenda and formal seating. It is designed around the idea of a “Town Hall”, where everyone’s voice will be heard. The Open House is a themed meeting. It could be about a policy, new idea, or a problem that needs to be solved.

Design the meeting space to be in circles around the center of the room where your facilitator will be at the beginning. Have everyone introduce themselves and state what they think should be on the agenda. The boss will not create the agenda, the particpants will.

Once the agenda is created, post each agenda item around the conference room with an attendee, perhaps someone who came up with it. Then participants will be split into “pods” of 3-5 people who can wander freely to talk about the agenda items together. Each pod will generate ideas, recommendations or solutions for each agenda item. Give them a template to document them. You dont need to limit participation to employees, you can also invite partners or other stakeholders as well.

2. The World Café

This is a fairly common tool with lots of material online about it. Unlike the Open Space which is generative (creating ideas, solutions, etc.), the World Café is responsive. It is designed to elicit reactions from participants to a speaker’s presentation, new ideas, policies, challenges, a presentation, or new information. It is also a good chance to spur innovation and share knowledge, that you can put into action.

The World Café consists of three elements:

  1. The presentation or talk. This will provide the audience with information.
  2. The Conversation. Get everyone talking about the presentation. It will consist of a host at each table to faciliate a conversation between 3-4 people. Set a time limit for each group, then get them to switch tables about 3-4 times. Have a different theme for each round of conversations. For example, the first round can just debrief the presentation. The second round could be about ideas and questions. The third round could try to uncover the deepest unanswered questions.
  3. The Response. Questions that result from the conversation will be gathered and the speaker or other audience members can answer them in the format of a talk show.

This is a great tool to engage an audience after a presentation. We are all sick of sitting through a presentation to only have a few questions answered before particpants have a chance to discuss them or let the material sink in. The audience members will generate much higher quality questions after they have conversations about it.

Conclusion

The above are just two facilitation tools you can use to engage the system. If you are ot familiar with facilitation tools like the ones mentioned here, please check out the plethora of free facilitation resources online, or better yet, read Bob Chartier’s “Handcrafted Leadership”. One resource that I love found free online is the Institute for Innovation and Improvement’s Facilitator Toolkit.

This post was intended to create a dialogue about engaging the system. There is so much to be gained by opening up to the diverse perspectives deep within the system that can enable us to attack problems, or generate ideas from a wide range of angles. With the right approach, you can engage the system in an organized, effective and time-efficient way.

Thank you so much for visiting my blog and reading my post. If you enjoyed it, please subscribe, give it a like, or follow me on Twitter @interestpeaks.

I found this topic interesting. However, I would be much more interested to hear your thoughts, opinions, ideas, questions, or criticisms. If you would like to share, please do so in the comment section below. I promise to read all comments you post here.

Breakdown: How to be a Good Motivator – Highlights from “Bringing Out the Best in People” (1985) Ch. 5-8

If you are like me, you may never get a chance to read all the books you would like to. There is just not enough time in a single lifetime to absorb it all. That is why I wanted to breakdown “Bringing Out the Best in People” (1985) by Alan Loy McGinnis to share the key takeaways that I got out of it.

See the source image

“Bringing Out the Best in People” (1985) is a guide to be a good motivator. It provides the reader with 12 principles to bring out the best in people through motivation. The 12 principles are as follows:

  1. Expect the best from people you lead
  2. Make a thorough study of the other person’s needs
  3. Establish high standards for excellence
  4. Create an environment where failure is not fatal
  5. If they are going anywhere near where you want to go, climb on other people’s bandwagons
  6. Employ models to encourage success
  7. Recognize and applaud achievement
  8. Employ a mixture of positive and negative reinforcement
  9. Appeal sparingly to the competitive urge
  10. Place a premium on collaboration
  11. Build into the group an allowance for storms
  12. Take steps to keep your own motivation

In this post, I will break down chapters 5-8. These chapters capture principles 4-7 to bring the best out of people. If you like it, please check out my previous post capturing chapters 1-4 and look out for future posts where I will share highlights from later chapters.

Chapter 5: Management of Failure

This chapter highlights principle #4, create an environment where failure is not fatal. As motivators, we need to help the people we motivate manage their failures, and as leaders we need to approach failures creatively. Failure is an important learning opportunity and can be used as a tool for innovation.

The main theme of this chapter is to anticipate and expect failure, so you and your organization is prepared for it. It also notes that as motivators, we need to learn from our own mistakes also and be open and honest about them. Let others see your mistakes. Richard J. Needham, late columnist for the Globe and Mail said it succinctly, “Strong people make as many and as ghastly mistakes as weak people. The difference is that strong people admit them, laugh at them, and learn from them. That is how they become strong.”

What I thought was missed in this chapter is the power of recognizing mistakes of others as a learning opportunity for you and the organization. Mistakes may stem from problems within the system. It may be an opportunity to improve processes, procedures, and leadership. By turning a mistake from an individual learning opportunity to a systems learning opportunity, we have more corridors to accommodate it. By not personalizing the mistake, and instead capturing it under a broader umbrella of responsibility, we make it more comfortable for employees to make them. The mistakes are not always solely their own, the team can recognize errors and identify if there are changes that could be made to reduce or learn from them.

The trick here is to be able to address and correct errors without harming the person who made them resulting in a loss of their enthusiasm. Don’t let failures deter staff. Major success often comes after long stings of major failure. Look at Abraham Lincoln’s track record before his presidency.

Theodore Roosevelt said, “The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything.” For this reason, you should probably reprimand teams who never make mistakes – they are probably playing it way too safe.

Chapter 6: Building an Inner Drive

This chapter highlights principle #5, if they are going anywhere near where you want to go, jump on their bandwagon. The main purpose of this chapter is to drill into your head that the best way to give advice to those you want to motivate is to find out their wants and needs, then give them advice to achieve it. Remember, manipulation is convincing people to do things against their own interests. Manipulation is a red flag for poor leadership. As motivators, we need to understand the interests of others.

McGinnis points out here that a real test on the effectiveness of your efforts, is how much people continue to stay motivated when you are absent. They could behave as if they are motivated when you are there, but as soon as you leave become complacent. To get them to stay motivated when you are gone, help them develop personal goals that are SMART (SMART is an acronym for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound). These goals need to satisfy their interests, dreams, and aspirations. Then the motivator will help them create a plan to reach those goals and help them follow it. Do everything you can do to help them achieve their goals. This is “hopping on their bandwagon.”

What you should not do is plant an idea in their head, then convince them that the idea was theirs in the first place. This is a manipulation tactic that often backfires. So, don’t approach people with a view that you know what that person should be then change them to be that. Clarify what they want by asking how they want to change, what makes them happy and how they wish to modify their behaviour. Then set goals together.

Another sharp point made here is that employees’ goals and values need to align with the organization. For example, I would not recommend that PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) hire carnivores who actively protest against plant-based diets. They are probably not a good fit.

As much as you need to establish a fit between employees and the organization, you as a leader needs to have clear goals and objectives too. People want leaders with clear objectives, but you need to be consistent. People who waiver on values and objectives are often seen as weak or unstable. This becomes particularly dangerous when you change your values and objectives in such a way that people can no longer be on your bandwagon. But we know that it is okay to change your beliefs, it is human and shows that you can learn and grow as a person without blindly holding onto beliefs that are irrational. That is the foundation of science, as new information comes in, new understandings emerge that force us to let go of the old ones. So, the author clarifies that we need to build into conversations some room for others to change their minds and to say “no”. To avoid manipulation, don’t lock them into a position that they cannot change from.

Also highlighted in this chapter is to not let people believe that they are failures because they failed. Tomas Edison had the right mindset when he said, ““I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Chapter 7: The Power of the Success Story

Chapter 7 highlights principle #6, employ models that encourage success. The purpose is to get the reader to realize the power of story telling. Success stories are motivating because they touch the hearts and minds of people and as a result can change their attitudes and perspectives.

Here, you should not simply use stories that you find compelling. People are motivated in different ways. You should not use the success story of Donald Trump to motivate a democrat or use stories of war to motivate a pacifist.

Here, it is important that you know those who you want to motivate. Understand their values, goals, and aspirations. Then pick stories that you think will tug at their heart strings.

Chapter 8: The Secret of Parlaying Small Successes into Larger Gains

This Chapter highlights principle # 7, recognize and applaud achievement. Here the author notes the all-too-often complaint from employees: “The boss never gives me feedback, except when something goes wrong”. Remember, as motivators we want to recognize the good side of people and build on that. If we are only recognizing when they make mistakes, we are focussing on their bad sides.

The advice in this chapter is based off BF Skinner’s seminal work in psychology about positive and negative reinforcement.  It is clear that positive reinforcement, or rewarding good behaviour is a much more effective tool for changing behaviours than negative reinforcement or punishing bad behaviour. So, the art of praise is an important skill for any leader.

The art of praise works best if you reinforce specific behaviours. This is not saying “I expect great things from you”. This is saying “Wow, I overheard your call with that client and you demonstrated the kind of customer service excellence we like to show off to the world”.

The author gives a tool here called one-minute praisings, where you take regular breaks to catch employees doing something right or exceptional and give them compliments. Everyone is starving for appreciation. So, when someone comes along to genuinely acknowledge our good side, we will follow them enthusiastically. Employees are more motivated when they know that they are doing things right, so create systems that regularly identify wins, reinforcing that your people are winners and then celebrate those wins.

To master the art of praise, McGinnis provides four suggestions:

  1. Give praise publicly as one-on-ones are less effective. People like it when nice things are said about them to other people. For example, it feels really nice when your partner says something very nice about you to their friends.
  2. Seize the moment to celebrate every success. Successes are an excuse for celebration, and celebration supports morale and a positive atmosphere.
  3. Write your compliment down in a hand-written letter. 
  4. Be very specific about the compliment you give. Identify exactly why you appreciate what they did and how they did it.

Here the author also notes that too much reinforcement with things like pay incentives and gifts can be dangerous. You don’t want those you motivate to become more motivated by material rewards than they are by their values and goals. Don’t lose sight of the importance of your mission and purpose as a tool for motivation. People can turn into “reinforcement junkies” who must have some material reward available to put in hard work. Furthermore, too much praise can become meaningless. Don’t praise for the sake of praise, this is not genuine. People will recognize it and it will become less effective.

As leaders we need to observe improvements in those we motivate. If bad habits have changed into good ones, we need to acknowledge them for that. It is extraordinarily demoralizing to change your behaviours at great effort and/or personal expense, then see it go unnoticed by your leadership.

There is this idea that by celebrating success, you produce overconfident employees who think they are better than others. McGinnis argues that this is not the case. It is a mistake for leadership to think that they need to “peg employees down a notch”. William Somerset Maugham, a famous English playwright and novelist once noted, “The common idea that success spoils people by making them vain, egotistical and self-complacent is erroneous; on the contrary, it makes them for the most part humble, tolerant, and firm. Failure makes people bitter and cruel.”

Conclusion

I hope you liked this breakdown of the key highlights from Alan Loy McGinnis’ “Bringing Out the Best in People”, chapters 5 –8. If you would like more tips on how to be a good motivator, look out for my future posts which will cover more of this material. Or better yet, buy his book.

If you enjoyed this read, please subscribe to my blog, give it a like or follow me on Twitter @interestpeaks. I found this content interesting. But I am more interested in what your thoughts, opinions or advice on motivation are. If you have any thoughts, ideas, or feedback, please share them in the comments section below. I would love to hear them.

Breakdown: How to be a Good Motivator – Highlights from “Bringing Out the Best in People” (1985) Ch. 1-4

If you are like me, you may never get a chance to read all the books you would like to. There is just not enough time in a single lifetime to absorb it all. That is why I wanted to breakdown “Bringing Out the Best in People” (1985) by Alan Loy McGinnis to share the key takeaways that I got out of it.

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“Bringing Out the Best in People” (1985) is a guide to be a good motivator. It provides the reader with 12 principles to bring out the best in people through motivation. The 12 principles are as follows:

  1. Expect the best from people you lead
  2. Make a thorough study of the other person’s needs
  3. Establish high standards for excellence
  4. Create an environment where failure is not fatal
  5. If they are going anywhere near where you want to go, climb on other people’s bandwagons
  6. Employ models to encourage success
  7. Recognize and applaud achievement
  8. Employ a mixture of positive and negative reinforcement
  9. Appeal sparingly to the competitive urge
  10. Place a premium on collaboration
  11. Build into the group an allowance for storms
  12. Take steps to keep your own motivation

In this post, I will break down the first 4 chapters. The first chapter is dedicated to “The Psychology of Motivation”, which was not explained academically but rather in plain, every day english. Chapters 2-4 cover the first three principles to bring out the best in people. If you like it, please look out for future posts where I will share highlights from other chapters.

Chapter 1: The Psychology of Motivation

This chapter highlights the notion that motivation is not always internally sourced. There are all kinds of external motivators that influences one’s drive. There is a need for inspiration. Have you ever thought of someone as being lazy, lacking motivation? It could be that they just have not been sufficiently motivated by any leadership, that nobody has acknowledged their potential and put in the effort to use it. Your employees don’t want to feel unengaged. They want leaders who can teach them to enjoy their work.

Some people can confuse motivation for manipulation. Manipulation is persuading someone to behave in a way that supports your best interests, not theirs. Whereas motivation is where you identify compatible interests and goals then develop a partnership to achieve them.

The famous poet Goethe once noted that “the greatest genius will not be worth much if he pretends to draw exclusively from his own resources”. What he is trying to do here is warn you not to fail to achieve great things because you failed to inspire others. This was an impactful statement for me. It highlights that there is power in relationships.

Chapter 2: Expecting the Best

This chapter is dedicated the first principle to bring the best out of people: expect the best out of the people you lead. It highlights that if you set the bar low, the people you lead will meet that expectation, but if you set the bar high – to greatness – people will tend to put in great efforts to live up to that.

Not only should you set the bar high for things like productivity, but you should also expect that others have the best of intentions. If you treat people like they have good intentions, you will get good things out of them. This chapter encourages the reader to see the good side of people, picking out the best in them and building on that. To do so, you need a genuine desire to help others.

This is in contrast to the authoritative policing style boss who always looks for the worst in people. It makes people defensive, protective and forces them to close the door to their inner potential. If you make people feel defensive and productive, they won’t be confident enough to make mistakes, learn from those mistakes and become the best they can be.

So, to bring out the best in people, you need to set up high expectations. Recall that Eminem song “The Way I Am”. In the chorus he rhymes “I am whatever you say I am, if I wasn’t, then why would you say I am”. This lyric gives insight into the human psyche, that we are moulded by others’ expectations of us to an extent.

This is summed up in what some call “The Pygmalion Effect”. It is derived from the George Bernard Shaw play “Pygmalion” where a professor helps a woman become an elegant lady. He does this by always treating her like one and the result was that she lived up to those expectations.

Goethe also sums it up succinctly: “Treat a man as he appears to be, and you make him worse. But treat a man as if he already were what he potentially could be, and you make him what he should be”.

Everyone has the desire to do great things and to be somebody. The goal for you as a leader or motivator is to tap into that drive by showing them that you believe in them. If you show that you believe in them, they will try very hard to live up to those expectations.

Chapter 3: A Tailor-Made Plan of Motivation

This chapter is dedicated to principle #2, to make a thorough study of the other person’s needs. To be a motivator, you first need to understand what the person you are trying to motivate wants. They may not know this themselves, so you need to be patient. You may not get it out of them in the first conversation. If you don’t know what someone wants, then how can you motivate them to attain it? Remember, if you motivate others to do what you want, against their own interest then it is manipulation.  

Motivation is not some form of hype. Good motivators make motivational plans tailored to individuals they are trying to motivate. To do this effectively, you need to understand their beliefs, aspirations, and what they love (and don’t love). You need to understand their system of needs and desires. McGinnis says it well “People are driven by a bundle of interests. So, save yourself time and frustration by carefully appealing to their interests.”

The real key to this chapter is to tailor your leadership to the individual. For example, if someone is a pacifist, don’t motivate them using military code or stories about war. George Bernard Shaw said it succinctly “The only person who behaves sensibly is my tailor. He makes new measurements every time he sees me. All the rest go on with the old measurements

McGinnis gives two reasons why you should seriously study those you want to motivate:

  1. It gives you powerful data to inform your motivational plan
  2. It is a compliment to those you are trying to motivate. You are not only studying them, but you are also building a relationship with them and showing them genuine interest in them as individuals. Remember Bob Chartier’s note from “Handcrafted Leadership” that shows the association between relationships, possibilities, and action.

Some leaders will lead with the mindset of “follow me, I am the strongest! I know more than all of you.”. But the best leaders lead others by first saying “tell me about yourself”. They know that if they listen long enough, their people will explain how to motivate them.

Chapter 4: A Commitment to Excellence

This chapter is dedicated to principle # 3, to establish high standards of excellence. It highlights that you don’t have to sacrifice positivity and encouragement to be hard on standards. The best companies out there encourage and accommodate employees’ individuality while enforcing standards.

Being tough on standards does not mean that you have to be an oppressive leader. Being tough on standards simply means that you care. Standards are born to uphold excellence and the well-being of the organization as well as the employees within it. They are meant to act in the best interest of those invested in the company. So, if you are not tough on standards, you are not supporting the employees or the organization.

So how do you reprimand employees who are not meeting the standards? McGinnis provides four pieces of advice:

  1. Do it immediately. The longer you wait, the less impactful the reprimand will be. Don’t wait for a performance review, do it right away.
  2. Before you reprimand, confirm all the facts about what happened. You need to ensure that your data is accurate. Refrain from accusatory statements and blame.
  3. Be specific. Once you have all the facts, be very specific about what went wrong. Criticize behaviour, not the person or their motives.
  4. Do not hesitate to show your feelings. McGinnis states here to show your feelings of anger, annoyance, and frustration. However, please be mindful not to dramatize those emotions. Do not sacrifice your emotionally intelligent demeaner and high morale in your office for the sake of a reprimand. If you can refrain from being angry or harming your relationship with your colleagues, then don’t.

Remember that there is immense power in a challenge. People are not inspired when they are not expected to do much. People are inspired by a challenge. William James put it bluntly, “need and struggle are what excite and motivate us”.

There is also power in a cause. People can be motivated if leaders can offer a challenge and a cause. The cause gives meaning, a deeper level of motivation driven by the want to do good in this world.

Remember, that your expectations need to be realistic. It can be demoralizing to reprimand someone for not upholding standards that are unrealistic.

Conclusion

I hope you liked this breakdown of the key highlights from Alan Loy McGinnis’ “Bringing Out the Best in People”, chapters 1 – 4. If you would like more tips on how to be a good motivator, look out for my future posts which will cover more of this material. Or better yet, buy his book.

If you enjoyed this read, please subscribe to my blog, give it a like or follow me on Twitter @interestpeaks. I found this content interesting. But I am more interested in what your thoughts, opinions or advice on motivation are. If you have any thoughts, ideas, or feedback, please share them in the comments section below. I would love to hear them.

Bringing Out the Best in People (1985) By Alan Loy McGinnis Book Review

This is a book review of Alan Loy McGinnis’ “Bringing Out the Best in People: How to Enjoy Helping Others Excel” published in 1985 by Augsburg Publishing House.

4/5

“…a lighthearted look into the principles behind motivating others.”

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About the Author

The late Alan Loy McGinnis was a psychotherapist and the founder and director of the Valley Counselling Centre in Glendale, California. He is the author of several books, including The Friendship Factor (1979), The Power of Optimism (1993) and Confidence (1987).

He received degrees in theology, psychology and counselling from Wheaton College, Princeton Theology Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary, and Columbia University.

About the Book

This book resulted from a seminar given by Alan Loy McGinnis titled “How to Bring the Best Out of People”. It turned out to be very popular as there was a growing recognition that managers and leaders need good interpersonal skills.

What “Bringing Out the Best in People” Promises the Reader

This book promises to deliver 12 principles to help you do well. The author promises that if you incorporate these principles into your daily life, you will get ahead and people around you will be grateful. What I got out of the book was good advice and tips to practice that will hopefully allow me to motivate others more effectively.

This book is really for those who want to become more effective motivators. It helps you realize that there is a vast amount of unutilized potential in people waiting to be tapped. Good leaders are able to capitalize on that potential through motivation and inspire people to give it their best.

How “Bringing Out the Best in People” Delivers on its Promise

The book is structured in an easily accessible way. It espouses 12 principles to bring out the best in people, each given its own chapter. Each chapter provides some theory, story-telling and quotes from influential people. If you crave leadership techniques, then this book is for you.

The 12 principles are as follows:

  1. Expect the best from people you lead
  2. Make a thorough study of the other person’s needs
  3. Establish high standards for excellence
  4. Create an environment where failure is not fatal
  5. If they are going anywhere near where you want to go, climb on other people’s bandwagons
  6. Employ models to encourage success
  7. Recognize and applaud achievement
  8. Employ a mixture of positive and negative reinforcement
  9. Appeal sparingly to the competitive urge
  10. Place a premium on collaboration
  11. Build into the group an allowance for storms
  12. Take steps to keep your own motivation

There are 14 chapters. The two additional chapters provide context. The first chapter discusses the psychology of motivation. Don’t expect an academic, in-depth explanation about the psychology of motivation. It is broken down with very plain, easy to understand language. The last chapter highlights the joy of motivating others for the motivator. You help people, achieve great things and bring a lot of positivity into your life.

My Favourite Part of the Book

This book helps you develop legitimate power as a leader by helping people. I love this philosophy. This is as opposed to the “me-first” philosophy which encourages you to gain power at the expense of other people. The “me-first” philosophy grossly undermines the power found in good relationships. Like Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, this book conveys its message through a combination of story-telling and theory which I thoroughly enjoyed.

My favourite part of this book is its light-hearted demeaner and its effort to bring the best out of the reader – you, the motivator. It emphasizes the importance of being kind, reasonable, and helping other people. As the famous poet Goethe once noted that “the greatest genius will not be worth much if he pretends to draw exclusively from his own resources”.

There were also so many fantastic, inspiring, and motivational quotes.

Favorite Quotes

“History shows that in almost every arena there is a vacuum waiting to be filled by some person who can impart vision and steer people’s energies into the best endeavours.”

“You are a motivator when you find goals that will be good for both sides, then weld together a high-achieving, high morale partnership to achieve them”

“If people expect good things from them, they will in most cases go to great lengths to live up to our expectations”

“The people who like people and who believe that those they lead have the best intentions will get the best from them”

“We can choose whether to build on their strengths or become obsessed with their weaknesses”

“You need the ability to fail. I’m amazed at the number of organizations that set up an environment where they do not permit their people to be wrong. You cannot innovate unless you are willing to make mistakes” – Charles Knight

“…the art of motivation is the heightening of emotion. It is appealing to the unconscious more than the conscious, to the right side of the brain than the left.”

“The best motivators know that one reason to recognize achievement is to help people concentrate on images of themselves succeeding, and that such mental exercises have an undeniable effect on performance.”

“Competition is always a factor for highly motivated people. The trick is to know how to use it in balance”

My Least Favourite Part of the Book

Although I thoroughly enjoyed the book, there are parts where I disagree, it is sometimes cryptic, and not always inclusive to the reader.

The book is framed from a Christian perspective. It is not as inclusive as it could be to other belief systems. He said early on that you need to study the people you are trying to motivate to find out their beliefs. So, for a book like this intended for motivators – not necessarily Christian motivators, I would have liked it to be more neutral without prescribing to any one political or religious stance. Earlier on in the book, he used an example of a man who became agnostic. As a therapist, he found success in his treatment by getting him to identify values and beliefs that he knows to be true. But when describing the result, he stated that the patient “even” came back to the church, to demonstrate how successful it was. I don’t know why that would add to the success of a therapy session unless the reader is assumed to have the same Christian value system. Many of the stories shared were biblical. I can find inspiration in biblical myths too, I love them. The bible is a great read full of ideas and stories that show insight into human nature over time. There is great wisdom to be realized in bible. However, the biblical stories chosen here were not the most powerful to me.

McGinnis goes on to say this: “…the longer I have sat in my counselling room and listened to people tell how they’re in over their heads and sometimes feel as if they’re going down for the third time, the more I’ve realized that no one can ignore tragedy even when they try, and that everyone needs some place to go once a week where they are picked up, given the long view, and strengthened with renewed hope.” This is an argument concluding that everyone should to go to church. I like church sometimes, there is always community there. However, I cannot help but feel this is out of place in a book like this.

Even if you are not a Christian, I still recommend this book. The Christian perspectives espoused are not too enforcing, and the content is still accessible and insightful.

Criticisms

Chapter 4 highlights principle #3, commit to excellence by establishing high standards for those you are trying to motivate. For the most part, it does an excellent job. However, in a discussion about reprimanding others it says to show your anger, annoyance, and frustration. I agree in a sense, but to what degree do you show these emotions? I struggle to understand why a motivator would want to sacrifice morale in the workplace for the sake of being angry. The best leaders are able to control their emotions (which is encouraged later in the book). But here the author explicitly tells the reader to be angry – which if not done tactfully could contradict your effort to create a positive culture. I assume the advice he gives here is not to be angry in a dramatic way, but to show others that their actions are impactful, even to you – the leader.

He goes on to cite Dan Rather who said, “The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you on to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called the truth”. But I struggle to understand why the truth has to be a sharp stick in the first place. Getting negative criticism at work for me is often a blessing. It is a chance for someone to show me how I can be better. So rather than making the truth hurt, teach people how to absorb negative feedback in a positive way then teach them how to do things better. So why can’t the truth be encouraging, rather than a stab? If you both believe in their potential, the truth is a tool to help them achieve it. As Bob Chartier (author of “Handcrafted Leadership”) would say, this requires a shift in your mental model of criticism.

Dale Carnegie in “How to Win Friends and Influence People” gives a number of good tips on how to criticize others while still being liked. This is opposed to Alan Loy McGinnis’ view that you should expect others to be unhappy with you after they have been reprimanded. Yes, you will never be always liked by everyone. But I think there are diplomatic and strategic ways to reduce the unpleasantries of criticism and reprimands resulting in a less damaging experience. It is true, some of the worst leaders are those who have a desperate need to be loved by everyone and thus bend rules for some in an effort to appease them. Others will see that you treated them differently, counter to the rules or standards an organization upholds to ensure excellence. By bending those rules, you are harming the organization as a whole and everyone in it. In other words, by bending the rules for some, you are not acting in the best interest of the organization. So, McGinnis makes a good point here.

The author goes on to advise not to set people up for failure by setting expectations too high for someone to achieve. This enters a dangerous territory where you don’t want to cut someone short either. Don’t undermine their potential by setting your expectations lower than what they are capable of. McGinnis warns not to tell the “bottle washer” that she will be president. But maybe she could be. I would suggest talking with the other person. See what their expectations of themselves are. They will often undermine their own potential, at which point you can raise that expectation with encouragement. Many successful people started at the level of a “bottle washer”, then go on to do great things. The comment not to tell the bottle washer that they will be president troubles me because it forces the motivator to put a cap on someone’s potential. Is potential static? I think that potential can fluctuate and there is potential to increase someone’s potential. McGinnis uses an example about setting realistic expectations. If your child gets a D on an assignment say “I bet you will get a C next time”. Yes, maybe moving from a D to an A+ is unrealistic, so you do need to set the expectation somewhere more appropriate. What McGinnis does not say here is that you could set expectations up incrementally. Expect a C next time, but then expect a C+, then a B, then that A+. But that does not mean the child couldn’t get an A+ right away. People can be much more nuanced than on the surface of things. You need to ask why the child got a D. Maybe she was not challenged, or the teacher did not set good expectations of her, maybe she is being bullied or simply finds the subject matter boring. So, I get it – don’t set someone up for failure. It is good advice. However, I would say this needs to be done strategically, incrementally building up expectations.

Chapter 5 highlights principle #4, to create an environment where failure is not fatal. I love this rule, it establishes that failure is a good learning opportunity. However, this is highly centred on the employee, that they will learn from those mistakes. What it does not highlight is how the motivator or leader should also learn from their mistakes. They could be learning opportunities for the entire organization. This chapter is all about when someone makes a mistake, help that person learn from it. This is a narrow view in my opinion. Mistakes should be documented with lessons learned that can be shared. Why let a mistake one person made, be made time and time again by others, each one learning discretely. Imagine if we handled safety in this way. Every time a worker gets a concussion, they learn to wear a helmet. How many concussions will occur before everyone wears the  helmet? The motivator should not act like he or she cannot learn from someone else’s mistakes either. Mistakes that keep occurring may stem from processes, procedures or changes in external factors that have not yet been accommodated by the system. Mistakes made require lessons learned, not just on the individual level, but in a broader, systems thinking point of view.

Chapter 6 highlights principle #5, if they are going anywhere near where you want to go, jump on their bandwagon. Here McGinnis states not to let people think that they are failures just because they failed. This is an impactful statement. However, I found he missed the mark. I agree with the comment, but it still assumes that one’s failure in an organization are their own. It may be the case. But too often there are flaws in the system, the management, motivators, leaders, processes, procedures, standards, values, etc. Leaders should be able to learn from others’ mistakes too and assess those learnings through the lens of systems thinking. Sometimes a mistake is one’s own. I don’t want to diminish that possibility. However, what could you have done as a manager, or leader to have reduced those errors? How could you apply that to new employees, processes, leadership, etc. Take responsibility for those errors too if you can. Acknowledge the failure as a success if it results in better procedures, standards, or learnings for the organization. This takes humility, something discussed in the book, but not explicitly emphasized yet.

Chapter 7 highlights principle #6, to employ models that encourage success. He does this by emphasizing the power of story-telling, that “the best way to appeal to emotions is by talking about people, their struggles and their triumphs”. I think there is power in stories, however they must be used strategically and tactfully. Don’t give success stories about people with whom your audience cannot relate to. Don’t tell a democrat the success story of Donald Trump to motivate them. In business school they always use the filthy-rich as examples in their stories of success. I was never motivated by that. But even if I was, I think money as a motivator has limited use. Don’t appeal to the lowest common denominator – money. Use examples based on merit, principles and values that align with your organization, family or team. You want to have superior standards and values. You want your staff to be motivated by your company’s mission and values. Or do you want them to be motivated by wealth? What will the cost to your values and standards be, if trumped by wealth? This can lead you to a shady area, were corruption is accommodated. You cannot blame employees for prioritizing wealth over values if that is how you motivated them.

McGinnis goes on to say that these stories symbolize the human capacity to achieve greatness and to tell your staff that they can achieve greatness too if they work hard enough. But some organizations overwork their employees, who then become burned out. If someone was worked to the bone with core work-load resulting in minimal time to accomplish side-of-the desk projects and innovate, I could see them get slightly offended if a manager said, “you could be great if you worked harder”. They could fire back, “Am I not working hard as hell now? Maybe I could achieve greatness if you didn’t bog down each waking workday with mundane tasks.” Saying that you could be great if you work harder insinuates something about the other persons character – that they are not working hard enough now. That may or may not be true. It is also how and what you work, not just how hard you work. The farmer who works 12 hours a day doing hard labour is certainly working “harder” than the office manager on an 8-hour shift. So, McGinnis’ notion of creating a roadmap or pathway to success resonates with me. Not simply saying “he did, so can you, so do it. You’re not successful like that legend, so you are obviously not putting in the effort.” No. As a leader you need to steer their effort in the right direction to achieve that success. If you cannot steer them to the type of success you said they can reach in your story-telling – then how can you as a leader tell them that they can?

Chapter 8 highlights rule #7, to recognize and applaud achievement. I had a problem with an example he used here. He gives several suggestions to master the art of the compliment. The first one is to hand out commendations in public as one-on-one kudos are not as effective. McGinnis played sports in high-school. One game he played very well and wondered if the coach noticed. The coach did notice and said it in front of the whole team. This made Alan feel good, like he was somebody. However, he also notes that the coach chewed out a few other players, saying that they were nothing like Alan. So, do we also chew people out when we give commendations? It seems like a bizarre fact to throw in for no reason. So, we give praise to one person then single out two others to “chew out”. I don’t think that public commendations should go along with public reprimands at work. You don’t give an achievement award to someone followed by bringing up two underachievers to humiliate in front of everybody. I doubt he intended the reader to interpret it this way, but the example clearly implies it.

Chapter 12 highlights principle #11, to build into the group an allowance for storms. This is brilliant, there should be a pathway for negative behaviour to be accommodated. It will inevitably happen. There is always a storming phase in teams and there needs to be a way to manage that – it should be expected and prepared for. Here McGinnis gives you seven techniques to deal with troublemakers. The third technique is to identify “how destructive the person is”. But to me, a person is not destructive – their behaviour is. Do not frame it like this in your mind by degrading who a person is as a whole to some negative connotation. Behaviours can be destructive, and we want to nail down the why, how, and severity of those actions. Separate the people from the problem, not just in your communication with others, but how you think about others as well. McGinnis gives the advice himself when he says to see the best in people and assume that they have good intentions.

Conclusion

This book is a lighthearted look into the principles behind motivating others. I thoroughly enjoyed it and learned a lot. In the near future, I will write a post giving you the highlights and best tips on motivation that I found.

I found this material interesting. But I am more interested to hear what your thoughts are. If you have any comments, questions or criticisms about my post, or this book, please share them in the comment section below.

If you enjoyed this post, please give it a like and subscribe, I always appreciate it when you do. Or follow me on Twitter @interestpeaks.