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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Your Natural Best

It’s Wednesday. You’re busy. Your week is flying by and you don’t have time to read this post.

Pause.

Take a breath. (Count to 4 on the inhale and 4 again on the exhale. Repeat if you so desire)

D  e  e  p       b  r  e  a t  h.

Ok, then, just a quick thought experiment before you get back into the mix. Do you have just another moment for that? Here it is:

  1. Who are you at your “natural best”?
  2. Have you been at your natural best this week?
  3. If so, how did that feel?
  4. If not, what’s in the way?

You and me? We’re both much happier and we’re certainly more engaged when we’re operating at our natural best.

Something to consider, here on a busy Wednesday. Because, of course, none of this will ever work as well as it can if we’re all busy doing impressions.

Time for the real thing. Time for you and me to shine.


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HT to the ever thoughtful Andy Wong.

Start Within

“…the most fundamental thing about leadership is to have the humility to continue to get feedback and to try to get better – because your job is to try to help everybody else get better.”

Jim Yong Kim
President, The World Bank


There is no team member, and certainly no team, who will surpass the commitment to learning and development that is established by their leader. If you are frustrated by the lack of growth, or the lack of commitment to growth, being demonstrated by your team, you must first look at yourself.

The act of learning in organizational life, and the feedback required to enable it, depends totally on the environment created by the leader, one in which he or she demonstrates a personal, living commitment to continuous learning. If there is a “secret sauce” to effective leadership, this is it.

Today, the onus on leaders is to start within, focusing first on their own improvement as a continuous exercise of genuine humility. This practice of humility creates a space for a deeper empathetic sensibility that can then be applied to the leader’s team.

When feedback comes from that place it demonstrates a universal commitment to getting better (We are all in this together!) while also reenforcing the most basic truth of leadership, that leaders go first.

If you are not willing to go first, you are not a leader. If you are not willing to learn continuously, grow continuously, question your personal status quo continuously, you are not a leader.

Once you do so, however, it changes everything. You will no longer dread the discomfort of providing feedback to your team but will instead relish the opportunity to be a catalyst for their growth. Once you normalize a persistent and consistent approach to learning for yourself, you will normalize it for them as well.

As ever, leaders go first.


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Yes, She is Smarter Than You

You were hired because you are smart (researcher) or funny (comedian) or clever (analyst). You were hired because of your insights (strategist) or storytelling (marketer) or interpersonal skills (sales).

And you feel good about yourself. And you begin to move among and learn about others in your field. And you quickly realize that there is someone (perhaps many “someones”) who are smarter, funnier, more clever, insightful, who tells a better story or who connects more easily with more people.

Does this mean you are an impostor?

No.

It means that you are hanging out with exactly the right people.

There’s always someone who has “more” or is more of whatever you most value. The sooner you accept that and choose to learn from those you admire, the sooner you can get back to doing what you were hired to do.


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Carl Richards, New York Times

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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