#11 – There is no “There”

This is #11 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For”

There is no “there.” There is only next.

In the domain of human development and learning, arrival is a myth.

Awareness and action are the currency of the realm.

It’s a currency that cannot buy completion or entitlement to a finish line. It can only buy the ability and the opportunity to keep moving forward.

high angle photo of person going down

Photo by Leon Macapagal on Pexels.com

What to Say

The next time you are asked to give career advice to a young professional, please just provide them with this quote by the late, great James Michener:

“We all worry about wasting time, about the years sliding past, about what we intend to do with our lives. We shouldn’t, for there is a divine irrelevance in the universe that defies calculation. Many men and women win through to a sense of greatness in their lives only by first stumbling and fumbling their way into patterns that gratify them and allow them to utilize their endowments to the maximum.”

Come to think of it, you might just consider making up some cards so you always have one handy to give away.

Come to think of it, you might read the quote again and realize that it’s even more appropriate for you – that refreshingly pesky divine irrelevance phrase – than for anyone you might share it with.

Perspective is a priceless thing. As is curiosity and experimentation and the relief that comes when we stop comparing ourselves to everyone else and choose to follow our own path.

person sky silhouette night

Photo by Snapwire on Pexels.com

Learning to Ask For Help

Among the most important – and most difficult – realizations I had to contend with on my path to becoming a person is that of learning to ask for help. My life is littered with instances of persisting in a state of futility when engaging with someone else, sometimes something else, would have made the difficult thing an easier thing.

The roots of it have to do with perfectionism/fear of failure and a persistent voice in the head asking questions like, “What if they find out you are not as good as you think? What then?”

I have stood on a lakeshore for over an hour, fruitlessly trying to catch fish while everyone around me was having success.

I have gotten lost on a forested trail three days in a row because of my stubborn unwillingness to slow down and notice the actual signs that marked the way.

I have avoided sharing my written work with talented writers and editors whose thoughtful and helpful criticism might just sting too much.

And the list goes on. Or it went on until I turned a corner and began to practice, albeit imperfectly and sometimes haltingly, some alternative ways of engaging with the sources of help that surround me.

Most recently, I took up the piano. After years of avoiding a hard thing that would make me feel all the painful feelings of being a beginner, I decided it was time to get over it and get on with it. My daughter, an accomplished player at age 13, has been exceedingly helpful to me. My piano teacher, with whom I just recently had my first lesson, is genuinely interested in my success. I am saying “yes” to their quite visible forms of help.

I also spend time with two different peer groups on a monthly basis. These are people in similar fields and with similar aspirations for learning, growth and impact. Our conversations consist of inquiry, revelation and support and just being present with and for one another is a form of deeply important help.

My daily writing on this blog is another way I am seeking and finding a helping hand. Basil King said, “Go at it boldly, and you’ll find unexpected forces closing round you and coming to your aid.” Though I sometimes doubt the value of sending yet another post into the dark void of the internet, I am reminded that the practice of doing so is less about where it lands and more about helping myself stay attuned to my own thinking and my own voice. It is a practice in self-help, I suppose.

One final example of saying yes to help: A few weeks ago as I was scrambling to get my things together and get out the door on time for my full day of teaching and office hours at the university, I asked my wife Theresa if she would make a lunch for me to take along. My campus schedule doesn’t allow me the time to get something between classes and on this particular day I didn’t have time to prepare ahead of time. She said yes, of course, and has done the same for me on each Thursday since.

It’s a simple and loving kind of help, the kind that can be taken for granted. But I don’t because it reminds me that I have someone in my corner who is ready and willing to help me as long as I let her know how. And that’s what makes it such an important example, that she – someone who implicitly wants to help me – can’t do so if she doesn’t know how. Which means I have to ask and risk the vulnerability of doing so.

These examples, large and small, remind me that in spite of a deeply rutted pattern of assuming that people will be judgmental or unkind or bothered – a clear projection of my vulnerability – there is another assumption, by far a more accurate one, to be made: that most people, most of the time, want to help.

The unknown variable in the equation, as it turns out, is me.

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.

Your Best Work

Your best work is the work that emerges from the use of your natural, cultivated and refined strengths.

I have learned to be good at all kinds of things in my life. I have adapted myself to many scenarios and found an ability to become successful in ways I wouldn’t normally expect to be.

I think of these abilities as my “learned strengths” and while I am gratified to make a contribution with them, doing so takes its toll on both my energy and my attitude.

When I employ my natural strengths, those born out of the core elements of my personality and burnished by experience, I have no energy loss and am able to maintain a positive attitude.

Understanding the difference between your natural strengths and your adaptive or learned strengths is less a question about how much impact you can have and more a question of how much you are willing to spend to make that impact.

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.

So Many Trees

There are so many kinds of trees. I recognized this week how few of them I can name.

I can spot a redwood, or is that a sequoia?

Of course I know a maple leaf (thank you, Canada). But a Japanese maple?

And that Bay laurel? The leaf looks familiar, just not the whole tree.

And on it goes.

It doesn’t matter if I know the difference between the trees around me. Nothing is at stake.

But if I lose sight of their individuality – if I can’t see the tree for the forest – then I am choosing willful blindness over appreciation and awareness.

And trees, without judgment, defensiveness or retaliation, are a safe place to practice how I might think about other people.

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.

You Don’t Fear People Whose Story You Know

20130316-155255.jpg“Ask: ‘What’s possible?’ not ‘What’s wrong?’ Keep asking.

Notice what you care about. Assume that many others share your dreams.

Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.

Talk to people you know. Talk to people you don’t know. Talk to people you never talk to. Be intrigued by the differences you hear. Expect to be surprised. Treasure curiosity more than certainty. Invite in everybody who cares to work on what’s possible. Acknowledge that everyone is an expert about something.

Know that creative solutions come from new connections.

Remember, you don’t fear people whose story you know. Real listening always brings people closer together. Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world. Rely on human goodness. Stay together.”

Turning to One Another,” Margaret Wheatley

Exceptional Times

I failed Algebra 2 in high school. It was hard, I lacked the determination to figure it out and I wasn’t open to the help I needed. I finally just gave up and it was an easy decision to do so: I was a history, arts and language guy. Math had no relevance to me. Realizing I had to make up the failing grade and put a little lipstick on my college transcript, I enrolled in what turned out to be the easiest summer school class you can imagine. The “F” turned into an “A” because the teacher only gave us assignments and open book tests that matched the answers in the back of the book. I am not kidding. And I was all too happy to put the sorry experience behind me.

Do you remember when Forrest Gump finds out that he has a son and he’s desperately afraid that he will be “special,” too? I had that same fear when it came to my kids and math. Notwithstanding my wife’s stronger track record in this area, I dreaded the thought that I would pass along my ineptitude. Of course, this was a baseless concern. My kids are great at math and it’s one of my 15-year-old son’s best subjects. When I attended a “shadow your student” day not too long ago his math teacher passed out a worksheet introducing trigonometry to the class for the first time. The premise was simple, given the values of two sides of a triangle the students were to use the formula provided to find the value of the third side. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but enjoyed observing my son work through the new equation and felt very good that I understood, at least conceptually, what the heck was going on.

I soon discovered that was only to be my introduction to trigonometry. In the same way the make and color of the car you just bought seems to be everywhere you drive, this particular strain of math is following me around. In Anthony Doerr’s beautiful, compelling and Pulitzer prize-winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See, trig plays a central role. A German boy, orphaned, poor, smart and resourceful becomes a self-taught radio expert. His talents emerge during his education in a Nazi “prep school” and he is selected for daily laboratory time in support of the work of the school’s technical sciences professor.

“Can you do trigonometry, cadet?”

“Only what I’ve been able to teach myself, sir.”

Hauptmann takes a sheet of paper from a drawer and writes on it. “Do you know what this is?”

Werner squints. “A formula, sir?”

“Do you comprehend its uses?”

“I believe it is a way to use two known points to find the location of a third and unknown point.”

Hauptmann’s blue eyes glitter; he looks like someone who has discovered something very valuable lying right in front of him on the ground. “If I give you the known points and a distance between them, cadet, can you solve it? Can you draw the triangle”

“I believe so.”

And he does, repeatedly, aiding the professor in the development of a technology he will eventually employ to root out enemy forces and members of the resistance on both fronts of the war who are sending illegal radio broadcasts.

Their first meeting in the professor’s office concludes this way:

“A scientist’s work, cadet, is determined by two things. His interests and the interests of his time. Do you understand?”

“I think so.”

“We live in exceptional times, cadet.”

A thrill enters Werner’s chest. Firelit rooms lined with books – these are the places in which important things happen.

Here, again, we are living in exceptional times. Here, again, we are staring into the near future with very little assurance of what it holds, little to no certainty of what’s to come. We are searching in the dark for a railing to hang onto as we make our best efforts to define a future we can believe in. And, here is where, all these years later, I see a usefulness for math that I never imagined. Here is why, starting in my son’s classroom and deepened through this wonderful story, I can speak with confidence that leadership in a time of change requires an astute understanding and application of trigonometry!

Given two known points, can you find the third? Given what you know, can you find the unknown? I believe that the answer to that question, in the context of leading change, rests entirely in the depth and quality of our answers to these questions:

Do you KNOW yourself? values, strengths, limitations, purpose, hopes, dreams?

Do you KNOW your team members? values, strengths, limitations, purpose, hopes, dreams?

Do you KNOW your vision? Is it clear and compelling? Is it worth fighting for? Do you move toward it every day?

These are our known points. I trust as deeply as I can that knowing them without hesitation and with the deepest conviction to continuous revelation is our only hope for making the unknown known.

Exceptional times call for exceptional awareness, the coordinates we need to find our way.

DAVID BERRY is the founder of RULE13 Learning. He writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world, especially the parts where he doesn’t handle it very well. If you enjoyed this post someone else might, too. Please pass it along.

When a Right Turn Isn’t

right turn

This is the first in an occasional series of guest postings by people whom I admire for the leadership they offer to a complex and changing world. I hope you enjoy learning from them as much as I do.

My wife, young daughter and I had the fortunate experience to spend the past two years living in São Paulo, Brazil. As natives of Southern California we had never visited South America and it was a grand adventure in every way imaginable. What I was not expecting was that the experience would test my judgments and preconceptions but once I realized that was happening, I tried hard to embrace it.

It started small. Summer is winter. The metric system. The 24-hour clock. Celsius. A four or six-hour time difference (there’s no “spring forward”). I was always thinking and converting. No unconsciousness allowed.

One difference that completely surprised me in a “2+2 doesn’t equal 4” kind of way involved cars making right turns. As we are taught in the US, when approaching an intersection, you put your right blinker on, look left, maybe stop, and then turn right. It’s an easy image to conjure. That simple act, however, is more for the people behind you who can see the action unfolding and should, arguably, be prepared for it.

Compare that to cars coming from the opposing direction. What you are doing to them is not turning right but merging left. So, a left turn signal would be more appropriate. This is what they do in Brazil and I could never get used to it.

I’ve never questioned the act of the right turn before. I had no reason to. And it got me thinking about how my judgments – my assumptions – may prevent me from seeing what’s really happening. Here are a few things I came up with (with some questions to consider included):

  1. It’s not just about taking things for granted. At times, we should actively question foundational items and actions. What assumptions do you make that should be questioned? Re-evaluated?
  2. Take “if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it” to a whole new level. Start small. Find something truly broken and look at it from a completely different perspective. Then move to a functioning product or process and repeat.
  3. Perspective matters. Are you considering everything? A 360° view can be healthy, necessary or just plain safe.

My experience south of the equator taught me to test my assumptions, to question the basis for my decisions, actions, and even the delivery of products and services. In a more profound way I see the importance of sound evaluation, considered from diverse points of view and re-evaluated appropriately and objectively. While this is not a simple thing to do, “simple” is not what leaders sign up for, right?

From now on, whenever I feel like I’ve got it all figured out, I remember myself at an intersection in Brazil helplessly trying to figure out which blinker to use. Take nothing for granted. There’s always another way to see the situation you’re in.

Joel Stern has 16+ years of full life cycle recruitment experience within professional and financial services. Throughout his career, Joel has developed and enhanced recruitment solutions (people, process, technology) to help create efficient and well run Talent Acquisition functions. At Opening, Joel’s focus includes building relationships with experts to create a library of evaluations, bringing best practices in talent acquisition and holding the team accountable to Opening’s value proposition: taking the guesswork out of the hiring process and helping employers build high-performing teams.