Realistic Optimism is a form of Humanism

The other day I apologized to my son for climate change. The climate is already changing. We are already preparing for it and our decisions are affected by it.  As a parent, I was feeling bad that I hadn't done enough.

The same is true of school shootings. He has a heavily armed guard at his school because the threat of school shootings is - real. And again, we haven't done enough or anything really to reduce that threat.

But then I started talking about how lucky he is really. He lives in a time when the water is basically clean in most places. Yes, we have lead problems in several places, but when I grew up clean water wasn't an expectation.

We had rivers catching on fire when I grew up. We had sewage spilling directly on the beach.

I grew up where the air was so bad - were couldn't play outside some days (smog days), the rain had acid in it. And we had to do duck and cover drills in case of nuclear attack.

My son has clean air. Clean water. And the rain isn't going to dissolve the paint on our cars and rivers no longer catch on fire. Yes, he has to do drills to take cover in case of a shooter, but overall - things have absolutely improved.

And, they can improve more. Americans have accomplished amazing things. We got rid of smog in LA through regulations and created industries to help clean the air. We passed environmental regulations and cleaned up rivers and streams so that they no longer catch on fire. When I told my son about this - he was shocked - how can a river catch on fire? They were so polluted - they did.

Yes, we have a lot of work still to do. But we don't need to be pessimistic. We have already fixed so much. And we have learned from our past mistakes. We just have to summon the will to do these things and keep working to make things better. For everyone.

And I don't just say this for America. My friends in India are dealing with smog, and water pollution and water accessibility. And there are solutions for these things, if we decide to tackle them, they are fixable.

We may not be able to fix climate change, but we absolutely can move to cleaner energy sources, and pollute less and clean more. We have done it before and we can and should continue to do it.

As bad as things may seem, the reality is we aren't doing too bad. We have made a lot of progress and we should not allow our current circumstances blind us to this reality.

If we put our minds to it - we can achieve amazing things.

How to Stay Organized

People are under the impression that I work really hard. The reality is - I'm really lazy. But - I still manage to get a lot of stuff done, so people think I work hard. I don't. I'm just really well organized.

I was recently asked for my top 3 tips to staying organized So here goes.

1. MS Outlook. Is my number #1 tool. Not only do I organize my emails, but I use the calendar and the tasks as well.  I like that it is all integrated into one application. If I get an email that I don’t need to work on today – I can drag it to the tasks and set it for a future date.  I can email follow ups directly from the task. I can drag a task directly to my calendar. I love the drag and drop functionality of it. Bonus is – it’s cloud based so I don’t have to be at my desk to access all my notes, schedule, tasks, etc.  Most people are not aware of all you can do in the Outlook system – and are shocked when I tell them.  The result is – I rarely overbook myself and I am able to keep track of tasks to be done and schedule myself according to my needs. 

2. USE IT!!!!! It isn’t enough to have the tools – you have to use them.  I start every morning going over my – to do list in my computer (MS Outlook).  What is realistic for me to work on today – what isn’t. And I adjust my schedule accordingly. If I have a bunch of stuff to do and I have 2 meetings, I push off what I can’t get to – to another date – confident- it’s not going to get lost on a note somewhere on my desk underneath a pile of stuff. It’s in my dashboard. If someone calls about something, I can search my task list – and find it and move it up if necessary. I find this helps me not keep too many things in my head. I can just focus on what is on my list of things to do – today.  I also look at and arrange tomorrow’s work.  It’s the first thing I do every morning. Most days – I get through my to do list or reschedule my to do list.  I have very little stress relating to this topic as a result – because I USE MY SYSTEM!!!!

3. Making sure family business – is in my business calendar.  My business and personal calendars – are all on one calendar. I don’t keep separate calendars. This helps me prioritize family events and not accidentally – book something when I should be doing a family thing. Work life balance – requires me to treat my personal life – as a business priority – if that makes sense. The right tool  - allows me to do this.

It takes time to get organized, but the benefit of putting in that time, is a lot less stress. Do the work so you don't have to work so hard.

How does humanism help people solve problems?

Humanism encourages a science based approach to solving problems. We look for the real problem we need to solve, we look for the real causes of those problems and we look for real solutions that will really work. Scientific literacy takes work, but it pays off in more effective problem solving.

There are 3 main ways Humanism helps people solve problems. 

Rejection of supernaturalism. A hallmark of the philosophy is that we reject supernaturalism. We do this for mostly pragmatic reasons. If something can’t be proven to work as a solution to a problem then there is no point in us wasting time, energy and money on it. We look for solutions that have proven their efficacy - and so reject supernatural solutions. For instance, is the reason it isn’t raining because of weather patterns beyond your control? Or did a neighbor put a curse on you? How you answer that question may be a matter of life or death. It’s important to get it right. If you think there is a curse, you are going to put your energy into lifting that curse. That is energy probably better spent - on finding other ways to irrigate your fields.

We judge solutions based on compassion. A solution is deemed good if it helps people and bad if it hurts people. We want to create the solutions that do the most good for the most people and do the least harm. We are not looking for solutions to get revenge. We do not look for solutions that help us and hurt our community. We are looking for win win solutions. This focus - tends to yield better results - not just for our community - but for ourselves as well.

We recognize our fellow humans as being fully human. This helps with problem solving because - most of our problems involve other people and the solutions require the help of other people. Treating people with dignity - helps us to avoid common thinking mistakes that result from dehumanizing other humans and discounting their knowledge and perspectives. The result is - we are slightly less likely to fall prey to certain fallacies that involve dismissing knowledge because you don’t like the person sharing the knowledge. Additionally, because we attempt to check our biases, we also do better at including people and making people feel valued and this helps them want to help us collectively solve our problems.

Critical thinking and free thought. Humanists are dedicated to this as a fundamental skill for problem solving.

Rebuilding a Toxic Culture

I have done this and am an expert on how to use behavioral conditioning to make it happen. What follows is both an explanation of how I did it, what to expect when you do and the science of why this works. If you like what you read and need help at your company - contact me! I provide training on how to do this.

I used to work at the LASPCA. We had a toxic volunteer and staff volunteer relationships were beyond horrible. We had 10 volunteers who thought their job was to spy on staff and report them behaving badly. The result was no staff wanted to work with any volunteer. I was brought on board to change that dynamic.

The first thing I did was meet with staff to find out what they wanted help with and would allow volunteers to do. I then wrote volunteer job description for those jobs. These included what exactly was expected, who they reported to. Standard stuff. I then spoke with each of the 10 volunteers to find out if they were willing to volunteer in these new roles working with staff on work the staff needed help with. All but one were excited as they wanted to be helpful. Those volunteers were placed with staff mentors to work with them and alongside them. There were only a few staff members willing to take this on at this time. That was fine. The volunteers were now considered assistants to a staff member.  Once those relationships started flourishing most staff members began asking for help.

I created a volunteer recruitment process where people wanting to volunteer were interviewed, oriented and onboarded and then placed into work. As staff/volunteer relationships improved, I started getting more requests for help from other departments. The process was the same. Create a job description. Recruit in volunteers, orient them, train them and then pair them with a staff member/supervisor. I spent as much time training staff on how to work with volunteers as I did with recruiting in new volunteers.

Within 3 years we went from 10 volunteers and toxic staff/volunteer relationships to 500 volunteers donating ~20,000 hours of time each year. That’s the equivalent of 10 full time staff members.  That’s how much productivity a toxic environment was costing us.

Now – this process wasn’t without it’s hiccups. The one volunteer who did not agree to the new system and new roles had been “in charge” of the volunteers and she did not take kindly to losing her power and being excluded from the shelter. But since she did not agree to the job description, she wasn’t allowed to work with us. She fought it. Recruited in some allies, who were other directors in the organization. She tried to get me fired, failed. And eventually she gave up and went away. It was a rough first year as I got accused of all sorts of really horrible things, none of which were true.

Let’s move on to why this worked.

  1. I created clarity. I wrote down actual job descriptions and made it clear – they worked for and supported staff. 
  2. I made it clear that anyone who didn’t follow the rules would be fired – even if they were a volunteer and I followed thru on that.
  3. I had the support of upper management who hired me in to create this change and when things got nasty – and they got REALLY nasty – I had their support so that the person trying to maintain the old toxic system – would fail.

It’s this last bit that is key and it has to do with how behaviors are extinguished which is the realm of behavioral psychology.

How behaviors are extinguished

When a behavior has been rewarded for a while, in this case a toxic volunteer wielding power over an entire organization, getting that behavior to stop follows a very specific pattern. There have been over 70 years of research on behavioral extinction and every single study shows the exact same thing. There are no counter examples. This is established science.

What happens is that when you remove the reward or withhold the reward, the individual will escalate their behavior in an attempt to get their reward back. If you continue to withhold reward, they will escalate more and more. How bad it gets depends on how long the behavior has been established and how naturally aggressive the individual is.  If the reward does not materialize after this period of sometimes rather intense behavioral escalation, the individual gives up.

This is exactly the pattern that played out in my organization. I removed her ability to get rewarded for her toxic behavior. She was given an opportunity to find a place in the new system, but she refused and fought it. This ‘fighting’ is predicted to occur in the behavioral model. She fought more and more and even tried to get me fired. This is again, consistent with what we expect to see using a behavioral model. But because I had the support of upper management she failed. Upper management did not give into her demands and she was not allowed to regain control over the organization. Upper management treated her with dignity. They investigated all her claims about me diligently. Found they lacked merit and in this way allowed her behavior to “blow out.” And as is predicted when an individual fails to get their reward, she eventually gave up and went away. This took a little under 6 months to accomplish.  From then on – we experienced exponential growth in our volunteer programs adding in a youth volunteer program, a program for people with dual diagnosis, and we even had volunteers working with our law enforcement arm and fundraising and donation processing unit. Basically – all areas of the organization were using volunteers within 3 years.

Rebuilding Expectations

If you want to rebuild a toxic culture, you have to be clear about what your behavioral expectations are. This can be done with job descriptions, but it can also be done with behavioral agreements. What are the behavioral expectations. What is the behavior you want, what is it you don’t want. Make it clear and make it clear that inappropriate behavior won’t be tolerated.  Then, you start enforcing the rules and it is absolutely critical that upper management be ok with letting the people who don’t want to change – go. If they don’t leave – you won’t succeed.

From there – if I am doing a cultural transformation – I actually do it in stages and do it work group by work group. I insulate my first work group so that individuals who do not like the changes in that first group – can’t derail it. And they will try. Once that group is behaving according to the ethical norms I have set, I bring in another work group and help them transform. And again, they have to be protected against the people who are going to try and derail it. Those people might come from within that group, or they might be from outside. Often, it’s outside the group. Once my 2nd group is going well – you usually then get groups asking to be next and asking for help as they see the success that has occurred in the initial groups and the rest becomes easier as a new cultural norm is established.

But again – there are going to be people who fight this and try to derail the process by accusing the change agent of – some pretty horrible things. Those must be investigated to provide clarity and dignity to the process. But if the change agent is acting ethically then the change process must not be derailed by those attempts to stall it. Eventually – the hold outs will either change and adopt the new processes and ethical norms or they will be asked to leave or they will leave on their own accord making accusations about everyone else being brainwashed or whatever the complaint is.

It is absolutely critical that the change agent has the support to ride of upper management. They become the point person for all the negativity that is thrown at the process and they must be supported to get through this. Failure to do that will cause the change process to fail.

Learning more:

To learn more about me and what I teach - check out my bio and courses offered at: and do contact me if you need help with this.

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