Every Superhero Has An Origin Story

Soon after I published my book, A More Daring Life, in early 2016 I was invited to take a daring new step of my own, teaching in the business school at Cal State University San Marcos. I had no idea what I was in for, no idea of the energy, enthusiasm and kindness of the students it would be my privilege to teach.

A few months ago, I started noodling on an idea built on the foundations of my book but specifically geared to soon-to-be graduates and young professionals. The outlines of a storytelling workshop, one that would teach participants to transcend the quantitative constraints of their resume by learning how to tell a more personal and selectively vulnerable story about their experience and qualifications, began to take shape in May. This weekend, planning and thinking became doing and I led the first one.

For the generous “yes” of those willing to be first I offer my deepest gratitude for trusting me, for being all in and for teaching me how to make it better. (Session 2 is next Saturday!)

To them and to you I offer a toast: “To a more daring life!”


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The Label Doesn’t Stick

If you’ve attended many conferences or trainings you’re familiar with the ritual: you arrive at the registration desk, a kind person takes your name, checks it against a list and then hands you a blank nametag and a Sharpie.

You write your name on the nametag, remove the backing and stick it to your shirt.

Has it ever, even once, stayed put? Not for me. And, without fail, I fold it onto itself and toss it in the nearest trashcan.

I was reminded today that I do a much better job of making labels stick, especially the ones I give myself, than the “name tag corporations” who supply those useless stickers.

For a long time I “wasn’t good at math.” It’s true that I did poorly at math in high school. But I did poorly at math because I found it difficult, and I lacked the work ethic and the humility to ask for help. As a defensive tactic I decided that math was not relevant to my future which made it easier to adopt the “not good at it” label. The fact is that I am good with numbers and surely, with the right attitude and maturity, would have been a fine math student.

That label no longer sticks.

For a long time I was sure I “didn’t have anything to say.” More than anything in the world I wanted to make my professional mark by sharing – through writing and speaking – my ideas about learning and leadership and the very complex relationship human beings have with their workplaces. But perfectionism had its way with me and if I couldn’t do it like David Whyte or Parker Palmer or Manfred Kets de Vries or Margaret Wheatley, then why bother?

Never mind that I had been speaking and writing about those things since I was 17 years old with an energy and enthusiasm that was my very own. I had the goods, at least my version of the goods, but lacked the wherewithal to put them on display. And so the label of “having nothing to say” was an easy hiding place.

I gave my first professional talk at a conference when I was 37 years old after which I had only one thought, “What the hell was I so worried about?” I loved it and I just kept going. Not long after that I started this blog as a way to both practice my new commitment to expression and steer clear of that old label.

Because that old label no longer stuck.

As easily as those conference nametags fall off, our old labels adhere to us so well that we mistake them for a permanent part of our daily attire.

Socks? Underwear? Self-diminishing label of insufficiency? Check, check and check!

The good news is that an old label is indeed removable. The bad news – the really tough part – is that an old label is indeed removable. Once you take it off, you feel naked for a while, which, when you think about it, is the ideal condition for trying on something new.


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The Trap of Almost Knowing

I had a painful, shameful memory yesterday. I recalled a speaking engagement from some years ago that ended with my being cut-off mid-sentence by the host because I had gone over my time. There were several of us slated to speak that night which meant that our host had to manage a tight schedule. I knew the expectation – I had 12 minutes – and I failed to adhere to it.

The embarrassment I felt that night washed over me again with the memory of it: how I tried so hard to save face (how, exactly?) and make a graceful exit (impossible) in the milliseconds after seeing my host walk down the center aisle and in full voice exclaim that “we have to move on.”

As I autopsied the experience I realized that I had made an obvious and avoidable mistake in the lead-up to the event. I had failed to clarify what it was, precisely, that I was expected to address in my remarks. I had the gist of it, you see, but I also had the nagging feeling that there was another level of specificity required, the absence of which left me in improv mode rather than prepared mode. In improv mode, perhaps needless to say, time is fluid and evaporates quickly.

There is a trap of almost knowing that can get in the way of actually knowing, or so it seems to me. The misplaced confidence of my almost knowing prevented the humility of my desire to actually know from being activated and acted upon.

In other words, I acted from my head and not from my heart. I allowed “enough” information to be a substitute for the complete information, a protective cerebral response (“Of course I know what I’m doing!”) standing in for an open and inquisitive one (“I think I’ve got what you’re looking for, but could we please review it once more?”).

As a practical matter, I have carried this experience forward and am much more exhaustive in my “pre-game” conversations about expectations and outcomes.

As a human matter, I recognize the gift of this memory as a tender and instructive reminder to trust that vulnerability in the pursuit of understanding is the best kind of strength.


 

Always Bet On Yourself

You are not going to get picked.

No one is going to tap you on the shoulder and say, “It’s your turn. Right this way, please.”

There is no committee of “deciders” who will stumble upon your work, some fragment of your idea and fall so in love with it that they grant you permission to begin.

You have your track record, your value system and people “whose eyes light up when they see you coming.”

That’s enough. That’s everything.

Stop waiting for permission. Bet on yourself.


HT to HA & MW

Joyful Uncertainty

Insert your definition of success here:                                 .

Now, what is one thing – the next thing – you can do to move in that direction? It doesn’t have to be the best possible thing, just the thing that makes the most sense right now, given your present circumstances.

A good rule of thumb to help you decide is that your “next thing” brings you the unmistakable quality of joyful uncertainty.

Joyful because it’s what you want.

Uncertain because you know there are no guarantees.

If it only brings joy, it’s comfortable for you and not a stretch.

If it only brings uncertainty, it’s probably someone else’s agenda.

This is your path, after all, and your path is still being created.

For now, just the next thing.

Brokenness Aside

broken tree growth

Please look at the upper left section of this photograph. Please notice that the branch you see in the foreground is the same branch that has not quite snapped off of the tree. Please also notice that this broken limb is sprouting many healthy shoots, new branches well on their way.

This branch is not whole but it remains connected. And the connection that remains is enough to provide the nutrients necessary for new growth.

You are broken in places, and I am too. Our breaks do not define us unless we choose to let them. Our breaks, if we let them teach us, make us more resilient and more committed to find a way to grow, to make life happen in ways we could not have otherwise imagined.

Do not lose heart in the presence of your brokenness. Take comfort; this is your moment to shine.

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Poem for a Sunday Morning

Beannacht
{John O’Donohue}
On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.
And when your eyes
Freeze behind
The grey window
And the ghost of loss
Gets into you,
May a flock of colours,
Indigo, red, green
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.
When the canvas frays
In the currach of thought
And a stain of ocean
Blackens beneath you,
May there come across the waters
A path of yellow moonlight
To bring you safely home.
May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
Wind work these words
Of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life.

How to Adjust Your Default Setting

Two beliefs are highly problematic for the modern human being. The first is the belief that we are supposed to be rational actors and the second is the belief that we are.

Just five minutes of silence reveals that in each of our heads exists a chorus of competing, irrational voices that makes our decision-making, especially under stress, unreliable. For an even more clarifying experience, try something new, meet someone new, go someplace unfamiliar, navigate by landmarks instead of GPS, anything that increases your heart rate and decreases your sense of security. Now listen to the voices in your head. They should be practically chanting what amounts to your default setting, or how you see the world and your place in it under the stress of change.

That messy mix of voices is the aggregation of your preferences, perceptions, judgments and biases, the result of years of dragging a large collection net behind you through rich, rewarding, difficult and multifaceted lives.

Remember, your default setting has been working hard to help you make sense of your world and to protect your place in it for a very long time. It’s not that it’s bad or wrong, it’s just that it’s no longer as useful as it once was. It feels useful, and better than an alternative, because it’s familiar and that’s the thinking that gets us stuck in the status quo.

Here are three options for how to adjust your default setting, not so you can finally become rational, but so that you can more capably organize your competing voices of irrationality under stress.

One, in the category of highly desirable but completely unrealistic, you can find a wise teacher high on a distant mountain and take the next 10 years to get there, live there, and learn.

Two, in the category of moderately desirable and more realistic, you can find a counselor, therapist or coach somewhere in your neighborhood (or via the magic of Zoom!) and take the next couple of years to explore yourself, make sense of your learning and practice new ways of thinking and feeling.

Three, in the category of undesirable and totally realistic, you can do the following:

  1. Start noticing yourself more closely in familiar, stressful situations and notice what goes on inside. Write it down.
  2. Start putting yourself into unfamiliar situations and notice what goes on inside. Write it down.
  3. Share what you notice with someone you trust and who has your best interests at heart and see what they think and what feedback they have to share.
  4. Identify and clarify the few things that matter most to you (financial security, family happiness, health and well-being, new experiences, community building, environmental action, continuous learning, achievement, impact, etc.). Use your spending habits and your calendar for clues. Write them down and share them with the person in #3 above, among others. See what they think.
  5. Do the same thing with your strengths. Get as clear as you can about what you do best when you are at your best. Think of concrete examples, write those stories down and share them, as above.
  6. Repeat with an honest assessment of your weaknesses (“opportunities” or “challenges” for the euphemistically inclined). The more honest you get, the better off you will be.
  7. Now, your aspirations and goals. What do you want and why? Write it down. Who knows about this? Find the right people and let them know, you might even ask for help.

What’s happening here? How is this laborious (and therefore undesirable) process of self-reflection, paying attention, writing down and sharing going to lead to the better management of your inherent irrationality?

It’s going to ground you, root you, establish you in your corner of the world by using clarification and understanding as a means to build confidence. The irony of the  personal and relational insight that you will gain is that it will make you more aware of and accepting of your irrationality, as well as that of others, which in turn makes you one of the most rational people around.


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.

Called to Rise

We never know how high we are
{Emily Dickinson}

We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan,
  Our statures touch the skies—

The Heroism we recite
Would be a daily thing,
Did not ourselves the Cubits warp
For fear to be a King—


My father was an Episcopal priest and so it was not entirely a surprise when, around my 13th birthday my mother asked me if I had any inclination to follow that path for myself.

“Absolutely not,” I declared.

“But what if you are called?,” she asked.

“I would hang up!,” I shot back.

A few years later I would have gladly borrowed some of that conviction for what I didn’t want in my search to figure out what I did.

It became clear with the benefit of hindsight that a path was taking shape in front of me but it was so difficult to believe it in the moment that I hesitated to step forward. I was being called to rise – into myself, into my gifts – but I lacked trust in what I had already done as evidence of what I could and would become. The pieces were there, but the puzzle remained a mystery.

The clues to the solution came with a couple of major revelations. First, that what I had to offer was wanted and valued and, second, that the way I would and could offer it would remain beyond my imagination until I lived it into being. I know that sounds squishy but for me it’s the difference between reading a recipe and wondering about how it will taste and going ahead and making it to find out. It may not turn out as you imagined it but now that there’s a baseline, adjustments can be made.

I still wrestle with the voice in the head that shouts that I dare not dream “to be a King.” And those I mentor and teach, along with good friends and colleagues, generously share their own version of that same inner struggle.

I encourage myself and I encourage them with the reminder that I remain the worst possible judge of my potential; that if I sincerely want to respond to the call that comes for me, I must surround myself with those who will not only help me hear it but also grab the phone away before I can hang it up.


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.

 

Make Way for the Good Stuff

“Dethatching” lawns refer to the mechanical removal from a lawn of the layer of dead turfgrass tissue known as “thatch.” This residue is bad for your grass, as it keeps water and nutrients from seeping down to grassroots. 

Source: The Spruce


What’s good for the grass is good for you and me.

We all have stuff that builds up inside. That could be resentments, negative emotions or self-talk, or just some habits that no longer serve us very well.

That layer of “dead tissue” is not only no longer useful, it’s in the way of those things that will make a positive difference to your well-being, your emotional and mental, and maybe even physical health. Maybe that’s forgiveness of an old wrong or a dose of self-confidence, or the realization of a core strength or even an earlier alarm setting to get a jump on the day.

I wish we could just add the good stuff on top of the bad stuff and have it sort out the right way. But it doesn’t work like that. The bad stuff is a stubborn blockade that must be pulled down and tossed aside for the good stuff to do its work.

For my lawn that means getting out a heavy-duty rake or renting a piece of equipment that digs down and pulls out the dead layer beneath the surface. For you and me, that process might look like some combination of quality conversations with people we trust, honest feedback about our strengths and weaknesses, the creation of a development plan, seeing a therapist or coach, digging into helpful reading material, getting regular exercise, periods of quiet reflection, and so on.

The good stuff will find its way to your roots if you make the space it needs. That’s the best and most challenging part of spring.


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.