Living a Redwood Life

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy
is in the eyes of others only
a green thing which stands in the way…
As a man is, so he sees.”

{William Blake}


Last year at this time, with the semester drawing to a close, I decided to share with my students some images from a recent trip to the Humboldt Redwood State Park here in California.

I wanted to share my childlike enthusiasm for these magnificent trees. I wanted to inspire them to seek out wonder and awe in their lives.  I wanted them to remember that in the field of “management” (which is what the course tells us we are studying) we do well to remember that organizational life is first and always a human endeavor.

I wanted them to believe my admonition that a profound sense of awe and wonder – an appreciation for the spectacular miracle that is any living and learning system – is essential if we are to appropriately honor the very real human beings present in our workplaces, responsive to our decisions, trusting of our intentions.

I then took it a step further. I encouraged, even challenged them to choose to be redwoods in their own communities. I suggested that such a choice comes with great risk because a redwood outside of a redwood forest would be seen as a peculiar, if fascinating anomaly. I then suggested that living a “redwood life,” conspicuous though it might be, might just inspire others to do the same, and that we might just create an entire forest of people fulfilling their potential for growth and impact. In fact, it would be the only way for them to survive.

Redwoods are shallow rooted, a shocking realization given their massive size. Instead of deep roots to support them they use their upper limbs to make contact with their neighbors and together form a dense network of mutual well-being.

Stand tall, reach out, help one another. Live a life of wonder and awe at the gifts of living and learning.


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Redwood Homily

I wrote this piece a few days before Thanksgiving last year during a visit to Humboldt Redwood State Park. It’s an extraordinary place…humbling, grounding and pure.


Modern pilgrims wander through 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.


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Humboldt Redwood State Park – November 19, 2018


 

A Development Exercise for Your Weekend Enjoyment

Respond to this statement five times: “I am the kind of leader who…”

Then, respond to this statement three times: “Right now, my team is…”

Finally, respond to this statement just once: “The most important thing I can learn next is…”

Once you’ve completed your responses, decide which item about your team is most important to address right now and which item from your leadership attributes should be employed to address it.

For example, if I decide that “Right now, my team is struggling in their transition to a new process” is what needs to be focused on and I also have written down that “I am the kind of leader who invests a lot of time and energy coaching my team” I have just identified the beginnings of my approach to addressing this need.

Ideally, once you have your responses in place you will talk them over with someone. This helps you flesh out your thinking and test drive the “why” of your ideas.

(Optionally, you can replace “leader” with father, mother, friend, colleague or any other role of importance to you right now.)

I hope this is helpful. Please let me know what you think.


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Not the Same

Today did not go how I thought it would.

When I went to bed last night, I had a clear idea of how the day would unfold. It did not go that way.

When I woke up at 3am I tossed and turned about how today would go. It did not go that way.

On my walk this morning I knew just how the rest of the day would go. It did not go that way.

It never does.

Professional people understand this and accept it.

They understand that no plan, however well-imagined or articulated, survives contact with reality.

Plans are a useful, if temporary reservoir for our anxiety about the unknown. Reality is the landscape on which we learn and grow.


 

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Unique Human Needs: Growth

I am energized to spend this week reflecting on Tony Robbins’ list of unique human needs. Here’s the list in its entirety followed by a brief reflection on the quality of “Growth.”

Unique Human Needs

1. Certainty: assurance you can avoid pain and gain pleasure
2. Uncertainty/Variety: the need for the unknown, change, new stimuli
3. Significance: feeling unique, important, special or needed
4. Connection/Love: a strong feeling of closeness or union with someone or something
5. Growth: an expansion of capacity, capability or understanding
6. Contribution: a sense of service and focus on helping, giving to and supporting others


Part 5: Growth

When I first went to see a therapist my cover story was pretty thin. To her inevitable opening question – “So, what brings you here?” – I gave her my well-rehearsed reply, “As a professional coach I think it’s important to tend my own garden so I can be most helpful to other people.”

This was a valid intention, just not an honest one. “I’m doing it for them” has a noble ring to it, its thin veneer a convenient way to mask the truth that I was in a lot of pain. And being in pain, I was afraid to talk about it because I knew I would have to feel it more before I could feel it less.

That pain was a tangle of old and unresolved stuff, mainly about abandonment, that reared up in full toxic force in the first years of fatherhood. I experienced deep feelings of anger toward my young son, feelings that both frightened me and filled me with shame. I knew that I had to figure out where all of that negativity was coming from, my initiative newly motivated by the fear of a future estrangement.

Thankfully, at that time I was in the company of new colleagues who were relentlessly encouraging of my growth and who had the insight and experience to normalize the idea of therapy as a powerful tool for meaningful change.

In the list above, Tony Robbins describes Growth as an expansion of capacity, capability or understanding. 

Through my work with a therapist I came to understand capacity as having room to consider the needs of others from their perspective rather than through the lens of my own. In other words, I had more empathy because I had more emotional space.

I came to understand capability as an enhancement of my ability to notice more about myself and others. I was sharpening my lens, getting better and better at anticipating and responding to my internal impulses while more quickly attuning to the externally expressed needs of others.

I came to appreciate understanding as an awareness of the complex dynamics that are always present in team and organizational settings. Seeing more allowed me to be more helpful and productive in all domains of my life.

My growth through therapy helped me to become a better team member, a better leader, a better coach and consultant and, most importantly, a better husband and father.

As it turns out, the garden metaphor was an apt one, especially from the perspective of preparing for the winter months. In that case, a hard pruning is required before any new growth can appear. It can feel brutal to employ the shears so aggressively but until it happens the old growth will remain as a barricade to the new growth that finally emerges.


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I Got Knocked Down Again

I watched Brene Brown’s Netflix special, The Call to Courage, for a second time today and her call to get into the arena, to be willing to get knocked down – to embrace the certainty of getting knocked down – reminded me of a post I wrote last October. Here it is again, truer than ever.



“You can’t go back and change the beginning,
but you can start where you are and change the ending.”
— C S Lewis


You know the feeling of being lost. You know what it’s like to start out with a sense of direction, a heading that makes sense to you. And then, after a wrong turn or missed signpost, that sense of direction evaporates into confusion as you can’t get your bearings. And you stumble around a little bit hoping it will come back to you. “This all looks familiar,” you might say, “but I just don’t know how to get going in the right direction.”

I got lost in the forest that way, not once but three days in a row. Each morning I set out with clarity and purpose and within 15 minutes I was not where I intended to be. I made wrong turns. I missed the signposts. It was dark and I was stubborn, a troubling combination.

For three consecutive days I failed to get the beginning right. For three consecutive days I was able to change the ending and get myself back where I needed to be.

I didn’t want it to play out that way but it was how I needed it to play out to help me understand my developmental pathway. That trail in the woods was always leading me back, not to what I wanted but to what I needed. And what I needed was the reminder that I am least in control when I am the most controlling; that I am least capable when I am blindly confident; that I am least connected when I focus on competence, arrival and completion.

Me against a dark and unknown forest trail wasn’t close to a fair fight. And each time it knocked me down I got back up to test it again. And I got knocked down again. Until, until, until I was ready to accept what it had to teach me; that the construct of “me against a dark and unknown forest trail” was only the latest manifestation of my familiar developmental path.

Me against. Me against. Me against. An endless, un-winnable fight.

Me with the unknown trail. Me with the scary conversations. Me with the deepening relationship. Me with the new opportunity to stretch, learn and grow. Me with the unknown future.

Connection is the pathway I continue to walk.


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Onward and Awkward

I gave a keynote speech yesterday on the topic of “Leading Change.”

After my talk, an attendee approached me and shared that an old boss of his used to advise his team to keep moving “onward and awkward.”

There is no change or learning or growth without the uncomfortable feelings that attend us into the unknown.

Those feelings are a reliable early warning system that it is time to pay close attention to ourselves and our surroundings, a time to be more connected to others rather than less, and a time to fully embrace a beginner’s mindset.

That’s a lot to juggle all at once and doing so will always feel awkward.

But isn’t that awkwardness, even when it lasts longer than we think we can stand, a far better alternative than giving up on learning?

Your ego and your expertise and all of your lived experience – everything that draws you back to the safety of the status quo – will survive the truth that there’s still so much to learn.


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Monday Morning Thought Experiment

Imagine that it’s five years ago. If you could meet yourself on October 14, 2014 what advice would you give yourself for the coming five years?*

Five years ago, my advice would have been (1) trust yourself; (2) open yourself; (3) move towards aliveness, always.

Imagine that it’s five years from now. What advice do you give yourself today that will help you wake up on October 14, 2024 satisfied that you lived the last five years with a clear purpose?

My advice to my future self is the same: (1) trust yourself; (2) open yourself; (3) more towards aliveness, always. 

Is it a cop out to focus on the same things, evidence of a lack of growth or ambition? It’s tempting to think of it that way, but I choose not to. I choose instead to recognize my “advice to self” as an acknowledgement that my core developmental themes will always resist being “fixed” or “solved.” These themes represent a very large part of the work of my life, work that never really ends.

I suppose that could be frustrating, even defeating. But I find it inspiring, an invitation to keep learning.

And what about you? What did you discover?


*Suggestion: conduct this experiment out loud, with a friend. Make a commitment. See what happens.


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To Be Oneself

“Fully alive people are liberated by their self-acceptance to be authentic and real.”

– John Powell, S.J.


Today, I continue to explore John Powell’s “five essential steps into the fullness of life.”

Part 2: To Be Oneself

Sometimes I think I matured in reverse. My memories of high school in particular are a series of Technicolor images of “being myself,” feeling fully human and fully alive. Not long after that time, my “self” slipped away and it took a long time to get it back.

In high school I remember feeling completely comfortable expressing myself in the assorted ways it made sense for me to do so. I sang in choir, performed in musical theater, participated in student government, in talent shows, pep rallies, air bands, skits…anything and everything that gave me a chance to employ my extraversion, my energy and my joy for performance. I wanted to create, to connect, to engage. I instinctively wanted to use my energy to energize others.

Once in a while, I hit the books. And I did well enough. But the classroom was not my personal proving ground. My greatest learning, and my most positive memories of that time, came from getting up in front of people. It was what I knew how to do and I had a wide-open runway on which to do it.

College wasn’t remarkably different from high school in this regard and I found some similar ways to tap into that bottomless reservoir of performance energy.  This gradually became muted by more rigorous academic demands and the fact that I was swimming in a much bigger pond. The fact that it never dawned on me to get involved in theater at the college level is a decent indicator that I was already working hard to protect myself from not getting picked.

Since the approval of others came so easily in my teenage pursuits I was ignorant about how much I needed it. As that veil was lifted, as my need was exposed, I began to shrink away from some of the risks that would have come easily before.

As comfortable as I was in “presentation mode” in my earlier years, I found myself anxious and afraid as my young career provided opportunities to be out in front. I got myself convinced that those innocent exploits were an anomaly, not really me, and what chance did I really have to repeat an anomaly!

Finally, at 37 years old, an age that seems obscenely old relative to how intensely my unmet internal desires were burning, my friend Molly Davis paved the way for me to make my first professional presentation at a conference. It was the first time I stood up and said, “this is the work I do, what my team and my company have accomplished, and I am very happy to share it with you.”

I had some skin in the game and because of that I was very, very nervous. And it went great. And there was no looking back.

Twenty years after experiencing the joyful and easy expressions of my youth, I had discovered it again, this time with the maturity of my professional experience to back it up. It was quite a moment to be reconnected to myself after all of those years.

Today, I am a soloist at church and I give lots of talks and trainings. I freely share stories about my experiences, striving always to represent myself authentically and without a varnish that begs for approval. And I still get nervous. But that nervous energy is no longer rooted in the fear of not being good enough but rather in my desire to do good work. I care about what I do and I want that to come across loud and clear.

I once heard it said that if the path ahead of you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s path. And tempting though it may be to stay on that safer road, to get to oneself requires the harder work of a boulder-strewn, uphill climb.

No one else can walk it for you. And the view from the top is breathtaking.


Tomorrow: Part 3, To forget oneself in loving

January-12

Fully Alive

In Fully Human Fully Alive, John Powell writes:

“…fully alive people are those who are using all of their human faculties, powers, and talents. These individuals are fully functioning, in their external and internal senses. They are comfortable with, and open to, the full experience and expression of all human emotions. Such people are vibrantly alive, in mind, heart, and will. There is an instinctive fear in most of us, … and we prefer, for the sake of safety, to take life in small dainty doses. But, the fully alive person travels with the confidence that, if one is alive and fully functioning, in all parts and powers, the result will be harmony, not chaos” [p.19:3-p. 20:1].

According to Powell, “the 5 essential steps into the fullness of life include:

1. to accept oneself
2. to be oneself
3. to forget oneself in loving
4. to believe
5. to belong”   [p.23:1].

Unless you prefer “to take life in small dainty doses,” these are not only worth aspiring to but they are calling us to meet them with heart-filled resolve. Next week, some thoughts and reflections on each one. Please join me.


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