Archive for the ‘News’ Category
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.
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.
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.
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.
Just this week we had our annual Proteus company meeting – something we’ve done every fall for many years. I believe it was the best one so far: great energy; lots of fun; useful conversations and clarifications; really good connections among all of us. But for me, the most wonderful thing was this: I didn’t make the arrangements; I didn’t manage getting everyone there; and I didn’t run most of the meeting.
My excellent team members did much of the heavy lifting, and I showed up with everyone else and participated.
My job as co-CEO of Proteus has changed dramatically over the past year or so, and I’m very excited about it. The metaphor I’ve been using in describing the change: for 20+ years, I felt like I was running with a kite, trying to get it up in the air. Now, the wind has caught the kite, and my job consists of paying out the line, keeping the proper amount of tension on it so that the kite stays in the air and can go higher and higher.
The ‘wind’ is composed of a better-than-ever team of smart, well-intentioned, skilled people; better and better internal processes for doing our work; ever-more-clearly-developed and useful IP; and a wonderful momentum of satisfied and vocal clients who keep calling us back and referring us to others.
So even though I’ve had the same job on paper for 23 years, “Founding Partner and CEO” of Proteus is very different now than it was even a few years ago.
And I’m seeing that the most important way for me to make this shift is to talk less, listen more, and get very curious. In fact, I think that’s key to making any shift, but it’s especially important when something you think you know very well is shifting under you.
When we’re involved in learning something brand new to us, we tend to come in with a helpful “novice” mindset: e.g., “I don’t know know much about this; there’s a lot I need to find out.” That mindset moves us in the direction of listening and curiosity. Unfortunately, when it’s time to learn something in an area where we already think we’re experts (e.g., doing our job, running our company, raising our kids), we tend to be much less open and curious, much more focused on how it should be, on what we know (or think we do), and on telling others what we know and how it should be!
I suspect that, in today’s world, most people’s jobs change pretty significantly from one year to the next, and that no matter how long you’ve been in a particular job or company, it’s probably a good idea to come in every day with that learner’s mindset.
Michelangelo, arguably one of the most brilliant and productive people in Western history, had a stock response he used throughout his life whenever people complimented him on an achievement or an idea: he said, “Ancora imparo” – “I am still learning.”
If it’s good enough for Michelangelo, it’s good enough for me.
My daughter just put something wonderful on facebook the other day. It’s about 7 minutes long, but I strongly encourage you to watch at least the first 5 minutes. Then we’ll talk about it…
I love this so much. I had no idea such a thing existed, and I’m truly fond of finding out new stuff.
I have an almost childlike joy, a sense of excitement and wonder, at discovering new things. I feel very fortunate to have retained this quality as an adult; I believe we are all born with it (watch any two-year-old exploring a new object), but too many of us have it thoroughly socialized out of us early on. We’re told that our enthusiasm is childish; we’re made fun of for not knowing things; we watch others (parents and teachers especially) act as though grown-ups are supposed to know everything…and our openness to and enjoyment of new learning gets squashed.
I used to work with someone who simply refused to acknowledge when she was hearing new information. Whenever I would tell her something that I was nearly positive she didn’t know, based either on things she had said or ways I’d observed her behaving, she had one of two responses. The first was, “Yes, that’s just like this other thing (that I’m very familiar with)” – even if it wasn’t at all like that other thing. I believe her deep aversion to admitting that she didn’t know something caused her to unconsciously shoehorn new information into old frameworks, just so she could claim prior knowledge. Her other response was simple rejection; she just wouldn’t accept the new idea or information. Sometimes she would voice her disagreement, but more often she would simply purse her lips and look disapproving. Over the years, I came to understand it as her “this is a crock and I’m not buying it for a minute” look.
Both of those responses kept her effectively blocked from learning. Over the many years we worked together, I saw how painfully slow and difficult it was for her to open up to new colleagues, acquire new skills, change her mind, see another’s perspective, acknowledge changes in other people or the business. In fact, she finally left the organization because she was unwilling or unable to make a major change that was being asked of her.
Are you in touch with your own wonder? Here’s a way to find out. Reflect on how you felt as you were watching the video above, and then answer these four questions:
• On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “Whatever, dude,” and 10 being “Holy crap!” how impressed were you by what you saw?
• On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “I pretty much knew that,” and 10 being “I had no frigging idea,” what were you thinking as you watched this? (Recuse yourself from this question if you’re a) a physicist, b) a glassblower, or c) the maker of the video.)
• On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “Huh,” and 10 being “I can’t wait to show this to somebody,” how excited were you about sharing your learning?
• On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being not at all, and 10 being a lot, how happy/excited were you to find out there was such a thing as a Prince Rupert’s Drop?
Because, in my mind, these are the key elements of childlike wonder: being impressed and charmed by new learning; being willing to admit that it’s new to you; and wanting to pass it on.
But why does this matter? I think it’s key to success in the world today. If wonder is your primary reaction to new skills, new knowledge, and new possibilities, you’ll be much more likely to thrive in this time of ours where massive, disruptive change is a constant, and where roughly 95% of all human knowledge has been discovered since World War II.
So: re-engage your inner two-year-old, and have at it.
My second grandchild was born last week – Charlotte Autumn Van Carpels. And when I met her, I was stunned (as I always am by babies, but it’s even more stunning when they’re somehow related to you) by her unsullied beauty and sweetness. As I held her in my arms, I thought about all the possibilities ahead of her: a hundred years of learning, love, accomplishment, joy and insight. The future world she’ll both be a citizen of and help to create.
It’s made me reflect on the traditional Christian doctrine of ‘original sin,’ the idea that all humans are born in a state of sinfulness, based on Adam’s fall from grace in Eden. I’ve never been able to understand this; it just doesn’t resonate with my experience of babies and young children. Looking into Charlotte’s gorgeous little face, I could only think: this is innocence and purity. In fact, my main impulse toward her is to do whatever I can to help her maintain some portion of that marvelous simplicity and light intact as she grows.
She seems to me to be a bundle of purest potential: full to bursting with life; her curiosity ready to be engaged; surrounded by a thousand thousand circumstances, objects and people that can ignite the process of her personal evolution.
And I like to think that we are all still that, 10 or 30 or 70 years later: bundles of potential, able to keep reaching new levels of understanding throughout our lives. I believe we stop ourselves, assuming that we’re too old, too big, too stuck, too tired.
But what if those 2nd century Christians had it exactly backwards: that instead of coming into this world tainted with sin, having to work our way painfully to some state of grace, we arrive in the most complete and lovely state of grace, and have the possibility of staying at least partly in that state while we figure out how to acquire the knowledge, insight, skills, experience and capability to live our best and most satisfying life.
Looking at Charlotte, I believe that’s true.
Last week my “co-mom” Becky Fall put this marvelous video on her facebook page. [BTW, Becky is my daughter Rachel's mother-in-law, and when Rachel and Becky's son Will got married 5 years ago, we realized there was no word (at least in English) for our relationship to each other, so we coined one: "co-mom."]
I found it hugely inspiring; I fully intend – barring illness or death – to be as active, loving and full of interest and joy in my nineties as Ms. Porchon-Lynch. It’s wonderful to see it in action; it makes my intention seem more grounded in reality, more achievable.
And it made me realize how helpful it is, when you’re trying to do something that defies common wisdom, to know that others have done it. It’s much easier for us to break through to a new possibility if we have even a single example of it being possible.
A few weeks ago I was talking to my son-in-law to be (my other daughter’s fiance) about this – he was saying that he felt most people were stuck in old ways of living and thinking, and that even if there were a few innovators here and there, it didn’t really matter. I disagreed, saying that I see each of those “few innovators” as having a huge ripple effect of positive influence on society. I gave him the example of Roger Bannister, the first man to run a sub-four-minute mile. Before Bannister’s achievement, in 1954, it was widely believed that running a mile in less than 4 minutes was physiologically impossible. The record for the fastest running of the mile had been stuck at just over 4 minutes for 9 years.
Once Bannister broke that record (on May 6, 1954, running a mile in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds), it was only 46 days till someone else broke that record – the psychological barrier was down.
So if you want to do something that most people think is unlikely, or even impossible – be vital and active in your 90s; become a great leader if you’re not a “born” leader; start a successful business without much (or any) business experience…find all the examples you can of others who are actually doing it.
And break through.
A colleague of mine sent me a really interesting article from the NYT other other day, about the importance of ‘shared narrative’ in making people emotionally healthy. About 20 years ago, some researchers noted that kids who knew a lot about their own families tended to do better in challenging situations. They then created something they called the “Do You Know?” scale that asked children 20 questions, such as, “Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know the story of your birth?”
It turned out that the “Do You Know?” questionnaire was an astonishingly accurate predictor. The article goes on to say, “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”
This reinforced a deep personal intuition I’ve always had as a parent: when my kids were small, we spent time talking about my parents and siblings; the experiences I’d had growing up; how their dad and I met; what we did in the world of work. We also talked about what they had been like as babies and small children, how they were alike and different from other members of the family. Finally, we told them about difficult things that had happened, and trials and tribulations overcome. Somehow I knew this was an important conversation for them to be a part of – and I was often surprised and saddened by how little the kids’ friends knew about their families: they often didn’t even know what their parents did for a living. We’re continuing that into the next generation, telling our granddaughter stories about ourselves and those who came before.
But it also reinforces something I’ve observed as a business consultant for the last thirty years: companies and teams that have a strong, mainly positive shared narrative about themselves also tend to be healthier, more flexible and more resilient in response to difficulty. For example, we worked with someone last year to help us further clarify our Proteus brand. She interviewed a number of staff members and consultants to find out about our current understanding of our own brand. And one thing she found is that each of us said very much thing same thing about what it was like working as part of our team, how we treat each other and our clients, what’s important to us. In other words, even though we needed to get crisper about our brand communication (we did), we had a really strong, consistent shared narrative about Proteus and ourselves as “Proteans.” I feel the power of that every day: it draws us together and helps us overcome the challenges of distance, the inevitable misunderstandings and disappointments of human interaction, and the ups and downs of growing a business.
We’ve been gathering around the campfire to share our stories since time immemorial…and it sounds like we need to keep doing it.