illustrations Science

The positive impact of negative feedback

You are probably a creative.

If your principle source of income is the result of stuff that comes out of your brain more than work that you do with your body, you’re a creative.

I work with a lot of creatives. Designers, writers, speakers, filmmakers, marketing geeks, thinkers, tinkerers, teachers, pastors… and everything in between. These are people who depend on what comes out of their brain on a daily basis.

Likewise, I spend a lot of my time needing to not only understand how I think but also those who think mostly with the right hemisphere of their brain.

In short, I want to know how to get the best creative output from my creative efforts. And, tactically, I need to know how to get the very best out of my creative friends.

The Lie about Negativity

Our society has bought into positivism. I think of it as the Oprah-fication of America.

I recently saw an appeal from a dad looking for a basketball league for his son which actually kept score. In lots of children’s sports leagues every child is told they are a winner just for trying and every kid is a given a trophy at the end of the year. They are fed a lie that it’s OK to be mediocre, that everyone is a winner, that keeping score isn’t helpful, and that the point of sports is exercise and not the pursuit of victory.

What a load of crap. That’s not how life works and that’s not what makes sports great. We are flat out lying to those children in a false belief that we need to positively reaffirm every effort. Some kids should quit basketball at a young age because they suck at it. They should move on to something else instead of being handed a trophy simply for trying. It’s actually cruel to reward someone for doing poorly because you are telling them they are better than they are.

Adults do the same thing. Millions of people believe that if they just looked at the positive side of things and denied the impact of incompetence or incapability or just a flat out lack of talent, that they should always go for what they are dreaming about and it will come true.

The education bubble is built on this lie. Every student should not go to college. But there is an entire industry of people lying to students and telling them that every child should go to college. Universities rake in billions of dollars in student loans every year as a direct result of this lie.

The truth about negative feedback

I’ve been reflecting on the research of Nancy Andreasen, a University of Iowa neuroscientist, who has researched the role of negativity in creatives. One powerful insight, and one that really helped me, was an experiment conducted to show the positive impact on the output of creatives given negative feedback. (Discovered this in this book by Wired contributor Jonah Lehrer.)

In one experiment a group of subjects was asked to first make a presentation about their career ambitions and then, after receiving feedback from a group of students, create a collage about their career choice. The students were asked to give some subjects positive feedback and others were told to seem disinterested, display negative body language, and verbally give negative feedback.

Interestingly, those subjects given negative feedback in the first step created much better collages in the second step than those who got positive feedback initially. The negative feedback made some subjects work far harder to produce a far better end product.

That’s exactly true in my work as and with creatives. This is why we consistently seek out peer review of our work. That’s why we suffer through a self-editorial and formal editorial process. And that’s why I rarely accept a first effort.

Again, lets give up being nice for the sake of being kind.

What do you think? Is receiving negative feedback making you better?


The Lies We Buy Into

Laying in the grass in our front yard last night, Paul and I were chatting about his 9th birthday. His birthday turned out great. Since his party is this weekend we just did the family thing on his actual birthday. After dinner, he blew out the candles on his birthday cake and opened his presents. He was surprised and smiling and happy.

At some point in the conversation I asked Kristen if she remembered what she got for her 9th birthday, 27 years ago. She didn’t remember.

Then I thought about that question for myself.

June 2nd, 1985

It dawned on me. On June 2nd, 1985, I got baseball cards for my 9th birthday.

I was into baseball cards as a kid. I saved all of my money to buy great big boxes of them at the comic book store in downtown Mishawaka, Indiana. I would open each pack in the box and categorize each card by team before cataloging them in a great, big box. I’d take the best cards and put them into a folder. Sometimes I traded them but mostly I just held onto them.

And on my birthday for a couple of years I got a full set of Topps baseball cards. I had full sets from 1984 – 1988.

And I still have all of them. I still have full sets from 1984 – 1988. I still have my precious binder from when I was a kid. And I still have that box of carefully categorized cards, complete with my 9 year old handwriting of each teams name.

Why do I still have them? Because I still believe a lie about baseball cards.

I believe that one day they will have value again. And that belief has lead me to hold onto them for 27 years.

They moved to Germany and back with me in 1992. They went to college with me in 1994. They’ve moved with Kristen and I several times in my married life. Three times I have paid to put them in a a moving truck and shipped them across the country just so they could sit in my garage again.

And all of it goes back to a single conversation I had with my dad when I was a kid. He said his mom had sold his baseball cards at a garage sale and he wished he still had them, they were worth some money.

My dad didn’t lie to me. He was telling the truth. But it was me that convinced myself that I could never depart with these things.

Trust me, Don Mattingly’s rookie card will never have the same value as Mickey Mantle’s. In fact, of the thousands of cards I have I’m positive that none of them are worth more than $5 individually.

So why do I keep them? Why don’t I just toss them out or put them on Craigslist? Why don’t I just give them to Paul & Jackson to play with?

Because I believe a lie that one day I’ll need them. I believe that one day, if I don’t have them, they will be worth a lot of money and I’ll be sad that I didn’t listen to my dad.

That lie defies logic because I believe it.

More than baseball cards…

I’m a smart guy. I make good decisions. And I still fall into the trap of believing some lies in my life. I can look at all of the evidence, I can know that the belief is silly, stupid even, but I just can’t kick it.

When someone lies to you, it hurts. But when you lie to yourself? It’s a trap.


Simple Pleasures

SAN DIEGO, CA – A 36 year old man was seen in front of his Rolando neighborhood home this morning playing in the sprinklers. Wearing only his pajamas and an ear-to-ear grin the man could be heard giggling for blocks. Neighbors reported that the man is also seen regularly walking with his dog, baby, and a woman they perceive to be his wife in the evenings. The status of the man’s mental health is unknown. 

Busted. Guilty as charged. I confess. That’s me!

There are some things in life that I label as simple pleasures. And playing in the sprinklers (er, I mean “adjusting them“) is one of them. As our little garden has expanded so has the need to water things. Almost 4 years ago I installed a simple drip watering system for a small patch of our garden in the backyard. As our garden has expanded so has the drip system. It now covers most of the backyard, delivering prescribed amounts of water to various plants all over. And this spring we decided to try to keep our grass a more socially acceptable yellow/green combo instead of the yellow/gray color we’ve accomplished in previous dry summers. And to make gardening just a little more manageable we installed fancy timers for both the front and back yard which deliver exactly 5 minutes of water to all plants simultaneously every 12 hours.

So, when the battery on the timer needed to be changed this morning and one of my spray patterns in the front was a little off… it became an opportunity to play.

Simple pleasures

  • Coffee in the morning, tea in the evening
  • Playing in the sprinklers
  • Walking the dog
  • Holding hands
  • Going to see a movie
  • Wandering through a bookstore
  • That first breath of salty air when you park by the ocean or the deep pine smell of camping in the woods
  • Custom styling the CSS and functionality of a WordPress plugin

These are some of my simple pleasures. Things that make my soul giggle. Things that, if I stop doing long enough to start being, make life a little more enjoyable.

What are your simple pleasures? (Um, keep it PG!)

Photo credit: Summertime in Pig Town by Liz Kasameyer via Flickr (Creative Commons)


My favorite podcast, The Moth, has a closing tagline that I love. “Live a story-worthy life.

Each of our lives are story-worthy. Most just choose not to tell it.

Inner discourse interests me. Each of us tells ourselves a first-person story about ourselves all day, every day. (Though sometimes a persons inner-dialog is really in the 3rd person, which is equally interesting.) Each human can look back,  start at the beginning, and articulating memories and impressions in varying degrees of detail. Facts are painted and repainted to fit our story. And as time goes on we struggle to distinguish between what really happened and what we told ourselves has happened. Many of us have completely re-written the inner discourse so that they are the hero or they are the victim or somewhere in between.

Facts are just part of our memories mashed potatoes of recollection and story. But the tone and emphasis on positive and negative implications of those facts are the gravy which covers our memory.

I’m not a psychologist– but I understand that a task for a therapist is to help shape & help repair the inner dialog.

Helping a person recognize that moment-by-moment they are telling themselves a story– And retraining those super secret, almost supernaturally uncontrollable thoughts in your mind can truly transform you from the inside out.

What I find truly fascinating is that each of us tells our story with our very lives. While we simultaneously tell ourselves a story about ourselves we are writing a real-life story about ourselves by our actions.

Here’s the point: We don’t get to control what happens to us. In our lives the amazing comes as often as the tragedy. We don’t always get to choose the circumstances. Sometimes evil happens. Sometimes the circumstances are all against you. And many time no one would blame you if you listened to the advice of Job’s wife… “Why don’t you just curse God and die.”

You see, we always get to choose our physical, emotional, and spiritual response.

You always get to write your response. You are the author of your story.

The Apostle Paul speaks to this so well:

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.




Why don’t I just take off my pants? This is getting ridiculous.

These words rank right up there with some of the dumbest things I’ve ever said. I’d lost my cool and was about to pay the price with even more frustration.

It was November 12th, 2001. I’d just completed a 6-day trip to Germany to speak at a retreat for high school students on an American military base. I’d spoken 11 times in those 6 days, slept on couches and in sleeping bags, fought through a flu, and was completely exhausted and ready to go home.

What I didn’t know was that as I was checking in for my flight that morning from Frankfurt to Chicago, 260 people had just lost their lives in an accident over Rockaway, New York. Initial suspicions were that this was a terrorist act.

Sir, since the time you acquired this bag, has it ever left your possession?

I’ve had it about 3 years. I’ve let some friends borrow it in that time. But I packed it myself last night.

The American Airlines employee at the counter didn’t speak English very well. I couldn’t place her accent, but it was clear she was from Eastern Europe and not Germany.

She asked again, “Sir, at any time since you’ve acquired this bag, has it ever left your possession?

Yes, I’ve had it for 3 years. Of course it has left my possession. Do you speak German?

She asked me in German. Honestly, it was just as oddly phrased in German as it was in English, the verbs were all out of order. Her German was just as bad as her English. With my travelers smile,  I tried to explain the same thing. I’d owned it for 3 years, during that time friends had borrowed it, but during this trip it had always been in my possession. I packed it myself.

Wrong answer. Too many tries. She took my ticket and my passport and walked away.

She came back with an armed man in a uniform. Awesome. It was going to be that kind of day. For some reason I always have problems at Frankfurt airport.

20 minutes later, with my large internal frame backpack completely dismantled, the man in the uniform was finally satisfied that I was just a tourist in bad need of doing his laundry and not someone too dangerous to fly. And the airline employee gently handed me my boarding pass and passport.

You could feel the tension walking through the terminal that morning. I had no idea that a plane had crashed. All of the TVs had mysteriously been turned off and there were security personnel everywhere. While I was starving and hoping for a final dose of German coffee and some pastries before flying home, all of the shops were closed. I guess I assumed it was a holiday or something.

So I went through security. The line was painfully slow. I was randomly selected for a secondary screening where another armed security guard went through my carry-on… like 20 minutes after it had just been searched.

Then, about 200 yards after going through security, they had set-up another checkpoint. This one manned exclusively by armed security guards. There wasn’t anything you could have done between the two security checkpoints. All of the shops were closed. And even the bathroom doors were locked. So we went through security a second time. (By this time, some of my fellow travelers had gotten calls from home, and we were all talking about what had happened in New York.) Just like the first time, I was randomly selected to go through secondary screening.

Then, I walked the rest of the way through the airport– eerily quiet and empty– to my boarding area just to go through security a third time outside of the gate. And it was at the third time that those famous words popped out of my mouth. Waiting in line to have my stuff searched for the fourth time in an hour, I’d lost my cool, and I kind of was serious about taking my clothes off. What else could they possibly find that hadn’t been checked already?


In our jobs, marriages, and our faith, we each encounter these checkpoints all the time. We encounter a simple quandary: Are you in or are you out? In almost every instance this is a private, internal choice. We rarely are asked to verbalize these checkpoint decisions. Often our body, actions, and assumption carry us forward even if we are one-step-closer or one-step-further away from our faithfulness to the task at hand as a result of these checkpoints.

Sometimes these checkpoints occur rapidly and sometimes they occur gradually. But if you think about it you experience hundreds of these in hundreds of categories each day.

But sometimes we need to verbalize big decisions. We are getting married. We are changing careers. Or we are walking away from our faith.

Those decisions seem huge– even brash. As friends, we encourage friends to slow down, to not rush into it, and to consider other options without really realizing that there have been hundreds of smaller decisions which brought them to this space.

As a leader, boss, or friend you’ll never see the hundreds of checkpoints leading to a decision where they’ve stepped away. Checkpoint-by-checkpoint they’ve made small decision after small decision which leads to a logical conclusion. As they stand at the next checkpoint they think…  I just don’t want to do this anymore. So they don’t.

Conversely, when we force a decision on people who aren’t ready we are making it easy for them to say no. Think about being asked to buy a car or house or get engaged or become best friends or even giving your life to Jesus too soon?

It might be where you are headed, but if it’s too many checkpoints too soon, most people will opt out. And along the way you’ve added a whole lot more checkpoints which move them backwards when your hope is to move them forward.

 Photo credit: Richard Lemarchand via Flickr (Creative Commons) 

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Three Kinds of Dreamers

There are three kinds of dreamers.

  1. Dreamers who go for it.
  2. Dreamers who love their dreams but keep them in the five inches between their ears.
  3. Dreamers who live in regret of dreams unfulfilled.

The only difference between the first one and the other two? The first person is dumb enough to go for it. 

  • Put the crash helment on.
  • Skip the days off.
  • Ignore your critics.
  • Dip into savings.
  • Forget looking stupid.
  • Tell your boss to stick it.

Put your hands in the air, like you just don’t care, and boogie.


Death by information

We have objectified the accumulation of facts and ideas. Likewise, we have marginalized the importance of applying learning to our everyday lives.

Like any objectification, this endless accumulation of information is deeply rooted in a perversion.

Dozens of times per week people suggest books I ought to read or movies I need to see or hour-long sermons I need to hear. And I think… when am I supposed to do all of this reading or watching? And what am I supposed to do with all of that?

And let’s say I read that book or watch that movie or listen to that sermon? Doesn’t James say that if I learn something and don’t do anything with it… I’m a fool?

Readers are lifelong learners.” I’ve heard that my entire life. If we are talking about educational material or books that you’ll actually apply to your life right now, I can give you a nod there. 100% agreed.

But reading for the sake of reading is just entertainment. It’s of the same value as watching TMZ or playing video games or something else you do to relax alone. It’s just that reading books carries a stigma of being “smart” while playing 6 hours of Madden 2012 carries a stigma of wasting time.

But acquiring information for the sake of acquiring information without any intent to do something with it? I just don’t think that’s healthy.

Want to know what’s really important? Doing something. Want to know what will really change you? Get involved in something local. Want to be an expert on something? Give up the learner posture for a posture of try-er. Want to honor your pastor? Don’t just take notes– do something. Want to make the most of all that money you spent on college? Give up the acquisition of information and lean into the application of what  you know.


Do Do Do… Why Do I Do What I Do?

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

Romans 7:14-20

Saturday? How did you get here again? I did great on Monday and Tuesday, went to bed with most of my todo list under control Tuesday night and I wake up and it’s Saturday again? 

Paul captures my week so well. Though, I can’t say my issue was a particular sin. More like, a whole lot of good stuff got in the way of what I needed to do this week.

And so it’s Saturday. Here we go again. Next weeks tasks are looming over my head while last weeks tasks remain mostly undone.

Deadlines. Expectations. Obligations. Hopes. Friendships. Promises. Emails. Reminders. Push notifications. Ra-ah!  

I know what I wanted to do last week and I know what I needed to do. But I did what I did and not what I needed to do and now I’m stuck needing to do what I don’t want to do, work through the weekend to catch-up.

But when I do that– who pays the price? Not the ones who deserve to pay that price. (My family.) So I don’t do it and I’ll just deal with being behind on Monday.

Welcome to my world.

Can you feel me? 


What about daddy?

This is the best rice commercial in the history of the world.

Reminds me of this story. And I think it even sheds some illumination on the father in Luke’s story.

Yes, the son returned home. Yes, the son had done wrong.

But the father’s heart had changed, too.

It doesn’t matter how far you’ve gone. It doesn’t matter what pig pen you’re eating from. It doesn’t matter what bed you find yourself sleeping in. The loving-kindness of your Dad is always ready to partner with you and start over.

You might not be able to go home to your real dad. But you can always come Home.

Christian Living illustrations

The Fulcrum is Jesus

Sometimes I sit in church with the realization that for a lot of folks they think this is the center point of their walk with Jesus. As if, somehow, the fulcrum of the Christian life is attending a worship service?

We’ve been raised (Christian language: Discipled) to make church that “can’t miss” thing of the Christian walk. In evangelicalism, the practical disciplines of the spiritual life are:

  • Go to church
  • Regular Bible reading
  • Daily prayer

If you want bonus points:

  • Join a small group
  • Serve in a ministry of the church

Don’t get me wrong. I do most of those things on a regular basis. And these are very good expressions of the Christian life.

But these are the peripherals of the Christian life, not the fulcrum.

The church is not the centerpiece of your walk with Jesus. That’s idolatry.

You can’t sit in church and say… “YES! This is it.” Attending church (passive action) isn’t it anymore than watching football on TV is the same as playing in the game. (active participation) Jesus didn’t come so you could go to church. He didn’t tear the veil between Levites and the people so you could watch church. That’s a foundational misunderstanding in the person and action of Christ.

Your load... is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. That’s so much more than church involvement, reading your Bible, praying, being in a small group, and serving in the church. There’s nothing wrong with those things, but they are too cheap and easy to be “it.

What Jesus describes is all encompassing. Like two lovers in the first 90 days of their relationship! 

Your output… is to love your neighbor as yourself. The output of your walk with Jesus can’t just be church involvement. It’s can’t be about you and your learning. It can’t be about serving at the church. That’s not what Jesus said was the output.

According to Mark 12, the output of loving God with everything is loving your neighbors. (You know, the people next door.)

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Mark 12:27-31