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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Invitational

Earlier in life, when I made an invitation, I worried about what would happen if the response was, “no.” A fixed mindset, a bruised ego prepared to nurse the wounds of rejection.

Today when I offer an invitation, I “worry” what will happen if the response is, “yes.” A growth mindset, an ego that is energized by the challenge of creating something worth that very precious “yes.”

I’m not sure yet, but I think this is wisdom.


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Change

Change

change
change
C
hange(!)
CHANGE
CHANGE?
change!!!
egnahc
ChAnGe
cHaNgE
change
changE
!!!CHanGE???

It takes as many forms as we can imagine but what is consistent about them all is that they don’t stop coming.

It’s never “if,” it’s only “when.” This means that any effort to be ready, to be well-equipped to stand tall when others are blown sideways, will pay off handsomely.

You have either reached the fourth stage of enlightenment, have become a Jedi Master or you are like the rest of us, with plenty of opportunity to learn how to work with the reality of change.


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Frustrated Idealism

“There are teachers, social workers and clergy who work incredibly hard until they are 80 years old and never suffer ‘burnout’ because they have an accurate view of human nature, of our potential and limitations. They don’t over-romanticize people, so they don’t feel the great psychological stress when people let them down.”

{Peter Senge quoting Bill O’Brien in The Fifth Discipline}


It is said that if you scratch the surface of most cynics you will find a frustrated idealist.

I am re-reading The Fifth Discipline right now both for an independent study project I am supervising and as a refresher in preparation for a new project kicking off this fall. When I read the quote above I find myself both encouraged and humbled. That is to say, my “frustrated idealism” has come a long way and still has a long way to go.

I so appreciate O’Brien’s and Senge’s matter-of-fact commentary about this. “Yes, people will inspire you beyond your imagination,” they seem to say, “and they will also leave you banging your head against the wall and tempted to give up.”

The great gift – and this can only come to us through a deep dive into our own development – is to find the space where we maintain a positive, even soaring commitment to what is humanly possible while also steadying ourselves for the reality that elevating to those heights regularly results in some tough and painful landings.

We best support others and we best support ourselves by remembering Wilferd Peterson’s admonition to:

“Walk with the dreamers, the believers, the courageous, the cheerful, the planners, the doers, the successful people with their heads in the clouds and their feet on the ground. Let their spirit ignite a fire within you to leave this world better than when you found it…”


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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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Soft Focus

When you hold a “soft focus” you trust what is in front of you to be as it is while leaving plenty of space for it to be otherwise.

My work affords me the opportunity to be a mentor and coach to business professionals across the wonderfully wide spectrum of “just starting out” to “seasoned executive.”

One of the privileges of this work is that I am invited “behind the curtain” of my client’s experience into their spaces of vulnerability and unknowing. This is holy ground. And to inhabit this holy ground in a way that honors both where they are and what they aspire to become, requires a soft focus.

As strong as the impulse can be to make assumptions about them based on their years of experience, role, education, family status and the like, I must hold what is presented to me as “true” while leaving room for anything else to emerge as also true.

In my practice of “knowing and not knowing” I recognize that I have also made it a priority to encourage my clients to develop their own capacity in this regard. As a practical matter, this often includes the “homework” assignment to seek out other professional mentors – perhaps a more senior leader within their company whom they admire – as a means to stretch the limits of their perspective.

Again and again, what happens in these encounters is that my clients go in with a hard focus, holding an assumption that because of this person’s status they have it “all figured out.”

Again and again, they return from these conversations with evidence that the person they see as “so accomplished” and “so impressive” is exactly that while also being someone who makes mistakes, has doubts and endures the struggle of insufficiency. This realization is a powerful one as it normalizes the other person as a human being, first of all. It can also be unsettling because it “proves” something to my client’s that they may not want to have proven to them at all: that you can achieve or become what you want to achieve or become even with or perhaps because of your vulnerability.

It’s easy to say, “be gentle with everyone you meet because they are fighting a great battle,” but to live that awareness every day requires rigorous practice, just like anything else we aspire to do well.

The implications for us go well beyond the confines of our professional lives, of course. Imagine holding a soft focus for your best friend, your partner, your children, and your neighbor. Imagine holding a soft focus for the person in front of you at the grocery store, the ticket window, and the on ramp. How might that shift your perspective? How might that open you up?

There is a space between what is and what else there is. To remain curious and aware about what is happening in that space is to offer a gift to everyone you meet.


{Thank you, Alia}

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Tell Me Your Story

I was here, and you were here,
and together we made a world.
{David Whyte}


If you tell me your story, I will tell you mine.

From that small, open place we will take steps that help us to know one another. Through our disclosure we will build trust, and from that trust we will experience the reinforcement of connection.

I will only learn about myself, which means that I will only learn how to walk in this world, through my relationship with you.

When I resist I do so because I don’t want to be reminded of what I don’t yet know. When I resist I am bound by the seduction of the status quo, refusing to yield to the certainty of change.

When I engage I do so because you help me to remember that my initial discomfort holds the seeds of my future wisdom.

Tell me your story, and I will tell you mine.


 

 

Open, Not Apart

IMG_5965Our hearts do not break apart, they break open.

It is through this opening that what we need tiptoes in, staying beyond our vision until we are ready to see.

This is difficult to explain. It must be lived…felt…to be understood.

Consider the way the fallen Redwood opens space in the canopy of the forest for saplings to receive sunlight. Consider how its decaying trunk provides nourishment for the forest floor and refuge for small creatures.

As we reel from the destruction of the fall we can also trust that what it has set in motion will be more generative than anything that might be gained from its perpetual and upright symmetry.

A healthy forest integrates both the broken and the whole, becoming more resilient as a result.

Our heart’s ecology is the same. When it breaks it does not pull us apart but equips us to open wider still.


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Humboldt Redwood State Park – November 19, 2018

This isn’t what I want

Again and again it seems that we attract into our lives precisely the encounter, the conversation, the article or poem, precisely the thing we are intended to wrestle with in order to shift to a new level of understanding.

I’ve heard myself say, many times, “But this isn’t what I want!”

I read a poem that forces me to confront themes of reconciliation and mortality (Kingdom Animalia) and I resist it, minimize it, dismiss it because it is just what I need right now.

I read a book (Maybe You Should Talk to Someone) that reminds me of the powerful benefits of therapeutic conversation, the examples reflective of (because, human) my experience. I don’t want to be uncomfortably reminded of those themes, but I need to be.

I have a conversation that disrupts the smooth waters of my well-constructed ego, one that challenges my perception and forces my humility. I need that disruption. I certainly don’t want it.

This is, I think, the price of paying attention. And I would rather do so with vigilance and continue to encounter what I need to encounter than bury my head in the sand and risk no encounter at all.

“Development” or “learning” is never about arrival. It is about engaging the same themes again and again and having an incrementally better go of it the next time around.


 

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.