Ode to Not Having a Clue

Last night after class a student posed this question:

“If accounting majors become accountants and finance majors work in finance, do management majors become managers?”

It’s such a pure and literal question, and it was posed with a wonderfully perplexed sincerity. I could see the wheels turning…”I’m hearing these words come out of my mouth and I know they don’t make much sense but I don’t know how else to ask this and I really want to get this figured out!”

As I was processing just how funny the observation within the question is, I said “No, it doesn’t really work that way…and good for you for asking. What makes you ask?”

Which is how we got to the bigger question lurking behind the scenes: “How do I figure out what I’m supposed to become? How will I know?”

And that question, more like a plea, sent me back in time a couple of decades to my own period of fruitless confusion about the road ahead.

I first wrote about this in 2010. I’ve reprinted it below for your consideration.



When I was in my early 20’s, I was searching. When I was in my mid-20’s, I was searching. When I hit my late 20’s and early 30’s, I was still searching. What was I supposed to “do”? What was I supposed to make of my life? How is this thing going to go down? I really didn’t know and, though I started to piece it together bit by bit, I lacked the confidence to “go boldly in the direction of my dreams” because the dreams were fuzzy and the path ahead was definitely a scary one.

One of the things that helped get me through the great unknown (or that portion of it anyway) is the following brief essay by James Michener. Shared with me by a dear friend at a crucial time, it became a close companion on the journey. It helped me to realize that my exploration was “normal” and “creative” and that I needed to trust the process. Today, having found my path and the confidence to walk it more purposefully every day, I relish the opportunity to pass the essay along to those who may benefit. Please read it and do the same.

The Lost Years

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.

Actually, I wrote nothing at all until I was forty. This tardy beginning, one might say, stemmed from the fact that I spent a good deal of my early time knocking around this country and Europe trying to find out what I believed in-what values were large enough to enlist my sympathies during what I sensed would be a long and confused life. Had I committed myself at age eighteen as I was encouraged to do, and as we all are encouraged to do, I wouldn’t even have known the perimeters of the problem, and any choice I might have made then would have had to be wrong. It took me forty years to find out the facts.

As a consequence, I have never been able to feel anxiety about young people who are fumbling their way toward the enlightenment that will keep them going. I doubt that a young person, unless she wants to become a doctor or a research chemist, in which case a substantial body of specific knowledge must be mastered within a prescribed time, is really capable of wasting time, regardless of what she does. I believe that you have until age thirty-five to decide finally on what you are going to do, and that any exploration that you do in the process will, in the end, turn out to have been creative. Indeed, it may well be that the years that observers describe as wasted will prove to have been the most productive of those insights that will keep you going. The trip to Egypt, the two years spent as a runner for a bank, the spell you spent on the newspaper in Idaho-these are the ways in which a young person ought to spend her life-the ways of waste that lead to true knowledge.

Two more comments. First, I have recently decided that the constructive work of the world is done by an appallingly small percentage of the population. The rest simply don’t give a damn or they grow tired, or they fail to acquire when young the ideas that would vitalize them for the long decades. I am not saying that such people don’t matter; they are among the most precious items on the earth. But they cannot be depended upon to either generate necessary new ideas or to put them into operation if someone else generates them. Therefore, those men and women who do have the energy to form new constructs and new ways to implement them must do the work of many. I believe it to be an honorable aspiration to want to be among the creators.

Second, I was about forty when I retired from the rat race, having satisfied myself that I could handle it if I had to. I saw then that a person could count their life a success if they survived, merely survived, to age seventy, without having ended up in jail because they could not adjust to the minimum laws that society required, or having landed in the booby hatch because they could not bring their personality into harmony with the personalities of others.

I now believe this without question: Income, position, the opinions of one’s friends, the judgments of one’s peers, and all the other traditional criteria by which human beings are judged are for the birds. The only question is-can you hang on through the crap they throw at you and not lose your freedom or your good sense. I am now sixty-seven and three-quarters and it looks as if I’ve made it. Whatever happens now is on the house and of no concern to me.

~James A. Michener
Author of Hawaii, Centennial, The Drifters, Adventures in Paradise, and other works.


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.

Back to School

I don’t love studying. I hate studying. I like learning. Learning is beautiful.

– Natalie Portman –


Today is the first day of classes at Cal State San Marcos where I am a lecturer in the College of Business. Seventeen thousand students will make their way to campus this week to re-engage with friends, fellow students, faculty and staff as they pursue their educational goals.

As someone who spends the lion’s share of my time working with clients in the business world I have an advantageous position to see and hear what leaders have to say about the kind of people they want…they need…to employ.

Based on that awareness I consider it a privileged responsibility to help my students understand, commit to and practice the kind of learning that will help them make extraordinary contributions both during their school careers and in the professional pursuits that follow.

Here’s what matters most:

  • CREATIVITY – the ability to address complex problems from fresh perspectives and with novel approaches.
  • ENERGY – the ability to sustain an attitude of healthy adaptability in a constantly changing environment.
  • INITIATIVE  – the ability to notice and address opportunities that will help us to learn and grow.

Finally, and most importantly as far as I’m concerned, is the COURAGE to pursue radical self awareness, without which none of the above is remotely possible.

As you organize yourself for the lectures, meetings and assignments, the group work and the presentations, don’t forgot to take a few minutes to notice yourself. Take just a few moments away from the swirl of expectations and events to learn who you are as you learn who you are becoming.


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.

Today, at work

Today, at work you can spend as much creativity, energy and initiative as you want.

And if there is anything getting in your way of spending every last penny, today is a very good day to sort out why that is.

My guess is that one of two things is true:

1. Your boss has failed to create an environment worthy of your considerable investment.

2. You are playing it safe.

My life’s work is to make a small dent in #1.

Your life’s work is to make a big dent in #2.


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.

The Right Equipment for the Job

I was almost done mowing the lawn last weekend when the front wheels of the mower fell off. This has happened once before and our mechanic was able to “make a part” to keep the wheels on. I should have considered myself on notice. When the problem occurred again a few days ago I was less surprised than impressed that the DIY solution lasted as long as it did. Slipping the wheels back into place not at all securely I slowly and carefully cut the last section of grass.

After that it was on to the edging and trimming. But the 15-year-old “weed whacker,” seemingly in solidarity with the mower, had had enough. When the “auto-feed” feature stopped working I had to stop every few feet to manually pull out some additional line. It was tedious and frustrating and I wasn’t able to finish the job.

It is a truism of the workplace that an employee’s level of engagement – her willingness to bring her creativity, energy and initiative to bear on her responsibilities – is positively correlated to her access to the right equipment for the job. Common sense, right?

If you are asked to take care of something important and then informed that even though most companies, most of the time would use “those tools” and we only have “these tools” you might find that to be (a) an opportunity for creative problem solving and/or (b) more than a little frustrating.

The challenge of doing your best with what you’ve got – being scrappy and efficient with a  “can-do” attitude – is fun for a while, maybe even a little exhilarating. But it’s not a long-term strategy for success. At some point you’ve got to invest in the right – maybe even the best – resources for the job.

I have always enjoyed doing yard work; the physical effort on a warm summer day and the pride of ownership bring a strong feeling of satisfaction. But that’s when my tools are functioning as they should. When they don’t, well, it’s really no fun at all.


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.

Out of Your Head

Just because it makes sense in your head doesn’t mean it makes sense.

In fact, the moment when it makes sense in your head is the time to question if it makes sense at all.

Getting it – the conversation, the idea, the next sentence – from your head and out of your mouth or onto the page is another thing entirely.

And that’s the moment when you have to rely on others to help you explore, challenge and expand your new idea if you’re going to make any sense of it.

Your next “great thought” will not be fully formed. That’s as it should be.

Test it out with people who will make it better. Be committed to making it better.


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.

The Rhythm

I really appreciate it when friends share great stuff with me. Since this one is pretty great, I’m sharing it with you, too. 

The Rhythm

In any creative feat

(by which I mean your work, your art, your life)

There will be downtimes.

 

Or so it seems.

Just as the earth is busy before the harvest

And a baby grows before its birth,

There is no silence in you.

There is no time of nothingness.

 

What if,

During the quiet times,

When the idea flow is hushed and hard to find

You trusted (and yes, I mean trusted)

That the well was filling, the waters moving?

 

What if you trusted

That for the rest of eternity,

Without prodding, without self-discipline,

Without getting over being yourself,

You would be gifted every ounce of productivity you need?

What would leave you? What would open?

 

And what if during the quiet times you ate great meals

And leaned back to smile at the stars,

And saw them there, as they always are,

Nourishing you?

 

There are seasons

And harvest is only a fraction of one of them.

 

There is a rhythm that made everything.

The next time you stand in the kitchen, leaning,

The next time a moment of silence catches you there,

Hear it, that rhythm, and let it place a stone in your spine.

Let it bring you some place beautiful.

– Tara Sophia Mohr –

 


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.

Scattered Thoughts On Creativity

Starting here: I recently watched the film, “My Neighbor Totoro” by Hayao Miyazaki. It was recommended by a friend following a conversation on creativity. A children’s film, such as it is, I settled down with my two daughters last Sunday afternoon to check it out. Interestingly enough, the movie centers on two sisters who are adapting to a move to the countryside. As they explore their new home the power of their imagination brings to life magical creatures and incredible happenings, the most significant of which is an enormous tree sprouting from their yard in the middle of the night. In reality they had simply planted some seeds. In their imagination (fueled by their insistence on immediate gratification) the tree erupted from the ground, filled the sky and became their new vantage point on the world around them.

Creativity starts with “rootedness.” A grounding in something solid and well-defined. Seeds are planted, roots move into the earth fed by nutrients and pulled by gravity, preparing for an upward push towards the sky. The tree is simultaneously moving into the earth as it extends itself into open space.

When I weave in Andy Goldsworthy’s idea that “change is best understood by staying in one place” the image of the tree as a metaphor for creative thought and action takes on another layer of meaning. The tree is stationary; growing down to grow up. It is a keen observer of the world around it and it uses this awareness to adapt and to grow. Stay with me here…

Let’s personalize it: I am the tree. If I am well-planted, well-rooted in my beliefs and values; if I am willing to stand firmly in reality, aware of who and what is around me and committed to continuous learning about them, I create the conditions for creative possibility. As I stretch myself upward, I do not do so at the risk of losing my “groundedness,” I do so because of it. My confidence is fed by the core truths at my base; the steady supply of food and water.

Change is a certainty. It is the wind that topples the shallow-rooted tree. Learning, creativity and adaptability are a must in the face of change. And they are only possible when the conditions are right, when the roots are deep.

Culture is a Playground

What if you thought of your organization’s culture as a playground?

You might establish clear boundary markers. You might provide resources that induce creative interactions. You might not legislate rules but rather allow them to form organically, as a result of your teams natural inclination to create a workspace of accountability and accomplishment. You might provide soft landings for those who risk, experiment and explore.

You might keep alive an enthusiastic conversation about where you are going so the team is reminded of why they chose this particular playground on which to play their game.

You might lead by example, creating a higher standard of engagement for those who have the most responsibility and the biggest paychecks. You might not allow team members to “sit this one out” but rather learn how to have the conversations that re-engage them in the work. You might help the bullies and the narcissists and the prima donnas find the exit as fast as humanly possible.

You might provide drinks and snacks and sit together once in a while to celebrate a job well done, a game well-played.

You might.

But will you?

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

You do not have to be good.

flying_canada_geese

Image credit: Kelly Warren – Wild Spirit Resources, LLC

I tacked this poem onto my bulletin board a few days ago. It’s been staring at me ever since, trying to help me understand, to see in a new way. This seems like a good day to explicate it as best I can. First, here’s the whole thing.

“Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

In my reading of the poem it has three acts: permission, perspective, and invitation.

Permission

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

There are a couple of lines in this poem that stop me in my tracks, starting with the very first. If all I could have is that first line I’d be more than satisfied. I needed to hear it a long time ago. I wish I had known and believed it  long before now. It’s a mantra, a meditation. It’s also the beginning of permission to simply let go of all of the “shoulds” and comparisons and the pervasive perfectionism  that prevents creative expression.

The permission in these opening lines simply says, “It’s ok to get off of your knees, once and for all, to let go of shame and guilt and ‘not enough’ and walk on timid but strengthening legs to that which is calling you forward.” It reminds me of the heart-wrenching scene in “Good Will Hunting” when Sean (Robin Williams) says to Will, “It’s not your fault.” “It’s not your fault.” “It’s not your fault.”

And just as that permission begins to settle in, I hear the poet’s invitation to unburden myself of my despair AND to be present to the despair of another. My pain is no greater than yours. Yours is no greater than mine. We are all hurting. And we must all get up and continue walking. And we must help each other do it. It’s the only way.

Perspective

Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

The world goes on. I am small. It is vast. I am important, but not nearly so much as I think. I want to be special, to be heard and understood as I’m sure I never will be. Won’t you give me more time? More attention? More care and concern? Why have you moved on? Why must we change the conversation?

Eventually, as my voice gets smaller, drowned by the gorgeous volume of a world in motion, I have to reconcile myself to the hard truth – hard, hard truth – that it doesn’t exist just for me. It is not a backdrop, an elaborate setting for my experience. It simply exists. As do I. And by existing as it does, it reminds me to keep returning to myself to learn what I must learn. And to never stop because there is no end to that discovery.

Invitation

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

If only I am willing to refuse my loneliness – that subtle device by which I convince myself that no one else will quite understand – it is all there for the taking. Gifts too beautiful to take in at a glance. I am here. You are here. The world is here, made to be free in.

On stronger legs now I stride into the world, persistent in my self-reflection, consistent in my regard for you, ready to learn all I must if I am to live into the possibility I can see just above the horizon.

That faraway place, always right here.

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.