Archive for May, 2012
This weekend, Patrick and I had the honor of hosting our 18-month-old granddaughter Hannah at our house for her first overnight away from her parents. She was a trooper and we (and she) had a marvelous time.
At one point, she and I were playing on the floor in Patrick’s and my bedroom. I handed her a small stone box with a fitted lid that contained eleven metal jacks.
Then I watched her while she spent the next 45 minutes exploring every possibility relative to those jacks and that box. She put them in one at a time, and in groups. She poured them out by turning the box sideways and upside-down, and she poured them out slowly, medium speed, and quickly. She took them out with one hand, and two. She took them out one at a time, in groups, and all at once. She put put the lid on right side up, upside down and sideways. She put both hands over the top of the box and turned it upside-down, and then when they didn’t fall out, she took away first one hand, and then the other.
She examined the box empty, and examined it again with all the jacks inside it. She picked up one jack on the palm of her hand, and held it out to me, saying, “Dat?” (Which is her request for information about a thing). I said, “That’s a jack.” “Jahk,” she said. And she said it again, touching various jacks: “Jahk, jahk.”
As I sat watching her, I realized in a way I hadn’t since my own kids were small that play at this age is entirely purposeful. She was learning everything she could about those objects and how they worked. She was creating and testing hypotheses as fast as her little fingers could try them out.
And I thought: this is how we’ve been learning and evolving since the dawn of time. It’s how we’ve figured out everything we’ve figured out – from planting seeds and building shelters all the way to understanding quantum mechanics and space flight.
It was wonderful to see that relentless, unstoppable will to learn – and to know how deeply it is built into each of us.
We’re just coming back from seeing my step-daughter Kate and her fiance Logan graduate from Case Western Reserve University. It was exhausting but fun, and both of them are happy and relieved.
The commencement speaker was a young man named Paul Buchheit. Pretty impressive resume: graduated from Case Western in ’98, became the “23rd employee at Google” where he created gmail. Then he retired at 30. But he un-retired to invent friendfeed, which he sold to Facebook in ’09. Now he’s a partner in a firm called Y Combinator that offers seed money and advice to high-tech start-ups. And the wealthiest-ever graduate of Case Western.
My husband Patrick and I both really liked his speech. He was simple, honest, and brief. He talked about the importance of being authentic, of being true to yourself and what’s important to you, even when others want you to do something else, and even when nobody else understands why you’re doing it. My favorite line: If you try to follow in someone else’s footsteps, you’ll just be a terrible copy of that person, rather than the remarkable original you’re meant to be. He talked about his own experience in trying to be true to himself, and said how much he enjoys the work he does now, supporting people who are passionate about bringing new things to the world. He let us know that it wasn’t a prepared speech, that he was speaking extemporaneously, based on what he most wanted to share with them from his own life. We found it spontaneous and heartfelt, and it seemed to me infinitely better than the canned and predictable ‘go forth, new graduates’ speeches that are the usual stock in trade of these kinds of events.
Now, here’s the interesting thing. Neither Kate nor Logan liked it at all. They were irritated that he hadn’t prepared, and they thought his ‘be true to yourself’ message was lame and hackneyed. They wanted him to knock their socks off, and he didn’t.
I was amazed. At first I thought: Well, maybe they’re too young to understand the importance (and difficulty) of staying true to your own path in life. And then I thought: Maybe we just liked it because it was unpretentious and sweet, and we expected someone with his background to be an arrogant schmuck.
And I ended up deciding it was probably a little of both. I do think it’s hard for young people just entering into their grown-up lives to understand how challenging it can be at times to know what’s most important to you and to stay true to it. And I also think that when you’ve been around the block as many times as Patrick and I, it’s refreshing and a surprise to see someone very young (by our standards) and very successful who has retained his or her humility and openness.
I’ll be interested to see what Kate and Logan think of Paul’s talk if we replay it for them in ten years or so…
But the most important thing is: our disagreement was completely immaterial to all of our love and respect for each other. And that’s a very good thing: As I watch the two of them, I’d say that having the capability to disagree – with each other and the other important people in their lives – about a whole variety of things without getting bent out of shape, may be one of the best and most useful skills they’re carrying into their ‘real’ lives.
I’m a fan of our President. I voted for him in 2008, and I intend to vote for him again. I believe he’s doing a good job, especially with all that he and the country have had to deal with since he’s been elected.
I’m especially proud of him this week, given his statements in support of same-sex marriage. I agree with his position: I feel strongly that two adults who love and want to commit their lives to each other; who want to become spouses, should be able to do.
As I’ve watched him come to this decision and share it with the nation, I’m pleased to see both courage and wisdom in it. Courage in a leader is a blend of toughness, decisiveness, willingness to move past one’s own limitations, humility and resilience. It involves making difficult business and personal decisions; overcoming fear and risk to act on those decisions; and responding to the outcomes of those decisions in a responsible way. People need courageous leaders in order to know that someone will make the tough calls and take responsibility for them.
Wisdom is one of the attributes that balances courage: it is the ability to reflect and understand, to grow from that understanding, and to share the insight that arises out of that reflection and growth. Wisdom is the process of consciously learning from one’s experience, and offering that learning for the benefit of others and of the enterprise. I really liked hearing the President talk about how his own point of view on this issue had evolved over the past few years through knowing and talking with gay and lesbian couples on his staff and in the military, people who loved each other and who wanted to marry – but couldn’t.
You are, of course, welcome to disagree with me – I know politics is a contentious realm, especially these days. But I’m really glad to have a president I respect, one who demonstrates the qualities I most want to see in any leader, but most of all in my country’s leader.
I was talking to my daughter this morning, and at one point I said – “Proteus is becoming a different kind of company; it’s exciting.”
She asked me what I meant, and I talked about some of what’s happening: new Proteus consultants outside the US; a focus on creating much more scalable processes and systems for supporting our work; clarifying the Proteus brand to help more people understand what we have to offer; approaching the new book in a different way than we did the first two – better wiring together the success of the book with the success of the company; finding ways for everyone at Proteus to be involved in the success of both.
And I realized, as we were talking, that though a number of these things (and many others) have been in the works for the past year or two, it’s just lately that my image of our company is changing to accommodate them. Until recently, I thought of Proteus as a tiny high-end consulting firm – very good at what we do, but known only to a small group of very discriminating clients.
Now I’m seeing us as a small but world-class enterprise. I honestly believe we are as good or better than any other group at supporting leaders to get ready and stay ready for their future. We bring to that work a combination of skill, heart and intention that I haven’t seen anywhere else. And perhaps most important: we practice what we preach. We’re not perfect at it, but we hold ourselves accountable to do what we encourage and teach our clients to do.
I notice that as my perception of us is changing, my behaviors changes: I act in ways that support and allow those changes to take place. And it reminds me how I’ve seen way too many founders of companies get in the way of their companies’ evolution by holding on to old, no-longer-true images of the organization and its capabilities.
It’s kind of like parents who won’t let their kids grow up: if you insist on seeing a 25-year-old as a 10-year-old, he or she will either fulfill your expectations, and act like a 10-year-old….or break away from you in order to be able to become a grown-up.
I think this is true of all growth involving human beings: we can allow it to happen, or we can get in its way. And when we get in its way, it’s never good: bad for the aspect of us that’s trying to grow (resulting in stunted businesses, relationships, bodies, lives), and bad for our mental and emotional state (resulting in frustration, fear, belligerence, insecurity, stuckness).
I don’t want to hold any part of my world hostage to my limiting ideas. This is yet another place where fair witnessing comes in handy: looking at any aspect of your life and asking, “Am I seeing this as it is now – or as it used to be, or as I wish it was?”