Archive for the ‘people’ Category
Nelson Mandela is a hero to me. He embodied core qualities of a beautifully, fully-lived life: courage, hope, compassion, and clarity. And I’ve often thought that the essence of his power as a human being lay in his ability to be totally present: to take each day, each moment, as something new to be experienced, to be fully understood and turned to best advantage. In other words, Mandela was a great learner. Then, recently, I read a quote of his:
“I never lose. I win or learn.”
– Nelson Mandela
Such simple, universal advice. Let yourself reflect on this for a moment. Think about the last time you “lost.” That you didn’t win something professional you really wanted, like a promotion or a new job. Or something personal – a sports competition or someone’s agreement or support.
To be able to learn rather than lose in these situations is real learning, learning that can change your life. Too often, when we talk about learning, we mean something pale and insubstantial: “I read lots of articles,” “I took a class that was interesting.” But real learning is muscular and vital – it comes right up to your inability, your mistake, or your failure and looks it in the face and says: What did I not know here? Why didn’t that work? How do I need to change? Real learning is courageous and hopeful. Real learning requires being compassionate toward yourself and clear about both your strengths and weaknesses.
When we lose something we really want, at work or at play, our immediate tendency is to look away – to avoid really seeing our “defeat,” because we think it will be too demoralizing or embarrassing. I learned this 40 years ago from Tim Gallwey of Inner Game fame: when most people hit a bad shot in tennis, they don’t stay focused on what actually happened, so they can correct it next time. They literally look away, and either start making mental excuses for themselves (“my racket needs restringing,” “the sun was in my eyes”) or mentally beating themselves up (“I’m an idiot to have missed that shot,” “I’ll never be any good”).
This is losing vs. learning.
So. Next time something doesn’t go well for you: a client declines your proposal; your best friend thinks your new idea is crazy; you don’t get that job you really wanted…
Instead of looking away and losing, be courageous and clear. Look at the situation, look at yourself. Ask, What could I have done differently? or What can I learn to do differently going forward? And be compassionate and hopeful, too – don’t berate yourself, don’t predict permanent failure. Really try to understand what you can take away from this situation that will help you succeed the next time a similar situation arises. And then figure out how to make those changes in your behavior or your mindset, or both.
The power of poetry is to use regular words to capture something rare. My son has always been a poet in that way, even as a little kid. Once, when he was about five and we we were driving past a neighborhood of brand new, cheaply-built, all-the-same-except-for-color houses, thrown up quickly to respond to the ’90s Colorado housing boom, he said, “Those houses are so empty it makes me want to cry.”
He’s still doing it: framing insight as poetry. Just the other day, he told me that he, his wife, and a friend are thinking about going into business together. And one of the reasons he thinks it will work well is because “they believe in each other’s magic.”
It resonated so deeply for me. I knew exactly what he meant, because my business partner Jeff and I also believe in each others’ magic, as do my husband Patrick and I. In fact, in all my best personal and professional relationships, there’s an element of believing in each other’s magic.
To believe in someone else’s magic is to know that things that person wants do are possible, even if you don’t understand them and couldn’t do them yourself – and that the person will accomplish those things, even if you don’t understand how that will happen.
A small example: a couple of years ago, my husband said, “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a built-in TV on the screen porch? It wouldn’t get in the way of the view.” I said yes, with complete faith that he would make that happen, even though I didn’t have the faintest idea how such a thing could be done. And – voilá – now we have a flat-screen TV that hangs down from the ceiling of the screen porch, at exactly the right height for viewing, but without compromising in the least our beautiful Hudson River views. I still don’t really understand how he did it.
This has also happened countless times with me and my business partner Jeff. Twelve years ago, I said to him “I’m going to get this book published,” and he completely believed me, even though I had never done it before and the odds were long. Two years ago, he said “We should create a partnership with this start-up virtual reality company,” and I completely believed him, even though I didn’t really understand why that was a good idea, or how we would do it. Both things happened, and turned out to be truly beneficial for our business.
Believing in someone’s magic isn’t blind faith. It’s faith based on practical experience: you observe the other person has skills, experience and insight that you lack, and can apply those assets in ways that seem mysterious to you because you don’t share them. And so when he or she says “I can do this” or “We should do this,” you take that leap of faith, based on what you know and have experienced of that person.
I love this idea so much, because it captures one of the most powerful elements of good leadership, good partnership, and real innovation: believing that others can and will do things that you yourself are not capable of doing – and, sometimes, that are beyond your understanding. Believing in others’ magic allows us to combine our individual powers to reach new heights, to do things that none of us could have done by ourselves. It’s why diversity – of all kinds – is so critical to success. Through working with others who are not like us and believing in their magic, we can leapfrog our own limitations to solve our most intractable problems together.
It requires real humility, though. The essence of believing in someone else’s magic is being willing to acknowledge that you don’t know it all; that other people understand things that you don’t – and perhaps never will. For lots of us, that’s especially difficult when the other person is younger, less educated, a different gender, race, or religion than we are. Believing in the magic of someone we see – consciously or unconsciously – as being “less” than we are is both particularly challenging and particularly valuable. When you truly believe in someone’s magic, it’s virtually impossible to hold on to dismissive prejudices about that person.
Next time someone in your personal or professional life suggests a way to move forward or solve a problem that you don’t understand, or can’t quite see: before you say no, take a moment. Ask yourself, “Do we believe in each others’ magic?”
I’m shocked to be having to say this in the United States in 2017. But sadly, this statement now seems to be in question, most disturbingly from the White House.
Racism is evil. And just to be completely clear, I use the word evil as it’s defined in Merriam-Webster: “profoundly immoral and malevolent.” Hating people, inciting violence toward people, committing violence against people because of the color of their skin, because of their religion, because of their place of origin, is completely evil and unjustifiable. It has no place in the America I believe we can be. No place in the hearts and actions of good and moral people.
I am profoundly ashamed that the person speaking to all of us as the president does not acknowledge the difference between those who incite and commit violence in support of their beliefs that America should be a “white nation,” and those who resist and reject those beliefs. That he doesn’t acknowledge a difference between Robert E. Lee and George Washington. That he believes white men who march with lit torches – long a symbol of black oppression of the most horrific kind – shouting “Blood and Soil,” “You will not replace us,” and “Jews will not replace us” are, or could be, “very fine people.”
We must fight against the darkness, and we must not be darkened by it. If we hate racism, we must offer an alternative to it in how we live every day, and we must call out when those who govern us condone or support it. In the words of Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
To support you in your personal stand against racist hatred, here from the Southern Poverty Law Center is Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide.
And here’s an excellent article from The Nation about what you can do to fight against hatred.
And always, feel and share as much joy, hope, clarity and love as you possibly can.
Ever since 1934, when the Social Security administration established 65 as the “official” national retirement age, most of us have assumed that at somewhere around 65, we’d stop doing paid work. And even though the average 65-year-old these days has both a considerably greater life expectancy and much improved health compared to his or her 1934 counterpart, our association with 65 as the age of retirement remains. And that’s true even though we baby boomers aren’t adhering to it: only 1 in 4 boomers are fully retiring from paid work by 65. As has often been the case with us as a generation, we’re trying to figure out a different way to do things.
When I turned 65 recently, I didn’t expect it would have much impact on me, since I generally don’t think of myself as being any particular age. So I was surprised to find myself thinking a lot about working and not working, and how I intended to approach the next phase of my life. Even though I knew I didn’t want to stop working any time soon, I noticed that I also didn’t want to keep working at the same pace I’d been working for the last 45 years. I had already decided to work somewhat less starting this year – I had told people that I was “cutting back to full time.” They’d laugh, but it was pretty accurate: I’m experimenting with working around 40-45 hours a week, rather than 50-60 hours a week.
But I could feel there was some deeper issue not being addressed by that decision, and I wasn’t sure what it was. I called Lorie, a wonderful therapist and all-around wise person who has helped me enormously through times of major change over the past ten years, and told her what I was feeling and thinking. In a series of conversations, she helped me see that I was wanting to carve a new path for myself: that I felt constrained by what I saw as the limited and limiting expectations for women at 65 relative to work. I believe that society expects that women, if they do keep working after 65, will do it in a kind of invisible and genteel old-ladyish way: part-time, in a situation that doesn’t require or afford a lot of responsibility or power. (As an example, when I told a 30-something friend that I was struggling to figure out my work path for the next decade, she suggested that perhaps I could teach classes at our local library.) And the general expectation for us as retirees is that we will focus on taking care of our families, on our old-lady hobbies, or on doing good works.
Neither of those paths appealed to me. In my conversations with Lorie, I realized that I needed to “go off road,” to carve out a personal post-65 career path that works for me and those I love, and that may not fulfill any of those expectations.
And, as it turns out, what works for me is a life that includes the best of both worlds. In the world of work, I’ve realized that I’m doing the best work of my life, and I want to keep doing that. I’m braver, wiser, clearer, more experienced, and at the same time more flexible, compassionate and patient than ever before, and I intend for my clients and my colleagues to get the benefit of that. And in the world of retirement, I find I’m cherishing time with my husband, children, grandchildren, and other loved ones in a new and deeper way, knowing that my remaining time on earth is less than the time already passed. At the same time, I find that I need more time for reflection and recuperation in order to be at my best – and that I’m able to appreciate those resting periods more than I ever have before.
So I’m working and retiring simultaneously. When I’m working, it’s full-on, all-in: offering the best of who I am in deep and powerful partnership with my clients and colleagues. When I’m retiring, it’s full-on, all-in: 100% luxuriating in play, rest, travel, the love of those I love. I suspect the proportions of the two will continue to shift as I age: more time retired, less time working. But the depth of commitment to each will remain. That sense of doing whatever I’m doing with full joy and commitment is what resonates for me.
If you find yourself asking these kinds of questions – as I assume you might be, having read this far – my advice to you is not to adopt my solution or anyone else’s, but to find your own. Your life is precious, and it’s a great gift to have arrived in your 60s with your health and spirit intact. Be conscious in deciding how to take advantage of this gift you’ve been given, so that at the end of your days you feel satisfied that you’ve lived the life you most wanted to live.
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….
“For more than a century, from 1900 to 2006, campaigns of nonviolent resistance were more than twice as effective as their violent counterparts in achieving their stated goals. By attracting impressive support from citizens, whose activism takes the form of protests, boycotts, civil disobedience, and other forms of nonviolent noncooperation, these efforts help separate regimes from their main sources of power and produce remarkable results…”
– Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan. Columbia University Press
I am not a fan of the new administration; I now deeply fear for our civil liberties, our human rights, and the fate of the planet. Like millions of people around the US and even around the world, I’m asking, “What can I do to protect the rights and freedoms that are most important to me, and to the US?”
And I’m finding answers; good practical answers that work for me, and that leverage the time-honored positive power of civil resistance. I’m experiencing the power of matching words to actions. Here are the two places I’m focused on putting my energy right now:
The Indivisible Guide is a handbook put together by former Congressional staffers, billed as “best practices for making congress listen.” The guide itself is practical and tested; the authors based it on the approach used by the Tea Party to (successfully) push back against Obama’s agenda. Even more exciting, it has spawned hundreds of local groups that are implementing its approaches at this moment. In fact, this morning my husband and I joined about a dozen other people from the indivisibleulster chapter to agree on a single issue (we chose the ACA) and walk to Rep. Faso’s Kingston, NY office to share our point of view. While there, we spoke with staff members and arranged to meet with his legislative staffer, who can set up face-to-face meetings for us with Faso. When we came back outside, we encountered a small demonstration – also Indivisible-based, and also focused on the ACA.
When we were speaking with Faso’s staff, a few members of our group noted that they had repeatedly called or emailed the congressman’s office and had received no reply. The staffer responded, “It’s just been so busy for the past month – I’m sure it will calm down soon.” A few of us smiled and said, “No. It won’t.”
The second place I’m focusing my energy is with my own existing network. Thus, this post. I’m also using twitter and facebook to share real information (as opposed to “alternative facts”) about what the administration is doing, and to encourage non-violent action to resist racism, authoritarianism, corruption and violations of our constitution.
I am a relentlessly optimistic person. Generally, I see that as a strength, but sometimes it has been a weakness. I am hopeful (optimistic?) that, in this situation, it will be a strength. Because I do see a silver lining in our current situation. Whenever I look at all the – to me – terrifying and saddening events of the past few months, I also see the response: the political awakening of literally millions of people who have never in their lives felt strongly enough about any political issue to act upon their convictions. They – we – are marching, calling, speaking up, offering time, money, expertise, knowledge.
“Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit…
I’ve loved this poem since I first read it in the 1970s. Even as a young woman, I was enchanted with the idea that as an older person, a tribal elder, I could feel and be less constrained by the dictates of society, more willing and able to do as I pleased, to be a more quirky and braver version of myself.
And here I am, on the cusp of what is generally considered old age – soon to celebrate my 65th birthday – and though I may not literally have a stick, or be running it along the public railings, I’m proud to say that I find myself doing a metaphoric version of these things every day. I’m much more willing than I used to be to challenge assumptions – especially my own – and to be open to different ways of approaching situations or solving problems.
With age has also come a greater willingness to say true but difficult things if I think they will benefit a person, a relationship, an organization: I’m “pressing alarm bells.” And at the same time, I see that my increasing straightforwardness contains a tenderness and compassion that I believe was missing in my earlier years; I’ve now experienced enough pain of my own to know how hard it can be to hear difficult truths.
And I’m pleased to find that my passion for and joy in life are undiminished and, in fact, seem to be increasing; I wear celebratory, invisible purple and red nearly every day. However, I have noticed that my physical stamina is diminished – I get worn out working the 70-hour weeks of my 40s and 50s – and so I’ve decided I need to sit down on the pavement a bit more, so to speak.
I’m very grateful to have the influence and wherewithal to be able to craft my “sitting down” in a way that works for me. So here’s my plan: I’m going to “cut back to fulltime,” as I’ve been saying to my colleagues. Soon I’ll be working four long days every week, instead of five (or six). Starting after the first of the year, on Fridays I’ll mostly be doing things other than working.
It’s interesting watching the reactions I’m getting from friends and clients when I share this plan. Those younger than I are generally very supportive, and see this as a great way to create a little more space for rest and reflection, while still staying active in this work I love so much. Interestingly, the only people so far who seem uncomfortable with my plan are friends my age who are still in the workforce. And their negative response isn’t to the plan itself, but to my acknowledgement that I need a bit more time dedicated to recuperation in order to be at my best when I am working. “I still feel like I’m 29,” a client scowled when I shared this with him. One friend shook her head. “I think it’s limiting to believe we can’t have the same energy at 70 that we did at 30.”
Maybe. But maybe it’s limiting to believe we must have the same energy at 70 that we did at 30. At its core, Jenny Joseph’s poem is about authenticity: discovering and being your true self. And the older I get, the truer I want to be to what I know, understand, and experience, and the more clearly I want to live as a reflection of that truth.
What’s your version of wearing purple? If you were to shift the elements of your life to include more of what you want and need at this point in your evolution, what would that look like?
A few months ago, I wrote a post about finishing a sweater my mom had begun knitting for me twenty years ago. Completing her work became a reflection on all the ways in which her influence shaped who I am today – and in fact all the ways in which we are all influenced by those who came before us.
Now that it’s done, it brings an entirely new set of reflections. When I look at it, I think of all the things in this world that we re-purpose for new generations. For example, I love it when old buildings find new life serving a modern function. Apple recently received the New York Landmarks Conservancy’s Chairman award for its placement of Apple stores in four historic buildings in New York. In giving the award, the Conservancy noted that, “Apple is being honored for their contribution to preserving, restoring, and repurposing notable historic structures in New York City. The company has placed four stores in historic buildings – marrying high tech and distinguished architecture.”
Looking at all four Apple projects, you realize that in many ways it would have been easier just to tear down the original buildings and start from scratch. For instance, their Soho store, housed in a 1920’s Beaux Art Post Office building, showcases the original exterior while inserting a new interior that includes a glass tread staircase and a huge central skylight. Even though it clearly required more time, resource, and care to re-create the building for the intended use than to build something spanking new from the ground up, Apple chose to give new life to something beautiful by building upon it for the present and the future.
We can do that with ideas, as well. I look at core beliefs that my grandparents passed to my parents, and that they passed on to me: that men and women are equal; that the color of a person’s skin or their religion doesn’t affect their worth; that our free and fair elections are a deeply valuable thing. These ideals are beautiful, and worth preserving.
A personal plea: please vote in this upcoming election if you are a US citizen. And please consider carefully: do you want to tear down what we’ve built, giving in to the destructive power of hatred, prejudice and violence? Or do you want to continue to build on those precious values of openness, tolerance and inclusion that we have fought so hard to establish in this country, and that are even more important as we face the future?
Think about the world we are continually re-creating for our children, and for our children’s children, when you go to the polls on November 8th, and make sure the person you choose to be our president is someone you believe has the clarity, focus and intention to build upon our democratic ideals.
Many years ago, my mom declared that she would knit each of us, her four children, a sweater. She had lots of other stuff she was interested in doing, though, so she never quite completed the project. I’m pretty sure she finished my younger brother’s sweater, and she may have finished my older sister’s. In any case, when we went to clean out her house after she died in 2004, I discovered most of the sweater she had been making for me in a knitting bag with (fortunately) the pattern book she was using. I was touched; I decided to take it home with me and finish it someday.
So here I am, twelve years later, finishing the sweater my mom started for me sometime in the 1990s. I thought it would be a nice way to connect with her, and it is. It’s easy to imagine her working on it: getting irritated when an instruction didn’t make sense; swearing softly at having to undo and redo a mistake; her crooked smile of satisfaction at a beautifully complex bit of finished work. And most of all, thinking of her thinking of me.
I’ve also enjoyed the mystery-solving aspect of it. It’s a cardigan, and she had completed the back, both fronts, and most of one of the sleeves. So I had to determine where she was in the sleeve (there’s a cable design running down the middle, so I had to figure out exactly the correct row), and which of the six available sizes she had chosen to knit. And since I had only one skein of the yarn she was using, a yarn that hasn’t been made for many years, I had to find more of it (thank god for ebay). Finally, I had to figure out what size needles she was using in order to finish the ribbed trim on the front, neck and pockets. I tried the size called for in the pattern, but that made stitches that were bigger than hers; I tried a couple of different size needles, knitting a few rows, pulling out the work and redoing it till I got it right. (You can see how it’s going in the picture above.)
Most of all, though, doing this is making me realize that I generally don’t give my mom enough credit for the foundation she provided to me throughout my life. So much of who I am as a professional, a parent, and a human being is grounded in her good example. She taught me how to think critically; inspired my love of language and of writing; taught me that a parent’s job is to provide the tools kids need to create their own life and the moral compass to assure that life is one of contribution and value to others and to the world. She taught me that humor can ease tension, and that it’s mentally lazy to accept “what everyone knows” as truth. She insisted that I take responsibility for my mistakes, and she was quietly proud of my accomplishments. She (and my father) taught me that judging, dismissing, or hating others for some part of who they are – skin color, sexual orientation, country of birth – is just plain wrong. She raised all four of us, two boys and two girls, with equal expectations that each of us would find work we liked and were good at, and build loving, strong relationships and families.
And as I’m reflecting on this, on my own failure to acknowledge her gifts to me, I’m wondering if we aren’t all guilty of this to some extent. It’s too easy to believe that everything now is “new,” that we’re starting from zero every day and having to invent everything as we go. But even though almost every aspect of our world is changing faster now that at any previous time in history, we are able to navigate through this time of seismic change by virtue of the foundation laid down by those who have gone before.
Just as I can finish this sweater because of the start my mom made on it and the knitting skills passed down to me by her and many others, all that we do builds on the discoveries and advances of previous generations. The fact that I, a woman, can be accepted and respected as an author, speaker, consultant and business owner is built on the efforts and sacrifice of my feminist mother, my suffragette grandmothers, and millions of other women of past generations all over the world. The fact that I can share my thoughts with you here, one-to-one, perhaps without ever having met you, is a tribute to thousands of generations of humans who created language, invented ways to write it down and disseminate it (including the printing press), then created ever-more sophisticated computers, and finally harnessed the power of the internet.
It is both humbling and inspiring to acknowledge that we are links in this human chain. It makes me feel very grateful, and it makes me want to leave a legacy that will help move the world and everyone in it toward more joy, more collaboration, and lives of prosperity, independence and discovery.
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?