Today I sit on the airplane appreciating realistic thinking instead of wishful thinking. Many times traveling, I only allow for exactly the time it takes to the airport plus a little wiggle room. This trip was more complex. There are three of us traveling, and many more realities, like slowdowns due to construction, a checked bag, dropping dogs off, a loose hog in the middle of a field (not kidding), a stopped school bus, waiting on a contractor to complete a task before we could leave and a thousand moments that I had to yield to someone while in traffic, getting on an elevator or walking the busy hallways of the airport.
The wishful thinking I often bring to such a trip says that the path from here to there is mostly clear and everything will be smooth sailing! For the most part, my wishful thinking expects none of those other tiny moments of yielding. From that state of mind, every slowdown is a problem that fuels my “hurry-up-itis”.
As I watched the elevator doors close in the parking garage, leaving me standing there wishing I had drank MUCH less tea on the way to the airport, it dawned on me that life is much more peaceful when I treat those realities as something to be expected instead of dreaded.
Today has had more peace, because I never felt like someone doing something normal was a problem for me.
The moment at the elevator brought into sharp focus how much my state of mind influences how I experience what life throws at me. (I also made a note to self to remember to drink a little less tea on the next trip.)
Wishful thinking not only creates a state of mind just waiting to turn normal into awful; it also shields me from facing realities that really need to be faced.
When Jen was in the early stages of her recovery, I had done a LOT of facing reality. Like facing that my daughter was a drug addict. Like facing that I had played a part in the circumstances that brought her here. Like she could die.
Even after all that “realistic thinking” and progress in her recovery, I found myself easily falling into wishful thinking.
After several years of turmoil, trauma and healing, she was finally on a much better path. She was living near us, going to school and doing all the right things to stay clean. We had learned to set good boundaries and structured her living arrangements so that she had a good place to live. One of the conditions was that she not have a roommate.
I can’t remember what caused me to question it, but one day, I was driving into town and would pass her apartment on the way. I got a feeling. One part of me said “You need to go check it out.” The wishful thinking part of me said “Don’t go. If you find something you don’t like, you will have to deal with it. Better to not know.”
There’s a funny thing about a thought like that. Wishful thinking is often not burdened with the clarity of words. Instead, it’s just a foggy sense of hoping that things are fine. That not doing anything is a good thing. That not knowing means everything is ok. That staying ignorant lets me off the hook.
When the words come into focus, it’s much easier to realize it’s wishful thinking.
Because the words came in more clearly that day, I could look at them and recognize that wishful thinking would not make the problem go away. If there was a problem, I needed to know so we could solve it.
So at the last minute, I turned into the parking lot. My palms were sweaty and the butterflies were fluttering. What if my instinct is right? Once I knew, I could no longer live in wishful thinking. What is my next move? Will I have the courage to make a move? What happens then?
I summoned the will to get out of the car and went to the door. Now I was torn between feeling like I was invading her privacy and defending a boundary. I almost turned back. But once I saw myself actually saying “Better not to know” I knew it was a lie.
After a couple of false tries, the lock finally opened. It was as if the lock was testing my resolve. At that moment, I could have said “I tried to get in but the door wouldn’t open.” Oh well. Go back to wishful thinking. I’m quite sure I’ve taken that path too many times in my life.
When I walked through the door, I was relieved to see an orderly apartment. A quick pass through the rooms told me there was no unauthorized roommate.
I didn’t have a sigh of relief. It was much bigger. My exhale was more like a Cat 3 hurricane. My relief was immense and palpable.
It was only then that I could realize that I really did do the right thing - regardless of outcome. I needed to know.
If Jen had fallen off the path, then she would have been responsible for the fallout created by her choices and actions. My denial would not have served her; instead would have fueled her decline. I would have been soft on her to save her from herself, and in the end, hard on myself.
Seen that way, it changed how I’ve come to approach those moments when I would rather not know. Am I really going to NOT show up for someone important to me to make it easier on myself? Who am I not to enforce the agreements I’ve made with people that matter? And how can I help stop myself from lying to myself?
If you have been watching my love of skiing starting to morph into a love of horses, you are seeing the answer to that last question.
What I’ve learned is that horses don’t lie. If I show up lying to myself (and therefore to them) about whether I’m relaxed and confident, they will pick up on that and show ME how I’m really feeling. That gift is priceless to someone like me who is good at putting on the “I’ve got this” face.
The famous physicist Richard Feynman said “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Every time we fall on wishful thinking, we run the risk of creating unintended fallout. Wishing something to be so doesn’t make it so. It just makes us delusional.
Realistic thinking may seem difficult - but it’s the path to more peace of mind.
Where are you relying on wishful thinking to absolve you from solving the real problem? What lies do you tell yourself because you would rather not deal with something? What fallout are you creating for yourself and those you care about by ignoring reality?
Miscommunication happens so frequently. As I write this, I’m still smarting from a post office encounter I wish had gone differently.
I was just leaving the post office with a pile of boxes in my arms. A local gentleman who I know more by sight than personally was moving slowly, and he started to move towards my car. My first thought when seeing him was “Wow, he has REALLY slowed down! I wonder if his health is failing.” Then he started making motions without any words that he would open my car door.
Now I need to share two very important pieces of context. First, my husband was sitting in the front seat. Second, my Doberman is usually sitting at the window of the back seat. It is not a good idea for anyone to open that back door, as Xena will go full on Doberman first, and ask questions later. (This includes family members!)
So, since he was moving very slowly and I move fast and he wasn’t saying anything, I was completely puzzled as to what was happening. Suddenly, he said “Well excuse me for trying to be helpful,” and walked off in a huff. (And oh my, how his anger gave him speed!)
It was only a few seconds later that my conscious brain finally registered that he was offering to open the door of my car to help me with my packages.
I’m sure he picked up on my unconscious thoughts of “Don’t open that door! My dog will bite you!” and the other set of unconscious thoughts to my husband of “Hey, how about opening the door and taking these packages off my hands.” But instead of understanding the mystery dog or otherwise reading my mind, it registered to him as some form of rejection – that I did not intend at all.
I was just too slow to put all the pieces together until after he was inside the post office and I was already driving away.
How often does communication get missed because someone is still putting the pieces together?
We had a “put the pieces together” moment last week during The Clarity Spark. Part of the program was doing a high-pressure activity together. Amongst the many options, including zip-lining, shooting guns, water skiing, horseback riding and adventure hiking, this group had chosen whitewater kayaking – the second most difficult activity.
At our dinner at Legends at Tryon International Equestrian Center, one of the participants realized that it was kayaking, not rafting. What?!?!!?!? I said “You followed the link, right? It described the Upper Green River Adventure as class II, III and IV in your own kayak?” Then it was “Wait? We are in our own boats? On Class IV rapids?!?!?!?”
Well yeah, because you learn more about yourself under pressure than any other time. And how you do anything is how you do everything. But – we will change to a different activity if you would rather.
After a conversation about how the link didn’t work and clearing up the assumptions and missed communication, the group re-decided to stick with the adventure. They really wanted to learn the skills of being present under pressure and how to create REAL change in their lives.
Little did we all know that the need to re-decide would continue throughout the next day. Once everyone had reconciled their minds to the real adventure (vs the one in their imagination), they still had to get themselves ready to show up.
Even getting the life jackets and helmets reminded everyone that this was going to get real. During the pre-trip briefing, we were shown how to paddle, how to get into the whitewater swimming position (hint: it’s exactly the opposite of what your mind intuitively wants to do) and how to get back in a tipped over boat.
It’s at moments like this that you realize there is a HUGE difference between clear communication and embodied knowledge.
The trip guides were very clear in communicating how to handle a kayak. Now we had to get on the water and embody the knowledge. Or we would be in the whitewater swimming position for 4.5 miles in a canyon with only one way to get out.
So, we got into our boats and immediately put whatever paddling skills we had into practice. We quickly learned we had to listen to the water. We had to focus on where we wanted to go or else we were on the rocks – literally. We had to find our balance. We had to make mistakes and correct them. One of the women fell out of her boat in the first few hundred feet.
We had not been on the water very long when the guides sent us into the first eddy (rest area), where we could regroup. Interestingly, the bus driver was standing on a rock above the eddy. His presence alluded to the big decision in front of us.
Here’s what the lead guide said: “Now you’ve had a chance to get a feel for the boat and a few class II rapids. You’ve been able to see how you handle the pressure. This river goes through an inaccessible canyon for the next 4 plus miles until our take out point. Between here and there, it will be up to you to paddle your boat through the rapids ahead. This is your last chance to decide to stay or go. And remember, at the take out point, you will also have to carry your kayak .7 miles up a trail to the bus.”
This was a genuine choice with fallout either way. Whoever bailed out had to live with forever wondering what would have happened if they had gone. Whoever stayed had to show up for themselves. Because on the river, it’s just you and the boat. Yes the guides could help – but only so far.
Everyone decided to show up. It was not easy, and the fear was paralyzing for some at times. But they all showed up!
The river adventure was AMAZING. And terrifying, joy-giving, frightening, exhilarating, and so much more. You’ve never seen such happy people – after it was over. During the trip, what you would have seen were women who were scared and angry and relieved and more. Nothing will test you like a big rapid, and this river had two 15+ foot Class IV drops. The danger was real.
In the end, everyone said they strongly preferred the choice of showing up over bailing out – even though the moments on the river was extremely intense. Learning that they had that level of strength and courage solidified a embodied sense of confidence that will carry into everything they do.
The same skills they used to handle the pressure of the water will translate to handling the pressure of their new responsibilities.
The fear of the unknown was one of the biggest elements to this adventure – and to any change. We ask ourselves “Can I handle this?” “What if I can’t?” “What if I make a mistake?” “What if I completely fail?”
Any real change carries these questions and the real danger that goes with it. All too often in addressing these questions, we often mis-communicate with ourselves. We pretend we don’t care. We either overestimate our abilities or forget what we can do. We treat mistakes like they are the end of the world. We let our fear overshadow the truth.
And the truth was, every one of us made a ton of mistakes on the river. We paddled left when right would have been more effective. We dug in when a light touch would have worked. We spun backwards when forwards would have felt so much safer.
For myself, the big rapids never felt quite as scary as I anticipated. And my mind and body read that as a mistake! So, I wanted a redo – until I realized that I was in the boat, not swimming. No need to beat myself up over success! All that mattered at that point was the next moment, or I would be in the water.
Every endeavor we do is the same. It never feels the way we anticipate.
Any goal worth having is an accumulation of successes and mistakes. We get there because we keep paddling, not because we are perfect at every step.
Where are you miscommunicating with yourself? Where are your successes not feeling like success? Where are your mistakes causing you to beat yourself up rather than doing what needs to be done next? Where are you showing up for yourself? What makes you bail out? What are you doing to build your internal capacity to be strong from the inside out?
Early in my career, I’m pretty sure I was tone deaf.
I KNOW I was tone deaf as an elementary school kid, trying to be in the church choir. After the first rehearsal, the choir director asked me to stay behind. I don’t know about you, but I have never really liked getting called onto the carpet. Being asked to stay behind at choir felt like there might be trouble coming.
I don’t really remember how he started the conversation; what I do remember is his patience, as he asked me if I had ever tried to match my voice to the sound coming from the piano.
He gently encouraged me to hear what he heard. He would play a note and ask me to make my voice match the note. We went up and down the scales, as I learned to hear and respond with matching sound.
Before this session, he could hear me NOT matching the notes among the other voices in our little choir. In fact, I think it was so bad that he would have been hard pressed to call the sounds coming out of my mouth singing.
Choirs share beautiful harmonies – they make music no single voice can do alone.
If our little choir was to live up to its potential, little Lynn had to learn to hear. So I got to be the one to stay behind that day. The choir director let me stay in the choir and we eventually did a performance that was heard by hundreds of people.
Much later in my career, I found another way to get called on the carpet. These were less surprising sessions, as they were called Performance Reviews. The boss would schedule them and tell me how I was doing in my job. Sometimes there would be 360 feedback from the people I worked with, also telling me how I was doing my job.
Throughout all the years I got feedback, there was one major theme. “Lynn”, they would say, “you need to learn to listen.”
I was tone deaf - and will probably never be able to count the cost of not being able to listen and hear what people were trying to tell me, especially when the messages were subtle.
How I wish I could tell you that all that feedback made me change. But I was tone deaf about being tone deaf.
Learning to listen has not been a flip of a switch for me. It’s been more like a dawning awareness of all that I was missing.
Thanks to having a series of coaches and teachers, I have learned a variety of ways to slow myself down and start paying attention to what’s happening right in front of me. When I came to realize the stunning array of subtle signals I was missing, listening suddenly became an interesting skill to learn.
For example, when I learned “getting on the balcony” from Ron Heifetz, meetings were never the same. Instead of paying attention to the words in a conversation, I started noticing the “music" under the words. Instead of judging people as right or wrong, I started getting curious about what was behind the behavior I disliked. Instead of focusing on what people were saying, I listened for the message they were sending.
In the almost invisible world I had been ignoring, a whole new world opened up for me.
Then I started working with horses and the world got bigger yet again.
Almost two years ago, I was riding on the trail with a friend when I got thrown off the horse. (The whole story will be told another time.) After that experience, I had a choice: Never get back on the horse or start over and really learn how to ride.
I’ve chosen to get back on the horse.
In one of my early lessons, Bruce Anderson, my teacher of “Natural Humanship” started me in a round pen. I’m in the middle and the horse gets to be where ever he wants to be. My assignment was to do achieve “movement” with the horse. At the first sign of movement. I was to immediately turn my back and let the horse be.
I won’t bore you with all the ways I had at my disposal to achieve that goal. It doesn’t matter anyway -- because I WAY overshot the goal. The horses ear twitched and then he raised his head and I kept going. Pretty soon I had him walking along the rail. After a couple of minutes. Bruce stopped me and asked me how I did. I was so proud of myself. After all, I had that horse MOVING, thankyouverymuch.
Then he asked me to review what had happened and the signals I had missed. “Did you see the ear twitch?” “Did you notice his head come up?” “Did you notice him shifting his feet before he started walking?” Weeeellllll...Maybe?
“Did you not count the ear twitch as movement? Or did you not think you caused the twitch?” Truth be told, I was waiting for the kind of human signals that conk me over the head.
What has become apparent to me in working with horses is that they are sending signals all the time. And all the signals are important. The day I was thrown from the horse, I missed a hundred signals telling me something was up. Plus I sent signals that were totally conflicting.
My lack of listening told him he couldn’t trust me to hear him. Why then, should he trust me to be on his back?
In the context of being on a horse, the consequences of not listening are suddenly much sharper.
I’m coming to realize that the consequences of not listening are greater than I ever knew. Getting my point across is not nearly as important as understanding who is sitting in the room with me and what matters to them.
But here’s the difficult part: hearing means changing. With the horse, I had to stop pushing so hard. With people, hearing means I take heed to what they are saying. It can be a scary, vulnerable place to actually let it in.
When talking a corporate client through a disappointing negotiation, a sales call that failed or a team meeting gone wrong, we almost always discover that mood shifted way before the bad news was delivered.
We get so caught up in the visible, the provable, the incontrovertible that we forget that much of what matters happens in the invisible world. We have to learn to read the signals and then test them out. We have to be willing to change.
We can either be like the choir sharing beautiful harmonies that none of us can do alone, or we can be like the choir with voices that can’t match the notes. To create the beautiful harmony, we have to hear the subtle tones. We have to see the ear twitches. We have to notice the mood shifts.
It only works if we listen.
Where are you superbly tuned in to listening to the notes between the notes? Where do you need to listen more deeply? What must you change in yourself to allow yourself to hear?
When I was an adult, I went back to taking piano lessons. This was not some long-held dream or bucket list item. No, this was more of an accidental way to deal with my lack of patience.
We had an old player piano that was way out of tune. It was something my new husband brought into the marriage against my wishes. In fact, I’m pretty sure I stood at the front door trying to keep him from bringing this old dirty thing into the house. It was REALLY old and dusty - and out of tune.
We got it cleaned up and every now and then, I would sit down and play. As a child, my parents forced me to take piano lessons. I could still play a few things, but they sounded terrible on this old thing. What was surprising to me as an adult was how much I enjoyed playing. Believe me, as a kid, nothing made me want to play, especially when my Mom nagged me (and nagged, and nagged and nagged ) to practice. It was an obligation. Yet here I was as an adult liking it.
One day I decided to call a piano tuner. After he finished getting that old piano as tuned as it could be, he played. And oh, how he played! It was nothing like the classical music that had been forced on me as a child. This was the blues and I was in awe!
We started talking and I learned that piano tuning was a side gig for him. In his real life, he was a professional musician and he had played with many well known people. He also gave piano lessons. He could teach me to play the blues!
Right then and there, I signed up. Here I was as an adult choosing to play piano. I practiced and practiced and practiced.
When I was a kid, I never played anything perfectly. I didn’t care. As an adult, I really wanted to play perfectly. Notwithstanding my love of the blues, soon my goal was to play Pachelbel’s Canon without missing a note. I was seeking perfection. Every day, I sat down to play. When I would make a mistake, it stopped my rhythm and I would start over. I was so proud of myself for trying so hard! So much was going on in the background that I didn’t understand at the time.
To start with, what I was calling pride in myself was actually me trying to please my piano teacher from childhood. As I was playing along, I would miss a note. Instead of continuing to play, I would freeze for a second and get mad at myself. Then I would start over from the beginning. My desire to be perfect was an exercise in proving myself to a teacher that had been dead for 20 years.
Difficult passages in the music created an even bigger dilemma. I didn’t have the patience to break it down and really learn the notes. Interestingly enough, it was lack of patience that brought me to the piano. My husband would often keep me waiting before we would go somewhere. Rather than nag him to hurry up, I started playing the piano to keep my hands occupied.
So thanks to striving for perfection and my lack of patience, I limited myself to the easy pieces of music. Rather than learning and improving, I lowered my sights to a domain where I could prove myself worthy.
During a lesson one day, I noticed that my new teacher was really pleased with something that wasn’t perfect. I told him it wasn’t good enough - ha! Me the student had higher standards than the teacher! I even mentioned that as a professional, he was so much better than me. Of course, he was perfect when he played. Then he said something that has stuck with me all these years. “I’ve never played a perfect piece in my life and never will. What we professionals have learned how to do is play through the mistakes. Every performance has a mistake. We just don’t let our mistakes knock us off our flow.”
He went on to say “I want you to learn to be a better musician, not to be perfect. Music is not about playing all the notes in the right place and at the right time. It’s as much about the space between the notes. You can only improve your skills when you are willing to feel your way through the mistakes and keep playing."
In seeking perfection, I was losing proficiency. All my energy was going into proving myself instead of getting better and learning. When I gave up striving for perfection, I became a better musician.
Perfectionism runs rampant in Corporate America. Even in cultures that have the mantra “Done is better than perfect”, individuals within that culture often struggle when they make mistakes or see others make mistakes. For many people, being asked to let good enough be good enough is like hearing fingernails on a chalkboard. It goes against everything they stand for. Even without external pressure, they feel internal pressure to get it perfect. The Perfection Game is essentially a way of life.
I’m still learning to let my perfectionism go. The habits are so deeply ingrained. It’s a life long journey and worth it.
Better is better than perfect.
Where do you struggle with mistakes? What do you say to yourself when you want perfection and fall short? What one change could you make to strive for proficiency instead of perfection?
Driving down the road this week, I was listening to an interview, where Tim Ferriss asked Naval Ravikant what he thought was the most important skill of all. Naval’s answer was quick: Learning to learn. And the follow up to that was that the best way to learn was to read books. A LOT of books.
While I agree with his point, this insight went even further for me. For years, I’ve been working on shifting my mindset from proving to improving. In other words, I’ve been working on creating the “growth mindset” that Carol Dweck talks about in her book Mindset.
I spent much of my career in the ‘fixed mindset” and it’s no wonder. Our school system, with all its tests, makes good test-takers like me heroes. Give me a test and I’ll pass it. But passing a test and being effective in real life are very different things.
With all the change we have today, being a learner is critical. Jobs are changing faster than the people in them can change. The only answer is to keep learning. And learning means you might fail.
That’s where the idea of reading went deeper for me. Yes, reading books is great, but very few people I know in their high pressure jobs have time to read extensively. Plus, applying what is in the books matters more than having “knowledge.”
It takes another level of reading that can only be done through practice to be successful. There are many other forms of reading. One of them involves parsing what matters from what doesn’t.
Learning to read signals vs noise is vitally important today. With all of the distractions and demands on our attention, it gets extremely difficult to distinguish the data that matters from the static that can safely be ignored.
I often hear my clients call this the ability to see around corners. It’s a well-honed sense of which dots to connect.
The most important element of this skill is learning how to check out the assumptions that underlie your dot-connecting activity. As humans, we have a propensity to make up stories that are more informed by our past and habitual patterns of thinking than they are the present moment.
So how does one learn to tell the difference between a signal and noise? It’s a huge question - but I’ll give one example that addresses a super common situation.
Pete was presenting to his boss and team a new and different approach to the work they did. He knew his proposal was a pretty big stretch for the group and the company. But Pete had done a lot of research and reflecting on it and decided it was worth the risk to elevate their contribution to the company.
As he was standing up doing his presentation, he was dual processing. He was both making his points and reading the room. The picture was not very pretty, especially as he saw his boss Don with his head in his hands. Now, a signal Iike that can mean a lot of different things. Maybe he has a headache. Maybe he’s hungry. Maybe he just got a bad news text.
But in this context, to Pete it meant just one thing: “He hates my idea.”
This is the point where a lot of people go into the “Homeless Sequence”. That’s where we say “I’ve made a mistake and that’s a bad thing and they won’t need me if I keep making mistakes so I better fix this quick or I will lose my job and if I lose my job I might not get another job and then I will run out of money and if I run out of money I will be homeless.” This happens in an instant and often ends up informing our actions in ways that end up making us defensive or fearful.
Pete was aware that Don was giving him a signal; luckily in this case, he decided to check it out rather than go straight to the Homeless Sequence.
He called a break and pulled Don aside. He simply said “I’m noticing some body language from you and I’m curious. What are thinking about this idea?”
Don’s answer almost floored him. Don said “Well, we need to do everything you are saying. I’m just trying to wrap my head around the implications and how I’m going to sell this to my boss.”
Pete’s team did go forward with his proposal. In talking about this story with me later, he realized that he could have gotten defensive instead of curious in that pivotal moment. If he had gone the “proving” route, rather than seeking ways to listen to his boss’s feedback, he believes the project would never have gotten off the ground. Had he been pushy, or tried to justify, it would have given Don a way out. Instead, his curiosity sets the conditions for Don to decide to take the elevated, yet more risky path.
Reading signals is about much more than seeing a data point and thinking we know what it means. Curiosity sets you up to make sense of signals in a way that makes you more effective.
Cultivating curiosity keeps us in a learning mode. For a test taking “hero” like me, curiosity feels very uncomfortable. Almost by definition, knowing feels better than not knowing. And to be curious requires you to “not know.”
To be curious also requires you to become attuned to the signals you can ignore so that you can tune in to the ones that matter. I will be the first to say this isn’t easy - and there is not a formula for it. It’s a lifetime of learning.
Oh great – I get to keep being uncomfortable!
What signals are you tuning into? Where are you ignoring signals? How do you decide which signals are worth paying attention to vs those you can safely ignore? What are you doing to keep yourself in learning mode?
We are halfway through 2019! Reaching milestones like this can make you thrilled - or set you up for dread. It all depends on how you see it.
Here’s one thing I’m sure of: in some ways you’ve done more, and other ways less than you hoped.
If by chance you HAVE done everything on your list for 2019 and are completely satisfied with your progress for the year, you can stop reading now. Or consider resetting your goals!
Chances are some things have worked and some things have not worked. If you have spent any time reading this blog, you know I strive for proficiency rather than perfection. So things not working is just fine.
The question is: what are you going to do now about your setbacks, shortfalls, and most importantly, your mindset?
If I’m not mindful, I go the “I’ve blown it” route which then leads me to give up. Every goal worth achieving will have setbacks. If you treat these “mistakes” as a normal part of the process, it’s much easier to stay the course.
Here’s a quick way to get back on track with any goal:
So embrace the halfway point. Or consider it a brand New Year. Frame it however you need to make it work for you. ‘
Just don’t quit.
Years ago, I was working on a huge project at a bank that touched thousands of people. My team was counting on me for daily decisions, my boss looked to me constantly to put out some raging fire, and my peers and I were desperately trying to row the boat in synch with each other.
Every day, (and with the heaviness of intense guilt) I stretched day care to the limit, leaving behind my daughter Jen who just had ONE mom to take care of her.
As I would walk to my car, feeling horrible and guilt-ridden for leaving work with everyone else working so hard, I would remind myself that the bank had thousands of people to take care of their customers - Jen had one mom.
Even with that reminder, I would sometimes feel like I was holding up the project and my household at the same time. (Think maybe my ego was getting a little out of control there?)
One of my coworkers was an even bigger piece of the project. Without him, we didn't know what we would do. He seemed indispensable to the project we were working on.
Then he didn’t wake up one morning. Everyone on our project was mystified at how we could go on without him.
He was certainly much more important in the scheme of things than me – or most of us. He probably felt that himself every day.
Yet within two days, things were “back to normal.” It was as if he had never been there - at least as it related to the work we needed to do.
All he left behind were the memories of him as a person. There were plenty of people who could do the work.
Seeing this poem reminded me of that time in my life.
It reminds me of time in general. It’s so easy to think we have all the time in the world. It’s so normal to think that others can’t live without us. And so it’s natural to think we are indispensable.
What you are you doing with your precious time?
The Indispensable Man
Sometime when you're feeling important;
Sometime when your ego 's in bloom;
Sometime when you take it for granted,
You're the best qualified in the room:
Sometime when you feel that your going,
Would leave an unfillable hole,
Just follow these simple instructions,
And see how they humble your soul.
Take a bucket and fill it with water,
Put your hand in it up to the wrist,
Pull it out and the hole that's remaining,
Is a measure of how much you'll be missed.
You can splash all you wish when you enter,
You may stir up the water galore,
But stop, and you'll find that in no time,
It looks quite the same as before.
The moral of this quaint example,
Is to do just the best that you can,
Be proud of yourself but remember,
There's no indispensable man.
by Saxon White Kessinger
My client Maddie was being completely run by her inner bully when we started working together. As we were reviewing what was her “plate” of work commitments, the list went from bad to simply unmanageable.
One day, we were in a coaching session, working through what was most important so that Maddie (not her real name) could set her priorities.
The picture was simply impossible.
It reminded me of the time I went to a buffet, where an enormous man next to me kept piling things onto his plate. A little bit of every single dish was going on his one plate. From where I was watching, it looked like he never even paused to consider "do I want the crab wontons?" He just kept piling. He had a fantastic balancing act going on there - as long as he didn't move.
But they don't let you EAT the food AT the buffet. A trip across the room was required in order for him to partake. He dropped little bits of food all the way back to his table, leaving a trail of crumbs and gluttony.
Looking at Maddie’s calendar was like watching the man with the overfull plate. There was no space for what really mattered to get done, much less get done well. Bits and pieces of her projects were dropping to the ground and falling through the cracks. She was in a constant game of scrambling to keep up.
Most of her energy was being directed at playing catch up, fixing mistakes and putting out fires, rather than on strategic thought, understanding the new competitive landscape, addressing the change forces hitting an at exponential rate or taking care of the relationships of the people in her work circle.
Whatever was left of her energy was directed at worrying about what she had missed.
Maddie was like too many of the people I work with in the business world: very good at putting on the “I’ve Got This” face while covering up her fear and panic that something big will get dropped.
She was even good at covering it up with me, even though an executive coaching relationship is designed to get at the root of exactly this type of discomfort and resolve it. Pretending that everything is ok is a very hard pattern to break.
Instead, we cover up the cover up. I certainly have done THAT more times than I care to admit.
In our meeting that day, Maddie finally let down her guard so we could really get to work at solving the problem rather than just working harder and pretending everything was ok. I asked her: "What are you saying no to?" Her answer: "We can't say no. We have to do everything.”
And there it was: the root of the problem. It was not that she believed she had to do everything. That’s part of the cover up.
The ROOT of the problem was that she feared using one of the most powerful tools she had in her arsenal. She refused to say no because saying no meant that SHE was somehow not enough.
The myth that we have to say yes to everything is one of the biggest elephants in the room in corporate life. We don’t dare say no.
Saying no means I’m weak. Saying no means I’m flawed. Saying no means I can’t really do my job. Saying no will make the boss mad. (And I really don’t like it when people get mad.) Saying no will get me fired. Saying no means I’m letting down my team. Saying no means I’m a failure.
It’s like we have an inner bully constantly whispering in our ear: “You are not enough.”
So we say yes to everything which means we say yes to nothing.
We are just like the huge man walking back to his table, losing a little bit of food and our dignity as we try to have it all, while savoring absolutely nothing.
I looked at her and said "If there is not a ‘no’, there is no yes. You have essentially chosen to do nothing."
Based on the look on her face, my comment hurt and she started explaining. I listened carefully as she explained extensively how important everything was, how demanding her boss was, how proud her team was to show up for ALL the work and of course, how busy they were. It was all a sign of just how valuable her team was to the organization. Didn't I see that?
When I put myself in her shoes, I DID see that. I've walked many miles in those shoes. I know the merry-go-round of busy-ness so well. That belief is one of the biggest traps of business. "I can't say no - I have to do it all."
Here’s the key: It’s just a belief, a story that lots of people buy into. It’s not The Truth. High performers are saying no all the time and so can you.
There are three elements to getting past the story and building the portfolio of yes’s and no’s that work for you:
Changing your beliefs and “operating rules” doesn’t just happen. Like changing any habit, it takes planning an alternative to your customary reaction to make a change. It also takes practice, persistence and clarity. We will explore how to get all of those things in the remaining chapters.
Note: This is the second chapter of the eBook I’m publishing June 15 titled “Master The Art of Saying No.”
If you want to make sure and get your free copy, sign up for my coaching digest, I will be announcing it when it is published.
Taming the Inner Bully
Here's a newsflash: Nobody anywhere is doing it all, I don't care what they say in the project status meeting or on their Facebook or Linkedin page. High level performers have mastered the art of saying no and they are constantly working on the clarity and strength to do it. The people you know playing at the highest level are saying no all the time.
Really. I promise.
That’s the good news. Now for a reality check. Developing the inner strength to stand up to your inner bully IS your work. The more you learn to face your own questions about yourself, the freer you will be to focus on what really matters in relationships and your endeavors.
My inner bully ran me for the first 15 years of my corporate life. Even as I became aware of the tyrant mindset that deeply cared what other people thought, wanted people to like me and demanded complete perfection, no amount of awareness stopped me from acting on it.
It was like a shield that protected my squishy insides from making difficult decisions, dealing with people walking all over me, and asserting my true point of view.
Over time, I’ve worked on building on what I call “the Invisible Tools”, which are those unseen capabilities that give us the strength to go against the current, be present and operate from our best, true self. From that strength, we can choose what we say no to – and what we say yes to – in a strategic, mindful, balanced way.
What we say “Yes” to and what we say “No” to establishes our agenda – and it reveals who’s really running the show.
Saying yes to everyone else’s agenda and no to your own leads to sadness, resentment, anger and a life lived for someone else.
Saying no to everyone else’s agenda and yes only to your own is an insular, self-absorbed way to live.
Somewhere in the middle is a portfolio of yes’s and no’s the are uniquely suited to achieve your goals. More importantly, your portfolio of what you will and won’t do allows you to bring your uniqueness to the world.
At the most fundamental level, your actions and decisions are a portfolio of Yes’s and No’s, and these set the strategic agenda of your life and work. What you say yes to, even if it’s that kind of accidental “yes” that you get swept up in, drives what on your agenda and calendar.
You have more choice than you realize and frankly, an obligation to say yes only to those things you can do rather than adding things to your plate that will fall between the cracks and generate cracks in your relationships.
That’s all well and good, you may say. But the questions I have heard from the hundreds of leaders I’ve worked with over the years are much more practical:
There are many ways to address those questions.
Note: This is the introduction to an extensive “eBook” that will be ready for publication by June 15. My intention for this article is to help you address those questions from your best, most autonomous self rather than your inner bully.
If you want some “how to’s” on the different ways you’ve gotten caught up in saying yes, some artful ways of saying no and an introduction to using your Invisible Tools to develop self awareness and inner strength, click here and subscribe to my Coaching Digest.
Last week my social media feed lit up with nurses sharing pictures of bloody operating rooms, the middle finger being raised, Sam Elliott smirking about someone being a special kind of stupid and talk about nurses playing cards. Nurses across the country were getting more outraged by the day.
I started piecing together the reason for all the kerfuffle. Some woman in Washington State had said something about nurses playing cards all day. Wait, this woman was actually a legislator. “Well, clearly she’s ignorant” I thought. I spent two days in the hospital in 2017 and the nurses were the main reason my experience was so positive. It wasn’t because we were playing gin rummy.
Eventually I figured out this woman was named Maureen Walsh. There were posts suggesting that people send her decks of cards. Thanks to getting swept up in the frenzy, I started thinking of some more…shall we say, interesting things to send her. I’m not a nurse and I started taking her words personally. How dare she?!!?
Here is what I was definitely NOT doing. I was not assuming positive intent.
Then my curiosity kicked in. What exactly did she say? I wondered. So I googled her and found this article, where she expressed her regret. “Damn straight,” I thought. “You are going to regret getting all those playing cards.”
In the middle of the article is a short video where you can hear her words come out of her own mouth.
Context Changes Everything
In the segment, Maureen Walsh is making an impassioned plea to save a rural hospital. The hospital she was referring to is likely not economically viable in today’s strict regulatory environment; in her example, the whole hospital might have 6 patients at one time. She was trying to make the point that the law they were making could be the straw that broke the camel’s back on the ability of that hospital to continue to serve her district. Oh, and by the way, her mom was a nurse. Through new eyes, I saw her comments completely differently.
Context changes everything. A few years ago, I wrote about a bad water ski fall I took because I allowed the context of a situation keep me from seeing some critical details.
There is always more to the story than meets the eye.
In the Maureen Walsh case, I see at least three threads.
First, when I heard her speak in that video, I heard something very different than a woman accusing nurses of being lazy, card playing drags on the system. She is trying to save nurses jobs and sustain patient care in her district. Nowhere did I get that she doesn’t value nurses.
Second, rural hospitals are closing in record numbers. The complex regulatory environment is contributing to that. Anyway you look at it, hospitals closing in areas that desperately need them is a bad thing.
The third thread is also worth exploring. Nurses took the tiny spark of her words so personally because there is so much dry tinder to ignite the explosion. I’m in these conversations regularly with clients and friends. Nurses ARE often undervalued. They shoulder unbelievable burdens in the hospital environment. Once again, I’m reminded that we only take things personally that hit a point of vulnerability within us.
In my own case, the nurses were responsible for at least 90% of my experience. That is consistent with what I’ve seen and heard from other friends and family who have experienced hospital stays. The work that nurses do is beyond valuable.
What I can’t help but wonder is this: what if the nurses that took offense started with assuming positive intent? What if the few that started this meme simply chose to take her comments as support instead of criticism? What could have happened to heal our currently broken healing system?
In reflecting on my reactions to Maureen Walsh’s comments, I’m reminded again how important context really is. I’m also reminded to pay attention to my own beliefs and the way I take things personally. In this case, my mind was so willing to jump to conclusions – and with context and curiosity, I saw things completely differently.
In this busy world, it’s tempting to love the shortcut and draw quick conclusions. Who has time to dig deeper? But how much damage am I doing to myself when I fail to see the bigger picture? Where is my desire for the quick fix setting me up for the long recovery?
Where are you taking things personally that are not personal? How do your own vulnerabilities shape the way you see things? Where are you operating on beliefs formed with only a tiny piece of the full story? Where would context change everything for you?
Inspiring new ways to look at learning, growth, and reinvention, whether in leadership, athletics, art or life.
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