Years ago, I saw a quote by George Leonard that went something like this: the student says to the master “how can I ever learn to stay in balance the way you do?” and the master said “I’m out of balance much more than you are. I just recover more quickly.”
If we want to be better, we need to get out of balance. We NEED disequilibrium.
It took a couple of falls in my house to realize how I have been talking out of both sides of my mouth about balance for years. Whether the subject is work – life balance, balanced thoughts, balancing my emotions under pressure or balancing individuality with living in community, I’ve been wrong on every front.
Here’s what happened that sent me flying into a new awareness about balance. I was walking into my kitchen with grocery bags and stepped on one of my dog’s bones. Immediately, the bone slid across the wood floor, and my left foot lost traction just as my right foot came off the floor.
It was at this moment that my regular practices of working on balance, strength and staying present saved me from falling backwards, where my head would surely have hit the granite countertop. Instead, I had enough presence of mind to throw myself forward to hit the kitchen island with both of my forearms, still holding the grocery bags. While it happened in mere seconds, in a way, time slowed down as I controlled my fall.
The next few minutes were a blur. I put the groceries down and walked to the nearest chair to gather myself. After my heart stopped thumping and my adrenaline drained, it hit me how close I had come to a devastating fall. I mentally cursed my dog and then myself for leaving the bone right there in the pathway. I committed to do better in picking up scattered dog toys.
Then I had the second fall.
This was about a week later. I was sitting in my living room and my phone, which was inconveniently in my office, started ringing. In one swooping move, I stood up and turned to the right, stepping on the rope toy that was half hidden under the chair. Once again, I’m flying, this time straight towards the glass door leading to my porch. I twisted myself further to the right and aimed for the wall, which took most of my weight. My left hand did land on the window, but without enough force for me to go through it. Once again, time slowed down as I controlled my fall.
Once again, I cursed the toys and realized that I would really have to do better on picking them up.
It was another couple of weeks before the bigger lesson hit me. Something out of my control knocked me off balance. What saved my life (or at least saved me from a lot of blood and a concussion) was in how I regained my balance. It was the recovery that mattered.
When we are moving, it’s a constant act of getting out of balance and then back into balance. Rather than being like the top of the hill to be conquered, balance is a constant reference point.
Watch a young baby learn to walk. I did this last night at a basketball game. First, mom helped him stand up and he teetered, tottered and swayed. When he swayed far enough forward and took a step. Two steps later, his bottom half could not keep up with his top half and he fell forward to his hands. Next try, his top half could not keep up with his bottom half and he was suddenly sitting on the ground. Next try, he was able to take a few more steps. Slowly he was learning to make the correction to string the actions together.
Walking is an act of losing and then regaining balance. We just do the losing and regaining in such small increments that we no longer realize that we are out of balance. Until we step on the dog’s toy!
In order to move things, we have to get out of balance and then regain that balance, preferably in a way that keeps us aligned and safe.
One of my artistic endeavors is throwing clay pottery on a wheel. Learning to center a lump of clay is a critical building block to creating a cup or a plate or a bowl or a tall vase. The initial lump of clay starts out of balance and then through the act of centering, we bring the clay into balance.
That centered lump is just that – a centered lump. In order to make something on the pottery wheel, you then have to take the clay out of balance. Lifting a wall of clay in an act of disequilibrium, stacking one layer on top of another. In and out, over and over, the clay goes out of balance and then back into balance. The art is in the give and take. Push too much and the wall collapses. Push too little and nothing happens. You should see some of my early mugs, where I just couldn’t get the bottom level of clay out of balance enough to move up the cylinder. The thick bottom makes those mugs too heavy to drink from, but they are great pencil holders.
If you want to be better, you have to get out of balance.
Where have you wanted to make a change and it just doesn’t seem to be happening? Where are you working to be better? What can you do to add some disequilibrium in order to create movement?
When I was in high school, I created a huge “mural” in my bedroom that was at least as big as my bedroom door. On it were pictures I cut and pasted from magazines. Hundreds of pictures, all slammed together into this huge piece of paper. Seriously, there was no clear space anywhere on it!
And that was how I lived my life until I started coming to my senses in my early 40s. No clear space in my life, just every single moment crammed together, sort of like a run-on sentence.
I would give anything to be able to go back in time and see that window into my life. It would give me insight to who I was back then. I wonder what pictures I chose and what they said about what mattered to me at that stage of my life.
Last week, I did get a chance to go back in time. Since April, I’ve been writing a book. Someday, I’ll tell more about the inspiration of it, and I’ll be announcing the title and what it’s about soon as well. But let me just say this: writing a book is a hell of a lot more difficult than writing a blog!
I’ve spent a lot of the past year vacillating between insight and deep confusion. Oh yeah, and quitting. You won’t believe the ways I’ve been prompted to keep going when I felt like quitting.
As part of my “book research”, I went into the storage cabinets I never touch in search of my morning pages from the late 90’s. Doing morning pages was one of the exercises found in “The Artist Way”, by Julia Cameron. It’s 3 pages of long hand, every morning. It’s a painful, wonderful, agonizing way to get all the thoughts rattling around in your brain onto paper.
Somewhere in those notebooks were also other assignments and thought experiments from The Artist Way. With some digging, I finally found the notebooks and sat on my office floor reading them for hours. In them was a window into the life of Lynn in her early 40’s.
Reading those pages, I found the seeds and soil and water of the life I live now. I also found the despair of a woman making lots of money and a debilitating fear of failure to show for it. One of the tasks was to remember yourself at 8 years old. Then write a letter to your current self from your 8-year-old self. Here was mine:
Wow. I had forgotten just how physically (and mentally) out of shape, lacking fun and driven by perfection I was in those days.
One of the other exercises was to really, really, really stretch to get clarity on the life you want to be living.
I had completely forgotten this list. At the time, I had not written anything but morning pages, not touched a paint brush or clay and my idea of being an athlete was walking around the block. Yet if you know my life, you know that I live the first 4 things on the list every day plus some. The last thing on the list, Broadway actress, was definitely a stretch! And when I look at this list today, I have no regrets. Even when we create clarity, we are not going to be perfect.
Somehow, some way in the intervening 20 years, I found the courage to keep the sun shining on those seeds, to keep them fed and watered so they could grow, even though I forgot exactly what would come bursting through the soil.
Here’s the thing: It wasn’t the clarity that cultivated my vision, although without it, there would have been no direction. It was the many friends, coaches, and mentors who helped me along the way, who reminded me of who I was, what mattered most and helped me see past my limited thinking to open up to a different way of doing things.
And it was accidentally following a process to get over the resistance to change. Believe me, in those days I could not see a how anything could change in my life.
A lot of people do “vision boards” to get clarity and it’s a great first step in setting a new direction in your life, IF you are willing to cultivate the seeds you are planting. I don’t recommend anyone make a promise like that to themselves only to break it.
My journals are also filled with those moments where I lived far out of integrity with my promises to myself. Painful!
What seeds are you cultivating in your life right now? What would your 8-year-old self want your current self to know today? What dreams do you have that have not yet been realized? What would you want if you really stretched? Really, really stretched?
As always, please let me know how you are creating your own dreams and how you are cultivating the seeds in your life.
If all this talk about change has gotten you thinking, on February 29, I’m hosting a workshop at Mystic Waters called Create Your Life. Yes, we are going to do Vision Boards – they really are a good, tangible way to get clarity on what you want. But that’s just the beginning. In this workshop, we are going to work through best method I know to get traction, which makes resistance to change your best friend.
Near the end of one of the podcast episodes I just recorded (stay tuned for who it was, it’s a surprise!), we were talking about acts of creativity, where I contend we can feel our most vulnerable. My guest said “For this to work, you have to let go of caring if it works.” I’m paraphrasing – but that essential message hit me deeply.
The truth of this statement seems both self-evident and impossible. On its face, it looks like a contradiction and yet there is something magical here if you can balance the two opposing forces.
We live in so many contradictions. This week I had to call a 1-800 number. The company had – once again – made it even more difficult to actually talk to someone. They certainly seem to not care about their customers, and yet I know they are managing costs. It’s a contradiction. Lose enough customers and they won’t have to worry about managing costs. Fail to manage costs and they won’t be able to find enough customers to keep them afloat.
I’ve been thinking about all the contradictions in business life lately. They are absolutely inevitable and necessary. The question is how to balance them.
And maybe what to call them. Contradiction may not be the best word. Paradox is better. Balancing act is even better than that.
In business, we have to balance so many apparently opposing forces: emotions vs logic, being on one team while being the leader of another team, make decisions for the long term vs short term, needing to prove yourself but not getting caught in a proving mindset.
What are the contradictions you are living with? What seemingly impossible forces do you have to balance? How have you learned to resolve them? Which ones seem unresolvable?
At the end of every blog, I ask people to respond and tell me what you think. And I get some responses! For this question, I would love to get a LOT more responses.
This question of contradictions has me very curious. Please comment on this blog and let me know what contradictions you are living with and how you balance it.
It’s that time of year again. Time for a New Year and a New You! We can now take advantage of that glorious reset button, join a gym, resolve to be better and make our problems go away.
If you detect a touch of sarcasm in there, you would be correct. New Year’s resolutions might be the most notorious for NOT creating change. We all know that Januarys’ overcrowded gyms will be empty again in February.
The timing is not the problem.
What if how we talk and think is the reason we don’t really change?
Change is hard – or is it?
When I reflect on my own life, I have made monumental changes that had nothing to do with New Year’s resolutions. I left a well-paying job to take a chance on the startup firm Results Based Leadership. (Steve Snyder and I talk about this in my podcast Episode 2 coming out January 21) We moved from the big city to the tiny town of Lake Lure in Western North Carolina. Soon thereafter, I became an entrepreneur, a painter, and a potter. I navigated the drug addiction of my daughter Jen, largely by changing my responses to my own guilt and fears. (She survived and now helps other parents help themselves heal so they can help their children heal.) None of these happened in January.
In fact, none of these happened in a moment in time. Every big change I made started with a string of words– followed by tiny steps that can only be described as the equivalent of drips into a bucket of water that will eventually overflow.
My biggest changes have not come from setting a goal, but in creating an intention. Goals feel like they need a plan. Intention sets up a different expectation around how you get there.
In my case, many of these changes can be traced back to a simple statement I made (almost without thinking) over ten years ago: “I would really like to see where this water skiing thing can take me.” Never underestimate the power of your words.
Seriously…did I just say that?
Standing at a reception with a Wall Street firm after a great day of teaching, one of the members of the client team asked me “where do you want to go next?”. What came out of my mouth shocked me as much as it did her: “I would really like to see where this water skiing thing can take me.” Since I was in my mid-forties, not an athlete and certainly not aspiring to be a professional in a sport where professionals make little money, this was a pretty absurd thing to say. Today I am so grateful that she asked that question, because it sparked the words that have ignited so much more than water skiing.
Reflecting on that exchange all these years later, I’m reminded of the power of declarations. I said it out loud, and skiing suddenly became an intention. Had I looked at it from a logical standpoint that evening, I might have censored such a crazy statement. After all, skiing would take me away from work, making a living, family and all of those other “higher priorities.” However, saying it out loud began a positive chain reaction.
The following year, after being on the road almost constantly, I took a 3-month sabbatical in the summer mainly to - you guessed it - ski! At the end of that sabbatical I started a tradition of writing about skiing and what I was learning about myself on the water. My annual card was also an opportunity to share my growth as a watercolor artist and for several years, I mailed out an annual reflection on water skiing with my latest paintings. It seemed like a great way to stay in contact with the people who had meaningfully touched my life, plus it created a sort of accountability to paint, to ski and to write. Ok, I didn’t need any accountability on skiing – I was going to do that no matter what!
That skiing declaration led to good things…
What did all that skiing get me looking back on the last decade? Oh, let me count the ways! My physical fitness has never been better. Slalom skiing is a demanding sport and at 61, I’m in significantly better shape than I was at 35, or even 25. Internally, I’ve made several internal shifts, going from someone who really wanted to get it right the first time, saw no need to improve what I already “knew”, and hated repetition to someone who loves to practice, revels in repetition and can let go of my mistakes in an instant (the ski course has a way of eliciting that last trait). Instead of needing to know, learning is now the norm. None of that happened instantly. In fact, in many cases, it happened with me kicking and screaming!
I’ve discovered that how you do anything is how you do everything, and that sometimes it is easier to make a difficult internal shift in a different domain.
Getting comfortable with “not knowing” opened the door for me to try pottery, something I would never have had the patience for before. Intention also led to my husband and I to purchase a 162-acre camp with a lake on it…to ski! (The story of how that all came to be will be written someday -and if you pick up the phone or send me an email, I will happily tell it.)
Eventually, my newfound openness to learning whatIthoughtIalreadyknew led me to delivering a TEDx talk in 2015, something I practiced hundreds of times before going on the stage – only after getting really, really clear on what I was trying to say about the power of assuming positive intent.
My ending line in that talk was “…the positive intent that you are assuming will actually become positive intent, and you might just become the co-writer of an entirely new story for your life.”
Write your story without fear
What surprised me about my story of blurting out the thing about water skiing is this: I hadn’t set a big goal. After that night, I didn’t really think about what I had said. There was never a plan. What I said was definitely not to impress anyone. Without a goal, plan or anyone to check me out, I was less likely to fall prey to my need to be perfect. I had to get over a lot of fear to learn to run the ski course. My journey was anything but a straight line. I just made a declaration and kept skiing. Words and actions.
Words and actions weave our life stories. When our words and actions match, we feel whole and complete. When they don’t, we know something is off, even if we can’t put our finger on why it’s off.
Here’s the thing about great stories. They never happen in a straight line. Great stories have twists and turns and conflict and choices and moments of truth. Great stories happen all year long.
What story are you writing for your life right now? What are the twists and turns you have already experienced? Where do you desire something more than you fear it? (That question comes from David Benzel, who will be on my Creative Spirits Unleashed podcast in March.) What must you do to bring your actions into alignment with your words? What is the next sentence in your story?
Be on the lookout for Episode 1 of the Creative Spirits Unleashed Podcast, debuting on January 7th. In my inaugural episode called “Passion, Pets, People and Photography”, Julie Gould and I explore her encore careers (yes, that’s plural), how to find the catch lights, the challenges of saying no and so much more. I hope you will tune in and tell your friends about it too!
Last week was like Christmas came early for me.
My endorphins are still running high as I write this. Last week, after taking 2 months off of water skiing, I got back on the water at Jack’s Travers Ski School in Florida. While skiing well is always a bonus, the way it makes me feel is really why I do it.
Skiing is like a reset. Not only do I get all those feel-good endorphins, I also get stronger through the exercise. Between each pass, I rest and recover, going from super high intensity to fully relaxed. That kind of oscillation is an incredibly effective stress reliever.
Now, I’m going to get analytical for a minute to make a point. My actual time in the course over 5 ski sets was nine and a half minutes. That’s 570 seconds TOTAL. My waking hours for the time I was there was about 64 hours. So, the ski time that made me feel so good was .247% of my waking time there.
What is the point I’m making here? If we are doing the right things, it doesn’t take a lot of time to get ourselves back in balance.
I have a tendency to miss the moments along the way while looking for the milestones on the journey.
Since my trip this week, two subjects have permeated my thoughts: Appreciation and Kindness.
Those subjects came via the activities I did during the other 99% of my time.
I’ve been working on something for a few weeks, and now is a good time to “let the cat out of the bag.”
I’m starting my very own PODCAST in January 2020! And my trip to Florida offered me a chance work on it.
While I was there, I sat down for two enlightening conversations, first with Natallia Berdnikava and then with David Benzel. Both are athletes – and leaders. We talked about balance, performance under pressure, training for success, handling failure, and so much more. The conversations we had about mindset and choice applies in every domain.
We also talked about appreciation and kindness. I’m not going to spoil the surprises from these conversations, but I want to share a couple of the jewels.
Here’s one from Natiallia: Imagine that no matter how hard you worked, you could only go so far. She was raised in Belarus. Living in America has made her appreciate to the very depths of her soul the freedoms we can take for granted.
David shared a story about the impact of kindness. Again, I won’t spoil the story but I’m going to challenge you to look for kindness in the coming week. If you can spot any, create your own. And then give yourself a pause to experience what kindness does to your heart.
I’m so excited to finally start recording and sharing some of the insightful conversations I have the chance to be in.
You might have listened to the podcast that Jen and I did a couple of years ago. It’s still out there and now, Jen is still blogging and podcasting as part of her company Maneely Consulting. I couldn’t be prouder of her.
As we come up on the last two weeks of 2019 (and start a new decade!), I hope you make every moment count and fill it with kindness and appreciation.
My very best to you!
Creativity is messy. It just is. Or am I just trying to justify not cleaning my art studio?
The studio does need to be straightened up – but there is also something that happens in the mess if I can tolerate the discomfort. It seems to me that the messy part of creativity is not about the steps of the process but the feeling of uncertainty in the process. Will this experiment work? What if it doesn’t? What will I try next?
Creativity can feel like being out of control – and the natural human reaction is to get back into control.
This point was driven home for me last week. A friend was driving us to dinner over wet mountain roads in the dark. He was driving way too fast for my comfort. I mostly managed to tolerate the discomfort, but more than once, I said “slow down!”
Here’s the funny thing: He probably wasn’t driving any faster than I would have. The problem wasn’t his driving. The problem was the sensation created by being out of control.
My brain wasn’t connected to the foot that could hit the brake pedal, but my brain was happy to send warning signals throughout my body that we were going to die if we didn’t slow down. The feeling was intolerable – and my natural reaction was to stop the feeling.
So what does all this have to do with creativity?
Creativity involves starting something that may or may not work.
If you are creating something new, it hasn’t been done before. You can’t be sure what you are going to get. Uncertainty is an essential ingredient.
I recently completed a large painting where I had several moments of discomfort that caused me to have to walk away for a while. In fact, sitting in my one of the drawers in my art room is another painting that made me so uncomfortable, I’ve walked away indefinitely.
Unlike the brake pedal on the car that almost always slows the car down when you press it, trying something creative guarantees nothing. Even though you are not going to die, tell that to The Sanctioner (your inner critic) - and all the imaginary art critics, bosses, co-workers, and teachers from your past who have taken up residence in your mind.
Here’s what I’ve learned through agonizing trial and error: The feeling is the feeling. How I interpret the feeling is up to me. Will I listen to the Sanctioner or will I listen to my own wisdom? Will I act mindlessly on the feeling by quitting or beating myself up or will I stay with the feeling as an essential part of the process? Will I avoid mistakes or treat them as the gifts of learning?
When we ask for creativity from ourselves and others, we have to tolerate the feeling it brings – and the mistakes.
In order to get to something new, we have to leave behind the old. And the old does not go quietly into to the night.
Early in my art journey, I would go into my studio seeking to express myself and instead I would organize. Why? Because I knew how to organize and that felt good. When I’m being creative, I don’t really know what I’m doing, and that feels uncomfortable. What I’ve learned over time is that a messy studio gives me the freedom to make new connections, try something different and to worry less about making mistakes.
Where do you need more creativity in your life?
How do you get your creative juices flowing?
What does uncertainty feel like to you?
How much uncertainty can you tolerate?
As always, I love hearing from you and please share with anyone you think would find this helpful.
She said “I really can’t take time for myself until my work is done.” Even though I’ve heard similar statements before – I’ve SAID similar statements myself – this time I heard it differently.
“Who says that?” I asked. After all, she is a grown ass woman who really doesn’t have anyone she has to answer to.
As it often does, the answer to the question came out of her past. She had adopted the rules of her parents and teachers– just like we all do. The problem is that we pack those rules in our bags when we leave home and forget to reexamine them when we become responsible for our own lives.
“It’s like you have a Sanctioner living in your head, telling when it’s ok to play, how to do your work and making sure you follow all the rules,” I said. Of course, Sanctioner is a made up word – but it comes from the word sanction.
The dictionary has two definitions for “sanction.”
So much of what we say to ourselves – and what we are willing to do or not do –comes from carrying the voices of our past as if they are real.
The other day, I was finishing a watercolor and to get an effect I wanted, I used some gouache instead of pure transparent watercolors. It worked beautifully. Until The Sanctioner showed up.
One of my original art teachers started screaming in my head that “You never use gouache in watercolor! Now you’ve done it. You’ve gone and tainted the piece. It’s not a real watercolor now.”
Even though imagined, those words felt as real as if she were in the room. It almost felt like a betrayal, even though she actually would have never said it that way. And truth be told, those words were coming from ME in MY head.
Fortunately, I’ve been working on firing The Sanctioner for years. I looked at the effect I got on the piece and LOVED it. It really made the painting pop.
Rather than get caught up in the guilt of having broken a rule of watercolor, I relished in the outcome. I saw that nonsense for what it was and let it go. I’m framing that painting today!
We all have a Sanctioner in our head. We also have so much more freedom and choice than we realize once we see the Sanctioner for what it is.
One of the exercises I’ve had coaching clients do is write down some of their rules for work, such as when they will take a call during another meeting, how they schedule blocks of time for deep work and how they handle email during the day. Almost to a person, they discover that the rules are running them – and if they had a choice, they would change them.
Then they discover they DO have a choice. No one has set those rules for them. Instead, when asked why they follow those rules, they say things like “I need to be liked” or “I want to be seen as responsive” or “I’m afraid I’ll be a failure if I don’t do it all.”
The Sanctioner is not fueled by lack of awareness. The Sanctioner is fueled by fear of not being enough. The Sanctioner is a liar.
You are enough. And The Sanctioner is nothing but thoughts fueled by fear, run amuck.
Fire the Sanctioner.
In my blog “Better is Better than Perfect,” I talk about how practice used to make me crazy. As a young girl, I took piano lessons. The lessons were fine. Playing the piano was fun. Learning to read music was exciting. The occasional competitions got my juices flowing.
None of that overcame my personal hell called “piano practice.” My mother nagged me and then restricted me and then told the teacher on me. Not that she needed to be told. The piano teacher knew. She was no fool. In fact, she was an outstanding teacher who could have helped me become a concert pianist.
My hands could learn to play the notes – but my mindset was way too self-limiting in those years to become great.
My young mind wanted to be perfect at the outset. I hated mistakes! There was no way I would embark on a journey of the thousands, if not millions, of mistakes it would require to become a concert pianist.
This perfection mindset permeated every aspect of my life. (Except maybe cleaning my room.) For example, when I went to the roller-skating rink, I measured how much fun I had based on how many times I fell down. Less was always better.
If I was measuring my learning, I would have embraced the falls as progress in my learning. But no, not to this young mind. I was measuring mistakes.
So I quit piano in order to avoid practice. I had some lame excuses about a busy social life, wanting to study and other lame reasons, but the truth was I hated to practice.
During one of my first visits to Coble Ski School, former world champion April Coble Eller got on a trick ski and did some flips. She made it look easy. When she got off the water, she said “That flip took me 500 falls to learn.”
If she had chosen to follow the young Lynn view of practice and mistake, she would never had learned those flips, or any of the other skills that made her a world champion.
My favorite thing about the word “practice” is the implication that whatever you are practicing is a work in progress rather than a finished masterpiece. Just using the word practice has a way of giving permission to play with something, try new things, and make mistakes.
Sounds lovely. But the truth is, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with practice.
Unfortunately, just because practice is a good thing doesn’t stop me from rushing to the end goal. For me, practicing has become a lifelong journey of learning to take things one moment at a time, so that I can actually learn rather than stay locked in place. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t.
Later in life, I married a man with an old piano and started plunking again. Soon I was playing. And before I knew it, practice took on a whole new meaning. In order to actually play well, practice was required.
Something had shifted inside me to make practice not just palatable but desirable.
Fast forward thirty years and now I love it when I can’t do something. Where once not being able to do something caused me to turn away from it, now I’m more likely to turn into it. My first attempts at watercolor painting were disasters. Trying to ski the course in water skiing was a dismal failure. (My first time at ski school I hit my head and had to get stitches.)
Walking more than 2 miles in my mountainous town caused unbelievable pain. Learning the throw pottery almost made me throw the clay across the room. The chin up bar was too high and my body too heavy to consider even one pull up. When I went back to riding horses, I got thrown and spent 3 days in the hospital.
Now I sell my watercolors. I run the ski course on a regular basis. I walk four miles and more in the hills around my house. I throw big, beautiful pieces. I can do several unassisted chin ups in a row. I take weekly horseback riding lessons. My list of once-failures, now-successes continues to grow.
So what changed? I changed my mind about practice.
In order to get better - at anything - practice is essential. Yet it is all too easy to take the safe path and do what has worked before.
We are all practicing all of the time. Think about it. Every day you make decisions, hold conversations, live by your values, choose how to see a situation, and do any of the other things that make up a life. You are practicing. The question is, are you getting any better at those things? Perhaps you are improving. But are you getting measurably better? Are you really going for it, like an athlete would go for a new personal best? Do you have that charge that makes it exciting to live a bit on the edge, to know that you are pushing yourself and stretching your limits? For many of us, the answer to that question is no.
I must tell you I take terrible risks. Because my playing is very clear, when I make a mistake you hear it. If you want me to play only the notes without any specific dynamics, I will never make one mistake. Never be afraid to dare… Always there should be a little mistake here and there - I am for it. The people who don't do mistakes are cold like ice. It takes risk to make a mistake. If you don't take risk, you are boring. Concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz
Many of us live a flat line in our jobs. We are boring and locked in ice. We know how to do the basics: have conversations, run meetings, make decisions, assess a situation, state our values.
But trying to be better in a corporate context is very different than trying to be better as an athlete, artist or performer. Why?
Because the environment is not quite as friendly towards mistakes and practice. Most companies set an expectation of “flawless execution” or six sigma or other methods that try to drive mistakes out of the pipeline. For lots of good reasons, they would rather have a stable path to perfection rather than a learning path to innovation.
So how can one become an individual learner in an environment that doesn’t support it?
I’ve found that answer is practices, use here as a noun rather than a verb.
What is a practice? It’s something you regularly do that is designed to turn a thought into a reality.
For example, in the book Hardwiring Excellence, Quint Studer describes the practice of writing thank you notes to people expressing gratitude. We often think about gratitude; a regular practice of writing thank you notes turns that thought into reality.
In my coaching practice (notice that word again?), I’ve found that just committing to have regular practices starts the momentum towards change. One of the first practices I will often add to a leader’s repertoire is meditation. There are lots of types of meditation. People ask me which one they should do. My answer? The one you will do as a regular practice.
You already have a lot of practices in your life. I bet you brush your teeth. Doing it regularly helps you avoid the social stigma that comes with non-brushed teeth.
True change can come about with both practice and practices.
What do you regularly practice? What practices have made the most different for you? Where would you like to be better? What stops you from making the changes you want to make?
A couple of years ago, I was horseback riding on the trail with a friend. It was my second time on this horse. More importantly, it was my second time on any horse in almost 20 years. And even more importantly than that, my thoughts and beliefs about horses and horseback riding were deeply tainted by the modern world. My misperceptions, and frankly my ignorance, got me injured pretty badly.
Humans have been on this planet a lot longer than cars, and in all that time, we got from place to place with the help of animals. By anyone’s measure of history, horses have been a predominant form of transportation for the vast majority of human history. Cars have been a our main form of transportation for only about 100 years. The Army used horses in the Calvary until a mere 70 years ago.
Our ancestors understood how to work with nature and animals, where things happen more or less in their own time and in a natural rhythm.
It’s not that way in today’s world.
Thanks to the dawn of the modern era, we now have machine thinking.
Here’s how I define “machine thinking.” The input directly correlates to the output. For example, you flip a switch and the light comes on. You turn the ignition and the car starts. You move the steering to the left and the car turns. You press the “Buy Now” button on Amazon and the thing shows up at your door the next day. You press the button and elevator arrives. (And regardless of what many of us think, hitting the button over and over again doesn’t make it come any faster.) You hit the brakes on the car and the car stops. All of this happens because there is a predictable, mostly unfettered connection between the input and the output.
But there is a huge problem when you bring machine thinking into the animal world. Animals are not machines and their instincts have not been tainted by the modern world in the same way ours have. Their essential nature has not changed.
Our great-great grandparents knew it took time to cultivate and harvest a garden. Friendships evolved over many years of face to face interaction. Fire was created with a spark and dry material. Messages took weeks, months and sometimes years to get to us. Keeping animals for transportation involved patience, care and problem solving as much as it did getting from here to there.
In the modern world, we want everything now.
The day I fell off the horse, my own “machine thinking” created expectations in my brain that were not relevant in the animal world.
In my case, the horse picked up a trot when I still wanted him to walk. I forgot I was on an animal and not on a machine. When I pushed the stop button (my warped thinking) and the horse didn’t stop, my patience went out the window. My fear went sky high. My brain confused the mechanical with the organic. Rather than try something different, I hit the elevator button over and over again.
To the horse, the only thing being elevated was his fear. What I intended to communicate and what I actually communicated were two very different things.
Because my fear sent me into full on Survival Mode, I was incapable of accessing my ability to calm the horse, assess the situation and give him a minute to hear me and slow down. I wanted instant gratification.
Even though I “knew” I needed to relax, being able to actually do it under this kind of pressure was impossible.
With the person on his back sending huge fear signals, he did what any sane horse would do. He got me off his back. I got to spend three days in the hospital with a broken collarbone, partially collapsed lung -- and the question of whether I would ever get back on a horse again.
Reflecting on this experience over the last two years, I’ve learned more than a PhD program or 20 years meditating on a mountain.
Horses are not machines. Neither are people. All too often, I’ve come to expect humans to respond like a machine. My patience goes out the window when I don’t get instant gratification. Rather than get curious, I get judgmental. Seriously? You’re going to write a check instead of a single swipe? Rather than sift through possibilities, I jump to conclusions and run with my first thought.
Many years ago, the bank I worked for sent me to a highly-coveted leadership program for the leaders who showed great potential. It was my first experience getting 360 feedback, and nothing prepared me for the emotional hit I was about to take.
Even though most of the report was positive, there was news about me in there that made me miss the main message of the report. All I could see was that “Lynn needs to learn to listen.” And “I don’t feel valued by Lynn.” See how that works? All these years later I can remember the bad news, while I could not begin to tell you the good news.
I spent a lot of time in that leadership session commiserating with my fellow attendees, all of whom were having similar emotional hits. No amount of placating, comforting, or showing us the facts helped us get out of fear-based Survival Mode. Most of the conversation was about how “they didn’t get it and we shouldn’t have to listen to this and who says I am going to change.”
The machine that spat out a 97% positive report can’t prevent the human reaction to 3% negative news.
Why could we not see the good? Why would we not take the opportunity to use the report for our betterment? How could we let such a small bit of bad news cause us fear?
Because we are human.
Only time, reflection and support helped us come to terms with the truth of the feedback.
As leaders of people, we have to remember that change is about more than pushing a button and getting the new result. We have to remember it takes time and practice and repetitions to be able to actually DO what we KNOW to do. After all, even though we have a conceptual understanding of something does not mean we can do it.
Just because you sent a memo that says “here’s the new way of doing things”, it doesn’t mean that everybody will suddenly be on board. In the best of circumstances, it takes time to leave the old way and absorb the new. Typically, people will just tell you why they shouldn’t have to change. In the worst of circumstances, they will stage a revolt.
Managing change is not flipping a switch. It involves taking people through the “change curve” and giving them a chance to catch up with what’s happening.
The pathway to getting the result we want does not come through a direct connection like it is with a machine. It has to first go through our instincts, our emotions and our need to survive. We have to understand the kind of beings we are really working with here.
How often is the message we intend to communicate different than the one we actually communicate? When does the pressure of a situation keep us from being able to do what we know how to do? What does it take to bring our understanding of human nature to our leadership challenges? How do we tame our own Survival Mode so that we can bring our very best work to the big problems we are solving? How do we recognize others that are in Survival Mode and support them to realize things are not as bad as they first appear?
Simple. It’s just not that easy. We have to remember that people are not machines.
On a recent flight, I finally got to watch Free Solo, the documentary of Alex Honnold free climbing El Capitan. That’s a 3,000 plus foot climb without a rope. One mistake, and he’s plummeting to his death. Splat. The filmmakers depict the risk and pressure beautifully. No one in their right mind would do such a climb. Spoiler alert: The fact that he survived shocked many of his friends and climbing buddies.
Just the idea of such a climb sends shivers through me, much less watching it on film. Knowing he succeeded did not make it any easier on me. Actually, I couldn’t watch most of it. My fear of heights sends the sensation of falling through me with the simple thought of being up that high. I played a game on my phone to get me through the most death-defying scenes.
Clearly, Honnold has tamed his survival mode more than the average person. In the film, they show him getting the results of an MRI designed to study what’s happening in his brain when fear-inducing things pop up on a screen. The average person’s brain is all lit up in the amygdala, AKA the Survival Brain. Honnold’s brain barely registered anything. He asked if his brain was broken. They said it was not broken – but definitely he had trained himself not be as fearful as the average person. If you think about it, that’s not really surprising. Otherwise, he would definitely have not been able to climb El Capitan without a rope. His fear would have overtaken him.
However, his LACK of fear might also eventually prove fatal.
Many argue he was stupid to try it. When you watch the film, you see that his friends, and especially his girlfriend, wish some fear would show up to keep him from putting himself into that level of danger. One of the undercurrents of the film is that taking this kind of risk is how he feels alive.
I can’t imagine that he is going to live to a ripe old age. A mistake will catch him at one point, and in free climbing, even a tiny mistake is fatal. He really needs fear in order to survive.
And that’s the problem with fear. And food. It’s not the fear or the food that really matter. It’s the balance that matters.
We need both fear and food in order to survive. We can also overdo it with both.
When our relationship with food is out of balance, we get fat or emaciated. The fallout of eating too much or too little is pretty obvious. Not that having clothes that don’t fit makes it easier!
But, here’s the point: you can’t walk away from food. The only way to stay at the same weight is to be balanced with your food intake. If you use food as a coping mechanism, getting into balance will require you to find another way to cope. Or heal.
Fear is the same way. You can’t walk away from fear either, because fear keeps you out of danger. We are hardwired for survival. Fear can be your friend.
Fear can also be your greatest enemy. When we are out of balance with our fear, we will either over or under do it. We take crazy risks – or we get frozen and take no risks.
I usually get frozen – and as a result, don’t take risks. Or let fear hide in the background, keeping me away from the edge and therefore away from reasonable actions that need to happen. Like difficult conversations. Like trying a new sport. Like writing a blog like this.
Fear gives good reasons for why not to have that conversation or try the sport or write the blog. “Well, the way she spoke out of turn wasn’t really that bad. Maybe it won’t happen again.” “Sure I would love to learn how to row. But what if my boat turns over?” “I love to write about topics that matter. But what if I make someone mad?”
It’s not the fear – or the food – that’s the problem. It’s our relationship with the fear and food, that gets both out of balance. It’s the habitual pattern of just letting fear or food run you that gets us into trouble.
I have a special place in my pantry for chocolate – the really good, dark chocolate that is delicious and “healthy.” When I get a small bite and sit down and actually experience the deliciousness, the chocolate serves as a wonderful treat.
But what do I do all too often? I mindlessly open the pantry door, grab a bite, eat it as I do something else, grab another bit, do something else, and the next thing I know, I’ve eaten 3 servings. And I haven’t really tasted any of it. Now I have to work off those calories. Nope, that doesn’t serve me. It’s out of balance.
Fear and food in balance are our greatest friends. Out of balance, they start to run us and we become a slave to our old habits.
Where has your fear truly served you? Where have you let fear stop you from doing something worthwhile? What do you do to restore balance?
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