How Many Times Have You Died?

“I don’t know exactly what happened to me after that car accident when my blood pressure dropped precipitously low, and in the end, I realized that it didn’t matter. I didn’t need to solve it or explain it. Maybe I died, maybe I didn’t.

I just don’t know.

What I do know for sure is that I have died many times is this life. As a lost and helpless boy, I died in a magic shop. The young man who was both ashamed and terrified of his father, the one who had struck him and got his blood on his hands, died the day he went off to college. And although I didn’t know it at the time of my accident, eventually the arrogant, egotistical neurosurgeon I would become would also suffer his own death. We can die a thousand times in this lifetime, and that is one of the greatest gifts of being alive. That night what died in me was the belief that Ruth’s magic had made me invincible and the belief that I was alone in the world.”

– from Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart by James R. Doty.

magic shop

Don’t Act Your Age

If you’re trying to learn something new, do it like someone more experienced, more mature, more qualified would do it.

My daughter, a middle schooler, is taking voice lessons. Her teacher challenged her to sing like a high school student.

She wants her to get a mental image of a more mature sound that she can live into. She’s asking her to stretch her mindset as much as she’s asking her to stretch her voice.

It’s commonly said that if you want the next job you should just start acting like you have it in your current role.

Most people would say, “I’ll sing like a high schooler when I get to high school. Or, “I’ll do what’s required of the next job when I get it.”

Most people would say that. But you don’t have to.


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.

Becoming a Person

I don’t want to start a philosophical or theological debate about this so let me offer a caveat at the outset: when I distinguish between a human being and a person I am distinguishing between the common accident of birth all Homo sapiens share and how some turn that accident into an intentional, conscious life. In my experience there is a vast difference between the two.

In my case, I don’t think that I became a person until I was 35 years old, because up until that age, even though I had done so many wonderful, beautiful things and faced so many deeply challenging circumstances, I had not honestly confronted my lack of consciousness about my self…my person.

You could argue that what I’m getting at here is more a question of maturity than personhood but I don’t find that word satisfying since it implies that if you live long enough you’ll get to self-awareness; again, the accident argument.

To become a person then, requires a conscious choice to venture out and away from the self in order to fully and wholly return to it. I am reminded of Mary Oliver’s poem, The Journey, which begins:

“One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
Though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice –“

That bad advice?

“Don’t do it! Don’t go! Stay here in the pleasantly familiar, entirely predictable pattern of a semi-conscious life. Don’t realize how you have allowed your circumstances to rob you of your freedom to choose how you will live.”

And (even more desperately now),

“Don’t remind me of my own fear, my own shame, my own self-satisfied stuckness by confronting your own!”

To become a person is to leave behind the relationships that hold you down – including the one with yourself – and take on the ones that build you up.

What is it, though, that gets you to the place where “you knew what you had to do and began.”?

For some, it’s tragedy; surviving an illness or a disaster, or grieving someone who did not.

For some, it’s the advent of anger that persists in unexpected, irrational ways. This can emerge in a new marriage or at the arrival of children, deep tears in the fabric of the familiar.

For others, it’s meeting a person of considerable influence who will not be bound by our rules of engagement, who hits us right between the eyes with the feedback we always knew was true but could never willingly hear.

And for others, it’s the revelation of childhood trauma, the awareness that their vulnerability was victimized by someone who knew better but still succumbed to their worst inclinations.

Whatever the source, our inner dynamics always find a way to emerge and provide us with a choice: will I remain constructed in this way (human) or will I set out to reconstruct myself into a person, by stepping into “…a wild night, and the road full of fallen branches and stones.” (again, The Journey.)

There is no path to becoming a person that is not littered with risk, real or imagined, which is why many people choose not to walk towards transformation.

Once again, I am neither a philosopher nor a theologian. Rather, I am a student of the human experience, as practiced through executive coaching and organizational consulting. My domain of interest and influence is organizational life and how it can be made richer, more positive and more productive for every human, indeed, for every person who participates in it.

This is, then, a request to all leaders to take the steps necessary to become a person. Until you do, your human leadership is a roadblock to the positive, productive richness that your people both deserve and crave. For yourself, for them, please walk out into that wild night, leaving the voices behind and “save the only life you can save.”

Here’s the poem in full:

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

– Mary Oliver


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.

Follow the Breadcrumbs

Every time you speak and in every way that you act, you are telling us who you are, what you care about, how you are made. Consciously or not, you are always dropping a trail of breadcrumbs for yourself and others to follow that will lead to a deeper understanding of you.

I didn’t realize until just this week that for months now I have been using words and actions in a wide variety of ways to express my desire for more physical, literally hands-on expression. Planting, cooking, constructing, washing, assembling, painting and a yearning for the physical challenge of playing an instrument have all been clues to this mounting somatic desire.

A sharply focused lens on my words and actions these last six months would have made this obvious but I needed time to realize that there is a larger question emerging about how I will satisfy a need my body already understands but about which my mind is just becoming aware. Those breadcrumbs I’ve been dropping allowed me to follow the path back to myself.

This is worth discovering for yourself. A way to do so that is both revealing and connective is to find a trusted partner or small group and ask each person to respond to a provocative question: “Tell us a story about when you were at your best?” or “Describe an experience that challenged you and how you responded to it?” or “What’s something about you that is true today that you never imagined would be true?”

Once the question is answered, you might follow-up with, “And how is that relevant for you today?” or another inquiry that brings the insight forward.

The listener’s job in this conversation is to spot the breadcrumbs that emerge in the response and then feed them back to the speaker, asking what they make of having left this particular trail.

The breadcrumbs aren’t an answer in themselves, but they are a pathway into a larger conversation full of “questions that have no right to go away.”


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.

[Author’s Note: “…questions that have no right to go away.” is the final line of the poem, Sometimes by David Whyte.]

An Inside Job

I applaud every single person who says they want to get better at dealing with change.

I respect their acknowledgement that doing so will make a big, positive difference, not only to their peace of mind but in their ability to move through the world with greater ease, composure and confidence.

To those stout-hearted souls I offer this recommendation (if I am briefly allowed the presumption of having something of value to offer on the subject):

First, start within.

Begin with the assumption that your resistance or difficulty with change is a byproduct of your personal, necessary adaptations to life.

And then question those adaptations with vigorous curiosity;

“Is it still necessary for me to control every situation or is that a leftover from feeling out of control for so long?”

“Is it still necessary for me to dominate every conversation or is that a leftover from my not being heard?”

“Is it still necessary for me to shrink into the corner at the first sign of conflict or is that a leftover from being exposed to too much conflict?”

Your history is your history and it has deep, inherent value. Until it is reconciled in terms of who you are now and where you intend to go next, however, it will always remain an anchor on your forward progress.

Yes, yes, yes…devote yourself to greater capacity for both the quality and quantity of the changes you will face. And, please do not lose sight of the basic truth that there is no skill you can learn, seminar you can attend or guru you can follow who can capably replace your honest declaration of what you alone must first address.

It is always an inside job.


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.

Experience vs. Improvement

You’ve got another year of experience under your belt. Are you also another year better at what you do?

This is the question, the evaluation, that is so important at this time of year. Are you a better provider than you were a year ago? If so, by how much? How do you know?

If your offerings can be evaluated purely by metrics, the assessment should be an easy one. (Of concern, however, is that if your offerings can be evaluated purely by metrics you might be replaced by a robot in the very near future.) If your offerings can be evaluated by less objective measures than you have a choice to make: will you ask those who pay for your offerings if, in fact, you offered those services more effectively this year than last?

It’s a straightforward, if fully loaded request:

  • What did you LOVE about what I provided to you this year? (Not like, but LOVE!)
  • What could I have done differently or better?
  • Would you recommend me to your closest friend?

If you don’t ask, you won’t know. And if don’t know, you cannot accurately say that your additional year of experience is also an additional year of effectiveness.

Take heart! Getting better is a privilege set aside for the few who are willing to humbly acknowledge that there is always more to learn.


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. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.

Try Again

“All I do know is as we age, the weight of our unsorted baggage becomes heavier. . . much heavier. With each passing year, the price of our refusal to do that sorting rises higher and higher. . . . Long ago, the defenses I built to withstand the stress of my childhood, to save what I had of myself, outlived their usefulness, and I’ve become an abuser of their once lifesaving powers. I relied on them wrongly to isolate myself, seal my alienation, cut me off from life, control others, and contain my emotions to a damaging degree. Now the bill collector is knocking, and his payment’ll be in tears.”

~ Bruce Springsteen. (Esquire, November 27, 2018)


The Boss writes of his inner work like he writes his music: “Now the bill collector is knocking, and his payment we’ll be in tears.” Are you kidding me? If that’s not a song, I don’t know what is.

I started negotiating with my bill collector at 35 years old. He had extended me all the credit I was going to get and it was time to reconcile…with interest.

Considering the freedom paying that debt has brought to my life – freedom, connection, openness – I only wish I had started sooner. And I know, cutting myself some much-needed slack, that I started when I was ready.

“Started” is an important term because it brings with it the implication of an ending. And with this work, there is no ending. There is only the opportunity to get honest about it, make friends with it, and in that friendship find a way to recognize those moments when the impulse to regress is so strong that you want nothing more than to say, “Yes, the old ways are easier and much more satisfying. I will revel in being wounded, resentful, fearful and isolated, wrapping myself in the comfort of that old tattered blanket.”

And then you remember that giving in to that impulse requires the endurance of a hangover so miserable that you feel as if you will never face the light of day again. So, you decline that option and decide instead to live a healed, generous, courageous and connected life.

You decide to try again.


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. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.

 

Timing is Everything

Not Here

There’s courage involved if you want
to become truth.  There is a broken-

open place in a lover.  Where are
those qualities of bravery and sharp

compassion in this group?  What’s the
use of old and frozen thought?  I want

a howling hurt.  This is not a treasury
where gold is stored; this is for copper.

We alchemists look for talent that
can heat up and change.  Lukewarm

won’t do. Halfhearted holding back,
well-enough getting by?  Not here.

– From Soul of Rumiby Coleman Barks


The adamancy of this poem is startling, when I stop to think about it. Rumi gives no quarter. “It’s all or nothing,” he seems to say. And a huge part of me agrees with him, trained as I’ve been in, and inclined as I am, to the practice of disclosure for the purpose of developing greater intimacy and deeper connections.

But, not so fast.

Not so fast for everyone, that is.

My urgency to “go deep” is not always aligned with your willingness to enter those waters. And there are times when I catch myself in a judgmental state for your lack of willingness to meet me there. This is the truth as I know how to tell it.

It is not a stretch to say that where my family is expressive, my in-laws are not. I am not suggesting that we ritually descend to the absolute depths at every possible opportunity, but we are practiced at getting to the heart of things in a very emotional way, productively or otherwise. It’s who we are and what we do.

My in-laws are the other sort. Lots of fun, lots of laughter, but a rather certain sort of even keel prevents the kind of emotional verisimilitude that pervades so many of my family’s gatherings.

Until this past weekend, that is.

In the very best way and in a manner, thanks to my wife’s genius, perfectly appropriate to her brood, there was an outpouring of expression on the occasion of her father’s 90th birthday.

We are blessed that Bob, at 90, is a healthy and happy man. This is quite a gift, for him and for us. Appropriate to that good fortune, Theresa invited all of those assembled (and many from afar) to write a letter to him of both congratulations and appreciation. Documents in hand, and immediately following a glorious prime rib dinner just two days removed from the Thanksgiving feast (I married well!) we sat around the dinner table and read to Bob our expressions of love.

The tears flowed. Generously, genuinely they flowed. From sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, and this son-in-law, they flowed freely and well. It was a beautiful and sacred space made possible by Theresa’s initiative and the willing participation of the assembled clan.

My point is only this: we dare not assume what is present in the hearts of those near us. We dare not assume their willingness or ability to express it. What we can only assume is that if we, if I, am patient and thoughtful and lovingly present, that the right amount of expression, in the right way, and in the right time will find its way to the surface and become a blessing that will never be forgotten.


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. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.

Redwood Homily

Modern pilgrims wander into an ancient cathedral.

They bear witness to the crescendo of a timeless symphony that began with a single note of fertile earth.

Modern faith fails to note that these pillars haven’t always splintered the sun.

It must learn this one thing: that every living thing is called to find its tallest point, and then to reach further still.

It’s what we are made for.

IMG_5968

Humboldt Redwood State Park – November 19, 2018


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. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.

Read the Syllabus

When my son started college this fall I gave him two pieces of advice. These were not offered through some soul-searching recollection of my undergraduate experience but rather from my current role as a lecturer at Cal State San Marcos.

I told him that in the three years that I have been teaching at the college level these two things stand out as the easiest way to delineate between highly successful students and those who just get by.

The first is to read the syllabus. A syllabus is an extraordinary document. It is a 15 week roadmap (in the semester system) that provides a precise description of how to achieve success in a given class. Reading the syllabus and making plans according to what is learned there is so helpful, so advantageous, that it’s almost like cheating. In a well crafted syllabus there is no mystery, no secrets, no hidden trap doors. Yes, you have to do the work but you are equipped with the information you need to figure out how to do exactly that. And, if for some reason that is not the case, I told my son, you can apply the second piece advice, as follows:

Meet your professors. Find the spot on the syllabus that tells you their office hours, set up an appointment and meet with them. You don’t even need a reason, though most of my students who do so have a question about an assignment or are looking for some degree/career advice. In each of these encounters I make sure to spend some time simply getting to know them. And as a result, I remember their names, call on them in class more often and otherwise cultivate a connection born of a 15 minute conversation. This is where students seem to get tripped up, not believing that such a small event could have such a big impact. But it does, it absolutely does.

Nearing the end of his first college quarter, it seems that my son has taken me up on the first piece of advice but not the second.  I will continue to encourage him to do so, knowing how valuable it is, what a difference it can make. And I will encourage you to do so as well. This advice – taking full advantage of resources that are freely given and spending some time to make a personal connection – is just as valuable in the “real” world as it is in the collegiate one.

Surely there is information available to you in your field of endeavor that you have overlooked or set aside in favor of assumptions based on prior knowledge and personal biases. A little bit of humility and curiosity properly applied can be the key that unlocks that material and the confidence and capability that come with it.

Certainly there’s a connection to be made through a networking opportunity, a social media connection, comment or mention, an email inquiry, a handwritten note (!), that may open the door to a piece advice, a referral or even just a seed planted for some unknown future benefit. A little bit of initiative and openness properly applied can become the key to cultivating relationships whose benefits we cannot possibly estimate or appreciate.

Read the syllabus. Meet your professors. That’s not the whole list but it sure is a good place to start.


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. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.