Thinking in the Time of Coronavirus–Part 2

20200402_172635The previous post discussed three important thinking dynamics relevant to our analysis of coronavirus:

Actions reveal intentions and motivations
Ideology often colors how we think; and
Worst case scenarios are always considered unlikely
(I’d amend that now to say almost always.)

…but there are many more.

Since the crisis began in January, I’ve come across many commentators—scientists, non-scientists, experts in other fields, jacks-of-all-trades—speculating about coronavirus and attempting to predict its course. Many statements were similar to this one by Dr. Fauci on January 26: “It’s a very, very low risk to the US.” I could not comprehend at the time the evidentiary or logical basis for such statements. Did the individuals making these statements believe the Chinese Government was engaged in some weird overreaction or that the virus would only uniquely prosper in China? Did they assume that the hundreds of thousands of people who would come to the US in 2020 after visiting China (or in a few weeks time Italy) would all be free of the disease or that we would somehow detect them as they entered the country? Were they just making a linear projection from the miniscule number of cases then in the US?

One cognitive pathology at work here is that INDIVIDUALS, EVEN TRAINED SCIENTISTS, ARE REALLY BAD AT DRAWING APPROPRIATE CONCLUSIONS FROM AVAILABLE EVIDENCE. Because I worked as an analyst at CIA for 32 years, I am familiar with this phenomenon. Policymakers are always demanding judgments from analysts, and we often feel obliged to provide them even when the evidentiary basis is insufficient. At any moment regarding any situation, how accurately does the evidence available to us reflect reality? Today as I write this, how much do we really know about coronavirus: 50% of reality, 30%, 10%? The answer at this point is unknowable. Therefore, predictions concerning its future course are tenuous.

Two other realities about thinking are worth mentioning here. First, OUR ABILITY TO KNOW IS A FUNCTION OF OUR TOOLS FOR KNOWING. We can only know what our tools reveal to us. Breakthroughs, revolutions in thinking in so many fields have been the result of inventions/discoveries of new knowledge tools. In cosmology, for example, our understanding of the universe expanded when we learned to build great observatories and combined cameras with telescopes. The deployment of orbital platforms such as the Hubble have further revolutionized our knowledge.

Our understanding of coronavirus has been diminished not just by its novelty but also because China may not have revealed all it has learned about the disease. Another tool problem is the lack of comprehensive testing of populations. Some of my Texas friends have claimed that Texas must be doing a great job containing coronavirus (or that there really isn’t a threat) because of the relatively low rates of infections and deaths. But Texas, as of April 15, has one of the three lowest rates of testing in the country. We don’t really know what’s going on there. And we won’t comprehend critical attributes of the virus, such as fatality and contagion rates, until we have tested a large and random sample of our population. This inherently incomplete nature of our knowledge should make us more humble about our predictions and expectations concerning the course of the disease. For many questions, we still do not have sufficient information to make a firm determination and thus need to err on the sides of caution and resilience.

But instead we have a tendency when confronted with limited information to succumb to THE STREETLIGHT EFFECT. The joke is that a policeman runs across an individual, usually described as inebriated, looking for car keys under a street lamp. When the policeman asks if this is where the keys were lost, the seeker answers “No, but this is the only place I can see.”

When we make confident predictions based on insufficient or flawed evidence, we are succumbing to the streetlight effect. One vivid example is how people jumped on the  hydroxychloroquine bandwagon after just a couple of positive reports. At the start of the pandemic, many (and some still do) argued that covid-19 would be no worse than a bad seasonal flu. Those arguments were based on deaths up to that point (a few hundred or thousands) and I’m not exactly sure what else. So many flaws in that argument it’s hard to know where to begin. First, the number of flu deaths are totals for an entire year while the number of covid-19 deaths are just for a few weeks; we are assuming a lot about how the disease (and  people…) will perform during the course of an entire year. Second, the statement assumed linear growth which of course is not what happens during uncontrolled epidemics. Third, this argument implied that the Chinese stupidly and inexplicably closed down their economy because of the seasonal flu. (Actions reveal intentions and motivations.)

Another flaw in the argument that covid-19 is just another flu is captured by the aphorism: QUANTITY HAS A QUALITY ALL ITS OWN. Mistakenly attributed to Joseph Stalin, the observation appears to have become popularized instead by the US military-industrial complex. It attacks the logic behind linear projections—it’s just more of the same thing and therefore we can handle it. At some point, more of the same thing evolves into a different plant; we can pull out a few weeds by hand but not an entire yard-full. And quantity is not the only factor in play; pacing and tempo have significant impacts as well. One million cases of covid-19 during the course of a year may be manageable but half a million cases in 8 weeks not so much.

When I’m asked to recommend a book for aspiring intelligence analysts, I always mention Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. One of his famous findings is that humans are bad at comprehending exponential numbers. (If you start with a penny and double it every day, at the end of the month you will have more than $5 million; actually if the month has 31 days you end up with more than $10 million.)

I like to extend that idea by observing that HUMANS FIND IT HARD TO DEAL WITH EXPONENTIAL CAUSALITY. Exponential causality is one of the characteristics of complex systems. Any one event can have a cascade of consequences in unpredictable directions and time frames. Feedback can even travel backwards in time in the sense that a development today can reveal the unappreciated causal importance of some past event. Because exponential causality confounds humans, we like to pretend it doesn’t exist; a popular way to do that these days is by subscribing to conspiracy theories. So many factors contribute to today’s reality that there’s always a stray thread or two that can be pulled to create a conspiracy-based explanation. If you yearn for a simpler, linear world, then you’re happy to accept that Bill Gates and 5G technology have combined to cause the coronavirus. It’s a particularly dangerous cognitive trap.

One of my first bosses at CIA, John, impressed me with a story from his early days as an analyst. He was following a particular insurgent group in southeast Asia in the 1960s, and had calculated that because of supply disruptions the group would literally use up its ammunition by a date certain. John’s boss advised him to rethink his analysis because YOU NEVER RUN OUT OF BULLETS. In other words, linear predictions are always flawed because 1. our knowledge of any situation is incomplete 2. we never know the exact dimensions of our ignorance; and 3. shit happens.

 

Which brings us to the topic of coronavirus models. I’m sure statisticians will beat me up for this but I often think of models as compilations of hundreds of linear projections. The modeler tries to include every possible variable in her model and stipulates the tens of thousands of relationships among the variables—which is like really hard.  As the model runs every possible combination of variables is instantiated. This can be helpful to policymakers by representing in a more digestible fashion a complex set of possibilities. But models always simplify the complex—they make more linear that which is random. In my experience, models are particularly bad at accounting for the variations and peculiarities of human psychology—one of the most important factors determining the course of covid-19. Indeed, the failings of models will luckily keep human intelligence analysts employed for years to come.

Another useful aspect of models is that they bring into focus the most dangerous, possible outcomes and identify the levers policymakers and individuals can pull to avoid them. Which brings us to the PARADOX OF WARNING. The world has moved smartly to limit the worst consequences although the ones we’re left with are still pretty dire; it turns out the Chinese were not crazy to lock down entire cities to prevent further spread of the disease. But as we succeed in lowering the final number of deaths and infections, we start hearing from critics who claim the crisis was exaggerated from the start. Aaaargh! The only point of warning is to avoid the bad outcomes. No one should be rooting for maximum coronavirus. Effective warners always want to be wrong.

The coronavirus pandemic illustrates that good thinking is more than an academic exercise. It can be a matter of life and death. I’ve seen too many friends on social media using poor arguments to justify bad decisions. Please everyone, just put on your thinking caps.

 

 

Thinking in the Time of Coronavirus–Part 1

I’ve been wanting to comment on all the examples of bad thinking and cognitive traps that I’ve seen regarding coronavirus for a while now, well since early February for sure, but I’ve hesitated to put them down in writing because there is already too much content drawing spurious links to this horrible pandemic. But as we see signs that the infection curves are beginning to flatten in some countries (although certainly not all), it strikes me that good thinking will be just as critical as we work to recover our economies and manage the continuing threat of disease. So what follows is a compilation of some of the best and worst thinking practices revealed so far this year. (There are many so expect at least two posts.)

I was convinced the reports of a new, SARS-like disease in China were significant by mid-January. On 16 January I spoke at a conference that had a sizable contingent of attendees from Seattle and I remember fretting that Seattle would likely be one of the first American cities to get hit by coronavirus given the Chinese population on the West Coast and the travel patterns associated with Lunar New Year. I started tweeting and posting on Facebook about the disease in the second half of January and by late February it dominated my posts. Friends have asked me why I was so sure the disease would pose such a threat and I answered with one of my favorite heuristics from my CIA years: ACTIONS REVEAL INTENTIONS AND MOTIVATIONS.

When you’re trying to figure out a government or actor’s intentions, it’s always best to start with their actions. Pay attention to what they are doing. Given China’s obsession with economic growth and how the Communist Party’s legitimacy rested on delivering prosperity, I could not imagine why China would have closed down one of its most important cities out of an “abundance of caution”—a good name for a new rock band. The coronavirus had scared the shit out of the Chinese Government and the most reasonable explanation was that it was contagious and dangerous.

Whe20200411_144242n we began to see reports of massive disinfection campaigns and attacks on Chinese doctors who issued first warnings, I began to wonder what Beijing was trying to hide, if anything. Of course there was immediate speculation that coronavirus was some type of bioweapon; I’m no expert on this issue so I have to accept the judgment that the virus is not man-made. But the possibility that coronavirus leaked because of an industrial mishap or accidental discharge remains credible to me. Recent reports that the Chinese Government is controlling research into the origins of coronavirus just further pique my suspicions. Actions reveal intentions and motivations.

When I actually shared this view on social media a few weeks ago, several friends criticized me for going there. Why, I wondered. It wasn’t like the Chinese Government was known for its transparency and complete honesty. Why couldn’t these ideas be entertained? My answer in part is that IDEOLOGY OFTEN COLORS HOW WE THINK. There are so many examples of this dynamic spanning the ideological spectrum.

  • Advocates of globalization loathe to admit that China might have deceived other countries.
  • Supporters of the international system reluctant to criticize the World Health Organization.
  • Proponents of American exceptionalism insisting, against a lot of evidence, that the US has had the best response to the coronavirus.
  • Backers of the President condemning any suggestion that the US could have acted more quickly to contain the disease.
  • Critics of the President attacking his decision to limit travel from China in late January, although it was clearly the right thing to do. The more valid criticism is that it didn’t go far enough and there were too many loopholes.

And countless other examples we could mention. Because this is such a terrifying disease, it’s natural for people to fall back upon their values and ideological beliefs to interpret events. It’s natural but not helpful. In fact, it’s dangerous. Our beliefs lead us to ignore facts that don’t fit our ideology and overamplify developments that do. Unfortunately this thinking weakness will haunt our recovery efforts, particularly in the US where our politics have become exceptionally poisonous.

One important caveat: our ideology and values will play an unavoidable role going forward as we think about levels of acceptable risk. To my knowledge there is no objective way to measure the value of a human life. In the months to come we will be trading hundreds if not thousands of lives for decimals of economic growth. Your values are what will determine how you solve that equation. Less-polarized societies will find it easier to agree on the solution. The math will be difficult for the US. (And let me add that the very idea that this can be thought of as a math problem is anathema to many.)

I spoke at a conference in D.C. on 6 February about cognitive traps and used the emerging disease for my examples. The one cognitive bias that was most evident then is that WORST-CASE SCENARIOS ARE ALWAYS CONSIDERED UNLIKELY. In early February few people were expecting the disease to ravage Western Europe and the US and painted any such thinking as worst-case scenarios. Indeed, the first deaths did not occur in Italy until the last week of February. And yet it was reasonable to assume, I thought, that the disease could easily flare up in any country with connections to China, which was basically any place on the planet.

If you’re an analyst responsible for warning, remember that when you paint the most dangerous scenarios as worst-case, you make it easier for the decision-maker to dismiss them. And that’s what appears to have happened in the US government. Impact and probability need to be thought of as independent variables. Some category of “worst-case” scenario happens every year; the only “unlikely” aspect of “worst-case” scenarios is the ability to predict their timing. We are unable to know with precision when a dangerous development will occur, but we are sure to experience several in our lifetimes.

Humans have been flourishing on this planet for tens of thousands of years, solving many problems (and, of course, creating others). We can assume that almost all the easy problems have been solved and many of the hard ones as well. Going forward, most of our problems will be difficult to handle and few, if any, will have clear-cut solutions. Only good thinking will help.

Lead Above Mediocre Thinking

Just about my favorite topic to talk about is Better Thinking. The tough part about presenting on the topic is that I at least find it hard to be concise, precise, and accessible about thinking. If you’re lucky you can hit two of those attributes, but not all three.

I made a presentation this summer at Chicago Camps, an organization that puts together mean little conferences around topics such as design thinking and innovation. (Mean as in nifty.) I’ve loaded the slides onto SlideShare and incorporated my speaker notes–which makes for inelegant-looking slides but more information. You can check them out here.

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Words Fail Me

I’ve been thinking about writing for a while but it’s difficult to know what to say. So many horrible things have happened around the world it’s hard to keep track. Although I still believe that measured using decades and centuries–not months and cable news–humanity is demonstrably improving, we are nevertheless suffering through a difficult period. I would call it a patch but that implies we know it will end soon, and we don’t know that at all.
I was cheered when French President Macron won and UK Prime Minister Theresa May was humbled. (I’m always encouraged when any grand political figure is skewered by their ego-driven calculations.) I don’t find anything in the US cheering. Partisan politics, having created this situation, are unlikely to help resolve it. Although it is tempting to blame President Trump for our problems in the US, he is undoubtedly a symptom of the pathology, not the fundamental illness. The anarchist in me says that it’s the very fact we have a political process which is the problem. Powerful institutions attract huge egos and make partisan, petty monsters out of all of us…and each of us.
The conviction that there exists a right side and a wrong side is, in my opinion, a disastrous delusion that costs us dearly. There appear to be two fundamental secular ways of thinking about the human condition, about the best way to live our lives. (I say secular because there are other religion-based approaches which I don’t dismiss; they essentially argue that our secular concerns are irrelevant.) One is that humans attain their ultimate greatness as individuals. The other argues that humans attain greatness in community with others. Where I think we veer off-base is when we think one of these philosophies is destined to prevail. I suspect the truth is that both are right to some degree and that both are wrong  in excess. Given that the two appear irreconcilable, the job of our political process is to mediate the tension between the two, regulating the pendulum to avoid abrupt and destabilizing swings.
This is not a new idea. In the book The Discovery of Chance, the biography of the Russian philosopher Alexander Herzen by Aileen Kelly, she writes about the French philosopher Pierre Leroux who insisted on an

ineradicable conflict between the human drive toward social solidarity and the individual’s urge for self-realization. In this…perception he was ahead of his time…In the next decade {Pierre Joseph} Proudhon asserted that conflict between the individual and society was not a temporary aberration but “the very condition” of social existence.

Methinks that gets it just about right.
Can anything be done? Perhaps we need to pull together a corporate board for America. Its membership would be comprised of individuals who each side hates the most but who don’t currently hold political office. The so-called conservatives could identify their bete noires, perhaps Tim Cook, Oprah, Bill Gates. The so-called liberals could name theirs: the Koch Brothers, Peter Thiel, Peggy Noonan. The job of the corporate board would not be to make policy but simply to issue statements that they can all agree to. And when they can’t come to an agreement on a policy question–say health care, they issue a document that dispassionately lays out the most important areas of disagreement.
I’m being completely silly in making this suggestion. My only point is to demonstrate how unhelpful, in fact disastrous, our current partisan political process has become. And how difficult it is to come up with an alternative.
Ideology is the enemy of common sense. And the competition for political power has become a destabilizing arms race. It is long past time to demobilize. But no one knows how.

Rebels in Government!

img_1177Just a quick note that I’ve shared my Dos and Don’ts for civil servants during these difficult times over at Rebels at Work.

The Trump Civil Servant

Two controversies this inaugural weekend led me to reflect on the challenges for federal employees during the incoming administration of President Trump: the retweets by the official twitter account of the National Park Service and the content of President Trump’s speech at the CIA. Both were wrong for largely the same reason: they injected partisanship where it does not belong: in the execution of the duties of federal government employees.

The issue of political activity by federal employees is the subject of rather important legislation–the Hatch Act of 1939, which prohibits almost all federal employees from engaging in most forms of political, partisan activity. Of course, when a new administration takes office, the directions and policies of cabinet departments will change, and civil servants are expected to carry out these new policies whatever their previous and/or personal views.

In the case of the National Park Service, its twitter account retweeted comments that had partisan implications, one comparing the size of inaugural crowds, and the other criticizing changes in the content of the White House web site. Although defenders of the Park Service would say the comments are innocuous, they really weren’t. They were not-so-subtle digs at the incoming Trump administration and as such just plain inappropriate. In fact,  the Park Service has been prohibited by law since 1995 from estimating crowd sizes at events on the National Mall, in part because these estimates can become politically controversial.

The same general principles–federal civil employees should not engage in partisan political activity during work hours–can help us think about President Trump’s visit to the CIA on Saturday,. The fact of the visit is not a problem–but the content of the speech was a disaster. The President had no business suggesting that CIA employees overwhelming voted for him. A CIA officer’s personal views should have no bearing on the performance of her duties. I know this is a high bar and, in reality, impossible to reach. Cognitive science has shown that no human can be a perfectly objective being. But the future of intelligence activities in democratic societies depends upon every employee striving for this goal.

US law stipulates the federal employee oath of office:

An individual, except the President, elected or appointed to an office of honor or profit in the civil service or uniformed services, shall take the following oath: “I, AB, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.” This section does not affect other oaths required by law.

(Pub. L. 89–554, Sept. 6, 1966, 80 Stat. 424.)
The first commandment for federal civil servants it to uphold the US constitution, but there’s a lot of squishy room for interpretation in the phrase “faithfully discharge the duties of the office…” I think most Americans would think that it means execute the law regardless of your personal preferences and follow the policy wishes of the US President and members of Congress, as long as they are legal and constitutional. All new administrations are challenging for civil servants. But I expect this transition to be particularly tumultuous given that President Trump intends to depart radically from the practices of previous US governments across a broad range of issues. To avoid government crises, both the incoming administration and the civil service will need to exercise good judgment and benefit from a lot of luck. Seriously…a lot of luck.

Why the CIA Struggles with Diversity

I recently wrote on this topic for Overtaction. org. You can find the complete post here.  Highlights below. (or at least I think so!)

The Central Intelligence Agency has a problem recruiting minorities and advancing them into senior leadership positions, CIA Director John Brennan admitted last month. “There have been impediments,” Brennan told reporters, “to minority officers being able to rise in the organization.”

As a Puerto Rican woman who spent 32 years at CIA and nine of those years as a member of the Senior Intelligence Service, you might think my experience revealed a few secrets for advancing as a minority at the Agency. But during my career, I was struck much more by the subtle (and not-so-subtle) barriers to entry and advancement that the Agency presented to people who did not come from a Western European background. Not all of the affected were members of officially recognized minority groups—you can be a different thinker regardless of your heritage or experiences. But the information CIA released on minority representation suggests ethnic and racial minorities have had the most difficulty adapting to existing cultural norms, both when they seek Agency employment and when they attempt to advance in the bureaucracy.

My hunch is that any effort to increase both minority presence and influence at CIA will falter as long as the subtle and not-so-subtle cultural barriers to entry and advancement exist. As the recently published Diversity Leadership Study concluded, the CIA does not consistently promote an inclusive culture. In my view, constructing a more inclusive culture requires the Agency to reset some of its cultural precepts, including some long-held, treasured beliefs.

One cultural precept at CIA I think harms diversity efforts is an American/northern European-centric view of the world. This perspective expressed itself in many ways, most of them quite subtle. For example, I often heard the phrase “American Exceptionalism” at CIA. Senior leaders would use it frequently, never imagining, I would think, how that might come across as patronizing to a sizeable percentage of the workforce. Even now, I feel compelled to add—lest my patriotism be challenged—that I am a proud American who believes the United States contributes in a positive way to the planet.

But I think that’s generally true of all cultures—they make positive and negative contributions to the world. It is perhaps inescapable that an American intelligence agency would default to the West as its model and icon of goodness. But Agency leadership could usefully audit their common phrases and mental shortcuts to remove ones that are egregiously Euro-centric.

Another example is a phrase I heard with some regularity from CIA officers that went something like this: “Everything in country X has fallen apart since the [pick your colonial power] left.” Although I shared my discomfort with friends, I’m ashamed to say I never pointed out directly to a colleague how such a remark might come across to members of a minority group – especially one from that particular nation.

It’s probably not obvious how such under- and overtones might relate to the lack of minority representation among CIA leaders. What I think happens is many officers struggle with being true to their own beliefs and cultural heritage even as they seek career success at the Agency. I know I did. The Diversity Leadership Study acknowledges the subtle ways in which this culture can impede the advancement of people who are different:

The Agency does not recognize the value of diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives, nor consistently promote an inclusive, “speak-up” culture where all opinions are heard, valued, and taken into account. Some officers disengage because when they share their thoughts and perspectives on mission or workforce issues they are not considered. [emphasis mine]

Read the rest of the post here.

Sisters Are Doing It for Others

I don’t know what my readers think of Catholic nuns, if they think about them much at all, but I bet very few of you see religious orders as women-owned non-profits having tremendous social impact. But that’s what I learned last weekend when I visited the Sisters of Notre Dame in Chardon, Ohio. The sisters trace their beginnings back to 19th-century Germany, where two women established the order as a way of continuing their care for poor neglected children. I was there to visit my good friend Sister Pat, who has been with the order her entire adult life, serving primarily as an educator. She is now the Treasurer of the Chardon Province of the order–there are four provinces in the US, and so she could fill us in on how the Sisters are working to preserve their legacy of good works even as their numbers decline.

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Some of the artwork, mostly by the Sisters, in their chapel.

It’s no secret that few women in the US choose to be nuns. The number of Catholic nuns in the US peaked at about 180,000 in the 1960s, when Sister Pat joined the order, to less than 50,000 today. Sister Pat told us that the median age of the Sisters in their province is in the 70s. And yet the Sisters remain a key resource for their rural community east of Cleveland. The sisters run an elementary school and high school–the largest meeting facility in the county is on their property. The order has always been active in educating and taking care of children, but they are now extending their mission into areas such as health care, water security in Africa, and human trafficking. Their calling card appears to be compassion for all humans and for the planet.

But one of their biggest priorities now is to sustain their good works regardless of the future size of their order. As Sister Pat described the initiatives they’re pursuing, I realized the Sisters have had to develop business acumen and clear-eyed strategies. They know that religious orders are being disrupted, but they’re ready to innovate, not to stay one step ahead of “competitors” but to preserve the value they provide to others.

There’s some lessons all of us dealing with exponential and perhaps even existential change can learn from the Sisters of Notre Dame.

It’s about the mission. I was struck by how focused the Sisters are on preserving their outcomes, not necessarily themselves. I wish the Sisters a glorious future, and I suspect that their outward focus is what will best ensure it. I can’t help but contrast their strategy with the actions of many organizations, who seek to preserve themselves first, sometimes even at the cost of their mission.

It’s about BOTH tradition and progress. Sister Pat took us on a tour of their buildings, where they have a lovely display of the history of their order. And just around the corner she showed us where their IT staff works and told us about how they handled the recent live streaming of a funeral mass.

Art and Nature are always part of the Mission. The Sisters are proper caretakers of a charming rural property and they have built a dedicated arts center for their students. Their buildings are situated to be close to nature.

Taking care of each other is God’s work. This requires no explanation.

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My Puerto Rican Visitors

My great-aunt Laura and her husband Felix visited me in northern Virginia the last week in April. My great-aunt is 83 years old, Felix a few years younger, and they live in Puerto Rico. She was the youngest and now the only survivor of a robust line of siblings of my grandmother, Doña Yuya. (Abuela died at 96 1/2 years old in 2003.) Laura and my mother, who turns 80 this summer, grew up like sisters in the barrio of Santo Domingo in Caguas, Puerto Rico. When they get together, they like to talk about the chickens who lived with them. When the chickens became sick, Abuela would burn tires. Most of the chickens would die, but the ones that survived were declared cured.

Like he does every time we see him, Felix talked about his tough childhood in Puerto Rico and New York City. His schooling ended in the third grade as a result of his mother’s death. His father sent Felix off to stay with other relatives, who put him to work at a restaurant of sorts in Puerto Rico, where Felix says he might as well have been a slave. He only had one shirt and one pair of pants, he said, and didn’t attend school. He was saved by an Americano who would come to the restaurant and who eventually offered him a better job. Felix ended up in a cold water flat in New York City. He had no idea of how cold water could get until he took his first shower in the winter.

Felix was constantly on the phone, checking on his network of friends and family in Puerto Rico.Felix (It is unusual for Laura and Felix to travel anywhere now that they’ve retired.) Felix is the facilitator, the engineer of his social circle. His areas of expertise include car repairs, cell phone bills, and baseball, particularly the New York Mets. He also knows what most things should cost and was surprised that the Burger Kings in the US mainland charge more than the ones in Puerto Rico. He appeared to know to the penny what he should have been paying.

Labor Unions. Felix recounted his experience at his first job as an adult. He was working at a factoria in New York City and eventually ended up as the shop steward, even though he did not speak much English. (He still doesn’t.) During some kerfuffle he was fired and he filed a complaint with the New York Labor Commission. When they investigated, according to Felix, they discovered that the owner of the factoria was also the head of the labor union. Felix was always a union man; he believed companies always took advantage of Puerto Ricans and blacks.

Economics. Felix eventually became the treasurer of a social club in New Jersey, Amigos Unidos. He became frustrated by the endless hassle collecting annual membership dues, so he suggested to the club leadership that they drop the dues and rely on bar revenues for income. Most of his colleagues were dubious but, as Felix recounted, his plan worked. They made more profit from the bar than they ever made from membership dues. The club became so profitable that it eventually acquired its own building, which was an overstretch. They also ran afoul of the local liquor commission, which began to impose stricter conditions for a liquor license.

Cemeteries. Perhaps the highlight of Felix’ and Laura’s visit was when we visited Abuela’s and my father’s graves. Abuela is buried at a lovely cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. My mother grieves every time she visits but this time Laura was there to reassure her. Visiting AbuelaMy father is in Arlington National Cemetery, which always makes for an impressive visit. My mother is calmer when she visits my father. She only says the Our Father at his grave and omits the Hail Mary because he was a Protestant.

Felix loves to play cards and claims to be a successful gambler. One day I invited a friend who knew Abuela to come over and play cards with us. Abuela knew her as La Alta Flaca. We played Spanish cards–Briscas, and Felix was a good teacher of the game. He also won.

All in all, it was a good break for Felix and Laura. He left us with his favorite saying: Cuídense que de los buenos quedan pocos. (Take care, because there aren’t too many good ones left.)

When I Said “NO” to Multicultural Awareness Training

Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg have a piece in the New York Times this morning pointing out that:

New research suggests that if we’re not careful, making people aware of bias can backfire, leading them to discriminate more rather than less.

When people were told that women in the workplace suffer from stereotypes, these individuals continued to rate women as “significantly less career-oriented.”

Cue Time Machine!

My mind immediately went back to thirty years ago when I was seven or eight years into my career. In the 1980s, organizations were coming to grips with the “issues” of the multicultural workplace. Mandatory courses on cultural awareness were the order of the day.

These courses only really seemed to have an impact if among the attendees were representatives of minority populations who could speak truth. Through the stories of their personal experiences, they made more concrete the lessons of diversity training. The problem, however, was that many organizations in the 1980s lacked sufficient numbers of women and minorities in their workforce to attend all the courses. So I ended up taking the same course a second time just to ensure that the class had the right “diversity balance.”

And then they asked me to take the same course a third time.

“We need you in the course because you’ll speak up about your own experiences.”

Yup. That’s what I would do. I would tell my classmates about subtle and not so subtle indicators that my coworkers viewed me differently, apparently because of my ethnicity and gender. And when I did that, I felt increasingly uncomfortable. Drawing attention to myself as a Puerto Rican woman just seemed counterproductive. “Yup, there she is complaining rather than concerning herself with the mission”

And so I said no! I wasn’t going to keep making repeat appearances at these courses. Of course organizations desperately needed to foster a workplace that was fair to all, but not by creating circumstances that were unfair to me and many other women and minorities. In a weird way we were being asked to self-incriminate ourselves.

Based on the research that Grant and Sandberg document, I have a hunch that those diversity awareness courses 20 to 30 years ago may have done more harm than good. “If everyone else is biased, we don’t need to worry as much about censoring ourselves.”

Grant and Sandberg suggest one possible solution: leaders need to be explicit about their intolerance of direct and indirect discrimination.

When we communicate that a vast majority of people hold some biases, we need to make sure that we’re not legitimating prejudice. By reinforcing the idea that people want to conquer their biases and that there are benefits to doing so, we send a more effective message: Most people don’t want to discriminate, and you shouldn’t either.