[Erika’s] vision and strategy process helps us get our heads around complex issues in a way that’s unusually simple…[to make] our aspirations practical and build a clear path to achieving them. Doug Herzog, President, MTV Networks Entertainment Group


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Archive for the ‘Thinking’ Category

Aug
15

Just The Facts, Ma’am

from Wikipedia

from Wikipedia

I know I’m dating myself by using that title.  It became known as the signature line of Sgt. Joe Friday, the hero in a cop show called Dragnet that was popular when I was a kid. Whenever Joe was questioning witnesses, and they would start wandering off into how they felt, and what they feared, and sharing their biases and prejudices, Joe would stop them and say, “All we want are the facts, ma’am (or sir). ”

As we’re all living through this endless and somewhat depressing election season, I find myself in complete sympathy with Sergeant Friday.  My craving for facts is completely justified, given that, according to Politifact, only 30% of what Donald Trump says publicly is even partly true, with 19% of his untruths being of the “pants on fire” variety (“not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim,” according to Politifact)  and even Hillary, the most truthful of all the current politicians, only tells the truth 72%  of the time. Fortunately, only 2% of her statement are “pants on fire” lies – but still, that’s too much. (I’ll out myself now; I’m a Clinton fan, and think she’ll make a very good president.)

What’s even more frustrating to me is that Americans believe Trump and Hillary are equally dishonest and untrustworthy – even though, on a factual basis, Trump lies about 2.5 times as much as she does. And it doesn’t stop with the candidates themselves, unfortunately. Shortly after the Republican convention, I listened to a Trump supporter, a former soap actor named Anthony Sabato, Jr., say that he believes President Obama is “…on the other side.  Oh, the Middle East. He’s with the bad guys.  He’s not with us. He’s not with this country.”  And when asked to back up his assertion with facts, he responded, “I believe it.”

Yikes.

The most disturbing thing about this whole mess, for me, is the contention that believing something is true, or feeling that it’s true, is just as valid as having the facts about whether or not it’s true. It’s why too many people think that someone “believing”or “feeling” that Obama is in league with terrorists is just as valid as 7+ years of daily evidence to the contrary.

It’s why national figures can say “global warming is a hoax,” or “Obama founded ISIS,” or “immigrants destroy our economy” — and those things are repeated as truth, even though there is no evidence to support their validity, and – in fact – mountains of factual evidence to disprove them.

I believe the best we can do, in these crazy times, is try to be guardians of the truth in our own thinking.  Whenever someone asserts that something is true – especially something important to our well-being or our future – I suggest that, rather than either immediately believing or disbelieving it, you do your best to find out the facts. I’d suggest you apply the scientific method: take what you hear as a hypothesis (“Is global warming a hoax?”) then gather the available data about the hypothesis without assuming that it’s true or false. (As opposed to cherry-picking the data to support your existing bias, which is what we too often do.)  Finally, decide the validity of the hypothesis based on the data you’ve collected.

If we all did that, we would come to better, more reasoned decisions, and be less susceptible to the lies and half-truths of those in positions of power.

And here’s what Joe Friday thinks about all this (from episode 60: “Internal Affairs DR-20”):

“Show me how to wipe out prejudice. I’ll settle for the prejudices you have inside yourselves. Show me how to get rid of the unlimited capacity for human beings to make themselves believe they’re somehow right–and justified–in stealing from somebody, or hurting somebody…and you’ll just about put this place here out of business!”

I’m with Joe.


Jul
17

Building On What Came Before Us

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.

IMG_1720I’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.


Dec
23

Underneath the Holiday Bustle…

I know I say this every year, so those of you who have been with me for awhile might be rolling your eyes about now. Nonetheless: I love the holidays.

All the stuff I grew up with is charming to me: twinkling lights, presents under the tree, crackling fires, stockings hung on the chimney, old-fashioned Christmas carols, delicious food, seeing people I love and don’t get to see often enough. I even mostly like the things that other people don’t like: corny Christmas movies, looking for just the right gift for someone.

Most of all though, I love what’s at the heart of all this, at least in my mind. The sense that life and love are astonishing gifts to be treasured every day.

Today is my last day of work for the year, and I’m already expanding into what I think of as holiday gratitude mode. I’m a pretty thankful person under ordinary circumstances, but during the holiday I really make the effort to consciously recognize all the gifts and joys in my life on a daily basis.

At Proteus, we have year-end review and look forward conversations with everyone on the team. I’m just about to have my final one for the year (I’ll be having a couple more in January), and feeling tremendously appreciative of all the smart, good-hearted, committed people I get to work with at my company. After that, I’m going to go and meet my husband at his first “beer event”; a tasting and brewer appearance for his new brewery. And I’m feeling so proud of him, and so deeply grateful to be sharing my life with such a remarkably kind, high-integrity, curious, brilliant, funny, loving, brave, handsome man.

And as I’m writing this, I’m sitting in my living room enjoying our sparkling Christmas tree, each ornament connected to a fond memory. Grateful to have such a wonderful place to live, and the good health and mental capability to enjoy it.

I could go on and on. Feeling grateful elevates you, making your interaction with everything and everyone around you more conscious, hopeful and loving. When you are grateful, it feels wonderful and at the same time makes you a positive force in the world.

So, my wish for you: May you appreciate your holidays to the very fullest extent possible….

courtesy of Brainyquotes

courtesy of Brainyquotes


Nov
22

Keep Being Bad First…

A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to be a part of a really profound learning experience. I was one of eight attendees at an Elite Group Experience – a two-day advanced speaking skills course with Victoria Labalme.

Even though I’ve done a great deal of speaking in front of groups over the past thirty years, and believe I’m good at it (and have gotten feedback that supports that belief), I decided this year to take my skills to the next level. I intend to do everything in my power to become a world-class speaker.

Victoria is a wonderful teacher, and my classmates – entrepreneurs, authors, and business owners – were without exception smart, focused and supportive.  The coolest thing for me, though, was seeing how well the ANEW skills I propose as being key to new learning served me in this situation, even though I’m not a novice.  Here’s how it worked:

Aspiration –  Before I attended the course, I worked on  increasing my aspiration – making myself want to improve my speaking skills.  It’s challenging to raise your level of aspiration when you’re already good at something: it’s all too easy to think that you’re good enough, thank you very much.  So I thought about the benefits to me of becoming a better speaker. First, we at Proteus have more important things to share than ever – and I love being able to share it. Also, I’m particularly convinced that the ideas and skills in my new book, Be Bad First, will be helpful to people if I have a bigger platform for sharing them.  I can easily imagine a future where being a better speaker would make that possible.

Neutral Self-awareness – I spent some time before the class reflecting on my strengths and weaknesses as a speaker. Some of the pre-work Victoria had us do supported me in that effort. I wanted to be as accurate as possible going into the session, so that I could take full advantage of the learning being offered, and I found my “current state” insights very helpful. (If you’re curious, I decided that my strengths were clarity, authenticity, and connection with the audience, and that I needed to work on having more control over my pacing and volume, making better use of the stage, and exploring new options to three-dimensionalize my speaking – visuals, sound, online support, etc..)

Endless Curiosity – This one was the easiest; I didn’t really have to  do much to ramp up my curiosity.  Very fortunately for me, being curious is my natural state, and I found myself, during the session, continuously interested in understanding and mastering what Victoria was sharing with us. Over the two days of the class, I watched myself ask lots of Why?, How?, and I wonder? questions. And saw, yet again, how curiosity is jet fuel for learning. Every time I asked one of those questions of Victoria or one of my classmates, I found out something new or something more that would help me improve my skills.

Willingness To Be Bad First – This one was definitely the hardest…but the most rewarding. It’s difficult enough to convince yourself it’s OK to “be bad” when you’re actually new to something.  But when you’re quite good at doing something already, there’s a strong momentum toward considering yourself an expert.  I found the most valuable and realistic “acceptance of not-good” self-talk in this situation was, I still have a lot to learn, if I want to be a world class speaker. I need to be open to everything I  hear.  As a result, I was able to hear important feedback from Victoria and from my classmates that I might have otherwise dismissed.  For example, in one practice, my partner pointed out to me that I was skimming over the uncomfortable part of the story I was telling – and he noted that “without the lows, the highs don’t feel like highs.” Because I was really listening and taking it in, I realized he was exactly right…and that it was something I do habitually.  I was able to integrate the feedback, and it had a real impact.

My husband once asked me “Are people ever done being bad?”  And now I can definitely say: No, fortunately for us, we’re not.


Oct
23

Impressive Nature, Impressive Human

My husband and I recently took a little mini-vacation to Grand Canyon National Park.  I’m not quite sure why it took me so long to get there – it’s not as though I’ve never had an opportunity before now.  All that aside, though: it was astonishing.  If you’ve never visited, all I can say is that pictures absolutely do not do it justice; it’s much more vast and beautiful and other-worldly than you can imagine. It made us feel small, but in a completely positive way; a tiny part of an awe-inspiring whole.

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Hopi House; Courtesy of Wikipedia

While we were there, I kept noticing buildings that I really loved.  There was Hermit’s Rest, the Hopi House, and the Desert View Watchtower. As it turns out, they were all designed by a woman named Mary Elizabeth Jane Coulter, who worked for the Santa Fe Railroad in the first half of the 20th century as an architect and designer.  In the words of Wikipedia:

She was one of the very few female American architects in her day. She was the designer of many landmark buildings and spaces for the Fred Harvey Company and the Santa Fe Railroad, notably in Grand Canyon National Park. Her work had enormous influence as she helped to create a style, blending Spanish Colonial Revival and Mission Revival architecture with Native American motifs and Rustic elements, that became popular throughout the Southwest.

MJC ca 1893 by California Artist Arthur Mathews from the Program for Art on Film Web site

MJC ca 1893 by California Artist Arthur Mathews
from the Program for Art on Film Web site

I was so charmed by her buildings and intrigued by her story that I bought and read her biography. In 1902, Ms. Coulter began working for the Fred Harvey Company, which partnered with the Santa Fe Railroad to open the American Southwest to travel and tourism in the late 19th and early- to mid-20th centuries. Coulter was one of the only female employees of the Harvey Company at that time who was not a waitress – and the only woman with management responsibilities.

As I read about her, and looked at the buildings and interiors she designed – and the construction of which she oversaw and managed – I tried to imagine the combination of vision, strength of character and diplomacy required to be successful as a woman leader working with an all male group of colleagues and staff to establish a new kind of architectural style in a barely-civilized part of the US, at a time when any sort of woman professional was a rare creature indeed.

Talk about a high bar.

I’m inspired and humbled to find that she was able to do all of that, to leave us a legacy of wonderfully evocative buildings, structures that live at ease in the landscape of the desert southwest. Her designs are unpretentious and yet in harmony with the grandeur around them, while marrying indigenous Native American and Mexican styles with modern applications.

I suspect I’ll think of Mary Jane Coulter’s life and work from now on when I’m in what I believe is a difficult situation. I kind of feel as though my toughest challenges would seem like an easy day to her. It’s good to remind ourselves of those brave souls who have gone before us; it helps us find that pioneer inside.  It supports us to be bold in asking “Why Not…?” and in finding ways to do things that haven’t been done before.

Thank you, Mary…


Jul
22

New Ways to Get Better

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
  • Coaching
  • Company Culture
  • Delegation
  • Giving Feedback
  • High Performance Team
  • Leading Change
  • Listening
  • Making Agreements
  • Managing People
  • Managing Your Career
  • Self-talk
  • 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.


Apr
21

Step Aside For The New

I was talking to a wonderful, wise woman today: I learned a lot from her, and I hope she also learned useful things from me.  She told me a great quote that she has made part of her email signature line:

                People who say it can’t be done shouldn’t interrupt those who are doing it.

When she said it to me, my first reaction was to laugh out loud, in that surprised way that happens when something strikes you as completely and unexpectedly true. I’ve seen that very thing happen in corporate life dozens, perhaps hundreds of times over the past few decades.  While some people are pontificating at length about why something isn’t possible, someone else is quietly going about doing it.  For instance, I just found out that, even as Wilbur and Orville Wright were preparing to complete their first successful trials of a manned, heavier-than-air flying machine, the New York Times published an article from which the following is an excerpt:

The flying machine which will really fly might be evolved by the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one million to ten million years—provided, of course, we can meanwhile eliminate such little drawbacks and embarrassments as the existing relation between weight and strength in inorganic materials.

— ‘Flying Machines Which Do Not Fly,’ published in theNew York Times, 9 October 1903.

It sounds really smart and well-reasoned (if somewhat smug and self-righteous), but it also turns out, as we all know, to have been complete and utter nonsense.

Fortunately, the Wright Brothers weren’t working for the New York Times, or any of the other thousands of people who were opining that what they were doing was impossible and foolish.  Where the quote above gets less funny, but even more true, is when the people doing the talking about what can’t be done are the bosses of the people who are able to do it.  That’s when innovation and creativity get torpedoed, and companies (if it gets bad enough and consistent enough) collapse.

For instance, I will bet you any amount of money that there were young people working for Barnes and Noble in 2005, who were trying to tell their bosses that e-readers were the wave of the future, and that they could build one of they just had the support, and those bosses rolled their eyes and dismissed the idea entirely, and blathered on about the strength of the B&N business model and how people will never give up the feel of a real book, or stop coming to bookstores, especially now that we have cafes and kids’ play areas and blah blah blah blah. And all the while Jeff Bezos and company were busy inventing the Kindle in a back room somewhere.

So the next time someone – especially someone who works for you – comes to you with an idea that you believe is just plain impossible, or impractical, or too expensive, or not how people want to do X….just shut up. Suspend your disbelief, and really listen.  Ask them to walk you through how they would do it, and what it would require.

Maybe, just maybe, you’ll start to see how it could be done, and why it should be done…

And that could change everything.


Mar
22

Award-Winning Beer: An Entrepreneur’s Handbook

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.


Feb
22

Getting Older and Better

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?


Jan
23

Present Happiness

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.

Feel happier?

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.