The Tap

taxiA man in a taxi wanted to speak to the driver so he leaned forward and tapped him on the shoulder. The driver screamed, jumped up in the air and yanked the wheel over. The car jumped the curb, demolished a lamppost and came to a stop inches from a shop window.

The startled passenger said, “I didn’t mean to frighten you, I just wanted to ask you something.”

The taxi driver says “It’s not your fault, sir. It’s my first day as a cab driver…I’ve been driving a hearse for the past 25 years.”

Since I first heard this story a few months ago I’ve been using it to open every talk I’ve given and every workshop I’ve led. And I’m going to keep it up. It’s one of those jokes that have been around for a while, I’m sure. But it never fails to get a big laugh and it has proven to be a great way to open up one of the most challenging conversations we can have: how well equipped are we for the realities of change?

I have great affection for this taxi driver. I imagine him as a guy who woke up one day and realized after years of loyal service that he was no longer fulfilled by his work, no longer able to find in it what he needed to stimulate his imagination and ignite his sense of possibility.

I imagine that, in a very real way, he decided it was time to rejoin the living.

I imagine him enthusiastically sorting out all of the details of his new employment, anticipating the variety of people he would meet, the places he would go and the experiences he would witness. I don’t imagine him considering for even a moment just how big a shock to the system it would be to have a passenger lean forward and tap him on the shoulder.

A single tap on the shoulder forced him to let go of the past and wake up to the here and now in an immediate, uncomfortable and essential way.

I think about my decision to move to Chicago after college, the excitement of my first job dissipating in the hazy asphalt of interstate 80 as the realization that I was all alone settled into the seat beside me. Tap.

I think about moving to northern California as a young married couple in search of something new, something romantic, something that would jumpstart my professional life, only to my find that my lack of direction, a sharp lack of knowing who or what I was to become, was in full supply there, too. Tap.

I think about reconciling myself to the loss of a friendship that I believed would stand the test of time. Tap.

I think about the audience of six people I almost wrote off as a waste of my time only to have one of them turn into my biggest client of the year. Tap.

The more I consider these experiences – these reunions of expectation and reality – the deeper my conviction grows that the way to anticipate them, to welcome them and to work with them is to stay in an open and honest conversation with myself.

That conversation must include a combination of high expectation – the belief in possibility – and high regard for the universal truth that as soon as we pull away from the curb we become a bold invitation to the shaping hand of reality.

Drive on. Stay alert.

The tap is coming.

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, especially the parts where he doesn’t handle it very well.

Put Out Into Deep Water

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Each one of us has a net in which we capture an understanding of ourselves. That net is strong, it can hold a lot. And testing that strength scares us so we don’t do it very often, if ever. Instead, we keep tossing our net in the shallow end of our experience, catching and re-catching what we have long known about ourselves, hoping that this time the limitations of our understanding won’t hold us back, won’t prevent us from getting closer to our heart’s desire.

Put out into deep water. Go to the depths that frighten you. Find there, in the shadowy darkness of the water a revelation of who you are. Only then will you be equipped to determine what serves you and what must be thrown back. 

Each one of us has a net in which we gather the collective force of our connection to others. That net is strong, it can hold a lot. And testing that strength scares us so we don’t do it very often, if ever. Instead, we keep tossing our net on the surface of our experience, keeping our relationships at a safe distance, rarely risking bringing them closer and almost never including someone new. We falsely believe that this distance protects us, reducing the risk of being known for who we truly are.

Put out into deep water. Go to the depths that frighten you. Find there, in the shadowy darkness of the water a revelation of who loves you, just as you are. Only then will you be equipped to close the difficult distance between the fear of loss and the exponential truth of full relationship.  

Each one of us has a net in which we collect all the learning of our adult life. That net is strong, it can hold a lot. And testing that strength scares us so we don’t do so very often, if ever. Instead, we toss our net in the shallow waters of what is known, comforted by the embrace of the status quo, keeping a wide territory between us and the edge of the new with its persistent threat of exposure, embarrassment and failure.

Put out into deep water. Go to the depths that frighten you. Find there, in the shadowy darkness of the water a revelation of new learning. Only then will you be equipped to say “I am, and always have been a beginner.” 

Each one of us has a net. It is large and strong. It works fine along the shore but it is built for deeper water.

It cannot throw itself.

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, especially the parts where he doesn’t handle it very well. If you enjoyed this post someone else might, too. Please pass it along.

 

You do not have to be good.

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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 founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and 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.

First, Turn the Soil

Soil HealthEveryone wants to talk about harvesting. A few want to talk about planting. Even fewer want to talk about preparing the soil.

I came across an article yesterday called What Amazing Bosses Do Differently. Like so many books and articles out there right now it says all the right things. None of it is new. Here’s the last paragraph:

The common denominator is attentiveness. Pay close attention to your employees as individuals. Take that extra bit of time to build their confidence and articulate a vision; to provide constant, ongoing, high quality feedback; and to listen to their ideas. And ensure that your own messages are consistent.  Is it hard work? Yes. But it’s worth it.

Attentiveness? Check. Vision? Check. Feedback? Check. Consistency? Check.

Hard work? Check. Just not the right kind.

Do we really think another researched-based study that comes to the same conclusion as the last one is going to get our leaders to change their behaviors? That will only happen when organizations realize they don’t get to have it both ways.

Telling our leaders what they already know without getting them ready to apply it is a recipe for cynicism. It promises to deepen the resistance to change that is fed by corporate pronouncements about “employee engagement” that fail to come with any substantive cultural change to support them. Our leaders continue to default to fear-based, controlling behaviors for two reasons:

  1. It’s what their organizations are compensating them to do.
  2. It’s the easiest way to ensure performance in the short term.

The best way to appreciate the danger of the reality we’ve created – yes, we are all complicit – is to go back to the farm.

If you’ve worked on a farm of any size or even carefully tended a garden you know that planting and harvesting can be good, hard work. You also know that those activities are nothing compared to what it takes to properly prepare the soil. Turning just a few spades of dirt, especially in compacted and root-bound soil, is enough to remind you what physical labor really is. And it is our willingness to stick with it – to turn it, amend it and smooth it out – that makes the difference in the quality of what it will produce.

One of the first principles of planting crops of any kind – assuming you want to avoid chemically “enhancing” the soil – is that from one year to the next you rotate them into different sections of the field. (This applies to small garden planters as well.) Since different varieties absorb different nutrients from the soil this prevents any one crop from taking more than it’s share.

The corporate bias, in a thoroughly unimaginative response to the speed of complexity and change, is to simply take all it can while it can. This failure to tend their own soil makes them slaves to the present instead of caretakers of the future. In the same way that crop yields diminish in depleted soil so too do organizational results wither from the lack of attention to the first principles of long term growth.

 

Defining “Hard Work” 

What we need to talk about – what so few want to talk about – is the kind of “hard work” that our organizations and our leaders must engage in if we are to see real change. In my experience, a person who is both willing and able to do the “hard work” of practicing great leadership behaviors does so because first – first – they have tended their own soil.

Organizations must create the conditions where this is not only possible but also expected. To be a “leader” must come with clearly articulated, high expectations of self-knowledge that precedes behavioral training. Advancement to leadership positions must be contingent upon an individual’s ability to display a detailed understanding of their values, strengths, aspirations and limitations. They must be able to define themselves both at their best and at their worst, demonstrating an awareness of the conditions in which they thrive and those most likely to send them off the rails.

My bias would be to send a prospective leader to therapy or counseling for a year before he or she took the role. Since I live in the real world I will relinquish that fantasy in favor of developmental initiatives that allow for a deep understanding of each individual’s “soil composition” and just what is needed to amend it for them to grow – and support others growth – as well as they can. These programs already exist. We just need organizations to have the courage to put them into play.

We must also stop confusing positional competence with leadership capability. It’s a shortcut, knowingly taken far too often, that utterly fails to serve men and women who would otherwise thrive with the influence of a qualified leader. Organizations will further impoverish themselves if they continue to teach new skills to people who have not addressed their own compacted and root-bound soil.

The articles about “brilliant bosses” and the lists of “best leadership behaviors” are sure to keep coming. They will be dressed up differently but made of the same stuff. We need to do better than this.

We need to collectively reject the temptation to plant in poor soil, the bias for short term thinking that limits the quality and quantity of our yield.

We need to get our hands in the dirt, face up to the reality of what we find there and make it ready to support the growth for which those we lead are so hungrily waiting.

DAVID BERRY is the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and 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.

Who do you think you are?

For what feels like a very long time, especially in my late twenties and well into my thirties, I was asked this question a lot. And every time I was asked it I heard it as an accusation. I heard the question underneath the question: what gives you the right to think you can do this?

Wide-eyed, naive and guilty I would inevitably respond with some stammered version of “I don’t know” or “I’m figuring that out” or “I think it’s this” or “I might be that.” My answer always a plea for mercy from the smallest part of myself.

Strangely, I was only asked the question at times when I was attempting something new, stretching out, exploring new space: maybe with writing or speaking, perhaps with a new workshop design. Unfailingly, the question would be asked of me during conversations with “smart” people about books or movies or politics. It would always be asked in charged meetings where points of view were expected, positions were being staked out.

Always, the question would come.

One day I started to look out for the people who would ask it. I started to wise up and get ready for it because I could predict who it would come from and when. The more I paid attention the more I noticed that the people who would ask this question shared similar qualities; tone of voice, style of dress, demeanor, and even size and shape.

Again and again and again, the people who would ask this question all looked eerily familiar to me.

And then, one day, it hit me. The people asking this question, those judgmental, insensitive, thoughtless, discouraging people were actually only one person in many different guises.

The reason they looked so familiar was that they were me.

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.

Intersections

IMG_2140The more you keep moving, the more intersections you will come to. The more intersections you come to, the more choices you will have. The more choices you have the more possibility you will discover.

You can choose to wade into shallow water that will quickly become deep. Perhaps you are called to do something that frightens you, that threatens to overwhelm you. And it might. Or it might buoy you, turning into a swift current that carries you to what you long for. You won’t know until you get in.

You can choose to walk on the soft sand, each footstep sinking in and pulling you down. Perhaps you are called to reconnect to something once cherished, a place or relationship to which you hope to belong in a new way. The sand may exhaust you. And it may turn to firmer earth that supports a quicker pace. You won’t know until you start walking.

You can choose to scale the rough wall, each hand and foothold scraping at your resolve. Perhaps you are called to confront an old belief, a tired adaptation that begs to be released. The wall may daunt you, its vertical certainty demanding every ounce of your limited resolve. And it may at last offer an unobstructed view to a new understanding. You won’t know until you start climbing.

Keep moving forward, turning into the choices that unlock the possibility of your life.

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, especially the parts where he doesn’t handle it very well.

Others

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Gathering

“You do know, don’t you, that the people you are most threatened by are invariably just like you?” – Richard Rohr – 

I met a friend near the beach yesterday afternoon. We planned to sit and have some conversation, opting not for the coffee shop but for an ocean view. It was low tide and the beach was expansive, endless flat sand stretching away in either direction.

My friend suggested we take advantage of the tide and stretch our legs. Normally, that’s an easy “yes” but I hesitated in light of the fact that I was dressed for “business” – button down, slacks, dress shoes – having come directly from other meetings.

But the beach was calling and it is surely some kind of sin to ignore it so we did not. I quickly and awkwardly transformed from “business guy” to “business guy who just decided to take a walk on the beach.” Dress shoes off, socks stuffed inside, pants rolled up and very white feet exposed to sun and sand, we set off. I was the fish out of water. But only to me.

I have always had a complicated relationship with relationships. Part of it – a healthier part than I may be able to admit – is due to the fact that when I am surrounded by talented people – smart, funny, accomplished – I often choose to allow their qualities to serve as a measuring stick to which I am not equal. I would like to be one who celebrates others more freely, reveling in their achievements without it having to have something to do with me, good or bad. Sometimes I am able to do this, sometimes not. When I operate from my lower self I know that it is because I haven’t met my own standard and I can’t tolerate being reminded of it with the example of other’s good work. The easy remedy is to reject and isolate.

But I can’t go it alone. I need others and knowing the depth of that need creates a vulnerability that can be hard to take. Others – those most important others – can build us up, make us stronger, accept our awkwardness. Others reflect back to us with precision the truth of who we are. Sometimes, like the glare off of a sparkling ocean, it is impossible to see it without squinting and turning away. It can be hard to look at ourselves.

As I keep learning how to walk in the world, the more I am able to see and understand the complications and possibilities embedded in understanding the self, others and the new entity that is formed when they come together. It is awkward at times, sort of like a man in business attire casually walking the coastline, but getting your feet wet always is.

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, especially the parts where he doesn’t handle it very well.

Don’t Motivate Me, Please

People are internally motivated. The good work of leadership is to tap into that motivation and accelerate, support, deepen and encourage it. I think the biggest leadership mistake is one of getting in the way of what is already there. It is the hubris of thinking that I either have to supply motivation or that my version of it is superior to what someone brings with them. This is classically paternalistic. “That’s nice,” says the well-intentioned leader, “but here’s how it should be.”

So many employees buy into this paternalism because they love the protection it affords. They are making a painful trade-off by accepting someone else’s version of how they should feel, think and believe and only because they are separated by one rung on the pay scale. At best this substitution of perspective is an ill-fitting replacement and at worst it’s deeply corrosive. The courageous leadership move is toward a partnership that is about maximizing what the individual has to offer; what you saw in them in the first place that made you want to hire them.

Leaders control, in my opinion, because the chaos of the individual is just too overwhelming. That is to say, most leaders don’t seem to have the capacity to treat each individual employee as a naturally, uniquely motivated person and figure out how to make the most it. And that capacity doesn’t exist because the leader hasn’t looked within long enough or purposefully enough to discover their own motivation. Ultimately, they just end up repeating the pattern of their experience because they haven’t learned to value and express their personal, internal perspective. Instead, the leader lumps everyone together, expecting them to be “just like me” and thinking that somehow this is going to lead to innovation and value creation.

How can it possibly?

Start within. The courageous step is the one back to yourself.

Wet Paint

For kids, small is big: a minor scratch needs a bandage, a pinch from a sibling leads to open warfare, a spot in the front seat is a coronation, an extra topping on the frozen yogurt is a coup, another round of errands is a death march, a forced apology is a permanent humiliation.

And, big is small: no concern about jetliners being shot out of the sky, the war in Gaza, immigrants crossing the border or severe drought conditions in the west.

And, that’s as it should be. For a while.

Successful adults – that is to say, mature and well-developed adults – are successful in part because along the way they figure out how to turn this around; how to get perspective on big and small things and manage themselves accordingly. Well, sometimes. And “sometimes” is precisely the difficulty in so many cases.

What I notice in myself is that when I start feeling frustrated, I will sometimes project that frustration onto others in the form of hyperactive control. I feel out of control so I start to over control. An example: we are two months into a kitchen reconstruction (“remodel” would be a gross understatement) which means that our fridge is in our garage where there is no water line. Because there is no water line there is, of course, no ice. So, we have been buying bags of ice at the grocery store and, because it is summer, going through those bags very quickly. I freaked out on a recent evening when I heard someone getting into our dwindling ice supply for fear that there wouldn’t be enough left for me.

Small became big. And, I consider myself a successful adult. What to make of that?

I suppose that we’re never quite done sorting it all out. My tendency for control is going to get kicked up when my capacity to manage the ambiguity and uncertainty of my circumstances is tested. When that water surges over the banks it has to go somewhere. So then my job – as an aspiring successful adult – is to keep expanding and strengthening my banks. To check them, test them, reinforce and repair them. To do so, I must stay in conversation with myself, as honestly and realistically as I can.

It is popularly reported that to protect the Golden Gate bridge from the corrosive effects of the ocean air, it is constantly being repainted. There is no completion. There is only ongoing maintenance. One coat over another, over another.

Don’t stop building. Don’t stop painting. That is the bigger work we all must do.

 

 

 

 

 

Tracking a Life

I lost my Fitbit yesterday. I had been wearing the bracelet since early January and at one point Saturday afternoon I looked down and noticed it was gone. Having had one of those Saturdays that saw me driving all over town the thought of retracing my steps to find it was a non-starter. The truth is, I’m relieved.

I’ve always been consistent about exercise and activity. I don’t sit and relax that easily. Being on the move is a natural state for me. So, the Fitbit was less helpful as a motivation to exercise as it was a tool to obsess about the activity of the day. (David Sedaris recounts his own obsessive/compulsive relationship with his device in a recent New Yorker piece.) It was a rare day that I didn’t get my 10,000 steps and my 30 “active minutes.” I was never going to document a “food plan” – I will never count calories – so some of the device’s extra features were of little use to me. In my case, the Fitbit was a glorified pedometer.

Did I enjoy the digital evidence of my daily consistency? Sure. Did I share my achievement “badges” with the world via Twitter? Readily. The fact is, the Fitbit only validated me for something I was already good at. What I need in a device is something that will help me where I struggle most.

To that end, a few suggestions for the “wearable technology” industry:

The Dream Mapper – no, not the sleeping kind. The “this is what I want most in my life” kind. This device will measure the number of daily steps taken each day towards the fulfillment of my heart’s desire. The “focused study and preparation” minutes. The “seated at the desk with intent” minutes. The “hard and necessary conversations” minutes. The “asking for help” minutes.

It will also include a “Steps AWAY from my dream” feature with accurate measurements of activities and thought processes dedicated to a number of critical subcategories: Resistance. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Procrastination. Self-deception. Low self-esteem. Storytelling. (Possible clever marketing names: “DitBit” – “DreamFuel” – “The PowerDream 9000”)

The Resentment Tracker – This device will calculate the daily amount of energy I spend thinking about other people’s accomplishments rather than focusing on my own opportunities. It will include a bar graph to measure the severity of critical thoughts, comments and attitudes I project towards those whose success and impact I envy. It will also measure my shortness and frustration with those closest to me when they “just don’t get what I’m going through.” (Possible clever marketing names: “ResBit” – “CriticCounter” – “Own Worst Enemy”)

The Fear Monitor – This one will be pretty straightforward. It will keep a log of every situation in which I have a chance to “lose” something as well as a sub-log describing the accuracy of that perception. It will also accurately monitor opportunities lost due to unwillingness to step into the unknown. The “Yes, but at least you didn’t get hurt!” function will progressively turn from GREEN to RED as I bank too much avoidance and too many excuses. (Possible clever marketing names: “FearBit” – “Avoid-O-Meter” – “Regrets4Life”)

The Affection Meter – Every genuine expression of love, care, consideration, respect, appreciation or regard for another human being will be helpfully recorded as will the avoidance of same. Supportively, an algorithm will calculate the types of people and situations most commonly associated with my form of generosity or aversion. There will be a corresponding “heart health” meter that correlates overall physical, mental, spiritual and emotional well-being to the amount of affection and kindness withheld or given. (Possible clever marketing names: “AffectAware” – “ConnectCount” – “HeartATTACH”)

Yeah, these would be helpful.