Monday, May 12, 2014

Living a Life of S(s)ignificance

Over the weekend I heard of two college commencements both of which exhorted students to "live a life of significance." How that was expounded on I really don't know, but the phrase stuck in my head. So since we are exhorting our young people to live this way, the question rebounds in our direction, are you and I living a life of significance?

If you are like me, the first question that arises is what is meant by a life of significance? Though there is a book by this title, I didn't find it really enlightened me. A life of significance could be a life of fame, or notoriety, or stature, but I was pretty sure that's not how they meant it in the commencement addresses. So, I thought I'd look it up.

The definition of significance is about "having meaning, importance." Initially I thought about the majority of people who attend my workshops on personal greatness who have not specifically thought about meaning. But the more I think about it, I've realized (once again) that I am wrong. All of us have significance in one another's lives. Since we live in a world where we interact with each other (a "hive") we impact each other every day and foster or degrade individuals along the way.

I have encountered many people in my journeys about the globe who in a smile, a gesture, a comment, or an action assure me that I am a fellow human being deserving of respect and care. I've also encountered other people who treat me as refuse and toss aside me and anyone else who gets in their way to achieve or own something. Both examples have significance in our lives, just by the way that they live. This is significance with a small "s." I happens everyday whether we think about it or not.

Additionally I believe there is significance with a capital "S." There are individuals who think carefully about their footprint on this planet and how they want to touch the lives of their fellow human beings. Some choose to live significantly though parenting, some though their work, others through their attitude. But they are conscious about their Significance. I find these people to be powerful examples of lives lived fully with passion and vigor.

So, either way we live, mindfully or on autopilot, we have meaning in the lives of others. However the choice is ours as to what our S(s)ignificance is. What will yours be?

Monday, May 5, 2014

Greatess Is Not a Zero Sum Game


Many years ago I walked into my cousin's bedroom and saw a new trophy on his bookcase. "What did you win?" I inquired. "Nothing," he said. "That was just for being a part of the team." I never forgot that moment and ranted for years against this way of rewarding kids and adults, but now, I think I'm wrong.

Yesterday I read an article in the New York Times where Alfie Kohn opined against my old way of thinking. He noted that many adults believe that giving kids trophies for showing up would make them soft, deprive them of grit and make them lazy. Our mindset was that in order to teach kids resilience, you have to make life tough. Some of us think that kids who receive praise for everything will never make it in the “real” world. Why not? Because we want them to go through the same suffering we had to?
Life is suffering. That’s not just a Buddhist concept, but a simple awareness that in order for life to be lived, we have to struggle and work. Kids realize this as well as we do. They know very well that they did not come in first place in a race even if we give them a medal. But what the medal does communicate is that they are valuable just for trying.
Of course I’m not saying to just give people everything. But to deprive both adults and children of praise just because we believe it will make them soft is stupid. 60 percent of American workers would like to have some recognition of the work they’ve done. It won’t make them soft, but it might make them realize how valuable they are and that they can have pride in their work. But when I speak to managers about why they won’t give more praise, they say “then they’d expect it.” Yes, imagine that. Expecting thanks for a job well done. (And this applies just as much at home as it does in the workplace.)
This notion of rewarding only the very best has made its way into corporations in very insidious ways. Most corporations have ranking systems and bell curves so that some employees are on top, some in the middle and others at the bottom regardless of how they performed. Managers are forced to fill all three buckets. This is ridiculous. If the hiring managers do their job, they are bringing on people who are talented and motivated to do their best. So why can’t everybody be great?
Currently I’m working with a major international firm that has done away with ranking and calibration. Employees are only evaluated on the work they do and how it helps the business and each other. In this scenario you could have a large number of employees receiving top rewards. Why not? Greatness is not a zero sum game. I am not diminished if you are great.
What finally clicked and turned my thinking around was imagining the environment created by never telling adults or children what they’ve done right or by ranking them against each other so there is only one winner. Any student who has taken Psychology 101 knows that the human response to a threat is fight, flight, or freeze. You don’t learn that way. But by creating an environment where everyone can win, in their own way, you create an environment where, as researcher Barbara Fredrickson describes it, individuals can broaden their capacity to learn and build on their skills. It’s an environment where everyone can be great, and that is not a zero sum game.