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?
Working together as a Mother/Daughter team can be super difficult. If you have followed our podcast, you've heard some of our dramas. So when you saw that we are "splitting up", you might make up the story it's due to mother-daughter conflict. However, we have a better reason.
Jen has started her own business.
She is working with the loved ones of people caught in addiction. What Jen realized after talking to and working with hundreds of addicts and their families is the parents need ongoing support too. And they aren’t getting it.
Jen has a hard-earned way of working with the parents who discover their child is an addict. I was once that very parent and the night Jen announced that she was hooked on drugs and had no idea what to do, neither did I.
What I needed was guidance and someone to help me navigate where I could help - and where I could not.
All I wanted to do was make it better and every single motherly instinct I had only pushed her further into the depths of the addiction.
To make matters worse, my friends and family had an opinion on what I should do. In some ways, the worst pressure I felt came from people two or three steps removed. Our plight was not something I shared widely, but when I did, the advice ranged from completely cut her off to go get her and bring her home. Like I really want to have a drug addict in my house!
What I did NOT have (at least at first) was someone with the wisdom to give me options and help me get through the fear, guilt and anger that paralyzed me or made me want to something - anything - to make this go away.
What everyone seemed to forget was this: Jen was an adult. My control freak tendencies were not going to get us very far.
What I needed was a set of leadership and influence skills that far surpassed my abilities under the pressure of this kind of life or death situation.
While I was able to get coaching during this time, it took a conversation with an addict to break me through the confusion and pretense that everything would be ok. Little did I know how much more I would have to get real and deal with my own patterns and “stuff” in order to truly help my daughter.
Many of my clients have found themselves in the same boat as me. For years, I've sent them to Jen because I felt she was much better equipped than me to help them navigate the realities of addiction. They all report back that the conversations with Jen were a deal-changer. After all, who knows better how to understand an addict than a fellow addict? She has been clean 12 years and has become a stellar coach in that time. I marvel at her ability to bring her deep experience and insight to those facing addiction with their adult children.
However, it takes more than a phone call or two to navigate a problem that took years to develop.
Jen herself did extremely deep work (still does) and she recognizes that addiction is not the end. It’s a signal that something very important needs to be addressed. It’s an opportunity for everyone in the family to grow.
That's why Jen has created a website and a program just for parents who have no idea how to help their adult children or themselves when drugs consume their family. She also works one on one with mothers and fathers to help them build the strength and skills to deal with their own patterns so that they can set the conditions for their child to face their addiction and get on the path to recovery.
So here's my question for you: How many people came to mind when you read this? Who do you know that could use someone to tell them what is really happening with their drug-addicted child?
Instead of just closing this page, I ask you to forward this to them first. They can schedule their first call with her with the click of a button.
Click here and get your life saving call.
You may be asking what am I going to do without having Jen in my company. I will miss our day to day interactions immensely. However, when she shared her decision to start this business with me, I deeply knew it was the way she is meant to serve in the world. Whether from the angle of mom or boss, my best service to the world is to joyfully let her go do her thing.
Plus we have a new podcast! Click the link where we talk about her business and our journey.
Originally Posted: September 11, 2016
“I’m going to do it all – and I’m going to do it perfectly.” While few say that out loud, their actions say it for them.
Know anyone who thinks (and acts) that way? I see it all the time, whether in a small business - where doing it all seems a necessity - to teams in giant corporations. The very same people who treat money as a scarce resource are willing to spend their energy doing tasks that provide a low business payoff.
Trying to do too much and trying to do it perfectly will lead you to mediocrity and drain your energy faster than it drains your bank account.
Many years ago, when I was working with Norm Smallwood of Results Based Leadership, he introduced me to the “anti-perfectionism/strategic clarity” model he called “Types of Work.” It changed my life, the way I approach work and how I make trade offs. And in that timeframe, this new awareness guided me to say no to some very exciting global work with – you guessed it – Norm Smallwood.
Norm’s point of view on strategy could be boiled down to this: What you say “no” to defines you more than what you say “yes” to. In other words, being opportunistic causes you to say yes to more things than you can do well. Being strategic means saying no to anything that doesn’t fit your distinctive core business.
Having the backbone to have a strong portfolio of “no’s” develops a stronger business than saying yes just because you can do it.
This is a simple concept that is extraordinarily difficult to actually do. Walking away from work that might be lucrative because it isn’t your core value proposition seems crazy – but let me make the case for why you should do just that. After all, everyone has more to do than they can possibly do well. How great would it be to have a logical way to say “no” when you have more than you can handle?
The logic starts with this premise:
Not all work is created equal.
The work that distinguishes you (and that you get paid for) deserves a different kind of priority and attention than your basic business work.
Trying to do everything well means you do nothing well.
Watch this very short animation to understand the basic idea, and I will see you on the other side:
Here’s the thing: striving for best-in-class-performance is worthwhile only in about 10-20% of the work you do – your distinctive and enabling work. The other 80% or so needs to be good enough. This doesn’t mean you buy a house in “slackerville.” It’s just that extreme excellence in Business Essential work just brings you more work than you should handle – and it’s work you don’t get paid for. Just remember: do worse than par and it can cost you your reputation and maybe your business.
Here’s how Tim Ferriss, author of the 4 Hour Work Week said it: “I’m not against hard work. I’m against hard work on stupid things.”
Distinctive work is what makes you special. You want to be unique and distinctive work forms the core of your business or reputation. Why didn’t I do global work with Norm Smallwood all those years ago? It would have impacted my ability to be effective with my clients AFTER the trips. I need my sleep. Jet lag impacts my ability to be a clear and present coach and facilitator. I was very aware that while doing the global work might look good on my bio, it would negatively impact my ability to perform and would ultimately hurt my goals. So I said no.
Distinctive work is why people choose you or your company. It is worth your time and effort to be crystal clear on what makes you special in the eyes of your clients, customers or employers.
How do you decide where your time, attention and energy go? What are your guardrails for making sharp trade-offs? Are you clear on the work that makes you distinctive? Where are you tempted to take on customers or work because of the money instead of it being a fit for your business? What kind of non-strategic projects are you doing?
Next time you are feeling overwhelmed, thinking you can’t do it all, or find yourself agonizing over a simple detail, re-prioritize your work into the three buckets: Distinctive, Enabling, or Business Essential.
Struggling to say no even though you know you should? Wondering what’s the difference between Distinctive and Enabling work? Connect via Social or here.
As always, please share this with anyone you think would find it useful. And let me know how you are using what you learn!
Walking through Michael Sherrill’s Retrospective Exhibit at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, it was almost as if I was seeing several artists at work. The exhibit started with mugs – huge, beautiful mugs that I could only dream of making. Soon it moved to other large forms, with Asian and Native American influences. Just around the corner were some of the most exquisite – and in some cases, biggest – teapots I had ever seen. Then came some abstract and totally unique shapes. We were now far from functional vessels. We were entering the true art zone.
Soon after, some of the natural forms started to emerge. Rhododendron leaves started appearing. You could almost hear each phase calling to him, saying “Come experiment over here. Let go so we can try something new.” And he answered the call, even though it meant leaving something that worked really well.
One of the questions I often hear from clients sounds something like this: Is this my pinnacle? Have things gotten as good as they ever will? What if I can’t make the transition to the next level? Will it be downhill or will I stagnate from here? Does what I’m doing matter?
As is often the case with big questions, it seems that answer is usually: It depends.
In walking through Michael’s Retrospective, every phase looked like a pinnacle to me. In fact, where he started would be cause for huge celebration in my house. (We do a happy dance every time my pottery reaches a new height. Seriously. Actual dancing is involved.)
Lynn’s work on its way to new heights
In the exhibition, you could see how one thing led to another – the seeds of every phase seem to be planted in the one before.
The thing about these stages of growth -and what might feel like stagnation and boredom – is that it can look like death. That’s how nature forms seeds. It’s worth remembering that.
The transition from one phase to another is uncomfortable as hell. We don’t all choose to heed the call. Instead, we hold on. We stay in the job too long. We fail to hire the kind of person we need on the team right now. We keep the project afloat, even though its original purpose is long gone. We keep making what sells.
We would rather have stagnation and boredom than face the death that brings the discomfort of uncertainty, reinvention and not knowing how to do something. So we stay out of the froth that marks the edge of our capability.
Yet the froth is where the growth is. One of my all time favorite quotes is: “You are either green and growing or ripe and rotting.”
This quote really hit home this morning, as a load of mulch was delivered to my garden. Right now the garden is full of rotting weeds from last year’s inattention. With spring arriving, it will become green once again. I can either cultivate the plants I want, or let it just do its thing.
If I want to harvest delicious edibles from this place, I will have to cultivate. I will have to feed the plants I want and starve those that take up space and nutrition without giving anything back. I have the power to set the conditions for the kind of growth I want. Honestly, I would rather just harvest. In order to garden, I have to ask for help.
As leaders, we have the same responsibility with ourselves, our teams and our organizations. We must cultivate. We need to feed our minds with the nutrients that generate the fruit of our spirit. We must foster in our teams what bring out the best in everyone as they achieve their common goals. We must allocate resources in a way that feeds what the organization needs and starves the projects, people and other non-essentials.
Every phase of growth will involve some level of death. A company of 3 is not the same as a company of 10, or 100, or many thousands. In order to truly grow, it requires many deaths leading to the breakthrough moments of new life.
So much of Michael’s work depicted this theme. In his work Remnant, you see it most clearly with the dead oak leaves alongside the new growth.
There is also a secret behind the beautiful work you see from Michael and me and everybody else on the Earth that has done something worth sharing. Behind it are the thousands of experiments gone wrong. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING is perfect. You don’t see the days of despair, the questioning, the tearing out the hair wondering why something didn’t work.
Ironically, it seems to me that the more I enter the land of ambiguity, the more I like what comes out the other side. If I can tolerate the discomfort of the froth.
What seeds have you planted that are ready to be cultivated? Where are you ready to step into the froth at the edge of your capability? What do you need to let go of so the green growth can spring forward? What discomfort and ambiguity are keeping you at bay? What will it take to start the experiments to something great?
As always, please share this with anyone you think would find it useful. And let me know how you are using what you learn!
This year’s tax season involved digging waaayyy back for old records. There are so many reasons I don’t want to open old boxes of files. Wasting time is at the top of the list. But then - I don’t help myself, because I start opening other files and then reading old stuff and before you know it, I’m walking down memory lane.
Secretly, my hope is that there’s a pearl in the oyster – that I will run across something that makes the yuckiness worth the effort.
It rarely pays off. In most cases, hours go by and before I know it, I have forgotten to find the form I’m seeking.
This year, I found a little pearl. The kind of pearl that might have saved my life. You might ask, how could I find a lifesaver in a buried file box? Well, here’s what happened. I found a long-forgotten piece of writing that never really saw the light of day. I did it for a workshop, and when the program ended, my files went into the archives. So I decided to share it today.
Read on and at the end, I will tell you how it saved my life. Here's the piece:
I was listening to David McCullough, Pulitzer winning author of the book 1776, interviewed on NPR a few weeks ago. He was speaking about the historical context of his latest book and he remarked that most of us don’t know the many ways we enjoy the benefits of decisions and acts of courage taken by those who came before us. That simple remark caused me to pause with gratitude. As I drove down the road in a fully operational vehicle, heading towards the haven I call my home, with the option to listen to the music I want, my thoughts to turned to what could be, what could have been, but for countless decisions and acts of courage by people I don’t even know. Because of others that I can never thank, I earn money without having to pay homage to a king. I am free to dress as nicely-or shabbily- as I want. So many choices are now mine to make-because of people I will never know. And because so many are unknown to me, it’s virtually impossible to get my hands around what could have been. So I decided to bring it closer to home.
In my reflections since listening to that interview, I have started to pay attention to the ways I get help. This has not been the easiest meditation, as I easily fall under the delusion that I am an independent person capable of taking care of myself. And the “help” that I get doesn’t always show up-at least initially-as something I welcome. For instance, just recently I was driving over a winding mountain road when I came around the bend to see another car in my lane. I quickly jerked the car right as my nemesis returned to his lane. About the time the adrenaline wore off, a small pickup turned onto the road in front of me and proceeded to amble down the road at about 20 miles per hour. Within seconds, I felt like honking and going around him. Suddenly I thought back to my encounter a few miles before. Without that, I would have been tempted to do something stupid, like go around this slow poke. I settled back in my seat-still gritting my teeth but firmly in my lane-and aware of the help from unseen forces.
It was another reminder that I am not alone. I get help from many corners. And occasionally, someone needs my help. In my best moments, I’m less likely to need the credit. In my worst, I’m waiting for some acknowledgement. If I take the time to look, perhaps I can remember that David McCullough pointed my attention to this simple reality: we can only ever thank a few of our helpers.
Since I wrote this piece, at least 15 years have passed. I’ve been on that same winding road hundreds, if not thousands of times. At least half the time, someone drives way too slow for my taste. That’s a lot of opportunities for road rage to cause dangerous behavior. Yet, thanks to this series of incidents (with one exception on a trip to the hospital), I’ve never seriously considered passing on these winding roads. You might say this incident “scared me straight.” And I’m pretty sure THAT has saved my life – countless times.
So this year, instead of agonizing over my plight with old boxes, I paused with gratitude that I had lived the years to fill them.
How often do you pause in gratitude for the unseen help you have received or are receiving? In what ways might life be different if you hadn’t gotten that assistance that you have long forgotten? What can you be grateful for today?
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