During a recent visit to the car dealership to get my oil changed, I decided to go for a test drive of a new car rather than sit down and write this blog. Usually, I feel like a creative genius sitting in that waiting room with my headset on, pounding away at the keyboard. Today, I felt that nagging question of “what am I going to write about” hanging in the back of my mind.
With a classic case of writer’s block going, I went for a test drive. It was an avoidance strategy for sure. Perhaps a very expensive one if my avoidance led to getting a new car.
I did what any good test driver of a new car would do: opened it up on the highway to see how fast it accelerated. For a few seconds anyway. As we were making the same circle that salesman has likely made hundreds of times, I asked him how he felt being in the passenger side of a car with a complete stranger flooring it and otherwise putting a car through its paces.
Here is what he said: “I don’t get scared when someone is seeing how fast the car can accelerate or they try the brakes. What scares me is the people who don’t realize just what a bad driver they are.”
His statement reinforced an insight that has been percolating with me for years. It’s something that will be percolating for the rest of my life.
Awareness matters. So does intention. And they are closely linked.
Being unaware (ignorant) can create unfortunate consequences – in domains far beyond test driving a car. Ignorance simply means you are operating based on an unconscious choice and you do not know what you do not know. Like a driver who is oblivious. Like a boss who doesn’t understand the impact s/he has.
What the car salesman basically said was that intention makes his job less scary.
There is a lot of power in intention. This is not a newsflash. There have been books and movies made about the power of intention.
Yet, like anything with depth, there is a WORLD of difference between knowing something in theory and actually putting it into practice.
It’s the “putting it into practice” that has been percolating with me for the last several years.
Being intentional requires awareness and discipline.
Intention to me means that you are operating by a conscious choice. You made a decision and you are acting on that decision.
It means I have to pause to decide on my intention for anything that matters. It’s one of the key leverage points I can use to run my life (instead of letting my life run me.)
So how did I do on that slippery slope of test driving a car? Did I fall prey to the salesman’s charms and drive out with a new car? (By the way, I genuinely am in the market for a new car – and I also love the game of negotiating.)
In this case, when I decided to actually do a test drive, I also decided that my intention was to learn about the car, get a first offer and LEAVE. No matter how good the offer.
The deal they put in front of me was actually pretty good – and I honored my intention. It kept me from making a rushed deal, and when I do buy, it will be on my terms.
Being intentional helps you create the terms for your life. It puts you in the driver’s seat. You can’t control what happens in so many cases.
Intention allows you to respond rather than react.
Where are you exercising the discipline of intention? In what ways are you letting your life run you? What decisions do you find particularly difficult?
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By: Lynn Carnes
Can context make you blind? How about unchecked expectations? I’m coming to the conclusion that both can make you blind – or maybe that’s just my justification since my “asparagus incident”.
In February, I starting clearing the weeds along my asparagus bed in my garden. Mind you, my asparagus bed is in the middle of the garden fortress created by my husband a few years ago. It's 3/4 of an acre, surrounded by a huge deer fence and plumbed for irrigation. In past years, Russ would get in there every spring with the tractor and plow the whole thing. Following that, he would leave it to others to plan, plant, fertilize, water, weed and harvest some sort of food. This is all very important context (or like I said, maybe it's just my justification for the point of this story.) For the spring of 2018, other projects kept him from doing any plowing. Plus, we didn’t have anybody ready to come plant. So it was just me and all that land.
Here's the first critical piece of context. I'm a beginner when I comes to working the land. Especially 3/4 of an acre of hard land. We claimed this spot with dirt taken out of our lake, which is theoretically full of yummy nutrients for plants. In reality, it's full of stones and sand. It's hard to imagine anything growing in this barren desert. Except weeds. It is a haven for weeds. No matter how much care this plot gets over the growing season, by fall, it is three feet high in weeds that should only grow 5 inches. The weeds love this place! And I hate pulling weeds with a passion.
So it was hours of work for me to clear the row where I planted the asparagus. Oh fun! Not. I used the tomato stakes from the last year to hone in on the middle of the asparagus row and raked and hoed and cleared, anticipating the best harvest to date. In the end, you could only tell where I had worked by finding the area where the weeds were at ground level. Early on, it was clear to me that I would never get all the weeds out - but at least I could set it up to see when the asparagus started breaking its delicious tops through the soil.
Now for the second bit of context. Or justification. You decide. March was exceptionally cold this year. It was more like February. When I went down to check about once a week starting in mid March, I didn't expect to see anything. I would wade through the tall weeds and grasses and look for those little green bits of deliciousness. Nothing. I was getting exactly what I expected. Cold spring must equal no asparagus, right?
In early April, I started getting the ground ready for planting my tomatoes (about the only thing I can grow worth a damn) and a few other vegetables I would decide to grow but probably not eat. Not only am I not a strong gardener, I'm not much of an eater of garden vegetables. Still no asparagus.
A couple of weeks went by and now I'm starting to wonder if the cold winter had killed my babies. I remembered having had a LOT of asparagus by mid-April in the previous year. This is a four year old crop - it should be booming. As I'm on my hands and knees, planting some seeds and baby broccoli (one of the things I probably won't eat) I sadly concluded that there would be no asparagus this year.
My daughter came in to help me and started wandering around. She was standing on my empty asparagus bed when she said "Check this out!" She was pointing out a 3 and a half foot "weed" and marveling at how pretty it was. You already know, right? If you grow asparagus, you are probably spitting in your tea or banning me from the gardening hall of fame. That "weed" was one of thirty shoots that had clearly been growing for weeks.
All this time, I was looking in the wrong place. Just 10 INCHES away from my cleared area, there sat my asparagus bed. I had missed the mark. The asparagus was healthy and growing and in my face. Because I was so used to dealing with monster weeds right next to me, I never bothered to look at what was virtually under my nose. (I really have learned to ignore the forest that grows in the rest of the garden.)
Suddenly it all made sense. My tomato stakes were the correct marker - but because I had let the weeds over grow it, I lost sight that they were in the MIDDLE of the row, not on the edge. Furthermore, I was looking so often, I was sure I would see the asparagus stalks before they started flowering out. I was so late to the party - and the stalks were coming up in an uncleared area - that the asparagus reached full wispiness before I could see them. Oh, and I might have stayed blind to it if someone else hadn't pointed it out.
All sorts of things blinded me to this outcome. My expectations, conclusions, context, you name it. I simply did not see what was right in front of my face.
Bad decisions get made with this kind of blindness. Because I thought I knew what was going on, I didn't look for other possibilities. I was caught up in the swirl of my own mind with my own limited thinking. It took someone else to break me out of it with the simple comment "Hey, look at this."
The moral of this story? What you are looking for may be right under your nose. You just need help seeing it.
We all need that kind of support. It is so easy to get caught up in thinking that we need to have the answers, that we SHOULD know this, or that we don't want anyone else to know how much we need help. In the case of my garden, it was abject embarrassment for anyone to see the wilderness that I called a "garden." It would never have dawned on me to ask someone to help.
As an executive coach, I've had similar moments with so many of my clients. They tentatively invite me into their world, and my questions are often some version of, "Have you looked at this?" They will see a problem from a completely different angle and the solution appears, almost as if by magic.
Where are you getting exactly what you expect, even though it's not what you want? In what ways have you created situational blindness because you are tired of seeing the mess around you? Where has the context of a situation caused you to draw incorrect conclusions? Who do you turn to for another point of view or to ask those “have you thought of it this way?” questions?
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The lesson of power of context keeps coming back to me. One of my first experiences in seeing how context can change everything came when living in Charlotte, right after I got my first car with a key fob that unlocked my car. (Ok, this was a long time ago!) I asked my husband “Is it possible for someone else’s key fob to open my car?” His answer was that is was possible but not likely. Still, I wondered. Then a few days later, I was shopping near an Old Navy, and popped open my presumably empty trunk to load my purchases. What I saw hit me in the gut: A stack of clothing with a receipt on top. The kicker? It was an Old Navy receipt. What the heck? I turned around and saw the Old Navy store, and immediately KNEW that someone had just left them in my car. Trying to be a good citizen while being thoroughly freaked out, I took the clothes back in the store, explaining that someone had accidentally locked them in my car, and would be back looking for them. Weird, we all thought, but they must have a similar key fob.
A few days later, one of my neighbors called to say thank you for taking her to get her daughter after a fender bender. Then she said: “By the way, I left some clothes we were planning to return to Old Navy in your trunk. Can I come by to get them?” Imagine how difficult it was to explain to her that those clothes HAD been returned – but just not in a convenient way for her. Well, dang. Seems context and fear got all crossed up and what looked like a good citizen move was my fear brain making up stories.
Never again, I said. From now on, I will Check. It. Out.
Immediately I applied this learning to a corporate situation. At the time, I had a national role with a large bank in training new college graduates to be bankers. Recognizing that one of their most important skills would be evaluating the health of a business from the financial statements, we were always on the search for good ways to help them be better in accounting. We found a one-day program that simplified things by having them run a lemonade stand like a kid. It was a fun and engaging program that taught big lessons in an appealing way. Or so we thought. The first time we ran it, we simply informed the 120 students what time and where to be for their Friday session.
When they came back on Monday for their next level accounting intensive, our team was expecting a big thank you for giving them such a fun and informative day of non-boring accounting lessons. What we got instead were offended, angry and insulted future bankers. Huh? When our team debriefed after hearing from the students, we realized that we had given NO context for WHY they going to a program that treated them like kids. We had used the “just the facts” approach and it bombed.
A few weeks later, the second group of trainees came through and we applied what we had learned. In addition to the what, where and when for the accounting program, we said this: “One of your most important roles as a banker will be in learning to be insightful in your analysis of your client’s financial statements. We know you have all had accounting, so this is nothing new. However, we are going to be moving very quickly and deeply into some complicated aspects of reading financial statements. So, as a fun way to dust off your accounting skills, we are giving you a fun way to refresh your memory with a game.”
This time was different. On Monday, they came back full of excitement and gratitude for a useful day. The only difference was in the how we described the program. We set the context differently, and they responded in ways that helped them for the rest of their twelve-week program. Aha, I thought, I have mastered context. And for many years, I carried that belief.
Then came the turtle incident. Or maybe you would call it a ski incident. For most of that summer, we had seen a large painted turtle sitting on a log near where we drop to rest and shorten the rope. We had even named him. One day, my husband was driving, and I dropped in the water, noticing that the turtle wasn’t there. (And wondered exactly where was he? If not on the log, was he somewhere under me?) As I pushed my back foot into the toe piece, I heard a click. “Well there you are, Mr. Lucky!” thinking that he must have surfaced and his shell hit my ski. So I said “hit it” pretty quickly because, even though I like turtles, I didn’t really want to sit near a big one in the water.
As I crossed the first wake, I took one of my biggest crashes ever. While I was not injured, it certainly shook me up enough to not ski again that day. The next day, we visited another lake to ski. As I got in the water and pushed my back foot into the toe piece, I heard the same click as the day before. My first thought was “What? They have turtles too?” Thanks to the context, I immediately realized what a stupid thought. My front foot had unclipped from the release.
All of the sudden, the events of the day before made sense. This was not a turtle incident. This was a ski incident. My crash was directly attributable to having my ski unclipped from the boot. It was preventable, but I missed critical data because I over relied on the context of the situation without thinking things through. Instead of being curious about what else could have made a click, once again my fear and context got all crossed up. My brain took a shortcut, and without me being mindful to override the lazy conclusion, I took an unnecessary fall. Replacing a worn out release solved the problem. Wish I had been more curious before the bad fall!
Where do we let context create conclusions that are not useful? In what ways does our "lazy brain" take shortcuts that ultimately hurt us? How can we learn to be mindful in how we set context in our communications? In what ways can we recognize and learn to see those little fear incidents that are not even real? What stories are we making up and do we even check them out?
The stories we make up influence our outcomes. Context shapes our stories – and we can shape context. All it takes is a moment and the willingness to see it.
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Lynn Carnes accelerates change and unleashes leadership performance in organizations, especially in context of challenges without easy answers. She loves to hear about how your experiments with these ideas turn out. To contact her or share your experiences email firstname.lastname@example.org
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