The power of associative memory

On Sundays, we’ve been taking the dog to one of the many forests of southern Indiana and going for a nice long walk. Conveniently, by the time we’re done, the sorry-ass Bears games I want to avoid watching have usually ended.

Haskell being done at Brown County State Park

Last weekend, as we drove home through a town named Trevlac, I remarked that that didn’t look like a word, but that backwards it’s Calvert, which does. My intuition about language and its constituent parts, developed over a lifetime of playful friendship, was validated by Wikipedia’s entry for Trevlac, Indiana. Bekki observed that when I perceive words and piles thereof, I’m also perceiving a “gestalt”, because the ways I comprehend, manipulate, and generate language are largely visual. For instance, when I hear words, I see them. When I’m fishing for a particular word, I often remember nothing about it besides how many letters I think it contains; while I’m almost always right, that rarely helps me find the word in any way I’m aware of. Maybe it narrows the search space in some way I’m not aware of.

I looked up Gestalt on Wikipedia to see whether the term made any more sense since I last tried to understand it.

If Haskell had anything to say about any of this, we couldn’t hear him with his head out the window. The last street he and I gazed upon before leaving Trevlac was named “Rogers.” I don’t know what he thought about that, but my associative memory was primed to bring me straight to Carl.


Carl Rogers was a psychologist, a student and teacher of human behavior. Bekki had somehow not encountered him in her studies of social learning behavior in animals (people not excluded). And my recollection of his approach was fuzzy. I pulled up Wikipedia’s Carl Rogers page and reviewed his 19 propositions, among other things. For the most part, what we heard lined up nicely with our own views.

Why had I heard of him?

I don’t know exactly, only approximately.

After spending much of my software development career indulging my introvert tendencies as a programmer, I became aware that the limiting factor in my effectiveness was not my ability to write code — and not because I’m such a gifted programmer. (This came up in conversation with Bryan Beecham and Ryan Ripley on Agile for Humans 019.) To grow as a person and become more effective in the workplace, I found that I needed to acquire skill at caring for people. In my consulting, coaching, podcasting, speaking, and writing, I’m always looking to acquire more skill at caring effectively.

It had been suggested to me, earlier in life, that I consider a career as a therapist. The suggestion had usually been intended as a compliment, and sometimes also as an idea to be considered seriously, but my immediate reaction to the prospect of making that kind of emotional effort all day every day was to cringe. How could I possibly have any love left to give when I got home? I tried to accept the compliment, but couldn’t see how to accept the suggestion. Yet here I am, years later, having found a context in which I could accept it. When I became a consultant and coach, I decided that someday, when I’m prepared to live up to the title, my business cards (if we’re still using those) will read “Corporate Therapist.”

In my exhaustive consumption of material from Twitter and elsewhere, I was pleased to discover that my self-imagining wasn’t original. Bob Marshall has billed himself as an Organizational Psychotherapist. So he’s long been one of the folks I try to read most exhaustively. When he expresses a sentiment, I try to make my own sense of it; when he points at a source, I look at it more closely. Another of the people I’ve learned most from following is Alex Harms. Maybe they, or others, are how I rediscovered Rogers.

But I’d heard of him before, too. Not sure how.

What more do I need to know?

Thanks to Bekki, I made my entrance into software development coaching with a highly useful frame of mind that averted my immediately doing terribly. (This came up in conversation with George Dinwiddie on Agile for Humans 002.) What luck for me! Career-wise, too, I mean.

Where I am now: having a somewhat better-developed intuition about how people operate themselves, based in part on extrapolation from how I operate myself, and in part on some basic mental models I’ve long since internalized. (I don’t really know which and from where. Rogers might say I’ve introjected them.)

Where I want to be: training to become a corporate therapist. Further developing my intuition about how people operate themselves, and about how organizations of people can adapt themselves to become more adaptive. Greatly expanding my map of the vast territory before me.

What I need to learn, then, is this: much, much more about human behavior.