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.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Why Are Optimists so Obnoxious?

Okay, I'm an admitted optimist. Yep, born that way. I'm guessing my genetic predisposition toward optimism  is well over the 50% that researchers say is present in society. On top of that I choose to be optimistic the other 40% of the time and the 10% of my life circumstances aren't too bad. So why it is so difficult to be around me? After all, I'm the cheery guy who always sees the bright side of things. Therein lies the problem.

"I'd like to slap you upside the head" said an HR Director yesterday when she heard from Jan, my business partner, how optimistic I am. "Yep" agreed Jan, "sometimes it's obnoxious." I took all of this in the fun in which it was meant,  but it caused me to think. With all of this happiness and positiveness being promoted by books, speakers and workshops is it making some of us tough to live with?

What is it about optimists that make us so difficult to be around? Well, I'd like to offer my side as an optimist, but I'm open to hearing from others. The researchers say that the difference between optimism and pessimism is about "explanatory style." That means when something bad or good happens to us we "explain" it by telling ourselves how it will affect us. Is the negative event permanent and pervasive, or just temporary and local? Our explanation then drives our behavior. So, it's not about whether the glass is half full or half empty, it's about what you are thinking after you dump it in your lap. Does it ruin your entire day, or is it a momentary accident?

My theory about why optimists are considered obnoxious rests on what optimism or pessimism allows us to do. Pessimism, because it leans toward the believe that bad things will continue to happen, or something will go wrong, allows us to wallow in the difficulty of the moment. We comfort ourselves that we've done our best and can savor all of the pity of our friends and family. We can rest for the moment because, after all, nothing else can be done. Optimists on the other hand, seeing the challenge as temporary, realize there is  more that can be done, perhaps another avenue of departure, and we move forward. There is no resting, no wallowing in the moment, but just charging ahead seeing another opportunity.

No wonder we're considered so obnoxious. Sometimes it feels good to have people comfort you, give advice, or just feel sorry for you and you don't have to do anything. We optimists rain on that parade big time! The worst part is that we usually foist our optimistic advice just when the other person is enjoying the attention, or the rest.

So, I think I'll try letting others enjoy their moment of attention, or wallowing. If they want my advice they will ask for it. As for me, I'll be on the sunny side of the street.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Sometimes "Ready, Fire, Aim" is a Good Strategy

After five days of vacation, I feel rested and refreshed and I learned something along the way. Now when I look at the stack of mail on the side of my desk, or  at the file folders not put away at work, I understand what gets in the way for me. Sometimes I think too much.

I've heard the advice to be wary of pulling the trigger too quickly on some new idea or endeavor. Consultants often glibly refer to it as "Ready, Fire, Aim" and calmly assure people that they need to take time to aim before pulling the trigger. That is where I get bogged down. I can comfortably spend a large amount of time thinking about anything from where I want to file a bill, to launching the next phase of my life. Now seriously, those are two things on a totally different scale, but sometimes I feel like I give everything the same importance.

The realization hit when I was visiting my parents and helping them out around the yard. They have a nice fountain in front of their house that was empty of water and has been since the last time I visited. When I asked about it, they told me that it leaked. They wondered what to do with it; whether or not to just put soil in it and plant flowers. We stood discussing ideas about what to do about the fountain for a while. Finally I offered "what if I can fix it?" They didn't want me to take all that time and besides, they didn't think it was repairable.

I took the fountain apart, cleaned it, and filled the bowl on dry ground. Nothing. No leak,  no spillage. I was proud of myself as I put the fountain back together and filled it with water. Apparently the leak had been a fluke. Until about an hour later, then the leaking started. I immediately emptied the bowl and put it in the sun to dry. After purchasing a tube of silicon, I layered the inside of the bowl with silicon and let that dry. Problem solved. The fountain works beautifully.

So what? I learned that, for me, it is best to do something just to start on a project. I can think about things all day, all week, or all month and they will remain un-started. By jumping in, I learn as I go and in the process things get done. Of course some might say that I'm firing before I aim, but for me I can always realign my sights. The important part is that I have to pull the trigger because I can aim for a very long time.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Why Can't You Read My Mind?

Why can’t people read my mind or hear what I’m thinking? My thoughts are loud enough for me to hear very clearly. They should know when I’m upset, or needy without me having to go through the trouble of telling them. Actually the worst part is how the drivers in New Jersey ignore what I’m thinking. They should know enough to get out of my way and stop dawdling in the left lane. What’s this world coming to when everyone is ignoring what I’m thinking? 
Ever have those thoughts? No? Well, maybe you haven’t phrased them in this way, but many of us forget that people can’t read our minds and it leads to frustration, disempowerment and sometimes anger. We all need to learn the art of speaking; knowing when to speak our mind and when to keep our thoughts to ourselves. 
I initially became aware of this trend (to believe that people could read my mind) when I found myself frustrated with a good friend. He knew I had a bad day and he listened to my complaints… but not enough. I wanted to complain a bit more and he moved on to other things. I was hurt, insulted and I started getting angry. “He should know what I want” I thought to myself. And then it hit me. He is a great friend, but he’s no mind reader. And I can’t expect him to be one.
To often we expect our friends, lovers, family and even co-workers to know what we are thinking and to act accordingly. We somehow believe there is no need to express what we want because the other person should know it. Besides, it’s humbling to express what we need to someone else. So we create ways of asking without words. We cuddle up to lovers in a “certain” way. We offer friends something knowing it will be reciprocated. We suggest broadly at work “why don’t we all do…” when it’s what we really want. 
I’m no psychologist, but asking for what we want sounds grown up. It also seems pushy for some of us. Yet, I know it’s easy for me to ask for free room upgrades at hotels, or a larger rental car without the premium, but it’s much more difficult to ask for time from a friend. Perhaps I don’t want to admit my need, so it’s easier to blame it on their lack of awareness. Who am I kidding? 
People who have created balance in their lives willingly ask for help when they need it. They are able to find the place of vulnerability that comes from asking and not let it bother them. They also seem to know the balance between asking for real help and just being a pain. And when they are asked for their opinion, they give it. Have you ever stood in a circle with friends paralyzed by the question “what do you want to do?” No one can read your mind. If you want something you’ve got to say it. 
Conversely there are others who overplay this strength. They ask for everything, are never hesitant about giving their  opinion of what they want to do and rarely ask others what they think or want. I find them overbearing, arrogant and selfish. And at times I’m jealous of them. Well, not jealous of them, but their ability to ask for what they want. But they do take it too far. 
The successful individuals I’ve met have a balance of individualism and collectivism. They are willing to ask for what they need and give their opinion when asked. However they are also generous to discover what others think and need. There is no pretense of mind reading here. This is the best balance of communication. There are no assumptions here of what someone wants, or that they know what I want. These individuals role model the best communication: actively soliciting what others think and actively contributing their thoughts. 
Now I just have to figure out how to actively communicate what I’m thinking to the slow poke driving in the left lane so he doesn’t have to read my mind. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Do You Learn More From Success or Failure? Think Again

Yesterday preparing for a leadership retreat we were on a conference call with the committee discussing how to set up the best learning environment and what tasks and activities to use. As a defense for a particularly difficult task someone said "we learn more from our failures than our successes." With that, everyone on the call acknowledged the truth of this statement, accepted that the challenge embedded in this one activity would be beneficial and moved on. But I've never been a big fan of old wives' tales (maybe because I'm not) and so I wondered what is the truth behind the saying.

I admit I remember my failures much more than successes. Perhaps that's because I play them over and over in my mind. I think I'm hoping for a different ending. But one thing I know is that I examine every detail of what happened to ensure I won't fail in that way again. Because of my reply it does seem that I learn more from my failures because I pay attention to them more than my success. But what does research say about learning more from failure.

It seems that the belief is false. We learn more from success than we do from failure. Yep, so I apologize to the old wives who believed this. In 2009 MIT studied how the brain processes success and failure. Essentially when we finish a task signal neurons send information to brain cells informing them of the success or failure. The difference is that when we succeed at the task researchers discovered that the signals last significantly longer, are stronger and actually change brain cells so we are more likely to succeed the next time. When we fail at the task the signals are weak and don't change the brain cells at all. Of course more research is necessary to determine if there is a different signal if the success or failure is life threatening, but the initial research points to success as the greater learning tool.

So why does the old theory persist? Because similar to me, many of us focus much more on our failures. We replay them over and over to make sure we learn from them. Yet interestingly, do you ever find yourself making the same mistakes over and over again? I know I do. Now I know why. My brain isn't changing after a failure.

What we need to do is start dealing with our success differently. If it is the better learning tool, we need to replay the successes in our heads to see what we've learned. That will implant the new behavior faster than failure and we will remember it more.

So the next time you succeed, enjoy the moment. Replay it in your head and think of how you did it differently and what you learned. You are programming your brain to do it right the next time and you are more likely to remember it. And perhaps along the way we can change an old wives' tale.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Yoga and Personal Greatness: It's Not a Stretch

Some friends came to visit over the weekend. At one point they encouraged us to do yoga with them led by some guru on a DVD. It was brutal. First of all, some of the moves I couldn't come close to performing (you want me to put that leg where?). Second I realized how very inflexible I am (see leg). However what struck me was the encouragement of the couple who told me not to be discouraged, that the body responded very quickly to the yoga moves. They told me it is like the muscle memory from any sport and that once the body knows it can do the movement it is much easier. I hope so. But my reflection on flexibility stretched a little further.

Individuals who achieve personal greatness have a powerful sense of who they are and where they are going. They set very high goals and are relentless in pursuing those goals. But it is a mistake to believe that they are rigid in either their thought process, or their path to their goals. It is this characteristic of flexibility which allows them to continue pursuing goals when others have given up.

For me, and I suspect many others, it's easy to fall into the trap of believing I know most of the ways to do things, or how things work. I have strong mental models that corral me into thinking certain ways, or coming to the same conclusion over and over. And it's this inflexibility that inhibits creativity and innovation. Recently I was attempting to remove a light bulb that had broken, leaving the metal casing still in the socket. I was trying to use a pair of pliers, but the twisting was just making a mess of the remainder of the light bulb. A friend who was watching me grow more frustrated asked if I had an old potato. He pushed the potato into the broken bulb and twisted out the remains of the bulb. A potato? Really? But if the goal was just to get the bulb out, why did I resist using something other than pliers? It wasn't my mental model.

So I'm trying to look at challenges differently. Rather than thinking in a linear fashion, i.e., if this is a nail I have to use a hammer, I try looking at the whole problem i.e., I'm trying to attach something to the wall. It opens up other possibilities and answers. The second thing I'm learning to do is slow down my thinking. If I think quickly I tend to come up with the same solutions because they are easy and I fall into routines. However if I take a little more time to think about the challenge and about my immediate reaction I can hold my first answer aside and see if I can come up with something else.

One additional thought about individuals who achieve personal greatness and their flexibility. What, on the outside, looks like a demonic rigor to pursuing a path, on closer inspection reveals that the end goal might be set, but the path to get there is open to flexibility and change all along the way. This is how they succeed. Where others might stop because they can't get traditional funding, these individuals figure out new ways to gain funding for their ideas. When others fail because a part is not available these individuals figure out how to create their product without the part, or with a different part. The key is that they have the end goal in mind, but realize that the road there might not be a straight line.

Physically we need flexibility to flourish and thrive, especially as we age. Yet also mentally we need to understand where we are not flexible in our thinking and stretch ourselves. Who knows? We might find a different and better way to do something we've done for years. It just requires a little flexibility. As for me, I'm not ready to buy a yoga mat, but I might try some of those stretches again.

Friday, June 1, 2012

That's Not Empowerment, It's Abandonment!

Recently we sat with the new core team of a very large non-profit. They want to change their organizational structure to a flexible, nimble environment that is innovative and open, so they flattened the organization, took away restrictions and told staff "be creative, be innovative" The result? Panic and paralysis for most of the staff except for a rare few. Why? The core team thought they were empowering the staff to be creative. Essentially they were abandoning the staff to uncertainty. The difference between empowerment and abandonment is important for anyone who is mentoring, leading, parenting or coaching someone else.

We see it all the time. Leaders, coaches, even parents want to help someone learn something new. So they gently nudge them to attempt the new skill, embrace the new behavior, or accept the "stretch" assignment. Then they sit back and watch. Usually the outcome is not what they expect. The person either freezes, turns in something they've done before, or botches it badly. The leader then reflects "well, I empowered them to get this done." Yet in reality they did not empower the other person as much as abandon them.

Abandonment is when we suggest that someone learn a new skill, or take on a new job and we don't provide the support they need. Working at Merrill Lynch in the 90's I was tasked with creating on-line training for our managers. With no training, poor materials, tight deadlines, and no support, I failed. And my boss said to me she was disappointed I wasn't able to achieve my "stretch" assignment. She thought she had empowered me when in fact she had abandoned me. So what are the necessary components for real empowerment?

Direction. There are some people who, with no direction, can decide what they want to achieve and move toward it. Most of us however need to have some idea of what we are trying to accomplish. It might be mastering a new skill, or attempting new work, but we need to have an idea of the end goal.

Training.  Asking someone to try something new without providing some training is almost bound to fail. Anything that involves doing something you've never done before requires some education. It avoids the stumbling over simple mistakes and allows the person to have some security as they try something new.

Materials.  Providing the proper equipment to help the person succeed is also essential. Tasked with creating online training, I was using an old computer that couldn't keep up with new software. It was laughable (well, I can look back now and laugh).

A Sounding Board.  When people are attempting new work or risking themselves in a new venture, they need someone to talk to. Too often those who "abandon" them say "I don't need to hear from you until it's done." They don't realize that they are not setting the person free, they are inhibiting them because they can't dialogue about the challenges or successes.

Support.  This is the most important difference between empowerment and abandonment. The fear of failure is a major factor that inhibits success. In order for someone to focus on something new and accept the risks, they need to know that they will be supported if it fails. Otherwise they will only hesitantly try new things while they protect themselves from the potential fall out. The sweetest words I heard from a manager giving me a stretch assignment was "Don't worry. I've got you covered." That's when I was set free.