Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Rewiring the Brain: A Moving Experience

First let me state that I'm no brain scientist. Yep, that's clear. Yet I'm fascinated with the recent focus in brain theory on the neuroplasticity of the brain. Apparently what scientists have discovered is that even into our old age, we can rewire the brain. We can keep learning. The challenge (of course there is a challenge) is that it's not easy. Recently I've discovered a way to keep my brain fresh, to learn new things and to challenge myself. I'm moving.

After 15 years living of in our first home we are moving to a new home. Aside from the emotional attachment to this house and all of the memories it holds, I realized that now I have to think. Because when you've lived in a space for 15 years or more everything becomes a habit and you don't have to think about it. Up until a few days ago I could walk through this house blindfolded and not hit a thing. I knew every nook and cranny, where things were on dresser tops, or where things hung in closets. But now that we've moved some of the furniture out, boxed up some of the items and brought at least half my wardrobe to the new house, I can't run on habit any more.

So what does this have to do with brain science? The enemy of neuroplasticity as I see it are habits. Habits are ingrained ways of thinking and acting that create a neurological pathway in the brain and eventually become "neuro-cement" making other neuro-pathways more difficult. For example, once the neuro-pathways for language are embedded in our brain it is much easier for the brain to default to our "first" language than to struggle with a second or third (that's why my Spanish is so bad). The other challenge is that habits also have the positive effect of making everything simpler and more efficient. When I don't have to think about where my tie is, or where the best Chinese food is then I can use my brain for other things. But we can allow our habits to become so ingrained that it becomes more and more difficult for our brain to be flexible.

Moving forces the brain to think and rewire. As we move things into the new house I'm rethinking my habits. How will I get coffee in the morning? Where will I write? How will our routines change as a result of living in a three-story house? All of these questions and more challenge my brain to rewrite scripts that I've ignored over the past 15 years. Even the neighborhood and surrounding city is different so I have to think about where to get food and what areas might not be as safe as others.

Rewiring the brain is not easy. The brain likes to default to the most well-used neuro-pathway. However when you want to change a habit or learn something new I'm finding that there is no better way than to give the brain no choice. I can't live in the new house the way I've lived here, so my brain has to change. So, perhaps you don't have to move, but if you want to develop or learn something new try giving yourself no choice. The brain will adapt faster than you think.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Not-So Secret Tips of Accomplishing Tasks

There are things that need to get done in life and we admire those who accomplish them. The strategies they use are not secret, but there is good research as to why they work. Here are a few tips I've learned from the best.

1. Clarify your goal. The best "doers" I've met set crystal clear goals for the time they have so they know exactly what they want to get done. The clearer you are with your goals, the more you will accomplish.

2. Set a meeting with yourself. If you really need to accomplish a task, set aside some time to do that. And then, just as if you would in a meeting, turn off your handheld device and your emails. Research indicates that when you are working intently on something, a call or an email can distract your level of intensity for up to 15 minutes.

3. Work in 90 minute increments. The brain can only focus intently for about 90 minutes at a time. After that, with all the discipline in the world, you will find yourself distracted. Try working intently on something for 90 minutes, do something else for about 5 minutes and then go back to the more serious work. You will accomplish much more.

4. Focus on one thing at a time. In this hyper-paced society we believe we have to do three things at once. If you are honest with yourself, when you do three tasks simultaneously you do all three badly. Our brain is not capable of performing more than one complex task at a time. If you really want to get something done, just do that one thing.

The amusing part of these four steps is that most of us know them. We've heard them from various sources and can talk about them all day. Then why do most of us complain about getting nothing done and a small few get a lot accomplished? Because they actually do these steps and don't just talk about them. They "manage" their family, friends, associates, business colleagues and the rest of the world not to expect immediate responses but to know that everything will get done. And they practice the discipline of focusing for short bursts of time and then giving themselves a break.

That's how to get things done.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Want to Change the World? You Just Might Have

As I readied to begin, standing in front of a group of leaders in Tokyo, I realized I had a small window of time in which to connect positively or negatively. I greeted them in Japanese, wishing them a “good morning.”  After a moment’s pause I apologized, in English, and said “that’s  all the Japanese I know.” Smiles spread throughout the group and a few said, in English, “that’s okay.” The rest of the session was very positively received because of the contagion of smiles and vulnerability.

I bring this up after hearing Nicolas Christakis speak at the recent Positive Psychology Summit in Philadelphia. He said something profound that all of us need to consider as we interact with family, friends and our wider network. And if we really want to change the world for good this is essential. He said “networks magnify whatever they are seeded with.”

Whether it’s the first time in front of audience (like I was) or an intact family, or your network of friends the information, choices and even more important, the emotion we foist on our network impacts the entire group. A person’s attitudes, decisions and actions are based on the attitudes, decisions and actions of the people around them to the third degree of separation. If you think about it, with this information a random act of kindness isn’t so random once it affects your network.

What is so fascinating about Christakis’ research is that kindness and happiness spread to the third degree of separation in a network but meanness didn’t spread. You might be as surprised by that as I was. We hear so much about meanness, bullying, conflict, and war that it seems we are worse than ever. Yet the latest global research indicates that there is less conflict than ever in history. We just hear about it more.

So what does this mean? If we begin seeding our networks with kindness and goodness it will spread. But what about personal greatness? What about striving for our personal best every day? Will that also spread to the third degree of separation in our networks? I don't know since the research has not yet been done. yet I suspect that if kindness and happiness can spread so can striving for our best. If networks magnify that with which they are seeded perhaps we can unleash a movement toward a world where everyone can unleash their personal greatness. And the easy part is that it all starts by the way we treat the person next to us. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Storm Surge: A Reality Check

Standing in front of these leaders in Tokyo all of a sudden means nothing to me. These leaders worry about delivering their quarterly goals or hitting their budget, while I'm worrying about the lives in danger in Hurricane Sandy. It's not the fault of the leaders in this session, they are far removed from the threat, as am I. But the threat is still too close to home for me.

As Hurricane Sandy barreled up the coast of the US, I was settling to facilitate a leadership workshop here in Tokyo. I hoped the forecasters were wrong and that Sandy would benignly head out to sea. But I was wrong and as Sandy took her westerly turn into New Jersey I began to worry. What happened to me was a a quick prioritization and a powerful reminder of what is important.

My first concern was that all my family and friends were safe. Though I knew none of us would be at home in Asbury Park and my parents were safe in Virginia Beach, I thought of all the friends I have in Asbury Park many of whom were still there as the storm hit. During every break I search the internet for news of how the storm is affecting the city.

So far, all my friends are fine and I believe the worst is past. However then I have my second level of concern. Is the house okay? When you purchase a house as close to the ocean as ours you always think of the worst case scenario and then hope it will never happen. The house was a dream come true. Now I await news about whether that dream was damaged or swept away.

Yet in all of this I can't help but reflect on the wake-up call that a storm or natural disaster brings. Immediately we realize our priorities. We seek safety for our loved ones and friends and then we secure our possessions. All of the small details that regularly clog our day and blind our vision are gone. In that minute of high wind, everything is blown aside and we see clearly.

So I pray for all those in the path of Sandy and I hope they are safe and their homes secure. Yet I also hope we hold on to this moment. Now is when we realize who and what is important to us. Perhaps we can learn to carry that with us rather than wait for the next disaster.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Personal Greatness From the Long View

It was just an intuition, a moment I realized I had to look. As I pushed up the shade on the window next to my seat on Air Canada I was greeted by a beautiful site. The snow-whitened mountains of Alaska! And I realized that from that high in the sky, there are no differences in people, countries and policies. But another realization dawned on me. All of the work that has been done on personal greatness is also not about comparing one person against another, it is so the whole world can unite and unleash everyone's personal greatness.

Flying to Tokyo I was reflecting that many people believe greatness is the comparison of one person against another and a tally of their goals, achievements, virtues, etc. Perhaps that is true for historical greatness. It is a "zero-sum" game. Only one person can be the greatest at anything. That is why there are record books and gold medals. However, personal greatness is not a zero-sum game. As a matter of fact, if everyone in the world achieved her or his personal greatness no one would be less for it, all of us would be greater.

We live in a world dominated by comparisons. One person is better at this, one country better at that. Yet, personal greatness is striving to reach the best of who each of us can be. We compete against no one else, we just strive to realize and unleash our personal best. As a matter of fact, the inspiration and motivation we have from someone else doesn't lessen us, but helps us to see that perhaps we can reach just a little higher or do a little more.

I'm a competitor, but as I research and speak about personal greatness I realize that when we work with others rather than against them we all achieve more. So perhaps we need the view from 37,000 feet. We are all human, basically striving for the same things. Working together will enrich all of us. So I know this week as I speak to these senior managers here in Tokyo I will work as hard as I can to help them unleash their own personal greatness. Because from the long view, we are all in this together and if they move toward their personal greatness, I will also.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Have You Experienced Achievement Post-Partum Blues?

Okay, I've never had a baby. I'm not physically made that way. And I don't have any children, so I've not experienced the waiting and birthing process. Yet, I wonder if I'm not experiencing some kind of post-partum blues. Of course I'm not comparing the experiences because I'm sure the emotions of having a child are massive. Yet have you ever worked very hard at something, brought it to completion and after the celebration of completing it, felt a let down? Yep, that's what I'm talking about.

Recently I finished a chapter for a book that is much more academic and psychological than I usually write. It was intense over the year doing the research and the months and months of writing up until the time I finished it. Then last week I pressed the send button on my computer and it was all over. Of course I felt the brief time of euphoria, but just as quickly I found that I couldn't write anything for a week (hence no blog). I'm finally getting back to a sense of normalcy.

As I study greatness, I believe I've seen similar things. When any of us prepare diligently for a significant period of time, putting in vast amounts of energy, we experience a let down when it is done. I'm speculating on what happens, but I believe the energy and emotions to complete something big (a degree, a book, a deck), put us in a different space. Pushing ourselves in new directions, or having the discipline to move toward completion of a project is almost like a high. When it's over we come down.

I'm learning two things from this experience. The first is that I have to give myself the time to experience the post-partum. There is a natural ebb and flow in life that makes the highs worth it. When we complete something, we come down off the high and it feels very different. Typically in the past I would immediately engage in something else and deny myself the time to realize what I had done. We need to give ourselves time to savor our achievements even when it gives us an emotional let down. Yet the second thing I've learned from this experience is that by letting myself experience and live through the post-partum I am now excited and ready to engage in something brand new with more energy than before.

So when you finish something you've diligently striven for and you finally put it to bed know two things. You will probably experience a period of feeling emotionally down. Live with it, because is really instructive about how much work you've put into something. And then be ready to experience renewed energy. It will come and you can re-engage fully.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Death Be Not Proud: Our Life Legacy - In Memory of Chris Peterson

Chris Peterson died yesterday. For those who did not know him, he was a brilliant scientist, a very humble man, and someone who changed the world around him. Those of us who knew him could not leave his presence and be unchanged. Learning of his death this morning saddened me. Yet I cannot claim any special relationship to Chris. I was one of his many students. But he had an amazing ability to make any of us feel incredibly special and unique when we were in his presence.

Over the years, in front of many audiences, I've challenged people to examine their lives and wonder what legacy they will leave. So many of us (myself included) think about the things we've done, the work we've created, or the achievements we've accomplished. In the end, that's not the legacy we leave, not really.

We change people by how we make them feel about themselves and Chris did this in a big way (it helped that he was a big man with a big heart). The memory I will always treasure about Chris happened at the First World Congress of Positive Psychology. It was early afternoon on the second day of the Congress and I was giving my brain a break from all that I was learning when I spotted Chris in the lobby sitting by himself. I walked over just to say "hi" and then move on so I wouldn't disturb him. He greeted me by name (I was stunned he remembered my name) and invited me to sit down. For the next two hours we talked about positive psychology, his work and what was next. Yet what I remember most was his interest in my work; the focus on greatness and bringing positive psychology into the corporate world. He made me feel like an equal (which I clearly am not) but listened respectfully to what I had to say and liked some of the ideas. It was an amazing moment for me.

At that moment it was not his degrees, nor all the articles and books he had written, nor all the classes he had taught that made him great. What Chris did so well was transform other people because, to quote his words "Other people matter" and he lived that motto with every fiber of his his being. That is the legacy I think of when I remember Chris. And it challenges me to wonder about my own.

So death be not proud, though you've taken someone renowned in his field, a leader of science. Sadly death you've taken someone who left a legacy of tenderness, humor, compassion, humanity, and yes I will say it greatness.

In the end, Chris, you are and always will be a great teacher. Thank you.

I've attached a link to Chris' last blog post in Psychology Today for those who would like to read it.  http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-good-life/201210/awesome-e-pluribus-unum

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Ebb and Flow of Life Can Help You Achieve Greatness

This morning the fog is San-Francisco-thick here in Asbury Park New Jersey and it seems to have affected my computer. Of course all you techies will reply that there is no way for fog to affect a computer, but for a non-techie like me, it happens. As I watch the misty fog drift down 2nd avenue my computer seems to drift in and out of connectivity, or cooperation. My fingers try to fly on the keyboard, only to have the computer choose to pause and then eventually spit out my typing with machine gun effect onto the screen. Yet, I'm learning that this is part of life and shouldn't inhibit me or any of us as we move through our day and achieve our potential.

Yep, life ebbs and flows. If you don't know that by now then you've lived your life in an amazing bubble. Yet, we live in  an age that demands constant attention, speed, energy and focus. It's impossible to maintain. No one can go forever 24/7/365. Sooner or later, something or someone will crash. The key to success is to embrace the ebbs and flows that life provides,  especially if you aren't disciplined enough to establish your own.

I've learned this lesson the hard way. I'm driven, or was. There is no question about that. When we were setting up our business and I was writing on the side it seemed there was nothing I couldn't do. I had a ton of energy. But I could only keep that up so long. Looking back I can see how my creativity and my performance suffered. Then I started using the ebbs and flows of life to create some balance. Let me give you some examples.

I travel quite a bit on airplanes and was one of those intrepid warriors who scribbled on notepads until they allowed me to open my laptop, then tapped away for the flight balancing my computer, water and stale peanuts. Now I use flights to relax and rewind. I take good novels or choose to watch some of the in flight entertainment. It is part of the ebb and flow of my life that causes me to pause. And I've found I'm just as productive, even more so.

When colds hit, I used to push through them, saying that they didn't bother me and I could continue on track. Yet I weakened my immune system and sometimes the cold lasted longer. What I've come to do is accept the cold and at least take one day to just rest (okay I've got to work on this one). But admitting that I need to let my body heal is a good way to embrace the reality of life and take a break.

Finally I've found that when computers crash, phones die, or some technological glitch occurs I call someone for help and in the waiting time, I try to exhale (I'm still working on this one too). Yet I can't do anything except get upset, so why not just enjoy the moment?

Many of us are driven to achieve, work, be present for family and just push ahead. Yet life can't be lived continuously at a hectic pace. Individuals like me have a tough time scheduling down time (I'm getting better).  The ebb and flow of life, when we embrace it, allows us to take a breath, get our bearings and focus. We will be better for it. So, the next time you are in a traffic jam, the electricity goes out, your computer is slow or you have a cold, maybe life is telling you it's time for a breather. Exhale, because the work will be waiting for you when you come back. Enjoy the breather and you will be even better when you come back to what's waiting.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Positiveness Needs a Warning Label

This past Friday I was speaking to a room of approximately 70 financial service professionals about achieving their personal greatness. I told them that the workshop should have a warning label posted on it. I cautioned that if they were more positive, energetic and passionate about their work and life, some people would not like them. Some were surprised at my warning, but most of them agreed. We live in a society that speaks about positiveness, energy and passion quite a bit, but people who have those characteristics often don't seem normal to others.

I have been told in the past that I was "out of touch," "not real," and "too positive." My first reaction to these statements was just to ignore them and dismiss the speakers as negative. However when I heard those comments from different people at different times I started to listen. What I realized was they were telling me how I was being perceived.

People saw me as a high energy, always positive and upbeat person who (they thought) couldn't see the challenges and difficulties of life and work. They experienced me as moving through life in this positive bubble while others struggled, got depressed and became angry. What they never saw or heard was my experience of the negative emotions of life.

There was a brief period that I forced myself to be less positive, less upbeat, less optimistic. I wanted people to see me as "real." But I wasn't being real to myself and I wasn't being fair to others because I was fake.

I've finally learned that I have to meet people where they are. No, that doesn't mean that I will get negative and depressed. It does mean that I have to listen and communicate that I understand their emotions rather than responding with positive affirmations and cheery outlooks.

The most difficult part for me is not trying to "fix" the person or the problem. I want to help everyone feel better about themselves and their lives and I'm finally learning that some people need to stay with negative feelings for a while before they can move on. I can't judge that, I just accept them as they are.

I'm still working on this, but I'm learning to listen carefully to people's challenges and emotions. Now I communicate what I'm hearing from them and empathize with what they say. If they want help, I will try to help them, but if they want to stay in that emotional space for a while I will let them. But when I walk away, I am as positive and upbeat as ever. I don't need to take on their emotion and negativity.

Being positive, energetic and optimistic is wonderful. But it can drive others crazy. When you encounter negativity or challenging emotions from others, listen carefully, respond with compassion and help them only if they ask for help. Meet them at their emotional level. This helps others know you are real. Later you can be your positive, energetic self. Just realize that even if you follow this strategy, there will still be people who will not think you are in touch with reality and that's why positiveness needs a warning label.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Mindfulness Can Help Decisions and Reactions

Okay, I was wrong. I realized it after I hung up the phone. What began as a simple conversation about a task quickly moved to an emotional reaction from me. After I realized what happened I'm more determined to practice mindfulness. You may be thinking, "what's he talking about?" Let me explain.

For the past few years I've worked with an international organization training their senior leaders. Part of the three day program is a very intensive segment I've labeled "business mindfulness." Essentially we teach these senior leaders to be aware of their own instantaneous reactions and question them, because initial reactions tend to be driven by their emotional brain.. Since the emotional part of the brain reacts approximately 80,000 times faster than the rational part it takes some work on mindfulness to understand the emotional underpinnings of our reactions and to stop from allowing the emotional brain to take over.

Any of us can learn this process. Initially we need to reflect any time we think we over-reacted to a situation or person and then process what is going on in our head; what are we feeling, assuming, judging etc. When we teach this process, this is the most difficult skill. We teach people to stop and listen to what is going on inside their head; what the emotions are and how they drove the reaction. Then we have to analyze if our reaction is correct. That's also challenging. It's easy for me to justify my reactions to most things. However, I've found when I talk to others about them, often they shed new light and I can see where I over-reacted.

So the conversation last night was about a task that was supposed to have been complete. It was my responsibility. Yet a vendor claimed that I had not supplied one of the key pieces of information they needed. They said it was not urgent, but could I send the information. I am still sure I had already sent it, but promised I would resend it. As a friend and I were talking about the situation I found myself getting angry at him and reacted to his "tone" on the call. After I ended the call I took a deep breath and listened to what was going on inside my head. My initial reaction was defensive because I felt attacked by my friend. However when I honestly admitted to myself that I overreacted to his tone, I realized that it felt so critical because I was already doing a great job of beating myself up about the task. (I can be really tough on myself). I uncovered that my reaction was based on how badly I had already made myself feel. So, I called my friend back and apologized.

Taking time to be mindful of your internal emotions is a key to better decisions whether at home or in business. Pause the next time you are about to make an important decision or you are about to reply in anger. Listen HONESTLY to what is driving the emotion and whether or not it is valid. Mindfulness is a great tool to help make us fully aware of what is going on at the moment. The more we practice it, the better we become. And of course, if you've already said something like I did, you might have to apologize.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Maybe You Don't Have to Set Goals

Almost all of the self-help books blather on repeatedly about the importance of goal setting. They imply that you will never get anywhere if you don't set goals. They also imply (which is worse) that you need to know what you want to do with your life at an early age and set up goals and benchmarks along the way. That is fine for some people (like me) but it doesn't work for everyone. What about those people who succeed simply by living their lives?

Don't get me wrong, I believe in setting goals. I've done it for years and guided my life through the goals I've set for myself and the achievements I've checked off my list. However, I also believe in spontaneity and opportunism and the more I study great individuals, the more I'm learning about the power of the moment.

Most of us didn't have a revelation of our own greatness as a child and determinedly march toward that goal. Yet we hear stories of world champions like Serena Williams or Tiger Woods who determined from early childhood that they would be number one in the world in their sport. And we are told that in order to achieve greatness, we have to do the same. Not true.

Recently I watched the story of Coco Chanel, who became one of the greatest designers known the world over for her simple, elegant style. Coco didn't have any goals or dreams of being a designer. At one point she may have had a dream of being a famous singer (that didn't happen). But all Coco was trying to do was survive. It just so happened that she was in the right place at the right time and did her job (making hats) very well.

For some of us, that is the way we will attain our personal greatness. Life moves on and we strive to survive. We go to work, prepare food, perhaps raise children and we do it the best we can. I've discovered that two things can elevate our life and work. One is to do the absolute best at what you are doing right now, no matter what it is. People get noticed, promoted, or given opportunities when they stand out. The key way to stand out is to do what you do exceptionally well, every day.

The second way to elevate your life is through spontaneity and opportunism. Spontaneity (almost the opposite of goal setting) is the willingness to try something new whether on the job, or at home. You might find a new way to do something, or a job you enjoy more. Opportunism is the skill of being aware of possibilities that come into your life. Every day there are opportunities to meet new people, do new things, take on new tasks and step into something you love. The skill of noticing when these happen is key to unlocking great things in your life.

Let's face it, all of the best self-help books can tell some of you to set goals and it won't happen. However, all of us (even us goal-setters) can benefit from some spontaneity and opportunism. Look around you. Your dream job, or new time in life might be right in front of you. You just have to recognize it and take the step.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Focus on Your Weaknesses

I hate paying bills. I'm not good at finances, budgeting and have an aversion to sitting down and working on our checkbook. It could be termed a "weakness." Current research says that I should minimize my attention in that area (my weakness) and focus on my strengths (speaking and writing?). Yet recently I realized I've learned some key things by focusing on my weakness that have made my strengths better. So now occasionally I purposely focus on something I don't do well and am amazed by what I learn. 

First of all, have you read the research about focusing on strengths in order to excel and not on weaknesses? It's out there in psychology, education, personal development, etc. The challenge is that the singular focus on strengths in order to excel might be over-blown. We can learn quite a bit by tackling a weakness that we might not learn just by focusing on a strength. 

One of my "skill" strengths is writing. It's something I do well enough that other encourage me to do it more. I'm very aware that I'm no Hemingway, but others enjoy my writing, or at least my family does. So, writing would be termed a "what" strength. It's "what" I do well. Yet, what I didn't realize, since writing comes relatively easily to me, was that I had created a mental model about how I wrote, how I set up my writing area, and the time and discipline I set aside to pursue my writing. 

As I wrote above, finances and paying bills are one of my "weaknesses." So my object is to complete them as efficiently and effectively as possible so I can move on to other things. Yet I realized that the same discipline, order and efficiency I brought to paying bills (playing to my weakness) were skills I could apply to my strength of writing. Because of what I've learned I radically reordered my writing space, the time I write, how I focus and how I determine the outcomes. It has worked very well and it was totally outside of the mental model I carried for how I was supposed to write. 

Focusing on strengths is still a powerful tool to excel. Yet avoiding weakness, or avoiding something brand new because it is not a strength is a mistake. Try wading into the morass of a weakness and focusing on making it slightly better. Yet at the same time be mindful to what you learn. You might find, as I do, that there are things you learn from focusing on your weakness that you will not learn by focusing on your strengths. And for me the bonus is... the bills are paid. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Set Your Parents Free

I just returned from visiting my parents for a few days. No, it was not painful. I'm one of those people who happen to love his parents. But I was very conscious on this visit of how much blame is placed on parents for the way their children turn out. Whether the children are spoiled, disciplined, coddled, or potty trained early it seems to provide so many people with the reasons they cannot excel. Well, whether your parents were perfect or not, it's time to set them free.

Just before my trip I stumbled on brand new research about the father's role in the development of his children. Though this research still has to be replicated, scientists believe that the experiences of the father somehow are genetically transmitted to their children. If the father had to struggle and work hard to succeed there is some sort of genetic transmission through their sperm that creates a greater likelihood their children will be willing to struggle more. They tested this theory on mice and found that even when they never allowed the father near the children, if the father had been courageous and fearless, so were the children. If the father had experienced failure and rejection and then withdrew, the children were more hesitant.

Seem like we have more to blame our parents for? No. Of course I could wax poetic about freedom of choice and how we have to become "real" adults by creating our own future. But I'm not going there, this time. What is more astounding is the strong research that people who have difficult childhoods often outperform their peers in a number of areas. Yes, because of the struggles they had when they were young, they tend to have higher courage and grit. They just don't quit.

One study of professional footballers in Australia found one common theme among all of the top players. They all had struggled or suffered through something as children and it drove them to be the best. Similarly there are other studies that show the same factors of early childhood struggle drive the best singers, actors and scientists. (There is part of me that worries I might have had it too good).

So whether our parents were amazing at encouraging us, or they were distant, we get to choose what we will do with that material. Yes, our parents are our foundation, but once the foundation is laid, it's up to us to architect the masterpiece that will go on top of it.

Years ago I tried something. I told my parents I loved them and I loved how they raised me and now it was my turn. They tried to object that they could have done better (I don't see how) but I wouldn't hear it. I told them they were free. I wasn't holding anything against them and now I would build on what they gave me. It was one of the most freeing things I've ever done both for my parents and me. Try it, and your parents will love you for it and you will feel the full power and responsibility of creating your own personal greatness.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Are You Bi-locating Right Now?

Where are you right now? No, really. In your head, where are you? Are you 100% present to what you are doing? Because many of us, myself included, are so overwhelmed with all of the possibilities of what we could do, where we could be and who we could be that we aren't fully present in our lives.

I'm probably more guilty than most people in creating this state of bi-location. For years I've written about personal greatness and striving to unleash the best you can be. Yet often people ask me if I can ever rest; if I can stop trying to be great and just enjoy the moment. The answer is, I'm learning.

This morning glancing at Twitter, Facebook, Positive Psychology News Daily and the morning news, it seems that everything around us conspires to make us feel that we need to be in a better place, with better clothes, a better body, better friends and possibly a better drink in our hands. It all adds up to bi-location when we are in one place but constantly dream of a better world.

Individuals who exemplify personal greatness have a wonderful ability to be fully present in the moment, even when striving to achieve something or improve themselves. Partly they seem to have an innate understanding that much can be learned in this moment, rather than pining for something else. They live as though this moment and the person directly in front of them is the most important. There is no greater skill to develop than this one.

Let me repeat that. Being fully present in the moment, with those around us, is one of the greatest skills we can ever learn in moving toward personal greatness. All it takes is practice. The other night my partner and I had a late dinner together. We talked as we prepped the meal, shared some wine and then sat down to eat. In the midst of tasting my food (it was wonderful) enjoying the conversation and company and sipping my wine I realized that I was complete. The reason was that I was fully attentive to the moment.

There is a time to think of the future, to plan, to long for something more. But establish the plans and goals and then don't think about them. Be fully attentive to the moment and don't bi-locate. You will find your life and your goals take on a powerful vividness and still you can fulfill those unfulfilled dreams.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Routine Deserves Better Press

Do you want to get something done, or do you want to be spontaneous and innovative? As a writer, speaker and entrepreneur (and a researcher about achievement and greatness) I'm torn between creating routines and being spontaneous and creative. People who love being spontaneous tell us that they wait for the moment to strike and then they write all night, or create new work, or just get tons of things done. Other say that they have to dig in the same time each day and gradually get things done. Though I'd like to be thought of as spontaneous, creative and flexible I've learned to lean toward routine and I believe if you really want to accomplish something you should too.

Routine and ritual have gotten a bad name over the past few years. People pass them off as dull and boring, or even worse they call them the four letter word - "work." And we know what happens then, people can't wait to finish work and get to life. That's a topic for another time, but in short there is no dichotomy between life and work.  However back to ritual and routine. What ritual and routine develop, if embraced correctly, is a mental attitude and preparedness that allows you to engage in the process faster and be more productive.

I've  ritualized my day a little more lately and here is what I've discovered. Once I have my first cup of coffee and done some meditation my mind is ready to write because that's what I'm setting time aside to do. I find myself relaxing into the complex dynamic of putting words together early in the day. Recently, because of an upcoming deadline, I've been writing until noon. The more I do it, the faster I drop into the zone, words flow and I'm more productive.

Of course it is not spontaneous. It is not pretty and no one is going to make and indie film for Sundance based on someone doing the same thing for a few hours every day. But it works. Think about something you've longed to accomplish: painting a room, building a deck (not me), writing a book, or learning a language.
- Pick a time: if you start at the same time every day your body and mind will adjust and be prepared to dive in. You don't have to start exactly the second you choose, but close to it.
- Pick an amount of time: be reasonable. I can only write until noon right now because I'm not traveling.I normally write for one hour each morning. So decide on the amount of time you can spend each day on the task. If you allocate too much time you will give up quickly because there are other things to do.
- Just sit there. I've found that the discipline of just being in the space helps. When you first start, you may find that time drags, or you can't seem to start. Stay the full time. Eventually your mind will adjust and you will be productive in the time.
- Just start. I'm met so many people who've never been able to finish anything because they were always preparing. Sometimes you just have to write the first word, the first note, hammer the first nail, learn the first word and then you are off and running.

Ritual and routine need better press because it is within this framework that the most creative people work.  Every morning when I sit down to write, there are some days when my fingers fly on the keys, other days when I plod. But each day I'm always grateful for what I accomplished the day before. So, how about you? What do you want to accomplish? Time to set up the routine.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Day of Transformation

Remembering September 11th 2001  memorializes the heroes who gave their lives trying to save others, but it should also remind us of what's important to us. So many people thought their lives would change forever that day. We would be kinder, love our families more, choose the more important things in life first and cherish each moment. Ah, then life comes along, we get on the treadmill and the next thing we know we are years away and have fallen back into the same ruts.

The morning of September 11, 2001 dawned bright, clear and crisp over New York. Jan and I had business in midtown so we took the Path train over to New York and had breakfast at a cafe in the World Trade Center. After a leisurely breakfast, we took the subway to midtown only to find fear and confusion when we arrived at our destination. The first plane had hit the Twin Towers after we left. In the events that followed I've never been prouder of my fellow NewYorkers and all the others who were in Manhattan that day. It was us at our best.

Why does it sometimes take tragedy to bring out the best in ourselves? Why do we need to lose or almost lose something in order for it to become important again? As we walked down toward the towers that day the streets were eerily quiet. The only sound were the radios playing news of the attack and people comforting one another. But what we saw was the best of who we can be.

People were amazingly considerate to strangers. Giving out water, helping people with directions, speaking gently and kindly. Everywhere we went people were speaking about those they loved and hoping they were okay. The frustration of trying to leave messages for family and friends was evident and people rejoiced when they got through. And people began to think about what was important to them and what they wanted to live for.

Curiously in that moment of national tragedy and loss we saw the best that people can be. They were transformed into generous, kind, unselfish human beings. Perhaps this day can serve as a memorial both to those who gave their lives and perhaps to the rest of us, for those who found their lives that day. I pray that we don't need tragedy to bring out our best, or to understand what is really important to us. Perhaps just a day when we remember. It can transform our lives.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Coming Off A Technology Fast

Two weeks ago I chose to go on a technology fast. No email, texting, Facebook, or even using my computer for two weeks. Did the fast radically change my life? No, but it helped put some things in perspective for me. More importantly, it provided time for me to rediscover some of the beauty of life I’ve been missing. So here are some things I learned.

1. There are very few things that are so urgent I have to respond immediately. Over the course of the two weeks very little changed in the world (of course I still read the paper on the weekend, remember newspapers?). The messages people left me would have normally elicited an almost instant response. Without my advice people took care of problems themselves or waited. Apparently the world did not come tumbling down if my voice was not heard, or my message received instantly.

2. Technology takes up a lot of time. I was stunned at the amount of time I had back in my day. But it makes sense. Between emails, texting, whatsapp, wordsfree, blogging, commenting on blogs and reading news on the internet, the day disappears. For two weeks I had time to do other things (but I’ll get to that in a minute). Still, it was almost disconcerting how much more time I had, especially in the evenings.

3. There is almost an unnatural draw toward electronic media. The first week I found myself passing my phone and just wanting to see who was trying to connect with me. My fingers itched to click on my emails. I purposely did not turn on my computer knowing I would be drawn to it, but it was really difficult not to do. Only the complete fasting from technology helped me perservere because otherwise I would have reconnected. I didn’t realize I was so connected.

4. Without electronic media to distract me I savor life more. I found myself lingering over meals, enjoying the taste of wines and watching waves without the demand to check my phone. By the second week the urge to pick up my phone diminished enough so that I could really relax (perhaps it was experiencing that the world had not come to an end). In the quiet of my day, life got louder.

5. I want to make a technology fast part of my life. I’ve determined that I want and need to fast from technology at least once a week. It makes life more enjoyable and allows me to fully experience it. Besides, it will all be there when I get back.

So now I’m back emailing, texting, blogging, and surfing. But now I know what life is like without my technology leash. Yes, I know technology makes things easier, but it also sets expectations, makes demands and takes over. But at least for two weeks I was set free. Now it’s up to me to find that time each day.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Do You Ever Want To Turn Everything Off?

I'm old enough to remember a time when people couldn't get to you 24/7. The phone in the kitchen (I don't remember if there was another in the house) rang seldom and if it rang during dinner they'd have to call back since we never answered during dinner. There wasn't voice mail either. Morning's were peaceful and routine as we prepared for work or school and at night once we came home it meant homework, reading and perhaps a little TV on one of the three channels. Now everything is different.

Are we better off? I wonder. Yesterday I warned a friend on the street to stop texting and walking (since he was about to walk directly into me). We stood and talked about how we were all getting addicted to our handheld devices. "They do everything" he exclaimed. Yet my thought was "they do everything except feed the soul."

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a luddite. I love being able to pull up a map that identifies my location and shows me where to go, or to text someone on the other side of the world, or look at a great picture a friend just took, or check the news or stock market. Great. So much information at my finger tips. And that's not counting the games!

In the gradual slide into the morass of technology addiction I lost some things. Yes, I can be in contact with all of my loved ones all the time. But am I really in touch? So for me it's become more important to take time to be at the same table and look my loved ones in the eye without interruption. Yet what I also miss is deeply hidden and more insidious. I miss free time. It doesn't exist for me anymore. I fill it up with checking my emails, texting, playing games, and checking it all over again. There is not a moment without technology, even in the bathroom.  Really.

One of the results of this technology addiction was brought home clearly to me yesterday. A man came into the store and bought my 2007 book of poetry, Bounding Down The Stairs. That was good enough, but he emailed me later in the day and wrote that he was really enjoying the book because the poems were "really good." That hit me hard.

Creativity needs time, lots of free time to think and imagine. It has been at least a year since I've written a poem. Oh, of course I've written articles and blogs, but creative writing is different. It requires me to be in a different space. That space does not allow for constant distractions, which technology is all about providing.

So, I'm going on a technology fast. Tonight I'm going on vacation for two weeks. On vacation I'm not going to text, tweet, blog (so you won't read me for a while), email, surf the internet (I intend to try real surfing) or play games. I want to be fully with the world and those around me.

Maybe two weeks will do it, maybe not. It's tough to change behaviors that are so much fun. Yet I miss the fun I had creating and writing. Perhaps, after the fast, I can create a balance. Until then I'm off the grid. Click.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Choose Your Friends (and Family) Carefully

My parents always told me "choose your friends carefully." Of course they were worried about my reputation being sullied. (Funny that they never worried about that happening to my friends). But the choice of who we hang around is an important factor to how we react to life and it even affects our ability to think clearly.

Have you ever been around people who just constantly complain? Well, other than giving you a horrible headache it's bad for your health, your mental health that is. Apparently researchers have found that when you listen to too much negativity you are inclined to act that way. The negative stimuli acts on the brain which responds like a muscle. Fight it as much as you can, but after 30 minutes of complaining, you are much more likely to act the same way.

And it gets worse. What researchers also discovered is that when you listen to too much negativity it actually affects the hippocampus (the part of the brain necessary for problem solving) and it strips away neurons. So, after hearing all of the problems someone has, you are less equipped to help them.

Of course we have to care for people and that means listening to their problems. However, when the other person doesn't look for solutions, or all they do is complain the best thing you can do is either shut them up, or get away from them. Seriously, they are bad for your mental health.

So, after reading this research I didn't really believe it. Okay, I thought it was funny, but is it really true that negative stimuli affect the brain? Dr. Barbara Fredrickson and others published a study in 2010 that showed the negative spiral that occurs through depression and other psychologically negative states. Then based on neuroscience they created positive interventions of meditation and positive affect that reversed the negative spirals and created positive spirals.

This is where it comes down to choice. All of us can create a "family of choice." People who we like and who support us and provide positive affirmation. I know that there are some reading this who are thinking "but he doesn't understand, I'm stuck with ......" Hey, all of us have choices. Similar to choosing or not choosing that extra order of fries and affecting our health, this choice can affect our mental health and our behavior.

Surrounding yourself with individuals who are more positive, upbeat and are willing to listen only so long to a problem before they help you is one of the best things you can do for yourself. So, who are included in your "family of choice?" Don't let the "negative nellies" in.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

No One Will Die If You Don't Read This

Do you ever have one of those days where you think "Greatness? I just hope I survive today without going crazy." This was one of those mornings, but I've learned something in my study that helped me turn it around. Today began with the supposed installation of the porch railings we ordered six weeks ago. Yep, you know where this is going. Someone didn't measure right (it wasn't me) and so we have to wait again (probably another six weeks). So I got to the store trying to get over being a little ticked off. Seemed like the day was changing when I opened the door and a bunch of people came in with their kids and wanted to buy books. Then our brand new point of sale system would not process a woman's credit card. Behind her the kids decided to play with the rubber vases we have in the store by throwing them on the floor. I tried using our alternative credit card machine just as UPS walks in with a big delivery and needs me to sign. The alternative credit card system won't even work. I sign for UPS and give the woman back her card and so she considerately gives me a $100 bill. After getting her change she walks out of the store and I hear a beeping. The credit card machine finally went through and processed her card. So I took a deep breath closed the store and called tech support.

Yet it was a reminder of resilience that helped me turn my day around. One of the practices that Karen Reivich suggests in The Resilience Factor is putting things in perspective. The practice calls for you to look at what is going on and see it in the light of a year, or of your entire life and then see how important it is for you (I'm paraphrasing big time here). I've adopted a similar practice in my business. We only strive for excellence and when things don't go as planned I tended to get upset. Yet I'm learning to put work challenges in perspective. No one will die if I something goes wrong in my work. That was my reminder today: no one will die if I can't get this point of sale system going.

What happens when you put things in perspective? For me, the first thing that happens is I laugh at myself. Two things seem to upset me more than anything else, driving and technology. Since I can't avoid either of them you'd think I'd figure it out by now. Yet when people drive badly, or technology doesn't work the way it should I get unreasonably upset. That's what was happening this morning. By the time the sale system wouldn't process credit cards I was ready to throw it out the window. Yet, I was able to laugh at myself when I thought "will someone die if you don't get this going?" My initial thought was the guy who installed it, but I laughed and thought "no, no one will die." Then I relaxed.

When we relax and the "fight, flight, freeze mechanism" gets turned off, we can think creatively. That's when I was able to void the credit card transaction, fix the machine with tech help and reopen the store.

Let's face it, some days it's not easy to bring out your best. Sometimes getting through the day is greatness. However, putting the challenges in perspective works for me. Be honest with yourself. There isn't much that deserves to wreck a day. Put it in perspective.

Monday, August 20, 2012

There is No Instant Greatness

I was at the gym this morning when I thought of Stephen King, the writer. No, it wasn't because I encountered something scary. (Unless you count when I realize I'm losing the age battle.) Right now I'm reading Stephen King's book, On Writing. Written in 2000, it's Kings ideas about what it takes to be a good writer. One of the points King hammers home in the book is that writing takes work and good writing takes a lot of work. What hit home to me this morning at the gym is that everything we want to do well requires hard work and that's not something we like to think about in this country.

We live in a society galvanized by the idea of "instant." Instant fame, instant celebrity, instant wealth. We surround ourselves through media with those who have made it in an instant. The subtle message is that if we are lucky we can have instant something. But if we look at people who are "instantly" propelled to the spotlight, we will realize one of two things.

First of all, if they arrive seemingly out of nowhere, they will go back just as quickly. People who have no talent or work ethic seldom last long as paragons of success. Success is built on sweat and perseverance with opportunity thrown in for zest.

On the other hand, there are those individuals who have toiled hard at their skills for many years. It's just that they've flown under the radar screen. When they arrive it seems like they are "instantly" successful, but that's not quite true. When Stephen King wrote Carrie and sold it successfully he had been writing and getting rejected for years. He just kept at it.

Honestly I sometimes worry about our country. There seems to be a growing sense of entitlement and a shrinking sense of work ethic. Yet there are still individuals who work their butts off to create the best life they can for themselves and their families. They are the people we should be emulating, not some instant celeb on TV who hasn't worked a day in his or her brief life.

There are multiple studies suggesting that our behavior changes as we watch others. We emulate what we see. So we need role models who are struggling and working hard. They will make us succeed when we don't think it's possible. Because in the end, it's those who continue the struggle who will triumph. As for me, I guess I've got a lot of work to do.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Do Something For Someone Else

The yellow shirts caught my eye. A group of approximately a dozen teens walking down Cookman Avenue talking and laughing. Immediately my curiosity was aroused. Then when they stopped outside the store I was really intrigued. When I found out their purpose, I learned a good lesson.

They were members of the New Jersey Youth Corps, and they were helping create a cafe in downtown Asbury. The cafe is for a non-profit organization that promotes the arts so they were volunteering their time. Their faces and attitude changed as they started working. From the typical teenage reluctance to laughing over the soap spilled as they scrubbed, moved and set up the metal chairs and tables they were transformed. There was not the negativity so often associated with teen years, nor the attitude. Doing something for someone else transfigured them.

So much of our society is wrapped up in a single-minded focus on ourselves. We are encouraged to self-promote through twitter, Facebook, myspace, and all of the other social media. Daily there are more and more blogs where everyone has the opportunity to enlighten the world with their opinion (including this one). And yet where does this get us? The highest depression rate since the Great Depression and getting higher. Why? Heck, all this navel gazing has to make us a little myopic. And the longer you look at anything, you will find all of the flaws.

What if we started looking around and doing something for others? Yep, free of charge! Actually give a helping hand without the concomitant bragging or posting, or the incessant need for payback. What a radical notion. Though it's not that radical, it's just been around for a few millennia.

This is what personal greatness is really all about. We can develop our strengths to our utmost ability and focus our energies until we are blue in the face. But what transforms us, what transforms others and leaves an indelible memory is when we willingly, voluntarily and freely help someone else.

Traveling around the world speaking about personal greatness we always ask for examples of great people. It never fails that everyone who is suggested as great it is because of what they gave to others, often at a high cost to themselves.

So, are we up for a little world changing today? (I know I am) Find someone who needs help and take the time to help them; no charge, no posting, no credit. Just do it even if you don't get a "thank you." Here is what I know, you will have changed the world in that one moment and perhaps for a lifetime for that person. There is no greater act in the world; there is no greater feeling.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The "Magic Wand" of Motivation

The CEO asked us a third time "So, how do we teach my leaders to motivate others?" That he returned to the question after we explained our process twice was not a good sign. So we probed a bit more. Eventually he admitted he wanted a sure-fire, easy way to motivate others to work harder than they had ever before, and he wanted it in simple sound bites that his managers could dole out to the employees. Taking a deep breath I told him "I don't think you can motivate anyone to do anything, especially adults." He looked at me like I had just kicked his dog. "This is going to be interesting" I thought to myself. And the meeting went on from there.

That CEO and others believe that with the right technique you can get people to climb mountains. I think they are wrong. I don't believe you can motivate anyone. People motivate themselves when given the proper tools and platform. For years I've studied the techniques and processes of "great motivators" but in the end I discovered that they don't really change us; we change ourselves. Once the pieces are in place people can motivate themselves to do almost anything, but no one can compel them if they don't buy in. So here are just a few of the important pieces I've learned that help me motivate myself. Perhaps you have more that help you. It is important to remember that this is about motivation, not grit or perseverance.

  1. A goal you believe in. Too often we attempt to do things that are not really a goal we embrace. They are goals foisted on us by someone else. Can we accomplish them? Probably with enough sweat, but we won't be motivated to complete them for the sake of the goal. We might be motivated out of a sense of pride, but that comes later. The primary building block for motivation is that we have to believe in and want the goal for ourselves, not for someone else.
  2. The right stuff. Once the goal is in place we have to question whether we have the skills and ability to attain the goal, or can we learn them. A goal without the skills to get there is just a pipe dream, (like my goal of playing in the NBA) but if we can learn the skills we can attain the goal.
  3. A plan. I've found that having an idea of the steps necessary to achieve the goal is important. Not that everything has to be laid out perfectly. Part of motivation is flexibility in the face of obstacles. But have an overview of how you want to attain your goal. It helps focus your energy.
  4. A team. When there are others around you who support your goal it can be the most motivating experience in the world. Nothing is better than friends, family or colleagues to cheer you on. And it doesn't hurt to have people hold you accountable. When others know about your goal, having to answer to them can be quite motivational.
  5. Celebrate the victories. All along the way, celebrate. When you finish a chapter in your novel, a new painting, a new distance in your running, any new step that you achieve - celebrate it. That is what keeps you going when things get tougher. 
These are just a few of the ideas  that keep me going when I'm trying to achieve something. Perhaps you have more. But I know that words from a great speaker, or ideas in a great  book don't get me going... I do. I'm the one who motivates me out of bed in the morning and on to the tasks at hand. So, what are you motivated to do?

Monday, August 13, 2012

What Happens When the TV is Turned Off?

Okay, I love the Olympics but I'm glad they are over. Now I can get some sleep. Seems there are plenty of people around the world who are feeling the same way. We stayed up (or got up early) watching some of the most amazing displays of athleticism (a bunch of new world records) and were left in awe. Wonderful. Now can we get on with life, because the real part happens when the TV goes off. Sadly there are those of us who will seek another avenue to watch others. There is a real temptation in all of us to voyeurism.

No, I'm not talking about the criminal kind of voyeurism, I'm talking about the Facebook kind. We like to see what others are doing and compare. A recent study found that many people who were involved in Facebook were getting more depressed because as they looked at their friend's "status" they believed that everyone was having a better time than they were. The same result can happen with constant texting. We aren't really present where we are, but we think everyone is having a better time somewhere else. We spend our time trying to find out where the "real" fun is.

Yet, if we choose to fully live and celebrate it, life begins when we stop watching other people and just enjoy our own lives. Let's face it, we continuously face Olympic level challenges of driving to work, balancing tasks, working at the office or at home and keeping our energy going through the day to get through the finish line. But these are the tough tasks. What about the fun stuff?

That is where we really have power. We choose whether or not we will have a "good" life. Choosing a moment with our spouse, partner, or lover to just savor each other could make any voyeur swoon. Many people want to have a "good" life, but just don't know that it's right in front of them. We won't get any gold medals, but every day we have opportunities to live with laughter, love, friendship, and joy. None of them cost any money, just a little focus.

So once the TV or computer is turned off, real life begins. Create a place to savor good times, be with loved ones and try some fun stuff. You will be amazed how much of a great life you can create. It's not just the people on TV who have all the fun.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Intensity Versus Consistency: What Wins?

At least one day a week, maybe two, a friend of mine goes to the gym and really works hard. I mean he goes all out in a spinning class, lifting or some other form of exercise. Yet he can't seem to understand why his shape does  not improve. I'm no fitness guru, but I've learned that consistency is more important than intensity for good  health. Though I've shared that nugget of info with him he still believes he can maintain his health on two intensive days a week. But there is a larger application of this pearl of wisdom and that is to any area of our own personal achievement or personal greatness.

Aristotle once said (or it was attributed to him) that "excellence is not an act, it is a habit." Whether or not Aristotle said this there is extreme wisdom in it. Whether applied to an Olympic athlete, a great musician, artist, or a good person, there is not one moment that defines them. They are defined by all of the struggle, work, sweat and consistency leading up to their own excellence.

People tell me all the time about the books they want to write, the trips they want to take, the goals they've set that they want to achieve and yet time goes by and nothing is done. The key is consistency. Do a little each day and your goal will be accomplished. Too many of us cringe at the daunting goal that we hope to achieve one day. Yet, it is the little goals, accomplished every day that lead to personal greatness.

So, what is your goal, or something on your "bucket list" that you hope to accomplish? What have you done about it today? That is the key. Then take time every day to add to what you are doing. Eventually you will  examine your goal and realize that you've attained it.

Examining my life, the only way I've accomplished anything is to consistently pursue it. If I waited for the right moment, or when I was "inspired" or when everything came together I'd get nothing done. Consistency is much more important than intensity.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

What's the Payoff to Your Behavior?

A couple of years ago my business partner and I made the decision to give up professional coaching. We had a pretty strong practice coaching individuals in organizations and it was a nice revenue stream for our business, but it was driving us both nuts. What we could not figure out was why so many men and women engaged in destructive behaviors, vowed to stop and yet continued even in the face of honest feedback and eventually disasterous results. And yet, I can’t judge them because I also have behaviors that get in the way of my achievement or having a great life and I don’t change them. So what is the problem?

The problem is that no matter what behavior we’ve developed we’ve done it because it pays off in some way. We are getting something out of it. Let me give you an example. A friend of mine is smart, funny, attractive and passionate about what he does. He is also a real drama queen. Nothing is ever normal; everything is over the top. The guy pops Xanax like candy because of the “bad” days he is having. And it pays off for him. How? He gets attention, tons of it and I’m sure that is what he wants. He has read the positive psychology books I’ve offered him and is constantly stating that he wants to be more positive, but why should he? He gets what he wants from his behavior.

What I’m finally learning about adult behavioral change is that until we see the benefits of the change as a greater payoff than the current bad behavior we won’t change a thing.  So, the potential health gains in the future from eating salad instead of fries are not enough of a payoff for me to avoid fries now. I just love the taste; screw the “healthy” future.  I guess I need more evidence to weigh against the wonderful, immediate taste of the fries.

The first step to change any behavior is to ask ourselves what we gain from it. Every behavior, even a very destructive one, has a payoff and once we identify what that is, we can examine ways to achieve that same result with healthy behaviors. This just takes some real honesty on our part because our reasons for doing things sometimes links to the real difficulties in our lives that we are coping with. We have to keep asking the question “what am I getting out of this?” until we hit a rock-bottom reason. Then we can begin to build the alternate positive behavior that will bring the same results.
This is not that easy to do, but anything worthwhile in life is not that easy. However just the awareness of why we do something can be the key to unlock a behavioral change. But I’ve got work to do.  I’m still trying to determine what is better than an order of super sized fries.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Answer Your Cell Phone - Or Not

My cell phone rang the other day while I was in conversation with a friend. When I didn't reach for my phone he asked "aren't you going to answer that?" Not even glancing at the screen, I silenced the ring (though I thought I'd done that before we sat down) and I continued the conversation. He was visibly upset and distracted and finally we talked about it. He told me that it would have been okay if I answered the call because everybody does it. He was used to people answering texts, emails or calls in the middle of conversations and admitted that he did it too.

What struck me about the encounter was not the proper etiquette of conversation and cell phone use (about which I have strong opinions) but of the counterbalance of living in a culture while being free to make our own decisions. Society creates cultural norms of what is and is not acceptable behavior, dress, and speech and each generation pushes the boundary in their own way, while the other generations wring their hands at the decline of civilization evidenced by this bad behavior.

Yet all hand-wringing aside, we a choice. We can go along with the cultural norms or not. Currently some of our norms include our availability (because of technology) 24/7 to all of our friends and family. Some people expand that availability to their boss and co-workers. Have you even had it happen that someone sends you an email and when you don't respond they follow up with a text and then a call wondering if you are okay because you didn't immediately respond? I continue to have the experience of calling people only to have them say "can I call you back, I'm in a meeting?" Why did they pick up in the first place?

Cultural norms are not laws. They are common understandings between people. Currently the prevailing understanding is that we have to immediately respond to those who contact us. This immediacy continues whether we are at work, on vacation, or just trying to relax. People constantly tell me how much this demand for immediate response annoys them, yet they continue to indulge those who contact them. We have a choice.

Living in a society does not mean we have to go along with every fad, or even what the society decides is "normal" behavior (as long as we do what is legal). We can choose not to jump to answer every electronic message that comes our way and our friends and family will learn about our behavior and eventually have to respect it (probably not without some push-back). We can decide that weekends are ours and we will not answer emails from work. You might be thinking "not in my work." I guess I would say that from my experience, bosses can be trained, (so can co-workers) and if you are performing well, they will get used to it.

Choosing to push back against norms or fads is not easy. People will judge us as "old fashioned" and "out of touch." Yet, I'd rather determine my own actions rather than move toward every new way of doing things. It is the difference of swimming with purpose rather than being taken wherever the tides wills it. So if you call my cell phone and I don't answer. Don't worry, I'll get back to you eventually.

Friday, July 27, 2012

What is Your Passion?

Do you have a passion, something you love to do, that is a part of who you are? Do you know that having a passion can lead to higher life satisfaction, vitality and meaning in life? Yep. Well, as long as the passion is in balance. There is always a "but."

My passion was basketball. For a period in my life I played for hours and hours a day. This wasn't when I was a kid (though that's when the passion started) this was as a young adult. I would take time in the middle of a day to get into a game. I was late to meetings and dinners because I played too long ("just one more game" I told myself.) It was so serious that it became an obsessive passion. Obsessive passion is defined as a passion that is out of control. The passion starts to intrude on the other parts of life so much so that there is little or no balance. Luckily I saw it happening and backed off my playing time. Now I still enjoy a game, but there is plenty of other things to do.

Studies show that 75-80% of those surveyed have at least one passion. A harmonious passion is defined as something you love to do that is internalized and becomes part of how you define yourself but it is in harmony with all of the other parts of your life. For years I told people that I was a basketball player. Not very good, a little too short and slow, but I love the game. It was part of my identity. The benefits are  substantial. Bob Vallerand,Ph.D has found that people who have a passion, aside from the higher life satisfaction I already mentioned, have lower rates of conflict and burnout, fewer chronic injuries and overall higher well being.

So, what's your passion? You can have more than one. If you don't have one, it is possible to develop a passion. Start by identifying some activity that you enjoy doing. Next develop your skill in the activity and examine if it is becoming part of how you identify yourself. Once you allow it to become a part of your, it has developed into a passion. Now, just enjoy the moments it gives you.

I don't get the chance to play basketball much anymore because I can't find a good local gym in Asbury Park to play. But I have other passions and this is one of them.I love to write. I love words and how they form ideas. I have the benefit of sharing with you and just enjoying the moment. So try it. Find your passion. It feels great.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

What Did You Learn In Life Today?

Growing up, dinner with the family was a rule. No matter where we were or what we were doing we made sure that dinner was a family affair. Of course, I had the luxury of a stay-at-home mom who loved to cook. Bonus! And yes, of course, there were the prerequisite questions one of which included "what did you learn in school today?" It was not always posed this way, but there was some version of it. I grappled with that question because I didn't pay too much attention during the day at school. However, on my way home for dinner from the basketball court I always tried hard to think of something.

Years pass and no one asks me that question anymore. Of course I don't live with my parents, but more commonly it's not the question we tend to ask adults. Why not? There is a common perception that our brain stops developing somewhere in our youth and we get to a certain point where we are on a downward slide. Yet the new reality shown to us by neuroscience is that the brain can continue to develop long into our lives and it can be as receptive as a three year old brain.

What is even sadder is that because of this mental model many of us eschew learning as we age. We stop going to classes or lectures and tend to only read books that support what we already know. Even the news we read (because of the customization of computer generated sites) just reaffirms what we already know. We are missing the possibility of expanding our brains and broadening our experiences.

This past weekend I was honored to present at the Canadian Positive Psychology Association Conference in Toronto. It was amazing. My brain has not worked that hard in a very long time. The speakers were consistently above par and gave me a lot to think about. Yet, even as I reveled in the experience I realized that the lecture of life gives me something to learn every day, I just don't often choose to see it or dwell on it.

Whether we choose to go to a lecture series, or listen to a TED talk, or read a totally new idea in a book or magazine, we can stimulate our brain and our life. However, focusing on the nuances of every day and questioning why things happen, how they came about and what can change also allows us to expand our brain. The first step is to intentionally learn. Find new things that we'd love to know and pursue them. We will find that life takes on a totally different feeling because every day is an exploration about what life will teach us.

I believe we move in the direction of our focus, so I'm gonna start asking myself the question "what did you learn in life today?" I know that by asking myself that question I'll start looking for the answer. And I might ask those who sit down to dinner with me. It will be an interesting conversation.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Try a New Experience

About a year ago I found  myself on the face of a shear rock wall 45 feet above the canyon floor. It was an old rock quarry and my friend Brendan had convinced me I had to try rock climbing. He strapped me in the harness and lowered me down into the quarry. My job, should I choose to accept it, was to climb back up the wall using the small cracks as finger and toe holds. Tom Cruise made this look a lot easier in one of the Mission Impossible movies. 

I learned a lot that day, especially how hard my heart can pound when my feet slip off the wall and I'm holding on by my finger tips. But the most important lesson that Brendan impressed on me was "use your legs." He taught me that too many novices try pulling themselves up the steep cliffs and tire very quickly. "Your legs are much stronger. Push yourself up the cliff." And he was right. 

People speak to me frequently about taking on new challenges and trying new things. I strongly encourage them to do so. Studies show that experiences create much longer lasting and more powerful memories than purchasing things for yourself or others. Instead of heading to the mall on a day off, think of something you'd like to try doing. It will leave a lasting impression. 

Yet, when I speak with people about their attempt at new experiences too often they believe they have to focus on skills they don't have and use them to get through the experience. What I learned on that wall is that, as much as possible, use some of your key skills to get you through new experiences. 

For example, two years ago I signed up for a sprint triathalon. It was a brand new experience for me and the training was very new. However, one of my key strengths is pig-headedness (I'm sure my classmates in Positive Psychology will wonder where this strength is listed). When I decide to do something, I will not give up until I've achieved my goal. So, though there were a bunch of new skills to learn, I just focused on what I do well, practicing everyday, and believed the skills would come into line. They did and it was a great experience.

Life is so short and precious. Why not fill it with new and different experiences to expand the story of your life? But when you do, remember, use the strengths you have developed to help get you there. It is worth the climb. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Other People Matter

A few years ago, while studying for my degree in positive psychology, Chris Peterson Ph.D. summarized some of the most important research of positive psychology by stating "other people matter." Honestly my reaction (quietly to myself) was "I'm paying for this kind of brilliance?" Yet Dr. Peterson's words keep coming back to me lately because it seems we are being inundated with examples of selfishness and greed that mask themselves as success. This is not what personal greatness is about.

Recently I've given up the practice of counting the cars with only one person in them driving in the HOV lane during rush hour on the New Jersey Turnpike. It really bothers me because it seems these people don't care about anyone else or care about the law, as long as they can get ahead. The broader applications are frightening. This Sunday there were more examples on a larger scale of selfishness and greed above the fold in the New York Times. The articles about JP Morgan Chase lying about their losses, high profile polluters basically walking away free, and drug companies, knowing their drugs kill and getting off with only a small fine. What happened to doing the right thing and caring about the greater community?

We live in a time when our American individualism seems to have taken steroids. It's all about the individual, the heck with what the larger society needs. Many people think, speak, and vote only for what it can do for them (or their wallet), not necessarily the great good of society.

What we need are more examples of people doing the right thing. When we've surveyed people about personal greatness they give us wonderful examples of individuals using all their skills and abilities. What we discovered is that in all their descriptions and definitions of personal greatness, none of them mentioned that the work or outcome usually was for the betterment of society, their community or their family. They assumed personal greatness helps others. We named it "The Assumption of Positive Affect."

It is time to look for examples of people helping others, of going the extra mile, of helping society at large. Because it's these examples that spur each of us on to do something as well. If all we see is greed and selfishness, there is a natural reaction to want to get our share before it runs out. But goodness and charity never run out. There is plenty to go around.

So, today I'm gonna focus on those people who are doing good for others. I want to see people use their skills and talents to help someone other than themselves. Why? Because the example will help me do the same. And in the long run the research shows that people who help and care about others have greater health and happiness. Perhaps I can get that on a sign in the HOV lane.

"Other People Matter"

Monday, July 9, 2012

Where Are Your Calluses?

I picked up my guitar yesterday. It was painful. No, not the music I tried to play, but the tips of my fingers after 30 minutes. They were killing me and I had to stop. I thought to myself "wow, it wasn't that long ago that I'd play for hours and not have a problem." Who am I kidding? It was long ago and I haven't played in years. Most important I've lost the calluses I had built up in the past and now I've got to do it all over again.

In the 13 years that we've been researching achievement and greatness there is one characteristic that continues to dominate why people are successful; hard work. Great individuals and high achievers work hard at their craft, usually much harder than anyone else in their field and that is why they achieve. Very few are the smartest, strongest, or fastest genetically. There are others who should beat them. But these individuals who succeed out-work others every time.

We live in a society that eschews dedication and hard work even as we protest that we are working too hard. We want everything quickly and easily. Immediate gratification is the order of the day. And we expect that we can have an innate talent in something so we won't sweat even as we win. That is a mindset that will defeat us eventually.

Carol Dweck has studied success for over 40 years and her recently published book, Mindset, offers interesting research indicating that how we perceive our talents and abilities can have a direct affect on our success. She identifies two different ways to think about your abilities. The fixed mindset believes that abilities or intelligence are fixed and that there is only so much that anyone has. So, if you are inherently talented in guitar, for example, you have that amount of talent. (that is not me) The growth mindset believes that all of our abilities and intelligence can be developed. The difference in the two is when they encounter challenges or hard work. The fixed mindset believes that they should easily succeed and overcome anyone or anything. That means initially they can't show anyone they are working hard and if they fail, it demoralizes them. The growth mindset however sees challenge and failure as an impetus to work harder. They eventually will succeed because they believe they learn from challenge and failure. The good news, according to Dweck, is that we can change our mindset.

So, where are your calluses? What is it that you work hard to develop, or produce and you continue day after day even in the face of challenge? Everyone of us has the potential to unleash the best of our abilities and talents, but it doesn't come in a day, a month or a year. Success is hard work. Once we embrace that mindset, we have set ourselves on the right path for personal greatness.

As for me, I'll pick up the guitar again today, even though it is painful. I've been wanting to play again for years and now is the time. I'll know I'm succeeding when the calluses develop.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

There Is No Such Thing As A "Life Changing" Experience

Yesterday I had a life changing experience. I was running on the boardwalk. That's it. No, really, that's it. Okay, I was also thinking while I was running and thought of how I want to live my life. That was my life changing experience. Were you expecting tsunami's or whales or a voice from the sky? That is usually the way we think of life changing experiences. Except there is no such thing. Nope, there is no such thing as a life changing experience and that's good news and bad news for all of us.

On September 11, 2001 we were in New York at the World Trade Center. Luckily Jan and I just left on the subway uptown when the first plane hit the WTC. It is a day I will never forget. Since that time I've spoken with many people who were there, most of whom say it was a life changing experience. Yet almost all admit that they have gone back to the way they were living before the event. I've been inches away from accidents that make me swear I'll change my driving forever, only to find myself driving the same as always within a week. Last year I had an event causing me to blackout and hit my head on a brick sidewalk. I changed for approximately a month. When people tell me about their life changing experiences I often find that they've not really changed. So how can we have real life changing experiences?

Life changing experiences are treasured because they seem to either impart meaning, or clarify the meaning of our lives. One of the pillars of a psychologically healthy individual is that their life has meaning. They believe that they are here for a purpose, or they are part of a larger plan, or they have something to do or a way of living that helps others. Meaning drives behavior and motivates people to continue in the face of challenges. It also promotes greater well being.

The challenge to the concept of meaning is that too often we believe we have to "find" meaning, as though some divine being is playing hide and seek with our life purpose and we win by discovering where it is hidden. It is more accurate to say we realize our life purpose and that takes place through thoughtful introspection, or perhaps a powerful experience. But it is what we do with that experience that makes all the difference.

First of all, it is not the experience that matters it is how we interpret it. Let me repeat that because it is important: it is NOT the experience that matters, it is how we interpret it. Any event can be life changing if we believe it has meaning for us. It doesn't need to be a bout with cancer, an accident or a close call. If we have a moment when we learn something profound we can choose to treasure that moment and move on from there. A dinner with your spouse or partner can profoundly affect how you view life and what is important. For me, I was not kidding about my run on the boardwalk. However the key element is that we choose what is the moment that is life changing.

Next, we have to commit to doing something differently. An event, no matter how dramatic or traumatic, will have no effect unless we commit to changing behavior. I've had friends who had bouts with cancer who, though they were frightened, never committed to living differently. They were not life changing experiences. The commitment comes when we identify what behavior we will change and what we will do instead.

Finally for something to be life changing we have to stay with it. I'm great at doing something for a week, but I've got to find ways to remind myself daily so I continue to live it. The people around me need to know my commitment so they can support me. And I've got to find ways to get back on track when I'm not living the new way.

Today can be a life changing experience if we let it. Any moment offers possibilities of lessons that change our life for the better, if we only choose to listen. But once we've heard the lessons, in order for them to take root, we have to have the discipline to apply them. As for me, I'm gonna get out for a run on the boardwalk and see if I can have another experience. Maybe this time I'll be disciplined enough to make it stick and make it "life changing."

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Is Someone Mean Mugging You?

Last night I was at dinner with a group of friends. A niece of one friend was telling us about an experience she had on a New Jersey Transit train to New York. Apparently she was chatting enthusiastically with a friend on her cell phone and she said that the people around were "mean mugging" her. I was instantly intrigued. "What is mean mugging?" I asked. She told me it is when someone is giving you a dirty look. Yet the reality is bigger than just nasty looks and could really impact the work we do and the lives we lead.

Looking up "mean mugging" in the Urban Dictionary I found this definition.

1) To glare at another person with a scowl, or other antagonistic facial expression, with malicious intent, hoping to provoke a response from the intended recipient.
But there is an additional definition that affects more of us than we realize. Mean mugging is also defined as having a mean or sour look on one's face. How many us us have been subjected to those looks in our personal and work lives? More importantly, what affect does it have on us?

Basic psychology teaches us that when we are threatened we typically respond in one of three ways: fight, flight or freeze. That response occurs whenever the limbic system suspects a threat. Most of are aware of moments when we feel threatened and it can occur even just from the way someone looks at us. Think about our family or work environments. What are the facial expressions of most of the people we work or hang out with? If they are mean mugging, it might affect us negatively and impede any creativity, innovation or new thinking because we are in flight, fight or freeze mode.

I'm more aware of this than normal because of a work experience Jan and I had a few weeks ago. Asked to present a leadership session on high performance teams we attacked it with our usual gusto. However all through the presentation I was aware of the face of our client contact. She seemed utterly disgusted with our presentation. She sat through the presentation with her arms folded across her chest, scowling at us. Jan saw the same thing. At a break we wondered between us what we could possibly be doing wrong. It threw us off our game much more than I like to admit. She was mean mugging us and our initial response was to freeze, though I have to say I started moving toward "fight" by the end of the presentation. The funny thing was that the evaluations were stellar and she thanked us for a fantastic session. We were stunned.

Too often the people we work or live with are unaware that their facial expressions can profoundly impact how we think and act. A threatening environment, or one that is perceived that way, can hold us back from giving our best. Yet it is something that many of us face every day. I'll admit that sometimes I'm part of the problem. I'll find myself heading into a meeting with my "game face" on and I'll bet it is a threat to some people in the meeting.

So then, what happens if those around us have positive expressions on their face? It adds to a positive environment which researcher Barbara Fredrickson posits leads to a broadening of our knowledge and capabilities and a building on our skills. The exact opposite of flight, fight or freeze.

So what can we do? First of all, we need to be aware of how others affect us. If we are around people who are continually mean mugging us we will pull back no matter how strong we are. Surrounding ourselves with people who are more positive, or at least smile occasionally can lift our spirits and give us the strength to keep going in the face of obstacles. Second, we need to honestly evaluate if we are part of the problem. Many of us have learned to keep our "game face" on and we are frightening looking, or at the very least we look angry or disinterested. Just as we want an environment at home or work that is positive, we need to contribute to it. So, occasionally, we need to look in the mirror and change our mug.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Let the Heat Teach You Something... Really

Do you move fast, think fast and are constantly on the go? Me too. I'm not sure if it's a New York tri-state thing, but living up here doesn't help. Until yesterday. The heat has hit in New Jersey and it's a good lesson for some of us to slow down.

I try to walk to work as often as I can. The office is about 3/4 of a mile away from my house. So I stepped out of the house yesterday and into a wall of heat and humidity. Wow. At first I started with my usual quick walk, but before long I was slowly strolling toward the downtown (otherwise I would have been a puddle). And here is what I learned.

There is a lot to see in this world. I saw signs, people, animals and buildings I've never noticed. No matter that I've walked that route many times before, slowing down made me notice more things. I was able to see nuances of the family life of my neighbors that I've sped by before and I relished the beauty of my neighborhood.

It takes time to appreciate some things. I joked when I was studying for my MAPP degree about "speed savoring." I opined that we could keep up a breakneck speed in life and still savor what is around us. Okay, I was wrong. Perhaps we can savor to some degree, but we will still miss beauty, nuance and meaning. I stopped to look at an old tree in a park around the corner from me (it also offered shade). The age of the tree is visible and I thought about the generations who've walked by, or sat in it's shade.

It's hard to be calm when you always move at light speed. I arrived at work in a very peaceful mood and it lasted through the day. I realized that, for me, constantly moving creates a tension that sometimes I'm not even aware of. Slowing down occasionally helps me enter the day on a peaceful note.

Once this heat lifts, I will be tempted to return to my breakneck speed, but I hope that the lessons I've learned will help me slow down occasionally. Or I could just hope for the next heat wave.