Monday, April 30, 2012

Taking Out The Garbage and Being Great

Today is garbage day. Not exciting, not motivating, just has to be done. These little tasks  fill up our day and pull us away from the engaging stuff. Yet a word of warning here to myself and you, this is real life.

Blogs, self-help books and Hollywood would have us believe that we can have lives full of adventure and energy. Hollywood especially offers images of majestic landscapes in Nepal or eternal food orgies in Italy and suggests we go on our own perfect pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella. These images and ideas plant the seeds of unrest. We want to have the picturesque life where wind blows our hair back at the perfect moment when we embrace our loved one. But let's get real.

Life is full of little stuff (unless you can afford full time staff). Dishes need to be washed, beds made (occasionally) and garbage taken out. In between writing the Pulitzer prize winning novel, or winning the next Nobel peace prize, laundry has to be done. And if we are not careful, life can fly by as we wait for the next moment when we will succeed, or feel good or have that perfect Hollywood moment.

Looking out my window right now I can see the path to the curb. I have to roll the garbage cans out to the street. Either that moment can be wasted as I long to be writing, or speaking, or having that perfect glass of wine on the deck (well, not at 7:00 AM), or I can enjoy the moment. It is Spring after all. The birds are singing. The sky is blue so far. The azaleas and dogwood are in bloom. The walk with the garbage is laden with beautiful sights and sounds. Either I can live the life I have or spend all of it wanting another life.

I am a real believer in personal greatness. It is something I strive for and try to help others achieve. Yet I've learned that moving toward something, any goal, or idealized life is no excuse for failing to be where I am. I have this life right here, right now. There are chores to do and little (sometimes irritating) tasks to do along the way. But if I spend my life wishing to be somewhere else, or wanting to be a different person, it will be wasted.

The discipline is to enjoy the little ordinary moments of our lives. The real secret of a happy life, is to choose to be happy in it, to find the beauty even in taking out the garbage.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Waiting is good for you

Standing in line waiting to board a flight from San Francisco to Philadelphia. I hate waiting in line. I just want to get in the plane and get settled. And no, I'm not worried about bringing bags on the plane, I check them.

But can I learn from this? Yep. Though we live in a society that provides immediate gratification it's not good for us. We don't learn the discipline of delayed gratification, the upside of waiting for something.

I've written about the powerful research on grit, the characteristic of perseverance and drive that can be tested in toddlers. Grit has been directly linked with academic and job success. What I'm curious about is whether that characteristic can be developed in adulthood.

I have to believe that consistently disciplining myself to work toward long term goals and developing the patience necessary to gain something more than a quick fix would help build grit. Even learning how to patiently stand in line might help. In the long term this helps both success and even perhaps well being.

Okay so I'm trying. Breathe in, breathe out. But I wish they'd board this flight. Guess I've got work to do on my waiting.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Don't Be Dumb, Take a trip

I woke up this morning in San Francisco. Don't worry I'm supposed to be here. But I realized that I have to think differently in San Francisco because I'm not that familiar with it. I have to orient myself differently. Heck even the ocean is in the wrong place out here, at least according to my normal thinking. And that's the point - sometimes you have to take a trip to change your thinking.

All of us develop our own mental models, i.e., ways we think of how the world runs. Mental models serve us well because they help make habitual those things we do constantly like brushing our teeth or relating to our spouse. The challenge with mental models is they make us dumb. Well maybe not dumb but certainly less curious. We move through our lives on auto-pilot. This inhibits creativity and learning. The cure... take a trip.

Courtesy of my clients I get to fly around the world to a lot of different places. Each time I land I am challenged to think. I can't be on auto-pilot in a place where I don't speak the language. But what it also does is create a sense of wonder and curiosity. For instance in Tokyo I realized after I bumped into numerous people that they walk on the left side of the sidewalk. I assumed (mental model) that everyone walks on the right side. So these new experiences open our minds to new ways of thinking.

Not all of us have clients paying our way to distant lands. But any trip that provides a new experience expands your mind. Even if you are not traveling anywhere new, by taking a different route to work you open your mind. I am taking a small trip right now because I'm typing this on my iPhone since I chose not to bring my laptop. It's a whole different experience (and please forgive any errors).

So take a trip. Going abroad broadens you in ways you never thought possible. But even without boarding a plane or boat you can take trips daily. New destinations abound right in our neighborhood, our place of work, even on our handheld devices. All we have to do is bring our curiosity.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Do You Want to Fly?

I've always wanted to fly. No, I don't mean in airplanes, I do enough of that. Just be able to stretch out my arms and fly freely without the fetters of gravity. The world looks different from up above. The perspective is broader and I realize how little things are on the ground compared to the world and the universe. Even just being in a plane, I feel transported and it always gives me new ideas and new goals.

Yet, I realize that I fly every day. Not in the caped-crusader sense, but I move above and beyond my normal existence in the experiences I have when I'm at my best. Those moments change me, challenge me, and encourage me to do and be more. Trans-formative moments give me a glimpse of what I'm capable of, and at that moment I can either choose to look at the reality of my potential, or go back to what I've always done.

Take writing for example. I write everyday. Sometimes it is just this blog, other times it is a poem, or working on a book. And there are moments when I write that I lift my head from the page and can't believe what I've just written. Where the prose or new idea came from, I have no idea. But at that moment, I'm flying. I'm lifted above my normal existence and can view it from a different angle. The moment gives me a perspective on what is possible.

Sometimes it's frightening when it happens. Flying takes you to heights you might not be ready for. Looking down can be a jarring experience and so sometimes we long just to remain on the ground. These are the moments we need to discipline ourselves to examine. When we've done something that lifts us out of our normal routine we have an opportunity to learn from it, to learn to use our wings.

Rumi put it best. “You were born with potential. 
You were born with goodness and trust. You were born with ideals and dreams. You were born with greatness. 
You were born with wings. 
You are not meant for crawling, so don't. 
You have wings. 
Learn to use them and fly.” 

The next time you have a moment when you almost scare yourself with something you've done at work, at home, in a personal endeavor; stop and savor the feeling. You are flying. Lifted above the normal workday reality, you can now glimpse your own possibilities. At that moment you can feel your wings. So, what will you do? Do you want to fly?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Do You Have Any White Space?

As an author I'm very familiar with the traditional concept of white space. The strategic placement of words,  pictures and graphics on a page allow the reader's eye to peruse the page easily without excess clutter. Much of this ease is caused by the use of white space, or empty space on a page. Additionally this concept of white space has crept into our lexicon about thinking. I'd like to apply white space more broadly to life.

We live in an information society. Microsoft's tag line use to read "information anywhere, anytime." It is prophetic of our age. This technological society provides easy access to all sorts of information, for free. We can read the New York Times, or Wall Street Journal online. All our friends and family can post the latest pictures from the most recent gathering and we don't have to be there. But most of all, we can scan and find information on any topic. Just pop an item into Bing and viola you have information. But isn't it getting to be too much?

Every morning I waltz through the world news, US news, sports, Positive Psychology News Daily, Harvard Business Review, Psychology Today and others. I scan the headlines catching some of the stories, but skimming most of them. So I am filled with information, but it has all been filtered and finessed by someone else. I'm really not thinking about any of it, just gathering.

So too, if you think about our lives, there is constant busy-ness. Most people I meet have very little time left in a day. Every moment seems crammed up with something and in the downtime, or the travel in between, we catch on all we've missed by getting on our phones or PDAs and finding out the most recent news.

Yet what we know about creativity, focus, strategy, calmness, etc, originate in quiet moments, in other words, in the white space of our lives. When we take time just to sit, we are not just sitting. We are creating worlds and words that others haven't thought about. Rather than just regurgitating information that's already been processed, we think for ourselves. Taking white space time allows us to think through the day and think through our lives so we make choices aligned with who we are rather than knee-jerk decisions.

I've place it in my calendar. It's an appointment for me every morning. I take white space time and allow my mind to just go wherever it wants. When I first started it was frustrating. I'm an achiever. I like to do things, so I was really antsy. But now I look forward to the moments and have started adding more during the day.

Make white space time; time to let you mind go freely where it will. You will be refreshed, energized, creative. It takes a little while to get use to the discipline, but don't give up. We all know when we look at a page that is too cluttered with little white space that it's difficult to comprehend anything. Now we need to examine our lives with the same discipline. A little white space helps our lives to be attractive and compelling.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Five Regrets of the Dying

I just read an interesting essay by Bronnie Ware about the five regrets of the dying. Apparently she also just published a book by that title. In her role as a palliative care nurse she listened as dying patients voiced what they regretted most in life. None of the regrets were earth-shaking. Most of them we would already guess. What interested me is that if all of this is so obvious, how come so many people are still regretting these things on their death bed? I mean really, if you know that hitting yourself with a hammer hurts, why do it? So let's look over the five regrets and see what we need to do to avoid them.

The first regret is that people ignored their dreams. I understand this. It's easy to let life take over and the next thing you look back and many years have gone by and you wonder what happened. But I think the challenge is deeper than that. Many of us as we came into adulthood stopped dreaming. I'm not talking about dreaming of singing at Carnegie Hall, though that might be your dream, but even little dreams about things you want to try or places you want to visit. Hey, start dreaming again and then pick one, even a  small one and go for it. It can really change your life.

Second, people regretted they worked too much. The regret stemmed from the fact that it took them away from family and loved ones. Again, this is very understandable, especially in our economy when we need any job we have. More of the challenge comes when we are not working. Is the time spent with our loved ones quality time? Are we truly present when we are home? We might find that this helps us want to get out of the office faster because the time at home is so wonderful.

Third, people regretted that they didn't speak up. This could be taken so many different ways, but I view it as the ability to be honest about both the good and the bad. Apparently people regretted they had not said what was necessary and had held grudges or resentments inside. Yet there is a broader context for this regret. What about all those things you want to say to loved ones, family or friends and you never do because you think they already know? Say it. Tell them you love them and tell them why. You will feel better and it might resolve issues, or bring someone closer.

Fourth, people regretted losing touch with friends. Our society now allows us the possibility of reaching out and touching someone around the planet. Yet there is no replacement for a face to face conversation. Taking time to dine with friends, or just talk is restorative. And the rest of life will still be there when we are finished.

Finally, people regretted that they did not choose to be happy. Out of all the regrets this was the one that surprised me the most. Not because I think that people want to be miserable, but because they realized too late that happiness was a choice. Every day we have the decision of how we will react to the world around us. We can choose to enjoy the sunrises and sunsets, the laughter of children and the way ice cream melts. We can choose to sing songs, or greet strangers with a smile. Or we can choose to be miserable and claim that life is hard. Yep, it is hard. And we can choose to make it harder by our attitude.

I don't intend to die soon, and I'm sure none of you do, but let's face it we don't know the day or the hour. These regrets are simple things to fix and it just takes a little time. So, pick a dream, take a day off, speak your mind, meet a friend and choose to be happy. You won't regret it.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Life is a Contact Sport

In our leadership session today someone quoted Marshall Goldsmith that “leadership is a contact sport.” The quote struck me as being applicable not only to leadership, but especially to life. Life is a contact sport. Who we connect with, how we connect and the depth of our contacts can greatly influence our well-being. Yet sadly, more of us are alone now than ever before.

Have you ever stood in a crowded room and felt very alone? When was the last time you were in a big city with people rushing around and you longed for a small room with a few friends or a loved one? Have you recently had the experience of speaking with someone who seemed preoccupied with everything (their phone, texts or emails) other than you? Welcome to the contact-free world.

Here in Japan this week I am definitely a foreigner. That doesn’t disturb me because I’m in this position fairly frequently. However what struck me on this trip is the lack of contact between so many of us. People pass each other without even a nod. There is little or no recognition of others unless they are in a small circle of friends or family and even then I watch as friends and family are distracted by the bings, beeps and buzzes of their mobile devices. It seems that many people walk through life as strangers and die alone.

Wow, that seems so depressing even as I write it, but I’m aware that we can choose to change that. Real life is a contact sport. When we connect with others, share life’s journeys and struggles, or minimally greet each other and acknowledge each other, life changes. It is elevated in the common joys and tears that we all share. There are some people who make the time to talk, eat, laugh, and experience life with others. It doesn’t mean we have to marry (though I enjoy that) but just make time to be with others.

Why do we hesitate? I don’t know. I know my hesitation to speak to others is that I don’t know how it will be received. But I know that as a stranger in a city I’ve had some interesting conversations with strangers which have transformed moments. We have shared a laugh, an insight, a frustration and momentarily in the mass of humanity, we made contact.

It doesn’t take much to reach out. It doesn’t take much to say hi, or to comment on some experience. Hey, what’s the worst that could happen? Someone gives you a nasty look and walks away. But many times you will make a connection and both of you will be better for it.

Life was made for contact. Maybe we can “go it alone” but the question arises, why should we? Actually it’s easier being in Tokyo. If I ask a question most people will respond just to help me out. But any of us can greet someone, answer a question, or make a connection. Contact changes everyone and it makes things better. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Afraid to Taste Something? You Might Be Holding Yourself Back.

Working in Tokyo this week there are multiple opportunities for me to try different foods; foods that I don’t normally eat, and some foods that I’m not even sure what they are. At lunchtime the company delivers “Bento boxes” to the training room. As I gaze into the box I’m aware of two things. First, I never knew that food came in these colors. Second, I have no idea what I’m about to eat. What struck me about my gestational challenge was the similarity to moving toward personal greatness. Let me explain.

Most of us are creatures of habit. We get up at approximately the same time, tend to wear our favorite clothes, keep roughly the same schedule and eat most of the same things. As habitual creatures, we also tend to process information the same way, trust the same data, reinforce what we already believe and eventually create ruts for ourselves. These ruts are more critical than just making us boring people. They might be hindering us from fully exploring our personal greatness. Why? Because the old saying is very true: “if you always do what you always did you’ll always get what you always got.”

Exploring new ways of doing things, or new ideas is challenging. We might not like what we see or experience. It is venturing into uncertainty and that can be frightening. So it is easier to return to that which is comfortable, that which we know. But the challenge is that we won’t broaden our knowledge or experience and we will be limited in our choices.

Of course trying new things can happen within the structure of some certainty. For example, I know that here in Japan the boxes that arrive every day in the training room won’t poison me or make me sick because the company that hired me isn’t going to poison its employees. And, as I sit down to lunch with those in my session, they are eating what’s in front of them. Yet even with this certainty I won’t ask what I’m eating until after I’ve tasted it. Why? Because I know I have my concepts about what I will or won’t like and it helps to ignore those sometimes. I’ve learned to like seaweed.

Growth and development require new ideas, new ways of doing things, new practices and habits. Our unwillingness to try new things simply gets in the way of our personal growth. Pick one area of your life to try something new. Just that experience alone might unlock your willingness in other areas. And besides, you might find that when you taste something new, you like it. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Are You Focused on I or We?

I’m in Shinagawa-ku Tokyo for a week working with some senior leaders. Walking through Shinagawa train station when I arrived from Narita Airport on Monday I was again struck by the almost universal uniformity of dress. Men and women heading to or from work were almost all in black, with white shirts and black ties. It’s like a uniform, but for the entire country. I heard that when they shutdown of the nuclear plant after the tsunami last year, they realized that electricity would be at a premium and so they told all the employers throughout the country to allow their workers to wear something other than suits. If that happened at all, it is not evident now.

In a country that imposes such uniformity, I wonder if personal greatness can resonate. There is a communication discipline here where people rarely speak about “I” and mostly speak about “we.” It is a country where community is the focus and tradition is the norm. Yet there are signs that Japanese also express themselves in unique styles and try to utilize their unique gifts. Just stopping at some of the clothing stores I found styles much more avant-garde than I typically find in the US. I assume that when they get out of work, they allow their fashion to reflect their individuality.

But aside from fashion, the focus is on the community and how each individual can benefit the community. Though it is not the wholesale focus on the self as in other countries, there is an aspect of utilizing gifts and talents, but for the larger group. That creates a drive toward excellence that embraces the whole country because if one individual lags, the rest of them suffer.

The concept, used mostly in industry but can be applied here is called kaizen, or continuous improvement. It is a deliberate focus on making things better and more efficient. I can see where this applies to their development as individuals, because by self-improvement the community improves.

Striving toward personal greatness does not create a dichotomy between self and community. The two can be developed simultaneously. In truth, if all of us unleash our personal greatness, everyone will benefit from it.  

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Do You Have Greatness Blindness?

Do you think you’ve achieved personal greatness? Can you recall moments when you realized your personal greatness and utilized your resources and capabilities? The chances are good that you can’t. However most of us can easily point to others in our lives who have struggled through difficulty, helped someone in the face of adversity, or achieved personal milestones. We crown them as great individuals all the while demurring if someone returns the favor. Why, because we have a difficult time seeing personal greatness in ourselves.

I’ll admit that I came to this awareness while reading an interview of an author of a new book about courage. Robert Biswas-Diener just published The Courage Quotient and was interviewed by Lisa Samson. The interview is here if you wish to read it.    However in the course of the interview Diener referred to “courage blindness.” He stated that “We tend to write off our own history of bravery by saying, ‘Oh I just did what anyone would have done,’ or ‘If I were really brave, I would have…’ But these comparisons belittle valid acts of bravery.” I realized that Diener is right about courage and he is also right about personal greatness.

When most people think of personal greatness they think of heroic or famous people who have, against all odds, been tremendously successful. So personal greatness gets confiscated by those individuals history and the media have anointed. However the real definition of personal greatness is utilizing our resources and capabilities the best we can in the moment. That is how it is differentiated from historical greatness or fame. Each of us has different capabilities and talents and we have our own limitations. Yet we can choose to realize our full capabilities in different moments and transform those moments and possibly transform the lives of those who experience them. Our challenge is that we don’t think we are doing anything special.

This is greatness blindness. We don’t see nobility is our acts of compassion, courage in our assuming risks, or love in our assistance of others. We just assume “that’s what we do” or “that’s what anyone would do.” That’s not true. We bring our own talents and gifts to this world and have the opportunity to utilize them in every encounter. By not acknowledging them, we undermine the possibility of developing them.

That is the real tragedy of greatness blindness. By not seeing our own personal greatness we leave untapped the rich resources of unique talent we bring to life. We will forge ahead, perhaps emulating others, yet never fully optimizing our own personal gifts. Our contribution to everyone around us is less because we never fully mature in our own possibilities.

Perhaps there is a balance. Many of us worry about arrogance or pride, so we don't want to examine our gifts. Maybe if we see them clearly; see how underdeveloped they are and how much more we could do, maybe then we would work at developing them. 

Seeing your personal greatness is not about crowing aloud what you can do. It is intentionally acknowledging your capabilities to yourself and then working to develop your unique gifts.   


Monday, April 16, 2012

Are You One of Them?

TV fascinates me; not the shows, because they are mostly junk, but the commercials. Everything from the jingles, to the picture, and especially the message is designed to get us to buy things. Yet more insidious are the promises they make. They promise products that will make us smarter, stronger, more successful, extremely popular and, of course, better looking. They promise happiness and long life and if we listen closely, they promise that we will be remembered; they promise a legacy.

Of course we logically know that none of the products can deliver on these promises, but they seduce us anyway. Perhaps if I have the right suit, brightest teeth and use the right pen I can be successful. Maybe if I upgrade to the newest computer or software version I will finally be efficient so that I can do what I really want to do. Maybe if I’m seen in the right places looking fabulous I’ll be discovered. The possibilities are endless and they are sad.

There is no shortcut to personal greatness. Utilizing the best of your capabilities and resources involves practice (expertise takes approximately 10,000 hours to obtain). It requires focus, not the multimedia distractions most flesh is heir to. Personal greatness requires commitment, dedication and it’s sometimes a very lonely journey. Those are just some of the challenges awaiting anyone who really desires to explore their personal greatness.

So, why bother? Because as human beings we are primed for more than just going through the motions and slugging back a beer at the end of the day. From the time we are little, we desire to leave a mark, to make a difference on this planet, to “be” somebody. Then we hit “reality.” We learn the arduous task of success. We understand the pain of being ostracized when our ideas are different. We discover the unique challenge of standing out from the crowd. And so it becomes easier not to bother.

Yet there are those who want to make a difference, through their work, their discoveries, their gifts, and their personal greatness. Each day they renew their commitment to choose their unique path and they make the journey knowing the cost. Some people support them and enjoy being with them. Yet even supporters see these unique individuals as “lucky” or “different” because they do what they believe in and work toward it despite the challenges. 

So for those of you who choose to explore your personal greatness I don’t say “good luck” because I don’t believe in luck. Every person I’ve met who is unleashing their best has made the choices necessary to do so. I say to you “continued success.” You are an inspiration to all of us. Thank you. 

Friday, April 13, 2012

Stop Waiting: Launch and Learn

Recently I've noticed an interesting phenomenon that occurs when a group of people are gathered waiting for something such as an airplane, subway, elevator, etc. If someone pulls out their blackberry, phone, or iphone, other people do also. Though I've no research to cite, it seems that people just want to show others that they are important and busy. Instead of just waiting, they seem to want to show that they have people to call, emails to read and texts to send. Many of them, if you look closely are just playing games. Yet the important part of all these actions are to "look busy."

However the reality for many people is that though they are busy "looking busy" they are actually waiting for something to occur. When I ask people what hinders them from pursuing dreams, living fully, having enriching relationships, most of the time the answers involve waiting for something to occur or someone to do something. They give me very valid reasons that they will start something, but they are waiting "until I have time," "when I have more money," "when the kids are out of school," "when the kids are in school" and the list goes on and on. I also catch myself waiting for the "right time" to launch new ventures. But what are we really waiting for?

Though I believe in being prepared, I personally know that sometimes waiting is my excuse not to start. I rationalize what I need to begin a project, for example, and then wait until whatever I need magically appears. Sometimes the waiting has taken years. It's time to be honest with ourselves.

Successful individuals who have vibrant, exciting lives are not waiting for others to make life exciting. They choose to do so. Individuals who start new ventures, or personal projects and succeed often do it in the face of small resources, lack of support and little time, yet they succeed anyway. Perhaps we are waiting for the right time because we want it to be perfect. It won't be! Perfect doesn't exist. So with any venture the key is "launch and learn" i.e., start something and learn as you go.

Waiting is the perfect excuse, even when we claim we are too busy. But what are we really waiting for? It will never be the perfect time, perfect person, perfect idea. Launch into it and learn as you go. There is really nothing more exciting than to be in the middle of doing something you enjoy. And you can really have something to do rather than stand around fingering your mobile device.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Trade Your Bucket List for a Treasure Chest

Let's face it, we are a society that likes everything quick. We pile up at drive-thru windows when it might be faster to get out of the car and go inside. We bemoan slow internet speeds and want the newer devices so they download fast. We even have that really annoying commercial castigating us because our information "was so 42 seconds ago." So is the concept of waiting and working for something really dead or can we still take time to accomplish something great?

An article in the New York Times a few weeks ago unveiled the reality of kids publishing their books at 10 years old or younger. Bankrolled by their parents, they printed copies of their doodles, dreams, and dramas and sold them to any willing family member or friend. Yet one line in the article questioned the long-lasting results of this instant achievement. If you publish your first book at 10, where do you go from there?

There is a characteristic that is very common among individuals who achieve great things and succeed where others fail. It is called "grit." Researched by Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania and others, this characteristic is predictive of success in academics, work and life. Boiled down, grit means that you have the perserverance and the energy to keep working to achieve something rather than settle for something fast and easy.

I am curious if grit can be developed at a later age. For those of us who had few struggles early in life and usually got what we wanted, can we develop this characteristic now? The answer will be "no" if we continue to short-cut projects, demand results immediately or live continuously in an instant world. The discipline of working toward something is rich and rewarding, full of emotional highs and feelings of success, and it takes time.

Perhaps one of the ways we can move toward mastering this discipline is to think a little differently. I hear so many people talk about a "bucket list" of things they want to accomplish in their life. But you can only fit small, quick things in bucket. Perhaps we need to have a "treasure chest" since you can fit bigger things in a chest. This treasure chest would hold the desires of accomplishments that would enrich our lives, but take some time to achieve, like writing a book, creating a symphony, starting a fund, or learning an instrument.

Rather than just checking something off our list, treasure chest goals can build self-efficacy as we strive for them, engagement as we pursue them, and enrichment as we achieve them. They take time, but we will be better for it and perhaps we can really develop our grit.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Enough With Focusing On Happiness!

Recently there has been a plethora of articles and research on happiness. The "how" of happiness, the mindset of happiness, even the foods of happiness. It is seemingly everywhere. Yet we are no happier. The rates of depression, especially since the Second World War are staggering and even living in one of the safest and most developed nations in the world, we don't even rank in the top 10 as being the happiest. With all the focus on happiness, you'd think we could dent the statistics a little. The challenge is that we are focusing on the wrong thing.

Of course happiness is important, it's even in our bill of rights. Yet, like trying to grasp a wave, when you grab for happiness, it falls apart. Happiness is subjective, minute to minute. If you ask me right now if I am happy, I'll say yes because my computer is working, I have a full stomach and I know there is good coffee down the street. However, in a nanosecond my phone could ring bringing me bad news about someone I love and instantly my happiness is gone. So how can we spend so much time focusing on happiness when it disappears so quickly? All of the quick fixes in the magazines and on TV won't elevate our level of real happiness because it focuses on something very ethereal and fleeting. Rather our focus should be on living a full life and happiness will be one of the by-products.

The main paradox in the happiness phenomena is the focus on self. Almost all of the research and practice is how to elevate your happiness. This intense navel gazing only tends to make individuals more suspect of their own happiness and creates concomitant highs and lows in self-esteem and positive affect as they study their own mood swings. Good research has indicated that by doing something for someone else we raise the level of our happiness significantly and for a longer period of time. Wow, something as simple as a charitable act can change our well being. It's better than a tax write-off. And think of how the focus has shifted. By not focusing on ourselves, but focusing on helping others, we achieve what all the self-focus will not.

So too we can find happiness in what we do. Not by focusing on how I feel each and every day while doing my tasks, but focusing rather on doing the tasks and becoming absorbed in them. Engagement increases levels of happiness, well being and self-efficacy. Find something in your work that really engages you and let yourself get lost in it. You will be amazed at the difference.

Finally a focus on happiness in the moment necessarily moves us away from any suffering or struggle. Yet most of us have had moments in our lives when we've struggled to achieve something and suffered through the painstaking process. When we finally finish we feel better than we have in ages and that memory stays with us longer than almost any other.

I'm not saying we shouldn't be happy. However we need to stop focusing on it because we will never succeed in securing it directly. Unleashing our talents and abilities, especially for others and doing so in a way where we struggle to succeed is the surest way to deep and long-lasting happiness; it's just not popular to say so. We want the quick way to happiness, but that is also the quickest way to lose it. Focus on someone else and bring all your gifts and talents to bear. Happiness will come.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Charisma With a Small "c"

Over the Easter holiday I went out for a jog while visiting my parents in Virginia Beach. One of the streets I passed was named "Charisma Way." I laughed as I ran by, thinking of the pressure of living up to their address. Yet reality is far more insidious. We often hear that great women and men have charisma seemingly from the moment they are born. Supposedly they captivate others and conquer mountains from the time they first walk and talk. This false belief allows the rest of us to resign ourselves to average lives since we are not "gifted." However we need to reconsider this false belief.

True enough, there are women and men who captivate a room the moment they walk in and make others feel as they are the only person in the world when they communicate. These individuals seemingly dominate any discussion, rally or gathering effortlessly and hold sway at will. They are the "natural" leaders who supposedly move groups to support causes. Usually tall, athletic and good looking, we stand aside to permit them access to any pulpit they wish. Yet, is it true that they are the natural leaders, or are we just holding back?

History recounts numerous individuals who used their "gift" for the wrong purpose; to start wars, demean others, or just to fill their own ego. History also teaches us that individuals who have passion and purpose can move mountains even without the usual anointing of charisma. These are people who use what they have to move toward their own personal greatness and change their world, however small, in the ways they can.

There are few of us who will go down in history; few of us who were born on "Charisma Way" and yet all of us can affect the world around us. What are your gifts? What are your talents? The world is less if we hold them back in favor of others. So perhaps there is charisma with a small "c" that doesn't need the pulpit, or approval of the crowd, but succeeds nevertheless in touching the lives of others and making them better. Either way, all of us are anointed to achieve our own personal greatness and we will do it in our own way.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Be Like Michelangelo

As little children we are allowed to indulge our fantasies. We "play" astronaut, lawyer, doctor, businessperson, actor and try on various occupations at our whim. We dream of accepting the Nobel Prize for peace, or literature and believe we can make a difference in the world. Even to a certain point, adults indulge us and ask, "what do you want to be when you grow up?" and then they usually smile at our innocence. Then reality hits. We somehow learn to believe we are much like other children, not special and without extraordinary talents or abilities. School and interaction with our peers reinforces the sad result of standing out or being different, so many of us learn to blend in with the crowd. Imagine the gifts and talents that are lost or underused.

Michelangelo once said "the greater danger for most us of lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim to low and achieving our mark." Perhaps the challenge is that we worry about the falling short, or the failure. Yet in reality our lives are richer when we strive for difficult achievements whether they are personal changes or to help others. Each day becomes valuable for as much as we can move toward something larger than ourselves. So it does not benefit us to "settle" but rather to have fun seeing what we are capable of doing. 

Admittedly, it's easier to "settle" and just get through life. Still it pales in comparison to lives lived in pursuit of a loftier goal. That goal might not include the Nobel Prize, but it could mean being the best parent, boss, co-worker that we are capable of being. We might set a goal to write a novel, or book of poetry or to speak in front of a group of people. Perhaps we might win the Pulitzer Prize, or not. Does it matter? No, even the striving will enrich our lives. 

The choice of how we live and experience our lives is up to us. There is no one else around to ask, "what do  you want to be when you grow up?" So, look into the mirror and ask yourself that question, then set your sights high. The journey is worth it.