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.
Can you have too much of a good thing? We humans have been debating this question since long before it first showed up in print (in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, around 1600).
Most of us would say yes, having experienced the after-effects of a mega-dose of great wine, wonderful food, high-quality chocolate, or even a fantastic party.
I’ve been experiencing it lately with work: I love it – and there’s simply a great deal of it lately. I feel a somewhat conflicted about this.
First of all, I know I’m fortunate to consider work “a good thing” at a time when surveys show that roughly two-thirds of all American employees are unhappy with their jobs. Also, I take great pride in the fact that Proteus and the work we do has become so highly thought of and in demand. And finally, for someone (me) who loves more than anything to support people and organizations to clarify and move toward their hoped-for future – having so many opportunities to do just that is marvelous: the career equivalent of a pound of Godiva truffles.
But then there are the realities imposed by living in a physical body – and one that’s got some mileage on it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m healthy, strong and full of energy…but I can’t power through a month of not enough sleep and too much travel like I could in my 30’s, 40s, or even my 50s. And there’s also the fact that, to my great good fortune, there are many other things in my life besides work that I also love – hanging out with my darling husband, kids and grandkids; spending time with friends; traveling – and a whole list of avocations as well (gardening, reading, knitting, sudoku, cooking, hiking, learning languages….the list goes on).
So what’s a work-lover to do? I’m discovering that my approach to work needs to be very similar to my approach to good food (which I also love): keep the quality high, and be sensitive to the symptoms of overdoing it.
With food, what that looks like is: don’t waste my calories on stuff that’s not worth it (junk food, things I don’t really like, poor quality), and stay attentive to my body telling me when I’ve had enough.
With work, what that looks like is: don’t waste my time on stuff that’s not worth it (tasks that others in my company can do just as well or better than I can; clients who don’t really want to spend the effort or money needed to get results; ‘rabbit hole’ conversations that suck up valuable time and mental energy) , and stay attentive to my body (and brain) telling me when I’ve had enough – when I’m too tired to think well or focus properly, or when my usual enthusiasm and hopefulness start to wane.
And just as the solution when food threatens to become too much of a good thing is simply to stop eating, the too-much-work solution is the same: stop working. Now I (like you, I suspect) can’t just walk off the job when it gets to be too much – but I can create little respites. A day, an hour, even a minute when I turn my attention to something else – or to nothing else.
Earlier today I was feeling particularly overworked. Then suddenly I was presented with some “found time.” A client session ended much earlier than expected, and I had the choice to dig into the pile of to-dos that were backlogged on my computer…or lay down on my hotel bed and take a nap.
When I woke up, I felt like a different person. And I’m convinced that the work I did post-nap was both much higher in quality than it would have been pre-nap, and accomplished much more quickly. Plus I really enjoyed doing it. And that’s the bottom line, really – if you consistently have too much of a good thing, then it stops being a good thing. If you can figure out how to have just enough of a good thing – that’s really good.
I enjoy being in situations that defy common wisdom. Recently my husband and I were vacationing in Italy, where we spent one day in Venice. We traveled there by train, and simply walked off the train and started wandering around (fortunately, the places most people want to go are pretty well sign-posted, or you’d be irretrievably lost after about five minutes.)
At one point a sweet young Dutch woman asked us to take her picture, and then we asked her to return the favor. It wasn’t until we were standing there, not moving, that I realized how quiet the city was. I said as much to my husband, and he responded, “no cars.”
Of course! How strange to be in an urban area completely devoid of traffic sounds and smells. The only motorized vehicles in Venice are the water taxis, which are pretty quiet.
Once we’d been reminded of this auto-less situation, we noticed all kinds of interesting adaptations: a cool little machine shaped kind of like the bottom of an army tank that some guys were using to take a refrigerator up a set of stairs; a dolly with a second smaller set of wheels to transport containers not only through the streets but up one side of the stepped bridges and down the other.
The experience immediately made me think about how we might do things differently in other cities to reduce or eliminate car traffic. I noticed how just one example of a non-car-based urban area shifted my thinking from “We couldn’t possibly do without cars” to “Why not?”
Now, don’t misunderstand me – I’m sure there are thousands of people infinitely more equipped to think about this question than I, who have been wrestling with it for many years. I’m not really talking about how to create car-free cities; I’m talking about how to challenge your assumptions. And this day in Venice reminded me that when I encounter something that pushes against what I believe is possible (it could be anything: a conservative Republican who’s concerned about social justice; a simple approach to income taxes that will actually work; a way to stay in shape that takes 15 minutes a day), it has – if I’m open to it – a wonderful effect of making me question my set-in-stone assumptions. And that’s always a good thing.
And to have my mind opened up in addition to simply being in Venice: priceless.
“Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. We are all the same in this notion: The potential for greatness lives within each of us.”
– Wilma Rudolph
Wilma Rudolph was the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics. In the 1960s, she was considered the fastest woman in the world.
Astonishingly, this world-class athlete and inspiration to millions was born prematurely, weighing only 4.5 pounds. She was a sickly baby and child, surviving attacks of infantile paralysis, polio and scarlet fever that left her with a twisted leg requiring an orthopedic brace, which she had to wear until the age of 12. She once said, “My doctors told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.”
As time goes on, I become more and more convinced that, though we can’t always control the circumstances of our lives, we can always have tremendous control over our reaction to those circumstances. For example:
Today I was telling some colleagues about an amazing woman named Tao Porchon-Lynch, a 96-year-old yoga teacher, championship ballroom dancer, wine connoisseur and peace activist who has become my inspiration and role model. I see no reason, barring illness or death, that I (or you) can’t be living an equally satisfying and active life in our nineties.
Yesterday was the fifth anniversary of the day I met my beloved husband. We were reading through emails from the early days of our courtship, and agreeing that we love, like, and desire each other more today than we did five years ago – and that we fully expect our love to continue to expand and deepen throughout our lives.
I’m entirely certain that I will be able to learn new skills, make new connections with people and discover new problems/mysteries/puzzles to solve until the day I die.
In fact, here’s a suggestion. Whenever that voice in your head tells you that something you hope for just isn’t possible, stop and ask yourself – Why not?
Every spring I write at least one post about spring. You’d think I’d be jaded by now – after all, I’ve lived through a good many years, and each year to date has included a spring.
Every year, I glory in it. It seems miraculous every single time: one week, dead grey branches and barren ground; the next, a hundred shades of tender greenery adorn the branches and wildflowers spangle greening meadows. We tuck inert seeds into garden soil and – voila! – the tender shoots emerge a few days later. We open the windows to welcome in the scent of newly warmed earth and the susurration of breezes in the grass.
spring from the train
I’m grateful to be enchanted like this every spring. And I’m convinced that this ability to see the same old thing with new eyes is a gift we all have – and of which we take insufficient advantage.
There’s a reason for it, though. Being able to do a great many things primarily on automatic pilot makes it possible for us to navigate our complicated lives. For instance, think about the things you’ve done so far today: gotten out of bed; done your morning ablutions; gotten dressed; perhaps eaten breakfast – and cooked or purchased it first; possibly gotten kids or your spouse off to work or school; made your own way to work or started your day in other ways. I’d venture to say that most of these activities took very little of your attention…in fact, you were probably thinking about other things entirely, or having conversations, while you did them. This ability to do a variety of things without paying too much attention to them enables us to do and say and think as many things as we do during the course of a day, many of them simultaneously.
But the fact is, we can fully attend to any circumstance or event or person that comes before us; we have that capability, too. And when we do, our experience of that thing opens up, and it strikes us with great depth and clarity. We see it for all that it is, rather than seeing merely the two-dimensional sketch to which our inattention reduces it. We all experience this sometimes: when we’re newly in love; when something brand-new (to us) is happening; when we’re fully engaged in doing something about which we’re passionate.
We forget, though, that we can look at anything through this lens of full attention – and that when we do, we’ll regain much of the rich freshness of seeing it for the first time. Seeing spring anew each year reminds me of this capability, and it’s a joy to me – but it also reminds me that making use of this ability to attend fully can make my life better in every realm. For instance, full attention can allow us to see our colleagues more completely, so that we don’t limit them to thin caricatures of themselves. Looking more fully at new ideas makes it more likely that we’ll see the possibilities inherent in them, rather than labeling them as impractical or derivative. More fully attending to our own physicality can make us more conscious of how we carry ourselves, what we eat, how we sleep: we are more likely to to support our own well-being if we’re aware of how our actions are affecting our body at a given moment.
Someone once asked Pablo Casals, a world-renowned cellist who specialized in playing the works of Bach, if he didn’t get tired of playing the same pieces over and over. Casals replied, “I’ve never played the same piece of music twice.”
That’s possible for each of us.
I read the most amazing article recently, about elephants’ ability to recognize and react appropriately to human voice and language. In Kenya, elephants generally encounter people from one of two ethnic groups: Maasai or Kamba. The Kamba tend not to pose a danger to the elephants – while the Maasai often clash with the elephants over land and water rights.
Researchers had elephants listen to recorded voices of adult Maasai or Kamba males saying, in their own language, “Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming!” They also recorded Maasai females and children saying the same thing. Then they played the recording for family group of 58 elephants. Here’s what happened:
When researchers played a Maasai male voice, elephants immediately started sniffing the air for danger and retreated into a bunched, defensive formation. By contrast, the elephants were unfazed by the Kamba male voice. Further, elephants didn’t seem to mind the voices of Maasai women and children.
Even when researchers re-synthesized the Maasai male voice so it resembled a female’s, the elephants still recognized it was male and acted defensively. The results indicate that elephants can pick up even the subtlest vocal cues to assess the level of a threat.
Many studies besides this one have shown that elephants are extremely intelligent: among other things, it seems they experience a subtle and broad variety of emotions, including joy, playfulness, sadness and grief. They can learn new facts and behaviors, mimic sounds, self-medicate, demonstrate a sense of humor, create art (that is, do activities that seem to have only an artistic or expressive purpose), use tools to complete tasks, and display compassion and self-awareness.
This particular study caught my attention, though, because it demonstrates elephants’ ability to distinguish between humans who are likely to be a threat to them and those who are not. In other words, that they have the capability of trusting (or not trusting) humans based on previous experiences they’ve had with humans of various sorts.
Once I got past feeling sad that some humans are a threat to these gentle, intelligent creatures, it made me think about how casually we assume our own superiority to all other intelligences on the planet. And how, as we spend more time getting curious about highly intelligent animals like chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants, and pigs, our assumptions about our superiority come into question.
Thank goodness that the scientific method, when properly applied, doesn’t allow us to remain in comfortable ignorance, our assumptions unchallenged. I look forward to the day when scientists discover facts that demonstrate beyond doubt that these creatures with whom we share this orb have gifts and capabilities surpassing our own.
Until then, while I may not have proof, I suspect the elephants often pity us, and the dolphins find us amusing.
I’ve been noticing lately how very much easier it is to focus on making good things a little better – rather than figuring out how to re-invent good things to make them fantastic. Ad I’ve also been seeing the benefits of doing the latter:
I spent the last couple of days with a client group that did a truly bang-up job of NOT going for the easy answers, even though it would have saved them a lot of time and mental energy to do so. We spent the second day doing a “re-boot” of the vision and strategy map they had created in 2013, and when we got to strategies, it was clear that the ones they had come up with last year were pretty good and still directionally correct. It would have been by far the easiest choice simply to re-commit to last year’s strategies and come up with new tactics for this year. We actually started down that path, but after a few minutes, we all kind of looked at each other and said, “This isn’t going to hit on some of the most critical new aspects of our business – imperatives that have just arisen over the past few months. We need to start from scratch.” It required about 90 minutes of brain-stretching conversation to come up with those new strategies, and another couple of hours to craft appropriate tactics, but at the end of it they had created an exciting plan for this year that has the potential to be game-changing for them.
My husband, who is in the process of creating Great Life Brewing, has come up with some really excellent beers – especially his milk stout and IPA. He recently entered his first round of competitions, and received “good” ratings, along with one “outstanding” that garnered a medal. Based on the feedback he got, the easiest thing (and perfectly reasonable) would have been to do slight tweaking of the recipes to make them a little better. Instead, he decided to experiment with a significant change to the sparging process (part of extracting the malt from the grain) to raise the specific gravity of the unfermented beer – which would address a consistent piece of feedback he’d received about the ‘body’ of the beer, and that he felt kept the “good” ratings from being “very good” or even “outstanding.” After a 12-hour dawn-to-dark brewing day yesterday: success! His new approach to sparging increased the specific gravity by a big margin – and (according to him – I haven’t tasted it yet) made an immediate difference in the taste and mouthfeel of the beer.
In both instances, these folks avoided the seduction of making things “a little better.” It’s really easy to justify that approach, to convince ourselves that we’re doing all that can be expected of us. Now understand – I’m not talking about taking the path of least resistance: shirking, or doing things badly. I’m talking about doing what most people would consider an OK job.
But I’ve come to believe that world-class individuals and organizations are most often distinguished by their willingness and ability to do the tough work necessary to make break-through changes when that’s what’s needed, and what’s possible.
And the good news is – even though it can be a lot harder (it takes more of your time, energy, focus; more risk of failure; more letting go of assumptions) – it’s so much more satisfying to make substantive, even disruptive improvement in something important that it generally feels as though it’s all been worth it, whatever the effort involved.
Yesterday, my wonderful husband gave me a beautiful custom-created card, complete with a romantic poem he’d written himself. Inside were tickets to an off-Broadway show (that he’d secretly worked with my assistant to schedule). I sent him poetry, and tomorrow I’m making him a carrot cake – his favorite. This morning, our granddaughter – proudly and with hugs – gave us a heart-studded card she and her mom had made for us.
From my point of view, Valentine’s Day is simply an excuse to express your love a little more extravagantly than usual. I get that some people don’t like it – that they see it as pure, cynical marketing and commercialization (US consumers, after all, will have bought almost $500 MILLION worth of candy this V-day week). And I know there are thousands of other people who hate February 14th because it highlights the lack of love in their life: they feel especially lonely, unloved, and sad in stark contrast to the messages of love and romance they see all around them.
But, as with all holidays, it’s your choice – you can make Valentine’s Day whatever you want it to be: you can choose not to pay any attention to it at all; you can spend the whole day raging against cruel fate and/or the capitalist machine; or you can declare it a day of special care and lovingkindness to those who mean the most to you (including yourself).
I vote for the third option. I intend to keep using Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to do particularly sweet and thoughtful things; to be just a little more affectionate than usual; to look a little more kindly on my fellow humans; to be especially gentle with and supportive of myself.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
Just got back from an exciting, inspiring, exhausting, fun and thoroughly worthwhile event: the first annual Soundview/Nour Author Summit in Atlanta. For a number of year, I had attended a similar event put on by my friends and colleagues at 800CEOREAD, and when they laid down the torch after last year’s event, and weren’t talk-out-of-it-able, Rebecca Clement and David Nour decided to pick it up and carry it forward.
I learned useful stuff, met great people and laughed a lot. (I also ate an extremely tasty lobster dinner, which added to the overall impression of wonderfulness.)
More than anything, I understood even more deeply about the joy of mastery. I learned yet again that mastery doesn’t mean getting to the point where you’re the expert and you get to tell everybody else how to do stuff.
True mastery means wanting to keep learning, even when you’re good. That is, getting good enough at things to feel proud and happy of what you’ve learned and accomplished – and at the same time feeling hungry to keep going. I’ve become a good writer, a good teacher, a good(ish) marketer of my books and ideas, and I can build connections with lots different kinds of people — and I have so much more to learn in all these areas; so much I want to do better.
True mastery means being able to learn from almost anybody: those who are farther along the path than you, those who are journeying beside you, and those who are just starting out. Some of the things that most inspired me and made me think over the past two days were said by folks who are just writing their first book or just contemplating how to build a practice around their ideas.
True mastery means increasing – rather than diminishing – curiosity. I find myself more and more fascinated by the process of clarifying ideas and sharing them in a way that’s compelling and useful. I found myself listening to many different people, to hear how they do it, and whether that works for them.
True mastery means being willing to start over and over again. I discovered, for instance, how little I understand about using Twitter as a means of community-building, business-building and idea-sharing. I thought I was pretty good with – but no: just scratching the surface. Damn. OK – time to go back to “I don’t know that…how does that work?”
And there is joy in all these things. I have a suspicion that joy arises from freedom. When I let go of thinking I have to be an expert, a grown-up, a teacher, the one-who-knows, and simply share my insight and knowledge as a gift, and then learn more, take in more, from everything and everyone around me – that’s truly joyful.