Archive for July, 2010|Monthly archive page

What really matters

In Uncategorized on July 25, 2010 at 3:31 am

So I was checking out some tweets on twitter and followed one to a website which was interesting, but more interesting was one of those columns on the side.  It said that even bloggers are squeamish about the race issue.  So I decided to weigh in.

When I was teaching a class once at a well known university, my students were asked to stand in front of the class and tell us their story.  Why were they here?  How was it going?  That kind of thing.  The students always had amazing stories.  Near the end of the class one of the students raised his hand and volunteered.

He was an African-American and I only say that because he wanted to talk about his experience being African-American in a mostly white school.  He wanted to vent.

He proceeded to tell us how mistreated he was, how his classmates were lousy classmates, how none of them had taken the time to get to know him.  The class ended, but he kept going and no one moved.  Needless to say the other students were uncomfortable, looking at their feet, trying not to take it in.  But they heard him.  They felt him, probably for the first time.

Now I have no idea what the students were feeling.  Shame?  Guilt?  Compassion?

I found it inspiring what he did.  He obviously had been carrying it around for a while.  But no one ever asked him to tell his story before or he simply never did.

He finished and simply stood there.  He took a deep breath and looked down.  Some of the students turned to me looking for permission to leave.  I let the discomfort hang in there.  Finally, he looked at me.  Right in the eye.  Then all the students turned and looked at me.

“So what would you like us to know?  How would you like us to react to what you said?  What do we do now?”

I don’t think it occurred to him I would ask him that.  I think he thought I’d be mad.  So he stood there for moment and said “I’m not sure.”

I grew up playing basketball at a mostly white suburban high school where we had a couple of major racial incidents that turned very ugly.  I played on basketball teams in Alexandria and on playgrounds in D.C. where I was often the only white guy.  I got beat up, picked on, even had my life threatened with guns and knives.  In high school I tutored a first grader in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in D. C. at a school with few white students or teachers.

But here’s the thing.  For every guy who wanted to make things racial, there were ten guys who stood up for me, who cheered me on.  In a summer league game once in Alexandria I got a standing ovation after a dunk.  I was the only white guy in the gym.

So I told my students that I was adopted.  I told them I could not begin to imagine what he was going through.  But I did believe we had one thing in common.  An experience we all have in common I suspect.

I asked him if he felt like he didn’t count, like he didn’t matter.  He nodded.  We understood each other at least in that sense.  That is what my adoption made me feel.

“How many of you have felt like you didn’t count, like you didn’t matter?  How many of you felt like no one cared enough to listen?  How many of you wish one person truly cared how you feel?”

They all nodded while still looking at the floor.  The discomfort lifted.

“I don’t know what we can do about the racial issue.  What I know is we can make people count.  We can listen.  We can care how they feel.  And in doing that you will realize how much you matter.”

This was 20 years ago.  I think things have gotten worse.  I think fewer people listen and without that we cannot claim to care how other people feel.

I don’t know about the race thing.  What I have observed though is that when things get tough, people look for bad ways to feel like they count.  They put other people down.  They undermine others in some misguided attempt to count more than someone else as if that makes us count for something.  You either count or you don’t.  There are no degrees of counting.

I’ve lost pretty much everything I own and barely get by these days.  I’ve had people tell me I don’t count if I can’t pay my bills.  I’ve had people imply I don’t count if I don’t have a job.  But everyday I listen to someone about them, about their lives, about how they feel.  I ask people to tell me their stories.  It seems to me these days that doesn’t count for much if you measure yourself by money or social status or if you even have a job.

I am here to tell you none of those things money can buy matter in a world that seems so lost.  What I can tell you is I know when I listen to people, when I ask them to tell me their story, then for two hours or so, they know they count.  Then I know I count.

Not many people have gotten to do the things in their life that I’ve been blessed with the chance to do.  In medicine, business, sports, music, etc., I’ve asked people at the top of those fields to tell me their stories.  I’ve been invited onto the stages, into the corner offices, onto the playing fields, and into the minds of some of the best in the world.  I just haven’t found a way to make money at it.

What I learned, what was shared with me, was the story of the people who do great things or things at a very high level. I got to know the people.  One best selling author even said to me “You’re better than my therapist.”

Don’t get me wrong.  I’ve made people feel small, like they don’t count.  That happens when I am at my worst, when I’m tired or worn out or upset, when I feel like I don’t count.

But what I know is that what makes me my best is when I listen to someone, when they tell me their story.  When they walk away knowing I cared how they felt.

I was once asked to give a talk at a camp for kids with diabetes.  These were teenagers and as I walked up to the hut where I’d be speaking, the oldest boy stopped me and asked me if I was the speaker.  I said I was.

“Do you have diabetes?” he asked.

“No,” I replied.

“Do you know anything about diabetes?”  I shook my head no.

“Then why should we listen to you?” he asked.

“I don’t know actually.  But I’ll make a deal with you.  Give me five minutes and if you don’t like what I’m saying, we’ll go play on the zip line.”

“Deal,” he replied.

They let me talk to them for two hours.  At the end of the session, I asked him why he let me go on.  What did they get from the talk?

“You gave us permission to be like everyone else.  You gave us permission to dream the way everyone else does.”  I didn’t understand.

He told me that their dream had too often been defined by their disease, by over protective parents, by labels of diabetics.  Their dream as given to them by others was simply to successfully manage their diabetes.  He told me that I showed them that everyone had obstacles on the path to living their dreams and that was all the diabetes was– an obstacle.

“Now I understand that if I take care of myself, if I do what I need to do to take care of my diabetes, then I can dream a real dream, do the things I want to do.”

He pulled out a piece of paper and he had written out the process I use with people.  He’d filled it out correctly showing me the preparation he had to do like checking his blood sugar, exercising, and eating well.  Under obstacle he simply wrote “my disease.”  What he understood was he could make the obstacle smaller through his preparation.  He could dream.

Under Dream he’d written–“To find and live my dream.”  He told me word for word that I made him feel like he “counted.”  He carried that piece of paper in his wallet for years.

I have no idea how to solve the race issue or even how to have a conversation about it.  What I know is where to start.  You start by helping people feel like they count.  It’s in all of us to do that.  It is what’s best about all of us– not what we know, but listening to what we don’t know, what we cannot possibly know about another person.  We can never know exactly what someone else feels.  It is the most personal sense we have.  But we can listen.

I don’t care how much money you have, what title you have, what awards you’ve won.  I guarantee you I personally know someone who has more money, has more important titles and won more championships and awards.  If you make people feel like they don’t count none of that matters.  If you don’t care how people feel, then you don’t matter.

We are at our best when we care how other people feel.  We need a lot more of that right now.  We need it now more than ever in my lifetime.

Do you feel like you count, like you matter?  If you doubt that you matter, then ask someone else to tell you their story, to tell you how they feel…and then just listen.

You will discover how much you matter…and how little the other stuff counts.


Be an Invitation

In Uncategorized on July 20, 2010 at 1:57 pm

So I woke up this morning needing something.  It seemed everything had welled up to the surface, both good and bad.  It needed expression it seemed.

No, there was something very specific I needed, something I knew, but had lost or forgotten.

As I sat at my computer ignoring the email from the Biggest Loser Club, I turned to itunes as I often do and there it was.  Bruce Springsteen’s Unplugged version of Thunder Road.  So I hit play.  Here is how he explained the album Born to Run.

“What’s it about? It’s an invitation…we invite you to something. Something is opening up to you, what I was hoping it would be is what I got out of rock and roll music which was a sense of a larger life, greater experience, hopefully more and better sex, a sense of fun, personal exploration and the possibilities in us, the idea that it was all aligned inside of you just there on the edge of town.”

An invitation.  Exactly.

I often feel like I am simply an interruption into people’s lives.  In fact one writer, Joe Kita, recently explained my approach to fitness in his blog.  He said that what feels at first like an interruption to life will transform into life itself.  I remember reading that and thinking how right he’d gotten it.

But here’s the thing.  It sucks being an interruption.  It sucks being perceived sometimes as SPAM.  Maybe it’s my style.  But maybe it is life has gotten so busy for people, that they are all doing what they’re supposed to do but feeling like it’s not leading where it’s supposed to go.  Maybe people think so little of themselves that because what we’re doing isn’t working, that somehow we’re simply not good enough.  We must try harder.  And I interrupt the “working harder.”

I won’t get into an argument about whether things are working or not.  I don’t think much of what we’re doing collectively is doing the work we all want done, leading us where we want to be.  What I know is a significant number of people are not becoming the person they thought they would be.  I know that because I talk to a lot of people.  I listen.  How have we evolved to the point that someone wanting to listen is perceived as an interruption?

But Springsteen reminded me that life itself is an invitation, an invitation ALWAYS to be something better, to the possibilities inside ourselves.  How many of us go through life doing the things we think we’re supposed to so we can become what we want to be and yet lose ourselves in our own wake?  How many of us are consumed in our own consumption of things?  And we simply don’t know anything else to do or try.  So we tell ourselves to be positive.

Springsteen reminded me this morning that life is an invitation, reminded me that I am life, my life, that I am my own invitation.  He reminded me that wonder is an invitation and that worry is an interruption.

We need a more inviting world, a world built on the life inside each of us, not marketing disguised as invitation, crafted to attract us to things we don’t need or want.

There is one thing I know for sure.  The things we buy, the things we consume, are not life.  They are the tools for us to live life.  But when the tools define the work we do instead of life creating the tools we need to live what’s inside of us, our economy becomes about jobs, not the doing of work.  And when jobs drive how we live, something is wrong.  When the powers that be, whether political or financial, become the gatekeepers, when they define the tools, it doesn’t work.  We become their tools.

In Thunder Road, Springsteen sings “I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk.”  One of life’s tools expressing what’s inside of him.

What I realized this morning  is if I am not, if my life is not, the invitation to life itself, then I am simply what I like being least– an interruption.

Be the invitation.  Discover what’s inside you and use that to define your life’s work and create the tools to fulfill it.  Allow other people who seem like an interruption in.  Ask yourself exactly what they are interrupting.  Are they interrupting your work or just your job?  Are they interrupting the checklist of the things you need to get done or are they an invitation to the life that is inside you?  Are they interrupting your Standard of Living or are they an invitation to a higher Quality of Life?

Be the invitation.  And if you need someone to listen so you can hear yourself, if you feel like you are an interruption and you are tired of that, give me a shout.  YOU are invited.

“What else can we do now? Roll down the window and let it blow back your hair.”

And here is how Springsteen closed the performance:

“So this was my big invitation, to my audience, to myself, to anybody that was interested.  My invitation to a long and earthly journey.  Hopefully in the company of someone you love, people you love, and in search of a home you can feel a part of.”

A Failure of Imagination

In Uncategorized on July 13, 2010 at 12:13 pm

Maybe you’ve noticed I am not writing as many posts as I used to.  And I must say this might be my last one on this blog.  I apologize for its length.

I started writing this blog as a reminder of my own promise as I ventured into my fiftieth year.  I have found that promise and it is alive and well.  What I have not yet found is the outlet for that promise.  What I mean by that is a way to use it to make a difference in the world.  Maybe I am not meant to.  I am not giving up, but what I know is I really don’t know what else to say.

What I learned a long time ago was the best way to learn, the best way to make a difference, was to listen.  Listen to people, listen to current affairs, listen mostly to Nature.

Since I left my job in February, I have listened and worked at the same time.  I have spent 18 hours a day learning and listening.  I’ve tried to offer my “take” on what I am hearing.  I have not found my medium yet.  Words, at least the words I know, fail me.

I’ve always been very good at seeing “the field,” seeing the big picture.  I predicted all of the calamities in a general fashion that we face now almost a decade ago.  I’ve tried telling people what I was seeing and people did not want to listen because I am not good enough with words to make my case.

Each week I have 5-10 conversations that last over 2 hours with people who ask me what I think, who ask me for “advice.”  All I can offer is how I see their situation after listening to them.  I ask hard questions and make them think and I make them feel.  Robert McKee defines aesthetics as the ability to think and feel at the same time.  I like to think I bring aesthetics into people’s lives in these conversations and that engages them.

I entitled this post a failure of imagination for a reason.  My imagination has failed in communicating “the field” as I see it.  Maybe I am just wrong about things, but I don’t think so based on the evidence over the last twenty years.  But I am simply not good enough with words yet.

But here’s the thing.  In the last month I have seen several posts by people who study and preach innovation and creativity and everything they say indicates to me that we have a worldwide failure of imagination going on.  Why?  Because of fear.  Too many of our politicians, too many of the people we look to for leadership, are scared.

In many of my interviews, I heard a simple line– you must keep the desire greater than the fear in the moments that matter most.  Thomas Paine wrote that the purpose for society is to create what we want.  I would add that in a free society, in a democracy, society must also create what we need.  He added that government’s role is to protect us from our impulses.

I think too many of us are scared.  Too many of us have lost our desire or at least decreased it to the point that it now gives into our fears and consequently into our worst impulses.

The stalemate in our politics, the malaise in our society, I believe is the result of confusing our impulses with our wants.  And once we have something we want, then somehow we justify them into needs…and we become unwilling to consider that there is a difference between our standard of living (the things we have) and the quality of our lives (how life feels, how healthy our lives are).

I can tell you from my work with people I have heard horrific stories of abuse, of neglect, of evil, and of complacency.  Secrets.  Things people don’t tell, in their own words, even the people closest to them.  I have seen people do dishonest things and rationalize them as business.  I have heard well meaning people say they need all the luxury items they have in their lives because of their kids.  I have people tell me they can’t listen to people or focus on a problem because of their ADD nature (few of them having been officially diagnosed).

But here’s what I know.  When I sit and listen to someone for hours, when I hear them recount the promise inside of them, they tell me that a 3 hour conversation felt like 20 minutes.  They thank me for listening.  And as I said I do this several times a week.

I also know the studies that show we are distracted by our technology and that leads to a shortened, even challenged, attention span.

I also know that when I have a meaningful conversation with someone, when I listen to them, there is no deficit of attention, rather full engagement.

I know that people want and need meaning.  If they are distracted it is by the fear we all live with.  If they are not innovative or creative, it is because it is seen as not productive and therefore, they will not risk it.

We have a failure of imagination from the people we need it from the most– all of us.  That includes me.  I simply do not know what to say.  So I listen.

My promise in my fiftieth year, one of the hardest financially of my life, is completely intact.  I know it not by what I say, but by what I hear.  When I talk too much, I know it is because I, too, am afraid.  When I talk too much it is because I don’t agree with or like what I hear.  When I talk too much, it simply means I have no idea what to say.  According to Harry Frankfurt, who wrote On Bullshit, that is the definition of bullshit, when people feel compelled to talk about things they know little about.  I do not know enough about how to move forward or I don’t know how to articulate it in any other way–the intersection of my failure of imagination and my bullshit.

I was prompted to write this because I listened to Andrew Ross Sorkin on Morning Joe say something I hear people say over and over.  We have to deep well drill because we need the oil.  In other words, we cannot give up something until we have a replacement for it.  I hear this from people all the time.  I can’t leave my job I hate until I find a new job.  I can’t leave my relationship until I find someone else…and they never leave and nothing changes… and we will keep finding new places to drill.  Let’s just hope we demand cleanup strategies that work before permitting the drilling.  As The Daily Show graphically illustrated, every President since Carter has said that what we’re doing isn’t working when it comes to energy.

But this makes my case.  It’s bullshit.  Bullshit from people who are admitting they don’t know what they’re talking about.  They are admitting their own failure of imagination, imagining a life without the things we know aren’t working.  So if you can’t imagine that, then stay out of the conversation.  If you are admitting life isn’t working well enough, then get to work on the life we  want and need…then make the case that it will take time, but that we can change direction, and offer a solution.  Otherwise you are simply feeding fear.  And I know I am guilty of this as well so I am not simply pointing fingers.  I am looking in the mirror.

Thank God our founders didn’t this think way.  I don’t believe it is an accident we wrote the Declaration of Independence before we wrote our Constitution.  We had to be free to think freely.

So I will leave you with this.  Everything you do, every dollar you spend, every unit of personal energy, every ounce of love or fear you put into the world is an investment in something.  What are you investing in?  Why?

We have to imagine our economy moving forward not as consumers, but as investors.  In other words, to get something we need, something we want, it is not good enough to “spend” our energy or money or love.  We must invest.  And investment means risk.

I watched the National Governor’s Association Annual Meeting on C-Span the other day (I have watched every minute of all the hearings since February on BP, Energy, Financial Reform, Climate Policy, etc.) and Erskin Bowles said it very plainly.

“We face the most predictable financial crisis in our history.”  The question remains whether it is preventable.

He also added:

“We cannot grow our way out it and we cannot tax our way out of it.”

In other words, we cannot spend our way out of it.  We cannot “keep doing what we’re doing” our way out of it.  We can’t just go shopping.

So what does that leave?  Investing in our imagination.  We can invest in our freedom.

Maybe I am wrong.  Maybe our imaginations are alive and well creating and feeding the fear.  Let’s invest in it more wisely.

What we need is to write our own Declaration of Independence, not from the State, but from the society we have created, built too much on consumption and spending.  Then and only then can we write our own Constitution, that of which we “constitute” the society we need and want.

More on Doubt

In Uncategorized on July 7, 2010 at 1:34 pm

I came across this discussion of doubt in a book called Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke:

Your doubt can become a deep attribute if you discipline it.  It must become a knowing; it must become the critic.  Ask it, as it always wishes to spoil something, why something is ugly.  Demand proof of it, test it, and you will find it perhaps perplexed and confused, perhaps also in protest.  But don’t give in; demand arguments.  Act with alertness and responsibility, each and every time, and the day will come when doubt will change from a destroyer to become one of your best fellow-workers, perhaps the wisest of  that have a part in building your life.