Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Chiggers, Choices and Change

“Why do we have such a hard time changing the way we do things?” a colleague recently inquired as we reflected on various community initiatives and the possibility little had really changed.

I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact we humans are creatures of habit.
For instance, let’s take the reality of chiggers. Every single summer in the Ozarks you are certain to find them if you venture off pavement into tall weeds and grass. If you’re a gardener, you’re bound to encounter them when you brush up against ornamental grasses. Get down on your knees to grub up the crab grass and you’re a goner. Those pesky chiggers seem to leap onto your body and burrow into your skin at any place where clothing restricts. This means you are likely to have an itchy red bump in an area inappropriate to scratch in polite company. If you’ve ever had them, you know what I mean.

So what do chiggers have to do with change? Just this . . .  even though I know a thorough dousing in insect repellant will dispel most chiggers,  nearly every year in early summer I neglect to do what needs to be done until I’ve had a miserable infestation.  Only then do I make a choice to saturate myself in insect spray before venturing again into the great outback of my backyard. You think I’d learn to choose this option earlier—maybe it’s just my disgust for DEET, but I usually don’t. Like most people, I appear to have a proclivity to persist in what I’ve always done. Only when, once again, the itching become intolerable do I swear I will never, ever again fail to respect the mysterious, invisible chigger.

In the same way it seems to me we don’t change some of the approaches we use to solving problems in our lives or in our community because we find change awkward and uncomfortable. It’s hard to see solutions from a perspective different than our own. It’s uncomfortable to adopt unfamiliar strategies and innovative ideas. We prefer to label our continued efforts as “persistence” and insist this is a worthy goal, Streep and Bernstein, authors of Mastering the Art of Quitting,” suggest something different. They maintain, “People who ultimately reach their goals have to do more than learn from their failures . . . and have to give up on their failed goals fully and completely” (p. 4).

Years ago in a county far away I met with a group of leaders to determine what might be done about the problem of teen pregnancy in our community. An agency worker from a neighboring county declared, “I could be in your county more than one day a week if you had more pregnant and parenting teens. You need to find them.”
It struck me as odd. What if we did not have more pregnant and parenting teens? Was that a problem for us or for her?

It makes me wonder. What kind of assumptions could we be making about certain problems that might actually be making them worse? How might we be overlooking the obvious?  Assumptions, like chiggers, are virtually invisible to us, but definitely influence our choices. What uncomfortable action might we consider to protect us from longstanding assumptions, in much the same way DEET protects us from chiggers?  If we want truly meaningful change, we might want to consider that sort of repellent as we continue to address our thorniest issues.

This column originally appeared in the Springfield News-Leader on Thursday, July 3, 2014.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Decision Fatigue

We were walking out of a garden center on the southwest side of Springfield a week or so ago when my Main Man commented on the extensive number and variety of plants available. "When I think about what we used to sell at the garden center where I worked during high school and college," he said,"it's amazing." 

"Do you think people today are better gardeners?" I wondered.

"Probably not," he said. "Today an amateur gardener will attempt to grow more difficult species because they're available. They see them at the store, take them home, and plop them in the ground. They don't know that some varieties have a more difficult time thriving than others. What we sold at Barrett's would be considered just the basics now--petunias, zinnias, and marigolds. Pretty much everyone could make them grow, so it was easier to be successful from the start. I worry that many first-time gardeners today may be discouraged with some of the plants they try and just give up."

I know we were talking about plants, but my husband's remarks caused me to think about something known as "decision fatigue" which occurs when we have to choose from among too many options. In The Paradox of Choice,psychologist Barry Schwartz describes what happened when a supermarket offered customers the opportunity to sample as many varieties of jelly as they liked and purchase them at a discount. One day customers had the opportunity to choose from among twenty-four varieties; the next day they could choose from among only six. On day two, the supermarket sold ten times as much jelly. Researchers noted that when the decision became more difficult, i.e., there were too many choices, the customers bought nothing at all.

Schwartz concludes that too many choices leads to "decision paralysis." Worse than that, it may also contribute to our unhappiness. We struggle with contentment if we believe a better choice may still exist "out there." How is it possible to know if we haven't sampled them all? Eventually we choose, but we're prone to discontent because we are uncertain about whether or not we have maximized our options.

That's the problem with the world most of us inhabit today. Even though we may find the cereal aisle at the grocery store overwhelming, we still appreciate the opportunity to choose. We know the abundance we enjoy is one unavailable to much of the world. At the same time, preoccupation with variety and choice can cripple contentment. Added choice can equal more stress. More opportunities may disable decision-making ability. 

This summer I'm wondering if we might consider constraining our options a bit just to give ourselves a break. I'm wondering if this might be the season to limit the number of activities in which we (and our children) participate. We could creatively choose to restrict ourselves in any number of ways, but here are just a few possibilities:
  • Read only books borrowed from the library.
  • Limit grocery shopping to one supermarket.
  • Eat primarily foods grown locally and purchased at a farmer's market.
  • Focus on vacation options close to home (e.g., within 100 miles).
  • Have at least one or two media-free evenings per week.
We can't eliminate all the stress in our lives associated with decision-making and we probably wouldn't want to do so. At the same time, we can have a saner summer by placing some self-imposed restrictions on the number of options from which we will choose. That's a choice we can make.

Decidedly yours,

Dr. Jennifer Baker

Monday, April 21, 2014

Quitting 3: Avoiding the Sunk Cost Fallacy

"Once I start a movie, I always finish it, even if I don't like it."

"The book really bogged down in the middle and kept getting worse, but I just couldn't bring myself to put it down because I always finish reading something I've started."

"The project wasn't going anywhere. In fact, things were probably getting worse, but I just couldn't quit given the time and energy I had already invested."

Ever heard someone say one of the statements above? Ever said something like it yourself? How many of us have been counseled and coached to finish what we started, even though all the signs aligned to suggest we were going nowhere but downhill? 

 Conventional wisdom is often expressed in the following ways: 
  • Join a team--finish the season. 
  • Take on a project--see it through to conclusion. 
  • Help yourself to the buffet--finish what you put on your plate. 
  • Make an investment in the stock market--hang in for the long haul.                           
The basic rationale  for continuing often sounds something like this: "I've already invested so much in this endeavor that I can't quit, turn back, waiver, or reconsider."

In other words, we base our decision to continue in a particular direction based on what we've already invested--as if we could recoup those resources--rather than on what we will lose if we continue a course of action.

In The Art of Thinking Clearly, Rolf Dobelli summarizes nearly 100 ways human beings embrace irrational thought to their own detriment. One of these ways involves something known as the "sunk cost fallacy," also known as the "Concord effect." Basically this involves the idea that we have a much more difficult time letting go of something in which we've invested a great deal of time, energy, love, or money because we believe "if we stop now it will all be for nothing." It's as if we believe we can somehow recover what we have lost if we continue. The problem is that future effort in a direction going nowhere is even less likely to produce a return on our investment, let alone recover what we've lost.

Dobelli acknowledges there are times when staying the course, is the right thing to do. The decision to continue, though, should be based on the likelihood of reward for future efforts, not on what we've already invested. He cites a number of examples where the "sunk cost fallacy" had a disastrous effect (e.g., the continuation of the Viet Nam War, the failure of the Concord airplane, and any number of ad campaigns or stock market investments).

The decisions you are making likely have much less gravity than a super-sonic airplane or a war, but they are important to you. The next time you're watching a movie that's a yawner, reading a book with a plot going nowhere, or involved in a project with a less than promising outcome, you might just call it quits. While you cannot regain what you've already invested, you can avoid wasting future precious resources on something showing little promise.

Thinking it's time to let go of a few more things,

Dr. Jennifer Baker

Monday, April 14, 2014

Quitting and the Little Red Hen

It probably says something about me that one of the stories I remember most from childhood is that of the Little Red Hen. As the story goes, a little red hen and some of her friends find some grains of wheat. 

"Who will help me plant these grains of wheat?" the Little Red Hen asks the lamb, the cat and the pig.

"Not I!" they all exclaim.

"Then I'll do it myself," she responds. And so she does.

The story continues like this as the Little Red Hen waters the wheat and tills the soil. Eventually she harvests the grain, grinds it into flour, and makes the flour into bread. At every juncture she invites her friends to participate. At every point, they decline until the smell of warm bread begins wafting from the kitchen. Then, of course, the friends happily offer to help eat the bread. 

Declining their offer, the Little Red Hen exclaims, "I shall eat it myself." And, according to the author, "So she did."

I'm fairly certain the book I read in childhood ended here, but a later version I found had a different ending suggesting that the next time the Little Red Hen found some kernels of wheat, her friends all pitched in with the tasks involved so that when the bread was finally ready, they made hot chocolate and shared the loaf among themselves.

Hmmm... I'm not sure how I feel about the later version. It sounds like the author of the updated version was more comfortable with stressing cooperation than consequences. Perhaps this says something about the world today compared to 50 years ago, but that's not the point of this post.

The thing that strikes me here is our propensity to stress perseverance in the face of every obstacle, lack of support and interference. We say this to ourselves and we emphasize it with our children. Consider, for instance, The Little Engine that Could.

In this story, the Little Blue Engine continues to tell himself, "I think I can--I think I can--I think I can ..." and through such positive self talk manages to pull the train full of toys over the mountain.

In The Little Red Caboose, a favorite of my son that I read so often I can almost recite it 30+ years later, the Little Red Caboose "holds tight to the tracks and keeps the train from slipping back down the mountain." Once again, perseverance and determination win the day. 

I'm not saying we should give up on these qualities -- not at all. Without persistence, dedication, sacrifice, and courage, many important achievements would not have occurred. Many of the accomplishments of the American Revolution and the Civil Rights Movement came about because courageous people persisted in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. The same can be said about people like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Mahatma Gandhi.

I am suggesting that because many of us have had a consistent message about the importance of persisting since early childhood, we find it hard to consider other possibilities. And, when we do leave a job, give up on an important project, or let go of a significant relationship we often feel like a failure. We don't experience it as a movement toward success.

Sometimes You Can't Bake the Bread
The truth of the matter is that sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you can't "bake the bread." The story of the Little Red Hen suggests an independent spirit and a get-things-done attitude are the essentials for success, but sometimes there is no wheat to bake. And, unlike The Little Engine that Could, there are times when you can't. You can't bring back a loved one. You can't resurrect a marriage. You can't save the business from bankruptcy. There are times and circumstances beyond our control. To keep trying, holding on, refusing to give up, creates more problems than it solves. Of course, we don't often tell those stories to our children, but we do experience them in real life. One might ask, what would the Little Red Hen have done had she not been able to bake bread? Might she have considered corn fritters or oatmeal muffins? There are other possibilities, but you don't see them when you doggedly pursue only one goal.

Opening up to Options
There's one more thing about the Little Red Hen we might want to consider. Why does she continue to hang out with these questionable "friends?" She continually asks for their assistance, giving them every opportunity to be part of her venture, and they continue to turn her down--rather rudely in fact.

Doesn't it make you wonder about her choice of companions? Why does she persist in returning to people who show her so little respect? Perhaps she doesn't have to quit on her bread-baking project, but she might reconsider who she is asking to help. The lamb, cat and pig haven't proven useful, but what about the dog, cow and goat? Surely there are more than three animals on the farm. But, of course, when we get stuck in a particular perspective, we often find it difficult to envision other options.

I'm thinking about writing a different ending to the Little Red Hen story. The old story says, "'So I'll do it myself.' And so she did."' 

The new story reads, "'So I'll ask someone else to help.' When she found some new friends, they did."'

Rewriting old scripts,

Dr. Jennifer Baker 

Monday, April 7, 2014


When my Main Man suggested I read a book about quitting, I thought he might be trying to send me a not-so-subtle message.

"I'm not a quitter," I said. "I persist. I keep going. I don't give up."

"I know," he said, "that's why you need to read this book."

I started to read the book. I didn't like it very much. It seemed to run counter to much of what I believe about life, living and the importance of persistence. Maybe I just don't like to read things when I feel uncomfortable.

"Keep reading," he said. 

Because I'm not a quitter ... because I'm prone to persist ... I kept reading and/or listening. (Did I mention that I'm a big fan of audio books? This is one of those.)

I'm not quite through with the book, but I have read enough to have come to the place where I can say the authors, Peg Streep and Allan Bernstein, have some worthwhile things to say--things I need to remember which you also may find helpful. Here's a brief overview of some of the highlights.

  • Being able to quit on pursuing some goals is essential to helping you move forward to reaching others. Another way to think about this is the way some of us wallow in failure or what's gone wrong. When we do this, we're stuck. We don't have the freedom we need to move on. According to Streep and Bernstein, "Failing without quitting diminishes the self and often incapacitates our ability to act. Without the ability to give up, most people will end up in a discouraging loop" (p. 4).

    • The happiest and most successful people are those who are able to both persist and quit. They have the ability and wisdom to discern what is needed when.
    • Quitting can be both a healthy and adaptive response when a goal cannot be achieved or life takes you in a direction you had not anticipated.

    When I was in training to be a marriage and family therapist, one of my supervisors told me something I've found very useful. "If you want to help people," he said, "find out where they have a white-knuckled grip on what they think they need to be happy and help them loosen their grip." 

    Notice, he didn't say, "Help them to identify other goals. Help them to find better strategies to reach their goals. Help them persist in the face of overwhelming odds." 

    Rather, he indicated that sometimes, the very fact we are holding on to something so tightly our "knuckles are white" with the effort, we probably need to loosen up, let go ... consider quitting. I know that sounds terrifying to some. I'm not very fond of it myself, which is why I plan to write more on this subject next week.

    Until then, I'd like to note that winter seems to finally be loosening it's grip on all of us. I'm glad and I hope you are too.

    Loosening up,

    Dr. Jennifer Baker

    Monday, March 31, 2014

    Love and Baseball

    I suppose there may be a more ardent baseball fan than J. Fotsch. I've known a few who come close, but I doubt many are his equal. You can hear J. every weekday morning during drive time on Journal Broadcast Group's Power 96.5. That's his "day job," but during the baseball season, J. follows his heart to Hammons Field where he works as the on-field MC for the Springfield Cardinals--the AA affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals. 

    In his personal life, J. is married to MacKenzie. They've been together for a number of years and married for nearly four, so I thought he might know a little something about being a great fan of baseball and how that relates to having a good relationship. 

    Beginning with the basics, I asked how long he had been a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals.

    "Since I was breathing," J. remarked. "I mean, I grew up in St. Louis. My parents were fans. We were always listening to Jack Buck and then Mike Shannon on the radio. I went to Busch Stadium with my dad, with my baseball team, with anyone I could." 

    "So, what makes a good fan," I wondered.

    Look the Part
    "Good fans look the part," J. emphasized. "You know a serious fan when you see one. They have lucky jerseys. I've got a lucky Stan Musial jersey and a lucky Willie McGee jersey. My favorite player is Willie McGee. I know Stan's jersey is lucky because I got to meet and hang out with him for a while and the next year they won the world series."

    "Good fans also have hats. There are a lot of good memories associated with those hats. In fact, even when they're so worn out and tattered my wife won't let me wear them, I save them in a special place. I have a whole box of St. Louis Cardinals hats that I 'retire' when they get too ripped or torn to even be a fishing hat."

    This got me to wondering if happily married people, "look the part." Of course, there's the wedding ring. That symbol is an announcement to the world you have made a commitment to another person. To me, it's sad many people today say that sort of formal commitment doesn't matter. If it's important for a baseball fan to look the part with "team wear" and team colors, then certainly there must be some sort of significance to looking the part in a committed relationship. You could never mistake J. as anything other than a committed St. Louis Cardinals fan. It got me to thinking about the ways we announce that sort of dedication in other areas of our lives.

    Thanks for the Memories!
    When I asked J. to say more about what he meant about the memories associated with his well-worn baseball caps, a big grin enveloped his face. 

    "Wearing the hats, even just looking at them, brings back powerful memories of being a kid in St. Louis, playing ball, being with my family at games and the clip-clop of the Clydesdales as they came on the field. . . Did you know I even had the Clydesdale's song, Here Comes the King from Budweiser, at my wedding? Those memories are that good."

    How important it is to keep happy memories alive in a good relationship. Nearly every day of the year, J. keeps the positive feelings he has about baseball alive with things that remind him of the great times, unique experiences and favorite people he associates with the sport and team. Happy couples do this too. They have "their song." They keep photos on their desk, their screen saver and around their home to help them to recall favorite times together. These serve as powerful reminders of the moments the two of them have shared. It helps keep their love alive on dull, gray winter days when the snow is piling up and it feels like spring will never come. It gives them hope for a new season when they can experience something special together again.

    You've Got to Keep Up with It Every Day
     "So what makes a baseball fan different from someone who loves basketball or football?" I asked. 

    "Being a baseball fan is different," he patiently explained. "With baseball, there are so many games that it's important to keep up with it every day so that you can be knowledgeable about what's going on. It's kind of like a girlfriend. You can't just pay attention once a week. To be a serious fan, you need to know what you're talking about. Things can change quickly. Players change; slumps can happen; there are good and bad streaks; and there are injuries."

    It's rather ironic that J. already knows there are a lot of similarities between being a fan and being in a committed relationship. Both require time, effort and attention to details. You need to pay attention to know what's going on. It's not enough to just tune in once a week to your special someone. According to J., it's an everyday focus and awareness.

    Handling the Off-Season
    Baseball season starts this week, which made me wonder. What does a fan do in the off-season? How does he keep his "love alive" when snow blankets Busch Stadium?

    Jay responded without hesitation. "Oh, there's the MLB (Major League Baseball) network and Cardinals DVDs. I watch past world series championships to bring back the moment. Sometimes I read clippings and stories from the St. Louis Post Dispatch that my family sends me. I like to read stories of famous baseball people. I also like to read about other teams and baseball activities in general." 

    What if people showed that same sort of interest in their relationship? Can you imagine what it might look like if couples showed this kind of enthusiasm for learning when it comes to keeping their relationship strong. Some do. I suspect these champions are the ones celebrating a number of winning seasons as the years roll by.

    The Best Players Have a Short Memory.
    And then J. said what I think was my favorite part of the entire interview. I had questioned why he liked baseball better than football or basketball. "After all," I noted, "lots of people are pretty fanatical about those sports. Sometimes I think baseball is a little slow in terms of action."

    "It is slow," he said, "but in some ways, that's what makes it special. It's all about the anticipation, because it can change at the drop of a hat. Really, it's a game of failure, because statistically you fail a lot more times than you succeed and you have to learn how to bounce back. Even though it's a team sport, sometimes it feels like you're out there all alone. It's more of a mental game than any other sport in that you have to bounce back from day to day. The best baseball players are the ones with the shortest memories because the next day is a new day."

    Wow, I thought, the same seems to be true for the happiest couples I know. Some days life can seem pretty dull or slow, but it can change quickly. In marriage, there are times when you feel like you fail more than you succeed. A lot can go on in your head when you you're in a losing streak of hurts and disappointments. What a difference it can make for those folks who have short memories, who don't hang on to the hurts and and frustrations of the previous day. The happiest couples I know, believe tomorrow is a new day."

    I'm looking forward to a new season. I hope you are too.

    Fanatic about healthy relationships,

    Dr. Jennifer Baker

    Monday, March 24, 2014

    She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy

    Robert Hawkins has been a cattleman for as long as he can remember--his entire life actually. He grew up on a farm and when his father died suddenly while Robert was still a teenager, he carried on the operation with his brother until he was old enough to run the farm on his own. Robert is also in the construction business, but for the purposes of this article, we focused on his skills as a cattleman. 

    Raising cattle is a long-term commitment. I know because I grew up on a farm and have some personal experience with what is required when your livelihood depends on how the livestock are doing. It strikes me that there are certain characteristics that define a successful farmer that may be common to a great relationship. I asked Robert, "What do you think a cattleman needs? What kind of person does he need to be?"

    Take the Long-Term View. The first thing Robert mentioned was patience. He said, "If you don’t make any big mistakes, things usually get better in the long run. You need to be a long-term planner." Robert certainly took his own advice when he met and married Kim. They first met when she was a "skinny little 12-year-old" and he was a teen five years older. "We teased her and made fun of her then," he said, but later on he clearly changed his mind. The two of them have been a couple for 30 years and married for 24. 

    "You’re going to have a bad day, month, or year every once in a while," he remarked, "I only plan on making a profit 3 out of 5 years." 

    Now there's some great advice for a good relationship. Take your time. Be patient. Let things work themselves out. I wonder what a difference it would make if we applied the 3/5 ratio to our marriages. Of course we want it to be sunshine and roses every day, but that's just not realistic. There are those moments, those days, and sometimes even longer when it's necessary to take the long-term view in life and love. Cattlemen know this. We do well to remember it too.

    A compatible partner is key. "It’s hard to survive without a good partner. In farming, she’s not just my wife, she’s a vested partner, a hired hand, and more. We each have multiple roles." With this statement, Robert clearly demonstrates his understanding of the importance of "making the right choice," i.e., taking the time to find a compatible person who shares the same interests. Robert loves farming and he loves Kim all the more because she does too. Had he not chosen carefully, the two of them might be miserable. Even so, sharing this love would not be enough if either of them were tied into rigid role expectations. Allowing Kim the freedom to do a number of things and fulfill a variety of roles is key to their happiness.

    Have similar values. It's one thing to love the idea of country life. It's quite another to actually live it. According to Robert, this is the utmost in importance. He related a recent icy weekend when they had seven calves born during an ice storm. "We were both up until midnight—wet, cold and exhausted—and just happy as could be that we didn't lose any calves. And then, we still had to get up and go to work the next day." 

    "I think it was one of the moments when you realize you married the right woman--when she milks a wild cow to help a baby calf survive. . . . Kim was a city girl who always wanted to be a country girl. The first time I had to help a fallen calf I knew I had struck gold, because she had afterbirth up to her armpits and was as happy as a clam.”

    I wish more couples would give the significance of shared values serious consideration when they are contemplating marriage. Share the same interests and values and you have, as Robert says, "struck gold." It's not enough to find each other fun and attractive. It's much more important that you share the same values and beliefs. That's infinitely more likely to get you through a lot of cold and snowy nights out in the barn-- or other difficult places where couples might find themselves.

    Good Stock:  A good cattleman looks for the proper genetic characteristics. Robert has approximately 100 head herd of the Beefmaster breed. This particular breed was developed by a Texas rancher who combined the Shorthorn, Hereford and Brahman breeds to get the characteristics for cattle that do well in cold winters and the hot, humid summers of Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri. In a similar way, if you want someone who will share similar interests and values, it's important to look for "good stock," i.e., someone with strong character and good family values. 

    Robert agrees. "This makes a big difference when you raise children together. We could have sold our farm years ago, but we could not think of a better environment in which to raise our sons. We have raised three very responsible and well-adjusted young men."

    At the same time, this doesn't mean that Robert and Kim think of and react to the world in exactly the same way. "Kim is a super-sensitive lover of life and she has a very hard time accepting the death of an animal. I’m an old callous cowboy with the idea that 'things die.' She thinks I’m insensitive at times. When we lose an animal, she takes it hard. We approach things differently. I need to remember this."

    I love the way these two think. Perhaps that's why they've been such good hosts and role models for the new and expectant parents who attend our Hatching workshops. Together they bring a measure of tenderness and toughness that makes them hard to resist as a couple.

    In summing up what he knows about farming and relationships, Robert had a few closing thoughts. "Learn to pick your battles," he said, "in business, farming, and relationships. I don’t fight every situation. On a farm, there’s always so much work to do that you have to choose what matters most, like good fences, the health of your cattle and so on. You deal with weeds, rocks, etc. later. We’re very open. We’re not afraid to talk. We bring it out. There’s no skeletons. We concentrate on what is key to success in life and love and get to the rest when we can."

    I knew I liked Robert the first time I met him. Now I know why. He has a great handle on what's important in life and how to keep the main thing, the main thing. Plus, he married a wonderful woman.

    Call me grateful for two terrific role models,

    Dr. Jennifer L. Baker