Anything vs. Everything

I spent the last three days in Chicago, attending one of the full meetings of the board of directors for the National Association for Healthcare Quality. As NAHQ’s newly appointed chairman of its Commission for the Recognition of the Profession, I was able to sit in, as an invited guest, on the board’s late-summer meeting.

Interesting thing. One of the consultants who spoke kept repeating a slogan that resonated with me. He said: “You can do anything you want, but you can’t do everything you want.” He was talking about board strategy, but the point holds for everyday life, too.

In the grand scheme of things, many fail because they aim low and achieve even lower. But there’s a flip side to that coin — that you can try to do too many (or too disparate) things, and also fail to achieve.

I’m reminded of the need for balance by my boss and several of my co-workers, who often lament that when they’re on vacation, they still have to work, and they still have to burn the midnight oil to keep up on emails and whatnot. I can sympathize.

Sometimes it’s hard to let go of things we used to do, because they’re a “known known.” But to get to the point where you’ve done anything, you must first stop trying to do everything.

Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch — and Ideology for Dinner

On my drive into the Caffeinated Press office this morning, I flipped around the FM dial, searching for nothing in particular. I settled, grudgingly, on the local Michigan Public Radio channel, wherein NPR’s Weekend Edition was already in full swing.

Apart from some brief news about Sen. Bernie Sanders and his trek to South Carolina, the segment I heard featured the host speaking to an academic about the allegations of a rape culture at St. Paul’s, the elite boarding school that has prepared many of America’s top political and financial leaders.

The part of the interview that caused an involuntary, Spock-like eyebrow raise came when the guest asserted something to the effect that all of the stakeholders at St. Paul’s must band together for a “discussion” about ways to stop male upperclassmen from treating “girls like currency” in their competition to “score.”


So let’s stipulate two things from the outset. First, that St. Paul’s — a 150-year-old institution that only recently allowed the admission of females — consists of teen-aged students from the upper-upper-crust of American society. And second, that if the stories about the schools are true, the school’s culture permits or even celebrates young males targeting even younger females for sex, yet there’s been only one allegation of rape. And that allegation is disputed.

Two points follow.

The first, and the more minor, point is that there appears to be a curious disconnect between the broad, left-leaning culture that mocks sexual abstinence training — see, for example, John Oliver’s take on sex ed in the U.S. — and the reaction to what happens when teenagers actually do what the sex educators encourage. Because the salient point at St. Paul’s is that even if older male students seek sex with younger female students, there’s been but one allegation of coercion in an environment where the occurrences of such liaisons is probably very high. In other words: The sex-ed folks say: “Do it, safely, and with consent,” and except for a single reported occurrence to the contrary, the kids seem to have followed their education. So what, exactly, is the problem that requires “discussion?”

Perhaps I’m cynical. But we should not be surprised when the left-leaning consensus is that we should train middle-schoolers to enjoy the fun of sex responsibly, that when those middle-schoolers pass the puberty mark, they’ll behave as they’ve been taught. If one student raped another student at St. Paul’s, then prosecute that occurrence. But to probe a deeper cultural problem? It’s not clear what such a problem could be, given that the students of St. Paul’s by and large seem to stick to the syllabus.

The bigger point, I think, is that the desire for a “discussion” about “treating girls like currency” in a male-on-male competition to “score” speaks to something quite unrelated to the current sexual mores of the students at St. Paul’s. Granted that in today’s ideological climate, any allegation of rape will find a chorus of professionals claiming a deep-seated cultural problem — hey, sociologists gotta pay the bills, too, even if every problem they see is a nail and the only tool they own is a hammer. Put that knee-jerk reaction aside long enough to reflect on just how curious it is that people assume that with the right degree of consciousness raising, we can consistently rise above hormones and instinct to be a New Soviet Man better person.

Peter Drucker said that culture eats strategy for lunch. What he meant was that the collection of habits and pre-rational behaviors that directly affect how people interrelate will always undercut an agreed-upon strategy that doesn’t square with that culture. For example, Microsoft’s strategy of unifying its software under one common codebase was, for a long time, hampered by an organizational culture that tied employee compensation to different internal business units sabotaging the success of other business units to improve their own relative metrics. When that sort of adversarial culture thrives, you have roughly zero chance of achieving a strategy that conflicts with it.

Let’s introduce the Gillikin Corollary: Culture eats ideology for dinner. In other words,  the highfalutin maxims of both the Far Left and the Far Right so often fail in the real world, because the real world is a messier place with a culture much more firmly rooted in the principles of evolutionary biology. The Gillikin Corollary is why both liberals and conservatives are mistaken in their pronouncements on sex ed: The conservatives are wrong because an abstinence-only training program (or worse, a “let’s pretend parents will teach their kids about sex” get-out-of-jail-free card) conflicts with teenage hormones. The liberals are wrong because on balance human males are sexually aggressive and human females are sexually receptive, so training everyone to be a metrosexual contractarian is doomed to failure. We’ve been wired over thousands of generations of pre-history that sexual dominance meant reproductive success and that human social frameworks were optimized for relatively small tribal groups. (See, e.g., the writings of E.O. Wilson.)

To quote Barack Obama: “Now, let me be clear.” I condone neither rape nor cultural norms that subtly compel people to engage in sexual behaviors they might have avoided but for engagement with that culture. If the student accused of rape at St. Paul’s is found guilty of rape, he should be punished.

Yet I cannot help but shake my head in amazement as the folks at NPR look at the story out of St. Paul’s and bemoan the fact that young males at an elite school engage in allegedly predatory sexual practices. Do all the left-wing sociologists and anthropologists out there really think that what they need is the right mandatory consciousness-raising program and that with it, a quarter-million years of evolution will therefore dissipate into a warm and loving enlightment completely untethered to hormones and pre-rational instinct? That a half-day seminar about “no means no” will perfectly empower testosterone-driven, highly competitive teenage males to default to asking, “May I unbutton your shirt now? May I kiss you? If your BAC is above 0.05, can we wait until we both can provide informed consent? Are you OK if we always use condoms until marriage?”


The culture of an elite school serving elite families revolves around succeeding in a socially competitive world. That’s the culture. And a strategy of sexual egalitarianism will never thrive as long as that culture — and its supporting cast of hormones and instinctive behaviors — continues to imperfectly align with it.

I suspect there are ways to more effectively frame sexual education for both males and females — but those methods must be rooted in the human condition as it is, not as we’d wish it to be.

So for me, the most fascinating part of the whole St. Paul’s story isn’t the “Senior Salute” or the rape allegation; rather, it’s the putatively earnest belief that something like the “Senior Salute” could have been avoided with the right combination of training, seminars and consciousness-raising events. It’s pretty obvious that left-wing nostrums about hyperinformed and explicit consent are just as untenable as right-wing nostrums about virginity until marriage — and they’re both off-base for exactly the same reason.

Culture eats ideology for dinner.

A Schema for Planning Your Self-Actualization

Last week I had to substitute teach at Grand Rapids Community College for my friend Duane, who was out for emergency medical reasons. The class is Interpersonal Communications, a summer session within the Communications department. The class focused on content about defining interpersonal communications as a concept and reviewing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Interesting thing about Maslow. A lot of younger folks think they’re at the top of the pyramid, having achieved self-actualization because they are college students or have a nice car or enjoy the affections of a hot significant other. But young people almost never summit the hierarchy. They’re deluding themselves because they don’t really know what it’s like to be at the very base of the pyramid and lack the life experience to know what it’s like to be the master of your own fate instead of merely succeeding at surfing the winds of someone else’s destiny.

I was thinking about Maslow this week as I enjoyed cigars, Scotch and pleasant conversation with my friend Rob. Rob is a smart fellow and an irritable bastard if ever there was one. He’s the kind of guy who could convincingly yell, “Get off my lawn!” and you’d believe it. But he’s also an insightful guy with a good heart lurking beneath the crust of his curmudgeonhood.

The discussion with Rob meandered across many different subjects, but one that stuck out was life planning. He has goals and the sketch of an outline for getting there, which is good. Many people never think about their Bucket List and fewer still outline a concrete plan of action for achieving any of those items. That’s where Maslow fits in; a self-actualized person won’t just wistfully regret not achieving greatness — he’ll grab it by the horns and wrestle it into submission. Indeed, Maslow himself said: “The way to recover the meaning of life and the worthwhileness of life is to recover the power of experience, to have impulse voices from within, and to be able to hear those impulse voices from within — and to make the point: This can be done.”

I started a well-defined process of life planning in 2007. I revisit my master list every few months to tweak it as needed. Over the years I’ve spoken with people who kinda-sorta understand the value of such a process, but they lack either the motivation to execute it or the conceptual framework for building it. I can’t force people to do anything, but I can offer my own thoughts about how to plan your life well enough to let the self-actualizing kernel within you to thrive. Caveat: What works for me may not work for you. That said:

  1. Disabuse yourself of the romantic notion of who you aspire to be, and start with who you are.  We’re all masters of self-delusion, legends in our own minds. The hardest part for most people is to come to an honest assessment of one’s true strengths and weaknesses without conflating them with the aura of the Ideal Self we keep locked in a deep part of our psyche. When you look at what holds you back, for example, your glance should be inward; if you find external reasons for all of your failings, then you haven’t dug deep enough.
  2. Develop a personal mission statement, a simple declaration for yourself that establishes your vision of what a self-actualized life entails.  A good exercise for getting there consists of the deceptively simple-sounding task of writing your own obituary. When you die — I hope, at a ripe old age — how do you want people to describe the quality of your character? What notable achievements do you want memorialized?
  3. Craft a bucket list of specific, achievable life goals you want to achieve before you die. No two people will have the same list, but the list is relevant. Maybe you want to be published, or climb Mt. Everest, or visit every continent, or run a marathon before you turn 40. Whatever. List at least five things that, when you’re whittling on the front porch as a wrinkled old man, you can point to as extraordinary accomplishments worthy of a well-lived life. When you finish an item, add more. Use the SMARTER approach to developing the lists — make them specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-limited, ethical and rewarding.
  4. Identify pertinent strategies that will govern how these goals should be achieved.  A plan of action requires a methodology that frames the appropriate execution of that strategy. This is the ethics part of the equation. What values color how you’ll live your life? I’ve developed six maxims that guide my own approach:  Reduce consumption; cultivate serenity; nurture relationships; exhibit insatiable curiosity; do fewer things but do them boldly; and favor action over study.
  5. Classify your goals according to some logical schema.  Choose the broad aspects of your life that mean something and set goals accordingly. You could set goals for finances, physical fitness, travel, spiritual development, academic achievement, etc. The schema — the framework — for each person will be different. But the framework lets you set goals in each category and helps you link goals among categories to help with prioritization decisions. For example, if you want to climb Mt. Everest and also reduce your body-mass index from 40 to 25, it makes sense to focus on the BMI restriction first (morbidly obese people may have trouble with mountain climbing). But knowing you want to scale Everest means your exercise program should focus on cardio and endurance instead of just weight lifting, as a strong man with weak cardiopulmonary function will have a tougher time scaling Everest than a slender man who can whip out a marathon without thinking.
  6. Break down big goals into a series of smaller, time-limited tasks.  Maybe your goal is to hike the Appalachian Trail. Good for you, but that’s not enough. You need to start with smaller tasks, like buying gear and doing day hikes and then graduating to overnight hikes in the backcountry. You need to meet fitness goals and bank enough cash to sustain you and research the trail. You need to learn about drop boxes and pick up tips about first aid and figure out how to deal with the various animals and plants you’ll encounter. Hiking the AT may be laudable; deciding to do so with no prior hiking experience isn’t, unless you set milestones to get you ready for the trip. Its also easier and more motivational to meet smaller, local goals that serve as stepping stones to bigger tasks that support a major bucket-list achievement. Divide and conquer.
  7. Track your progress.  Keep your tasks organized in Outlook or OneNote or Evernote. Maintain a journal. Log your calories or your workout routines. Start a blog. Just do something to give yourself a documented record about where you’ve succeeded or where you’ve failed. You need to know how prior performance looked so you can refine your approach in the future.
  8. Revisit your plan periodically and never hesitate to revise it.  Minimally, do a complete re-think and revision every six months. Dedicate a day or a weekend to looking at your progress and adjusting your plans. Treat it like a private in-service: Go somewhere quiet, rid yourself of distractions and continue on your journey of focused self-improvement.  Remember that there’s no shame in adjusting timelines, deleting goals or modifying tasks.
  9. Keep the big picture front-and-center in your daily life.  Print your goals list and keep a copy in a notebook or on your refrigerator. Look at it daily, or at least several times per week. Remind yourself over and over and over about what’s important so that you keep going. Even fitful progress is better than no progress at all.

As I said, this approach won’t work for everyone; it’s a right-brained strategy that favors logic over intuition. Nevertheless, I encourage everyone to follow some path that includes well-defined goals. Especially for folks in their mid-20s through their late 30s — a prime time for laying the foundation for a happy retirement — making solid, long-run choices now may pay handsome dividends later in life.