I enjoy being in situations that defy common wisdom. Recently my husband and I were vacationing in Italy, where we spent one day in Venice. We traveled there by train, and simply walked off the train and started wandering around (fortunately, the places most people want to go are pretty well sign-posted, or you’d be irretrievably lost after about five minutes.)
At one point a sweet young Dutch woman asked us to take her picture, and then we asked her to return the favor. It wasn’t until we were standing there, not moving, that I realized how quiet the city was. I said as much to my husband, and he responded, “no cars.”
Of course! How strange to be in an urban area completely devoid of traffic sounds and smells. The only motorized vehicles in Venice are the water taxis, which are pretty quiet.
Once we’d been reminded of this auto-less situation, we noticed all kinds of interesting adaptations: a cool little machine shaped kind of like the bottom of an army tank that some guys were using to take a refrigerator up a set of stairs; a dolly with a second smaller set of wheels to transport containers not only through the streets but up one side of the stepped bridges and down the other.
The experience immediately made me think about how we might do things differently in other cities to reduce or eliminate car traffic. I noticed how just one example of a non-car-based urban area shifted my thinking from “We couldn’t possibly do without cars” to “Why not?”
Now, don’t misunderstand me - I’m sure there are thousands of people infinitely more equipped to think about this question than I, who have been wrestling with it for many years. I’m not really talking about how to create car-free cities; I’m talking about how to challenge your assumptions. And this day in Venice reminded me that when I encounter something that pushes against what I believe is possible (it could be anything: a conservative Republican who’s concerned about social justice; a simple approach to income taxes that will actually work; a way to stay in shape that takes 15 minutes a day), it has – if I’m open to it – a wonderful effect of making me question my set-in-stone assumptions. And that’s always a good thing.
And to have my mind opened up in addition to simply being in Venice: priceless.
“Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. We are all the same in this notion: The potential for greatness lives within each of us.”
- Wilma Rudolph
Wilma Rudolph was the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics. In the 1960s, she was considered the fastest woman in the world.
Astonishingly, this world-class athlete and inspiration to millions was born prematurely, weighing only 4.5 pounds. She was a sickly baby and child, surviving attacks of infantile paralysis, polio and scarlet fever that left her with a twisted leg requiring an orthopedic brace, which she had to wear until the age of 12. She once said, “My doctors told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.”
As time goes on, I become more and more convinced that, though we can’t always control the circumstances of our lives, we can always have tremendous control over our reaction to those circumstances. For example:
Today I was telling some colleagues about an amazing woman named Tao Porchon-Lynch, a 96-year-old yoga teacher, championship ballroom dancer, wine connoisseur and peace activist who has become my inspiration and role model. I see no reason, barring illness or death, that I (or you) can’t be living an equally satisfying and active life in our nineties.
Yesterday was the fifth anniversary of the day I met my beloved husband. We were reading through emails from the early days of our courtship, and agreeing that we love, like, and desire each other more today than we did five years ago – and that we fully expect our love to continue to expand and deepen throughout our lives.
I’m entirely certain that I will be able to learn new skills, make new connections with people and discover new problems/mysteries/puzzles to solve until the day I die.
In fact, here’s a suggestion. Whenever that voice in your head tells you that something you hope for just isn’t possible, stop and ask yourself – Why not?
Every spring I write at least one post about spring. You’d think I’d be jaded by now – after all, I’ve lived through a good many years, and each year to date has included a spring.
Every year, I glory in it. It seems miraculous every single time: one week, dead grey branches and barren ground; the next, a hundred shades of tender greenery adorn the branches and wildflowers spangle greening meadows. We tuck inert seeds into garden soil and – voila! - the tender shoots emerge a few days later. We open the windows to welcome in the scent of newly warmed earth and the susurration of breezes in the grass.
spring from the train
I’m grateful to be enchanted like this every spring. And I’m convinced that this ability to see the same old thing with new eyes is a gift we all have – and of which we take insufficient advantage.
There’s a reason for it, though. Being able to do a great many things primarily on automatic pilot makes it possible for us to navigate our complicated lives. For instance, think about the things you’ve done so far today: gotten out of bed; done your morning ablutions; gotten dressed; perhaps eaten breakfast – and cooked or purchased it first; possibly gotten kids or your spouse off to work or school; made your own way to work or started your day in other ways. I’d venture to say that most of these activities took very little of your attention…in fact, you were probably thinking about other things entirely, or having conversations, while you did them. This ability to do a variety of things without paying too much attention to them enables us to do and say and think as many things as we do during the course of a day, many of them simultaneously.
But the fact is, we can fully attend to any circumstance or event or person that comes before us; we have that capability, too. And when we do, our experience of that thing opens up, and it strikes us with great depth and clarity. We see it for all that it is, rather than seeing merely the two-dimensional sketch to which our inattention reduces it. We all experience this sometimes: when we’re newly in love; when something brand-new (to us) is happening; when we’re fully engaged in doing something about which we’re passionate.
We forget, though, that we can look at anything through this lens of full attention – and that when we do, we’ll regain much of the rich freshness of seeing it for the first time. Seeing spring anew each year reminds me of this capability, and it’s a joy to me – but it also reminds me that making use of this ability to attend fully can make my life better in every realm. For instance, full attention can allow us to see our colleagues more completely, so that we don’t limit them to thin caricatures of themselves. Looking more fully at new ideas makes it more likely that we’ll see the possibilities inherent in them, rather than labeling them as impractical or derivative. More fully attending to our own physicality can make us more conscious of how we carry ourselves, what we eat, how we sleep: we are more likely to to support our own well-being if we’re aware of how our actions are affecting our body at a given moment.
Someone once asked Pablo Casals, a world-renowned cellist who specialized in playing the works of Bach, if he didn’t get tired of playing the same pieces over and over. Casals replied, “I’ve never played the same piece of music twice.”
That’s possible for each of us.
I read the most amazing article recently, about elephants’ ability to recognize and react appropriately to human voice and language. In Kenya, elephants generally encounter people from one of two ethnic groups: Maasai or Kamba. The Kamba tend not to pose a danger to the elephants – while the Maasai often clash with the elephants over land and water rights.
Researchers had elephants listen to recorded voices of adult Maasai or Kamba males saying, in their own language, “Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming!” They also recorded Maasai females and children saying the same thing. Then they played the recording for family group of 58 elephants. Here’s what happened:
When researchers played a Maasai male voice, elephants immediately started sniffing the air for danger and retreated into a bunched, defensive formation. By contrast, the elephants were unfazed by the Kamba male voice. Further, elephants didn’t seem to mind the voices of Maasai women and children.
Even when researchers re-synthesized the Maasai male voice so it resembled a female’s, the elephants still recognized it was male and acted defensively. The results indicate that elephants can pick up even the subtlest vocal cues to assess the level of a threat.
Many studies besides this one have shown that elephants are extremely intelligent: among other things, it seems they experience a subtle and broad variety of emotions, including joy, playfulness, sadness and grief. They can learn new facts and behaviors, mimic sounds, self-medicate, demonstrate a sense of humor, create art (that is, do activities that seem to have only an artistic or expressive purpose), use tools to complete tasks, and display compassion and self-awareness.
This particular study caught my attention, though, because it demonstrates elephants’ ability to distinguish between humans who are likely to be a threat to them and those who are not. In other words, that they have the capability of trusting (or not trusting) humans based on previous experiences they’ve had with humans of various sorts.
Once I got past feeling sad that some humans are a threat to these gentle, intelligent creatures, it made me think about how casually we assume our own superiority to all other intelligences on the planet. And how, as we spend more time getting curious about highly intelligent animals like chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants, and pigs, our assumptions about our superiority come into question.
Thank goodness that the scientific method, when properly applied, doesn’t allow us to remain in comfortable ignorance, our assumptions unchallenged. I look forward to the day when scientists discover facts that demonstrate beyond doubt that these creatures with whom we share this orb have gifts and capabilities surpassing our own.
Until then, while I may not have proof, I suspect the elephants often pity us, and the dolphins find us amusing.
I’ve been noticing lately how very much easier it is to focus on making good things a little better – rather than figuring out how to re-invent good things to make them fantastic. Ad I’ve also been seeing the benefits of doing the latter:
I spent the last couple of days with a client group that did a truly bang-up job of NOT going for the easy answers, even though it would have saved them a lot of time and mental energy to do so. We spent the second day doing a “re-boot” of the vision and strategy map they had created in 2013, and when we got to strategies, it was clear that the ones they had come up with last year were pretty good and still directionally correct. It would have been by far the easiest choice simply to re-commit to last year’s strategies and come up with new tactics for this year. We actually started down that path, but after a few minutes, we all kind of looked at each other and said, “This isn’t going to hit on some of the most critical new aspects of our business – imperatives that have just arisen over the past few months. We need to start from scratch.” It required about 90 minutes of brain-stretching conversation to come up with those new strategies, and another couple of hours to craft appropriate tactics, but at the end of it they had created an exciting plan for this year that has the potential to be game-changing for them.
My husband, who is in the process of creating Great Life Brewing, has come up with some really excellent beers – especially his milk stout and IPA. He recently entered his first round of competitions, and received “good” ratings, along with one “outstanding” that garnered a medal. Based on the feedback he got, the easiest thing (and perfectly reasonable) would have been to do slight tweaking of the recipes to make them a little better. Instead, he decided to experiment with a significant change to the sparging process (part of extracting the malt from the grain) to raise the specific gravity of the unfermented beer – which would address a consistent piece of feedback he’d received about the ‘body’ of the beer, and that he felt kept the “good” ratings from being “very good” or even “outstanding.” After a 12-hour dawn-to-dark brewing day yesterday: success! His new approach to sparging increased the specific gravity by a big margin – and (according to him – I haven’t tasted it yet) made an immediate difference in the taste and mouthfeel of the beer.
In both instances, these folks avoided the seduction of making things “a little better.” It’s really easy to justify that approach, to convince ourselves that we’re doing all that can be expected of us. Now understand – I’m not talking about taking the path of least resistance: shirking, or doing things badly. I’m talking about doing what most people would consider an OK job.
But I’ve come to believe that world-class individuals and organizations are most often distinguished by their willingness and ability to do the tough work necessary to make break-through changes when that’s what’s needed, and what’s possible.
And the good news is – even though it can be a lot harder (it takes more of your time, energy, focus; more risk of failure; more letting go of assumptions) – it’s so much more satisfying to make substantive, even disruptive improvement in something important that it generally feels as though it’s all been worth it, whatever the effort involved.
Yesterday, my wonderful husband gave me a beautiful custom-created card, complete with a romantic poem he’d written himself. Inside were tickets to an off-Broadway show (that he’d secretly worked with my assistant to schedule). I sent him poetry, and tomorrow I’m making him a carrot cake – his favorite. This morning, our granddaughter – proudly and with hugs – gave us a heart-studded card she and her mom had made for us.
From my point of view, Valentine’s Day is simply an excuse to express your love a little more extravagantly than usual. I get that some people don’t like it – that they see it as pure, cynical marketing and commercialization (US consumers, after all, will have bought almost $500 MILLION worth of candy this V-day week). And I know there are thousands of other people who hate February 14th because it highlights the lack of love in their life: they feel especially lonely, unloved, and sad in stark contrast to the messages of love and romance they see all around them.
But, as with all holidays, it’s your choice – you can make Valentine’s Day whatever you want it to be: you can choose not to pay any attention to it at all; you can spend the whole day raging against cruel fate and/or the capitalist machine; or you can declare it a day of special care and lovingkindness to those who mean the most to you (including yourself).
I vote for the third option. I intend to keep using Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to do particularly sweet and thoughtful things; to be just a little more affectionate than usual; to look a little more kindly on my fellow humans; to be especially gentle with and supportive of myself.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
Just got back from an exciting, inspiring, exhausting, fun and thoroughly worthwhile event: the first annual Soundview/Nour Author Summit in Atlanta. For a number of year, I had attended a similar event put on by my friends and colleagues at 800CEOREAD, and when they laid down the torch after last year’s event, and weren’t talk-out-of-it-able, Rebecca Clement and David Nour decided to pick it up and carry it forward.
I learned useful stuff, met great people and laughed a lot. (I also ate an extremely tasty lobster dinner, which added to the overall impression of wonderfulness.)
More than anything, I understood even more deeply about the joy of mastery. I learned yet again that mastery doesn’t mean getting to the point where you’re the expert and you get to tell everybody else how to do stuff.
True mastery means wanting to keep learning, even when you’re good. That is, getting good enough at things to feel proud and happy of what you’ve learned and accomplished – and at the same time feeling hungry to keep going. I’ve become a good writer, a good teacher, a good(ish) marketer of my books and ideas, and I can build connections with lots different kinds of people — and I have so much more to learn in all these areas; so much I want to do better.
True mastery means being able to learn from almost anybody: those who are farther along the path than you, those who are journeying beside you, and those who are just starting out. Some of the things that most inspired me and made me think over the past two days were said by folks who are just writing their first book or just contemplating how to build a practice around their ideas.
True mastery means increasing – rather than diminishing – curiosity. I find myself more and more fascinated by the process of clarifying ideas and sharing them in a way that’s compelling and useful. I found myself listening to many different people, to hear how they do it, and whether that works for them.
True mastery means being willing to start over and over again. I discovered, for instance, how little I understand about using Twitter as a means of community-building, business-building and idea-sharing. I thought I was pretty good with – but no: just scratching the surface. Damn. OK – time to go back to “I don’t know that…how does that work?”
And there is joy in all these things. I have a suspicion that joy arises from freedom. When I let go of thinking I have to be an expert, a grown-up, a teacher, the one-who-knows, and simply share my insight and knowledge as a gift, and then learn more, take in more, from everything and everyone around me – that’s truly joyful.
My husband likes to poke (gentle) fun at my addiction to Christmas movies. During this time of year, every time I start watching another one, he says, “And I bet in this one, everyone will finally discover the true meaning of Christmas.”
I always laugh – and yet that is, of course, the premise of pretty much every Christmas movie ever produced: someone starts out hard-hearted and Grinch-ified, and ends up having discovered that: 1) the most important thing is love, 2) it’s better to give than to receive, and 3) there are people who want to love and support you – if you can accept their help.
The interesting thing is that, generally speaking, those 3 things are true. And they’re true all the time. It’s just that most people seem to think it’s eye-rollingly, embarassingly sappy to allude to these things except during the last two weeks of December. Somehow, during the Christmas season, we’re willing to put aside our pretensions to world-weary cynicism sufficiently to focus on the power of love, the joy of giving, the satisfaction of recognizing that we are loved – and the gratitude that arises from all these things.
Now, I’m realistic enough to know that millions of people have very mixed feelings about this season, and that for some – especially those in need or who have experienced personal tragedy during the holiday season in years past – those feelings are mixed heavily toward the negative.
But too many people also seem to believe that it’s somehow not cool to be too happy about the Christmas season if others are having a hard time. I’m sorry, but that just seems goofy to me: it’s like saying that you shouldn’t feel grateful for good health because some people are sick; or you shouldn’t love your spouse because some people have bad marriages.
My point of view: revel in the simple love, joy and generosity that abound in this season. Share your love, your hope and your gifts with those in need and with those you love. Feel grateful; feel contented; feel loved and loving; feel joyful.
Having a a wonderful holiday season doesn’t hurt anyone; it helps you and those with whom you come in contact. And perhaps it will even move the world toward more love all year ’round.
With deepest hopes for a deliciously loving, giving and grateful holiday season.
courtesy of nostalgiapassages.com
I’ve always had a pretty good relationship with the idea of selling. For some reason, even from an early age, I had the idea that sales was simply about finding people who had a real need for what I had to offer. So, for instance, selling Camp Fire Girls candy in grade school held no terrors for me: I’d go around and ask people if they wanted to buy it, and if not, I’d ask the next person. I figured there was no harm in asking, even if they didn’t want it - and them not wanting it didn’t have anything to do with me; maybe they didn’t like candy, or were on a diet, or had already bought some from somebody else.
And actually, that’s pretty much how I sell today, 50 years later. I set up a conversation with someone; I listen to find out whether he or she could have a need for something Proteus offers. If so, I explain the service or product I think they might find useful. I ask if they’re interested in exploring a possible fit between their need and our offer. If not, I assume it’s because they 1) don’t see the need in the same way I do, or 2) they believe they have a better way of meeting that need that doesn’t involve Proteus. Next!
I recently read a wonderful little book, Dan Pink’s To Sell Is Human, that pretty much reinforced the positive ideas I’ve had about selling for all these years.
However, it also made it much clearer to me why most people don’t view sales in a positive light – why they have a ‘cringe’ relationship with the idea of selling. Rather than seeing it as a collaborative, mutually beneficial process of finding a fit between need and offer, they see it as manipulative, pushy, inauthentic, slightly sleazy. Sales, for most people, evokes images of being glad-handed and lied to by some untrustworthy used car salesman in a shiny suit and bad toupee. No wonder people think they don’t like to sell!
The problem with holding on to that old, outmoded conception of selling is that almost all of us need to be able to sell. If you define selling, as Pink does, as ‘the art of moving others,’ we’re selling ideas, opinions, and proposed courses of action every day – to our kids, our boss, our spouses, our PTA group, our employees.
And for those of us who are entrepreneurs or freelancers, even more of our time is spent ‘moving others’ to see that fit between our business or ourselves and their need.
So it makes sense to shift our ideas about selling – and that means (you know this is favorite topic of mine) changing our self-talk. Here’s a quick and simple exercise for doing just that:
1) Ask yourself: What words come to mind when I think of myself as a salesperson?
2) Listen to the response that arises inside your head:
2a) If you find you’re thinking words like helpful, partner, problem-solver, relationship builder, mutual benefit - congratulations. You have the core mindset of a successful 21st century salesperson.
2b) If your thoughts are running more along the lines of words like rejection, pushiness, annoying, drudgery, scary – I suggest you continue on to step 3.
3) What could you say to yourself differently that’s more positive and hopeful about the idea of you selling – yet still feels true to you? I asked my husband (whose self-talk about selling is quite negative) and his response was, “I have a great product that some people will find useful. If people don’t want to buy it, it’s no reflection on me.” Great, simple, positive, accurate.
4) Once you’ve come up up with more supportive (yet still believable) self-talk, you’ll need to remind yourself of it whenever your old, unhelpful self-talk muscles its way toward the front of your brain.
Changing your mindset in this way is key to feeling differently and then acting differently about selling. And as selling starts to occupy a new place in your brain and heart, you might feel comfortable enough to explore ways to get better and better at it.
Just in case, here are two articles to support your evolution: The Unexpected Secret to Being a Great Salesperson, a post on my Forbes blog from earlier this year, and Sales Tips: 4Ways to Avoid Cold Calling, a post I wrote for the Salesforce blog.
I’ve been thinking a good deal lately about learning: how we learn, especially as adults; why the ability to learn well and easily is so important now; what gets in the way of our learning.
And one thing I’m noticing is that most people have a rather limited and not-very-positive view of the word “learning.” For instance, I’ve noticed that if I put “learning” in the title of a post at Forbes, I get – at best – a couple of hundred page views. If I then go back and change the title, removing “learning” and substituting a phrase like “How to….” or “5 Ways You Can….”, the page views jump dramatically.
So I’ve started asking people what they think of when I say “learning.” Generally among the first few words out of their mouths: “school,” “boring,” “classroom,” and “teachers.” As a result, I’ve come to believe that for many (most?) of us, our associations with learning have been deeply tainted by our early, negative associations with schooling: our memories of being scrunched into uncomfortable desks with a bunch of other bored 9-year-olds while some boring grown-up drones on about something that’s infinitely less interesting than whatever is going on outside the windows of our too-warm, over-crowded classroom.
And it’s really unfortunate, because – in the words of Arie De Geus - “The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.” I’ve come to believe that this is true not only organizationally, but personally as well. In this highly disruptive, fast-changing era, people who master the art of learning new things quickly and well have a tremendous advantage. Emerging technologies? Changed business models? Different employee expectations? New ways of working globally? Cultural mash-ups?
All doable if you’re a kick-ass learner.
To find out how to be a truly excellent learner, go back before you got stuck into school, and think about how you were as a little kid. Since lots of people don’t have much memory of themselves at this age, I’ll remind you. Little kids are driven to learn. They want, deeply, to be like the bigger kids and grown-ups they see all around them. It’s aspiration in the simplest, most direct sense. It’s also a powerful survival mechanism – from the beginnings of humanity until a few hundred years ago, the children who most quickly became skillful, contributing members of the tribe were most likely to live and reproduce.
And the impulse that focuses this aspiration to learn, that catalyzes real change in understanding, is curiosity. Anyone who has ever been around a 4-year-old has experienced this firsthand: Why? How did that happen? Does that always happen? Is that a good thing? What if I did that? Can I do it? Why not? It can be exhausting to the adults involved, but it’s a remarkably effective way to figure out the world, how it works, and one’s place in it. Curiosity is the impulse to understand. It’s part of that survival mechanism – understanding our environment as deeply as possible is key, not only to not getting killed by some aspect of that environment, but also to using what’s available in that environment to increase the likelihood of our safety, comfort and health.
There are two other things that kids have (at least when they’re little) that we tend to lose as adults: they’re willing to admit when they don’t know something, and they don’t care about making mistakes. We call those learning capabilities neutral self-awareness and willingness to be bad first.
Learning language is a great example: “What’s that?” my granddaughter asked me last summer, pointing at a radish I’d just pulled from the garden. “It’s a radish,” I replied, handing it to her. “Rabish,” she said with satisfaction, inspecting it. “Radish,” I repeated. But she couldn’t quite get that combination of letters – and didn’t really care. Her focus was on pure acquisition of understanding, and she wasn’t at all embarrassed about her difficulty with the pronunciation, as an adult would have been.
I’m deeply convinced that if we, as adults, can re-connect with those four childhood capabilities – aspiration, neutral self-awareness, endless curiosity and willingness to be bad first – we will be far more successful at navigating through this ever-changing world.
I’m planning on writing my next book about this whole arena, so I’d love to hear your stories of how you used any of these four capabilities to get better at something, to develop a completely new skill, or to find out about something you didn’t know. I’ll also be writing about this at Forbes, so if the topic interests you, please join us over there as well.
And as always, thank you for reading…it inspires me to get as clear as I can about what I observe and experience, so I can share it with you as usefully as possible.