Staying Off the Wheel of Misfortune: Author Q&A
Tell us a little about yourself….
Although many people know me as a singer/songwriter and recording artist, I’m also a teacher and published science writer, and I majored in psychology in college. I’ve always had at least two careers; even when I was singing in bars and clubs every night in New York City, I still worked part-time as a writer.
I wrote my book Staying Off the Wheel of Misfortune because I’ve been interested in human behavior my whole life—why people do the things they do and make the choices they make. And ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to do something to help make the world a better place. When I was a kid I would imagine myself as a super hero, donning a cape and flying to the rescue. (My song “Molecule Man” is all about that experience.) Nowadays, I take a different approach; I write books and music that I think will make people’s lives better.
As a writer I’ve had more than 200 science, medical and general interest articles published. All that work has taught me how to take a complicated idea and make it easy to understand. So I decided to take all the things I’ve learned over a lifetime of reading, studying and observing human behavior and put it into a book. To make sure it was a really good book, I did extensive homework on each topic I chose to write about, and I provide lots of research in the book to back up the advice I offer.
• Tell us more about the book.
Over the years I’ve noticed that there are a number of situations we all encounter in our lives that can cause us to make self-defeating choices. For example, how do you respond when someone victimizes you? How can you make sure you’re communicating clearly when it really matters? What do you do when a setback causes you to lose hope? How can you make sure that your certainty about something doesn’t blind you to what’s really going on? A big part of the problem is that most of us were never given any advice about how to behave in these situations. Staying Off the Wheel of Misfortune is designed to address that need by providing practical insights and strategies that can empower us to not only survive but thrive in the face of challenging circumstances.
The first nine chapters of the book lay out nine types of challenges we encounter in life, like the ones I mentioned. They explain why people make bad choices in these situations and how to make better choices, and they give you concrete steps for getting back on track if you’ve already been knocked off course. The final chapter of the book addresses one of the biggest problems of all: not having any idea how to get where you want to go. That chapter lays out a very specific, practical roadmap for creating the kind of life you’d like to be living.
- What’s the main message of the book?
We all find ourselves on the Wheel of Misfortune sometimes, because we’re all human—and we live in a world that often encourages us to make self-defeating choices. But no matter what situation you find yourself in, there’s always something you can do to get back on track. It really is possible to solve your problems and create the life you want to be living, and this book can help you do that.
- What inspired you to create this?
I’ve always wanted to make the world a better place, but for a long time I wasn’t sure what I could do to help. For years I did my best to inspire and help people through my music, but as I learned more about why people do the things they do, I realized that with my science writing background I could take it a step further—I could create a book that would help people avoid making poor decisions, and even better, help them undo the damage if they were already in trouble.
- Why did you add a CD of original music to the book?
Part of the reason was simply that I could. I have a good track record as both a writer and a musician, so I realized that gave me the opportunity to do something unique.
I also believe you have the most impact if you can reach people on more than one level. If you want to help people out, why not give them an emotional lift and encouragement through music, in addition to the information and strategies you can share in a book? Staying Off the Wheel of Misfortune is like a roadmap to help keep you headed for your goals; the album, Piece of the Puzzle: 12 Songs of Hope, provides the emotional support and inspiration people need to take advantage of the helpful information and strategies. I believe it’s a powerful combination of ideas and inspiration.
Of course, you can sample or purchase the album on iTunes and Amazon.com, and you can download two of the songs from Piece of the Puzzle for free at my website, christopherkent.com.
- Give us an example of the ideas in the book.
I’ll give you three quick examples. We’ve all been victimized from time to time. Unfortunately, we live in a world that encourages us to see ourselves as victims when this happens. In reality, taking on the role of victim backfires big-time, causing us to give up a lot of our personal power. The fact is, you don’t have to take on the role of victim just because you’ve been victimized, and your life will go far better if you don’t. Chapter three talks about how to survive being victimized and move forward in a constructive way, without taking on the role of victim.
A second example: Our lives can easily be derailed if we unintentionally undermine a really important relationship. People often think that the way to endanger a relationship is by saying too much; but most relationships get in trouble because we say too little. Of course, what you say makes a huge difference—but saying nothing is the worst possible thing to do. Chapters four and seven explain how to communicate clearly and keep relationships free of emotional baggage so you can hold onto the personal resources you need to have a happy and successful life.
A third example: We all love having certainty about the things we think are true, but certainty backfires horribly. Certainty changes the way we see the world; it causes us to judge people just because they don’t agree with us; it lets us justify actions we would never take if we weren’t so certain we were right; and perhaps worst of all, certainty makes us easy to fool and manipulate. The surest way to become blind to the truth is to believe that you already possess it. Chapter nine shows you exactly why certainty backfires and how you can avoid a host of troubles by keeping an open mind instead.
- Let’s talk about some of the specific concepts discussed in the book. In Chapter One you talk a lot about the “SEICR cycle.” What is the SEICR cycle and why should we care?
We’ve all been through times in life when something really important to us falls apart, or is taken away from us, leaving us distraught and in danger of losing hope. Understanding that this is just a part of a natural cycle will go a long way toward helping you not lose hope, even in the darkest of times.
The SEICR cycle, as I call it, is a repeating pattern that can be found throughout nature, including in human behavior and world events. Although we often think of the growing process as a steady march forward, the natural growth process is actually more like three steps forward, one step back. Those dark times in life when we lose something important are the “one step back” part of the cycle.
The letters, S-E-I-C-R, stand for Stability, Expansion, Instability, Collapse and Rebirth. Those words, in that order, describe how the cycle unfolds each time it repeats. I discovered different versions of this cycle described in the writings of several different people, such as Ilya Prigogene, a Belgian physicist and chemist who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, and William Strauss and Neil Howe, who developed a well-known theory about repeating generational cycles, which they explain in their book Generations. I believe these gentlemen were all seeing the same type of repeating cycle, just in very different areas. So, I restated the cycle in a way that I think is universal and useful in everyday life.
It’s important to know about this cycle for two reasons:
First, when you understand that a crisis is a natural part of the growing cycle, you won’t despair when you find yourself in a crisis—when something important to you seems to be falling apart. The crisis will still be unpleasant and challenging, but you won’t lose hope. And if you have hope, you’ll make much better choices.
Second, it’s important to know about the SEICR cycle because there’s a really good reason that all growing things seem to follow this kind of cycle, a cycle that includes a periodic breakdown or crisis. Nature favors this kind of cycle because when things are growing steadily and moving slowly forward, it’s really hard to make big changes. But that’s not true during a crisis or breakdown. Suddenly, it’s easy to make big changes. In other words, having a periodic system breakdown allows really big problems to be solved—problems that are difficult or impossible to solve when things are moving slowly forward. It’s an opportunity disguised as a disaster. If you understand this, not only will you not lose hope when things fall apart, you’ll recognize it as an opportunity to make big changes for the better.
- Explain the concept of Mindset.
One of the surest ways to end up on the Wheel of Misfortune is to accept the popular idea that talent is something people have to be born with. Buying into this belief often leads people to respond to opportunity by backing off and becoming defensive, because they don’t believe they’re capable of mastering the new skills the opportunity calls for—and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Believing that you have to be born with talent is what Dr. Carol Dweck, a professor at Stanford University in California, calls the fixed Mindset. Believing that you can learn to do almost anything well is what she calls the growth mindset. Lots of studies are showing that which mindset you’re in has a huge impact on how well you do in life. The good news is that the studies show that just changing your mind about where talent comes from has a huge impact on people’s success in life. So, I devote a whole chapter in my book to explaining how this works, showing you how the fixed mindset can hold you back, and showing the overwhelming evidence that we really can learn to do almost anything if we put in the effort. Believing that you have to be born with talent is a huge disadvantage in life, and my goal is to make it really clear that this idea is flat out wrong.
• You seem to be saying that anybody can learn to do anything. That’s clearly not true. I can’t become the greatest athlete who ever lived.
There’s a difference between being able to learn to do almost anything and being able to become a specific person. Studies clearly show that our brains are capable of learning to do just about anything if we’re willing to put in the time and effort. So I’m not saying you can become the world’s greatest ballerina or win the Nobel prize or become Hollywood’s biggest star. I’m just saying you can become extremely good at almost anything, as long as you’re willing to do the work. It’s really important to understand that, because believing that you can’t learn to do almost anything causes people to make very self-defeating life choices.
• Explain why you say people shouldn’t take on the role of victim.
One of the surest ways to end up on the Wheel of Misfortune is to see yourself as a victim. Think of it this way: There are two ways to react when somebody victimizes you. You can deal with the unpleasant reality of the situation and move on, or you can start to think of yourself as a victim. When you take on the role of victim, you give up personal power in that part of your life. That’s the LAST thing you should be doing if you want to avoid being victimized again.
Taking on the role of victim also affects how others treat you. If you say to someone, “I’ve been victimized,” you’re telling them that something bad happened to you. If you say “I’m a victim,” you’re telling them about how you see yourself and how you relate to the world. People will treat you accordingly. In other words, taking on the role of victim encourages others to victimize you again.
- Aren’t you blaming the victim?
Not at all. Blaming the victim is about shifting the blame away from the victimizer. I’m not even remotely suggesting such a thing. What I’m saying is that if you’re victimized and you don’t take any responsibility for being in the situation at all, you’re putting yourself in a position of helplessness. If you couldn’t do anything to prevent it, then you’re helpless to keep it from happening again.
- What about children? If they’ve been abused, don’t they have the right to see themselves as victims?
Any kind of victimization is a bad thing, especially the victimization of children. And yes, small children may not be able to make choices about how they react to being victimized. But adults can make that choice, and refusing to see yourself as a victim will lead to far better outcomes in your life.
• In the book you devote a chapter to communicating more clearly. What’s the main secret to communicating better?
There are a lot of things that will help you communicate better, but the most important thing is to understand the difference between talking and communicating. Talking is about saying something; communicating is about being heard and understood. That’s not the same thing!
People who don’t communicate well usually think of communicating as a one-way street: You say something and the other person hears you. To get your message across, you need to think of communication as a two-way street. The other person has to hear you, process what you said and give you back a response. The trick is to pay attention to the response you get back—that’s what tells you whether the other person understood you. If you don’t get back the response you want, restate your message until the response indicates that the other person really did get the message. In a nutshell: Don’t just think about what you’re saying; think about what the other person is hearing.
- In the book you talk about the importance of not devoting too much time to focusing on the things you don’t like in your life. Why shouldn’t we focus on what’s bothering us? We need to focus on what’s wrong in our lives in order to deal with it.
Dwelling on what you don’t like is like walking around with a weight tied around your neck. There’s a difference between being aware of the things you don’t like, and focusing on them. Whatever you focus on becomes the centerpiece of your experience, and you don’t want the things you hate to become the center of your life. Focusing on the things you don’t like will not only make you miserable, it will keep you from moving forward by putting your energy in the wrong place. You get more of what you focus on, so choose the things you spend your time thinking about with care.
- What do you mean in Chapter 6 when you talk about using the whole mind?
One surefire way to end up on the Wheel of Misfortune is to fail to use the resources and strengths that you have. That’s easy to do if you don’t realize how many resources you actually have at your disposal.
It’s often said that we only use 10% of our minds. That’s misleading. A more accurate statement would be that we only use 10% of our minds for conscious thinking; the rest of the mind is hard at work trying to help us, outside of consciousness. If you become aware of what the rest of your mind is doing and how it’s trying to help you out, you can make far better use of that resource, and it can make a huge difference in your life. Imagine if a pilot of a modern airplane didn’t realize he had a powerful computer helping him run the airplane. He would waste all kinds of time and effort doing things he didn’t need to do, and probably wouldn’t do a very good job of flying the plane. Many of us go through life like that. So I’ve devoted a whole chapter to showing you just what the non-conscious part of your mind is capable of, and how you can learn to work with it to be far more smart and effective in life.
- You have a chapter on relationships. What’s your secret to keeping relationships strong?
The most common reason relationships get into trouble is that feelings are not expressed—especially negative feelings, which build up and then eventually explode over something minor, as in the straw that broke the camel’s back. That’s a perfect setup for causing a relationship crisis.
There are lots of reasons that people don’t say what they’re really thinking, but if a relationship really matters, you have to find a way to share what you’re feeling. If that’s not possible, then the relationship is not likely to do well. People think that saying too much is what kills relationships, when the truth is what kills them is saying too little.
- In one chapter you claim it’s important to always try to understand other people’s behavior. Why should people spend time trying to understand behavior?
Here are three good reasons:
First, when you want—or need—to change someone’s behavior, understanding the reasons for it gives you a fighting chance. When people don’t know the reason for a behavior they don’t like, they often end up resorting to punishment to try to change it. That’s not great, because punishment is one of the least-effective ways to change someone’s behavior. The reason it’s not very effective is that there are lots of ways to avoid getting punished that don’t involve changing your behavior!
Second, if you can figure out the reason for the behavior you don’t like, you’ll have some idea whether you’re wasting your time and energy trying to change it. That can save you years of frustration.
Third, the more you understand other people’s behavior, the better you’ll understand yourself. Gaining insights into your own behavior can be life-changing.
- In the book you suggest that it’s not a good idea to spank children. On what grounds do you make that claim?
I’m not saying it isn’t OK. It’s a very common practice, and obviously people who spank their kids are trying to do the right thing and keep their kids out of trouble. But the evidence is mounting that children who are routinely spanked end up with serious problems later in life that other kids who were not spanked do not end up with. The point is that there’s more than one way to change a child’s behavior. So if you’re raising a child, you might really help that child later in life by considering other ways to deal with behavior you don’t like.
- Chapter 9 in the book talks all about problems that occur when people have certainty. What’s wrong with certainty?
People like certainty; it makes life easier. You don’t have to think any further about that topic. You get to feel righteous superiority. And you can justify actions without considering their consequences.
However, certainty backfires badly, because it changes the way you see what’s happening around you. It causes you to judge people negatively simply because they disagree with you. It makes you inflexible, when your survival may depend on being able to change. It makes you feel justified in taking actions you wouldn’t take if you didn’t have certainty. Worst of all, it makes you easy to fool and manipulate—not a good way to stay off the Wheel of Misfortune.
- You say certainty makes people easy to manipulate. Explain.
Certainty makes people easy to fool and manipulate because people with certainty believe bogus evidence if it agrees with what they’re sure is true. So special interest groups or politicians who want you to take certain actions can feed you bogus evidence that seems to support what you believe to be true, knowing you won’t question it—while their bogus information gets you to support their agenda, bringing them more money and power. In short, your certainty can be used against you, giving people a way to trick you into acting against your own best interests.
- If a person is right, certainty is perfectly justifiable…
The problem is, certainty will get you into trouble whether you’re right or wrong! The problems are caused by the certainty. Being certain that you’re right changes your attitudes and takes away your ability to see things clearly. That blindness will undercut you at every turn, even if the thing you’re certain about really is true. Certainty is not your friend.
- In the book you talk about separation of church and state. Explain…
That discussion is in Chapter Nine, where I talk about the problems that appear in people’s lives when they rely on certainty. I’m not saying that religion and politics need to be totally kept apart; after all, every American president has been a member of a religion. I’m saying that certainty and politics need to be kept apart, because politicians who have absolute certainty about their ideas make bad decisions. Certainty changes the way people think and act, and not in a good way. Most religions encourage or demand that followers have certainty about the absolute truth of the religion’s doctrine, and that certainty is what makes religion and politics a dangerous mix. Politicians have a lot of power, so you don’t want them to be subject to all the problems that accompany having certainty—such as poor judgment and not seeing things at face value.
In short, I’m not saying that religion and politics necessarily have to be kept apart—I’m saying that certainty, which often comes with religion, needs to be kept out of politics.
- Explain your system for creating the life you want.
When it comes to getting what you want in life, many people just settle for having a vague idea about what they want and wishing they’d end up with it. That approach does not work!
To create the life you want, you need to do a long list of things. To give you a brief overview, let’s think of the process of creating what you want as involving three phases. First you have to make a concrete decision about exactly what you want. That’s not always as easy as it sounds. The most important thing is to understand that any important goal will take some time to achieve, which means you’re picking a journey as well as a goal. You want to enjoy getting to your goal, so pick an enjoyable journey—don’t just pick a goal.
The second phase involves planning a way to reach your goal. One of the most important parts of this phase is spelling out exactly what you’re going to do to move toward your goal, and when and where you’re going to do it. Studies have shown that specifying when and where you’re going to do things to move you toward your goal causes people to actually do what they’re planning; skipping the “when” and “where” leads to people not actually doing what they need to do. If you want to exercise, specify when and where, and you probably will do it. If you don’t specify when and where, you probably won’t exercise.
The third part of creating the life you want is all about taking action. Two important parts of this phase are taking a small step toward your goal every day, and taking a little time every day to imagine yourself at your goal. Taking small steps really is the best way to end up with what you want, for a long list of reasons spelled out in the book. And imagining yourself in the situation you want to end up in also does a lot to help you get where you want to go. It’s not just some positive thinking, airy-fairy idea. In fact, here’s a good rule to remember: You don’t get things in life because you want them so badly; you get them because you imagine yourself having them.
- Thanks for taking the time to share some of your ideas with us.
It was my pleasure. I hope that people who find these ideas interesting will check out the book. It’s available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, on Kindle and as an audiobook through Amazon. And of course you can check out the songs from the accompanying CD, Piece of the Puzzle, anywhere that digital music and CDs are available.