Friday, August 24, 2012

Do You Ever Want To Turn Everything Off?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Choose Your Friends (and Family) Carefully

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

No One Will Die If You Don't Read This

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 20, 2012

There is No Instant Greatness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Do Something For Someone Else

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The "Magic Wand" of Motivation

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

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

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

Monday, August 13, 2012

What Happens When the TV is Turned Off?

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Intensity Versus Consistency: What Wins?

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

What's the Payoff to Your Behavior?

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 6, 2012

Answer Your Cell Phone - Or Not

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

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

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

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

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

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