Creating Your Career Excerpt

Here is an excerpt from the Creating Your Career web seminar. This clip provides an introduction to seeing your career as a life journey in the context of larger historical forces.

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Chris Hsiung BSc. CPCC
HUMAN Venture Coaching

Chris Hsiung graduated with distinction from the University of Calgary in Electrical Engineering. He is a certified professional coach through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI), accredited by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). He is learning, teaching, presenting curriculum through Leadership Calgary. Currently he runs a practice (U Venture) guiding and coaching professionals who are choosing to engage in pioneering life challenges.

Deadly Daydreams

Have you ever driven down a highway in a hurry to get to a meeting, see a person in need on the side of the road, and think, “someone else will be able to help”? Or how do you respond when you hear two people swearing or shouting at each other? I know I sometimes turn away or ignore it. A part of me whispers, “I don’t want to get involved.”

Then I remember the New York times story of Kitty Genovese who was stabbed over a half-hour period near an apartment where many of the people who heard the screams didn’t call the police simply because they didn’t want to get involved.

Were they / we apathetic, cruel, evil people? Probably not any more so than others. More likely they / we were human beings overwhelmed by the moment without a strong enough framework to take the right action. We were frozen unable to move like in a bad dream.

What does it take to respond appropriately in the moment in these highly charged situations? It takes much more than just being in the moment. It also requires understanding that moment and being prepared for it. Here is a small scenario to illustrate the factors involved.

Imagine having just driven hours with friends to go on a summer hike you had been planning for weeks. Yesterday’s weather report forecasted sunny and clear. You arrive at the trailhead and indeed it is sunny. But just as you are about to start, you notice a posted weather notice indicating a 30% chance of snow. You were prepared for cold weather but not snow; in fact nobody in your group has hiked in snow. Would you be the one to bring this up with your excited friends? Would you have the nerve to postpone or worse cancel? Or would it be easy to rationalize… “it probably won’t snow and besides snow is not so different from what I’ve experienced.”

A curious thing happens at that moment of decision. With hopes and social pressures high, you may start to “bend the map” (see Deep Survival), a process by which you try to alter reality to match your expectations. You begin to overestimate your skills and that of your peers. You judge the weather to indicate great weather. You fail to even entertain the idea of reassessing your capabilities and equipment. It just “feels” right… so you roll the cosmic dice with your life.

What happened? The social pressures, the heightened emotions got in the way of measured thought. Furthermore, the voice of the moment always seems more urgent and important than the faint voice of the future which may or may not come to pass. It’s your own personal Cassandra, that Greek mythological figure who predicted the future but was believed by no one.

While nothing may have happened for that trip, sometimes events conspire to create the disasters or accidents that could have been prevented.

On January 28, 1986 at 11:38 am the Challenger lifted off while broadcast on three major TV networks. Seventy-three seconds later to the horror of those watching, the external fuel tanks ruptured and killed the crew of seven.

Later investigations revealed that the O ring which normally sealed the joints between sections on the booster rocket failed under the cold launch conditions. With the hundreds of thousands of people involved and multiple complex systems working together, one might expect that a problem or two may slip through.

However, what NASA failed to understand was not so much the technical behaviour of the O ring as it was the human behaviour of the system. Concerns about the O ring had been raised. One contractor went as far as to strongly advise that it was unsafe to fly. These concerns were ignored for the same reasons you might ignore the posted weather report. Eleventh-hour decisions, crisis mode thinking, social pressures, uncertainty of data all prevented warning signs from being acted upon. With the “world watching” on the networks and pressure from the Reagan administration to launch, NASA’s culture inadvertently shifted from “prove to me it is safe to fly” to “prove to me it is unsafe to fly” (see Flirting with Disaster).

All this is to say that if the consequences are high, the system complex, and the understanding uncertain, your first gut instinct response is not likely to be a good one.

How can you avoid getting caught up in the moment like NASA employees or the New York apartment dwellers?

One helpful strategy is to understand the sources of critical problems, determine the warning cues that hint at the problems, and develop action plans for the cues. For example, an important lesson in self-defense is awareness of surroundings and the ability recognize threat cues. Threat cues are warning signals that potentially hint at actual threats. Perhaps a person walks towards you in a certain way, or a person watches you for longer than normal. Taken together with other environmental cues (time of day, location), you may be able to recognize a threat and act on it (crossing the road, going back the way you came) before it becomes life-threatening.

For me, I have taken to the habit of turning towards any shouting or swearing to scan the situation. Should I call 911? Should I intervene? Or do I just need to continue watching? In the hiking situation, having an exit plan in advance for unforeseen circumstances would help while NASA would have done well to build in protection against last-minute decisions.

Knowing what cues to look for, however, requires a deep understanding of the systems in operation. Serious hiking requires an understanding of survival situations. A space shuttle launch requires generations of people experimenting, building, learning. It is no minor task!

While we need to build our ability to recognize warning cues and act on them, organizations must also build in systems to enable dissenting action. Social norms and culture are after all more influential than individuals. Thoughtful companies have provided third-party phone lines for employees to report ethical breaches recognizing that “ratting out” your peers is often considered a worse crime than reporting the truth.

Nevertheless, it is your responsibility to take action when needed. While we may never have to watch others die like Kitty Genovese, we are all engaged with high pressure situations that test our character. So take the time to understand the system, recognize the warning signs, and act on them despite what others may say or think.

Chris Hsiung BSc. CPCC
HUMAN Venture Coaching

Chris Hsiung graduated with distinction from the University of Calgary in Electrical Engineering. He is a certified professional coach through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI), accredited by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). He is learning, teaching, presenting curriculum through Leadership Calgary. Currently he runs a practice (U Venture) guiding and coaching professionals who are choosing to engage in pioneering life challenges.

You too can do harm…

Are you capable of committing great evil? The real answer, as history has demonstrated over and over again, is a resounding yes. Take a quick browse through psychology, sociology, anthropology and you will find the evidence overwhelming.

Milgrams Shock Generator (Ontario Science Museum)
Milgram's Shock Generator (Ontario Science Museum)

Now you will have a healthy reaction that claims, “Of course I’m not evil. Sure I make mistakes, but overall I am a good person.” But how do you know? How do you know your current actions aren’t causing untold suffering elsewhere? How do you know there aren’t circumstances where you will commit atrocities?

The uncomfortable truth is that many of our decisions are influenced by circumstances far more than we would like to believe. People who committed genocide through action or inaction believed themselves to be good people. If we cannot understand why good people do evil, then we risk making the same error in judgment ourselves.

Allow me then to share a revealing experiment with you and suggest how we can strive to be less influenced by our circumstances.

Before I begin, it will be easy to dismiss the evidence. It will be easy to say “I would never do that!”. However, consider that 86% of Australians rate their job performance as “above average” and 90% of American business managers rate their performance as superior to that of their average peer. In other words, we understate our faults and overstate our abilities.

Pretend that you really do fall into the normal range of human behaviour as you read through the following experiment.

** Selected excerpts from The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimardo **

Imagine that you have responded to a university ad where you are paid to be a part of a research experiment in finding ways to improve memory and learning. You arrive to find a scientist in a formal lab coat and another applicant. The task is straightforward. One of you will be the “teacher” who gives the other person the “learner” a set of word pairings to memorize. During the test, the teacher gives the learner the key word and the learner attempts to respond with the associated word. If the learner gets it right, a verbal reward is given. If the learner gets it wrong, the teacher presses a lever on an apparatus (shown in the picture above) that delivers a shock to the learner.

The shock machine has 30 switches starting from 15 volts at the left and increasing by 15 volts for each switch to the right. The switches are labeled from “Strong Shock” to “Intense Shock” to “Danger, Severe Shock” to the last switches marked ominously with “XXX”.

Straws are drawn and you become the teacher. You are given a sample shock of 45 volts (the third lever) to get a sense of what it feels like. The test begins. The learner initially does well, but later starts making errors and you start pressing the switches. The learner complains that it hurts. You look at the experimenter, who nods to continue. As the shock levels increase in intensity, so do the learner’s screams, saying that he does not want to continue. You hesitate but the experimenter insists you have no choice but to continue.

Now the learner begins complaining about his heart condition. Errors become much more frequent. You plead with your learner to concentrate, but to no avail. The learner screams “Let me out of here! You can’t keep me here! Let me out!” Obviously by now, you don’t want to continue. Nevertheless, the experimenter reminds you of the contract, your agreement, and moreover claims responsibility for any consequences.

After pressing the 300-volt switch, the learner doesn’t respond. You want the experimenter to check on the learner, but he does not and instead tells you that if the learner doesn’t respond within five seconds, consider it wrong. You become distressed, but are told to follow the rules and keep posing the test items.

** End excerpts **

How far would you go? How many switches would you flip?

Like most people, you would claim that there that you would have walked out before the end of the experiment because only sadists would continue to the last switch.

And like most people, you would be wrong. In the now famous Milgram’s Shock experiment, two out of three, roughly 65%, of the volunteers went past lethal shock levels…. a result that has been replicated across the world at differing time periods.

Sit with that number for a moment…Two out of three of your friends would knowingly flip the switch to the point where the learner was unresponsive and likely dead. More astonishing is almost every person who shocked the learner to the point of silence continued to flip the rest of the switches to 450 volts. Don’t believe me? This exact experiment was carried out again on this TV show:

Why does this happen? What is it about the situation that causes normal people to kill instead of to walk away?

There are many reasons, but the most powerful one is the human instinct to obey a legitimate authority figure. That behaviour is easy to see in kids who try to please the parents. As kids become adults, the authority figure changes to become the boss, the police, their peers, or religious authorities. Often, the institution backing the authority confers even greater power to the individual. In Milgram’s experiment, the scientist is the authority figure backed by the institution of the university (incidentally, compliance rates dropped when the experiment was not held by a university).

Where do you abdicate your power and responsibility to a perceived authority figure?

Do you ever assume the spouse doing the repairs knows what he or she is doing even though you see a mistake? Ever follow a person on a hike and realize you have no idea where your going? Or do ever feel nervous when a police officer is driving right behind you? These are all micro-examples of how we shutdown our thinking to defer to authority.

Milgram’s experiment had many other important factors that contributed to compliance. They included

  • Having a contractual obligation to do the job… (“I’m am obligated to do the job.”)
  • Creating rules that seem reasonable at first but are later not… (“Rules are rules after all!”)
  • Diffusing responsibility… (“I didn’t do it. He told me to do it.”).
  • Progressively increasing the steps towards the outcome… (“What’s another 15 volts?”)
  • Making the exit cost high by allowing dissent but not giving permission to leave… (“At least I voiced my issues.”)
  • Providing an ideology to justify the use of any means… (“This experiment helps people develop better memory.”)

All of these aspects tap into deeply embedded characteristics of human beings. Every one of us has fallen for the above traps in minor and sometimes major ways. Their power over us should not be underestimated.

Knowing this, what can we do to reduce the likelihood of blindly obeying an authority figure?

The short answer is to develop our character. The long answer would far exceed what can be written in this article, but I will nevertheless highlight a few key practices for character development.

1. Develop high levels of personal responsibility…

Milgram found that he could increase compliance to 90% by one changing one simple variable: create a teaching team where the teacher tells someone else to shock the learner. In other words, diffuse the responsibility.

When we give up responsibility for our actions, we stop thinking about what we are doing, and as we all know, it is easier to NOT think than to think. Taking responsibility then requires us to think continuously of our own actions and its impact.

2. Keep the bigger picture in mind…

We are often told to take responsibility for our actions. What is less said is that we should be taking responsibility for our actions and inactions in the short-term and in the long-term. No easy task!

I have played in soccer games where I lose my temper (and all perspective) or driven a car in a fit of rage. Under pressure, we may find ourselves unable to act quickly enough (“It happened so quickly I couldn’t do anything”) or the consequences of the action are too distant in time or distance to matter to us.

Learning to think, to maintain perspective, to see the big picture under pressure and stress is a lifelong practice of taking ownership of our lives.

3. Accept the fact that we do harm and then do better…

The reality is that many of our actions already do harm. We just don’t see the consequences immediately. We may work for companies that create conflict in other regions of the world. We may buy products that are environmentally damaging. We may drive when we could walk or take transit. Of course, we will justify all these actions and minimize the issues and exaggerate the positives.

But if we want to move forward, then we must accept our fallibility and seek to do better. We are fallible and that’s okay, if we take responsibility for it.

4. Seek out examples of resisting authority…

Milgram also found that compliance rates dropped to 10% if the participant was shown an example of someone refusing to continue the experiment. Having a single model person demonstrating how to say “no” to the authority was enough to help others rebel against authority! No wonder dictators would kill any person who defied them. As Hopper from the movie It’s a Bug’s Life said, “You let one ant stand up to us, then they all might stand up!”

In life, it helps to know about people in the past who have resisted authorities for a cause. Rebels such as Nelson Mandela and Che Guevera and Rachel Carson are valuable parts of our global culture. They provide us positive examples of standing up to authorities rather than blindly following them out of ignorance or fear.

Ultimately, life is where we practice and test our character. Helen Keller said, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” Although it is hard, wouldn’t you want to be the kind of person that refuses to flip the next switch?

Chris Hsiung BSc. CPCC
HUMAN Venture Coaching

Chris Hsiung graduated with distinction from the University of Calgary in Electrical Engineering. He is a certified professional coach through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI), accredited by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). He is learning, teaching, presenting curriculum through Leadership Calgary. Currently he runs a practice (U Venture) guiding and coaching professionals who are choosing to engage in pioneering life challenges.