Does This Outfit Make Me Look Insecure?

Liz and I were walking down the main drag in Westport the other day when we passed a group of high schoolers. We overheard:

“I have my first day outfit figured out, but I still need to buy my second and third day clothes.”

I remember being a version of that high schooler (albeit, one who only planned the first day). Specifically, I remember preparing for ninth grade and my first day of high school with particular care. My mom took me down to Jacobson’s, the Detroit-area department store, to shop, and I put together the best outfit: light blue jeans with more-than-average flare (we were en route to the ‘extra wide leg’ era of the late-90’s), a yellow fitted sweater, and, the best part, a silver necklace with block letter beads spelling M-E-R-E-D-I-T-H.

If only deciding what to wear on the first day could be driven by algorithms, instead of driven by our insecurities.

[For a shout-out to nineties fashion, the stress of outfit matching, and the iconic movie Clueless, click here.]

On that first day of high school, I wanted to be perceived as stylish, grown-up, and desirable to be around. My first day of school fashion efforts faltered quickly. I didn’t have the second and third day outfits planned, nor did I find any joy in doing so. After all, I didn’t value fashion; I only valued the approval it might give me if I crafted my image appropriately. And yet, through my first day outfit — and every comment, action, and homework assignment to follow — I sought the approval of every student, teacher, and administrator in that building.

To my surprise, when I started my new job in April, I was no different from that ninth-grader in the wide pants. I bought a new dress and blazer that struck the right balance of casual and professional. I got a reasonable haircut and even spent a minute considering whether I should wear make-up. While I’m more comfortable with myself in important ways, I could see the instinct of approval-seeking nonetheless playing out.

Opening a new school year and starting a new job are both entryways into new group formation. Our approval-seeking tendencies, which may be more or less activated in the day-to-day, are piqued by this newness. Uncertain about our status and situation, we bring reawakened questions of identity, inclusion, and approval. If I show them who I really am, will I be included? Will the real me be a fit for this role? And, more broadly, who do I have to be for you to approve of me?

When is the last time you picked out your “first day” outfit, designed your Burning Man costume, or dressed to make a particular impression? And what can those choices tell you about how you want others to perceive you? Byron Katie, in her work on thoughts and approval, suggests considering each item you pick out and articulating:

“With this <item of clothing>, I want you to think that <perception of you>.”

Or, alternatively,

“I am hiding this <part of self>, so you won’t think that <perception of you>.”

[From Byron Katie’s I Need Your Love — Is that True?]

What do these seemingly mundane choices about shoes and shirts tell you about yourself? How do you use clothes to manage your desired image? And what if you gave this up and dressed as your authentic self? I’m not suggesting there’s a right answer here, but instead an opportunity to look at something as tangible and seemingly inconsequential as your ‘first day clothes’ and get curious about what you can learn from it.


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How Uber is Healing the World, One Ride at a Time

Living in San Francisco, it’s not uncommon that I hitch an Uber when I need to get around the city.

Debates on Uber continue to make headlines: How should we regulate ride-sharing? Is riding with a stranger safe? Is Uber’s surge pricing unjust? How does ride-sharing impact congestion?

While these debates swirl in my head, I can answer for the goodness of Uber immediately and from my heart: Uber is healing the world, one ride at a time.

Here’s why: Take a typical morning commute. The other day, I felt ambitious, getting up before dawn to work out during pre-business hours. I called an UberX. As always, when I matched for a ride, the driver’s name and photo flashed on my screen. It was DeAndre,* a forty-something black man driving a Prius. His photo showed a wide smile and beautifully-coiffed dreadlocks.
uber call driver
My reaction to seeing a driver’s photo is immediate. Each time, I have a knee-jerk reaction to their most basic demographic details. And, to be completely honest, I have a different reaction to Stephanie, the white, blond twenty-something on my screen versus Jian, the fifty-something Chinese man coming to pick me up. This is where Uber starts to work its magic: my human biases, typically lurking beneath the surface, come to awareness with the flash of the app.
uber peak
While I am embarrassed by these initial reactions, the last few months of studying unconscious bias have helped put this in perspective: Neuroscience proves that acting with bias doesn’t make us bad people, it makes us human. Given the richness of experience, it is impossible for our brains to process all the information we receive. Instead, we process only a fraction of this information consciously while allowing our unconscious brain to sort through the rest with the help of pattern-recognition. These patterns come from our personal experience and broader societal context (both good and bad). This approach can be helpful; we are able to quickly distinguish a butterfly from a bee and act accordingly. Unfortunately, this approach can also be harmful.  When making decisions about human beings, for example, we automatically make assumptions about people, my collection of Uber drivers included. We apply implicit stereotypes according to others’ race, gender, weight, age, and innumerable other dimensions. We’re biased against those who look different from us, and even, in some cases, against those who look like us. Thus, when the face pops up on my app, it brings awarenes sot my crazy web of biases.

But here is the second thing about Uber: I am not limited to living within my biased assumptions about these people. Instead, as we zip across the city, I get to spend a perfectly-orchestrated five, ten, or twenty minutes getting to know the person beyond the assumptions. It is the perfect set-up: a complete stranger, a delimited amount of time, and a willingness to talk. It is my opportunity to connect across differences and prove to myself just how wrong my biases are. In the course of everyday life, it is an opportunity that you can find nearly nowhere else.

After calling an Uber the other day, I jumped in with a forty-something Middle Eastern man named Muhammad. If I had jumped in a taxi with him, I would have kept to myself, falling in line with the norm of silence and ticking through emails on my phone. I would have left the car the same that I entered it. Instead, I met him as a human being. I asked him opening questions that went deeper and deeper: “How long was he driving today? What does he do when he’s not driving? What’s important about that?” I found that Muhammad spends his days as a stay-at-home dad. He loves to play bongos on the beach while his daughter dances. In addition, he planned to take his kids out to their favorite Neapolitan pizza place for dinner that night. I left the car after looking at pictures of his kids and an enthusiastic mutual handshake.

I’m grateful to all my drivers for connecting across humanity, teaching me about their lives, and reprogramming my biases about what is possible. I’m grateful to the traditionally-dressed African man who gave me lessons on veganism. I’m grateful to the gay Palestinian who reminded me how brilliant the Bay Area can be. I’m grateful to overweight suburban dad who gave me a recipe for lean broccoli casserole.

I wish you all many delightful Uber-enabled interactions.  Post your best stories in the comments below.

Ride on, my friends,

*Names changed out of respect to the lovely human beings I’ve met

For more on unconscious bias and bias in general, here are my top picks:
Privilege, Power and Difference by Allan Johnson
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives by Howard Ross

To test your own unconscious biases, take the Implicit Association Test on Harvard’s website

Keep it Simple, Smarty

I had lunch with a colleague this week during which we talked about her near-term plans and long-term aspirations over a bowl of bi bim bap. She reflected on options ranging from graduate school to life-long ambitions, from alternative career paths to renegotiating her relationship with her childhood pastimes. At the end of the discussion, as I munched on the leftover bowls of banchan, she paused, reflected for a moment, and remarked: “You ask really good questions.”

I? Ask good questions? That’s interesting, because I wasn’t trying to ask good questions.

There was a time when I tried to ask good questions. In fact, I’ve wanted to ask good questions most of my life. As far back as elementary school, I sought to ask the interesting, non-obvious question to the teacher, less because I wanted to know the answer and more because I hoped to signal just how advanced my comprehension was. “I understand graphing real and imaginary numbers on a two-by-two, but what if you add a third dimension?” I delighted in stumping the teacher and didn’t mind taking the class completely off-track.

This inclination continued in the working world. Asking the right “high-gain question” was celebrated as a great skill. If someone was evaluating many options, I might say “It seems like there are really two approaches here: A or B. Which seems most useful?” Similarly, if someone was trying to understand a situation, I might say “In my experience, it is always a matter of X or Y. Which is at stake?” My questions were crawling with clever frameworks and embedded advice. Intentionally or incidentally, I casually showcased how brilliant I could be while simultaneously seeming helpful. While my questions presumed to help the other person find their direction, let’s be honest: they were all about me.

As I’ve started to work on my ego (only partially successful to date), I’ve tried to shift to asking questions in the service of the other instead of for my own benefit.  This has prompted me to realize two things:

The smarter you try to be, the less useful you become, and

The most powerful questions are the most simple.

Everyone has heard the perennial advice to “ask open-ended questions.”   Beyond this, I propose adding the guidance: “ask simple questions.” It’s not about providing a maze of options, a clever trade-off, or a new framing. It’s not about leading people in the direction that you see unfolding. And it’s certainly not about receiving recognition for your endlessly clever perspective.

Instead, it’s about reducing to the simplest question in service of the individual:
“What do you want?”
“What’s important about that?”
“How do you feel?”
“What’s next?”

Though I can’t always get out of my own way, I am always most useful to others when I’m not trying to be clever.  In other words, keep it simple, smarty.

So, what now?

Does This Dehydrator Make Me Look Cheap?

I spend a lot of my time thinking and writing about intentionality, this idea of mindfully and choicefully directing one’s life.  The thinking goes something like this:  Our thoughts and our actions – and indeed our entire impact on the world – reflect our underlying beliefs and values, both conscious and unconscious.  And yet, many people (myself included) do not always bring mindful awareness and conscious choice to these things.

While I celebrate the idea of intentionality, I (like everyone) can be completely caught off-guard by the ways I unconsciously act and the values they reflect.  This week I surprised myself again.  My realization?

I am way more frugal than I ever knew.

Case in point is the first twelve hours after returning home from this week’s work trip to London.  I came home, caught up with Liz, spent time with the puppy, ate some Goat Hill pizza (our favorite local pizza joint), and then…started sorting through the refrigerator.  It’s not that I was particularly hungry or even particularly bored and looking for something to do.  Instead, I knew that there was a lot of food in the house when I left and I wanted to make sure we weren’t letting much of it go to waste.

To Liz’s credit, she is easily as frugal as me.  Once, when in charge of organizing date night, Liz signed us up for a class on running a “zero-waste kitchen.”  They taught pickling for extra vegetables, cheese-making to address your nearly-expired milk, and broth-making for everything else.  Whereas others may have thought this would be a slightly strange romatnic interlude, I absolutely loved it.  We even got to make our own sauerkraut.

This past week, she had focused on eating up leftovers from last week’s camping adventure and working through the freezer.  So, to her credit, there wasn’t much to do.  Nonetheless, I pulled out my favorite new fruaglity enabler:  our new dehydrator.

Not yet twenty-four hours later, my dehydrating adventures have been prolific:

Leftover camping potatoes turned into crunchy parmesan potato bites:


Previously pickled okra, jalapenos, and leftover corn have become “Liz Mix”:liz mixAnd more on the way:  peppers and garlic, mushrooms, jalapenos, carrots, and Brussels sprouts:
trayDespite all the time I spend thinking about how I want to consciously embody my chosen values, every so often something creeps up upon me.  And this fit of kitchen management proves exactly that.  Surveying my piles of dehydrated food, I thought:  “Wow, this whole thing has made me really happy.  I am way more frugal than I ever thought.  And I embody that without really ever thinking about it.”

I’ll be reflecting about the values I live while munching on my potato bites.

These Are a Few of My Favorite Biases

I often think that if we all become more aware of how we’re acting and choiceful about how we want to be, we’ll live more in alignment with ourselves and with each other.  Sure, the future won’t always turn out exactly as we intend, but at least we’ll be consciously trying in a direction we decide upon.

What I often forget, though, is that awareness is not just a consciousness of our intentions and actions, but also a consciousness of our patterns of thinking.  We all have a collection of cognitive biases that run invisibly within our heads – the biases which consistently guide us away from truthful, clear thinking.  They influence us without us ever realizing it; they inform how we see the world and decide to act.  All are proven via extensive social science research.  And that’s the craziest part – we know about them, we’ve proven them, and yet we all keep on getting things wrong in the same ways over and over again.

cognitive biases
I recently came across a fantastic list of cognitive biases in Michael Schermer’s book The Believing Brain and it reminded me of all the ways I am consistently getting things wrong.  I’m always trying to recommit to becoming more aware of not just what I want but how I’m thinking, and this was a good prompt in that direction.  They say the solution isn’t getting rid of the bias (which, in my experience, is near impossible), but instead becoming aware of how it might impact you in everyday situations.

As for me, confirmation bias, halo effect and authority bias are always cropping up in my world.  Which of these do you see in your life?  Which are you actively combating?

julie andrews
With compassion for all our invisible shortcomings!

A Short List of Cognitive Biases
Attribution biasTendency to attribute different causes for your own beliefs and actions than that of others.  It comes in at least two forms:

  • Situational/dispositional attribution bias: (“I succeed at work because I’m smart and hard-working, but he succeeds because he’s lucky and has the right sponsors.”  “I screwed up this recipe because the kids were screaming, but he screwed up the recipe because he’s a horrible cook.”)
  • Intellectual/emotional attribution bias:  (“I have a well-reasoned ideology behind my conservatism, but you are just a bleeding heart liberal.”)

Authority bias:  Tendency to value the opinions of an authority, especially in the evaluation of something we know little about (“Arnold told me that purgatory was never a concept in Catholicism; he majored in religion, so he would know.”)

Availability heuristic:  Tendency to assign probabilities to potential outcomes based on examples that are immediately available to us, especially those that are vivid, unusual, or emotionally charged (“If you’re a woman, you’re very likely to get breast cancer.  I know two other women who have been dealing it with this past year.”)

Believability bias:  Tendency to evaluate the strength of an argument based on the believability of its conclusion  (“It seems reasonable that genetically-modified foods cause cancer, so the science is likely right.”)

Confirmation bias:  Tendency to seek and find confirmatory evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignore or reinterpret disconfirming evidence (“See, this US Today article says that Obamacare is driving small enterprises out of business!  But I really question the methodology of that NY Times article on why Obamacare is affordable for even mom-and-pop shops.”)

Consistency bias:  Tendency to recall one’s past beliefs, attitudes and behaviors as resembling present beliefs, attitudes and behaviors more than they actually do (“I’ve basically always believed that there’s no way intelligent life could be out there.”)

False-consensus bias:  Tendency for people to overestimate the degree to which others agree with their beliefs or that will go along with them in a behavior (“Don’t you think that other people will want to protest owl habitat destruction too?”)

Generalization bias (stereotyping):  Tendency to assume that a member of a group will have certain characteristics believed to represent that group without having actual information about that particular member  (“She’s a banker; you know what that means.”)

Halo effect:  Tendency for people to generalize one positive trait of a person to all the other traits of that person (“She’s beautiful – so she’s probably pretty smart and athletic too.”)

Hindsight bias:  Tendency to reconstruct the past to fit with present knowledge.  I love it’s nickname “creeping determinism.”  (“If you look at the indications before the Challenger launch, anyone could have seen the explosion coming.”)

Inattentional blindness bias:  Tendency to miss something obvious and general while attending to something special and specific (“I don’t know why all those people were on the corner protesting, but did you see that woman’s blue pants?”)  The classic example of the inattentional blindness bias is here.

In-group bias:  Tendency for people to value the beliefs and attitudes of those whom they perceive to be fellow members of their group and to discount the beliefs and attitudes of those whom they perceive to be members of a different group  (“A friend at work told me that it’s dangerous to walk in the Southwest Corridor at night.”)

Just-world bias (victim-blaming):  Tendency for people to search for things that the victim of an unfortunate event might have done to deserve it.  (We’ve seen this in spades with recent news coverage on Ferguson, sexual assault on college campuses, bullying, and domestic abuse in the NFL.)

Negativity bias:  Tendency to pay closer attention and give more weight to negative events, beliefs, and information than to positive (“It just seems like every time you turn on the news, it’s all bad things happening.”)

Not-invented-here bias:  Tendency to discount the value of a belief or source of information that does not come from within (“Sure, but that’s what the consultants said, not what my research turned up.”)

Rosy retrospection bias:  Tendency to remember past events as being more positive than they actually were (“Ahh, the good old days.  So much better than life since everyone got a cell phone!”)

Self-justification bias:  Tendency to rationalize decisions after the fact to convince ourselves that what we did was the best thing we could have done (“It was the middle of the highway during rush hour.  If I pulled over to talk to the woman whose car I rear-ended, we both would have been in danger.  That’s not worth it for a small fender bender.”)

Status quo bias:  Tendency to opt for whatever it is we are used to (“I picked the health plan that I’ve had for years.”)

Sunk-cost bias (escalation of commitment):  Tendency to believe in something because of the cost sunk into that belief (“I’ve supported gun control all my life; there is no way I’m going to change that opinion now.”)

Trait-ascription bias:  Tendency for people to assess their own personality, behavior and beliefs are more variable and less dogmatic than those of others (“I would definitely change my mind given good date; I’m not so sure about my opponents, however.”)

The examples are my own, but the bias descriptions are sourced from The Believing Brain:  From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths by Michael Shermer

And here’s the even crazier part:  If you think that these biases don’t apply to you, then you’re succumbing to the ultimate meta-bias:  the bias blind spotThat is our “tendency to recognize the power of cognitive biases on other people but to be blind to their influence on our own beliefs.”  Annoying, isn’t it?

bias blind spot