I’m about to turn 63. Fortunately, age holds very little negative connotation for me, so I’m excited, as I am every year: I love birthdays. And I love how my husband celebrates my birthday with me.
It is fascinating being a good deal older than many of the people in my life. A number of my clients and a few of my colleagues at Proteus are young enough to be my children (and a few are younger than my actual children). For the most part, I don’t notice the difference in our ages making much of a difference in other ways. All the noise folks of my generation make about the Millenials is largely puzzling to me; I don’t see them as being that dissimilar to me, at heart. They want to create work and relationships that are meaningful to them, and to feel proud of what they’re accomplishing. They want love and respect, and they don’t like people who lie to them or take unfair advantage of them. Sounds right to me.
But even though I don’t feel that different, generally speaking, from people who are a generation or two younger than I am, I do notice some shifts happening in me as I move into the last third of my life. Some of these changes are positive and exciting; some are a pain. Some help me to live a better life; some get in the way. Here’s my personal list – your mileage may vary.
Great things about getting older:
- I am more interested in other people than I’ve ever been. I’m just fascinated by people and how they see themselves and the world; the stories they tell themselves about their reality and the impact it has on them. I love to listen and do it much more than in years past.
- My reactions to circumstances are much less black–and-white than they used to be. I can see more possibilities in a given situation, and am more willing to entertain alternatives.
- I am less interested in getting credit and more interested in other people feeling motivated and excited.
- It bothers me much less to be inept at things; I am more willing to take the time to understand and get better at new endeavors.
- Patience, which has never been my strong suit, is much easier for me than before. I’m willing to take the time to do things that deserve my time.
- Because I have more financial resource than I did as a young person, I have the opportunity to go new places and do new things. I love that.
- I’m wiser: having had lots of experiences, I often have insights that I wouldn’t have had in earlier years – and those insights benefit me and others.
- Having grandchildren.
- Still being my kids’ mom, but also being friends and equals in a completely new and positive way. It’s a fantastic combination that can’t really happen until your kids are grown.
- I don’t want to waste a single hour. I choose more consciously how and with whom to spend my time. I am much less likely to engage with negative people, in useless activities, or in thinking about unhelpful or unhealthy things.
- I am much kinder to myself than I used to be. I’m more likely to acknowledge my good qualities, and much less likely to beat myself up for mistakes or perceived lacks.
Not-so-great things about getting older:
- I can’t expend as much energy for as long as I used to without paying a price. Even ten years ago, I could work a 14-hour day, sleep 5 hours, and do it again – and again – without any discernible impact. These days, not so much. It’s partly that my body doesn’t put up with it in the same way, but – perhaps more important – I’m just not interested in doing it anymore.
- I have aches and pains. Don’t get me wrong: my health is excellent, and I’m fit and flexible. But I do notice that I stiffen up if I sit in one position for a long time; my neck hurts if I’m not careful about how I hold my head while I’m working on the computer; I have to stretch my back when I first get out of bed in the morning.
- Mortality is real: The time in front of me is less than the time behind me. That’s daunting; I love being alive, and I don’t want to die. I want to be around to see my grandchildren’s children grow up and get married; that’s highly unlikely. I want to have at least 50 more years with my husband; pretty certain that won’t happen.
As you can see, the “great” list is considerably longer than the “not-so-great” list. And that actually is my experience; for the most part, I like and appreciate getting older. In fact, I very much enjoy feeling like a tribal elder, knowing that there are many ways in which I can be a help and inspiration to those who are coming after me.
I’ve decided that I’m going to continue to age like a great wine or a Stradivarius violin: getting deeper, more complex, and more valuable; bringing a greater degree of subtlety, beauty and joy to the world.
How about you?
Last week, in the Atlanta airport, I had enough time for a real meal (vs. something grabbed from the food court). So I went into a TGIF and was greeted by the hostess. As she led me to my table, she asked, “How are you today?”
I said, “I’m fantastically good (which was true). How about you?”
She turned and smiled at me, completely genuine, and said, “If I were any happier, I’d have to be twins.” Then she gestured me to my table and told me that my waitress would be right with me, and walked away.
My first thought: What a great line – I’m stealing that; so happy, one body can barely contain it! My second thought: How wonderful that she feels that way.
My third thought: Yet again, I’m reminded that happiness and contentment are independent of circumstances. And I decided to write something to you about that.
I believe that most people who are unhappy or discontented think that it’s because of their circumstances. If I only had a better job, they say to themselves, I’d be happy. Or maybe it’s if I were only better looking, or younger, or richer, or more famous, or married.
In fact, I bet there are a lot of people working as hostesses at TGIFs around the country thinking to themselves, If it weren’t for this crappy job, I’d be happy. And yet, here is this lovely woman in Atlanta, hostessing at a TGIF, so happy she shares her happiness with perfect strangers.
What if happiness is not primarily a function of creating some magical set of circumstances (right home, car, job, spouse, weight, shoes, etc…) that “makes you happy,” but is rather largely independent of circumstances? If that’s true, it’s actually very liberating. It means you can be happy by virtue of managing your internal mental and emotional landscape – over which you have almost total control. In the beautifully simple words of Abraham Lincoln:
“Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
Easier said than done, you might be thinking. If I’m not happy, how can I just “make up my mind to be happy”? As it turns out, there are a couple of simple, practical, things you can do to get happier. And one of them you can start doing right this minute.
Folks who study the sources of happiness have done a great deal of research over the past decade or so that points to the conclusion that people who are grateful are happy. That’s right, gratitude pretty much equals happiness. So, how do you feel more grateful?
Start by thinking of something – a person, a possession, a capability, a situation – that you feel thankful for having in your life. Think about why you’re glad you have that thing in your life. For example, maybe you’re grateful for you best friend because she’s such a good listener. Or maybe you’re glad that your apartment is in a quiet building. Or you’re thankful that your health is good. Now, one at a time, think of four other things you’re grateful for. Reflect on each one for a few moments: think about what it brings to your life. Let yourself feel thankful for it.
When people do this kind of ‘gratitude training,’ researchers often have them fill out questionnaires, before and after the training, designed to measure their overall levels of happiness and contentment. They don’t tell the subjects that the gratitude training is supposed to make them more happy. And yet, almost without exception, the test subjects report that they are happier after completing the training than before – independent of whether any of the circumstances in their lives have changed.
I love the idea that we are the masters of our own happiness; I’ve experienced it largely to be true. And I’ve also seen that being happy is the best place to begin, no matter what you’re trying to accomplish in your life. If you’re happy, you’ll be clearer, more hopeful, more resilient, more collaborative, and more focused.
So, rather than assuming you’ll be happy if you get that bigger job, or house, or paycheck – be happy now, and you’ll be better able to accomplish whatever is truly important to you.
One thing I really like about the holidays: people are much more likely to say lovely and loving things about the world and each other. It’s as though we somehow give ourselves permission to be more innocent and hopeful during the last two weeks of December.
I’d love to propose that, rather than seeing it (cynically) as an anomaly preparatory to reverting to our ordinary unlovely and unloving behavior, let’s assume that how we talk and act during the holidays is our aspiration for how we’d like to be year-round. And here are some wonderful examples of that as our benchmark:
“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart. Wishing you happiness.” - Helen Keller
“This is my wish for you: peace of mind, prosperity through the year, happiness that multiplies, health for you and yours, fun around every corner, energy to chase your dreams, joy to fill your holidays!” – D.M. Dellinger
“Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love.” - Hamilton Wright Mabie
“Every piece of the universe, even the tiniest little snow crystal, matters somehow. I have a place in the pattern, and so do you. Thinking of you this holiday season!” - T.A. Barron
“As we struggle with shopping lists and invitations, compounded by December’s bad weather, it is good to be reminded that there are people in our lives who are worth this aggravation, and people to whom we are worth the same.” - Donald E. Westlake
“May your walls know joy, may every room hold laughter, and every window open to great possibility.” – Mary Anne Radmacher
“Sharing the holiday with other people, and feeling that you’re giving of yourself, gets you past all the commercialism.” - Caroline Kennedy
“Come, woo me, woo me, for now I am in a holiday humor, and like enough to consent.” - William Shakespeare
“New Year’s Day is every man’s birthday.” - Charles Lamb
“The joy of brightening other lives, bearing each others’ burdens, easing others’ loads and supplanting empty hearts and lives with generous gifts becomes for us the magic of the holidays.” - W. C. Jones
“The holiest of holidays are those kept by ourselves in silence and apart; The secret anniversaries of the heart.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“It is tenderness for the past, courage for the present, hope for the future. It is a fervent wish that every cup may overflow with blessings rich and eternal, and that every path may lead to peace.” – Agnes M. Pharo
“My idea of Christmas, whether old-fashioned or modern, is very simple: loving others. Come to think of it, why do we have to wait for Christmas to do that?” – Bob Hope
All aspects of our lives are now changing faster than at any previous time in history. I doubt that statement is surprising to you, and unlike most similarly definitive and sweeping statements, it’s true. How we live and work; how organizations are structured and how they make money; the objects available to us and the ways we use them to learn, interact and consume…
And much of the change that surrounds and impacts us is disruptive and revolutionary, vs. gentle and evolutionary. Who would have guessed, 15 years ago, how smartphones would transform most everyone’s daily routine? Or the ways in which web-based commerce would alter our habits and expectations about buying and selling? Or the extent to which we’d interact regularly with people we may not have seen for years – or ever?
So what does a leader need in order to succeed in these wild times? Fortunately, some of the most necessary skills and capabilities are the same as they’ve always been: what it means to be a good leader, for instance, and the importance of clear, honest, open communication. But there are also some brand new skills and ways of thinking that will help you “surf” this continuing wave of change.
I’m excited to let you know about a session being put on by two colleagues of mine, David Nour and Jennifer Bridges, that will offer attendees support in both these areas: timeless core skills and new tools for your toolkit. It’s called the #New NormSummit, and it’s being held in Atlanta on January 9th.
The Summit website has a lot more information about each of the day’s 4 sessions – but here’s the thumbnail version: David Nour will talk about how to keep your company’s business model relevant through adaptive innovation; Seth Kahan will focus on how to engage people in creating change rather than imposing it on them; Roger Young will share the power of Design Thinking, a human-centered approach to problem-solving; I’ll share our model for becoming the kind of leader that people will follow – no matter what changes arise.
I think it’s going to be fun, thought-provoking, and useful – my favorite combo. I’d love to see you there…
I’ve noticed lately that lots of senior executives believe they’re delegating fully when they’re really not. Full delegation means that you’ve transferred the responsibility for achieving an outcome to another person, and because you have faith in their ability to fulfill that responsibility, you actually let go of it.
“Let go of it” means you don’t think about whether or not they’re doing it, you don’t pester them with questions on a daily basis, you don’t give direction to their people about how to do it, you don’t second-guess their decisions about it, you don’t leap in and start doing parts of it without asking, and you don’t “stand in for them” – take phone calls with their partners, share progress reports with the organization, etc. – unless they ask you to do so.
I’m convinced that partial delegation is to blame for a lot of the inefficiency and bad feeling in most organizations. The execs who don’t fully delegate become bottlenecks for action – too many decisions have to go through them, and even if they work 24/7, it’s impossible for them to keep up with demands they’ve created for themselves. And for those who work for them, it’s a truly demoralizing bait-and-switch. They believe their boss has given them responsibility for part of the work, and they – proudly and with a sense of their own capability – begin to do it…only to find that their boss isn’t really allowing them to do it. They most often end up feeling frustrated, embarrassed, and powerless. And those who work for them can get confused and feel caught in the middle: should they follow their boss’ direction, or the (often conflicting) direction they’re getting from their boss’ boss?
If you’re reading this and seeing yourself in it, how can you get better at delegating? If you and I were siting together in a room, I’d teach you our delegation model, and we’d practice, using a real situation of your choosing. But since that’s not happening, here are a few ideas that could help:
- Only delegate those things you’re really willing to delegate. Often, I notice that executives try to delegate projects or responsibilities that they’re not really willing to stop doing. For instance, a number of years ago I coached an exec who had been in charge of a yearly client event in Europe for many years. She tried to hand it off to someone else, but kept jumping back in. As I observed this, I pointed it out to her – and she finally realized that it was the highlight of her year, and she didn’t really want to let go of it. She ended up taking it back, and delegating other parts of her job to which she was less attached.
- Make sure you have confidence in the delegatee. Quite often, when I ask execs why they’re not letting someone do something that they’ve supposedly delegated to him or her, they tell me they’re not sure the person will do it well. My response: either make sure they have the skills and experience to do the thing before you delegate it – and if they don’t, and no one else who works for you does, and you don’t feel you can coach them in the areas that are new to them…hire better people. I’m serious. If no one who works for you is capable of taking on key responsibilities and doing them to a standard that’s acceptable to you, then you need to build a stronger team.
- Have realistic expectations. Many execs who don’t delegate well tell me it’s because they don’t believe anyone on their team will do things the way they do them. That’s probably true – everyone does things differently. But in order to delegate fully, you have to make a distinction between “doing things well” and “doing things the way I would do them.” Someone who works for you may complete a responsibility very differently than you would – rely more on others or work more independently; use a different organizing approach; be more linear or less, etc. etc. But as long as that person gets the needed outcome and doesn’t hurt key relationships – it doesn’t matter.
- Be truly willing to share credit. Leaders who delegate well are comfortable saying, “So-and-so did that – she and her team deserve all the credit.” If you have a hard time doing this, you’ll have a hard time delegating. If you can do it, though, you’re opening up your future and theirs in a powerful way. When you can fully acknowledge – to yourself and out loud – that others on your team are completing important parts of the work independently, that’s when you’ll be free to take on higher order work or a bigger job, and your folks will be free to grow and achieve their potential, as well.
Delegating fully is good for you, for those who work for you, and for your organization. I’d love to hear how you’re doing it, and what’s happening as a result…
I’ve been thinking lately about how we come to do things. It’s been especially top-of-mind for me as I’m writing a chapter of my new book that focuses on “Aspiration” – wanting things (specifically, in the case of the book, wanting to learn new skills or capabilities).
My focus hasn’t been on why we do things – lots of very smart people have been focusing on that over the past few years. Most recently, Dan Pink made a huge wave with “Drive,” his book that brought Self-Determination Theory to a wider audience. In SDT (as translated by Pink), what most motivates people is mastery, autonomy, and purpose. That is, we’re motivated to do things that we believe will bring us an opportunity to make choices (autonomy) to get good at something (mastery) that’s meaningful to us (purpose).
I agree. The question is, can we make ourselves want to do something that we don’t now want to do? We all spend a lot of time thinking about doing things and then not doing them: exercise more, be kinder to our spouses, save money, go back to school, find a better job… the list goes on and on. The reason we don’t do those things is – I believe – pretty simple. Even though we say we want to do them, we don’t do them because we want the alternatives more. We say we want to exercise – but we want to sit and watch TV more. We say we want to save money – but we want to spend it more. In order to do something, you have to want to do it more than the available alternatives.
So the important question is: can we make ourselves want to do something enough to actually do it? Fortunately, I believe the answer is yes. The secret is to discover how the thing that you’re not doing will provide you with benefits that are important to you – with mastery, autonomy and purpose – and to fully envision a future where you’re attaining those benefits as a result of having done the thing.
For example, let’s say that someone – let’s call her Alex – has been saying for years that she wants to exercise – but she continues not to exercise on any regular basis. I’m convinced it’s because she isn’t recognizing the benefits of exercise – not the theoretical, everybody-knows-them benefits, but the actual, personal benefits to her. She tries to “should” herself into exercising (I’m so lazy, I’ll just keep getting fat, I ought to be able to do this), but that doesn’t work. She reads articles about how good exercise is for your health, but that doesn’t work either.
Then, finally, one day Alex talks to a friend of hers who just started working out and is loving it, and one thing the friend says really resonates: “You know, I just needed to find the kind of exercise that works for me.” And Alex starts to think, Hmmm…I wonder what kind of exercise I’d like? Maybe something dance-based, like Zumba. I’ve always loved to dance. And then she thinks, If I did that, I bet I could get pretty good at it. And I would really love to feel strong and good in my body.
Voila: real, personal benefits. Autonomy (her own choice), mastery (getting good at it), purpose (feeling strong and good in her body) – and she’s envisioning the future where those benefits are true.
I suspect that Alex will now suddenly be much more likely to start exercising.
What aren’t you doing that you say you want to do? Think about how doing that thing might provide you with mastery, autonomy and purpose, and then imagine a future in which you’re getting those benefits. See what happens….
Tomorrow my husband and I are flying to Hong Kong. I have client work to do there, and he was able to take the time off (since he’s now his own boss) to join me. We were talking this morning about what a pain it’s going to be, having to be stuck on an airplane for 16 hours. But at least, we noted, we’re traveling in business, and so will be able to get some sleep.
Then I started thinking about my dad’s dad’s parents, two young immigrants from Denmark, Nils Andersen and Mina Jenson, who met working on a farm in upstate New York. They married, saved their money, bought a wagon, and traveled to Nebraska to start a new life on a farm of their own – taking advantage of the Homestead Act that offered free land to anyone who filed a claim and lived there for five years. It took them – and this is the point of the story – just over 2 months to make the journey.
So, only 125 years ago, my great-grandparents spent 2 months jolting along in an open wagon in the broiling sun, fending off hunger, thirst, wild animals and god knows what else, in order to get to their destination just 1,200 miles away. And I’m bitching about being pampered in a luxurious, entertainment-equipped, fully-climate-controlled environment for 16 hours while I travel 8,000 miles.
There are so many aspects of this journey about which I should be absolutely amazed, vs. whiny and jaded. It’s actually amazing to me that airplanes even work, just to begin with, let alone what’s evolved out of that unbelievable reality over the past century.
I noticed that as soon as I shifted my focus from “I hate long flights” to “It’s amazing that this is possible” – my entire emotional state about the trip started to change. Now I’m feeling kind of excited, not only about being in Hong Kong (the first time for me) – but also about the flight itself. It’s like being in a high-end hotel for 16 hours, moving at unimaginable speeds…that’s pretty fascinating. I suspect I’ll now experience that 16 hours differently than I would have otherwise; that I may enjoy it a good deal more, and that I may find other useful or interesting understanding or ideas arise from the experience.
So much of what surrounds us these days is simply astonishing, and is unlike anything that’s ever existed in human history. It’s easy to forget that, to get ho-hum and complacent. But I find that when I step back and allow myself to be astonished, good things happen. It opens up my brain and my heart, and I can see situations, events and possibilities in new ways.
Note to self: stay amazed.
Can you have too much of a good thing? We humans have been debating this question since long before it first showed up in print (in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, around 1600).
Most of us would say yes, having experienced the after-effects of a mega-dose of great wine, wonderful food, high-quality chocolate, or even a fantastic party.
I’ve been experiencing it lately with work: I love it – and there’s simply a great deal of it lately. I feel a somewhat conflicted about this.
First of all, I know I’m fortunate to consider work “a good thing” at a time when surveys show that roughly two-thirds of all American employees are unhappy with their jobs. Also, I take great pride in the fact that Proteus and the work we do has become so highly thought of and in demand. And finally, for someone (me) who loves more than anything to support people and organizations to clarify and move toward their hoped-for future – having so many opportunities to do just that is marvelous: the career equivalent of a pound of Godiva truffles.
But then there are the realities imposed by living in a physical body – and one that’s got some mileage on it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m healthy, strong and full of energy…but I can’t power through a month of not enough sleep and too much travel like I could in my 30’s, 40s, or even my 50s. And there’s also the fact that, to my great good fortune, there are many other things in my life besides work that I also love – hanging out with my darling husband, kids and grandkids; spending time with friends; traveling – and a whole list of avocations as well (gardening, reading, knitting, sudoku, cooking, hiking, learning languages….the list goes on).
So what’s a work-lover to do? I’m discovering that my approach to work needs to be very similar to my approach to good food (which I also love): keep the quality high, and be sensitive to the symptoms of overdoing it.
With food, what that looks like is: don’t waste my calories on stuff that’s not worth it (junk food, things I don’t really like, poor quality), and stay attentive to my body telling me when I’ve had enough.
With work, what that looks like is: don’t waste my time on stuff that’s not worth it (tasks that others in my company can do just as well or better than I can; clients who don’t really want to spend the effort or money needed to get results; ‘rabbit hole’ conversations that suck up valuable time and mental energy) , and stay attentive to my body (and brain) telling me when I’ve had enough – when I’m too tired to think well or focus properly, or when my usual enthusiasm and hopefulness start to wane.
And just as the solution when food threatens to become too much of a good thing is simply to stop eating, the too-much-work solution is the same: stop working. Now I (like you, I suspect) can’t just walk off the job when it gets to be too much – but I can create little respites. A day, an hour, even a minute when I turn my attention to something else – or to nothing else.
Earlier today I was feeling particularly overworked. Then suddenly I was presented with some “found time.” A client session ended much earlier than expected, and I had the choice to dig into the pile of to-dos that were backlogged on my computer…or lay down on my hotel bed and take a nap.
When I woke up, I felt like a different person. And I’m convinced that the work I did post-nap was both much higher in quality than it would have been pre-nap, and accomplished much more quickly. Plus I really enjoyed doing it. And that’s the bottom line, really – if you consistently have too much of a good thing, then it stops being a good thing. If you can figure out how to have just enough of a good thing – that’s really good.
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?