Friday, September 28, 2012

Mindfulness Can Help Decisions and Reactions

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Maybe You Don't Have to Set Goals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Focus on Your Weaknesses

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Set Your Parents Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 14, 2012

Are You Bi-locating Right Now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Routine Deserves Better Press

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Day of Transformation

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 10, 2012

Coming Off A Technology Fast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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