The nod

Earlier this year, I had a chance to give one of the biggest, highest-pressure talks of my life. Going in, I was nervous, but overall I felt pretty good about it. The topic was interesting, the narrative arc of the story compelling, and I felt like I’d done enough “big talks” to be ready for this one.

Because this talk was filmed, there was a formal dress rehearsal for all of the speakers a few hours before we went on stage. This was a chance to iron out any bumps in the talks, get a final bit of feedback from the event organizers, and make sure that the talk took less than the allotted 10 minutes.

As I sat listening to the other speakers rehearse, I was reminded of my time as a high school wrestler, when I’d always be a bundle of nerves on the sidelines before the match. In a wrestling meet, the matches progress by weight class. I remember watching each of my teammates finish their matches and walk off the mat, and how I’d feel a huge pang of envy that they’d gotten it over with and my turn was yet to come.

The first speaker nailed her talk. So did the second one. On and on….Deep breath.

Finally I was up. I started, and though I made a few wrong turns and hit a couple of dead ends, it seemed like the talk was going fine. Then, two-thirds of the way in, one of the staff from the event team raised a sign saying I was out of time. My 10 minutes were up. I mumbled my way through the last few minutes, and walked off in a cold sweat.

What a moment to discover that timing myself reading the talk and timing myself actually speaking were two different things. It turns out that I speak about a third slower than I read. Great.

I had exactly 120 minutes to cut one third of my talk and re-learn the shortened version. In those two hours, it was as if that quiet voice in the back of my head, the insidious one that whispers “you are going to fail!” suddenly had a microphone and it was drowning out any clear thinking or sense that I could pull this off.

Thankfully, I had help. Friends and colleagues rushed to my side to sift through what should stay and what should go, and, after pacing and sweating and delivering my rewritten talk as many times as I could to an empty room, I stood in front of the audience and in front of the cameras to give the new talk.

That’s when I received a gift.

All the other speakers – the people who hadn’t made the mistake I had, the ones I was secretly jealous of – were in the audience in the front row. And as I looked out to them just before the cameras started rolling, they were a collective source of positive energy. As I started to speak, many of their faces lit up – they smiled, they nodded, they affirmed. This group that had seen me fail just two hours ago had clearly decided that they wanted to help me succeed. And so they morphed into a band of new friends who, with every nod and smile, rooted me on and communicated that I could do it.

It’s so easy to focus on the guy or gal at the front of the room, sweating under the lights. This is why it’s so easy to forget the real gifts we can deliver from any seat.

The opportunities to lead, to support, to encourage, to reinforce, and, yes, to cheer on – even with something as simple as a smile and a nod – those opportunities are everywhere, and they are (and we are) much more capable than we realize to help others shine.

(HT: Shooting an Elephant)

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“They Just Don’t Get It”

What do you do when the values, the culture, or the (new and improved!) strategy of your organization aren’t translating into the behaviors you’d like to see? What steps do you take when the shifts in thinking and action that you worked so hard to develop aren’t visible in how people show up every day?

Often, when a message isn’t resulting in visible change, it’s tempting to rewrite or to double underline the message. A diagnosis of a communications failure means that it’s time to communicate more and better – to shout more loudly clearly until the message lands.

But what if something else is going on?

There’s a theory that each and every organization is perfectly aligned to deliver exactly the results that it wants to deliver. Not the results (and accordant behaviors) it says it wants, but the results it actually wants.

Under this view, it’s not that people aren’t hearing the message. Rather, they are attuned to multiple messages on multiple levels, and the messages that are landing the most are the ones that are 100% aligned with the way they’re behaving today.

If this is what’s happening, then shouting louder accomplishes nothing. Indeed, it could feed a credibility gap if you insist you want a set of thing but your day-to-day actions, policies, or language express something else.

The bigger lift is to look in the mirror and ask if the new message is true:

Where do we talk about a set of values but fall short of demonstrating them?

Where do we espouse that we want to see a set of behaviors and then fail to support the people who try to demonstrate them?

Where do we come up short in living the message?

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Attention and Intention

I first began practicing yoga regularly in 1999, and for much of my first few years of practice, I took more classes from Rolf Gates than from anyone else.

Rolf doesn’t cut the familiar profile of a yoga teacher: he’s an ex-Army Ranger, marathoner and wrestler who is built like an NFL running back, one for whom physical hardship is something to chuckle at. When I’d be straining 30 minutes into a class and Rolf would smile and bellow, “We have miles to go before we rest!” I’d know that Rolf had been there and done that, and I’d remind myself to toughen up a bit.

But although the physical toughness was what you’d first see when you met Rolf, he taught a deeply reflective and introspective class. The son of six generations of ministers, Rolf followed his time in the Army with a stint as a social worker and a substance abuse counselor. All of this came together in a yoga class that might have seemed to be about sweating like crazy and the serenity that followed, but really was about wisdom and perspective. Regulars at his class used to call it “the church of Rolf.”

Rolf and I both left Boston years ago, and I miss his class, so I’m thankful that I can now take his class virtually, online.

I took one of these classes the other day, and I noticed that, as Rolf has continued to grow and deepen as a teacher, his wisdom has become both simpler and more profound. I experience Rolf as a student of life, someone who is winnowing down what he is learning, finding his way to the essence of his truth.

In the class that I took, the mantra Rolf kept repeating was, “As you breathe, know that you are breathing.”

Indeed.

This phrase stuck with me the next morning as I made my way to the train on my  commute – walking too fast as I quickly checked the weather on my phone, rushing and distracted. And then I looked up, saw the blue sky, the bright white clouds and the swaying trees, and thought, “When I walk, shouldn’t I know that I am walking?” Of course I should.

This is about attention and intention.

Attention is the choice to focus my energies on the action I’m engaged in. If I’m walking to the train, I can bring my attention to that action, and experience the world more fully. This gives the space to allow what I’m doing penetrate my mind and my body.

Intention both precedes and follows attention. I can use my intention as the source of the actions that I take. And intention can follow attention since the act of reflection can give rise to a new set of intentions in a powerful set of connecting loops: I set a purpose in a given moment, and, when I am fully present in that moment, I can let that experience guide my next intention – a loop that is both deliberate and open.

What I’m realizing is that I’ve come to the point in my life where I’ve got no more time to squeeze out of my days. There are no big breakthroughs in efficiency on the horizon. If that’s the case – if I’m not going to uncover any more time – then the only leverage left to me is around how I spend that time. Sure, I may still be able to shift how I spend a few hours here and there, but the big remaining shift, one that I’m sure will take a lifetime to unfold, is around the quality of attention and intention I bring to each and every moment.

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Listening with intent to change

I’ve written before about “listening,” which I think of as one of the most important and under-appreciated skills out there.

The learning journey that we are on requires us to truly hear what those around us have to say and to deeply integrate that perspective into who we are and what we do – all while maintaining a strong sense of our own values, grounding and perspective.

But the word “listening” isn’t always imbued with much meaning. Often “she’s a great listener” is meant to imply “she’s caring, attentive, and will be a good shoulder to cry on.”

Listening is much much more than that: it’s an attitude, a mindset, a skill to be cultivated.

Recently, Pat Tierney, an Acumen advisor and a former U.S. Army Colonel, told me about his desire to “listen with intent to change.” I love that. Bringing together “listening” with a specific intent conveys how active, engaged, and ready to act a great listener has to be. A great listener is not a passive receptacle, conveying attentiveness and caring.

Yes, we have to care, but not (just) to convey empathy or support. We care because what is being said matters deeply to us. We care because we enter each conversation with a sincere openness to new ideas. We care because we have a real desire not to reinforce what we brought into the conversation but instead to have our point of view altered by what we are hearing.

As Steven Covey reminds us, so often, when someone else is speaking, we are “listening with the intent to reply,” using the passing seconds to formulate what we’ll say next instead of tuning in to the present moment and to what is being shared with us.

To truly listen required us to begin at the beginning: to listen with intent to change.

And then we must do much more. We must convey, with both verbal and nonverbal cues, that we are present and that we care. We must actually be open-minded, entering each conversation with strong ideas, loosely held. We must, through all of our actions – including what we say and how we say it – set our counterpart at ease, so their truth can unfold.

And, ultimately, we must let new ideas to penetrate us, so that we can translate our intent to change into the slow but inexorable process of long-term personal transformation.

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Resolutions and Priorities

I don’t make a lot of New Year’s resolutions. I feel like once a year is too infrequent to reset my goals, and I also believe that change comes because we build the muscle of making small shifts that snowball into bigger results.

That said, with a whole year stretching before us, and with a little time away to get away from work and to reflect, we do have a nice opportunity to think about what we’d like 2016 to hold for us.

My suggestion for any resolutions you’ve made, or the ones you’re still cooking up? Go deeper.

Meaning, resolutions are often articulated as activities (“Go to the gym more”) instead of at the level of priorities. This is why we don’t keep them: because the way we’re currently behaving is perfectly aligned with our current (unstated, underexamined) priorities.

While it is possible to behave our way into new priorities, we’ll succeed more often when we take the time to dig deep into what our current priorities – and their associated beliefs and attitudes – really are.

As in:

Is it really impossible for me to find two free hours a day for sustained work on difficult problems, or am I just unwilling to take the short term pain of saying “no” to two more meetings each day?

Do I truly care about creating value in our current system, or would I rather communicate through my actions everything that’s wrong with the status quo? (output be damned)

Do I really need 15 minutes every hour to “unwind” with online nonsense, or is that just a way for me to hide?

What do I care more about, sleep or exercise?

What matters most to me, avoiding disapproval from everyone or making something that changes everything for just 10 people?

What are the moments, the people, the activities in my day that make me feel energized, connected, and happy? Who is stopping me from spending more of my time in these situations?

Here’s to a year of examined priorities, of courage, of great leaps. Here’s to a year of embracing who we are and a year of having the conviction and commitment to start becoming who we can become.

Here’s to a great 2016.

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New isn’t all new

It’s so easy to be held back by “it’s not new enough.”

As in:

I can’t write this blog post (or this book), someone else has already said this.

I can’t claim that this idea is important, because someone else was doing something that looked a little bit like this before I was.

I can’t share my excitement about how we are tackling this problem, because parts of our approach have been tried before.

“New” doesn’t mean brand new, completely new, all new. That’s not how it works. What makes something new isn’t a set of component parts that has never been seen before. It’s the way you put those parts together in new ways, or the way you apply those parts in new domains.

By way of example, Gutenberg’s printing press, “invented” in 1439, was, technically, nothing new. Movable type had existed in China since 1051. Ink and paper-making had existed for thousands of years. Paper mills became common in Europe in the 1300s as did woodcut printing presses.

But no one had put them together in just the way Gutenberg did, and when he assembled and spread his unique combination of existing parts, he revolutionized the spread of ideas in the Western world and began the democratization of information that is still happening today.

(also: how Star Wars is practically a paint-by-numbers manifestation of the 19 steps of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, on purpose)

Don’t let your fear of “this isn’t all new” keep you from creating new things or from sharing what you feel is important about the new work that you’re doing. And don’t let the voices – both inside and outside your head – of “this has been done before” keep you from doing that next important thing or from sharing what is groundbreaking about the work you are doing.

“New” – here, now, for this thing, in this way – is new enough.

And “new,” ultimately, is about how we understand and frame a problem, and how we think about the ways we can go about solving it. If your “new” changes that, then it’s changed everything.

 

(for more along these lines, I highly recommend Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson)

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Getting through the troughs

I was talking to a nonprofit Executive Director last week about fundraising. We spent most of our time unpacking the heart of every fundraising meeting: the energy you bring into the room.

It’s not just important, it is everything. No matter the words you say, if you say them without the other person being able to feel them then the meeting has already failed.

But what do you do if you’ve had a bad run and you’re not feeling the mojo? Maybe it’s been a tough month or quarter and you can’t seem to put a smile on your face and “stay positive?”

My take is: don’t try to fake it.

Of course you have to be professional, and fundamentally you have to retain your long-term optimism and your deep belief that you’ll get big things done—if you don’t believe in you, no one will. But overly polishing and buffing your delivery will fail most of the time.

Inauthenticity is like a single poisonous drop that contaminates the entire cup of water. Rather than slap on a can-do attitude, bring your truth in that moment into the room. Be willing to lay it bare.

If things are hard, if you are feeling frustrated, if you don’t know how you’re going to storm the next hill, don’t complain, but don’t hide that away. Show faith and trust in the person you’re speaking with; have the confidence to share the real.

Sharing this truth might help you discover what’s really going on, and it will certainly communicate that you need actual help and that this meeting isn’t just another meeting. That’s an honest ask for support that, at a minimum, will be met with humanity and, in most cases, action.

People are craving this sort of connection, and they are more likely to help if they understand that they can, actually, help. Seeing your willingness to be authentic lets them understand the kind of partner you’ll be to them in the long haul—especially when the chips are down.

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