The Kyrie Irving Trade and the Pursuit of Happiness

The space available to a point guard wanting to dart between two defenders and get to the rim in basketball is often just a sliver. By comparison, how big or small was the say/feel gap during Kyrie Irving’s answers on ESPN’s “First Take” program the other day when asked about the trade he sought, the one that has now taken him from The Cleveland Cavaliers to the Boston Celtics? The show’s main host Stephen A. Smith remarked afterwards that you have to go to the non-verbals in situations like this, situations where the answers given are cryptic. So let’s do that, using facial coding to judge the amount of space between what Irving said on the air and how he actually felt.

Here is arguably the key passage from the on-air interview, as Irving denies that his being the second best player on a team with the NBA’s best player, LeBron James, was a big factor in seeking a trade: “It didn’t have anything to do with not wanting to play with the best player on the planet. It didn’t have anything to do with not wanting to be the second fiddle . . . being a second-class citizen, I have no idea what that is. Or being a second banana, I don’t have any idea what that is.”

Reality check: The first detail is that Irving signed his previous, five-year contract extension believing the Cleveland squad would be built around him. Then 10 days later, James let it be known he would like to return to his hometown. Second, who sold the second-most Nike sneakers in the NBA last season? That would be Irving. Guess who came in first? At the same time, however, it’s hard to see how Irving was stunted given that with a steady diet of passes from James last season, Irving sets career highs for shots taken and points scored. Moreover, Irving averaged more touches of the ball than any member of the championship-winning Golden State Warriors, including their star Stephen Curry; held the ball more often than James and shot more often than James, too.

Kyrie Image 01 (259)

Now, let’s replay the passage and add in the emoting that is going on simultaneously: “It didn’t have (eyes closed, skeptical smile) anything to do with not wanting (eyes narrowed, anger) to play with the best player on the planet. It didn’t have (eyes closed, skeptical smile, upper lip flares slightly in disgust) anything to do with not wanting to be the (lip suck followed by lips tightened in anger, plus again eyes close) second (outer eyebrow arches in surprise and fear, skeptical smile, another upper lip flair) fiddle . . .

Kyrie Image 02 (304)

being a second-class citizen (eyebrows knit in anger, anxiety and sadness), I have no idea (head tilts back, outer eyebrow arches) what that is (eyes narrow in anger). Or being a second banana, I don’t have (eyes close, lips tighten in anger) any idea what (lower lip stretches slightly down and out in a sign of disgust) that is.”

Kyrie Image 03 (306)

In short, has Irving made a dispassionate decision to move on to Boston, and away from James? Hardly. There’s far too much emoting going on, despite the innocuous language being used here. Is Irving being less than straightforward? Certainly. Here’s his dilemma. Irving is rightfully pursuing his dreams (and probably making a shrewd bet that the Cavaliers aren’t likely to win another championship anytime soon), but he also doesn’t want to come across as too selfish in what is, after all, a team sport. For people trying “to square a circle,” there is no lying muscle in the face that gives away their struggle to make palatable what isn’t going to be fully palatable to everybody else. But among the items to look for is whether somebody dissembling is, in effect, disappointed in him or herself for doing so by showing sadness. In this case, the repeated instances of either a downcast look or Irving’s eyes closing entirely for a moment could easily be interpreted as clues that he’s choosing “to be blind” as to the less than candid nature of his remarks. How about the signs of anger and disgust? Surely, they could be seen as clues to Irving resisting the idea of, in fact, being the second best player when matched with James on court (anger) as well as rejecting that situation (disgust) as he, in fact, did by asking for a trade.

Moreover, have we seen this situation before? Yes, we did just last year when Kevin Durant jumped from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Golden State Warriors.  Then, Durant like Irving, here, said all the right things about wanting to develop as a player and also as a man. Only what did Durant tweet over the past weekend? Referring to himself in the third person, he wrote: “He didn’t like the organization or playing for Billy Donovan [the team’s coach]. His roster wasn’t that good. It was just him and Russ [Russell Westbrook].” A second tweet added: “KD can’t win with those cats.” Caught, at least Durant was honest in saying at a conference days later: “I happened to take it a little too far.”

Can we expect something similar, someday, from Irving? I suspect so. The Cavaliers have all sorts of issues to content with, ranging from good odds that James will leave after next season for the Los Angeles Lakers, or somewhere else; that the roster didn’t strengthen this off-season, leaving the Cavaliers no match for a Warriors squad that upgraded during the off-season (a likely, attempted trade of Irving by the Cavaliers may have been the final straw for Irving in deciding to leave on his own terms); to an organization in plenty of disarray. Is it easy playing with James? Surely, no easier than playing with Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant was, to name but two super-stars with hyper-competitive personalities. Like Durant as well as San Antonio Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich, James tends to pout some and is rarely satisfied with anything short of stellar, on-court performances.

Several times during his on-air interview, Irving returned to this theme: a desire to be “extremely, extremely happy in perfecting my craft” (a big happiness smile). But then when the point guard said he “had nothing but love for Cleveland,” an equally big show of happiness was accompanied by a flaring upper lip betraying disgust. In other words, Irving was being on-message but only partially on-emotion. More disgust and anger was shown in Irving saying he wanted a “truthful environment, and I wasn’t getting that.” With James as the Cavalier’s star, and de facto coach if not also the team’s general manager, yes, anybody else is second fiddle there. Now in Boston, Irving can show everybody just how well he can or can’t play first fiddle instead.

Ambitious Humor: Jerry Lewis & Dick Gregory

So, here’s a quiz involving two men: the son of frequently absent, on-the-road vaudevillians (Jerry Lewis,) and a kid raised in a single-parent household where poverty meant him and his five siblings didn’t “eat off the floor” because if “you dropped something off the table, it never reached the floor” (Dick Gregory). These two major-league comedians passed away on adjoining days this August. Now for the first quiz question: which of them felt twice as much fear as his fellow funnyman?

Lewis Gregory 01

Let’s assume you didn’t get fooled by Jerry Lewis at the height of his success, performing in The Nutty Professor (1963). In that movie, Lewis is at once both the inept, shy Professor Julius Kelp and the swaggering nightclub lounge singer Buddy Love. Was that hit a retelling of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or an echo of Jerry Lewis’s decade-long collaboration with Dean Martin; who can say for sure? Either way, the vote for greater anxiety should go to Dick Gregory, shown here with deep forehead wrinkles. As a stand-in for an ill comedian, Gregory got his big break taking the stage at the Playboy Club in Chicago in 1961, where he faced a convention of frozen-food executives from the South. How did Gregory win over the audience members? Maybe most of all by telling them this joke: “This white waitress came up to me and said, ‘We don’t serve colored people here.’” Gregory’s supposed reply: “That’s all right, I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.”

The next quiz question is, who showed the most anger of these two comedians?

Lewis Gregory 02

It’s not even close. Described in a New York Times obituary as “A mercurial personality who could flip from naked neediness to towering rage,” Lewis wins. Indeed, nearly half the emoting evident from a range of photos spanning his career involves anger. What Lewis’s on-stage and on-screen screwball capering partially hid was raw ambition and drive. Lewis wanted to control his own destiny. When his collaboration with Martin fell apart, Lewis and his dominating hand in shaping their routine was the primary cause. That set-back hardly gave the guy pause. Soon a record by Lewis reached No. 3 on the Billboard chart and, given a contract on his own terms by Paramount, Lewis would then direct five movies in five years. With the first of those movies, The Bellboy (1960), Lewis also invented the video assist: a still commonly used device that allows directors to review their output immediately on-set.

Lewis sought to be loved through achieving show-biz success, and his anger was expressed with tightened eyelids and lips pressed firmly together. In contrast, Gregory sought to pursue justice and while his anger could appear in ways similar to Lewis’s anger, more characteristically Gregory’s anger emerged from eyes wide and alert as well as through the contemplative vertical crease between his eyebrows. Prior to his extended contract at The Playboy Club, Gregory had worked part-time sorting mail in a post office, where he tossed letters intended for Mississippi into a slot marked “overseas.” By 1962, Gregory had joined a protest in favor of black voting rights in that same Southern state, and a lifetime of social activism followed.

Gregory showed twice as much sadness as Lewis, and compared to Lewis’s many broad grins rarely ever offered more than a slight, wistful smile. He would perch on a stool on stage, hardly moving except to take a drag on his cigarette while delivering lines like, “I heard we’ve got lots of black astronauts. Saving them for the first spaceflight to the sun.” In comparison, Lewis’s forte was leavening his career-focused anger with big smiles and plenty of trust-nobody-and-nothing contempt. Lewis might well have enjoyed his success. But after having been passed among relatives as a boy, while his parents were away entertaining, Lewis had become a star who didn’t like to rely on anybody but himself. Note the tight smirk atop the right side of Lewis’s smiling publicity photo.

Lewis Gregory 03 (resize)

As to their respective legacies, Lewis is lionized in France. Why, the celebrated New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard even once declared Lewis to be greater than Charlie Chaplin. The explanation is that Lewis’s movies are seen by intellectual anti-intellectuals in Paris both as satires on American society and as Surrealistic exposes on the limits of language and reason. Here in America, however, Lewis never received a single Oscar nomination, not even for the more serious role of playing a talk-show host kidnapped by an aspiring comedian in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982).

Gregory fared no better in contests, if you count the 47,133 votes he received running for president in 1968 on the Freedom and Peace Party ticket. But Gregory had his successes, too, and plenty of sway. Gregory was part of the chorus chanting on John Lennon’s impromptu recording of “Give Peace a Chance,” and was a cross-over pioneer who reached white America before Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor got there. What Gregory didn’t care about was money, and the $2 billion that Lewis raised during the 40 years he hosted telethons for the Muscular Dystrophy Association separates these two men just as distinctly as does their very different emotional profiles.

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Trump’s Trump Tower Press Conference Tirade

Tuesday’s press conference was meant to be relatively mundane, a matter of talking about the President’s infrastructure re-development initiatives. In the greater scheme of things, important but a yawn all the same. What we got, instead, as citizens of America was a look into Donald Trump’s soul and maybe, just maybe the effective end of his young presidency.

The administrative figures flanking Trump or in the vicinity within Trump Tower weren’t having a good time. Look at this still image of National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, on Trump’s left. And back by a blue curtain set up for the event, there was White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly: the guy brought in to restore some discipline to a radically dysfunctional White House. Reports are that the staffers in attendance and those watching the live footage back in Washington, D.C. reacted with dismay and worry. They were left stunned and numb by what they were witnessing. Some of them apparently doubt that Trump’s presidency can recover. Even more striking, some of them apparently doubt Trump’s capacity to handle his Oval Office duties—an assessment now shared by Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) in questioning the President’s “stability.”

Trump Press Conference Cohn & Kelly (resize)

As for Trump himself, however, he left this free-riffing press conference reportedly elated. What a relief, he felt, to be free of the shackles he wore earlier this week. To let his staff force him to give that earlier, teleprompter-chained account of his reaction to the events in Charlottesville, Virginia was by comparison such a drag. What does a freely emoting, raw Trump look like? Here’s his emotional profile, reflecting how often he felt these emotions while answering reporters’ questions after he finished his formal, initial infrastructure remarks at Trump Tower.

Trump Press Conference Emo Profile

What’s noteworthy here?  As I wrote about earlier, happiness hardly exists for the guy. Across the levels of happiness from joy down to mere acceptance, that upbeat emotion was in short supply on Tuesday. The difference is that on this occasion of extreme venting, frustration (anger) clearly won the day, with derisive skepticism and dislike (disgust) next most common. Sadness took a back seat this time around, relatively speaking—though there were plenty of moments when Trump closed his eyes in disappointment regarding how the press treats him.

More interesting still was how the President felt regarding the topics he touched on. Our emotions turn on when something matters to us. So notice which topics Trump was most engaged by, as well as the degree to which his emotions per topic were positive vs. negative (the appeal score). Is senior advisor Steve Bannon at risk of losing his job? You’d have to say so, when only a critic Trump detests, Senator John McCain, gets a bigger emotional thumbs-down from the President. More importantly, was the President, in fact, holding the so-called “alt left” as much to blame as the alt right for the events in Charlottesville? The results here show Trump more negative about the alt left’s role, though the “fake news” press, Trump’s CEO critics, and the prospect of Robert E. Lee’s statue and those of other Confederate leaders being removed are all topics that draw even more ire from this president. In positive terms, only the economy does better than Trump’s favorite topic—himself—which would have got the most positive score if not for Trump’s snorts about not being appreciated enough.

Trump Press Conference Cartesian

When I said a look into Trump’s soul in opening this piece, I meant it. Totally unvarnished Trump is something to behold. Let me wrap it up here with a mini photo album of Trump’s various looks during the Trump Tower press conference on Tuesday:

Trump Press Conference screencap 01

  • There’s the “Cheerio look” as Trump refutes his CEO critics. Note how the President’s upper lip and lower lip simultaneously extend upward and downward in disgust, transforming his mouth into an O-shape.

Trump Press Conference screencap 02

  • There’s Trump feeling venomous anger as he insists he’s more perceptive than the media (“I watched … very closely, much more closely than you people”).

Trump Press Conference screencap 03

  • There’s Trump wincing in sadness because he’s not being given enough credit for having “condemned many different groups.”

Trump Press Conference screencap 04

  • There’s Trump happy to be discussing himself (“Does anyone know I own a house in Charlottesville?”

Trump Press Conference screencap 05

  • And finally, while I’ve long hoped that Trump was no worse for our country than the former, scandal-plagued Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, a businessman himself, there’s Trump aping that country’s former fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, given this smug expression.

Heaven help us all.

The Emoji Movie Is Deaf, but Not Blind

To go see The Emoji Movie when you know it’s hovering around the 5-7% level of approval on Rotten Tomatoes is a little like booking passage on The Titanic when you’re clairvoyant enough to know it’s soon going to sink. For those who haven’t seen the movie, Gene is the super-expressive emoji who headlines the plot. All in all, The Emoji Movie is as meh as Gene’s listless, indifferent parents are meant to be. When the plot kicks into high gear—Gene heading for the cloud to be reprogrammed to become a one-dimensional, single emotion like the other conforming emojis—the movie paradoxically dies. The great adventure of Gene and his two sidekicks (the emojis Hi-5 and Jailbreak) proves to be a great bore instead. Frenetic, animated action can’t hide the fact that a movie about feelings lacks any itself.

Yet the movie is selling well, so what’s going on? Beyond Sony’s marketing stunts like a flood of movie posters, billboards, and even the dispatching of actors wearing emoji costumes, why could The Emoji Movie have actually been good if not great? The script is deaf in terms of making us care that emojis really could matter in the life of a teenager like Alex, on whose phone Gene and the other cast members “live.” But the premise and promise of this movie aren’t blind to what’s happening in our society at large.

Emoji Small (resize)

On my phone, on which I only half-smartly leverage the tools it offers, 21 emojis are readily available to supplement any text message I send. Of those 21, 18 are variations of a smiling face.  That means 86% of my options involve positive feelings—nearly the opposite of how I and others have felt about The Emoji Movie, according to those who have declared their reactions to it on Rotten Tomatoes. Now I admit to being like others, maybe even more so. I use those emojis all the time in texting my tennis buddies, with whom I’m often a little annoyed. It’s not much fun “herding cats” as I try to align four schedules in order to play a doubles match after work or on the weekends.

In other words, emojis are helping me lie. They’re a stand-in, masking frustration, cajoling the others to fall into place and play despite a nagging injury or a busy day. Writ large, emojis provide a way not to write, not to figure out how best to express your own feelings in words. Or again, emojis serve to shade the truth. The truth is The Emoji Movie stinks. Emojis are easy to use, hence a large part of their popularity. And now The Emoji Movie has taken the easy way out. It’s not a movie so much as it is, at times, a walking, talking exercise in branding. App and game references abound, including: Spotify, the Twitter bird, Just Dance Now, Dropbox, Instagram, and Candy Crush. Did I leave out anyone? Are there any other corporate sponsors or product placements Sony sought to build into the movie’s script?

Today, the sweep of human history from the use of hieroglyphs to emojis, which began late in the 1990s, has brought us to the point where, in the new digital era, face-to-face conversations or even a phone call have obviously become withering options. I’ve joined the parade, but not without a twinge of guilt. Emojis can clearly democratize communication. Almost anyone at any age (four-year-olds, pestering their parents to see the movie?) can use an emoji.  And there are the pseudo-customized, “intimate” emojis we can use (a taco, or whatever) to “reinforce” our unique, personal identity.

Emoji Big (resize)

Or is it that our selfhood is becoming merely a brand association, a small planet pulled into the gravitational pull of a universe cluttered with company logos, products and services? In effect, The Emoji Movie could be “celebrating” the opportunity to further commercialize communication, if only there was enough joy on screen to justify that verb choice. A relentlessly happy-faced emoji, named Smiler, is cast as the movie’s anti-hero, the falsely-grinning enforcer who rules the city of Textopolis hidden inside the smartphone of Alex: The dumb-ass teenager struggling to send appropriate text messages to a cute girl. But what if Smiler is actually, most of all, the embodiment of fake (emotional) news to which we all lazily succumb? In the end, I found that a far more compelling, albeit worrisome, prospect than the movie on the screen in front of me.

I’m Lovin’ It: Donald Trump Jr. & Russian Collusion

When your father often behaves like a child, the enfant terrible of the family, it’s got to do a number on your psyche. Then throw in for extra measure this same father all but publicly lusting after your striking sister (“If I weren’t happily married and, ya know, her father . . . .” being but one of many vulgar examples). Now you’re really in trouble. So it goes with Donald Trump Jr. in what has to be a fruitless attempt to secure the admiration and affection of a father mostly obsessed with himself. On a daily basis, Donald Trump Jr. shares with his father, Donald Trump, and his sister, Ivanka Trump, the family trait of scoring relatively high on disgust. (“It’s disgusting, it’s so phony” Donald Trump Jr. told CNN when asked about allegations that Russia was trying to help his father’s campaign.) But whereas the mostly confident, even cocky Ivanka also scores high on contempt, her older brother Donald Trump Jr. wavers instead in another direction emotionally speaking. Along with disgust, sadness is the other most distinct feeling he displays – though not to the extreme, endlessly-disappointed-in-failing-to-secure-universal-acclaim level of his dad, the president.

Trump Family Blog Photo 071217 (resize)

Father and son often share the chin-raising version of disgust, but Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump are likewise prone to the flared upper lip version of that same emotion.

All of this brings us around to the overshadowed son trying to bring home some sizzling bacon two months before CNN asked him about the Russia allegations. I’m talking of course about the now disclosed email trail that shows Donald Trump Jr.’s eagerness to meet with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer in hopes of getting some compromising dirt on Hillary Clinton back in June 2016.

June 3, 2016, 10:35 a.m. email to Donald Trump Jr. from go-between Rob Goldstone

“[There’s an offer] to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary . . . . This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russian and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

June 3, 2016, 10:53 a.m., email reply from Donald Trump Jr.

“If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”

I include the timing here for the simple reason that simple isn’t always better, despite McDonald’s augmenting its long-running slogan, I’m Lovin’ It, with the newer The Simpler the Better over the last two years. Sometimes simpler actually isn’t very smart, as is the case here. Being eager to meet with an emissary from a generally hostile foreign government eager to meddle in your country’s most important political contest? Then holding the meeting in your office, one floor below the office of your father in Trump Tower, no less? Neither move strikes me as well thought out. What ever happened to stopping to reflect? Nor is this rapid-fire decision-making either very ethical or patriotic in an old-fashioned, Jimmy Stewart Mr. Smith Goes to Washington sort of way.

First, the longing-to-matter son says the newly disclosed meeting was to discuss resuming the adoption of Russian orphans by Americans. Then by degrees the truth comes out, excluding of course an appearance on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox. There the emoting by Donald Trump Jr. was a blizzard of downward eye-castings suggestive of sad disappointment in himself for getting embroiled in such a mess, along with a mouth tightened and occasionally, fleetingly stretched in expressions of grimacing fear.

Trump Jr Hannity Photo 071217 (resize)

As for the president, he’s applauding his “high-quality” son for his “transparency” in releasing the email trail just ahead of a New York Times deadline for soliciting Donald Trump Jr.’s input on the soon-to-be published, newly more complete story of the Trump Tower meeting. Remember candidate Trump boasting in Iowa in January 2016 that “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” Well, Trump Tower is on 5th Avenue in Manhattan and now we have the spectacle of Donald Trump Jr. having in effect shot himself by holding an ill-advised, possibly illegal meeting, followed by a clumsy cover-up. What we won’t do in search of love.

Police Shootings: Black and Blue (Yet Again)

Here’s a quick quiz for you to take. On average across three sources (two national polls, and a keyword research tool study of people’s most common online search terms), what are supposedly the biggest fears of your fellow Americans? Put the following list of 10 options into the correct order, ranking them from first to tenth:

  • Rejection
  • Clowns
  • Public Speaking
  • Terrorists
  • Spiders
  • Failure
  • Intimacy
  • Heights
  • Death
  • Flying

Notice anything odd about the list? I do. Among the possible top 10 choices, other people only explicitly appear twice: as terrorists and, improbably enough, as clowns! But how strong is people’s fear of being socially embarrassed? Pretty strong I’d say, considering that everything from rejection to public speaking to intimacy and maybe even (being judged a) failure make the list of possibilities; and clowns could I suppose fit there, too, assuming that what a clown found or made funny might include aspects of one’s own behavior.

Seriously, though, I think the list is crucially devoid of honesty in one key aspect because it doesn’t include people who don’t look like us (skin color) or believe in what we believe in (religion, politics, and social customs). Let’s just call this category: others. The 10 options I gave you appear in inverse order, which means that “flying” is #1 and “rejection” is #10, with “people” and “criminals” being options that might fit “others” but didn’t get strong, consistent enough results across these three particular sources to qualify for the overall, composite top 10 list.

Under “others” could be DWB, the acronym ruefully used by African-Americans to describe the dangers of Driving While Black. And what a huge risk it is. In a suburb of my city, St. Paul, we’re still dealing with the aftermath of the trial of police officer Jeronimo Yanez for shooting Philando Castile. In short, what began as a seemingly routine traffic stop because a brake light was out on the car being driven by Mr. Castile quickly turned deadly.

A dashboard camera video from the police car shows the exchange that resulted in Officer Yanez firing seven shots. In less than five seconds from the moment Castile finishes telling Yanez that he’s carrying a registered firearm, the shooting has begun, after a panicked Yanez repeats: “Don’t pull it out.” There’s no doubt that Yanez is scared, even “afraid for his life” as he testified in court. On the cop car video, Yanez’s rigid, frozen stance as he fires his gun, his hoarse voice, his panicked breathing, and his traumatized screams of easily a dozen instances of “fuck” after the shooting are fully evident.

As for the facial expressions of either Yanez or Castile, however, the cop car video is captured from too far away to tell us anything. But the victim’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, was livestreaming the aftermath on Facebook, and from that video what’s remarkable is both her presence of mind to be able to record her summation of what she believes actually happened as well as her degree of calm. Yes, her eyes are wide and her mouth initially distorted with fear.  But otherwise she’s remarkably unflappable, reassuring Yanez that she’ll cooperate with his requests (“I will, sir. No worries, I will”), not giving in to anger, not yet experiencing much sadness (her eyes do close momentarily when she says, “Please don’t tell me my boyfriend just went like that”), and only once showing disgust (a raised upper lip when she says, “I’ll keep my hands where they are”). It’s not until she’s handcuffed in the squad car that a whimpering cry from her causes her preschool age daughter to comfort her by saying, “It’s okay, I’m right here with you.”

In Milwaukee, Tulsa, Cincinnati and elsewhere, the police shootings involving DWB go on and the trials that mostly lead to acquittals do, too. I have a brother-in-law who’s now retired from being a traffic cop in Seattle. From hearing him recount his experiences, there’s no doubt that fear exists on both side, for black motorists and blue-uniformed officers. Body cam video rarely if ever reveals people’s facial expressions, but the abruptness of the shootings is unmistakably evident. Two, maybe three seconds and somebody else is suddenly blood-stained and dying or dead.

With fear, it’s a matter of fight, flight or freeze. Sometimes the motorists freeze. Other times, they engage in attempted flight (running off or trying to drive away). For the cops, flight isn’t an option because it means they’re not doing their jobs and to freeze would be a greater risk to themselves than to fight by shooting a gun they’ve been trained to use.

Fear isn’t very conducive to either party hearing—much less understanding—what the other side is saying or intends to do.

The bottom line is that fear isn’t very conducive to either party hearing—much less understanding—what the other side is saying or intends to do. The fear that leads to abrupt shootings results in quick action, but the fear itself is long-standing and deep-rooted of course. The officers are scrambling to help maintain the status quo, the law of the land. They often live in dread while pledging to serve and protect the general public. Meanwhile, for their part it’s doubtful any black motorists would be surprised to know that when black veterans returned from World War One nearly a century ago, their newly acquired marksmanship frightened many whites. The resulting race riots of 1919 earned the nickname Red Summer, given the bloody and wrenchingly unfair outcome.

Gut Check: Federer, Nadal & Williams

A couple of years ago, I met Chris Evert at her tennis academy in Florida when I was there to address her student athletes on the topic of what it takes, emotionally, to be a champion player. Evert quietly joined the meeting and before long piped up to ask: “How about anger?” Yes, anger matters I answered: grit, determination—the urge to fight through tough patches and control your destiny. Yes, certainly anger matters. But where I lost Evert (I could read it on her face that she checked out) is when I added that after everything was said and done, anger was nevertheless but a part of the picture. For instance, to take the example Evert then raised—Serena Williams—disgust matters, too.

It’s hardly a complete list of the all-time greats who have won multiple grand slam events (the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, or the U.S. Open). But here are how some of the best-ever players have fared, and which of the negative core emotions they score especially high or low on compared to what’s typical over a range of hundreds of famous people, sports stars and non-sports stars alike. (As to happiness, by the way, Venus Williams and Billie Jean King distinguish themselves by feeling intense happiness much more often than is usual across the pool of celebrities I have facially coded over the years.)

Tennis Grand Slam Emo Comparison (resize)

Because the Wimbledon tournament has begun, and Williams is on the cover of Vanity Fair profoundly pregnant, instead of on Wimbledon’s grass courts, let start with this year’s two resurgent great male players: Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal. Just as Williams holds the Open Era record with 23 grand slam event titles, so do Federer and Nadal sit atop the men’s rankings as the greatest male grand slam event titleholders with 18 and 15 victories apiece.

Federer Nadal & Serena Blog Photo (resize)

Federer shows the highest amount of anger of any of the 12 players in my chart, just ahead of Billie Jean King. Score a nod to Evert’s belief that anger is the key to success in tennis, but then add an asterisk that I would like to believe Evert herself would endorse. And it’s this: over-indulge in anger and you endanger success. Given Federer’s graciousness on court these days, many tennis fans might be shocked to learn that early in his career Federer was by his own admission a “hothead.” Racquets got hurled or broken, and the Swiss maestro would argue with his dad (though not with umpires or opponents). In a 2009 match against Novak Djokovic in Miami, Federer mangled a racquet while losing. But in general, after his mentor and coach Peter Carter died during a safari in South Africa in 2002, Federer has been able to honor Carter’s advice to stop wasting energy on court with temper tantrums. “I just tried to find ways to calm myself down on the court,” Federer has said of his transformation to becoming the epitome of sportsmanship on and off the court.

Yes, anger matters in terms of fighting spirit and equilibrium alike. But as my chart illustrates, don’t overlook disgust. Federer’s arch rival Rafa Nadal isn’t just the King of Clay. Nadal is also the most given to disgust of any of the players here that score high on disgust—a pattern that distinguishes the very best grand-slam winners covered here. Look at how Nadal’s upper lip curls in disgust as he goes up into his service motion or after he prevails in a long rally. Like the way Federer’s anger is self-directed, often a reminder to himself to avoid “dumb shots,” Nadal’s disgust is mostly inner-focused. It’s a matter of an almost neurotically ritualistic Nadal willing himself to rise above the stench of mediocrity.

“Nadal’s disgust is mostly inner-focused, willing himself to rise above the stench of mediocrity.”

For Serena Williams, feelings of disgust serve a similar purpose I believe: it’s inner-directed and reflects her compulsion to win. But unlike Nadal, Williams disgust often emerges in the way she wrinkles her nose accompanying a triumphant exclamation upon hitting a winner.  As any parent knows, siblings aren’t likely to be emotionally identical; and Serena shows twice as much disgust as does her older sister Venus Williams. As to Serena Williams’ amount of anger, it’s not the volume but the intensity of the anger that the younger Williams tennis sibling shows that’s noteworthy. Case in point remains the vehement outrage Serena Williams displayed when called for a foot fault during the semi-finals of the 2009 U.S. Open. Williams’ obscenity-laced rebuke of the lines judge led to a further point penalization, awarding the match to Williams’ opponent in a move you’d never see from the new, more restrained version of Federer. “An apology? How many people yell at lines people? I see it happening all the time,” an unrepentant Williams declared afterwards.

Not famous for apologies himself, John McEnroe calls Williams “the greatest female tennis player, no question,” despite Steffi Graff’s 22 grand slams or Evert’s own 18 grand slams  to go with her incredible 90% match winning percentage across all surfaces and all tournaments Evert played in. But McEnroe claims Williams would rank maybe “like 700” on the men’s pro tour. What is he overlooking? I’d start by noting Williams’ indomitable will power. When it comes to a gut-check, it’s actually Williams’ disgust combined with her fear (of losing) that is most striking emotionally about her game.  Overall, my chart suggests that disgust should join anger in being a key predictor of tennis dominance. They’re both strong, visceral emotions: it’s just that in terms of mental toughness, anger and  therefore “anger management” usually attract most of the attention.

From Wells Fargo to Uber, Anger Rides Roughshod

The saying “The buck stops here” has certainly taken on new meaning in an era of enormous executive pay. But in focusing in this case on a pair of CEO’s, let’s not overlook the fate of their less-well compensated employees and abused customers.

Two companies stand as cautionary tales. The first is Wells Fargo, with its brand image of a stage coach heralding the San Francisco-based bank’s heritage in the Wild West. The other is the ride-sharing service Uber, also based in the Bay area, a start-up already valued at nearly $70 billion. While Wells Fargo and Uber represent the old versus the new economy and are in different sectors, ultimately they share one problem in common: newly departed leaders that have run roughshod over others.

The founder and now former CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, has gotten more media ink, making him the juicer target to start with. Should the company’s backers have known there was going to be trouble before it erupted into public view? Absolutely, if an emotional read of Kalanick’s temperament has any bearing. I’ve facially coded dozens of company leaders and Kalanick is way out of the normal range on a key barometer: anger. That emotion constitutes nearly half of Kalanick’s emoting – a level I’ve seen in only one other executive, Mark Parker of Nike, who has the saving grace of also showing three times more sadness as Kalanick. (By the way, in 2015 Parker was named Businessperson of the Year by Fortune magazine.)

What makes anger so dangerous, and why might sadness be an offsetting benefit (at least in Parker’s case)? In the now infamous Uber ride caught on camera on Super Bowl Sunday earlier this year, Kalanick is heard telling one of his fellow passengers regarding Uber’s corporate culture and future goals: “If it’s easy, I’m not pushing hard enough.” Anger can be about assertiveness and trying to take control of your circumstances in order to make progress, as befits any entrepreneur like Kalanick. But excessive anger brings us back to the underlying reality that anger causes people to hit out or even demolish whatever presents itself as a barrier to progress and control.

Sometimes that “barrier” was the few women at Uber, generally ignored, except when being  sexually harassed in one of Silicon Valley’s ultimate “bro culture” firms. Sometimes it was the regulators that Uber was seeking to hoodwink and bully. Sometimes it might have even been Google, whose driverless car designs Uber may have pilfered illegally. In contrast, the offsetting advantage of sadness is that it is often an empathetic, caring emotion. Paired with anger, sadness can soften anger’s rough edges. Whereas anger wants to race ahead, sadness in effect puts on the brakes and helps us ponder the consequences of our actions.

Whereas anger wants to race ahead, sadness in effect puts on the brakes

“Bullshit,” says Kalanick on that Super Bowl evening to the driver who complains that changes in Uber’s business model have devastated him financially. Now leaning forward inside the car to refute and berate the driver, Kalanick comes out of the shadows and is clearly angry. His lips are compressed, and they stay tight as he calls the driver one of those people who “blame everything in their life on somebody else.” The driver’s retort, as Kalanick leaves the car in a huff, is to tell him: “I know you won’t go far.” How prophetic that remark proved to be given Kalanick’s recent, forced resignation!

The Wells Fargo situation was another mess long in the making. As it turns out, for up to half a decade the company’s very modestly paid tellers and other employees were being told to pursue a total of eight separate accounts per household.  Why such a high standard for cross-selling, when the industry average was maybe half of that? “Eight rhymes with great” was always the answer of the now-departed CEO John Stumpf. Forged signatures, stolen social security numbers: those were among the tactics that beleaguered employees resorted to, hoping to fulfill their inflated, arbitrary, cross-selling quotas. And in instances where they didn’t get there, over 5,000 “team members” were terminated.

Uber WF Blog Photo (resize)

A couple of years ago, Stumpf was caught on camera talking about how “You can’t teach caring.” I guess Stumpf was right, at least in his own case. When he next was memorable on camera it was to testify before Congress this past September, with a hand conspicuously bandaged because apparently he hurt it the weekend before “playing with his grandchildren.” Really, that was the cause?  I’d lay 5 to 1 odds on that excuse as opposed to actually slamming his hand into a wall, or something else, while boiling over with anger knowing his goose was cooked.

Before Congress, Stumpf was his usual self. His right eyebrow raised repeatedly in a clear sign of fear, accompanied by eyes wide open and a mouth that pulled wide. Is fear endemic to Stumpf’s personality? Or does all that fearful emoting, over the years, reflect the emotional toll of enforcing results by whatever means necessary? Who wouldn’t be uneasy when you’re being asked for the number of senior leaders at Wells Fargo who got fired for the cross-selling fraud, and the answer is exactly zero?  It must be hard to talk about “deepening relationships” with customers when actually cross-selling is all you mean. Moreover, an uneasy Stumpf must have known the mess he ended up leaving his former colleagues at the bank.

Always look for the repeat patterns in people’s behavior. They tell the truth more than words ever will. The latest news involving Wells Fargo is a lawsuit accusing the bank of making improper changes to people’s mortgages, changes that would extend the loans for decades, changes that would net the bank far more in earnings over the course of the elongated loans. What was that sanctimonious observation, again? Oh, yeah: “You can’t teach caring.” What Stumpf was actually good at was selling off $13 million worth of Wells Fargo stock just prior to heading to Washington, D.C. to dodge the bad news as best he could.

Two Quagmires: Greece and Afghanistan

Afghanistan & Greece Blog Photo (resize)

“Viet Nam is our great adventure—and a wonderful one it is!”

-Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey (1967)

In a single, 24-hour news cycle, I caught two stories that left me wondering whether to laugh or cry. What’s the underlying similarity of the European Union (EU) agreeing to unlock loans of 8.5 billion euros for Greece, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis ordering as many as 5,000 troops to Afghanistan?  They’re both manifestations of the all too human tendency to be susceptible to the sunk cost fallacy.

For all of us, here’s a quick refresher:  the sunk cost fallacy describes how people justify increasing their investment of money, time, and lives into what are, quite frankly, hopeless situations. Prior costs won’t pay off. Behind this escalation of commitment lies another term: loss aversion. Human nature is to ignore or downplay the prospect of losses because then you have to admit to lapses of judgment, both to yourself and others. It’s far easier to maintain (false) optimism and a belief that you can still will a positive outcome.

Let’s start with Afghanistan, and Mattis’s latest testimony before Congress.  “We’re not winning in Afghanistan right now and we will correct this as soon as possible,” the General told the Armed Services Committee. Sounds plausible, right? But that’s not true if you’re watching the facial expressions that accompany Mattis’s statement. After “right now,” the General’s glance lowers and stays low in an unmistakable sign of sadness. He’s on-emotion, faithfully conveying emotionally what his message is: I’m disappointed in events there.

What’s off-emotion, however, is when Mattis adds: “And we will correct this as soon as possible.” After “correct this,” Mattis smirks. After “as soon as possible,” the sad look-away returns. Therein emerges reality. A smirk is a sign of contempt, of distrust and disrespect—in this case, I believe, Mattis disrespecting himself for his assertion that things will get better in Afghanistan. Mattis knows better. America doesn’t have control over what will happen. Between Afghan tribalism and corruption, and Pakistani self-interest, the Taliban can’t and won’t be effectively sidelined.

The situation in Greece is only better in that nobody is outright dying. Grinding poverty and loss of hope are more the issues of the day. The Greek debt crisis has now been going on since 2010. In fact, it began on the very day I was leaving Athens after speaking at a sales conference. At the airport, the newspaper headlines were blaring the Greek government’s first admission that the scope of the country’s EU debt (to German and French bankers, among others) vastly exceeded prior admissions.

I don’t deny that the Greek crisis has its tragic-comedic aspects.  Remember the 2012 quarterfinals match between Greece and Germany in the run-up to deciding that year’s European soccer champion? Prior to losing 4-1, Greece momentarily tied the score at 1-1. In response its fans unleashed the chant, “We’ll never pay you back,” taunting in particular the most notable German fan in attendance, chancellor Angela Merkel.

But buried within the EU/Greek dynamic, you’ll find the same emotional cocktail of sad misgivings, fear of exposure to risk, blind optimism, and abiding anger—as if the situation really can be brought under control—that is evident in Afghanistan. “Overall, I think this is a major step forward,” said Jeroen Dijsselbloem of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) of the latest loans to Greece. The loans will supposedly “enable Greece to stand on its own feet again over the course of the next year,” he added.

Never mind that Greece’s economy has shrunk by nearly a fifth since 2010, that unemployment stands at nearly 25%, or that some of the Greek debt now has due dates stretching out to mid-century. Everything will be fine, of course. Egos and pocketbooks won’t allow for any other forecast. Loss aversion rules. At least as the saying goes, “throwing good money after bad,” isn’t as reprehensible as trying to apply that cliché to Afghanistan. In that case, we would all properly shudder at the notion that there have been “bad” lives lost, for which more good U.S. soldiers will now get thrown into the fray.

Who’s the Real “Nut Job”: Comey or Trump?

Comey Trump Blog Photo (resize)

“The most outrageous lies that can be invented will find believers if a man only tells them with all his might.”

Mark Twain

If you’re going to tell a lie, tell a big lie. How better to stun your rivals. It’s awfully rich irony to hear Donald Trump accuse the now-fired FBI Director, James B. Comey, of being “a grandstander” and a “showboat.” That anybody, anywhere on earth could qualify as more ego-centric and media-attention hungry than Donald Trump is, frankly, close to impossible to imagine.

But let’s leave those two audacious epitaphs alone in favor of one with more importance to the drama playing out in Washington, D.C.  Was there collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia? Has there now been some degree of obstruction of justice by the Trump administration in seeking to lift “the cloud” of doubt hanging over The White House? In the he-said, he-said battle of credibility between Trump’s and Comey’s  differing accounts of their private interactions, the epitaph of greatest relevancy is Trump calling Comey “crazy” and “a real nut job” (during a meeting with his Russian visitors to the White House, no less).

To those of us who seriously study personality traits, neuroticism equates most closely to being “crazy” and four emotions matter most. Being neurotic equates most readily to large, frequent displays of anger, fear and sadness, while the opposite of being neurotic (being emotionally stable) is aided by being happy instead. Using Comey’s sworn testimony before the U.S. Senate’s Intelligence Committee versus Trump’s daily emotional patterns, who’s most likely to be “crazy”?

Using Comey’s sworn testimony before the U.S. Senate’s Intelligence Committee versus Trump’s daily emotional patterns, who’s most likely to be “crazy”?

Let’s go emotion by emotion. Did Comey show anger last week during his testimony? A muted, purposeful degree of anger (mostly in how Comey’s lower eyelids stayed tight) was evident. Granted, Comey was a man on a mission to air his concerns. But the only three times where Comey’s mouth also tightened in anger involved, first, being asked to call the Hillary email server a “matter” by the former attorney general Loretta Lynch; second, in wondering  aloud “What am I going to do?” after the current attorney general Jeff Sessions, didn’t act on Comey’s request not to ever again be left alone with Trump; and third and very understandably, in trying to be patient during John McCain’s befuddled series of questions for Comey, all of which came down to basically why not keep pursuing the email scandal?

In comparison, Trump is angry every day, more often, and with more vehemence. Who’s the most crazy when it comes to frequent, strong displays of anger? Verdict: Trump.

Fear, yes, Comey showed a little of it in testifying before Congress.  When asked if he had been directly requested to go easy on former national security adviser Mike Flynn, Comey’s eyes went wide with alarm at the prospect that the Senators might not take seriously the import of the President telling Comey in the Oval Office that he hoped Comey might “let Flynn go.” But the strongest instance of fear came when Comey was recalling the moment that Trump was shooing both Sessions and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, out of the Oval Office so he could make his Flynn request in private. Then his mouth went wide in fear and his inner eyebrows shot upwards.

In comparison, Trump almost never shows fear. By his own admission, Comey didn’t manage to be “Captain Courageous” in confronting Trump’s wheedling. So who’s the most “crazy” when it comes to frequent, strong displays of fear? Verdict: Comey.

As to sadness, that emotion was evident more commonly during Comey’s testimony than fear was. Comey visibly winced on being asked why he was fired. Raised inner eyebrows created a puddle of wrinkles across Comey’s forehead when discussing a range of topics, from the “salacious materials” alleging Trump cavorted with Russian prostitutes, to Session’s refusal to intervene to help him avoid Trump’s entreaties, to closing his eyes when asked if he might have also been fired if Hillary Clinton had won the election instead of Trump.

Nevertheless, the verdict here favors Comey over Trump because in Trump’s endless search for affirmation, the president shows more sadness than any major American politicians since Richard Nixon.  Verdict: Trump.

Finally, there’s the matter of happiness as a stabilizing emotion. Not only is Trump frequently sad, he’s also rarely ebullient and hardly ever smiles. From “Lordy, I hope there are tapes” to comparing reporters to “sea gulls at the beach,” Comey managed a wry version of happiness repeatedly amid the tough circumstances of testifying before Congress after being called a “nut job.” While “between opportunities,” as he said of his career, Comey firmly took the opportunity to affirm his own credibility while leaving the president’s credibility shred even more. Who’s more “crazy”? Why, it’s not even a close call.