Archive for March, 2010|Monthly archive page

Live what you want others to learn

In 1 on March 31, 2010 at 2:45 pm

I have been working on a project for myself, something I will share soon with whomever is interested.

I wrote recently about what our Fathers never told us and it seemed to resonate with people.  It has led to the question I get in every presentation I ever do to adults– how do I help my kids hold onto wonder. to discover and fulfill the promise inside of them?

The answer is simple– Live what you want others to learn.

I don’t care if you are a parent, a coach, a boss, a friend, a spouse.  Live what you want other people to learn.

Why is that so important?  It comes down to trust.  Nothing is more powerful in education, in personal development, than trust.  Trust comes from what you do and how you do it, not from what you say.

An Olympic Gold Medalist, a good friend, was cleaning out an old computer once and he was rereading many of my emails, of things I had sent him as we were working together in preparation for the next Olympics.  He said it very simply to me.  “You are so consistent.  No matter how much times passes, your message is always the same, just said a little differently.”  He was telling me he trusted me, that whatever else was going on, he could trust me.

I once asked a flight instructor from a U. S. aircraft carrier why he was so respected by the pilots he taught.  “Credibility and tone of voice.  They know I’ve been where they want to go.  And they don’t need me freaking out over the radio when they make a mistake while they’re trying to land on an aircraft carrier.  They trust me to teach them, and not judge them.”

A heart surgeon and also a good friend told me once that in training residents and medical students, he knew the answers were inside of them.  It was his job to bring it out of them.  “They had to trust me.  I got that trust not by testing them, but by figuring out how to ask the questions the right way, so they saw and could use what they knew.”  He won more teaching awards than anyone else I’ve known in my twenty years in education.

I have been around some great teachers.  I don’t necessarily mean teachers by profession.  I mean people who others learn from.  Without learning, there is no teaching, even if you call yourself a teacher.  Many of them told me they knew one simple rule– people who trust will you learn from you.

But in my own experience, I have discovered an additional characteristic to great teachers.  T. S. Eliot said it best.  “Those who trust us, educate us.”

Think about that for a second.  If someone trusts you, they will share what they know about themselves.  They will share their dreams, their fears, their worries, their hopes.  They will show you what is right about them.  They will show you what they don’t like about themselves.  They might even ask you for help.  In the end, they will help you without even trying.

Trust leads to the most powerful tool in education.  Teachable moments.  Those moments when the light bulb goes on, when epiphanies happen.  To paraphrase James Joyce, these are moments when you both see beauty without the need to possess it.  You simply understand.  You see.  Learning is seeing.  I do believe what Keats wrote, that beauty is truth.

Nothing is more beautiful than the promise born inside of us.  Elegance.  Something as powerful as it is simple.

My entire life, I have known this.  Maybe you have as well.  Sadly, almost nothing in our prefab world embraces this.  I, like everyone else I know, loses sight of this.

But let me ask you a question and ask you a favor.

The question is this.  How much time each day, how much energy each day do you take to see the beauty inside your self, in the life that you’ve led?

The favor is this.  For the sake of all of us, will you take a few minutes each day to remind yourself of that beauty of life, of your life?

Why am I asking this, why am I writing this now.  For two reasons.

Since leaving my job, I have had time to observe life and people more than I normally do.  I have slowed my life down.  I don’t drive a car, but ride my bike everywhere and what I see is disturbing, sad even.

I’ll start with picking my girlfriend’s daughter up from school.  I walk or ride my bike to get her.  Then we walk back home.  It takes about 45 minutes.  Along the way we talk.  She often dances and sings.  Most of all, she makes fun of me.  But we are with each other.  Period.  If she had a bad day, I hear about it.  If she had a good day, I hear about that, too.  But that takes about five minutes.  Then she gets to decide what happens next.  Singing, dancing, asking me questions.

After about a week or so of that I started watching the other parents.  They show up in their nice cars.  The kids run to them and hug them.  And as soon as they are buckled in the car, the cell phones come out.  The video players go on.  The frustration and rush of the day reappears as they sit in traffic to get out of the parking lot.

One day we stopped at Barnes and Noble for me to buy her a book.  We stood in line at the cafe and waited.  Her nose was buried in her book and as she turned the pages she shared with me the things she liked and the things she thought were stupid.

Ahead of us in line, though, was a mom on a cell phone.  She was paying no attention to her child.  The little boy was into everything.  Knocking things off the shelf.  He would say mom, then again a little louder, until he had to scream it.  She just kept saying “I’m on the phone.”  Finally she’d had enough.  He was embarrassing her.

“Why won’t you listen to me.  I’m on the phone.”

Live what you want others to learn, I wanted to say.

The other reason I am writing this is the great response I got to my piece about what our fathers never taught us.  They did not teach us that how we feel matters.

Why didn’t they teach us that?  Because they didn’t know.  Worse than that, society’s message for too long was that “feel” was always selfish.  Feel was the touchy feelies.  Truth is people are scared of the touchy feelies.  They are the adult equivalent of cooties.

So what do we do about it?  Why do I believe so strongly in feel?

Because I did my homework.  I studied high level world class performers.  People many of us want our kids to grow up to be.  They embraced feel, distinguished it from the touchy feelies.  To them feel was data, it was information– about themselves.  Feel is the ubersense of self.  How do you know when you are being yourself?  You feel it.

Paying attention to someone sends the message that you care how they feel.  Giving them time, giving them silence and space, allows them to show you themselves, to show you how they feel.

What I know, what I learned is we all do have a choice, but only if we are aware of that choice.

It is the difference between diamonds and pearls.  In my next post, I’ll explain the difference and why I believe it matters.  My own belief is that if most people knew the difference, they’d raise pearls instead of cut diamonds.

Trust me.  🙂


The Pleasure is in finding the thing out

In 1 on March 29, 2010 at 3:25 am

I want to follow up my earlier post about how we choose what we do not know with the words of Physicist Richard Feynman.  The pleasure is in finding the thing out. This I believe with all of my heart.  It is my experience.  As I told someone today, I do not pretend to have answers for myself or for other people.  But I ask good questions.  Why?  Because it is my experience that the pleasure is in finding the thing out.

Sadly, this has put me at odds with a lot of people, especially people who are not all that interested in finding the thing out…or worse, the people who actively stand in the way of me wanting to find the thing out.

In the last twenty something years, I’ve had three full time jobs.  The first lasted most of that time.  Why?  Because I worked with and for people who hired me to find the thing out, who wanted to know what I found, and what we might do to make things better.

The last two jobs I’ve had, however, were exactly the opposite.  I was hired to help make things better, but was kept from finding the thing out.  It scared people.  The more I dug, the more I was resented and the more I was blocked.  Too many of the people did not want me to see behind the curtain.  In one of those jobs, I was ineffective.  I made zero difference.  In my last job, however, I was left alone enough to find the low hanging fruit and make changes.  And with my teammates, we made a huge difference.  That difference, however, was not enough to allow people to open up, to pull back the curtain.  they were not interested in the finding out and therefore, they did not experience the pleasure.

I am not judging anyone here, simply observing.  But what I learned from these experiences was that Feynman was right.  The pleasure is in finding the thing out.  Why?  In the end, the pleasure came from solving the problem.  The pleasure was in the wonder, the curiosity, even in the freedom to doubt.  The pleasure was in seeing what was heretofore unseeable.

When I work with people, this is my number one goal– to help them see the pleasure in finding the thing out.  The difficulty, however, is that it seems too many people think they are different, special, unique in their problems, in their shortcomings.  They want to grow, bu they don’t want to look at the problems.  They are worried, afraid of being judged.  Like an ostrich with its head in the sand, the problems don’t exist if they do not see them.

Einstein once wrote that the greatest kind of freedom is inner freedom, the freedom to examine what’s inside ourselves, to access the promise inside each of us.  Yet it seems to me that so few of us have that freedom.

So I ask again how do we know what we never learn?  How do we choose what we do not know? How do find what we love, how do we find the love, if we never touch it and therefore never feel it?

How do we know the pleasure of finding something out if we never look for it?

This it seems to me is the purpose of education– to allow our children, ourselves to feel that pleasure, free of judgment.  When I work with people, that is my hope, that they find the pleasure in finding the thing out about themselves.  My hope is that my prodding, my curiosity about them spurs them to ask questions of themselves and to find pleasure in that exercise.  If they do, they will keep their curiosity alive and find the answers themselves.

They will have a lifetime of learning.

How do you choose what you do not know?

In 1 on March 28, 2010 at 5:05 am

I was reminded by someone’s post on facebook tonight of a pet pieve of mine in the counseling world.  I have often heard counselors tell people  that while we cannot control what happens in life, we can choose how we respond.  Really?

My experience in working with people is that people simply cannot, and therefore do not, choose what they do not know.  How do we feel what we never touch?  How do we choose what we do not know?  How do we know what we never learn?

I know this is oversimplifying things, but it is real as far as I can tell.  I became more aware of this as I started observing people and how they responded to life.  Sadly, the pace of the world today seems to pressure people into making choices instead of stepping back and admitting they don’t know something…and then wondering what they might need to learn.

This was at the heart of my research for years.  I made a lot of mistakes in how I responded to things when I was younger.  Yet, other people around me seemed to make better choices, choices that were not in my arsenal.  My research had a simple purpose– to teach me more, to increase my degrees of freedom.

What if education actually was about teaching people how to learn, how to act in their own best interest?  What if education truly was about increasing degrees of freedom?

Too often what people learn, what people think they know, is actually something someone else told them or taught them.

How do you choose what you do not know?  I came face to face with this as a high school senior and as a basketball player, when I would go into downtown DC to tutor kids at a school that was populated by kids who came from poor families.  The first day I was there, I watched a little boy slap a little girl in the face.  The teacher grabbed the little boy and made him stand with his hands behind his back.  The she told the little girl to slap him back.  The little girl did not want to do it.  She was in tears as she slapped him.

How many choices do we make when the only things we know don’t solve a problem?  How often do we choose only what other people who seem to have power in our lives offer us, satisfying their needs, but not solving a problem?

I often write that Nothing is sometimes the greatest thing of all.  It is the space to make a mistake, to try something new, or to take a step back.  But, alas, so many people are afraid of that space, of the nothingness, that would allow learning, consideration….

In his article The Physical Genius, Gladwell wrote that the power of these people comes from their imagination, to create as Yo Yo Ma suggested something living out of nothing.

How many of us truly feel that when faced with the need to choose, choose our own imagination?

How do we choose what we do not know?

What Our Fathers Never Told Us

In 1 on March 26, 2010 at 11:34 pm

I wrote this years ago and have had good feedback on it.  It has also been used in grad classes by friends of mine.  I came across it while looking for something else and thought I’d post it even if it is a bit dated.


You’ve done everything you were supposed to do in your life, yet something does not feel right.  You got good grades so you could go to a good college, so you could get a good job, so you could buy a good car and house, so you could support your family. You got promotions and raises, but eventually you hit a ceiling because there simply were not enough openings in the executive suite. Maybe you are an executive.

However, when you wake each morning, something gnaws at you. When you lay down at night, something keeps you awake.

You would talk to your friends about these feelings, but you realize you do not have any who you think would understand. Maybe they have the same feelings, but do not know what to do about it. You realize you do not have a best friend anymore, someone to challenge you, to push you in the right direction. Dogs do not count.

Sound familiar?

I have heard this same story over and over again in my work, I have experienced it myself when I stopped playing basketball and started selling software. I wondered why this happened to so many people and why they kept it to themselves. So I did something about it.  I asked other people, men and women, who have survived these feelings. I asked them how they did it and the answer surprised me.

How we feel matters! Before you stop reading because you think I’m talking about the touchy feelies, answer one question for me. Does how you feel affect how you perform — at work, in relationships, in life?

I have asked this question of hundreds if not thousands of people. Not a single person has told me that how they feel does not affect how they perform. So I always ask a follow up question— So what do you do about how you want to feel? Most people drop their heads ashamed that they have not paid attention to how they feel. This is what our fathers forgot to tell us— that how we feel helps us reach our goals. This is the difference between the people who seek my help and the people who do not need it. The people who live the lives they want, who wake up each day ready to live, who sleep well at night, who know how they want to feel and they make it happen. They take responsibility for it.  They allow themselves to enjoy and experience how they want to feel.

Most of what I learned from these people I had heard before. In fact, I would argue that much of what they told me was Old School in its nature— responsibility, discipline, honesty, integrity. The things our parents told us were accurate, but incomplete. But for men, one simple rule was left out and it was important — that how we feel actually matters.

What do I mean by that? How we feel each day, each moment is a wellspring of data from which we can make better decisions about our lives. As boys growing into men, we were constantly told to hide our feelings, never to cry, to be tough.  We never really learned to say “No.” Now as men, we are told we need to be more sensitive, to open up, to take relationships more seriously, and to listen. How is that working so far?

So what is a guy to do? Simple. Pay attention to how you feel because it is trying to tell you something about your life.’ Maybe you have read all the self-help books. Maybe you have even sneaked away to watch Dr. Phil looking for answers. God forbid, you even taped Oprah to watch late at night when everyone else is asleep. Found the answer yet? Probably not and here’s why.

How YOU feel is the answer and no one can tell you what that is but you. No matter what expert you listen to, no matter what book you read, without knowing how you feel, how you want to feel, you probably will never find the life you want

When you were a kid, you went to school everyday. You complained about it, but secretly, you knew your friends were there. You knew recess and lunch was time spent with friends. You might have loved a class or a teacher. In the summer, you did your chores early so you could get out and play with your friends or you worked for that extra cash you needed for the car you hoped to buy, a car you loved working on at night Guess what— you chose your friends and your games based on how they made you feel. Trust, loyalty, secrets, discovery. So what happened? You started setting goals. You became responsible and no one asked you how you felt each day, including you. You stopped listening to how you felt. You stopped collecting data. You believed that the true feeling of freedom occurred when you achieved your goals. Men’s Health recently polled readers asking what they missed the most from high school. Ten percent of the readers said their hair. The most missed part of high school— freedom.

This is not about your inner child or your soul or even your self unless you decide that’s what it is for you. In my work, I run across people who tell me they are analytical in nature and they do not have time for the touchy feelies. I ask them if they are so analytical, why do they need my help? Their answer is the same every time— because they have done everything they were supposed to do and their lives do not feel quite right. I merely point out that they have not been analytical enough because they have not collected the inner data needed to live. It is even in the Declaration of Independence. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. What are you pursuing? As one executive put it, “I realized I was living the American Dream and it was just that—American and not my own.”

Another CEO said, “95 % of people have no idea what they want, what they love.” How can you pursue what you do not even know exists? The first step is to figure out how you want to feel each day. Take two weeks and keep track of how you felt each day. Let go of judgment. Just keep track of your experiences with a journal or a tape recorder. This is simply data collection.

Using that data, you can begin to piece your life together. How did you feel? Who were you around when you felt the way you wanted? What were you doing? How did others respond to you? As one CEO told me “If something feels right, do it more.” A professional coach told me that it was “fraudulent to tell people that success occurs without happiness.”

It might sound selfish, but here is the trick. If you’ve lived a life that doesn’t feel quite right that might feel awful, your focus has probably been on avoiding feeling bad rather than pursuing the way you want to feel. In the psychology literature, former APA President Martin Seligman points out that there are 46,000 articles on depression – while there are only 400 on joy and happiness. In other words, we know a lot more about depression than about what we really want.

Time to raise the bar. Most people I work with have forgotten how they want to feel and spend most of their time simply trying not to feel anything. They self-medicate, distract themselves with entertainment, and eat too much. Or they seek approval-making promises to others, promises that go unfilled because they do not have the energy to do the work. These people live in fear. Giving into fear is far more selfish with greater consequences to others. Knowing how you want to feel and seeking it out makes you and the people around you better. This is true because so much of what we see as irresponsible and destructive behavior does not fulfill us. It just keeps us from hurting temporarily.

Collecting your own data matters because this is about you. Only you can collect the data. You might ask friends to point out when you seem energized, engaged. You might read self help books for suggestions. You might seek out experts, but the best ones will only be helpful if you have the data

Fortunately, there is a group of people out there, many of whom are the best in their fields, who have collected that data. Surgeons, professional athletes and coaches, CEO’s and executives, pilots, Olympic gold medal winners, television stars, etc. More than 500 people who were willing to sit down and discuss their lives with me. If you ask them how they got where they are in life, you will get the standard answer of hard work, perseverance, sacrifice. They say they would do whatever it took to succeed. You might consider them lucky or harder working than you. In listening to their stories though, I found contradictions. They all made mistakes, quit jobs, changed careers, even survived some divorces. When I point these contradictions out they feel that they gave up on some things, they say, “I forgot to tell you the most important thing—you’ve got to find something to love.”

The people I spent time with taught me that how they feel not only matters, but might be the most important data they considered in their decision-making. One CEO said, “How you feel is the only thing that matters.” This from a CEO who is well thought of as a person, who is perceived as treating people fairly. An NBA coach said he checks on his happiness hourly. A heart surgeon told me that friends and blood flow are the currency of life. From choosing a career to raising a family, if how we feel affects how we live, then we need to pay attention to how we feel. We need to collect our OWN data, data no one else can provide for us.

Maybe Malcolm Gladwell said it best in his New Yorker article called The Physical Genius. “A better explanation is that for some mysterious and wonderful reason, (Neurosurgeon Charlie) Wilson finds the act of surgery irresistible, in the way that musicians find pleasure in the sounds they produce on their instruments, or  the way Tony Gwynn gets a thrill every time strokes a ball cleanly through the infield. Before he was two years old, it is said Wayne Gretzky watched hockey games on television, enraptured and slid on his stocking feet on the linoleum in imitation of the players, then cried when the game was over, because he could not understand how something so sublime should have to come to an end. This was long before Gretzky was any good at the game itself, or was skilled in any of its aspects, or could create even the smallest of chunks. But what he had was what the physical genius must have before any of the other layers of expertise fall into place: he had stumbled onto the one thing that, on some profound aesthetic level, made him happy.”

Maybe you are thinking you have wasted the last twenty years of life. I want to challenge that if you have done everything you were supposed to do, you have some resources. With the average life span now close to seventy-five years, you have twenty more years at least. Guess what—only if you pay attention to how you feel. People who feel the way they want to feel live longer. They have more friends. They take better care of themselves. The people who start taking care of themselves before fifty are the healthiest the longest.

Joe Torre once said about his success that he teaches his teams to think small and play big. All of the people I interviewed echoed this sentiment. They found the way they wanted to feel in small doses. They measured it in minutes, hours, and days. They set goals consistent with how they wanted to feel as they pursued them. The musicians I interviewed won Grammys because they loved making music one note, one song, one performance at a time. The CEO’s I interviewed loved the process of shaping their company’s success one employee, one customer, one department at a time. The athletes won championships and Gold medals because they loved competing every day, even in practice.

A CEO told me a story of going to business school and falling in love with advertising in his marketing classes. How did he know? Because he could not wait to go to marketing class, to read the books, to go shopping to see how successful products were marketed He found production and finance boring. A surgeon told me that when he is tired and worn out from long days or too many meetings, he finds renewal not by saving someone’s life, but by choosing one patient to listen to for five minutes, to connect with them. How did he know that? By paying attention to how he felt. An Olympic swimmer learned late in his career that he prepared best for competition by “feeling” the water. How did he learn that? By losing the biggest race of his life because he had forgotten that was why he loved swimming. He recaptured that feeling and went on to win two Olympic Gold Medals.

In each case, they thought small. They thought about what they could feel everyday in a sustainable way, not what they would feel twenty years from now when they achieved something. They also avoided the pitfalls of impulse or entertainment, momentary pleasures that did not last or were followed by emotional or physical hangovers. The more they felt the way they wanted, the less destructive behaviors they engaged in. In each case, the small pieces added up to something great.

Our fathers sacrificed so we could have the luxury of feeling the way we want to feel everyday. They loved WHY they worked so hard so we could love WHAT we did. Most of us will not LOVE doing things that hurt others or that are irresponsible. Judging by the health care problems in our country, something is not working for too many people. Paying attention to how we feel is discipline. Using that data to pursue the lives we want provides the balance between freedom and responsibility. We feel the way we want to AND we perform better.

Does how you feel affect how you perform? If you agree, if you answer “yes” to this question, then not collecting data about how you want to feel is simply irresponsible. Start collecting data. As a World Champion Windsurfer and successful real estate broker told me “Find your passion and then put it to work.” Find it one moment, one day at a time. As Author Brenda Ueland suggested “I learned from them that inspiration does not come like a bolt, nor is it kinetic, energetic striving, but it comes on slowly and all the time. I learned that you should feel not like Lord Byron on a mountaintop, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten: happy, absorbed, and quietly putting on one bead after another.”

the Game

In 1 on March 21, 2010 at 2:38 pm

There is a book out called Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford.  It looks very good, well written.  I have not read the whole thing yet, but have read the article that inspired the book from The New Atlantis.

On one level, I am interested in the book, or better said, the idea because somehow my life has turned into an exploration of what defines work.  The subtitle of the book is An Inquiry into the Value of Work.

I read this article at an interesting time in my life.  I am not employed, but I am working.  March Madness is happening, reminding me of my personal experiences, of my teammates.  I am fresh off a visit to a hospital to present some of my ideas about how to improve patient care by making the care more personal than private.

And, most of all, I keep hearing and seeing exactly the same thing from people.  I did what I was supposed to do, but life doesn’t feel the way I thought it would feel.

This begs a pretty simple question– were all of these people wrong in how they thought life should or would feel?  I mean, I’ve heard this from so many people something has to be wrong.  Are they wrong?  Or is the system so flawed that it produces a world that no longer works.  “Maybe what they thought they were supposed to do was wrong.  Maybe they did not do what they were supposed to do well,” a skeptic might say.

Are people wrong about how they think life will feel if they do what they’re supposed to do?

My guess is yes and no.  As Nettle said in his book Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile, there is an inner competition in each of us that most of us do not understand or are not aware of.

This makes knowing what “we are supposed to do” fairly difficult to flush out.  Early on, we are told that doing what we’re supposed to do will lead to happiness by people who care for us.  But this is not what I found in all of my interviews with world class performers.  What I found instead was that if we did what made us happy, the better we would do what we’re supposed to do.

I define “happy” as feeling how we want to feel.  My own belief is that most people given the right conditions in childhood will explore and discover that how they truly want to feel is good for society.  Most of us want to feel engaged, alive, involved, charitable, productive, accomplished, etc.  What most of us do not want to feel is judged.

As I was reading Shop Class as Soulcraft, I couldn’t help but see the Game in what Crawford is writing about.  And I think this is where we’ve gone wrong in our society, why things seem to not be working.

Is Capitalism in and of itself the game we are supposed to play?  Or is it a tool we use to play a bigger game?  Is it simply a metaphor for something larger?  Unless we answer this for ourselves individually and then collectively, too many of us will not only feel judged, but will also invite judgment of ourselves by others. We will be judged in a game we not only do not want to play, but simply do not have the skills to play.  That defines a loser for those interested in a narrow definition of winning.

I wrote in an earlier post that life for too many people has become a balancing act of being on a ladder.  They feel off balance with no more rungs to climb…but they are unwilling to climb down.  So they walk through life on the ladder as if on stilts, terrified of falling, but more terrified of climbing down.

Shop Class as Soulcraft made me wonder– what happens when we define life by the tools we were given?  And like the message in Soulcraft, what happens when people tell you those tools, your tools, are obsolete, that there are new tools to use, so therefore there is a new game to play.

Life these days is too easily defined by the tools we have.  Einstein said that “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”  I suspect he was right when he said this and I suspect things have gotten worse because our technology is almost exponential in its progress.  Yet, I see more and more people getting lost in the process.

So what Game are we playing?  Is Capitalism the Game itself?  Or is it a tool that defines too narrowly how we play the game?

Maybe it comes down to how we keep score, what defines winning and therefore defines a winner.

But if we keep score by moments, by health, by experiences, capitalism certainly has a role to play, but it does not define the Game.

Maybe it’s okay to climb off the ladder and put it back in the garage, and pull it out only when you need it.  The ladder should not define success because it limits how we can play the Game, and therefore it diminishes the Game itself.  If I learned anything from some of the great athletes of our time, even those who might have had their missteps off the fields of play, it is to honor the Game itself.

And you honor any game, the Game, by playing it…allowing yourself to be held accountable, but never judged.

Let’s Play!


In 1 on March 12, 2010 at 4:07 am

Since I left my job a few weeks ago, I have had a lot of time to think, to feel, to consider.  Probably best of all, I have had time to watch several episodes of Ken Burns’s series of the National Parks several times.  It is amazing how much I hear and feel each time I watch these.

Most telling, however, has been reconnecting with people, listening to people, about their current situation, about our collective experience of the recession.  I have no idea what is going to happen to me in the next few weeks or the next few years.  But I can say I am healthier already because I left my job.  Listening to the circumstances of life many people I know are experiencing, an inescapable image keeps appearing in my mind.

In my book, The Most Important Lesson No One Ever Taught Me, I write about the ladder of goals and expectations many of us are taught as kids.  When I present this in my talks, it leaves the audience either silent or nervously laughing.

Get good grades so you can go to a good college so you can get a good job so you can borrow the money to buy a car so you can get married so you can borrow the money to buy a house so you can have kids.

There you go.  I am not saying there is anything wrong with this as such.  But all I need to do is listen to people and I hear this over and over again.  I did what I was supposed to do, but life doesn’t feel the way I thought it would.  And now people are stuck on this ladder.  I have heard the term golden handcuffs many times lately, but I think this ladder is a better metaphor.

The inescapable image in my head is Ladderland…where people are all on these ladders, many of them on the top rung with nowhere to go.  And slowly it has dawned on them that life is more than climbing this ladder.  Life it seems to me must have forward movement in it.  So what do these denizens of ladderland do?  They start walking with their ladder as if they are on stilts, scared of falling over, but more afraid of climbing down and walking.

I picture the ladderland hierarchy being determined only by how tall someone’s ladder is and how much higher one person is than another.  They call this a meritocracy as if they knew what constituted merit.  Worst of all, I also suspect that some of the higher ups got there by knocking over the ladder of others.  If you have the power to knock the ladders of others over, then you also have the power to make the rules.  And too often, too many of those people have the ability to make the rest of us believe that it was our fault, that we deserved to be pushed over.  Too small to matter.

And I have a feeling, a sense, that too many of us have reached the top of our ladder.  We’ve gone as far as we can upward.  I picture an entire society asking “Now what?”  Too many people do what their higher ups (those with a taller ladder) tell them to do because they know those higher ups will push them over.

I myself decided to climb down and walk, to look around, and what I see is vast opportunities.  As I walk by, I see people stuck up in the air  afraid of falling over, but not afraid enough to climb down and join me.

I am not saying I am right or know better.  What I know is what I hear people tell me about their lives.  I know what that feels like.  I’ve been there.  And I know there is no ladder tall enough to reach the stars, or the moon, or the sky, but there are places on earth where we can feel them.  That is enough for me.

Energy informed into Happiness

In 1 on March 1, 2010 at 11:56 pm

Okay, let me start by saying I hate the idea of Happiness.  There are a million different ways to define it and I think the word is used too much as a sales tool.   So let me explain.

When I was on the faculty at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, I came across an article by Malcolm Gladwell called The Physical Genius.  I wish EVERYONE would read this article.  It basically confirmed what I heard in my interviews of world class performers.  Tucked near the end of the article, Gladwell wrote:

A better explanation is that, for some mysterious and wonderful reason, Wilson finds the act of surgery irresistible, in the way that musicians find pleasure in the sounds they produce on their instruments, or in the way Tony Gwynn gets a thrill every time he strokes a ball cleanly through the infield. Before he was two years old, it is said, Wayne Gretzky watched hockey games on television, enraptured, and slid his stockinged feet on the linoleum in imitation of the players, then cried when the game was over, because he could not understand how something so sublime should have to come to an end. This was long before Gretzky was any good at the game itself, or was skilled in any of its aspects, or could create even the smallest of chunks. But what he had was what the physical genius must have before any of the other layers of expertise fall into place: he had stumbled onto the one thing that, on some profound aesthetic level, made him happy.

Yesterday I wrote that what I do when I work with someone is to help turn their energy into power.

How do I do that?  I ask them questions.  I teach them how to ask themselves questions.  These questions are part wonder, part intelligence aimed at their personal data.  I teach them to feel and add that information to their decision making process.

But I do what I do because I went and asked people who seemed to be headed where they want to go how they did it.  I think Gladwell interviewed the people he did for this article because he wanted to understand what he calls the physical genius.  But in the end we both came to this same conclusion about these people.  They found something that made them happy when they did it.

What I find so surprising is  how hard it is to get regular everyday folks to listen to this.  People fight me on this.  People who are not on the path to where they want to be.  People who are stuck in their lives, who tell me they are stuck in their lives.  I don’t judge people.  I listen and observe.

It goes back to what I wrote about yesterday.  There is a part of us that is programmed not to listen to this.  But there is also a part of us that is programmed to do exactly what I am talking about.

Nike had a slogan for years that said “Just do it.”  What if we changed that to “Just try it.”  What if you decided that every week you were going to try something new until something felt good to you to do.  What if you defined success simply as you wanted to do something again.  Then after you tried these things, you took a step further and asked “What did it cost me to try that?”

If the consequences were too high (like you ate a killer chocolate cake), then you would know not to do it again or maybe you would learn to do something a bit smarter.  The first time I went snowboarding I knocked myself cold.  So I kept doing it, but went a little slower.  Now I love it.  I once broke my wrist when I was 35 playing crack the whip behind a bike wearing rollerblades.  I loved it, but decided I probably shouldn’t do it again.

The job I recently left was all about this.  We got people who had not done things for years to come in and try new things.  Yoga, Kinesis, shooting hoops, etc.  This led us to drastically increase the membership and member retention of the facility.

We had one rule.  Have fun.  I think maybe, though, we were actually putting into practice what Gladwell wrote about the Physical Genius.  We helped people find something that made them happy while they were doing it.  We created a safe place for them to do it, free of judgment.  The only measure of success was that they came back.  They did.

One of the funny things we heard over and over again were how many of the people who came in looking for something new did so because they did not have the energy they wanted.  My own take after watching them, though, was that they had plenty of energy.  It just did not know what to do. Once it knew what to do, their energy was hard to contain…and all of us could feel it.  That made the building electric.  As we often said to each other “it’s hoppin’.”

So “Just try it!”  Try something new each week until you find something that feels good with no consequences.  I know some of you will say you don’t have time.  My bet is if you try this you will find something you like and then you will find the time.

Most of all, you will send a great message to your children to try things.  You will show them that it is okay to “like” something.

When I was a kid I liked a lot of things.  I never felt pressure to “love” anything or to find my passion.  I played every sport pretty successfully until my freshman year of high school when I found basketball.  Maybe I loved it, I can’t say.  But it was what I wanted to do everyday.  And I got pretty good at it.  I got a B. A., an M. Ed. and a Ph. D. because of it.  Ask my mom and she’ll tell you I would never have gone to college otherwise.  I only tried out for the freshman team because a friend of mine did not want  to go alone.  He said “C’mon just try it.”

When I was in grad school, a heart surgeon came to our Sport Psychology program and asked the director if anyone would like to study how surgeons trained, to see if there were any overlaps between athletes and surgeons.  I said “I’ll try it.”  I ended up on their faculty for fifteen years.

So go ahead and try something.  Like it.  Maybe you’ll find something that in some profound aesthetic way makes you happy.