Welcome to ?Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Values?, an inspirational blog taken from the writings of Paul Volosov, Ph.D.

The pursuit of values: We all know what life is and what liberty is, but what did our founding fathers mean when they referred to ?the pursuit of happiness?? Paul believes that happiness is pursued by living a life based on values. This blog will share some of the values Paul has developed over the years and illustrate the meaning of each with a short essay or story.

Friday, October 30, 2009


Sympathy is about me. Empathy is about the other person.

Sympathy and empathy sound alike and refer to similar human emotions but are polar opposites in a critical way. Sympathy is about me while empathy is about the other person.

When I see or hear about someone experiencing a terrible illness or experiencing some other tragedy, my first reaction is to feel sympathy for her: "Poor thing! How awful!" Then I feel relieved. "Thank the Almighty it was not me!" In feeling bad for the other person, I feel good for myself. The other person's suffering in a way is a consolation for me. I have many problems. In comparison to her problems, however, they are not that bad!

Over the years I have heard many people suggest that it is good to visit the sick or people with disabilities. In doing so, I can get a better perspective about my own problems. This better perspective may motivate me to get on with my life despite my problems. It may even motivate me to try to solve some of my problems. Sympathy serves a very positive purpose if used in this way, but it is still all about me: my feelings, my problems, and my motivation to solve them. All my sympathetic feelings about the tragedy being experienced by the other person lead back to me. Sympathy is all about me!

Empathy also involves feeling bad for the other person. It also is based on my understanding that the other person's problems really are greater than mine. But instead of this feeling and understanding focusing on me, it focuses on the other person. How would I feel if I were in the other person's shoes? How would I want other people to treat me? What kind of help from others would make it a little easier for me to get through this tragedy? Even though I am asking questions about myself, I am focusing on the other person. Ultimately, my empathic feeling and understanding has one purpose: helping the other person through a difficult period. Empathy is all about the other person!

Which emotion should I feel when I see or hear about someone going through a difficult time? Both. Sympathy and empathy are both important emotions. Although they are different, they are compatible. Sympathy can lead me to accept the challenges of my life more easily. Empathy can lead me to help others get through the challenges in their lives.

As I have gotten older, I have come to realize that sympathy and empathy are not only compatible, they are complementary. As I sympathize with the other person's challenges, I accept my own more easily. As I accept my challenges more easily, I can focus more on helping others get through their challenges. As I empathize with the other person's challenges and help him get through them, I become a better person. Becoming a better person is the best way for me to get through the challenges in my life.



Regret for having done something wrong is not the same as feeling guilty about having done something wrong.

The only emotional response more dysfunctional than feeling extremely guilty is not feeling guilty at all. A person who does not feel guilty at all when he does something wrong is a sociopath. This is a fancy way of saying that he has not incorporated social rules into his personality. A sociopath does what he wants when he wants and how he wants. Other people do not matter. To a sociopath, "rules" are for suckers!

A person who feels extremely guilty when he does something wrong is better than a sociopath. He has incorporated social rules into his personality. Still, this person rarely contributes much to society. Extreme feelings of guilt paralyze a person. A person with extreme feelings of guilt is so distraught over "being bad,” that he rarely has time to be good. Instead of making a person better, extreme feelings of guilt make a person worse. Perhaps more accurately, they make a person less.

Feeling somewhat guilty after having done something wrong is a good thing (for the most part). Feelings of guilt are uncomfortable. To alleviate these feelings, the person experiencing them may try to right the wrong he has done. The desire to avoid these negative feelings may also motivate a person to avoid repeating his "bad" behavior. Righting our wrongs and avoiding "bad" behavior are desirable from a societal standpoint. If moderate feelings of guilt lead us to right our wrongs and avoid "bad" behavior then they too are desirable from a societal standpoint.

Even if moderate guilt feelings lead us to right our wrongs and avoid "bad" behavior, they are not really necessary. Both of those positive goals can be met without feelings of guilt. The only thing that is really needed is regret. Regret is not a feeling. It is a logical conclusion that one should arrive at after realizing that what was done was wrong. When I realize that I did something that was wrong and I experience regret, I also become motivated to right that wrong and avoid the same behavior in the future.

Regret, not feeling guilty, is the real motivator to right wrongs and avoid negative behavior. Once this is understood, one need not feel guilty at all. One only needs to experience regret. Am I guilty? That is the concern of the legal system in civil matters and the concern of the Almighty in religious matters. Do I need to right the wrongs that I have done? Do I need to avoid inappropriate behavior in the future? Both of those questions are my issues. The answer to both questions is "Yes!" whether or not I feel guilty.



Friday, August 28, 2009



Is a champion someone who beats others who are less able? Or is a champion someone who beats others even though they are more able? Or is a champion someone who keeps on trying regardless of the outcome? Or is a champion someone who keeps on trying regardless of the challenge?

When I think of someone who was a real champion, I think of Mohammed Ali, one of the great boxers of all time. During the period that he was the heavyweight-boxing champion of the world, he was known as a highly skilled boxer. But was he the best boxer? That depends on how you define "best." Many observers criticized Ali for his "rope-a-dope" practice. When his opponent seemed to be getting the best of him, Ali leaned against the ropes that surrounded the boxing ring, held up his hands to protect his head and body and took a real beating. When his opponent wore himself out without inflicting any serious damage, Ali got off the ropes and finished his opponent off. Did winning in this way make him the superior boxer? If we answer this question simply based on who was left standing at the end of the fight, the answer is "yes!" If we look at other factors, we might arrive at a different answer. Other boxers may have been stronger, faster, and may have had better technique. Yet, he won many championship fights. In a very real sense, Ali beat others who may actually have been better boxers than he was, at least in some important ways.

How did Ali beat other boxers, even superior boxers? His rope-a-dope technique, a strategy that he invented and used to maximum advantage, certainly contributed to Ali's success. So did his big mouth. Successful boxers are not particularly modest, but Ali made self-aggrandizement into an art form that may never be duplicated. As fast as he was with his feet, he was even faster with his mouth. Ali may have beaten other boxers with superior skills because he "psyched them out" in a way that no one has been able to duplicate.

After he retired from the ring, Ali continued to be a sought-after personality. People loved to see and hear him, and he became a successful "draw" for many causes and events. As the years progressed, Ali began to display significant physical limitations that his doctors attributed to the repeated head injuries he had sustained in the ring. As he deteriorated further, he became extremely limited physically and was barely able to speak. Everyone expected him to retire. What else could he do? Who wanted to see a seriously damaged former champion who could barely speak? Everyone! Even when he was "reduced" to making unintelligible sounds and using boxing gestures that were barely recognizable, people wanted to see and hear him. He was not a former champion! He was THE CHAMP!

Ali's will to live and to contribute in any way made him into a bigger champion in his latter years than he had been when he beat all other heavyweight boxers in the ring. Ali showed us that a real champion keeps on trying no matter what the challenge is, and no matter how small of an accomplishment meeting that challenge may seem to others. Ali was a champion, not because he beat others, but because he beat himself. He did more than anyone expected of him. He may even have done more than he expected of himself.



A camel cannot see his own hump, but he sees every other camel's hump. 

It is so easy to see everyone else's deficiencies. After all, they have so many. But me, I have no deficiencies. I am perfect. Just ask my mother!

On second thought, do not ask my mother. She will be very happy to tell you all about my many deficiencies. But ask her about her deficiencies, and she won't know what you are talking about. After all, she is perfect. Just ask her mother!

If you ask most people, they will tell you that they are much better than most people. I have never understood this. How can most people be much better than most people. Maybe it has something to do with the "new math." I guess I am just too old. 

Ask some people about their deficiencies, and they either become flustered or really can't think of any. I make a related request when I interview people for jobs. "Tell me three things about yourself that you would like to improve professionally," I prod. Many people just cannot think of any way they could improve professionally. As a last resort, many will give some variation on the following answer: I could learn more about ?x? (with ?x? being some topic that no doubt they really think they completely understand already). People think that is a safe answer since everyone needs to learn something. But if everyone needs to learn something, saying: "I need to improve professionally by learning something," means nothing.

If you ask people in a business environment about how others can improve, they also are very reluctant to answer. No one wants to sound like a "stool pigeon" and talk about their colleagues' deficiencies. But when people are on break, some seem to have unlimited bad things to say about others. Those others might even include me. Hard to believe!

Why can't a camel see its own hump? Because of where it is located in relation to where his eyes can turn. The same is true about you and me and everyone else. Our faults, as obvious and glaring as they are to others, are located in places where we cannot see them. This is not because we have a physical anatomy similar to a camel's physical anatomy. It is because we choose to hide our faults psychologically, not only from others, but also from ourselves. We do this with all sorts of "defense mechanisms." We are so afraid of knowing our faults that we cannot acknowledge that we have any.

But is having faults really so bad? Some of them might be, but most people's faults are relatively minor or innocuous. To the extent that they interfere with accomplishing our goals and our relations with others, they interfere with our being the best that we can be. Being less than the best that we can be is not so bad. In fact, only the Almighty is really the best that He can be. All humans fall short.

Accepting that I am less than perfect (OK, much less than perfect) is necessary to start any self-improvement process. The more I can accept my human failings, the more I can accept that I can be a better person. Self-improvement starts with self-awareness. Self-awareness involves knowing my strengths. It also involves knowing my deficiencies. The biggest paradox of the human condition may be that not knowing one's deficiencies may be the greatest deficiency of all.


Tuesday, May 19 , 2009



If going around in circles was a valued activity, we would all be rich.

Every amusement park seems to have a carousel that the little kids are thrilled to ride. All the carousel does is go around in circles. If you are lucky enough to get one of the better "horses," you also go up and down as you go around in circles. Regardless, the carousel does not take you anywhere.

We older folks do not particularly enjoy the carousel. Sure, we will ride along with our kids or grandkids, but that is only because they enjoy it. I doubt that any adult would choose to ride a carousel if the kids did not want to.

Even older kids do not like to ride the carousel. You could not catch one going on a carousel alone. If you are lucky, they might do you a big favor and ride along with their younger sibling to make sure he does not get hurt.

Why don't older children and adults like to ride the carousel? I am sure there are many reasons. Maybe the most important one is that we already spend too much time going around in circles.

Most of what we do does not take us anywhere. In fact, going around in circles may actually be an improvement at times because so often we are just running in place or spinning our wheels.

How can we get out of the rut that we seem to be stuck in? Many people turn to a variety of highly undesirable activities to liven up their lives: alcohol, drugs, gambling, pornography, etc. These and similar activities may be very exciting, at least at first. I may be fooling myself since I have never been one to indulge in these activities, but they do not seem to fit the bill. Within a short period of time, these activities become another way to ride the carousel. They stop being so exciting. Unless you are willing to gamble ever-larger sums of money, take larger doses of drugs, or look at increasingly perverted pornography on the Internet, you will adapt and these activities will lose their thrill.

I am sure that I do not have the entire answer, but accomplishing something valuable by giving to others must be part of the solution. Becoming part of something bigger than yourself like a religious or charitable group may also be important.

Another factor may be to enjoy the company of family and friends more. A well-known song suggests, "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with!" Perhaps it may be more appropriate, if less poetic, to say, "Two people riding the carousel together may not get any further that someone riding alone, but they are a lot less lonely."


It is impossible to anticipate all the relevant consequences of our decisions.

Recently, I was watching the news about Hurricane Gustav as it approached the New Orleans coast. Among the many human-interest issues presented, the topic of saving peoples? pets came up. During Hurricane Katrina, the government refused to provide evacuation services for pets. The logic was simple: We have hundreds of thousands of people to save. We just do not have time or resources to save pets.

Was this a logical decision for the government to make? My guess is that everyone, except for extreme pet lovers, agreed with this decision at the time. Yet, the government had reversed its policy and was now offering free emergency evacuation services for pets. What made the government change its decision?

During Hurricane Katrina, many people had decided to stay put and not evacuate without their pets. They loved their pets too much to leave them to a fate that seemed to mean sure death in the absence of their owners. Many of these people became trapped in collapsed or flooded buildings and had to be saved. Saving these people was more expensive than the projected cost of evacuating their pets. Worse still, the first responders were put in many dangerous situations while rescuing these individuals. Evacuating peoples' pets and thereby getting more people to evacuate would actually save money, the government planners decided. More important, it would mean less people at risk of being trapped and less risk for the first responders who would be called on to save them.

This story is a classic example of the law of unintended consequences. Decisions that seem to make sense based on what is known frequently turn out to be much less than sensible when the unintended consequences inevitably become known.

How can we prepare for unintended consequences? We cannot. Unintended consequences are by definition unknown when the decision is made. In some cases they are not only unknown, but also unknowable. No one can foresee every possible consequence to every decision that is made.

While we cannot prepare for unintended consequences, we can carefully watch for them all the time. Early identification of these unintended consequences enables us to adjust our decisions at the earliest possible time to minimize their negative impacts.

Thursday, MARCH 5, 2009




Nothing is innately valuable. All value comes from scarcity.

As a youngster, I struggled to understand what makes something valuable. Is there something special about gold that makes it so valuable, I wondered? Actually, there are many things about gold that are special. Gold is the most "malleable" of all metals. This means that a skilled goldsmith can create a large sheet of gold leaf from a small quantity of gold. Even though gold is so expensive per ounce, it is relatively inexpensive per square foot because it can be made so thin. Gold leaf is so inexpensive that it is used to cover the domes of mosques and other important buildings. Is this the quality that makes gold so expensive? No. This quality is one of the many characteristics that makes gold so useful. What makes it expensive is the fact that there is just not enough of it to go around. Gold is scarce. Scarcity is the common denominator among all valuable items. If gold were lying around in everyone's backyard, it would be cheap despite its great usefulness.

This rule applies to all valuables, not just commodities like gold. Skills are also valuable because they are scarce. Doctors do not make a lot more money than most other professionals in the United States because healing the sick is such an admirable profession. They make more money than other professionals do because there are not enough doctors in the United States. Doctors in Israel, in contrast, make about the same salary as bus drivers. This is due to the dramatic oversupply of doctors in Israel. As the supply of doctors in the United States has increased, their relatively high compensation has begun to decrease as well.

Many years ago as I searched for a job after being awarded my doctoral degree in psychology, I learned quickly that psychologists are not particularly scarce. Nor are they highly compensated compared to other professionals. What could I do to make my professional activities more valuable, I wondered.

As I have explained in greater detail in the early chapters of my book, "A Beautiful Business," I decided to specialize in supporting people who have severe mental retardation and behavioral complications. There were not that many people who fit that description, but the number of psychologists who were expert in their care in the mid- to late-1970s when I started my career was even less. By specializing in an area that almost no one else was interested in, I made myself a scarce and valuable professional.

This approach has become a primary principle that makes our organization special. We provide many services to many different types of people. The common denominator among all of our activities is that we serve people with the most serious and complex disorders. Most of our competitors serve people with more common - less scarce - disorders. This commitment and our exceptional success in fulfilling it are very scarce. That is the primary reason we are such a valuable organization.



Easy money is expensive money.

When I was growing up in Brooklyn, there were many small local stores that were patronized almost exclusively by people who lived in the neighborhood. When I walked into any of the several stores that my mother shopped at, the owner always greeted me by my first name. I always responded respectfully and called him Mister followed by his last name.

I never had any money when I stopped at any of these stores. The owner always was willing to let me take several items. All I had to say was, "My mom will pay you later." You might think that my mother was a wealthy woman who had a large credit account with the store. She wasn't, and she didn't. We actually were very poor. I never took anything expensive. Nor did I ever take anything that I did not need. Most important, my mother always paid ? eventually.

Getting credit in any of these stores was not that easy. Credit was based on personal relationships that were built over years. It took my mother a long time until all the local storeowners knew her and her children. Once she got this credit, however, it came with very easy terms. She did not need to pay interest, and there was no deadline to pay. As long as she paid somewhat regularly, her credit remained good. When times were bad like when she was between jobs, the store owners even "let her slide" until she could get back on her feet.

When I got a little older, a supermarket opened in the neighborhood. I did not know the owner of the supermarket. He certainly did not greet me by name when I entered the store. I doubt that the owner even worked there. If he did, he must have been in some office away from the shoppers because we never met him. We never did get credit at the supermarket. Worse still, the lower prices charged by the supermarket eventually put all of the local stores out of business. Within a few years, there was no place for my family to buy on credit. When we did not have money, we did without.

When I became an adult and got a job, I became credit worthy in my own right. This credit, however, was totally different than the credit my mother had received when I was a child. It was not based on any relationship. Instead, it was based on some formula calculated by an impersonal corporation that tracked credit worthiness of people they knew only "on paper" and eventually only "in the computer." This credit was not particularly hard to get, provided that you really did not need it. It did include very high interest payments. It also had steep penalties if you missed a payment or simply forgot to pay by the monthly deadline.

I do not miss being poor, but I do miss the trust that made the relationship between local shopkeepers and local families possible. Those days are long gone, and I suppose they will never return. Life is almost certainly much easier now, but it seems like it was so much simpler back then.

Wednesday January 28, 2009


The success of our organization is based on superior attention to the basics, not on superior esoteric knowledge or secret techniques that we have developed.

I was talking about our organization, my favorite topic of discussion, to a very sophisticated individual not long ago. After describing the variety of services we provide to the different populations we support, he surprised me by saying, "You know, you are all over the place!" He meant that unlike other organizations that focus on one or at most several activities for a given population, we do many things for many types of people.


I have thought a lot about his comment. Overall, he is correct. We are not focused on one type of service. Nor are we focused on one population of people. That does not mean we are "out of focus." In fact, I believe we are very focused - on the intersection between serious and complex challenges. I have always sought out the greatest challenges I can find. Meeting those challenges in an excellent manner has been the standard I have set for our organization. We do not always succeed, but we almost never fail completely. I say "almost" because over the past 30 years, there have been a few individuals whose challenges have proven to be more than we could handle. Clearly, we can be excellent in many ways for many people, but we cannot be everything for everyone with serious and complex challenges.

How do we succeed with excellence so often in meeting these serious and complex challenges that other organizations cannot or will not meet? Do we have superior knowledge of the most current and sophisticated techniques in our respective professions? I know that many of the professionals we employ are among the most knowledgeable and skillful in their fields. These professionals certainly contribute to our success. But many other organizations employ quality professionals. Yet, they are not committed the way we are, nor do they accomplish what we accomplish.

Have we developed secret techniques that no one else knows about? If we do, they must be so secret that even I do not know about them.

What is the "secret" to our success in meeting so many serious and complex challenges? There is no secret, just a strong and ever present commitment to the basics. Our shorthand for this commitment is summed up in just a few words: "First, we do the right thing!" Because our first and primary commitment is to "do the right thing," we are able to accomplish near miracles for many people with the most serious and complex challenges.

We do have other commitments, of course. We must meet regulatory and contractual requirements. We must maintain our financial health. We must communicate with many other organizations, individuals, and the community at large. All of these and other commitments are very important to us, but they are secondary.

"First, we do the right thing ..."

Wednesday January 28, 2009



Enjoying life is the best revenge.

I was talking with an older woman who was a survivor of the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. As is typical with older people, we started to talk about family, particularly the pleasures of grandchildren. At one point, she turned to me with a smile on her mouth and a tear in her eye and said, "For me, grandchildren are not only a great pleasure. They are the best revenge!"

At first, I was taken aback. Here was this sweet, frail old lady who was a grandmother and great-grandmother many times over. Talking about the pleasures of grandchildren seemed to come so naturally to her. But what did she mean when she equated her beautiful babies with revenge?

As a young girl, she and her family had hidden from the Nazis in a small town in Romania. Unlike most other Eastern European Jews, her family was still alive and well in 1943, four years into the war. One August day, in the early hours of the morning, they were awakened by loud, harsh banging on the door of their modest farmhouse. Had someone betrayed them to the Nazis? They did not know. They soon found themselves in a packed cattle car without food or water for three blistering hot days. After what seemed like an eternity, they arrived at Auschwitz and were lined up for the infamous "selection" process that would determine who would be sent to the gas chambers immediately and who would become slave laborers until their strength ran out.

When her father was sent in one direction and her mother and younger siblings in the other, she and her older sister did not know what to do. In a split-second decision, they decided to join their mother. As they struggled to catch up with their mother and siblings in the confusion that was an integral part of the "selection," a Jewish "capo" grabbed them and screamed at them in a language that they did not understand. Finally, he screamed in Yiddish, "You have time to die!" and he dragged them screaming and kicking to the other line where their father had previously disappeared in the confusion.

She and her sister were the only members of their family to survive to the end of the war. After a year and one-half of living hell, the American Army liberated them in April 1945. The two of them combined weighed less than 145 pounds, but somehow they regained their strength and made their way to Israel where they joined a kibbutz, married, raised families, and lived in side-by-side cottages for the past 60-plus years. Nothing had separated them in the war. Nothing has separated them since. Death may separate them soon, but only temporarily.

How much psychological angst did she experience as she worked hard to recreate a normal life after the war? More than I can imagine. Did she think about revenge for the unspeakable horrors that she and her family had experienced? No doubt. As the years passed, she gained the wisdom that some are privileged to acquire with age. She realized that inflicting pain on others, even others who may be very deserving of that treatment, could not undo the horrors of the past. If there is revenge, it is only in enjoying life, and what greater life enjoyment can there be than watching one's grandchildren grow and develop as good human beings.

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