Archive for the ‘learning’ Category
You know those TV ads that feature rugged guys and pretty women exploring the wilderness in their shiny new Jeep Grand Cherokee, Toyota 4Runner, or Subaru Outback?
Back here in the real world, I suspect that the vast majority of people who buy those vehicles never take them off-road. It’s just that the idea of heading out on our own, beyond where the pavement stops, is so appealing to most of us that automakers have been milking those fantasies for years in hopes of driving more car sales. They believe people will watch those ads and think, If only I drove a ___________, then I’d have the freedom to live life on my own terms, not following society’s rules.
The off-road fantasy resonates because most of us often feel hemmed in by our responsibilities, by others’ expectations of us, by the rules and constraints of society. Buying a heavy-duty car and day-dreaming about driving it right off the edge of the highway provides us an illusion of freedom with a soupcón of ballsiness.
The ironic thing, though is that even though most of us will never go off-road physically, more of us are having to go off-road psychologically and emotionally than ever before. Think of our internal “highway” as the assumptions we make about what our role in society “should” be – those assumptions are fraying and falling apart in a way they never have before. And, more and more, we’re having to find our own path through this 21st century cultural landscape.
For example, sixty years ago, if I were a married woman of 65 with grown children and grandchildren (as I am), my “highway” would be pretty clear. I would be expected to be retired from whatever job I might have had (most likely as a teacher, nurse, clerk, factory or office worker). Though I might have gone back to work after my kids were out of the house, in my 60s I would be expected to stop working and spend my time taking care of the house, my husband, and perhaps the grandkids; to do age-appropriate activities (crafts, gardening, church or charity work); and perhaps – if we had some savings – to travel.
Today that very defined “road” is still being followed by many women in their sixties – but a big percentage of us are truly going “off-road” and hacking very different lives out of the wilderness: continuing to work while re-thinking the idea of retirement; using the expertise gained throughout our careers to start new businesses, either for-profit or not-for-profit; beginning new relationships; doing bucket-list things our moms and grandmas would never have considered. And some of us are even doing traditional things in new ways. I just read about a company called Rent A Grandma – basically, a service that matches “grandmas” (mature women with a love of children and lots of experience raising kids and running a household) with families who need them, since their own grandmas might be off doing something else and not available to them.
And all these possibilities for mental and cultural off-roading don’t just exist for people my age. Another example: sixty years ago, a young man of 22 would probably already be doing the job that he’d have for the rest of his working life (only about 1 in 10 men had college degrees in the US in 1957), saving money to get married, and preparing to be the sole – or at least major – support of his wife and children. His path was laid out.
Now, that young man can take any of a variety of paths – or make up his own. He could go to college, get a job, join a commune, travel the world with a backpack tending bar. He could get married (though most 22-year-olds don’t, these days), or he could live alone, with roommates or a girlfriend (or boyfriend) – or at home with his parents. He might use his twenties to decide what career path to follow, and that path could be something that didn’t exist before he started doing it.
So what does this imply, this new ability to blaze our own trail through life? First, it means we’re all going to have to get much better at learning and doing new things. If you’re interested in that topic and new to this blog, I wrote a book last year, Be Bad First, that’s all about how to be great at being a novice. Which, if you’re mentally off-roading, inventing your life as you go, is a critical capability.
The other thing, I’m finding, is that mental off-roading requires tremendous independence and courage. I feel as though I’ve definitely driven off the regular highway and am now officially in uncharted territory; my life at 65 certainly doesn’t look like my mom’s life did at this age, or my dad’s. It’s different in many ways from the lives most of my friends have created, or those my sister and brothers are living. I’m still working, building the business I started almost thirty years ago – but my role is changing in the company, as is the kind of work I want to do. I find myself more politically active than I’ve ever been. My marriage is amazing – and doesn’t feel anything like what I expected would be happening at this point in my life. My relationships with my kids and grandkids are rich and fun for all of us – but not what I think of as grandmotherly. Every day I find myself thinking some version of, Is this OK? I don’t see others my age doing/feeling/thinking this. OR Wow, this is very different from how my life was just a few years ago…what’s happening? And then I just have to check in with whether “this”, whatever it is, seems to be supporting me in creating the kind of life, relationships and results I want. And if so, I just have to take a deep breath and…keep driving.
I’d love to hear about your adventures in mental off-roading, too….
I was talking to someone the other day about the willingness of many millenials to leave jobs where the culture is bad or the expectations are unrealistic or confusing. We both agreed that, in general, we find it refreshing – and that we believe it will force many companies to think more deeply about how they operate and the cultures they create.
At one point, though, my colleague said, “But it can go too far. Sometimes you have to suffer – there can be a purpose to pain.”
I watched my immediate mental response: That’s not true – thinking that we have to suffer condemns us to suffering. But instead of saying that out loud, I kept listening and asking questions. After a few minutes, I thought I understood what she was really saying, and so took a stab at summarizing. “You’re talking about pain on the way to improvement, vs. just submitting yourself to ongoing suffering.”
“Exactly,” she responded.
Then she told me a great story about two senior executives she knew, both of whom had reputations as tough, sometimes difficult and demanding bosses. However, she went on to note that many people she knew felt their time working for boss A was very valuable, and said they’d work for him in the future, if they had a chance – while most people had really disliked working for boss B, and would never want to work for him again.
The difference? Boss A, while tough, demanding and undiplomatic (to put it mildly) really focused on developing his folks. His toughness was in the service of their getting better, thinking more deeply, being able and willing to embrace new possibilities. Under boss A, people grew. In contrast, boss B was tough because he could be; he was just mis-using his boss power. There was no gain from the pain.
And I think this is a lesson millenials need to learn (and one I see my millenial children and colleagues learning as they get older and work longer). Sometimes, you have to do things that aren’t very comfortable, in order to get what you really want. And if you bail at the first sign of discomfort – whether you’re by yourself, trying to learn something; or in an organization, having to put up with some company BS; or dealing with a boss who may not be the most skilled or emotionally intelligent, but is genuinely trying to help you improve – you’re never going to get very far.
It’s analogous to trying to get in better physical shape, where the price is the bodily discomfort of sore muscles and the mental discomfort of feeling like a klutz. If you really want to get in better professional shape – to find out what you can love and be great at doing, and then to become excellent at doing it – the price is always some degree of mental, emotional, and even physical discomfort.
In other words: if you’re entirely comfortable, you’re probably not learning anything. And if you want to become world-class at doing anything, you’ll have to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable.
Read Be Bad First – Get Good at Things FAST to Stay Ready for the Future for more insights about being usefully uncomfortable.
I know I’m dating myself by using that title. It became known as the signature line of Sgt. Joe Friday, the hero in a cop show called Dragnet that was popular when I was a kid. Whenever Joe was questioning witnesses, and they would start wandering off into how they felt, and what they feared, and sharing their biases and prejudices, Joe would stop them and say, “All we want are the facts, ma’am (or sir). ”
As we’re all living through this endless and somewhat depressing election season, I find myself in complete sympathy with Sergeant Friday. My craving for facts is completely justified, given that, according to Politifact, only 30% of what Donald Trump says publicly is even partly true, with 19% of his untruths being of the “pants on fire” variety (“not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim,” according to Politifact) and even Hillary, the most truthful of all the current politicians, only tells the truth 72% of the time. Fortunately, only 2% of her statement are “pants on fire” lies – but still, that’s too much. (I’ll out myself now; I’m a Clinton fan, and think she’ll make a very good president.)
What’s even more frustrating to me is that Americans believe Trump and Hillary are equally dishonest and untrustworthy – even though, on a factual basis, Trump lies about 2.5 times as much as she does. And it doesn’t stop with the candidates themselves, unfortunately. Shortly after the Republican convention, I listened to a Trump supporter, a former soap actor named Anthony Sabato, Jr., say that he believes President Obama is “…on the other side. Oh, the Middle East. He’s with the bad guys. He’s not with us. He’s not with this country.” And when asked to back up his assertion with facts, he responded, “I believe it.”
The most disturbing thing about this whole mess, for me, is the contention that believing something is true, or feeling that it’s true, is just as valid as having the facts about whether or not it’s true. It’s why too many people think that someone “believing”or “feeling” that Obama is in league with terrorists is just as valid as 7+ years of daily evidence to the contrary.
It’s why national figures can say “global warming is a hoax,” or “Obama founded ISIS,” or “immigrants destroy our economy” — and those things are repeated as truth, even though there is no evidence to support their validity, and – in fact – mountains of factual evidence to disprove them.
I believe the best we can do, in these crazy times, is try to be guardians of the truth in our own thinking. Whenever someone asserts that something is true – especially something important to our well-being or our future – I suggest that, rather than either immediately believing or disbelieving it, you do your best to find out the facts. I’d suggest you apply the scientific method: take what you hear as a hypothesis (“Is global warming a hoax?”) then gather the available data about the hypothesis without assuming that it’s true or false. (As opposed to cherry-picking the data to support your existing bias, which is what we too often do.) Finally, decide the validity of the hypothesis based on the data you’ve collected.
If we all did that, we would come to better, more reasoned decisions, and be less susceptible to the lies and half-truths of those in positions of power.
And here’s what Joe Friday thinks about all this (from episode 60: “Internal Affairs DR-20”):
“Show me how to wipe out prejudice. I’ll settle for the prejudices you have inside yourselves. Show me how to get rid of the unlimited capacity for human beings to make themselves believe they’re somehow right–and justified–in stealing from somebody, or hurting somebody…and you’ll just about put this place here out of business!”
I’m with Joe.
I’m excited. For the past four or five years, my partner Jeff and I have been acknowledging to each other (and to anyone who cares to have the conversation with us) our need to have an online/mobile aspect of what we do available to our clients. We recognized that if our core focus is, as we say, leader readiness, we needed to support leaders to be ready 24/7, not just when they’re with us in a coaching, training, or facilitated session.
We’ve been able to create some very good audio and video “nuggets” over the years, and we have lots of useful written material to offer (between this blog, my Forbes blog, other articles, and my books.)
But now….drum roll, please…we’re in the process of putting bite-size pieces of our existing audio, video and written content – plus a lot more great stuff that we’re now creating – into our new online/mobile learning resource, ProteusLeader.com. It will be going live in October – so I’m giving you, dear reader, a heads-up now. Partly because I just want to share it with you (as I said, I’m excited), but partly because I’d love your input if you’d care to weigh in. If you have suggestions for stuff you’d particularly like to see, or topics you’d like added, that would be hugely valuable for us.
Here’s how we’re envisioning it. There will be 16 topic areas – the main areas we focus on in our work with leaders. Those topics are:
- Accepted Leader
- Be Bad First
- Being Strategic
- Company Culture
- Giving Feedback
- High Performance Team
- Leading Change
- Making Agreements
- Managing People
- Managing Your Career
- Social Style
- Tough Conversations
You can go straight to this list of topics from the home page (and then select one you’re interested in), or you can get to groups of related topics by selecting one of four “interest areas.” Under each of the 16 topics, we’ll have resources in three “buckets”:
- See It/Hear It – video and audio nuggets focusing on that topic, offering models, tools, insights, or skill demonstrations.
- Try It – video, audio, and written activities to help you assess yourself, prepare for, and practice the skills in that topic.
- Read About it – quick, practical articles about the topic that offer insight and recommendations.
So, what do you think? Anything you’d like that you don’t see listed? Any ideas for specific support in these topics?
I’ll keep you posted as we get closer to launch – but for now, I’d love to know what you’d find useful and interesting…
Thanks, as always, for being here.
My husband and I just spent a few days in Reykjavik, and once again, I was astonished at how relatively little information I have about the world around me, and how many completely unwarranted assumptions I make, based on the limited and limiting information that’s been passed on to me from others. For example, outside a soaring modern church in the center of Reykjavil is a statue of Leifr Eiricsson, with this inscription on the back:
Wait – I had some vague factoid in my head about somebody named Leif Erikson sailing west from Scandinavia…but discovering the US? And wait – the one thousandth anniversary of the…Althing?
So I bought a little book of Icelandic history, written by an Icelandic historian, and it seems as though there’s a good deal of evidence that a guy named Leifr Eiricsson sailed from Iceland around 1000 AD and established a settlement near what is now Newfoundland. There is some indication that he may have also sailed as far south as present-day New York.
And yet, every child in the US still learns that “in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” and became the first European to set foot in North America. Well, except for that other guy who showed up 500 years earlier. Ironically, in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared October 9th “Leif Erikson Day”, so you can actually decide whether to celebrate Columbus Day or Erikson Day during the second week of October. That is, if you know that Leif Erikson existed and that he has a national holiday dedicated to him.
And as for the Althing – that’s the Icelandic parliament, which has met regularly since the year 930. It’s one of the two “oldest extant parliamentary institutions in the world,” according to Wikipedia.
I love finding out new stuff…I get excited to realize that as long as I live, there will be new and fascinating things to discover every moment of every day.
I got an email last week from Kathryn Cramer, who wrote a book that I like, Lead Positive: What Highly Effective Leaders See, Say and Do. She was writing to let me know about a new campaign she’s launching, focusing on what she terms the Leader’s Heroic Journey. Those of you who have read my book Leading So People Will Follow know how fascinated I am by storytelling, and by leader stories in particular, so it’s not surprising that I quickly went to check it out.
Kathryn has created something very cool; a modern and resonant series of six infographics that take you through the steps of the Hero’s Journey (as defined by Joseph Campbell). But she’s reframed for today’s leaders – those of us who are trying to lead through a time characterized by more and faster change than at any other time in history.
She’s offering one of the six steps in the journey each week on her website, or you can download the full ebook, also on her site. With this series, Kathryn has teed up some of the most critical inflection points we all face as leaders, and provided simple, practical insights and ideas for navigating those passages.
It’s a wild time to be a leader – we all need help. Kathryn’s campaign is food for the journey.
I was talking to a wonderful, wise woman today: I learned a lot from her, and I hope she also learned useful things from me. She told me a great quote that she has made part of her email signature line:
People who say it can’t be done shouldn’t interrupt those who are doing it.
When she said it to me, my first reaction was to laugh out loud, in that surprised way that happens when something strikes you as completely and unexpectedly true. I’ve seen that very thing happen in corporate life dozens, perhaps hundreds of times over the past few decades. While some people are pontificating at length about why something isn’t possible, someone else is quietly going about doing it. For instance, I just found out that, even as Wilbur and Orville Wright were preparing to complete their first successful trials of a manned, heavier-than-air flying machine, the New York Times published an article from which the following is an excerpt:
The flying machine which will really fly might be evolved by the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one million to ten million years—provided, of course, we can meanwhile eliminate such little drawbacks and embarrassments as the existing relation between weight and strength in inorganic materials.
— ‘Flying Machines Which Do Not Fly,’ published in theNew York Times, 9 October 1903.
It sounds really smart and well-reasoned (if somewhat smug and self-righteous), but it also turns out, as we all know, to have been complete and utter nonsense.
Fortunately, the Wright Brothers weren’t working for the New York Times, or any of the other thousands of people who were opining that what they were doing was impossible and foolish. Where the quote above gets less funny, but even more true, is when the people doing the talking about what can’t be done are the bosses of the people who are able to do it. That’s when innovation and creativity get torpedoed, and companies (if it gets bad enough and consistent enough) collapse.
For instance, I will bet you any amount of money that there were young people working for Barnes and Noble in 2005, who were trying to tell their bosses that e-readers were the wave of the future, and that they could build one of they just had the support, and those bosses rolled their eyes and dismissed the idea entirely, and blathered on about the strength of the B&N business model and how people will never give up the feel of a real book, or stop coming to bookstores, especially now that we have cafes and kids’ play areas and blah blah blah blah. And all the while Jeff Bezos and company were busy inventing the Kindle in a back room somewhere.
So the next time someone – especially someone who works for you – comes to you with an idea that you believe is just plain impossible, or impractical, or too expensive, or not how people want to do X….just shut up. Suspend your disbelief, and really listen. Ask them to walk you through how they would do it, and what it would require.
Maybe, just maybe, you’ll start to see how it could be done, and why it should be done…
And that could change everything.
I have to admit upfront that this post is primarily a thinly-veiled excuse to say wonderful things about my husband. However, be assured there is an important life/work lesson here as well. My husband Patrick is in the final stages of setting up his craft brewery, and it’s been fascinating watching him travel down five parallel business-building tracks for the past year. I’m realizing that any successful entrepreneur needs to walk down these same paths. (He’s doing this much better than I did 25 years ago, when I started Proteus, but still I recognize the pathways from my start-up days.) Here’s what they are:
Facilities/Physical: From the moment he rented his brewery-space-to-be last May, Patrick has been focused on a wide variety of physical, object-related tasks, from revamping the space (cleaning, painting, putting in trench drains, having the plumbing and electrical upgraded); to speccing out and ordering the brewing system and deciding how to set it up in the space; to switching our main vehicle from a car to a truck for schlepping purposes. Almost any entrepreneurial venture – even something like a one-person Cloud-based enterprise that seems not physical at all – requires asking and answering questions about physical requirements and doing the associated tasks. Where are you going to work? What equipment will you need? What work processes will require physical space and how will you set that up?
Relationships: Patrick won’t be hiring any employees during the brewery’s early days – but that doesn’t mean relationships aren’t important to his success. He’s spent more time with his landlord, his plumber and his electrician that with most other people he knows over the past few months. And he’s working to build good relationships with a much wider group as well: his suppliers, the folks who built his brewing system, and other local brewers, just to name a few. Even if you’re starting a single-person enterprise (or at least single-person to start with), don’t underestimate the necessity of having a web of people around you who want to do business with you and are supportive of your success. If you don’t tend to those relationships, it’s really hard to accomplish almost anything.
Organizational/Admin: I now know that starting a brewery – even a small one – requires jumping through an astonishing variety of administrative hoops. The federal permitting process was a daunting seven-month journey of frustration and bureaucratic nitpicking through the bowels of the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau). Watching him go through it and listening to his very legitimate complaints, I was astonished that anyone who doesn’t have a fleet of lawyers and accountants to call upon ever ends up opening a brewery. The two-month long state permitting process was, by comparison, a walk in the park. Then pile on all the local requirements (building codes, business license, city council OK, etc. etc.) and the internal functional questions to be answered (How will we bill customers? What accounting program will we use?). Any entrepreneur who assumes he or she can just start producing their cool thing and make a million is courting disaster. I think for most people, this is the least fun part of starting a business – but if you don’t think through it in a pretty structured way (or work with someone who can help you to do that), and build the time and effort required into your start-up plan, your business will grind to a halt before it even starts.
Product: I’ve been truly impressed with the fact that, as he’s been fully immersed in these first three aspects of starting his business, Patrick has also been devoting a lot of time to making sure his product is extraordinary. He’s spent the whole year doing exhaustive recipe development and testing on each of his four standard beers and two seasonals. Now that his system has arrived, once he gets it set up he’ll be going through a whole new product loop of figuring out how to replicate the quality he’s achieved — at 20x the volume. He’ll be going from 5 gallon homebrews to 3.5 barrel (108 gallon) production batches. It’s all too easy as an entrepreneur to think “I’ve got a great thing – it will knock everyone’s socks off.” And yet – will it? It’s essential that you build rounds of testing, ramping up and improvement into your pre-sales start-up planning.
Marketing and Sales: And yet, just having a great product or service isn’t enough. You have to think clearly and practically about who your customers are, how you’ll let them know that you have something they need, and how to communicate that in a compelling way. This is Patrick’s least favorite part, and so the one in which I’ve been involved most involved. We’ve had many branding discussions: that is, what are we promising, and how do we want to convey that promise in words and images? Based on that, we’ve put lots of thought into naming and labelling for each beer. Since we’re now a couple of months away from having beer to sell, we’re focusing on all the decisions, large and small, needed to connect our product with a delighted customer base. For instance, we’re only selling to restaurants and bars, vs. retail, so we identified the criteria for the hospitality businesses that could be attracted to our product and price point, and then made a list of all those businesses within about a 45-minute drive of the brewery. Now we’re figuring out how to support and inspire our future customers to let their patrons know they’re carrying our beers. And then how to make it easy for those patrons – once they’ve tasted and liked the beer – to become vocal fans and advocates. In other words, even great products don’t sell themselves. Before you have product to sell, think about who your target audience is, why they need your product, and how you’ll let them know it exists and can meet their needs. And do your best to do some market-testing beforehand: it’s easy to think people will love your thing just because you do, but you need to get some independent confirmation of that love.
And, happily, Patrick just received some great independent confirmation: he sent his four standard beers (1875 Milk Stout, 1829 IPA, 1758 Witbier, and 1855 Cream Ale) out to six national competitions a few months ago. Just last week, he found out that he won awards in four of the six: 2 gold, 3 silver, and 3 bronze medals – and each of his four beers won at least once.
All of which goes to show – when you take care to walk down the right paths as an entrepreneur, wonderful things can happen along the way.
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.