Those closest to us

Our friends, allies, the people who care, they are the ones who are most likely to say the little things that we need to hear. Especially the things we don’t always want to hear.

Yes, we all crave more pats on the back, but as long as people are speaking up and telling us what’s not working for them, it means they still care and they’re still paying attention.

The dangerous thing is when we speak and we hear nothing back. Crickets.

What we need to avoid isn’t criticism, it’s the deafening silence of apathy.

Why isn’t this working?

…asks the helpful critic.

Why has this project lost its mojo?

Why aren’t we wowing our customers?

Why do we keep missing our deadlines?

Why hasn’t the tough decision been taken?

Why aren’t we getting to the heart of the issue?

Good to raise the question. Much better, though, to realize that every single one of these questions offers an opportunity for leadership with a big and small “L.”

Leadership is not about authority or seniority or permission. It is about stepping up, taking the risk that others won’t, taking a point of view, putting yourself on the line.  It’s about saying the things you wish someone else (your boss, your colleague, the young new member of your team) would say.  It’s about grabbing the agenda, or ending the meeting early, or even walking with a new sense of purpose.  It’s about changing something in your own behavior in a way that shifts the structures and the attitudes of everyone around you.

We know you’re smart enough to ask the tough questions. What we need more of is the courage to lead.

Maybe the dragon isn’t the problem

I just walked past a smiling blind woman – blond, straight hair, in her 30s and dressed for spring – walking down a crowded 5th Avenue street in rush hour. She and her golden lab guide dog were perfectly synchronized, and she was the picture of calm, serene confidence amidst the crush of people and traffic.

I wonder what it took for her to be able to do this – not just learning to walk with, communicate with, and trust her dog, but the courage and determination she’s showed at countless junctures in her life to get where she is today.

The thing about accomplishing great things is that it requires consistently making the decision to be brave, to show up, to overcome your own doubts and fears and the voices in your head. That fear is the dragon you have to slay each and every day.

The tricky part is that the dragon has allies. It needs them, because it knows that when you step into the arena, ready for pitched battle, it’s not hard for you to rev up your adrenaline, strap on your shield, and wield your sword for the big fight. The dragon fears that.

What is hard, though, is getting out of bed every morning to prepare for the fight. Here’s where the dragon’s secret allies come out: smiling cherubs with pointy horns hidden in their hair, cajoling you, teasing you, luring you into a stupor. “Do you really want to fight today?” “Think how dirty you’ll get, how tiring it will be.” “Things are fine the way they are now.” “Is it really worth it to put yourself out there?” “Stop rocking the boat.”

You ignore them, most days, but their chorus is seductive. If you let them, over time – months, even years – they douse the fire in your belly.

We can’t let that happen.

For those of you showing up in the arena every day, I offer you the choice to plug your ears to their Siren song.

And for those of you not yet showing up to fight, I implore you, at the least, to silence the peanut gallery commentary that saps others’ bravery and courage. If today isn’t your day to step into the arena, the amazing, powerful thing you can do is to seek out others’ moments of bravery, of insight, of courage, of grit and determination and moxie, and celebrate them.

If you see a flickering flame, protect it from the wind, add kindling to the fire until, eventually, it roars.

Because none of us actually believes that what we need in the world is less courage (or more pointy-headed cherubs).

Two runs

I just got back from vacation, which, when I’m not running after our three little kids, affords some time to exercise regularly.  I’m still running with my “barefoot” Vibram shoes (which I love, and which are the reason I’m back running after a 10 year hiatus), though infrequently enough that doing three runs in a week felt like a major milestone.

Trying to overcome my natural tendency to overdo it, my first two runs were identical and not too strenuous: 3.5 miles first thing in the morning on very flat terrain.

But of course the runs weren’t identical.

The first run was a first run after a few weeks off.  I felt sluggish, plodding.  For the first mile I was running into what felt like 15 mph headwinds, listening to a beautiful late Schubert piano Sonata which is great for inspiration but doesn’t seem to get the legs churning.  On the last mile of the run a new blister started burning and I slowed down a lot.  It was, overall, the kind of run you’re glad you did once it’s done.

Two days later, things felt totally different.  I felt light, felt like I was moving, I was listening to a “running mix” that always gets me moving faster.  I kept on picking up the pace through the whole run.  It felt great.

Thanks to the wonders of a new iPhone app called Strava, I was able to see how different the two runs really were.  The first one took 27:57 (an 8:08 minute mile).  The second took 26:41 (a 7:46 mile).

Yup, the difference between plodding / struggling /limping to the finish and “flying” was a minute and 13 seconds.

Sure, this could be a reflection of me as a runner, but it’s also about the stories we tell ourselves.

Our highs and lows aren’t so different from each other: we’re not as great as we think we are on our great days, nor nearly as terrible as we feel like we are on the bad days.  But the difference between showing up and staying home?  That one is monumental.

Showing up, fully, and giving full effort is what counts.

And going a lot easier on yourself on the days that feel like the bad ones.

Critics’ critiques and cheerleaders’ cheers

There was a guy I went to school with who earned the (affectionate) nickname “Yes, but…”

In any discussion, whether of microeconomic models or where to go for lunch, he started most sentneces with a nod to the contradiction, the course correction, the “on the other hand” point of view he was about to espouse.

In fact most humanities academia is built on the “Yes, but” philosophy – a peer writes a paper, the academic finds a small flaw or oversight and writes a follow-up article exposing that small miss…and in so doing gets her next piece of work published (which is the main milestone in academia).

No surprise, then, that the “yes, but” mindset passes for “critical thinking” which, in turn, is raised to the highest pedistal in our instituitons of higher learning.  “Yes, but…” comments score points with teachers (“great analysis, kid!”) and are the safest form of one-upmanship.

I used to be a terrible offender.  From a good and honest place, and a heartfelt desire to come up with the best solutions, I was most comfortable and most in the habit of finding the logical flaws and asking the tough questions.

I have a colleague who does the opposite, and from whom I’ve learned a lot.  She has an uncanny ability to find what is best, what is most inspiring, what is unique about what someone has said or done, and she shines a light on it with a smile and with no apologies.

When you’re blazing a new path, you’re constantly dogged by critics’ critiques of all the reasons that this won’t work, why it’s been done before and it crashed and burned, why it would be better if you just did it the way everyone else does.  And, of course, sometimes they’ll be right, but usually not.  They’re doing the easy thing: playing the clever, detached critic.

Much harder, and less celebrated, is to be a cheerleader who applauds victories, however small; who props people up when fatigue sets in, when the road seems to long, or when they have, just for a second, lost the will to go even one step further.   In work as in life, when times are really tough, those voices of support are priceless, especially from cheerleaders who help you break through barriers, who lean in with you, who are fully invested in YOUR success – rather than taking pot shots from the sidelines.

The weathermen are always wrong

They’re not, actually.*  For most days when no one is paying attention they’re usually right.

The thing is, we only pay attention when the stakes are high (“BIG STORM COMING!!” or when we’re planning for a vacation) and then when the forecast is wrong we remember that, hang on to it, and share stories about that day we prepped for the storm, canceled a meeting, stayed home from work…and the storm didn’t come.

Sure, sensationalist weathermen competing for viewer eyeballs play into this, so it’s fun to have them be the scapegoats.  But that’s not the point. The point is that people may talk louder about your failures than they do about your successes; or, worse, the naysayers speak up first and loudest, just when you’re getting going.  That’s the risk in showing up every day and putting yourself out there.

Don’t let the fact that the critics talk  – sometimes loudly – become an excuse for you not to show up in the first place.

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*NOTE:  here’s the chart (original analysis here) on the accuracy of weather forecasts.  If forecasts were 100% accurate, the solid blue line would lie directly on top of the dashed line.  Pretty accurate, actually.