Towards Aliveness

“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.”

– from “Sweet Darkness” by David Whyte


Move towards aliveness. As best you can, keep moving towards it.

Resist the pull to the middle, miles from the edge of your experience. The edge of your experience is where aliveness lives.

Aliveness is not “happiness” or “satisfaction.” It is not “achievement” or “success” or “confidence” or “knowing.” These are too small, too confining.

Aliveness is a persistent invitation, found both in the bright light of day and the darkest hours of the night. It is the invitation we all feel to have a bigger conversation with the unknown than we believe we are capable of having. It is the first, tentative steps toward a kind stranger, the first uncertain words spoken in greeting. It is saying, “yes, I will keep walking and see where this leads.”

Aliveness is a loyal companion, wagging with exuberance when we arrive home at the end of the day, ready to play. It begs us to step out, to engage, to explore.

When we decline, it lays down close by, resigned to our disinterest, and hopeful for what tomorrow might bring. Maybe tomorrow.

Move toward aliveness. Begin a new conversation, one that starts with “Yes.”


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Margarita the Super Dog

From the Outside In

Real change begins at the edges, never at the center.

The center is dogmatic and certain. The edge is open and curious, the gateway to possibility.

To work from the outside in for your team, your work group or even your family, you might consider a series of small but potent actions in service of your highest aspirations:

  • Small gatherings of like-minded colleagues marked by a commitment to knowing the people for who they are, not just by what they do,
  • Brief but sincere check-ins on values and culture to lead off every meeting or meal,
  • Brief but sincere recognition offered at the end of every meeting or meal,
  • “Below the line” conversations with customers about who they are, what they care about and how we can help them achieve it,
  • Common sense support for healthy distance from work after hours, on weekends and on vacations,
  • Regular, rich, candid and mutual conversations about performance that make “performance reviews” irrelevant
  • And how many more can you think of?

These acts do not require permission, nor do they require authority. They require initiative.

These acts, over time, lead to a more open system, a system that is learning how to learn and therefore, learning how to change.


time lapse photo of cliff coast during dawn

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What’s your story?

Today I asked my students to think of a recent experience when they were fully engaged, be it at work, in school or with some other endeavor.

I asked them to think of an instance when time slowed down, they were hyper-focused, and they were both cognitively and emotionally dedicated to the work at hand.

Then I asked them to find a partner and share their stories.

The room erupted with the kind of energy and enthusiasm that can only be associated with people who are reminding one another what it feels like to be fully alive.

So I ask you, when did you last feel that way? What kind of recent, dedicated work has made you feel fully alive?

For me, it was the one hour and fifty minutes I spent with my students today. Time slowed down, I was hyper focused and I was both cognitively and emotionally dedicated to the work at hand.

Fully engaged equals fully alive.


phases of the moon

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Striding into Fall

“Fall is the older season, a more seasoned season. The weather surrounds you instead of beating down on you…The weather is lighter, marbled, and it makes you feel like striding again, makes you glad that so much works at all.”

– Anne Lamott


I am not a slow walker. Slow walking makes me crazy.

I am a strider. My dad was a strider, two of my own steps to match one of his. Always falling behind, hurrying up again.

It’s a blessing and a curse, this not slowing down. Two steps at a time, up we go. Never one.

Here in these late September days, sunny and warm long past Labor Day (perhaps a “second summer”) I am compelled to move with conviction. School is in session and I will not fall behind.

These are days for striding. And it’s because we stride that so much works at all.

The first frost of winter is coming. The harvest will not gather itself.


person wearing yellow jacket walking in forest

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One Good Thing

An invitation for your consideration:

At the end of your Tuesday workday, ask and answer this question:

What was one good thing that happened today?

It doesn’t matter if you have a surfeit of answers or if absolutely nothing comes immediately to mind. What matters, once you land on it, is that you make it as specific as possible, as concrete as possible.

I’m not a big positive psychology guy, nor do I make lots of gratitude lists. I just happen to subscribe to Viktor Frankl’s admonition that regardless of our circumstances we always get to choose our attitude.

And I happen to believe that in order to choose an attitude that will keep us moving forward it helps to have some evidence to make the case.

Regardless of your circumstances, force yourself to answer: What was one good thing that happened today?


green leafy plant starting to grow on beige racks

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That’s Not My Job

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Imagine that your job is to paint the stripes down the middle of the road. And not just any stripes, but the double yellow ones that create a powerful visual safety barrier on a well-traveled two-lane road.

Imagine that you’ve reached the line that demarcates city from county and you are told to stop painting the stripes because “That’s as far as we go.”

Imagine that you look up and see that you’ve only got another 150 yards to the bottom of the hill.

Imagine how it must feel to not finish a job that in just a few more minutes of thoughtful effort would be so easily completed.

Do you finish your workday with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment? Do you go home and announce with pride, “I striped some of the road today! I made some of the road safer for the residents of that neighborhood!”

“What do you mean ‘some’?” comes the curious reply.

“Oh, well, we’re only responsible for striping the part of the road that is maintained by the county.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Yes, I know.”

“Then why do you do it?”

“Because the rest of the road is someone else’s responsibility.”

Look of disbelief.

Shrug of shoulders.

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When we allow the red-tape of bureaucracy – be it in our government institutions or our private enterprises – to replace common sense, we also replace the qualities of autonomy and agency that make work the most noble human enterprise.

To be told that “almost” is “good enough” is an insult to the human spirit.


 

The Pretense of Self Sufficiency

I like to fix things. I’m pretty good at it. I’m not a qualified auto mechanic or electrician by any stretch, but if you need your new TV setup or your phone reconnected or your files moved to the cloud, I’m a good guy to ask.

I like being good at fixing these small things because they are appreciated and they give my ego a nice dose of self-satisfaction. Also, they let me maintain a sense of control over my surroundings.

Over the last few years I’ve discovered that my daughter likes to fix things, also. She’s really good at it. Especially in the technical domain she’s a much better problem solver than me.

I don’t admit that easily (see, “maintain a sense of control” above) because for the longest time I wasn’t willing, when she said “I know what to do,” to get out of the way and let her do it. Instead, we would jockey for position and I would finally snap at her to just let me figure it out.

I still do that once in a while but not nearly as much. I’ve learned that her development depends on the ability to express and use her gifts and that my job is to give her the space to do that.

Instead of seeking that ego boost for these small achievements I enjoy watching her proudly play this role in support of her family and friends. I also enjoy the new reality that whatever needs to be done doesn’t have to be done by me.

It seems to me that this is what great leaders do, too. They learn to stop clinging to any pretense of self sufficiency, to not just admit that they need help, but to relish in the opportunity to give others the chance to be helpful.

That’s a pretty great thing to be able to do for someone. It builds esteem, confidence and connection. It creates teams of problem solvers who learn to rely on one another’s unique abilities to get things done.

Perhaps most importantly, it creates the widest possible feeling of ownership for whatever we have agreed to create together.

In your workplace today, is there someone you can do this for? Is there someone doing this for you?


When is it due?

Have you ever had “Just get it to me whenever you can” turn into “Why haven’t you finished that yet!?!”?

Both the requestor and the producer are complicit in this failure of agreement.

The former needs to provide a clear deadline, even if it’s a best guess, and the producer needs to request one before agreeing to the work.

The deceptively simple give and take of our daily interactions hinge on the clarity of our expectations, those guidelines within which we can plan for our mutual success.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

Choose to Make it Better

“The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.”
{Richard Rohr}


If you’re struggling in a poor work environment – not a toxic one, mind you but one that is marked by ineffectual leadership and uninspired co-workers – you can do one of three things:

  1. Leave
  2. Stay and join in the misery
  3. Make it better

Important to note that choosing #3 does not require you to make the whole thing better, just the three foot circle of it that surrounds you everywhere you go.

You could choose to have a radically positive and affirming attitude. You could choose to be on time in the morning, for all appointments and meetings and with your work as well. You could choose to compliment and recognize other’s contributions. You could choose to offer support when someone needs help. You could choose to abstain from complaining about what can’t be controlled and begin conversations about what can.

Your efforts may not yield the ripple effects necessary to shift the environment in a more favorable direction, but they might. And in the process, for as long as you choose to stay, you will feel better about yourself, most likely do better work, and be a light for others who are also trying to find a better way.


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

How to Motivate Your Employees

You can’t, so stop trying. That’s step number one.

Motivation is an internal dynamic, a choice based on a wide range of individual forces such as personality, values, perception, emotions, attitudes and stress. You can inspire but you can’t motivate. Knowing the difference is crucial to effective leadership.

A leader’s job is to create the conditions in which it is possible for people to motivate themselves. Here are five things you can do to create that kind of environment:

  1. Define and commit to a compelling purpose and vision for your organization. Help people to understand what they signed up for, where you’re going and what’s in it for them to be a part of it.
  2. Create obvious and plentiful pathways for your employees to be involved in decision-making,
  3. Hire terrific and talented people, connect them to the vision, provide them with the necessary context and then get out of their way. Autonomy is a powerful motivator because it is the tangible evidence of trust.
  4. Live out a value system that makes fairness a driving principle of the organization. For starters, you can pay people based on the quality and impact of their performance rather than on the parameters of a pre-determined scale.
  5. Make continuous learning a priority for everyone and work hard to develop your team members. Make it obvious to them that you want them to grow and that you are willing to invest time and resources to that end.

“How do I motivate my team?” is the wrong question. The right question is, “How do I create the conditions in which my team members will activate their internal motivation?”


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.