Thursday, March 28, 2013

What, Me Worry?

As a young teen I was a fan of MAD magazine. Their picture of Alfred E. Neuman with his motto "What, Me Worry?" always made me smile. Back then I worried a lot. I worried about the life ahead of me, what I would do with my life, who I would become, how much money I would make, and who would love me. There is even a line in one of my journals (yep, I kept diaries since I was 10) that I was worried about the devaluation of the dollar. No kidding! My friends and family still kid me about that one. But I've given up worry along with guilt and it feels great.

Now before you worry about me, I'm fine. I still feel both worry and guilt. I believe they are necessary for normal psychological functioning. They are warning signs that there is something we believe we have left undone, or some way that we have injured someone else. (I know those are simplistic definitions, but let's leave them for a bit). So, as far as warning signs go, we need worry and guilt in our lives.

However, when the smoke alarm goes off in your house what do you do? Well, I look for the source of the smoke (usually overcooking), determine if there is a real fire, get rid of the smoke and turn off the alarm. Probably the last thing you do is keep feeding smoke into the alarm, letting it shriek and replacing the batteries when they run low. Yet many people I've spoken with over the years deal with worry and guilt like that. They feed the worry and guilt constantly neither dealing with the problem, nor silencing the alarm. They can go on like this for years. 

Somehow many of us have come to think that by worrying or feeling guilty we are doing something. That is not true at all. We are just letting alarms go off, but not dealing with the issue. Once I realized I was simply perpetuating an alarm by wallowing in worry or guilt I determined to start dealing with the issues. 

So, now I listen to myself carefully when I worry or feel guilty. Then I determine what part of the issue is under my control and what part is totally out of my control. It has taken me many years, but I've finally learned to let go of what I can't control, and focus on what I can control. Next, I take action; I do something to eradicate what I'm worried about or I take an action that rectifies what I feel guilty about. 

This discipline requires practice, but it is well worth it. Understanding worry and guilt as warning signs takes a lot of their power away and places them at our disposal rather than debilitating us. More importantly in this entire process, you feel more of a sense of control and that, more than anything, can eliminate both worry and guilt. 

I no longer worry about the devaluation of the dollar. There's nothing I can do about that. But the other warning signs that pop up, worry about business or guilt about not calling a friend, I can deal with. Worry and guilt are good emotions to have, but only for a short period of time. Take some action and turn off the alarm. Your life will be much more peaceful. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Don't Underestimate Your Ability to Change the World

Last week  I met a group of heroes. They did not wear capes or tights and they didn't use false identities. What amazed me was that they don't consider their duties heroic. To them it is all in a day's work. These are the men and women who work for the Henry Street Settlement in New York City. After hurricane Sandy hit New York City blacking out most of lower Manhattan, these people fanned out to check on the seniors they knew and cared for. Sometimes walking up 30 to 40 floors they brought food, medicine and comfort. They painstakingly escorted or carried some of the seniors out of these buildings and relocated them in housing that had electricity and running water. From the time Sandy hit until all their seniors were safe and cared for they worked ridiculously long hours even though many of them had no electricity or running water in their own homes. Yet, none of them thought what they did was heroic.

In keynotes, conferences and workshops we consistently find that people easily identify individuals they believe are great: noting everyone from Mother Theresa of Calcutta, to their parents, or an aunt or uncle. They identify the characteristics they believe these individuals possess and easily list characteristics of greatness. Research on heroes, as noted by Scott Allison and George Goethals in Heroes: What they do and why we need them, list "hero" characteristics as being "smart, strong, selfless, caring, charismatic, resilient, reliable and inspiring."

Here is where it gets interesting. When we have people look at the characteristics of greatness or heroes and ask them if they've displayed any of the characteristics, they respond with silence. We could attribute this lack of response to humility, or it could speak to a larger challenge: we can't see ourselves as heroes or great individuals. That is beyond us.

Why is this a challenge? Because our actions depend on how we think of ourselves and our abilities so if we believe we cannot make any difference in the world we won't make any. However, if we realize that we have shown some of the characteristics of greatness or heroics, then that behavior and those characteristics can be repeated and we can ultimately help a lot of people we might otherwise have ignored.

None of us need a cape or tights (I've heard they're hard to keep clean) but we need to realize that we have powers and abilities that can positively affect others around us. By at least acknowledging them in ourselves we can develop and grow those abilities so that everyone benefits.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Are You Happy? Who Cares

Today is United Nations World Happiness Day. UN World Happiness Day  I didn't know that until I logged into Facebook this morning and someone posted it on their timeline. I'm not a big fan of focusing on happiness (and I'll get to that) but having a day to bolster happiness throughout the world might be a good thing.

For me, happiness is a byproduct, not the goal. I'm happy when I help others, when I finish writing something I'm proud of, when I connect with my friends and family and hear they are okay. Happiness isn't something I directly seek, but it is an emotion that tells me I'm in a good place. The challenge is that happiness is so fleeting and subjective. I can be very happy one minute and then, after someone tells me bad news, I'm depressed. This doesn't seem to be an end goal worth focusing on, and studies show that individuals who focus on achieving happiness tend to be less happy than others.

So the answer is to shift the focus! Stop thinking about your own happiness. 

 Recently I was in Dunkin Donuts with my business partner, Jan. We take turns buying coffee and it was her turn. As the woman rang up our order Jan said "and I'll pay for his order too" indicating the guy behind us. What ensued after the shock was an immediate refusal to allow her to pay. Then he reluctantly accepted (we are very suspicious in the North East). And finally he got to a point where he was really happy and thanked Jan profusely. The people behind the counter were also incredulous. However, what surprised me more was how it affected my mood. I only witnessed the generosity, but for a few hours after that I felt very happy and blessed.

Here is where real happiness begins. When we help others, all the studies indicate, we are happier for a longer period of time and the happiness is more substantial. When we have purpose and meaning in our life and work (usually meaning we are contributing to something bigger than us) we are happier and more satisfied with life. When we are doing things for others and are not so self focused, we are happier.

Are you happy? Who cares? It's fleeting any way. However, ask yourself  "are the people around me safe, comfortable, and able to offer their best at what they do?" When you focus on them and help them enjoy the best life they can have, you will find yourself enjoying life more and you will be happier than you have ever been. So, perhaps there is a point to World Happiness Day, even if it's only buying someone else a cup of coffee and making them happy.

Monday, March 18, 2013

When The Going Gets Tough

Yesterday I was at the gym early in the morning for what I thought would be a quick workout. I was a little tired from the week, but wanted to do something to keep healthy, so I found myself there at 8:30 trying to break a sweat. Yet what happened over the next two hours surprised me. Yep, two hours! Now let me clarify something. I don't like lifting or working out in a gym. If there is a basketball game or a tennis match I can lose track of time and play for hours (or as long as my body holds out) but I don't really like just working out. So what happened?

Much of the time I am at this particular gym there are very few people there. I plod through my workout, some days feeling more energized, but most of the time I am watching the clock waiting for when I believe I've done enough. Yesterday there were a few people who I'm come to know in town and it seemed like everyone was in a mood to connect. I found out about birthdays and facial accidents (one guy accidently shaved part of his beard off). We laughed. We talked about weather and basketball. As this occurred I moved from equipment to equipment and worked harder than I have in many months. It was all because of my friends.

Studies at the University of Richmond show that when friends are with you, you judge challenges to be less difficult and therefore you are more likely to complete them. They also discovered that the pain centers of the brain don't register pain as much when you have a friend with you.

So often in our desire to change habits, optimize behavior, or achieve something, we believe we have to "go it alone." Yet, when the going gets tough, the tough get a friend. It lessens the challenge and we are more likely to succeed. Besides, when you achieve your goal, there is someone there to celebrate with.

Monday, March 11, 2013

You Need A Cheering Section

There is an interesting phenomenon in sports that also speaks to achievement and success for all of us. Studying the season of any team statistics strongly point to a “home court advantage.” Any team seems to play better when the cheering section is behind them. This is so much of a factor that in basketball, the fans are often called “the sixth man” as though they played the game with the team. But what has this got to do with success and achievement?
Recently the new CEO of Yahoo rattled the working world by calling their employees back into their offices. No more tele-commuting for Yahoo. Her motives focused on the necessity of employees interacting personally to foster innovation. Studies indicate that she is right about bringing employees together. Following her lead, Best Buy and KPMG also ordered their employees back into the office.
Let’s put aside the question of flexibility and work-life balance for a minute. I’m all for flexibility and utilizing the power of technology to complete work wherever and whenever the employee can. (I’ve done some of my best projects sitting on the sand looking at the ocean.) But for a moment, let’s look at some of the positives of working together.
Alex Pentland of MIT studies the highest performing work groups and found that one of the key factors for success is physical proximity. Teams that were near each other, where they could bounce ideas off each other, meet at the water fountain, take a coffee break or lunch together were more productive and innovative. They were more successful. Pentland even found he could identify that how the employees spoke to each other; where and how they stood in proximity to each other, was indicative of how successful the work group would be.
Additionally studies in Positive Psychology indicate that the social aspect of work, just being around other people and interacting with them, can make people happier. We are social animals and we enjoy being with others. The simple affirmation of being recognized as we walk into work, or in a restaurant, or bar, elevates us for the moment as part of a hive.
But we also need to consider the “cheering section” effect. Speaking to many people about their successes in life I realize that its very difficult to “go it alone.” When there are people around who acknowledge what you’ve done, how you’ve contributed and (if applicable) how good your work is, you do better work. It’s like having a “sixth man.”
Yes, there is a freedom that technology allows us so we can work from anywhere. But what are we giving up? We are social animals. We love a hive and to be part of one. So whether your company demands employees return to the office or not, you need to design your own cheering section. Meet at Starbucks with other workers. Take a home worker out to lunch. You will be amazed at the results. And, if you are really serious about succeeding, create your own cheering section. Identify the people who will encourage and help you along the way. Nothing will stop you because you will always have the home court advantage.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Do You Feel Lucky?

"I'm a great believer in luck and I find that the harder I work the more luck I have." Thomas Jefferson.

I don't believe in luck. Well, let me amend that. I didn't believe in luck. The reason was that I wanted to believe I was in control of my present circumstances and my future success. I felt that everything that happened to me was part of my own work and preparedness. Of course, we've all heard the aphorism "luck is the intersection of opportunity and preparation." I was so immersed in this thinking that I stopped wishing people "good luck" and instead I wished them "continued success." Recently I read Great by Choice by Jim Collins where he dismisses the concept of luck being a factor in organizational success. For Collins, success is all about how organizations plan and execute on their plan.

Yet empirical evidence pulled at me. Good and bad things happen to people when other things could or should have. That is really the definition of luck; good or bad. Reading about successful people often reveals they are in the right place, at the right time. Or they happen to meet just the right person to pursue their goal. Or they accidentally discover something while working on a different project. Or they just miss the storm that capsizes everyone else while they sail on to victory. It was a factor out of their control, but they just happened to utilize it. History is filled with great individuals who were "lucky." But is that all there is to it?

 Recently Dr. Adam Grant from Wharton interviewed Michael Mauboussin about his new book, The Success Equation. Mauboussin spoke about luck being the stuff that happens around you (good and bad) over which you have no control. But what he also discovered from studying successful people is that more things go their way (luck) than individuals who are not as skilled or persistent. In other words, Thomas Jefferson could be right that the harder you work the more luck you will have.

Examining my own life I can honestly say that I've been lucky. I've met the "right" people, had the "right" interviews, pitched the "right" solution and often at just the "right" time. But usually it happened when I worked hard at success. What about you? How much has luck played a part in your life and your success? For me, I still want to do more research, but what I'm beginning to understand, as I examine my own life, is that even though I did not believe in luck, apparently luck believed in me.