The Kick

I’ve started swimming again.

To be more accurate, I started a year ago, dipping into the pool because the tendinitis in my right arm was so bad that it hurt to hold a coffee cup, let alone a racquet.

I’d avoided swimming for decades. As a child, for reasons I can’t explain, swimming terrified me. I was the kid who cried before every swimming lesson, tears streaming down my face while I stood waiting to be picked up each summer Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning.

No surprise, then, that 30 years later, despite being physically active, 25 meters of freestyle left me clutching the side of the pool, panting for breath. Something about having my head in the water and needing to breathe to one side brought me back to Beginner Swimming lessons and the dreaded 25 meters of freestyle I had to swim to pass the test.

Nothing like an injury to get me to face my fears. Swimming was the only activity that eased the shooting pain in my injured right arm, relaxing the muscles and stretching out the tendons. That was motivation enough.

Over the course of last summer, I willed myself into the water, swimming 50 meters, then 100, then further. While I did eventually push through to being able to swim a few hundred yards, that old underlying panic still lurked. It was a feeling that at any moment I could devolve into a terrified kid gasping for breath.

(By way of contrast, my wife loves the water. She would describe her Zen-like experience swimming laps, and I’d listen, perplexed. To me, “ease” and swimming mixed like oil and water.)

At the start of this summer, I realized that, despite the progress I made last year, much of my effort and willpower had been taking me in the wrong direction: if I’m trying to work through a fear, then more effort and strain aren’t the right tools to use. This summer, I’ve been trying to figure out where that old panic comes from, and how it’s affecting what I do in the water.

What I’ve recently discovered is that my fear of not being able to breathe is manifesting in every stroke I take. Each stroke, I do a frantic flutter kick and I tense up my whole body in a misguided attempt to lift my full head (and half my torso, it seems) out of the water. That kick, that tensing up, it’s that 30-year-old terror resurfacing to sabotage my stroke and leave me exhausted.

I find it so tempting to muscle my way through these sorts of situations – not just in the water. Wouldn’t it be nice if fear were something we could overpower and wrestle to the ground?

I can’t, directly, beat back the fear, but I can change what I do in the water. I can focus on the behavior that the fear has created – in this case, the kick. So, as I swim laps, I focus on kicking less, on tensing up less, on straining less, and as I change what I’m doing with my body, over time, a bit of ease begins to seep in.

We discover this same pattern so often if we’re willing to look for it. We waste energy on things that feed on the energy we give them: the energy we put into stalling before sitting down to work; the energy we put into maintaining an image of strength and confidence for those around us; the energy we put into protecting someone who can stand on their own two feet; the energy we put into the decades-old stories someone put into our heads that we’ve never let go.

Most of the time, this energy comes from a place of fear or self-preservation. These fears lace themselves through our days and through our relationships. If left unexamined and unaddressed, they exhaust us, draining our mental and physical faculties and insulating us from what our experience could be.

We don’t overcome fear with more effort or by straining more.

We overcome fear by looking back to the source, seeing it clearly and, from a place of calm and clarity, discovering that we can behave differently and that, when we do, those old fears no longer have the power to hold us.

A philanthropy problem

The easiest thing to forget when you are raising funds is this:

Philanthropists have a philanthropy problem

By “philanthropists” I mean people who consistently engage in philanthropy–people for whom philanthropy an important part of what they do and who they are.

Someone who has the means, the values and the practice of being active philanthropically has, by definition, a philanthropy problem. She has a set of things she is trying to make happen in the world through her philanthropy. Her problem is that it is hard to do great philanthropy, it is hard to find great people and great organizations, and it is hard to make change in the world.

Fundraisers and nonprofit professionals forget this. Maybe we find it hard to relate because we don’t feel like we have a philanthropy problem (though that’s an easy issue to address: the more we give philanthropically the more we will get in touch with this feeling.)

But mostly I think it’s a comingling two things: an overall sense of fear and intimidation (of the philanthropist—which neither she nor we want) and our lack of empathy.

The fear is connected to our misplaced sense of worth–that somehow this thing we are doing might not really be “worth it” (in every sense) and, by association, worthy of support–and, as a result, a sense that we’re intruding on the philanthropists life and time.

The lack of empathy is connected to that fear–this time our fear that we will fail in this meeting, which causes us to be centered on our selves and our worries. This chatter overwhelms our clear thinking and our open hearts. So we close our eyes to the experience of the person with whom we are trying to connect, and we lose sight of the fact that we are showing up with a solution to her problem.

Since colorful stories and images are the best way to cement memories in our brains, here’s a too-loud version of this situation from This American Life Episode 319: Cars. It’s not a perfect analogy by any stretch–there’s not a lot of heart opening and genuine connection in the car-buying business–but it shines a light on how easy it is to forget that the person in the “showroom” is there because she is has a problem she’s come there to solve.

The speaker is Sal Lanzilotta, a manager at the Chrysler Town & Country dealership in Long Island. He’s giving his salespeople a pep talk:

Sal Lanzilotta

Customer says they’re not ready to buy a car. They’re all not ready to buy a car. Let’s go over it again. They’re in a car dealership.

They got in their car, drove through hell to get here, looked for a parking spot for 10 minutes, parked, got out of the car, and walked into a car dealer, not because the coffee’s good. We went over this, because the coffee here is not good. They came here because we sell cars, and they want to buy one.

The philanthropist is sitting across from us with a philanthropy problem to solve. We are sitting across from the philanthropist with a solution that makes difference. Why do we act like we have to start with an apology?

When we boil it all down, I wonder if where we keep tripping up is in forgetting that what we have on offer is way more valuable than a car.

When you are stuck

Go slower, to give yourself a breather.

Or go faster, because this will push your focus and intensity.

Just change speeds.

By changing speeds you’ll feel different.  By feeling different you’ll tell yourself a different story.  By telling yourself a different story you’ll discover that it’s the story, not how you feel or what you can actually do, that’s making you feel stuck in the first place.

1 to 100

There’s a perpetual mystique about blogging.  How do you do it?  Where do the ideas come from?  How do you find the time?  How do you keep it up?  The notion underlying the question is that sharing one’s thoughts regularly and publically about issues that matter (to you, and to your tribe) is something most of us don’t know how to do or to sustain.

1 to 100_curious georgeSo here’s some data:  In the last 18 months, I’ve written about 200 blog posts, which sounds pretty respectable.  It’s almost enough content to fill up a book.    By way of comparison, I’ve also written 18,574 emails (so sayeth Outlook – so those are just work emails).  Even as a reasonably frequent blogger, for each blog post I write I shoot out almost 100 emails.

In 18 months, I’ve written down and shared an idea, a thought, an opinion 18,574 times.  18,574 times I’ve had a point to make, and even though most of the time the point is short or simple, I have an enormous amount of daily practice in taking my ideas, writing them down, and sharing them with others whose opinion I hope to shape in some way.   My blogging pales in comparison to this, both in terms of volume and time required.  I’m sure it’s the same for you.

If you don’t want to blog (or micro-blog, or whatever) that’s fine, don’t blog. But don’t tell yourself that you don’t know how to do it, because you do.

And if you’re on the fence, maybe it’s time to stop telling yourself how this is something above or beyond you – because it isn’t – and just start.

A wasted day

Think about it: on a day when you swing for the fences, you might swing and miss.

A miss means a complete miss, a whiff, an air-ball, and all the associated jeering (we think) from the peanut gallery.  Wouldn’t it be embarrassing, and inefficient, to be completely wrong, to put a big idea out there that goes nowhere at all, one that’s just plain wrong?  Wouldn’t it, objectively, be a waste of time to work on something all day long and have it amount to nothing?

We have no time to waste!  Let’s tick through our To Do list, take the meetings that are on our calendars,, chip away at the projects that others have asked us to work on.  We know, at least, that on a day like that we will never have accomplished nothing.  This not only feels safer, it’s also what we were taught to do for a major portion of our lives.  It’s where good grades come from and how we got good reviews at our first and second jobs.

On the other hand, hitting “send” or “publish” on an outlandish, important idea; digging in and doing the work that no one asked you to do; spending time with people who will push your thinking and take your work to the next level…none of that is linear at all.  And so we are faced with our anticipation of the possibility being totally wrong, of our idea missing the mark, of being embarrassed, of discovering that, at least at this moment, we’re not that good at coming up with The Next Big Thing, and, staring that anticipation in the face, we decide to keep on playing small and safe for long enough that soon enough that’s the only thing we do.

The question becomes: which really is the wasted day?  The one where you tried for something big and failed, or the one where you didn’t step to the plate, didn’t take the shot, didn’t put yourself on the line?

Never trying anything can’t be a strategy for getting from here to there.  Nor can waiting until you’re “in charge,” because: 1. You shouldn’t be put in charge until you’ve shown that you can make new things happen; and 2. If you’re put in charge without having learned how to make important things happen, how will you suddenly know how to break away from the task orientation that had served you so well for so long?

Have you ever met with your boss or a peer and had them tell you: “you’re doing great work, but I’m giving you a terrible review because you played it too safe last year?”   Have you ever told that to someone else?

What does it take to get us to start playing big?

Your ‘ask’ is not ‘by the way’

It’s so easy to be terrified by “the ask” that you want to make – whether that’s for advice or a job or to create a partnership or for funding.  It’s as if there’s this sense of shame and embarrassment that you would actually want something to come out of the meeting.


Your meeting has a purpose.  There’s something you are trying to create in the world and some role that you hope the person across the table from you might play in making that creation happen.

Yes, you must explore, you must understand one another….and it’s fabulous to dream together.  There’s no way to properly ask for something before understanding who the other person is, what they are trying to accomplish in the world, and whether the thing you’re hoping to do is something that connects with who they are, where they are in their lives, and their dreams.

But if the moment you come to that thing, that “ask”, if you find that you’re muttering quickly under your breath; or, just as bad, if what you really are hoping will happen comes across as just one in a list of things that you rattle off all too quickly in the last five minutes of the meeting – if that happens you have to ask yourself why you had the meeting in the first place.

A great test: ask yourself afterwards whether there’s a chance, any chance at all, that the person you met with doesn’t actually know the most important thing you were hoping would happen.

And then, think which mistake you’d rather make: getting turned down, or having the person walk out the door not really understanding what you hoped to accomplish in the first place?


A week

It hasn’t been a great winter for running for me.  Between the cold snowy weather, late sunrises and general busyness, I’ve just not gotten out there that often.

That didn’t stop me from deciding, this past weekend, to take my one free daylight hour and head out for a 7 mile, very hilly run in 25°F weather.  Brilliant, I know.  Usually I feel like most of the effort is in just getting out there, and after I start things get easier.  This time, between the cold and the brutal hills (I think there was maybe 1 mile of true flat road on this run), I spent the better part of an entire run talking myself into finishing the run.

Even in that context, one moment stood out.  The last mile of this run is practically straight uphill, and steep, and I was at the base of the steepest part of that incline.  I had psyched myself up by convincing myself that this section of the last hill was short and steep, and the strategy had been working as I trudged along with my head down.  Then, reflexively, I looked up to discover that the hill was about three times as long as I’d pretended it was.

At that moment I had an overwhelming urge to stop.

The interesting part is that being out of breath or feeling a huge burn in my legs didn’t demotivate me, but seeing how far I still had to go did.

And so, switching gears, I wonder: how do we really go about making changes in our lives? (Alternately: why do New Years resolutions fail?).

I’d propose that the thing that holds us back is that “looking up” moment, when you see how big the hill you want to scale is and decide that it’s just too darn big, too hard, too much, so you don’t start.

Despite being a believer in big audacious goals, when it comes to the hard work of personal transformation, I’m most successful when I start small.  If I want to cut out eating sugar, if I want to meditate daily or be more generous or ignore my inbox for an hour a day or give myself more whitespace for reflection, I’d much rather set myself a clear one-week goal and start on it today.

You can do anything for a week, easily.  And by committing to just a week, you don’t have to engage in the meaningless anticipation of what this undertaking will mean for you – because, let’s be honest, until you do it (whatever IT is) you really don’t know what IT feels like.  The powerful part is that a week is long enough to start getting used to a new habit: it’s long enough to change how salty your think food should taste (try it, it’s true).  It’s long enough to discover whether mornings or evenings work better for you for _______ [YOUR NEW ACTIVITY]; long enough to discover why, really, it’s hard not to check your smartphone right when you wake up or right when you go to bed or every time you step into an elevator.

Just one week.

Don’t allow the sight of the big hill keep you from starting to run.  Give it a week, start today, and see how you actually feel when you behave differently.  Then decide how big this is going to be for you.