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Archive | 2005

It’s Good To Get Sick Sometimes

As much as I enjoy the annual visit from Santa, this year he left us a rather unsavory gift – the stomach flu. Fortunately, he was nice about it and left us the kind that has the courtesy to wait until the stroke of midnight on December 26 before inflicting damage. It managed to hit nearly everyone of us (eighteen in number) within a 48 hour period. The only two to escape the bug’s wrath were my daughters who stayed well only because they had had it the week before.

Unlike most of my family, I didn’t spend most of the time in the bathroom throwing up. I was nauseous, but I have the kind of stomach that selfishly wants to keep whatever it has. The real kick in the pants for me was the body aches, particularly in my knees and back. So, it was a welcome relief to feel 85% better the next day. As I was enjoying a cup of early morning coffee (after I slept most of the previous day away, I was more than happy to wake up at 5am), it struck me how appreciative I was to be feeling healthy. It’s like the old song line: “You don’t know what you got until its gone.”

And it’s also a main principle of my personal philosophy: to know one thing, we must know its opposite. It’s the natural yin and yang of our humanity. Too often, though, we only want to know what the sunny side of the hill looks like and deny that there is the darkness of the shaded side. It’s natural to want to avoid pain, sorrow, even our inclinations toward our less noble qualities. But does this truly honor ourselves? Does this avoidance lead to a better life?

I think back to those moments in my own life which are painful: getting the emotional crap kicked out of me in high school, getting rejected by a job which I thought I had “in the bag,” suffering a debilitating anxiety attack at a relative’s wedding. Would I want to relive any of these moments? I’d be a liar if I said I would. Yet, each one has offered me an opportunity to experience my own humanity and to better recognize love, joy, and success. Sometimes bad things happen to good people so they can be better people.

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The Power Of Our Common Bonds

Tammy Lenski writes about her most recent experience as a volunteer for the Best Friends Animal Society and their efforts in the Hurricane Katrina area. The temporary sanctuary/triage unit/field hospital/reunification center just north of the Louisiana border in Tylertown, Mississippi has attracted volunteers throughout the country. In a battered place with far from optimal conditions, one might expect to see all kinds of conflict. She noted that none was to be found. In Tammy’s reflection for why this was, she writes:

It’s the power of feeling passionately about why we were there. The power of believing, first and foremost, that our mission was to help these animals, and understanding implicitly that having our own way or convincing someone else that we’re right or the righteousness of feeling tread upon were all less important than keeping these animals alive, helping them heal, and helping them find home again.

And later:

It’s surprisingly easy to set differences aside when we’re focused on what brings us together.

Sometimes it amazes me what petty and minor strife we allow into our relationships. We let the most foolish of things drive wedges between us and our loved ones. We cling to our few competing differences like there’s no tomorrow and forsake the many heartful similarities that bind our hopes and dreams.

None of this is to say that I’m without my own problems on this issue. I have my own family squabbles friendly flare-ups to contend with. Yet, there’s something in Tammy’s post that has nudged me toward a deeper reflection. I find myself asking why its so much easier to get attached to our differences of opinion rather than the similarities.

Whatever the answers, I honestly believe the power and spirit lies in those common bonds that bring us together.

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Dumping The “When…Then” Excuse

I’ve written before about my recovery from perfectionism. One of the related habits that I’ve been able to at least consciously notice, if not kick outright, is the urge to put something on hold until all the conditions are just right. I wouldn’t quite label the action as procrastination, but the behavior has an easy to recognize verbal structure: "when…then."

You may have heard some else say it; an employee, a boss, a spouse. Perhaps it was part of your own inner dialogue. It might have sounded something like…

"When my boss starts to listen to me, then I’ll be able to do my job."
"When I improve my presentation skills, then I’ll submit a speaking proposal."
"When I get that promotion, then I’ll be able to negotiate for more time to spend with my kids."

This kind of thinking not only plays into the obvious futility of our own desire for perfection and control, but masks an even more insidious problem which is a need to play the helpless victim. It’s an excuse to live a halfway life, one that banks on the illusions of safety and comfort. It’s the supposed promise of something better just around the corner.

Instead of believing that the answer to what we want is out there and in someone else hands, this is an invitation to seek answers from within. It’s an invitation to ask ourselves, "why not now?" It’s an invitation to live a whole life with no regrets.

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Lost Is Just A State Of Mind

Yesterday afternoon, I flew into Manchester, NH and rented a car to drive down to Nashua where I’m spending the night. I had my Google-mapped trajectory all laid out, but shortly after leaving the rental car lot I must have made a wrong turn somewhere. This became clear when the two lane road started winding through some truly beautiful country beside the Merrimack River.

There are some folks who would freak out if they discovered they were lost in a strange place. I’ve never felt that way. Honestly, I’ve been known to seek out occasions to get lost and see if I can find my way out (oh, and by the way, I’m a typical guy when it comes to asking for directions – I don’t). This instance was no different. While there were no distinguishable road signs cluing me in on where I was going, I knew I was heading south toward Nashua.

Along the way, I started to ponder what lost really is. Sometimes we talk about what it is to be lost, but is it actually a state of being? Or rather, is it a state of mind? We may not always know where we are and we may not always know exactly where we’re going. And yet, whether we determine that we’re lost is in our own minds. It just might be that where we are and where we’re going will lead us to where we need to go. It’s opening ourselves up to the universe and a greater power to guide us. And along the way, we might see some really neat scenery or discover a cool little roadside vegetable stand. As J.R.R. Tolkien writes, "Not all those who wander are lost."

Consider chucking the maps and the GPS once in a while. Put away those books written by the various gurus and experts. What would happen if you developed a more intimate relationship with your own intuition and instincts? It just might be that you know exactly where you are and the place you’re heading…if only we’ll ask ourselves for direction.

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Exploring Our Unapproachable Rooms

Canadians are, sadly, trying to hard to emulate their counterparts south of the border when it comes to how they relate to their jobs. Nothing terribly surprising here, but still it all points to some damaging trends.

Benjamin Hunnicutt, a historian and professor at the University of Iowa, argues leisure time has become “trivialized” while work has been “elevated to the modern religion,” a way for people to define themselves and find meaning in their lives. As a result, he says, time off can lead to a feeling of emptiness and boredom.

There is nothing wrong with including our work in the fullness of who we are. It’s all a part of an integrated livelihood. But when we allow ourselves to be consumed and allow one aspect of our lives to dominate, it can lead to the kind of hollowness that erodes the soul.

The aspect of the article I found most worrisome was the constant theme of FEAR. Unfortunately, it’s corroborated by my actual experience and observations. There are opportunities for change and growth, though. The point is that each of us are always at places for exercising choice. Once we understand that we have choices in how we live our full lives, the fear subsides.

This fear of loss…most notably, it’s the fear of losing our jobs, losing respect, losing our place on the career ladder. Our ambition can be a hungry ghost at best or a cruel master at its worst. This fear of loss is usually a room in our minds that we never visit. When we have an opportunity to walk down the hallway by the room, we usually run past never to even touch the doorknob. Why? We have no idea what will happen when we open the door. Will it be dark and horrifying? Will we get lost?

Our challenge: In our minds are many rooms that remain unexplored. What would happen if we just opened the door? What would happen if we take a step inside? What’s the worst that could possibly happen? Better yet, how might our lives be improved by taking the chance of inhabiting our darkest places for a little while? Once we choose not to fear those places, we cannot get lost.

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Fight Or Flight: When Do You Stop Running?

David Batstone writes for Worthwhile Magazine and produces an e-newsletter called The WAG, Worthwhile and Gain. In an August issue of WAG, David plucked a particularly relevant story out of Fortune Magazine. It was the experience of A.G. Lafley, the Chairman and CEO of Proctor & Gamble, who nearly left P&G twenty years ago. There are days when some of the typical work BS becomes annoying and I think of chucking it for another organization. Then, I consider Lafley’s experience and think again:

I almost left P&G in my sixth year. It was 1982, and I decided to go to one of those boutique consulting firms in Connecticut. I was getting out of P&G because I thought the bureaucracy was so stifling…I was an associate – between a brand manager and a marketing director – and I was running a bunch of laundry brands. Steve Donovan was in charge of the soap business, and I handed him my resignation.

He tore it up. I said to him, ‘I made a copy.’ He said, ‘Go home. Call me tonight.’ Which was smart, not to negotiate with me right there. When I called him that night, he said, ‘Don’t come into the office for the next week. Come and see me every night.’ So every night, I went to his home, and we’d have a beer or two. He kept working me over until he got to the root of my problem with P&G…He said, ‘You’re running away. You don’t have the guts to stay and change it. You’ll run from your next job too.’

That really ticked me off. I stayed. And from then on, every time something didn’t work, I spoke up. I realized that you can make a difference if you speak up and set your mind to changing things.

I think it’s a natural instinct to want to run from trouble. The only question is whether we have the ‘guts’ to stay and change it.

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The Importance Of A Liberal Arts Education

One of my pet passions is helping liberal arts college students integrate the full college experience and build a solid portfolio for the upcoming world of work. The reason for this passion is that I wish someone had helped me do this throughout my collegiate days. I was a history major and approached my choice with love and fascination, but also with a certain anxiety as to what in the hell I would do with it once I stepped on the other side of graduation. Work in a museum? Go to grad school? What does a wandering historian do?

And that was part of the problem…I felt like since I was trained for being a historian, that was what I was. I internalized my subject as a part of my identity. Perhaps folks like advisors and professors did make it clear that I was actually being taught valuable skills to take to potential employers (It’s equally possible that they were trapped in a familiar academic mindset that the purpose of college is to study for its own sake). If they did, it didn’t quite penetrate my thick early-twentysomething skull.

Where’s all of this coming from? This morning, as I was perusing the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s website looking for the latest Steelers news, I ran across this article on how some of this year’s college grads are still struggling to find their first job. It’s a well-constructed and thoughtful article on the seemingly conflicting purpose of liberal arts schools: should they teach their students toward a future job or should they teach toward intellectual growth. As with anything complex and paradoxical, I think both notions are right. Jim Fitch, Associate Director of the office of career services at Allegheny College, mentions this inherent tension when he says:

The faculty would tend to encourage students to study for the sake of studying. That’s what the liberal arts tradition is all about. But we help the students take that learning and build some cognitive hooks.

Where I think most liberal arts colleges fall down is not in helping their students realize they have marketable skills and experiences. For the most part, I think there is a growing emphasis on how those ways of thinking about history can benefit employers now. Where liberal arts colleges need to pick up the pace is in helping their students build those “cognitive hooks.” Or in other words, help students better market themselves…give them the tools to help a prospective employer connect the dots between studying Russian literature and writing copy for magazine ads. The fact is that employers are eager to hire liberal arts students simply because they are well-rounded individuals who are prepared to think. Jeff Martineau, Director of Higher Education at the American Academy for Liberal Education, argues:

A general education is useful for students because it allows them to step into any profession and succeed, which is important in a shrinking marketplace. This is especially true in a job market where today’s college graduates will have four to five careers. To make those transitions across fields does not require a specialist. It requires people who can adapt.

In a service or creative economy, I think the pendulum is swinging toward those folks who can think, process diverse information, and generate insights. Sounds like liberal arts colleges are just the place for tomorrow’s best and brightest. We just need to help grads connect the dots.

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What’s Your Ministry?

I’m doing some reorganizing in my home office and I found a stack of Fast Company magazines. I started looking through them and and discovered that I read only the first half of the May issue. Toward the end of the issue is an article called God and Mammon at Harvard and discusses how the Divinity School is producing some top level business leaders.

What struck me was the story of Tom Chappell, CEO of Tom’s of Maine, and his soulful path:

[Chappell] had come to the divinity school at age 43, after an aggressive growth period in his company that had left him emotionally and spiritually drained. The business was thriving, but he was finding more emptiness than fulfillment in success, he says. Many entrepreneurs would argue that when you reach that point, it’s time to flip the business, buy a sailboat, and travel the world. But Chappell was haunted by a comment from his pastor’s wife: “What makes you think Tom’s of Maine isn’t your ministry?” she asked.

We can read ministry in any number of ways (personally, I don’t think the ministry has to be religious), but I think Chappell was being challenged to reconsider and transform himself and his purpose. I thought about that line a lot today. Some interesting and perplexing issues surfaced at work today that might have caused me to feel discontented and disillusioned with my job role. And yet, I was equally haunted by the notion that my work in my current organization is my own ministry. I believe that my work is to encourage a joy-full attitude, cultivate a positive organizational culture, inspire new leadership qualities in my colleagues, and strengthen the organization so that it can achieve its core mission.

Do you have a ministry?

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Watch Your Language

We all know what language we can and can’t use in civilized society. For instance, most of us know that it’s unacceptable to pepper our department reports with profanities at the staff meeting and to tell an unforgiving or pushy customer to go #$&@! themselves when they get abusive. It’s generally recognized that it’s simply not how things are done in business. Yet, this language is relatively mild compared to other words that we tend to use loosely and without thought on a daily basis.

So while George Carlin has his infamous seven dirty words, Bill Werst at Growth Associates has his ten dirty words that interfere with successful communication, motivation, and personal success:

  1. TRY
  2. CAN’T
  3. IF
  4. FAIR
  5. THEY
  6. WHY
  7. SHOULD (OUGHT)
  8. UNDERSTAND
  9. BUT (HOWEVER)
  10. RIGHT

Not so dirty, but we do tend to use them innocently enough in our daily communication. Bill offers more detailed explanations for each word and its misuse and then some more powerful alternatives.

Anyone who knows me quickly learns that I have a major problem with #9 – But (However). Nothing peeves me more than having someone tell me how interesting, resourceful, fantastic, etc. an idea is only to completely negate everything with a BUT. The problem is that we’re taught to start criticism with a positive before we get into errors or other stuff that really should have been done (which is #7 on the list – see, these words can be compounded for maximum ineffectiveness).

This week, watch your language. Just as you won’t tell an employee that they really f’ed up this time, don’t tell them that they should be a more responsible worker. And help your staff mind their words as well. It could be the difference between okay customer service and WOW-inspiring customer service.

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The Path To Our Goals Can Be Irregular And Uneven

We had a pretty nasty storm here last evening: hail, high wind, blinding rain, thunder, and  plenty of lightning. While my daughters are not big fans of noisy storms, I love them. I’m one of those dopey people who gets close to the window to watch nature’s light show. This morning, I visited Doug Thompson’s Blue Ridge Muse blog (I guarantee that five minutes at Doug’s blog will make you want to visit this area of the United States) and he had a fantastic picture of the storm as it hit the southern part of Virginia.

It got me wondering about a very elementary question: why does lightning travel in a jagged line rather than a direct line to the ground? I had an idea, but wanted to check it out. A google search took me to a webpage produced by WV Lightning. Using a simple experiment that would work great for teaching children, the explanation is that the bolt takes the path of least resistance to its destination.

The lightning knows where it needs to go. It doesn’t struggle through the small stuff in its way. It doesn’t complain about the twists and turns it needs to take as it moves. It understands its environment completely and works with it. The path to the ground may be irregular and uneven and yet it finds a way to its goal.

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