Edward M. Hallowell: An interview by Bob Morris

Posted on: August 4th, 2011 by bobmorris

Are you looking for practical, how-to solutions to life’s personal challenges? Best selling author Dr. Edward (“Ned”) Hallowell offers groundbreaking advice on how to survive in an ultra-competitive, ultra fast, attention deficit society while remaining sane, how to raise happy children, the art of forgiveness and how to manage worry. He also offers a prescriptive guide that shows how to get the most out of life with Attention Deficit Disorder.

A graduate of Harvard College and Tulane School of Medicine, Hallowell is a child and adult psychiatrist and the founder of The Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health in Sudbury, MA. He was a member of the faculty of the Harvard Medical School from 1983 to 2004.

Dr. Hallowell is considered to be one of the foremost experts on the topic of ADHD. He is the co-author, with Dr. John Ratey, of Driven to Distraction and Answers to Distraction, which have sold more than a million copies. In 2005, Drs. Hallowell and Ratey released their much-awaited third book on ADHD, Delivered from Distraction. “Delivered” provides updated information on the treatment of ADHD and more on adult ADHD.

Dr. Hallowell’s most recent book, Shine: Using Brain Science to Get the Best from Your People was published January 17, 2011. In Shine, Dr. Hallowell draws on brain science, performance research, and his own experience helping people maximize their potential to present a proven process for getting the best from your people. He introduces the 5 steps in the Cycle of Excellence: Select, Connect, Play, Grapple and Grow, and Shine. He shows how each step is critical in its own right and translates into actions a manager or worker can do and do now to propel their people to excellence.

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Morris: For those who have not as yet read Shine, you recall in it an encounter with an old man at Boston’s Logan Airport. Please explain the significance of that encounter.

Hallowell: When I met this old man who shined shoes, it was like meeting an angel in disguise. He had multiple sclerosis, had to use a walker to get around, looked to be in his 70’s, but had the zest for life of a 10 year old. He peppered me with questions, trying to find my own personal hot spot or passion. He said, “I gotta ask fast because I only get as long as a shoeshine to ask you.” He urged people to reach out, to take the chance, saying that was his great reward every day as he shined shoes. “I try to put a shine on people’s souls, not just their shoes.” He called himself “Dr. Shine” and I dedicated my book to him because I believed he represented the very best in what people should be and to do achieve peak performance. Here was a man shining shoes at Logan Airport, dealing with M.S., somehow getting himself to work every day, and doing his job with more gusto and passion than just about anyone you could imagine.

Morris: In layman’s terms, please explain how using brain science can help to get a peak performance when completing each of five steps of the Cycle of Excellence. First, selection.

Hallowell: You brain does its best when it is doing a task it can do well. That’s basic brain science. Yet many people persist in the wrong job, trying year after year to get good at what they’re bad at or at what they dislike. Like marrying the wrong person, working in the wrong job is a prescription for a life of toil-and-groan. Put simply, select refers to matching a person with whatever and whoever is right for that person. It could be a job or an assignment, it could be a wife or a doubles partner in tennis. When selections are right, they make people shine because they’re happy, they feel fulfilled, and they are eager to do well.

On numerous occasions, Jack Welch observed that “getting the right people in the right jobs is a lot more important than developing strategy.” That’s what Jim Collins has in mind, in Good to Great, when he urges business leaders to get the wrong people off the bus and get the right people on the bus. Young people beginning a career need to realize that there are lots of “buses” in life. More often than not, selecting which one to be on determines success or failure, joy or despair.

Morris: Next, connection.

Hallowell: Connection is the golden key to all that’s good in life. Disconnection leads to most of what’s bad in life. “Dr. Shine” intuitively knew this, and he dedicated his life to connecting with people, helping them to open up and get past fear. Fear shuts people down. When you feel safe, your brain is free to soar. When you feel in danger, your brain goes into survival mode, not peak performance mode. Too many people feel unsafe at work, under toxic pressures, and stretched too thin. They are literally about to snap. Within an atmosphere of trust and what I call connection, a supervisor can create conditions under which people’s brains can set aside fear and fly high.

Morris: Next, play.

Hallowell: By play I do not mean the traditional sense of play, what kids do at recess, goofing off. By play I refer to the highest activity of the human mind, any activity in which the imagination lights up and gets involved. This is what we humans can do so well and machines can’t at all.

Doing exactly what they’re told, following human or electronic commands, is what machines do best. They can be valuable to our efforts but that cannot be the standard of excellence for humans at work. We ought to do everything possible to get people fully and imaginatively engaged with whatever it is they are doing, just as I am engaged fully and imaginatively as I express these thoughts. In a state of play, of imaginative engagement, people do their best, their most innovative work.

Here, again, the importance of select and connect are obvious. Supervisors must make the right choices and some of these choices will help people to connect with their work, yes, but also with each other and, most importantly, with what they really want to do, with what they enjoy doing most and (I’ll bet) with what they do best. Teresa Amabile expressed the best career advice during a commencement speech at Stanford about 15 years ago: “Love what you do and do what you love.”

Think about it. Some of the most closely connected people are those who play games together. The greatest teams (Walt Disney’s animators, John Wooden’s U.C.L.A. basketball teams, the Manhattan Project, Red Auerbach’s Celtics teams, Lockheed’s “Skunk Works”) possessed exceptional “chemistry” because they loved doing what they did together and could not do alone. They would later exclaim, “We had a ball!” I agree with Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, that play drives creativity. It creates a sense of joy and, in process, helps to generate some of our most creative ideas.

Morris: Then, what you characterize as “grapple and grow”

Hallowell: This is the step traditionally regarded as the key to peak performance: hard work. And yes, hard work is key. But it is not the only key nor is it the key. Managers typically jump in at this step. But you will never achieve peak performance unless you first tend to steps 1 – 3: select, connect, and play. Then, and only then, will you get the full turbo power of a mind on fire.

For more than 20 years, Anders Ericsson at Florida State University has conducted research on peak performance. The results of his efforts leave no doubt that both talent and hard work are frequently overrated. Once again, select and connect are critically important. Those who aspire to peak performance must make the right choices in terms of what they practice and connect with someone who will provide strict and expert supervision while they practice. Then they must “grapple and grow” throughout (on average) 10,000 hours of practice. There are no guarantees, of course. Here’s the key point for workplace supervisors: Keep in mind that most people love to work, given the tight conditions, if you help them to select, connect, activate their imaginations with play, and grapple with the inevitable drudgery that growth requires.

Morris: What about setting limits and holding workers personally accountable?

Hallowell: All human beings need order and structure in their lives and that always involves some reasonable limits. Also, the healthiest cultures are those in which there is mutual trust and respect. The Golden Rule is alive and well. People really do care about each other. They understand that all “games” have rules to follow, rules that serve the common interests. We are well-advised to remember, however, what 3M’s then chairman and CEO, William McKnight, said in 1924: “If you put fences around people, you get sheep. Give people the room they need.” He wasn’t just talking about physical space. He also meant mental, emotional, and (yes) spiritual space.

Morris: Finally, shine.

Hallowell: Life at its best. A person working in the zone. “Dr. Shine” shining shoes and souls, or you doing whatever you do when you are doing your best. It is the greatest feeling in the world. When we shine, we defy death for the moment. We enter into a state of immersion in the craft we ply, a state in which we become one with what we do. For those precious moments we shine…and what we do often shines long after we’re done. In addition, the recognition a manager — or anyone else — gives when someone shines helps to consolidate loyalty and promote motivation.

People who shine keep shining and help others to shine. They are motivated. They feel connected to their team, the group, and the organization. They become extremely loyal and want to help others in the organization to advance. Shining completes the Cycle of Excellence but I hasten to add that it is sustainable only if people are “polished” by the respect and trust of their supervisor and colleagues.


Morris: Which of these five steps in the Cycle of Excellence seems to be the most difficult to complete? Why?

Hallowell: These days people stumble most over step 2, Connect.  That’s because we live in a sandstorm of information, data, obligation, interruption and distraction.  We live in a paradox: connected electronically but disconnected interpersonally.  However, when you recognize the problem, you can take steps to correct it.  You can create an emotionally connected environment anywhere if you try hard enough.

The manager who rules by pressure and fear (who usually is ruled from above by superiors who also use pressure and fear) lobotomizes his people. Believing he is doing what must be done to bring out their best, he in fact renders them ineffective over time. Fear is a shirt-term motivator but a long-term disabler. More insidious than the saber-toothed manager is a paranoid, fear-filled creature in the workplace. Much of the method I offer in my book, Sine, is aimed at keeping fear at manageable, desirable levels. Remember, some fear is good.

I would suggest that excellence occurs in direct proportion to necessary suffering, but in inverse proportion to unnecessary suffering or toxic stress. Connection is the best antidote to unnecessary suffering.

Morris: While reading the Introduction, I was reminded of an observation by Peter Drucker in a Harvard Business Review article in 1963: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.” Presumably you agree.

Hallowell: Perfect.  Could not agree more.  What a wise and great man Drucker was. I do not recall the specific source but either in an article or in a book published many years ago, Drucker shared some thoughts that are especially relevant to the Cycle of Excellence: “There is no such thing as a perfect record in making people decisions. Successful executives follow five ground rules. First, the executive must accept responsibility for any placement that fails. To blame the non-performer is a cop-out. The executive made a mistake in selecting that particular person. But second, the executive does have the responsibility to remove people who do not perform. The incompetent or poor performer, when left in his or her job, penalizes all others and demoralizes the entire organization. Third, just because a person doesn’t perform in the job he or she was put in doesn’t mean that that person is a bad worker whom the company should let go. It only means that he or she is in the wrong job. Fourth, the executive must try to make the right people decisions for every position. An organization can only perform to the capacity of its individual workers; thus people decisions must be right. And fifth, newcomers should be put in an established position where the expectations are known and help is available. New major assignments should mainly go to people whose behaviors and habits are well known and who have already earned trust and credibility.”

Morris: Is it first necessary to know what the most important work is and then what the right jobs are before selecting the right people to fill those positions?

Hallowell: No work is “most important.”  Or, put differently, all work is important but work done poorly becomes most important.  As long as you have all your people working at the intersection of three spheres, your team will achieve excellence.  Those three spheres are: what a person does best, what a person likes to do most, and what adds value to the given enterprise. One of the best strategies for division of labor is to follow the PTD formula: Select the right Person (People) to do the right Task and complete it by the appropriate Deadline. I agree with Stephen Covey that too many people spend too much time on doing what is urgent rather than on doing what is import. To repeat, all work is important. Managers must decide what must be done but I strongly recommend that they make those determinations in collaboration with those who will be doing the work. I also think those who do the work should have a say about what will be needed (i.e. support resources) and the deadline for completion.

Morris: Please explain the statement “Plastic makes perfect.”

Hallowell: It is especially important for managers to know about, neuroplasticity, the greatest discovery in neuroscience in the past 20 years. It refers to the fact that the brain is remarkably plastic. It can grow and change for the better throughout life.  In fact, “plastic” denotes the brain’s ability to grow and change throughout life. So-called common wisdom has suggested for decades that people don’t change. Science has proven that to be false. Period. We have learned not only that the brain is plastic, it is also competitively plastic. So what? A lot. You get better as you practice, but you get worse at what you neglect. As the saying goes, “Use it or lose it.” As you practice a certain task, the fact of plasticity allows for brain growth.  Hence, plastic can lead to perfect.

Morris: How to determine whether or not a “right” personnel selection is being made?

Hallowell: Look and see if the person is working at the intersection of the three spheres mentioned above.  That is, find out what each candidate likes to do most, what she or he does best, and what specifically the candidate has done to add value Also, check references and have several people involved who are well-prepared to interview deeply to try to avoid hiring a disturbed or toxic personality. Knowledge, skills, talent, and experience are all important, of course. However, keep in mind what Warren Buffett once suggested: “Somebody once said that in looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you. You think about it; it’s true. If you hire somebody without [integrity], you really want them to be dumb and lazy.”

Morris: Within an organization, which connections are most important? Why?

Hallowell: All connections matter, but the people you depend upon matter most.  Make sure those relationships are in good health. As already indicated, you want to connect with people who are “shineable” (if there is such a word!) and are not only willing but eager — like “Dr. Shine” at Logan Airport — to help everyone they encounter to be at their best. There should be mutual respect and trust, and that has to be earned over time. Connections are not something that you just plug in at both ends, like an extension cord. They require time and attention. And lots of TLC. But like an extension cord, they do involve an exchange of energy so you want have relationships that involve an exchange of positive energy.

Morris: What is a “human moment” and why can it be so valuable?

Hallowell: A human moment is a term I invented to distinguish in-person communication from electronic.  Human moments are exponentially more powerful than electronic ones. I mean face-to-face, in-person contact and communication. I have identified several modern paradoxes and the first is that, for various reasons, we have grown electronically superconnected but we have simultaneously grown emotionally disconnected from each other.

I’m by no means the only one who is deeply concerned about this, of course. Books such as Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone and Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat as well as the sequel to it, Hot, Flat, and Crowded 2.0.  describe and document our new world and some of the obstacles it poses, not the least of which is loneliness. But it is a new kind of loneliness. Modern loneliness is an extraverted loneliness, in which the person is surrounded by many people and partakes of much communication but feels unrecognized and more alone and, although connected technically, isolated and even estranged emotionally. E-mail, cell phones, smartphones, Facebook, Twitter, and other resources explain why the electronic moment can occur frequently and, for some, constantly. From the biological standpoint, people deprived of the human moment in their day-to-day business dealings, actually in all domains of their lives, are losing brain cells – literally – while those who cultivate the human moment are growing them.

Connecting genuinely with other people makes you smarter, healthier, and more productive. That is why the human moment has become intensely personal: it is so precious because it is so rare.

Morris: How best to “get the sand out of the gears of the Cycle of Excellence and to promote the feeling of connectedness that lubricates those gears so well”?

Hallowell: Spend time together, have human moments, listen, learn, be students of one another, play together (defining play as above), give permission to be real, get the lawyers and defensive politically correct thinking as far away as you can, build trust, rely on each other, set goals that you can only achieve as a team, work like hell to achieve them, then throw a party and bask in the glow. Here are a few key points to keep in mind:

1. Notice and acknowledge people every day.
2. Allow for people’s idiosyncrasies and peccadilloes.
3. Control email processing rather than be controlled by it.
4. Encourage, indeed [begin italics] celebrate [end italics] human moments.
5. Be a role model: Recognize and acknowledge your own stress.
6.  Praise others freely and publicly. Brag about them.
7. Avoid judgmental and moralistic terms (e.g. good and bad)
8. Light up the workplace, both literally and emotionally. Smiles are contagious.
9. Foster impromptu get-togethers.
10. Reach out and encourage others to do so.

Business leaders who expect, perhaps even demand that a workplace function with mechanical precision need to realize that it must be “lubricated” by connecting people with who they can be at their very best.

Morris: I was pleased to see your strong endorsement of play because I agree that without it, as you assert, “peak performance is impossible.” Please explain how and why “it leads to all discoveries,” for example, and offers other substantial benefits.

Hallowell: If the imagination shuts down….which it does whenever told it isn’t needed or wanted…peak performance is impossible. What most people do not realize is that the imagination gives vision and voice to the subconscious.  It enabled Michelangelo to see David when everyone else saw only a block of granite. It gave Beethoven several symphonies (including the Ninth) when he was stone deaf. The imagination fuels peak performance.  Play, by my definition, is any activity in which the imagination get involved. Great managers, like great teachers, instigate play.  The quickest, easiest way to do this is to ask an open-ended question like, “How could we do better,” or “What are we getting wrong?” or “What could we achieve if we were working at our best?” At companies like IDEO, brainstorming sessions are pure play, at the highest level, and they nourish participants in ways and to an extent that would otherwise be impossible.

Morris: How to establish a “playful workplace” and make one more so?

Hallowell: Here are some suggestions that may help to get people imaginatively engaged in a deep and exciting state, what I call “play”:

1. Ask open-ended questions, those that cannot be answered with 2-3 words such as yes or no.
2. Model a questioning attitude, one that suggests authentic curiosity.
3. Consider having a goofy day or some sort now and then. (e.g. “Bad Dress Day”)
4. Decorate your work space imaginatively, but also with an eye toward practical ways you can help facilitate play with architecture and setup.
5. Help people to think in ways they normally don’t by having an “opposite meeting.” For example, limit discussion to how to become less productive.
6. Try automatic writing to achieve a solution breakthrough.
7. Read a book on creating thinking techniques (e.g. Thinkertoys)
8. Give your people some time to go somewhere away from work and think, then reconvene and share experiences.
9. Play with a child.
10. Try what organic chemists call “retrograde synthesis.”

Keep in mind that play is an activity that can engage the imagination. It is the most creative activity of the brain and you can play at anything. The best questions to ask are “What if?” “Why?” and “Why not? Isaac Asimov once observed, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka’ but ‘That’s funny’…” Play includes games that have rules but when engaged in the play I have in mind, the only limits are self-imposed. Be alert to odd developments, unexpected combinations, whatever may at first glance seem ridiculous or impossible. If you chase what Steve Jobs calls “insanely great ideas,” they will flee from you. But if you become immersed in an environment of play, they may (just may) join you, attracted by the merriment.

Morris: How to create “good stress” and eliminate “bad stress”?

Hallowell: Much of the answer has been suggested in earlier responses. People associate hard work and overload with stress. But, like suffering, stress is complicated. Bad stress is stress that a system can’t endure without suffering damage. It is unplanned, uncontrolled, allows no time for rest and recovery, and exceeds the capacity of the system to adjust to it. As the popular phrase suggests, it burns people out and, over time, it can decimate an entire workforce.

Briefly, there is a constructive process of good stress that involves what’s called long-term potentiation, or LTP. As you stress your brain by asking it to absorb new and unfamiliar information, what at first was difficult becomes easier (that is, less stressful) because the longer the neurons associate with one another in a given activity, the stronger the neural pathways become. This is why practice – which in neurological terms means the repeated firing of a neuron or group of neurons – leads to improved performance.

One of the most important developments in recent years is the focus of attention on energy renewal in the workplace. More specifically, the establishment of nap rooms and strong encouragement that workers take regular breaks to rest, relax, meditate, listen to soothing music, or simply gaze out a window.  It is also worth noting that, according to extensive research, peak performers average at least eight hours of rest each day. The average for everyone else is about an hour less.

Effective management limits bad stress as much as possible, while promoting good stress in the form of surmountable challenges, including what Jim Collins characterizes as a BHAG or Big Hairy Audacious Goal. It is certainly a stretch goal but, key point, achievable.

Morris: With all due respect to the Charles Portis novel, you seem to view “true grit” somewhat differently than he does. Is that a fair assessment?

Hallowell: Yes.  Grit is great.  It is the ability to persist in the face of setbacks and disappointment.  It is an0ther of the keys to peak performance. All great leaders eventually struggle through what Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas characterize as a “crucible.” They emerge stronger and wiser. (Jack Dempsey once explained that “champions get up when they can’t.”) According to Angela Duckworth, “Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest, over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.” The gritty ones are marathoners, not sprinters. They inspire others. Now more than ever before, especially in the C-suite, there are tremendous pressures and (yes) temptations to do “whatever it takes” to achieve a strategic objective. In this context, I am reminded of the fact that Dante reserved the last and worst ring in hell for those who, in a moral crisis, preserve their neutrality.

Morris: In your opinion, why is recognition so important in the workplace? For example, what important lessons can be learned from the two programs, “Harvard’s Heroes” and Dana Corporation’s “Chairman’s Award”?

Hallowell: Although the programs are really quite different in several significant respects, there are indeed lessons to be learned from them. Here are ten:

1. Recognize effort, not results.
2. Notice details.
3. Try, as much as possible, to provide recognition face-to-face.
4. In meetings – and everywhere else – try to make others “shine,” not look bad.
5. As a manager, you should know that the self-esteem of each employee is perhaps your most valuable asset.
6. Acknowledge people’s existence! “Hello. Nice to see you.”
7. Tap into the power of providing positive feedback.
8. Monitor progress with sincere interest.
9. Remember, as a manager, the more you recognize others, the more you establish the habit of recognition of hard work and progress as values of the organizational culture.
10. Get the marginalized people involved. In most organizations, about 15% of the people feel unrecognized, misunderstood, devalued, and generally disconnected.

“Harvard’s Heroes” celebrates with heartfelt appreciation those in non-academic positions who go above and beyond everyday achievement in their daily work. There is a formal ceremony, with the president presiding. Each recipient stands to applause and a brief statement is read. “Appreciating the unappreciated or under-appreciated is also the objective of the Chairman’s Award at Dana Corporation.

The key to doing these and other such programs right is to carefully select who ought to be recognized so that credit can be spread around and include people who might otherwise be overlooked. Personalizing an award increases its value to the recipient.

Morris: Opinions are divided (sometimes sharply divided) as to whether or not increasing strengths is more important than reducing (if not eliminating) weaknesses. On which do you believe the primary focus should be? Why?

Hallowell: Promote strengths.  You get much better buy in, and then people will work on eliminating weaknesses on their own, realizing that only they can eliminate barriers to achieving what is most important [begin italics] to them [end italics]. Supervisors can appeal to someone’s self-interests only if they have enlightened that person. All the results of research conducted by reputable firms such as Gallup and TowersWatson clearly indicate that both personal growth and professional development are best achieved by primarily focusing on strengths to be increased rather than on weaknesses to be reduced, if not eliminated. Nonetheless, more often than not, performance reviews and so-called “constructive criticism” ignore this reality.

It is imperative to keep in mind how important and, sometimes, how challenging it can be “to ignite peak performance.” That’s why I devoted a separate chapter to each step: (1) Select high potentials and align their strengths with the work for which they are best suited, (2) establish and then continue to strengthen connections with those who are managed as well as between and among them, and meanwhile (3) ensure that the work environment is one that stimulates and nourishes “imaginative engagement” (i.e. play); (4) create conditions in which people are encouraged to “grapple and grow” by taking prudent risks that are exciting learning opportunities, and (5) do anything and everything possible to help people “shine” with pride in what they have achieved, joy in having done it with pleasure, and confidence that that this Cycle of Excellence will be self-perpetuating.

Morris: Of all the mistakes that supervisors make, which do you think causes the most problems and the worst damage? Why?

Hallowell: Lack of respect for the worker.  This nourishes disconnection, fear, anger, phoniness, and all the bad stuff that impedes excellence. You ask an excellent question that requires more discussion than our conversation now permits. But consider this fact: During exit interviews with highly-regarded employees who are leaving to work somewhere else, the reason they cite most often is that they do not feel appreciated by their supervisor. I became convinced decades ago that most people want to do well, to do their best, to please other people, to earn their keep so-to-speak.

There is one dimension of the mantra “leverage strengths” that many supervisors simply do not understand: those for whom they are responsible, or as I prefer to say “entrusted to their care,” can — and  should — be included among their own strengths to be nourished. Erika Anderson has a great deal of value to share in her book, Growing Great Employees: Turning Ordinary People into Extraordinary Performers. Her horticultural metaphors are apt and skillfully used. Too many supervisors are unwilling and/or unable to think of themselves as “gardeners.” Within their sphere of responsibility, nothing and no one “grows”…including them. How sad.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Hallowell: Can’t think of one at the moment. You’ve asked so many excellent questions. Thank you. Perhaps we can reconvene again sometime. There’s still so much to discuss. There always is.

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Ned Hallowell cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:



Several brief films about peak performance, “Success with Sanity,” adult ADD and ADHD, and various other subjects:


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