Monday, December 21, 2009

Confusion in Your Life and Mine, Part 2

Part 2 of Confusion in Your Life and Mine
In the first post the information on confusion dynamics did not address personal confusion in detail. Today I want to discuss just a few of the main sources of personal confusion; these sources are somewhat similar to those in the first post,but apply more to ordinary life.
1. Overload
Too much information floods too many of us. You know your own flood, and you have probably developed some coping tactics to survive it. You may write notes, or use an organizer either on paper or in a computer or hand-held device.
Does that work? To a point. But most people reach saturation/overload and need to escape. They go for a walk or a run if their neighborhood is safe at that moment. They meditate, if they know how and have a place and time for practice.
They may use one or another drug or substance.
You can list some of the ways you escape.
As you know, some coping tactics don't work well in the long run. Drugs and drinking can cause problems. Meditation needs careful support--from yourself and those around you.
So there may come a time when overload beats you down: too many deadlines, too many emails, help!
So you give up trying to cope, either temporarily or permanently (as by dropping a course or quitting that job.)
But sooner or later, some other source of overload looms. You start coping again. Or you get overwhelmed.
Here is the key idea
Too often the way people cope with any source of confusion--such as overload-- makes that source worse, or fails to reduce it. In other words
Sources-->;Confusion-->;Ineffective Coping--Worsen (or fail to reduce) Sources-->Ineffective Coping-- >on and on.
You may  be able to find better coping methods that work for you. Read on to see where we wind up in this post. I'll have more to say below, under the heading, What Do People Do About Personal Overload and Complexity?
2.  Complexity
Some problems don't so much overload us, as tie us up in the knots of complexity. One example: trying to find a job when the economy is on life support. This is a challenge because you need to know how to make your application stand out from all those others. That raises a set of complicated questions. Suppose you decide to get advice. Enter "How to make your job application stand out" in Google and you get over 1000 hits. That's an overload.
Oops, I said just above that "some problems don't so much overload us, as tie us up in the knots of complexity." Here we are back to overload. How'd that happen?
We got back to overlaod because sources of confusion may dovetail and make each other worse.
Here is complexity: gauging what the employer or employment agency wants and tailoring your information to suit their needs. You have to do some research about the companies your resume might go to. You need to keep that information in focus while at the same time you explore other companies with somewhat different needs.
But if you go looking for expert help to guide you through the complexity, you get overloaded with information. None of those 1000 websites asks themselves, what do I have to offer in this site that is different from all the others. None of them ask: will the seeker become overloaded? They're in the same spot you are! You're trying make yourself stand out in a crowd of seekers. They're trying to get ranked as high as possible in the search engines' lists of experts. But they wind up saying much the same thing in their sites.
3. What Do People Do About Personal Overload and Complexity?
The most fortunate are those who can go to a mentor, talk over the challenges they face, and come up with a plan. Mentors come in many forms: a guidance counselor, a friend, a therapist, sometimes even a relative!
Haven't tried talking this over with anyone?
Maybe you need to rehearse. Practice with someone. Not the person you plan to ask to be a mentor, they can be someone willing to let you rehearse the questions you want to ask your mentor. If you can get as clear as possible, that should help focus with the mentor.
No mentor in sight?
When I searched just now using "How I got my job" (In quotes) in Google, I got over six million hits. More overload! But buried in those hits are many success stories. These can be important in two ways:
you might get a specific idea;  or at least you might use these stories to keep you hopes up.
Fighting Discouragement
I'll stay with the topic of a job search, but almost anyone can also use this same advice: when you find yourself discouraged, get rid of that feeling. Check the internet for "Thought Stopping" or 'Positive thinking." Those sites can guide visitors to techniques for cutting down on the amount of time they spend thinking negative or discouraging thoughts.
This may sound hokey, but there is increasing evidence from brain research: stopping negative thoughts and substituting postive ones can change brain cell patterns in some people: that can help you to keep your spirits up. The idea goes back for thousands of years, in various traditions.
To wrap up for today: overload and complexity dovetail, no matter whether you're looking for work, or facing any other challenge. You can cope, but you may need some help along the way. I've offered a few hints; write, if you have time, to tell us what works for you.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Confusion in Your Life and Mine, Part 1

Time for a different topic. Confusion in ordinary life: yours and mine.

Unsolicited Advice: Don't lose your confusion by finding an enemy. This advice is explained below.

I first became interested in confusion about 35 years ago, noticing that in my own profession, psychiatry, we labored under a considerable amount of confusion--which went undetected by those of us on the inside. "Outsiders" and patients sometimes detected it.
One thing led to another and I wrote a couple of books on the topic. The later one is titled: Lethal American Confusion: How Bush and the Pacifists Each Failed in the War on Terrorism.
That book deals with confusion in high places. Now I'd like to spend a few posts exploring the way confusion affects most of us in our ordinary lives.
To set the stage, here is an excerpt from the website,, which I linked to just above.
Definitions from Lethal American Confusion
Note: In the following, I've added a few comments [in brackets], to suggest how the ideas might apply in everyday life; in later posts we'll explore that question.

I define confusion as both the ordinary feeling: mixed up, perplexed, baffled, etc. and also as one’s subjective feeling in response to the confusion dynamics of an organization.
The model of confusion dynamics starts from the observation that coping tactics against confusion often worsen the sources, creating a vicious cycle. The cycle looks like this:
confusion sources < -- > coping methods and psychological defenses against confusion
with the < -- > symbol meaning you can read the connection in either direction.

[This is a key idea: a vicious cycle in which defenses against confusion can worsen sources. That is, sources lead to defenses which worsen sources which lead to defenses, etc. This applies in ordinary life as well as in complex systems.]

What are some sources of confusion?
In Lethal American Confusion, I discuss some 80 examples of confusion sources or inadequate efforts in antiterrorist programs. These problems elicit many ineffective attempts to cope, for example by reorganizing several agencies into the Department of Homeland Security. The problems leading to confusion include:
• The ambiguity of the very concept of terrorism, which becomes apparent when one compares conflicting definitions from nations, factions, and scholars
• Uncertainty as to the numbers, connections, and locations of terrorists and organizations world-wide, no matter which definition one uses
• The complexity and overload represented (before the reorganizations) by 100+ US terrorism-related offices scattered among many federal departments and agencies, plus thousands of state and local entities; even the reorganization of 2004 failed in many instances to reduce infighting and lack of coordination
• Those scores of antiterrorism offices were still scattered among 15 agencies three years after the September 11th attacks
• With 17 different Congressional committees supervising them, before some reorganization
• Ignorance on the part of most of the public and many in Congress of the findings of three commissions in the decade prior to 9/11 detailing the need to coordinate US antiterrorist efforts
• The complexity and overload of information swamping 13 different intelligence agencies (this is in part a different group from the antiterrorist group) scattered among five departments prior to the reorganization of 2004
• The lack of coordination plaguing the CIA and FBI (even after legislation removing some of the obstacles); this slows the antiterrorist campaign
• The first 14 of 80+ items dealing with confusion, errors, lies, or misjudgments by the Bush administration.
• A table in Lethal American Confusion summarizes confusion in the Department of Homeland Security and the intelligence agencies; another table summarizes problems in the search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

[You can perhaps see some of those same sources of confusion operating in your own life: certainly overload, complexity, and ambiguity plague many of us. And most of us need to get rid of the feeling of confusion using one or another defense.]

How does confusion become lethal?
Readers may well doubt my claim that confusion becomes lethal. This lethal impact can occur in several ways:
• The pre-9-11 confusion and competition among those scores of US antiterrorist agencies made us vulnerable to death-dealing terrorist attacks on September 11th
• The perplexity regarding how to proceed after those attacks led to the confusion defense: “Find-an-Enemy-and-Lose-Your-Confusion.” (Described below)
We attacked Afghanistan without conducting an intelligent debate on alternatives, dealing death and destruction to Afghans and sacrificing our own troops
• Pacifists contributed to this lethal confusion by failing to coordinate their dozens of proposals for alternatives to war
• Confusion due to administration misrepresentation, misunderstanding, or lies about Iraqi nuclear weapons led Congress to stand aside from anything other than endorsement of an attack on that country
• The false administration certainty of easy victory in Iraq led to a lack of contingency planning and lethal confusion when the insurgency and chaos erupted

What is the most lethal of all defenses against confusion?

One of the most destructive coping methods against confusion is "Find-an-enemy-and-lose-your-confusion." When faced with confusing or ambiguous issues, we oversimplify and polarize into either/or choices.
By grasping one side of the argument, or the other, you end any confusion you might have felt. Now you have only to concentrate on defending your own version of reality.
You decide (often unconsciously) that not you, but your opponent is confused, misguided, stupid, or worse. Often your opponent has used the same tactic, and sees you in a similar way.

[If you are in a partnership with someone, you may have found yourself perceiving your partner as confused, while you overlook your own muddle.]

That opponent can be the Taliban, or the rival department in your own government agency or corporation. Some federal bureaucrats spend as much time fighting for turf as they invest in protecting us.
[And spouses may spend more time fighting than they do in nurturing the partnership.].
Although I concentrate on American confusion, the dynamics apply in all countries and large organizations.
[As mentioned above, I also devote a chapter in the book to criticizing the confusion among pacifist organizations in their postings in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.]
In future posts I'll see how specific I can get regarding confusion in ordinary life. We'll take a closer look at defenses against confusion, both constructive and destructive. And a question just occurred to me: how does a person's way of handling confusion influence their choice of partner?