Archive for the ‘News’ Category
My husband and I play a word game that consists of figuring out the negative names and the positive names for things. Here’s what I mean:
- For large properties owned by a single person or entity: “estate”=good; “compound”= bad
- For someone who behaves in unpredictable ways: “eccentric”=good; “crazy” = bad
- For people whose job is to execute someone else’s directives: “staff”=good; “minions”=bad
- For a newly formed religious group: “sect” = good; “cult” = bad
We’ve found that there can be a world of difference in the implications of using one word vs. another to describe something. The two of us play this game because we find it fascinating, but it also makes me think about how often we can reveal our unconscious prejudices and assumptions about people and situations through our word choices.
And when you’re a leader, the power of that is magnified. Let’s say you’re a manager, and you’re talking to someone about a guy that works for you who has lots of ideas and enjoys talking about them. If you describe his behaviors as “enthusiastic” or “passionate,” your colleague will have a very different sense of him than if you describe him as “loud” or “pushy.” Sometimes, sadly, people do this kind of subtle character assassination on purpose – when they want someone to be seen badly. But too often, we do it without conscious malice, simply based on unrecognized negative assumptions we have about someone…and don’t realize the negative impact it can have on them.
I was coaching someone once who had three direct reports. When she spoke about two of them, Emma and Joe, she nearly always used “good” words. In her description, they were forward-looking, inspiring, big thinkers, and risk-takers. These were qualities that she saw and liked in herself and in them. The third report, Damon, was very different from the three of them, and she would describe him as old-school, slow, formal, and sensitive. When I pointed out to her how these words might come across to others, she responded that they weren’t negative words, and that she thought they were accurate. So then I asked her what impression her boss had of the three, based on her descriptors. She thought for a moment, and then responded (I gave her high marks for honesty), “He probably sees Emma and Joe as big assets to the organization, and Damon as OK but not great.”
“Is that how you see him?” I asked.
“Not at all,” she acknowledged. “He’s really valuable. He reins us in and keeps us from making impulsive decisions. We need him.”
Once she had seen that, it was easy for her to see how the words she used to describe him arose out of her feeling less comfortable with him and of unconsciously wanting him to be more like Emma and Joe. And how those descriptors might lead others to see him in a less-than-positive way. I asked her to think of alternative, yet still accurate ways of describing him that would let others see the value she saw. Instead of old-school, slow, formal, and sensitive, she began to talk about him as being professional, thoughtful, measured, and considerate.
And not only did her altered description begin to change her boss’ perception of him, I noticed that she, Emma and Joe all started to treat him differently: to make better use of his complimentary strengths, and to more often acknowledge his contributions.
I encourage you to think about how you’re describing situations or people in a way that might subtly (or not so subtly) devalue them in your mind or to others. How could you describe them differently to create more openness and appreciation?
I spent the weekend mostly with millenials: two of my kids and their spouses, and two nieces and their spouses/significant others.
And once again, I simply didn’t experience all the negative things people of my generation tend to say about people of this new generation. Lazy? Every one of them is gainfully employed and working hard. Entitled? None of them seem to be expecting to have things handed to them on a silver platter. Disengaged? All of them are passionate about the things that matter to them.
In fact, we had many wonderful conversations all day and into the night – and I was continually impressed by their insights, humor and curiosity.
Now, they are skeptical about the things that deserve their skepticism: corporations, the government, advertising. But when it comes to the important stuff: love, connection to other people, finding work that has meaning for them, being stewards of the planet – no skepticism at all: 100% in.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to understand why Boomers and Gen Xers are so dismissive of Millenials. I believe part of it is simply the age-old and continuous disregard for every new generation by every preceding generation. I think of it as the why-in-my-day phenomenon: “Why, in my day, we had to work hard, and we didn’t expect…” I’m completely convinced that grown-ups in Pompeii were complaining about their young adult kids in just this way even as the lava rolled in.
But part of it is also based on a misinterpretation of the Millenials’ values. I was working with a senior group at Facebook a couple of weeks ago and the head of the group said, “Millenials as a group care most about meaning, challenge and flexibility.” I agree, and I also think that millenials see work as one of a number of elements in their life that can give them these things, AND that they believe they have the right, perhaps even the obligation, to look for those things in work – and if they’re not getting them, to ask. And if they’re still not getting them – to leave.
For example, my assistant Dan and his wife Jen are parents of a 10-month-old daughter, Teddy (short for Theodora). They recently decided that they didn’t want to raise her in NYC– both because it’s so brutally expensive and because they wanted for her the kind of childhood they had both experienced: a house with a yard, grandparents nearby, a less frenetic pace. (That’s “meaning,” for those of you keeping track.) Dan came to me and said that he really likes and values his work with Proteus (meaning), that he thinks there’s still a lot more for him to learn, and lots more the company wants to do that he could help with (challenge), and that he’d like to figure out how to make it work for him to work long-distance (flexibility). From what I understand, Jen had a very similar conversation with her employer.
Now, if I were looking through the lens of millenials-are-bad, I might very well have interpreted Dan’ announcement and request with indignation: Who does he think he is? I might have thought. Does he think we’ll change the way we work just for him? How entitled!
But I don’t see it that way at all. I think the millennial generation looks at their whole life and wants it to be a quality life, with meaning, challenge and flexibility. And they see work as one aspect of creating the kind of life they want. In other words, they’re not willing to put aside their life in order to meet the demands imposed by work. And to most baby boomers, who have done just that for thirty or forty years years, it seems uppity.
Fortunately for Dan, it turns out that I’m kind of millenial in my view of the world – meaning, challenge and flexibility are key to me, as well, and – unlike many folks of my generation – I’ve been crafting my life to deliver those things for a long time.
So, we’re trying to make things work with Dan’s new circumstances, and I’m pretty sure we can shift to accommodate.
And I know that he will be even more focused and excellent than he already is when we do. Because one thing I’ve learned about millenials is that when you collaborate with them in their quest for a life of meaning, challenge and flexibility, they respond with all of their considerable energy and passion.
I actually think the world is going to be in good hands as this new generation takes the reins over the next few decades. I’m excited to be a part of it.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.