Thursday, May 31, 2012

Failure is an Option (it's almost a necessity)

When was the last time you failed? I mean really fall-on-your-face failure where you go all out for something and it doesn't work. For most of us it's probably been a long time, perhaps never. We tend not to push the edge on many things citing security, family and reputation. Yet just the thought of failure is what keeps many of us from doing new and unique things with our lives. Paradoxically, when we willingly risk failure we have the greatest personal breakthroughs. So, how do we create a space in our lives where we can risk failure for the sake of uncovering new skills or having new experiences?

Know Your Reaction.  It's important to recognize that we work against some pretty strong genetic wiring. We are not wired for uncertainty. Uncertainty, or new behavior could lead to death back in the stone age. Trying a new weapon against a predator might mean the ultimate failure if it didn't work. So our minds tend to see something uncertain or new as a threat and our typical reaction is fight, flight or freeze. Admitting our inner reaction to attempting something new is important so we can deal with that reaction.

Listen to Your Fear.  We have responses because they help us. I use to love the "No Fear" shirts and logos, but I realize how stupid that is. Fear is necessary to make us think about what we are about to do. The important step is to understand if the fear is valid. A couple of years ago I had an opportunity to scuba dive off Maui. I was scared to death at first, but eventually I got over it and dove to below 80 feet. Yet there was good reason to be scared,... I'm not certified to scuba dive! I balanced that with the fact that I had a certified diver with me, so I took the plunge. But I had to balance out my fear first.

Put Your Fear In Perspective.  Though I understand my fear of failure, it crops up almost every time I try a new venture, write a new book, or give a new speech. One of the disciplines that helps me is to put things in perspective. I'm not operating on someone, or risking my own life. I often say to myself when I'm attempting something new "No one is gonna die if this fails" (except maybe when I was scuba diving). It helps me laugh at my fear and move forward.

Get Some Support.  Trying something new and risking failure is especially hard when you go it alone. It always helps to have support from those you love and trust. Talk it through with them and listen to their counsel. You may still have to go against what they say (sometimes our friends and family want to protect us from ourselves) but hopefully you still have their love and support should anything go wrong. I've found it's very important to me.

Mitigate the Damages.  One of the most important lessons I've learned about risking failure is to mitigate the damage. Have a plan when to pull the plug on something you are attempting. When I quit Merrill Lynch in 2000 to build our consulting company I left behind a Vice President title and salary and all the security that brings. But I had put aside a year of earnings just in case the business failed. I also gave myself a timeline and assured my friends and family that if the consulting business did not succeed within that time frame I would return to a corporate environment. Thankfully that didn't happen, but it made the leap into entrepreneurship easier knowing I had a plan.

Nothing can take away fear of something new. As humans we will react when we attempt something we've never attempted before because our emotional brain is dealing with the unknown. Rather than letting this paralyze us, we need to monitor it and discipline ourselves to move forward. Personal greatness is not achieved by doing the same things over and over. It's time to risk something new. What are you up to?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Complexity of Simplicity

Scanning the internet this morning I perused three different articles that offered "The ---- simple steps to..."  Amazing that lack of attention, social media addiction and great leadership can be solved in a maximum of seven simple steps (one of them only took 3steps). Wow, what's next, "3 steps to solve world hunger?" Heck, we can do it in one step. 1.Feed everybody. But though there are myriad "simple" solutions out there, the challenge of implementing these solutions is more complex. So why is it so difficult to implement some of these simple solutions?

1. Hard work. In the 12 years of study on personal greatness this is the one challenge easily forgotten when we read a blog or book on the simple way to become great. It takes lots of hard work. Though we know that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is approximately what it takes to be an expert, we then have to sit down and put in the time. It's not easy. As a matter of fact, individuals who have great success usually have worked very hard to get there (unless you are a Kardashian).

2. The Problem of Experts. The media touts experts in every field asking their opinion on how others can join their ranks. They reply "simple.." and rattle off a few ideas on how to become the best in their field. The challenge is that they speak from a rarefied air. Usually experts have some natural ability or strength in their respective field. Trying to have them explain it is difficult because many of them always had somewhat of a natural ability. A natural athlete, performer, or innovator, though they may have put in the time to be an expert, usually had a head start with their skills that allowed them to soar in that field. Listening to them is good, but sometimes it's better to listen to others who have struggled more. We might get a better perspective on what it takes. I've learned a lot more from struggling writers than I have from the experts.

3. Desire. Too often we attempt to work toward something not because it is what we want to do but because it is what others want us to do. Society, friends and family have wonderful ideas of how we can better. The media makes a fortune telling us how to be the richest, most popular, most beautiful person we can be. Yet it is their concepts of what we should be. Many of us, deep down, have no real desire to live the way others want us to live, yet we spend a lot of time trying because we think it's what we are supposed to do or who we are supposed to be. (personally I'm giving up on the 6-pack abs because I'm convinced the guys in the mags are martians.)

These are just some of the challenges we encounter when we try "simple" solutions to complex problems. There are many more, but that would just make it too complex.

Really there is one simple solution to all of life's problems... Do what you love to do. But that is the most complex solution of all.

Friday, May 25, 2012

American Idle

So what's with all the reality shows? I know American Idol just finished and there is a new reality singing show called Duets coming out. There are enough reality cooking shows to feed a country with their meals. And if all the house repair shows focused on one city, like New Orleans, it would be totally renovated in a week of prime time. So why is there this desire to watch reality when we live it every day?

The Roman emperors were right. Give people bread and "the circus" and they will be fine. In the latter stages of the crumbling Roman Empire they used the games to blind the people to what was happening in politics, the city and in their empire. It was coming apart at the seams. The once mighty empire was corrupt, fat and happy living off it's successes. Yet people flocked to the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus to see competitions and entertainment. Instead of rebuilding the discipline that made them the most powerful empire in the world, they lounged and watched others do the work.

We are quickly becoming a country where we watch others do the work we don't want to do ourselves. I'm not saying we don't work hard. Many of my friends work 60 or more hours a week at their jobs. But the hard work of creating a legacy for our lives, of helping others build a community, of building a country that is the standard bearer in education, innovation and caring for it's citizens lies outside of our work-a-day world. That's where greatness is built. When we finish the work of the day and then use our time to work on our own lives, or the lives of others. But it's easier to watch others do it because we claim that we are too tired at the end of the day.

Studies have shown that when we volunteer, or just help a friend we are happier and healthier. Our well-being increases and it's not just for that moment. So the excuse of being too tired really doesn't fly. All of us could find even 20 minutes to work on our future well-being, our family, or our community. The results over time will be amazing.

As I write this I'm aware that I'm writing for myself. I used to volunteer in many organizations and help out at church. All of that slipped away and now I console myself by writing checks. Not the same thing! But I also still marvel at what a passive society we've become.

No one individual and no society has achieved anything by sitting and watching others (except to get a flabby butt). There are times to watch and admire the great things others can do. Then it's time to get off the couch.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Ban Commercials

I love Tivo or DVRs because you can skip all the commercials. Online shows, even though we can see them in their entirety, have commercials before them that we have to download and listen to before the show. Even that small amount of commercial time can affect us. Why? Because commercials are designed to make us feel like we lack something; something that we need or have to be in order to feel okay. They strive to make us feel inadequate. And they do a darn good job about it.

Essentially commercials stir up feelings of inadequacy by suggesting that we would be happier, healthier, and more loved if we buy their product. We see visions of immaculate skin with no wrinkles, ripped abs, and toned arms. Glistening new cars spin toward us on water-slicked roadways and lure us to believe we would be cooler if we drove them. Even cereal products promise more family harmony because they bring love in the morning. Really? Who are they kidding?

The temptation, caused by comparison, is to overcome our lesser position by "buying into" the cool set. It's like being in high school for the rest of our lives. Just trying to get to the table with the cool kids. And so with the right clothes, car, look, and computer, I can be one of the cool kids. It won't happen because comparisons are odious.

I will never look like Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise. I won't have the "cool" of George Clooney (I also probably won't have his money). At the end of the day, I will just be me and the sooner I accept that, the better off my life will be. Yet TV and magazines will pummel me with images of what I could be if I buy, drive, or wear something different. Somehow we've got to stop the madness.

In reality we are who and what we are. Trying to better ourselves through education or fitness enhances our total well-being, but trying to buy into having a cool life will only end in frustration. The sooner we can look into the mirror and love who we are (even though we might still push ourselves) the sooner we will have a sense of peace instead of a sense of inadequacy.

Ask yourself honestly. When you look in the mirror, or look at your life do you have a desire to be something or someone else? If so, is it really an inner drive to enhance your life, or a brainwashing that you have to be like someone else? If it is an inner drive to enhance your life, then pursue it. But if you realize that it is just Madison Avenue talking and making you feel inadequate take another look. You are wonderful, we are all wonderful as we are. Some of us have a desire to improve and that is fine. But even on the journey we are all still wonderful, valuable, good, cool, people. We just have to stop comparing and start accepting.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Back from Vacation: Now Where Did I Put My Brain?

It was only five days, but returning from the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington I feel like I've been away a year. My brain desires to remain among the tranquil misty rain of the coast, reading novels and doing little else. The only brain stimuli I used was wondering how to win at cribbage. So now that I've unpacked everything (yep, as soon as I get home) I've got to find out where I put my brain.

Many of us have a similar experience on Monday mornings if we've really disengaged over the weekend. Coming through Memorial Day weekend (when we have an extra day) we might feel especially foggy on Tuesday morning. Yet research indicates that we do need the break. The constant connection to others (though our vast array of social media) and the demands of an immediate world (24/7/365) create a cycle that tears away at our creativity and productivity. The saying "all work and no play..." applies to creativity, productivity as well as being a dullard. Yet how do we get started again?

While I was on vacation I purposely chose not to even write my blog. I did not boot up my laptop except to upload pictures of the trip and then I'd turn it off immediately. I lounged over coffee in the morning and stared out the window. I even turned my phone off for large parts of the day. Of course I reasoned I had to keep it on occasionally for emergencies. None came.

But now it's time to get back to work, so how am I supposed to find my brain after this short hiatus? Even as I booted up my computer this morning I felt out of place as though I was not supposed to be perched over this keyboard. Yet, here I am.

What works for me is routine and rituals. Essentially it is discipline. There is a temptation, when returning to work after a break, to take time to read through all the mail, look over emails, etc. But if that is not your normal routine, I'd advise against it. Rather do what you always do in the morning to engage your brain. If you drink your coffee and scan emails for a short period when you arrive at work, then do that. If you are a writer and you sit down every morning at 7, 8 or 9, then do the same thing. Let the pile of mail, or some of the other distractions wait until you have engaged the morning in your traditional manner. You will find that your brain welcomes the routine. Later you can tackle the mail or email. But get your brain going first.

I highly recommend vacation; downtime from the rush and crush. But I also know the demand when you return. Allow yourself to be fully away on time off, but set yourself up for that first day back. Teach your brain to reengage by creating rituals and routines to start the day. Then on Monday morning or your first day back, you know where to find your brain. It's just where you left it.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

How to Pack Your Suitcase and Save Brain Power

Packing for Seattle yesterday morning I realized how much brain power I was saving. I’ve packed so many times that it is rote memory at this point. How my shoes go in, where I put my razor, how my tee shirts are packed. And even though I’m adding some vacation time to this business trip, it added only a moment’s hesitation. Very little brain power was used in this packing.

So, why is that important? Recent research indicates that we use up brain power as we make decisions. Even the little decisions such as which cereal we eat, depletes our brain power. Now, think of how many choices we have in a day. We probably have hundreds before we leave the house in the morning. The problem is that as the day progresses and our brain become tired (to use a very unscientific term) we start making decisions based more on gut instinct, or the easiest choice rather than thinking about them. Essentially we become stupid.

There is a way to give the brain a break. Create good habits. I’m not talking about the good habits of what we eat or how we behave, though those are necessary in society. I’m talking about taking away the thinking involved in the mundane tasks so that we can have the brain power left over to use on the difficult ones.
Simply put, be boring in some areas of your life. It’s okay. Though some people say that creativity is enhanced when you drive to work a different way, or brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand (that’s tough) but I’d rather save my creativity for writing or music. And I’d rather save my brain power for some important decision-making.

Think about it. When you awake in the morning knowing what you are wearing (even if you didn’t put it out the night before) and you eat the same (hopefully nutritious) breakfast, you’ve saved yourself from having to make all of those decisions. It makes the day easier.

Since I fly so much out of Newark Airport I always park in the same aisle. That way, when I get off a plane I never have to think where my car is. It’s always in the same place. I do the same with my glasses and wallet when I enter my house. I never have to think about it. It saves me time and brain power.

So, what good habits can you adopt especially with those things you do on a regular basis? Find a routine you don’t have to think about and imbed it into your daily life. It makes life much easier to live and it gives you some left over brain power for those difficult decisions like what movie to watch on the flight? 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Miracles, Coffee, and Creative Problem Solving

Okay, on our flight out to Seattle the flight attendants weren’t panicking, but they were pretty stressed out. Apparently no one had delivered enough Styrofoam cups to the airplane. Though they might be able to get through the cabin once with hot coffee, they knew they wouldn’t have enough hot beverage cups to come through again. For an early morning flight, this was disaster. People need their caffeine.

Their attempted solution was simple enough. They told passengers, as they came through, to save their cups if they wanted another cup of coffee. Now since there is no room at all on any of these airplanes, where exactly are you supposed to save the cup? And some people were sleeping when they first came through and would want a cup of coffee on waking up. Oh and add to this that the video system was broken down on a six hour flight and you could get a surly group of passengers.

As they passed through the aisle reminding people to keep their cups they bemoaned the lack of Styrofoam cups to serve hot coffee. Passengers wanted more coffee and there weren’t any cups left. My partner suggested to them “why don’t you serve iced coffee?” They had enough cold beverage cups. It was as though the heavens had opened and a miracle occurred. The attendants thanked him profusely and set about serving iced coffee to those who wanted it. They told my partner later that it was a great solution and specifically “solved” the problem of an unruly passenger in the back.

So, why couldn’t they find a solution? Because they were looking at the solution (more hot cups) and not the problem. Usually hot coffee is offered on all flights and is poured into Styrofoam cups. If you are missing cups or coffee the process is messed up. However, what happens when you focus on the problem and break it down to its essence? What people want in the morning is coffee. Most of us want it for the hit of caffeine (I know I do). I don’t prefer iced coffee in the morning, but if that’s what you’ve got, I’ll take it.

The solution worked. The passengers were satisfied with the substitution. The flight attendants were happy to avoid an unruly bunch of passengers. And all it took was a quick analysis of the real problem to develop a creative solution. And they gave my partner a free coffee with Baileys Irish Crème in it (plus a spare bottle). Hey it doesn’t get better. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

When Was Your Last Near-Life Experience?

Have you ever had those moments when in the midst of an average day the world comes alive? It is like waking up and really seeing life for the first time. Colors pop, sounds draw you in, texture caresses you and the inciting smell of a newly awakened world seduces you. At that moment, you wonder how you missed it all. How the wonder and the beauty escaped you. And usually you vow that you will see the world differently from that point on, but it doesn't always happen that way. You've just had a near-life experience.

All of us know about near-death experiences when the casual shift of the universe sends a truck down the wrong street, a heart valve mistimes, or you have an unfortunate misdirection into the wrong place at the wrong time. These experiences shock our system because we are genetically programmed to believe in life and incorrectly seduced in believing in the longevity of our own life. No one seeks a near-death experience, but people come away from them determined  to live life better, fuller, and more passionately than before. Sadly we seem to learn more from our fear of death than our joy of life.

From the moment of our birth we are aware of the wonder of the world. Watch infants and little children. When we were very young everything was new to us. We opened our eyes and tried to take it all in. We wanted to taste, touch, smell and digest it all, even if we didn't like it. We were fully alive and experiencing every moment. But as we grow, we adapt to our surroundings. We become used to our world and take it for granted. Those things that use to give us wonder no longer do. In essence, we stop living.

Adaptation is necessary to regulate our day. If we had to relearn everything every morning nothing would get done. Even as I type I'm aware that I don't have to think about where my fingers are, they just find the right keys (most of the time). But we also become inured to the beauty around us, to the incredible amount of sensory stimuli that awaits us every time we sit down to a meal, or even drive a car. After a while, we run on auto-pilot.

That's why it's important to seek out near-life experiences. Near-life experiences are those moments of awe and transcendence that awaken us to the life and loves that surround us. It's like coming out of sleep. We see the world around us for all that it offers. The reason I call them near-life is that very few of us will get to the point of total consciousness when we would be aware of every second of every day. But we can seek to place as many of these in our day as possible.

Start with a something simple. This morning I tasted my first cup of coffee. Seriously. Usually I slam my first cup down and wait for the caffeine to hit. But this morning I really tasted it as I listened in wonder to the chirping of the baby birds in the gutter of my house (I'll fix that after the bird family moves out). All it took was for me to be aware of the moment; of my senses and my sense of wonder.

Moments like this, scattered throughout the day bring us to life. We can enjoy the banter of colleagues as we become aware of our common human bonds. We can transform our brief lunch moment when we linger long enough to taste the sandwich. We might even enhance our commute by realizing the beauty of the sky. Near-life experiences, linked together, help us come alive again.

What are some of your favorite near-life experiences?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What is Your Sweat Point?

Okay, I'll admit it. I sweat when I write. Well, maybe not all the time, but most of the time. Why? No, my room is not a sauna. Usually it's on the cool side. Actually it's because when I have a good idea and get lost in my writing my energy level rises in the excitement. I call it my "sweat point."

What do you do that gets you excited during the day? It might be cooking, painting, creating a new website. But think about it? When does your entire being respond to what you are doing? You can feel the energy rise. Your breathing changes. Your heart responds.

I'm not talking about anxiety. We all know what that feels like. That is when the body overreacts to whatever we are doing or more realistically we overreact to what we are thinking. Yep, we really sweat then, but we also hyperventilate, and our bodies react in their fight or flight mode. Usually it happens when we are in over our head on something we are doing.

What I'm writing about are those moments when you are doing something you love and you lose yourself in it. It has been defined as "flow;" when your capability measures up to the challenge of the task. But flow is an amorphous concept. I've often wondered how I know I'm getting into flow. What are the ways I can tell?

For me, as I enter a moment of flow, my body responds to the excitement. I'm focused on the task at hand and I'm lost in it. The world fades. Of course there is the additional energy that I want to do the task well, so my energy level gets even higher. That's when I hit my sweat point. And I know I'm doing something that challenges my capabilities and pushes me farther than before.

What excites you? (wow, that doesn't sound right) What gets your energy going during the day? I've found that for many of us it's initially difficult to define those moments. But today, be aware of your body. Watch for those moments when the energy rises and you believe your abilities are up to the challenge. You will hit your sweat point. Why is this so important?

We all want to be engaged and energize in what we do, but most of us aren't aware what triggers that. Watch for your sweat point because you will start finding those things that engage and captivate you. Once you know what activities create flow you can steer your day toward those moments more and more.

As for me, I'm sweating now. Every morning I get to start my day with something that triggers my sweat point. I can't think of a better way to start my day.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Lessons Learned While Cooking

Last night I cooked dinner. I call it "Pasta Rustica" which is basically onions, garlic, capers, red pepper flakes and tomatoes thrown over linguine. For a change I threw in bacon.(It wasn't too bad) So what, you might say. Well a couple of years ago I would not have attempted any kind of cooking. Why? Because I had learned to be helpless in the kitchen. My concern is that our society is moving in the direction of helplessness in many ways. But a little more about my lesson.

I've had two incredible models for cooking in my life, my mother and my partner. Both of them in their own way can enter a kitchen and come out with some amazing food. The know the difference between turmeric and cumin seed while I just know how to spell the words. They put in a pinch of this and a dab of that. After a life of seeing this I was incredibly intimidated. I thought I'd never be able to cook like them so I didn't cook at all. I had given into learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is when you believe or have been told that someone else can do it better, quicker and more professionally than you. After a while it is easier and less intimidating to just let them do it. And that's just what I did. I didn't even try because I believed it would never be as good.

Recently in our society the temptations to fall into learned helplessness are greater. We have experts in almost everything that we can call on to do the work. We have "super nannies" to tell us how to raise children, we have "super chefs" who make a gourmet meal in 30 minutes and then get "chopped" because they forgot a garnish. We have life coaches and consultants because they supposedly help us make better decisions. Some of them make the decisions for us and we are weaker for it. We have party planners and designers because they have a "better eye" than we do. Really?

Sometimes it is convenient to hire others to do things around the house, or assist us in moving something along. But are we giving our lives away? There is something gratifying about seeing your own handiwork, or making your own decision and living with it. It might not be perfect, but it's yours. When I cook, sometimes I'm not sure what's gonna happen, but it just feels good to do it.

So pick some area you'd like to try. Maybe cooking, writing, wallpapering a room. Yep, educate yourself the best you can, but then be your own coach and walk through it. The feeling of accomplishment is amazing. And bring a sense of humor. Failure is not only an option, but it actually helps because you realize you can fail and the whole world does not fall apart.

Experts are fine and coaches help lots of people. However we have to find a balance where the life we live is ours and not some TV show version. Trying something and working through it creates a wonderful sense of ownership and helps us appreciate that we have the skills to success. (it's called self-efficacy). As for me, right now I'm gonna make breakfast.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall

The clean up continues this week as I prepare my house for sale. Yesterday I spent much of the day pulling all of the stuff out of the garage, sweeping out an amazing amount of spiders with eggs and webs (I have a slight arachnophobia - not fun) , and then putting all the stuff back in. What stuck me in the process is how much I love manual labor. Not that I could make it my life's work, but I really enjoy seeing a finished project. Whether painting, building a wall, digging a garden, or any project, I can see the progress and I can see the completion. The same thing happens when I write. But what's the marker or end game in personal development? How do we know we are making progress?

Most of us can't see ourselves as others do. That's pretty obvious. Yet we really don't see ourselves as we are.  Studies indicate that even looking in a mirror (now there's a dose of reality) that women typically see themselves as 5 pounds heavier than they actually are and men see themselves as 5 pounds lighter than they are. Our self perceptions are not very honest because they contain all of the biases (social and otherwise) that people have heaped on us all of our lives. So when we move toward being our best self part of the challenge is understanding how to determine that we've made progress.

If you really want to develop personally one of the best ways is to get a friend, a coach, or just someone you can trust to give you honest feedback. Tell them what area of your life you are developing and let them be your mirror. Working on personal development over the past year I continually ask my partner and best friend how I'm doing.  They know what I'm working on. They know how it manifests itself and they are honest when I miss the mark and when I'm doing well. It's not easy to hear sometimes, (okay, it's not easy to hear most of the time) but it's real. They are the true mirror for me. And they can tell me when I am progressing toward my personal goal. So pick someone who can be an honest, authentic mirror for you.

Additionally aside from our own personal development, we can help others. I've always love the holiday classic "It's a Wonderful Life" in which Henry Fonda plays George Bailey, a man who has no idea of the positive effect he has had on others. I think most of us are like that. People have no idea how they connect with those around them for good or for bad. So we can be the mirror for other people. When we've been affected by those around us. When they've helped us in some way, given us advice, or just a helping hand, we've got to tell them. People need to learn when they've done something wonderful for others. Perhaps then more of the world will realize that we are mostly good people striving to make a difference.

Mirrors are not pretty because they reflect reality. They show us (for good or bad) how we are progressing toward a goal. But very often they reflect the mindset of the person looking into the glass. Personal growth is difficult to see unless we have people act as our mirrors. We need them to help us see how we've developed or not. But we can also be the mirror for others. They can learn what they have meant to us and how they've affected our life. That is a great way to see progress. That is a real mirror.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Try a Clean Sweep

I'm spending this week preparing my house for sale. I spent yesterday in the basement re-wrapping pipes, trashing some things, rearranging others and sweeping up. It gave me a lot of time to think and yet, all I thought about was cleaning. Oh, not cleaning the basement, cleaning up my mind. Wait! It's not what you think, let me explain.

What I pondered was the immense amount of knowledge we store up in our brains. We know language (some of us more than one), people (though I can't remember their names), songs (now there I remember all the words), information, history, processes, procedures, rules, etc. I could go on and on about all the things stored up in our brain. But when was the last time we did an inventory of what's up there? Like my basement, my mind is full of a lot of useless stuff that's getting in the way of clarity.

Okay, though I'm not a brain scientist (not even close) I do know that as we grow and develop, we create pathways in the brain that allow us to function at a very rapid pace. We move from unconscious incompetence to conscious competence through a process of learning, practice and mastery. All of this is very good. The challenge is that once the pathways are in place it's tough to change them.

For example, during my dusty exploits yesterday I thought about my defensiveness in certain situations. If I feel attacked, even in a joking humorous way, I immediately take offence. When I dusted off the reasons behind my feelings I realized that I still carry the scars of being the skinny little "new kid" on the block who had to prove himself over and over. Yet when I thought about it, none of that is true anymore. So the first step is finding thoughts or pathways that are no longer valid.

The second part is not easy. Getting rid of old thoughts and habits. One thing I do know is that old thoughts and habits have to be replaced by something new, something better. We can't just "not do" or "not think" something. We have to replace it with something else. So, as I moved boxes into the newly swept areas of the basement, I thought about my life now and who I am. I'm no longer the skinny kid (no kidding) but a successful adult. So now I've got a picture in my mind to bring up when those feelings start happening again.

It's not easy cleaning house. There are so many things we've grown attached to and hesitate to let go. The same in our brain. We've got old ideas running around that are hindering us from being the best person we can be. Take some time to think about the old ideas that might be getting in the way. Identify them and then replace them with new ideas. It's not easy and it's not quick because you have to continually remind yourself, but it can change your life.

Okay, 'nuf said. Today I have to clean out the garage.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Too Much Stuff

My brother used to have a bumper sticker on the back of his car "The one who dies with the most toys wins." That bumper sticker came to mind this week as I "de-cluttered" my house in preparation for sale. How did I get so much stuff? We've been working for about two weeks off and on trying to prepare for an open house and though everything is a little neater there is still too much. We're gonna need a big van to move out. Yet what really struck me is the time it takes to maintain all this stuff. Life was a lot simpler when I could fit everything I owned in the back of a car. 

Most of us spend our lives gathering. We collect the trinkets and mementos of long-ago friendships rather than maintaining the friendship. We store reminders from experiences we've had but have to spend time dusting them instead of having new experiences. And, of course, we purchase more so we can keep up with the neighbors when we've never had the neighbors over for dinner or a drink.

I'm not suggesting that we give everything away and live on the street. Yet there is significant research that suggests we are happier and feel greater well being from experiences rather than possessions. Excellent. When I think about the best memories I have, they aren't from a Christmas full of gifts. They are from moments with friends and loved ones. Even experiences of personal greatness, moments of success, or celebrations of someone else's success stick out in my mind as more memorable than all of the stuff. 

I want to redo the bumper sticker to read "The one who dies with the most toys still dies." Its a good reminder for me that I don't want to go to my grave carrying the heavy burden of all this stuff. I'd rather be carrying the lighter more important load of great memories from my time with others, or my experiences. 

Ah, but for right now, I have to get back to packing all of the stuff. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Cereal and Coffee: Be Happy and Learn

Last night I saw an interesting movie, "Limitless." Not great, but interesting. It was about a guy who used a pill that could unlock the brain. As they quoted in the movie, we only use about 10% of the brain's power, so they fictionalized what would happen if we could find a pill to unlock the whole brain. The concept was fascinating, even though the movie was just okay.

So this morning I was researching the optimal functioning of the brain (yep, I'm weird) and I discovered once again that my parents were right, breakfast is good for you. Specifically what I found is that two very simple items can enhance your mood and brain functioning significantly first thing in the morning. Maybe it's not the magic pill, but hey, any brain enhancement I can get is good.

Breakfast cereal (Honey Nut Cheerios is my favorite) puts you in a more positive mood and it enhances spacial capabilities. Many people I speak with yearn to be more positive, especially in the morning. Think about it. It's not a pill and it's good for  you. I'd love to have cereal in the car while driving in rush hour. I would jump out of the car and give it to the other drivers. These other drivers need to be happier and have better spacial capabilities; they drive too aggressively and too close to me.

Ah and my favorite morning beverage, coffee, along with waking me up I've now found that it enhances learning. Yep. The experiment that Adams and Smith did in 1999 showed that individuals who had coffee learned significantly faster than those who did not. So coffee gets my brain going early so that I can be open to new ideas and new concepts. Very cool.

Though it's not the magic pill fantisized in "Limitless," cereal and coffee provide enough stimulation for the brain to kick into gear. For most of us, that's what we need. If we long to think more clearly and be in a better mood, it's simple. Get out the bowl and the cup.

As for me, I'm having another cup of coffee. And honestly, I'd still like a pill that would unlock more of my brain's potential. Who know, maybe I'd get up to the 10%.

Smith, A.P. & Clark. R, (1999) Breakfast cereal and caffeinated coffee: effects on working memory, attention, mood and cardiovascular function. Physiology & Behavior.