The Quick Fix, Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills, by Jesse Singal

Why we act the way we do is fascinating to me.  I find behavioral science interesting in general, and behavioral economics in particular. Daniel Kahneman’s, Thinking, Fast and Slow, for example, is a best-selling book by a psychologist/behavioral economist who won a Nobel Prize in economics. It is a compelling read.

I just finished The Quick Fix, Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills, by Jesse Singal. I plan on giving it another read. In it, he takes aim at the science, or lack of it, underlying such things as the self-esteem movement (that I admittedly bought into in the 80’s and 90’s, hook, line, and sinker). “People with high self-esteem, perhaps unsurprisingly, have a tendency to rate themselves highly in various domains of life, often in a reality-defying manner…”

Other “quick fixes” are targeted by Singal as well: “power posing”; “grit”; IAT (implicit association test – “introduced in 1998, has been a blockbuster success”); and others. There is a difference between good and bad research, says Singal, and the quick fixes targeted by Singal have their share of the latter. 

The troubling thing, though, is the extent to which these quick fixes have permeated policy in government, education, and private industry.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise. Fad psychology provides the quick fixes politicians, government officials, and CEOs seem to yearn for. And it can be very, very lucrative.

Fortitude/American Resistance in the Era of Outrage by Dan Crenshaw Grand Central Publishing, Kindle Edition

Releasing a book during a pandemic probably is not the ideal time to do so. But maybe now is exactly the right time for Dan Crenshaw’s Fortitude/American Resistance in the Era of Outrage. 

It’s about personal responsibility, self-discipline, and self-reliance. In a nutshell, it’s about mental toughness, something that, arguably, is in short supply these days and that is critically needed to counter the “self-pity, indulgence, outrage, and resentment” that characterizes much of our present culture.

I’ve read a number of books on self-improvement during my lifetime, too many of which were pop psychology babble, and I’ve learned that the dispenser of advice on how to improve oneself better have the bona fides to do so. Fortitude is the best book I’ve read, hands down, on self-improvement.

Crenshaw is 36 years old. It’s legitimate to question whether a such a young guy has the bona fides worthy of one’s attention.  One might think that the magical confluence of experience and education producing wisdom would occur much later in life. Crenshaw has what it takes.

A Navy SEAL Lieutenant Commander and now Congressman from Texas, Crenshaw is the epitome of mental toughness.  While in Afghanistan in 2012 he was wounded, lost his right eye and came perilously close to losing vision in his left.  He went on to earn a Master of Public Administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and was subsequently elected to Congress in November 2018.

His book is the antidote to toxic outrage, a pervasive weakness in our culture that is “the muting of rational thinking and the triumph of emotion.”  Crenshaw doesn’t pull any punches, as if you would expect something different from a SEAL.  The culture of outrage is something to overcome and this requires one to be mentally tough.

What is this outrage? “What used to be rare instances of political correctness, microaggressions, and irrational anger have metastasized into the outrage culture we see today—characterized not just by outrage and political correctness but also by identity politics and an increasingly polarizing media and digital environment.” It is “petty, weak-minded” and, ultimately, disempowering.  It breeds a dependence on government to take care of us, to alleviate our pain.

The media is complicit. Outrage is a poisonous hypersensitivity “cheered on by our media and opinion journalists who thrive on drama, conflict, and strife. Knowing that the most salacious headlines will get the most clicks, journalists are all too happy to oblige.”

The responsibility to change this and improve lies squarely on you. “If you’re losing your cool, you are losing. If you are triggered, it is because you allowed someone else to dictate your emotional state. If you are outraged, it is because you lack discipline and self-control. These are personal defeats, not the fault of anyone else. And each defeat shapes who you are as a person, and in the collective sense, who we are as a people.”

I highly recommend this book.

Stringfellow Acid Pits, The Toxic and Legal Legacy, by Brian Craig, University of Michigan Press, 2020.

This is a fascinating read for a few reasons. Heavily footnoted, it suggests thorough and pain-staking research into one of the most contaminated Superfund sites in U.S. history that spawned extensive and costly litigation, including insurance coverage litigation.

Foremost among the reasons for me, is my direct involvement as a claim professional. My former employer, Admiral Insurance Company, insured Montrose Chemical Corporation, the prolific manufacturer of the deadly pesticide, DDT, and I handled the account. Of the 150+ contributors of toxic wastes to the Stringfellow site, Montrose was the largest at an allocated share of 19%.

I was, of course, familiar with the facts specific to the claim but Craig effectively provided more context by supplying some peripheral details such as California and U.S. politics surrounding state and federal laws, and other interesting information.

I found his dedication particularly revealing, “This book is dedicated to the hapless James “Jimmy” Stringfellow, Jr.  While the State of California never issued a formal apology to Stringfellow or his family perhaps this book will help clear the Stringfellow name.”

He is not so kind to the State of California.  Its ultimate culpability juxtaposed against James Stringfellow’s lack of it is stunning.  And the irony is palpable given that the State, along with the U.S, were the plaintiffs in U.S. v. Stringfellow.

Craig disappoints a little in his criticism of the insurance industry in the chapter entitled The Insurance Battle.  He starts off the paragraph with, “Insurance companies are notorious for exploiting the ignorance of insured parties” and ends with, “As a result, the standard operating procedure is often to do everything possible to deny claims”. 

Aside from being tiresome and stereotypical, it is false.  But if you can get past the bias, I think you’ll find this book very interesting, especially those who had direct involvement on professional level. I’m willing to bet that there are a lot out there.

Extreme Ownership – How U.S. Navy Seals Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

I’ve read a lot of books about leadership throughout my career.  For me the best book is this one, written not by a PhD, business leader, military general, or guru. This one is by two former Navy Seals who served in the pivotal Battle of Ramaldi in Iraq. 

Willink and Babin effectively present their principles of leadership by explaining how they worked on the battlefield and how they can be applied to business. I wish I had the benefit of this future classic earlier in my career.  I would have been a better leader and follower.

“The idea for this book was born from the realization that the principles critical to SEAL success on the battlefield – how SEALs train and prepare their leaders, how they mold and develop high-performance teams, and how they lead in combat – are directly applicable to success in any group, organization, corporation, business, and, to a broader degree, life.  This book provides the reader with our formula for success: the mind-set and guiding principles that enable SEAL leaders and combat units to achieve extraordinary results. It demonstrates how to apply these directly in business and life to likewise achieve victory.”

Leadership is the most important factor in mission accomplishment and the only meaningful measure of a leader is whether his/her team succeeds or fail.

The first, overriding principle is that exceptional leaders take absolute ownership of the mission.  They do not blame others.  There are no excuses.  They put their egos aside and solve problems.  Ego disrupts plans and the acceptance of advice and constructive criticism.

They discuss a tactic called “cover and move” which simply means teamwork – mutual support in a singular mission.  Decentralized command is vital.  Junior leaders must clearly understand the mission and be truly empowered to accomplish it.

These are just a few of the principles explained.  They will resonate with any leader who truly wishes to lead.

The Death of Expertise, The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, by Tom Nichols

What is an expert?

In The Death of Expertise, The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, author Tom Nichols provides a rough guide to distinguish the expert from the dilettante.
“True expertise”, the kind of expertise others rely upon, “is an intangible but recognizable combination of”:

  1. Legitimate formal educational credentials. These are tangible signs of hard work and dedication; they signal achievement and are a good start to identify true experts.
  2. Talent. Talent separates the merely credentialed from the credentialed who, “have a deeper feel or understanding of their level of expertise.”
  3. Experience and longevity. True experts, “stay engaged in their field, continually improve their skills, learn from their mistakes, and have visible track records.”

(Another interesting book I recommend is Peak Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. “Deliberate practice” is the key to this new science. “The right sort of practice carried out over a sufficient period of time leads to improvement. Nothing else.”)

  1. Peer affirmation. Another sign of expertise is the acknowledgment, acceptance, and correction by an expert’s peers. “Self-policing” through peer review helps ensure the maintenance of quality standards and instills confidence in the expert by the layperson.

Crisis of Responsibility by David L. Bahnsen

Something to blame somebody for something.

“…the one perspective that has the potential to destroy us all, and which must be unilaterally rejected if we are to stave off the coming authoritative backlash, is embracing victimhood.  To reject victimhood, we must first understand how and why so many hot-button issues are being framed as scapegoat issues, reasons for someone to blame somebody for something.”

What has happened to our collective character?  What is this tendency we have to blame others? To not take responsibility for the choices we make when life throws its many curve balls? To scapegoat?

We embrace victimhood like a security blanket. While seemingly providing comfort, the reality is that it severely hamstrings us in our efforts to progress as human beings.  To flourish.

What can we do about, “our cultural addiction to blame”?

I’m on my second read of Crisis of Responsibility by David L. Bahnsen (Post Hill Press, NY, 2019) and there probably will be a third. 

Every now and then, someone comes along to give us real perspective. Bahnsen gives structure and context to this victim mentality that relentlessly plagues us:

 “…what has emerged in our culture is a ‘scapegoatism’ run amok – a victim mentality that is dangerous to all, regardless of political affinity or socioeconomic class.”

The usual scapegoats include the always popular “Wall Street”, “big government”, China, Mexico, trade, technology (automation, artificial intelligence, digitalized economy), the media, educational institutions, and other bogeymen. 

The victims, of course, are the rest of us who live on “Main Street.”  But are we just victims?

Bahnsen explains our cultural addiction to blame in the financial crisis of 2008. Of course, there is the ubiquitous and annoying demarcation along political lines.  The left blames big banks, lack of regulation, etc.; the right, social policy underlying the housing market, etc. This does nothing other than polarize an already dysfunctional society and, alarmingly, virtually guarantees another crisis.

So, what about the occupants of Main Street, the “victims”? Well, Bahnsen makes a compelling case that, “no financial crisis of any kind could have taken place without the envious and covetous irresponsibility of the people living on good old Main Street, USA”

Here are a few startling facts supporting his case for the “unravelling of virtue”:

  • Over the last 25 years, there has been a 108% increase in working-age Americans living off a government disability check.
  • The FBI estimates that during the first decade of this century, mortgage fraud increased 1000 percent (one thousand percent); 70% of defaulted mortgage applications contained “blatant misrepresentations”.
  • “At the heart of the financial crisis were millions of people who could afford their home payment, but realized that the sticker price they paid was far more than the present resale value of the home, and thus made the morally questionable decision to walk away.” (emphasis added)

There is plenty of blame to go around, and Main Street is not exempt.  Our “absence of character” facilitated the ever-ugly envy we have and “the presence of the intemperate cravings and utter distain for virtues of patience and truth.”

Fortunately for us, a cure exists. Bahnsen offers The Responsibility Remedy, 10 specific things we can do to cure this crisis of responsibility – our cultural addiction to blame.

If we don’t heed this remedy, well, history has a tendency to repeat itself.