Gavin’s Friday Reads: Blueprint by Robert Plomin

Plomin is a genetic psychologist. He studies the effect of our genes on who we are.  

We all share 99% of our genes with each other. That’s what makes us human. We share about 97% of our genes with chimpanzees.  It would not surprise you then to know that most of the 99% of the genes we share are controlling things like the fact that we have two arms and two legs are mammals, have a digestive system, etc.

The 1% of our genes that are responsible for all our human variation controls things like eye color and height. that is easy to understand. You would not be surprised to learn it also controls other things like our BMI body mass index.  What might surprise you is the extent to which our genes are responsible for our personality.

It turns out that body mass index is 70% heritable. Diet and exercise and the environment in which we live are a factor but the largest part is genetic.

Our personality is also highly heritable. About 50% of our personality is encoded in our genes.  Plomin studied identical twins adopted at birth and raised apart and found that they are remarkably similar. Children who are adopted show almost no correlation of BMI with their adoptive families but a lot of correlation to their birth parents who they only knew for a few days.

There are literally thousands of genes that give us our personality and many of these genes control other aspects of ourselves also.  

There is another compounding aspect to this.  The nature of nurture. If there are two children in a family they will each get a share of their parents DNA. Therefore they will be different in size and shape and also personality but also alike in some ways.  

You can easily have a child who likes to read and one who does not in the same family. The one who enjoys reading may have been read to more when they were little.  Did the parents treat them differently on purpose?  Not at all.  What happened is that one child asked to be read to and the other found it boring and did not. The parents are actually being modified by their children more than the other way around.  (Like the humorous bumper sticker that reads “Insanity is inherited; you get it from your children”.)  If one child is genetically anti-social the parents may treat them more harshly.  In this case it is not the harsh treatment that made the child anti social.  It is the other way around.  If a child craves affection their parents will spend more time cycling them.

As we go out into the world a lot of random stuff happens to us and there is nothing we can do to control that. However there are a lot of things under our control. Who chooses our friends? We do! Our choice in friends reinforces who we are.

Some people who read this may find it upsetting because afterall getting dealt a genetic hand not only on our sex, skin color, height and weight but also our personality as well seems a bit unfair.  

It does seem unfair that so much that contributes to our outcomes in life was determined genetically at conception. Then we tend to choose the things in life that reinforce our personality differences.  The remainder of what influences us (socioeconomic status and the society into which we were born) is mostly random stuff that we have no control over. Genetic inequality to which is added, the inequality of our circumstances in which we grew up.  

Here is my take on it though.

I think it feels unfair only because we are looking at it through a narrow lens of individual success. Individual selection in a game of survival of the fittest. But what if life is about group level selection. What if we do well because our group does well?  

“If you can find a group that is highly accepting of differences and highly collaborative, where you feel you can openly bring your whole uniquely quirky self to work, you have probably found a group that is and will be successful.”


Take the Olympics as an example. Obviously success in pole vaulting requires a particular body type. Gymnastics is better suited to a person who is a bit smaller. Both of these people need to have little fear of heights though. The Olympics, like life, are not just one sport. We have been dealt a genetic hand of cards and the environment in which we grew up.  But life is complex.  Who is to say at conception which hand is best?

We are group creatures. Our individual success depends on the success of our group and our group’s success depends on having a wide variety of sizes and shapes and personality types in it. Equality is not helpful in group level selection. Individuality is. The only limiting factor in how varied our group can be is that we need to get along and collaborate at least most of the time. A leader determines the extent to which we either hold the space open for and celebrate differences or do not.

It is not so important what traits I have been dealt. What is important is that our group can collaborate well with different individuals.  Making the best use of our differences to help the group.    

If you can find a group that is highly accepting of differences and highly collaborative, where you feel you can openly bring your whole uniquely quirky self to work, you have probably found a group that is and will be successful.  

Groups that are overly concerned and rigid about procedure, dress code, and job descriptions will not do as well.

I heard a talk by a young woman who had just got her masters in business and was hired by a large company who wanted to increase their diversity.  She had a very different ethnic and experiential background. She really needed the job.  She had school loans to pay off. She hated her job!  She was required to comply with the strict dress code and do her work in the same precisely defined way as everyone else. “Why did they hire me?  They could have hired anyone to do this job”!

What I would really like you to take away from this is that each of us is unique.  I can’t help being who I am, and you can’t either.  Neither can that young person you just hired.  Work with the grain of human personality not against it.  A company’s success comes from respect, and collaboration. Instead of trying to control people with rigid job descriptions, encourage job crafting.  Let everyone’s individual strengths come to bear on what we sense needs to be done at this moment in furtherance of our group’s mission.

Cheers for Friday,

Gavin Watson, Chair, Conscious Capitalism Connecticut Chapter

Gavin Watson & Associates

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Gavin’s Friday Reads: Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

This book covers human history over the last 200 thousand years but it is much more than that.It gives great insight into what sort of creatures we are and how we were shaped by evolution.

The reason I picked this book this week is for one particular topic he covers. Our ability to collaborate is based on  our biology.  Our brains reward us intrinsically for the behaviors that benefit our groups.  I discussed this in my reviews of the books The How of Happiness and The Book of Joy. 

However it is not all roses in a garden of Eden.  There are people who take advantage of others and act selfishly.  How do human groups cope with this?

In Sapiens Harari writes about the importance of gossip.  Many organizations attempt to stop their people from gossiping.  Gossiping however is how we humans keep track of who is behaving and who is misbehaving in our tribal groups (or small companies) up to about 150 people. (Dunbar’s number)  When our groups get larger than this we can’t keep track of the bad apples in our group and we either need to split into two smaller groups or we need to find another solution.  

When we invented agriculture we became stationary and we began to live in larger and larger groups numbering in the thousands.  If someone ripped you off in the market place there was a good chance they would get away with it.  It is about this time that for the first time religions emerged with gods who cared about laws, were vengeful,  just, and would hold people accountable in an afterlife.  IE Zoroastrianism.  (Previously gods were mischievous trickster gods or nature gods who might require sacrifices to appease them.)

This belief system in a just and vengeful god and an afterlife was a useful thing.  If I know that you also believe in the same vengeful god then I know I can trust you, and if you cheat me, I know that in the afterlife you will get what is coming to you.  This allows the economy to operate more smoothly.

Our belief in our currency is a similar thing.  A $20.00 bill has value because most of us believe it does.  If most of us now believe it is only a piece of paper (which objectively it is) then it is just a piece of paper.  

Only humans can do this.  We are the only creatures who can create and share a fictional belief system that can promote cooperation of millions of individuals.  You are not going to convince a chimpanzee to give up a banana for a $20.00 bill.  It is not possible for 10,000 chimpanzees to gather peacefully in a stadium to hear a speech or attend a ceremony either, but humans can do this because we can believe in ideas and these ideas can unite large numbers of us.

“You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.”

Yuval Noah Harari

What we have lost track of is how many other “fictions” like this we currently depend upon and believe in, and how dangerous a lack of belief in those fictions can be if they are undermined and too many of us decide they are no longer true.

It was not long ago that most people believed in the divine right of kings.  Then overnight we thought that was just a silly idea and we chose to believe in government by the people instead.  Democracy, and Human rights, are just as much “fiction” as was the divine right of kings. Objectively no god endowed us with inalienable rights.  THere is no sovereign god protecting our democracy.  The only way these rights are “true” is if most of us believe it is true.  These truths are “self evident” only because we all believe it.

When a group of people undermines our basic beliefs and “faith” in our system by ignoring evidence, spreading lies, and engendering “false” beliefs for their own selfish aggrandizement they are literally taking apart our society.  There is nothing, no institution or system to prevent its collapse.  We believe the system is strong and can protect itself but that is not true.  (hundreds of societies have collapsed in the past)  As we have seen recently (I wrote all of this before the insurrection in the capitol building which just makes it more obvious) if it was not for a handful of people with hard facts in hand and moral spines in a few key positions, our democracy would already be over, or on life support.  These people have performed heroically under a lot of pressure from very powerful people.  Our society is still under attack and I am afraid it will continue to be for a long time.  

We need to wake up and realize how fragile our democracy and freedoms are. 

Freedom of speech is a value we all hold dear.  Along with the good of being able to speak freely to authority comes the downside of people freely being able to spread false information and blatant lies.  However opinions are one thing and facts another thing entirely.  We may not be able to legally shut down these lies but we can speak up and reach out to others we know who have bought into the lies. 

To change a person’s point of view you need to be respected by them.  Therefore the only expedient way out of this is for the leaders of these groups to have the decency to now speak truth to their followers.

Cheers for Friday,

Gavin Watson, Chair, Conscious Capitalism Connecticut Chapter

Gavin Watson & Associates

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Gavin’s Friday Reads: The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky

Lyubomirsky is a professor and a researcher at the University of California Riverside.

All human beings want to avoid pain and suffering and we all want to find happiness.  How do we find happiness?  This book is about 20 years of scientific research around finding sustainable authentic happiness.

In her book she shares her research and the research of others in the field of Positive Psychology.  Sustained authentic happiness does not mean that you can do something once and be happy forever.  It means that if you continue to practice these things you will continue to maintain a higher level of happiness.

There are three contributing factors to our happiness.

  1. Our present circumstances.  Did you just get a puppy?  Did your cat die last week?  Did someone unfriend you on Facebook?  These are the somewhat random things that happen to us that we spend a lot of time obsessing about.  We think if only I had this pair of shoes, or if only that person would… then I would be happy.  These things only account for 10% of our overall happiness.  We need to spend less time on these things.  A new big screen TV will make us happier for a while but it will quickly fade.
  2. DNA.  Our genetic coding is responsible for a whopping 50% of our happiness.  (at least 50% of our personality also but that is another book) We all live on a spectrum and have a happiness setpoint we naturally gravitate back to.  This is called hedonic adaptation.  We all know some people who are like Tigger.  They bounce out of bed in the morning and are ecstatically happy nearly all the time.  We also know people like Eeyore.  They could have won the lottery yesterday but today, paying the taxes on their winnings is all they can think about. These people can’t help the DNA hand they have been dealt and neither can we.  Just recognizing the impact of our DNA and accepting ourselves for who we are is the best we can do on this.
  3. The good news is that the remaining 40% of our happiness is within our control.  This 40% is what the book is about.

“Thus the key to happiness lies not in changing our genetic makeup (which is impossible) and not in changing our circumstances… but in our daily intentional activities.”

Sonja Lyubomirsky

Lyubomirsky explains proven strategies for sustained authentic happiness; Gratitude, Cultivating Optimism, Avoid Over Thinking and social comparison, Acts of Kindness, Relationships, Coping Strategies, Forgiveness, Living in the present/flow experience, Savoring life’s Joys, Authentic Goals, Religion and Spirituality, Care of your body, and meditation.

As she explains not all of these are for everyone. She suggests that you just try the ones that feel right for you. 

She goes into each one in depth. She shares the research and findings and her own experience.   

As an example, here is a quick look at Gratitude.

Due to the exhaustive, exacting research, we know that practicing Gratitude really works.  However, research shows that while writing a gratitude list is good you can do better. Optimally you should not count your blessings every day. The optimal frequency for most people is once a week.  Ideally you should do this with a gratitude partner. Someone who you team up with (like an exercise partner). You would each collect the things you are grateful for over the week and then the two of you share them with each other. 

Even better is a Gratitude Round, a practice we began at work first in our maintenance department years ago.  Each week on Friday morning after we had discussed the plans for the day, about 10 mechanics and I would do a Gratitude Round.  There is no pressure, it is entirely optional (I just explained it and I held the space open for it to happen).

Sure, it can feel a bit awkward at first but someone will start and eventually it can become a regular expected thing that people look forward to.

People who wanted to could thank someone else in the group for something they did during the week.  Maybe someone shared their knowledge, maybe someone gave a helping hand, or brought in a birthday cake, or cleaned the shop, or reorganized the parts or accomplished a particularly difficult job for the first time.  This weekly practice took just a few minutes once a week but gradually changed the dynamic between mechanics.  People became more generous with their knowledge and looked out for each other more.  It became more of a caring community.  People would freely volunteer to try to fix something they had no prior experience with.  (psychological safety) Others would quickly share some tips, or volunteer to help them out in case they got stuck.

We did other gratitude related things, we had a “Compliments and Accomplishments” white board in the lunch room so that people could write a note to someone thanking them for something or sharing an improvement that had been made.

If you read the “Book of Joy” you would immediately see the perfect overlap of Lyubomirsky’s research and the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu’s 8 pillars of Joy; Perspective, Acceptance, Humility, Humor, Forgiveness, Compassion, Generosity, and Gratitude. 

When multi millennium old religious, spiritual, and philosophical traditions align perfectly with modern scientific research it is a good sign we have discovered the truth of Authentic Sustainable Human Happiness.

Cheers for Friday,

Gavin Watson, Chair, Conscious Capitalism Connecticut Chapter

Gavin Watson & Associates

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Gavin’s Friday Reads: The Book of Joy by The Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams

This book is set in the framework of these two great friends The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu getting together, possibly for the last time.  Douglas Abrams knits the narrative together as these two old friends share their wisdom with their characteristic humility and humor.  

They draw a distinction between the superficial happiness of external things and deep Joy.  If happiness is reliant on external circumstances, it is not true joy.  Joy is the happiness that comes from inside us, from our choice of perspective, and from intrinsic rewards.

Desmond Tutu describes his belief in what he calls “self corroborating truth” when many different fields of knowledge point to the same conclusion.  Indeed when Positive Psychology research and Evolutionary Psychology point to the same truth as millennia-old spiritual traditions both Buddhist and Christian, and timeless philosophies we are most likely on the right track.

Self Corroborating Truth gets me excited.  I see these same connections between this book and many others that I have read.  Which should be no surprise.  These books are all about us humans.

“The meaning of life is Happiness (Joy) that’s the easy question.  The hard question is what makes Happiness?  A big car?  A fancy house?  Or a kind and compassionate heart?”

Dalai Lama

There are 8 pillars of Joy described in the book.  Perspective, Humility, Humor, Acceptance, Compassion, Generosity, and Gratitude.  They are very similar to the things that Sonja Lyubomirsky (a researcher in the field of positive psychology) describes in her book “The How of Happiness”, as the essential things that if practiced on a regular basis lead to true lasting happiness.

From an Evolutionary Psychology perspective, we are descended from ancestors who lived in highly collaborative groups.  (The non-collaborative were less successful evolutionarily and died out)  Can you imagine a group of people working effectively together without Humility, Humor, Forgiveness, Compassion, Generosity, or Gratitude?  Think about it for a minute and try to imagine it.  Leave out just one of these pillars of Joy and a human group would be in serious trouble.

Turn the question around and imagine a group abundantly full of these things.  How much would you want to be part of that group?

Evolution has baked these Pillars of Joy into us.  When we do generous things or we express gratitude to someone, our brains reward us with the feeling of Joy as an intrinsic reward. We feel Joy when we are compassionate or when we see someone else in the act of being compassionate or even when we just hear about an act of compassion because it was and still is essential for our group survival.  It is our true human nature, These 8 pillars of Joy bring us together.  When our group lacks these we feel uncomfortable and may leave that group.

The first Pillar is Perspective.  This is about how we choose to view ourselves in our world.  It is related to our awareness of our Purpose. In addition to the 8 pillars of Joy there are of course other things that are intrinsically rewarding, like learning and teaching, for example.  

This year has highlighted the issue.  When we have a perspective that pits not wearing a mask as an individual rights and freedom issue that is more important than human compassion and generosity, compassion for exhausted health care workers and people who are not in good health it leads to catastrophic human loss.  Our ancestors were successful because they put the larger group’s needs ahead of their personal and family’s desires.

If we continue down the path of material goals, extrinsic rewards, and selfishness not only will we be following a path of destruction, we will not find the Joy in life that is waiting there for us.

If we humans are going to make it for the next thousand years or so it will be due to these 8 Pillars of Joy and the other intrinsically rewarding things that make us truly human.  It will be because we put compassion and generosity before selfishness.  If our descendants are here 1000 years from now It will be because we learned to put the needs of all humanity and our planet ahead of our own desires, and our tribe’s, and even our nation’s desires.

We will need to believe in a perspective and a higher purpose that includes not only our families and those close to us but all of humanity and all living things.  We will need to recognize these intrinsic rewards as our path to Joy and to saving our planet and ourselves.

Cheers for Friday,

Gavin Watson, Chair, Conscious Capitalism Connecticut Chapter

Gavin Watson & Associates

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