#4 – Know Your Strengths

Between now and March 22, I am happy to share “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.”


What are you doing when you are at your best?

What are you doing when you feel the most accomplished, competent and confident? What are you doing when you feel energized, when time flies by, when your work is not work but a natural extension of yourself?

As you answer these questions, you are describing your strengths.

And your ability to do so – with clarity and conviction – is the best chance you have to make sure you get to use them as much as possible.

We are shy about our strengths. There is a common cultural conditioning to be experts at naming our deficiencies and novices at naming our gifts. This is a huge mistake, a massive cultural gap that will only narrow when you and I decide that it’s not just ok but necessary to name, to own, and to live out the very best of who we are.

We too often defer to others – especially authority figures, especially bosses – to tell us what we should be good at. Some know better than to do this but most do not. And so, it’s our responsibility to define them first so that we can be our own best advocates for doing more fulfilling work and living more fulfilling lives. It’s our responsibility to make it clear so that we can teach others how to work with us for mutual and sustainable success.

If after reading this you are scratching your head, wondering what your strengths are, go ask a few trusted colleagues and friends. Go ask them for examples of when you are at your best. Ask them to describe your strengths. And then listen, really listen, and trust what you hear.

The sooner you do so, the sooner you’ll give up on the temptation to fit the square peg of yourself into the round hole of that “great” opportunity. The sooner you do so, the sooner you’ll discover the consolation of awareness that leads to insight, and the insight that leads to action.


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#3 – Know Your Values

Between now and March 22, I am happy to share “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.”


Our values guide our decision-making. Clear values make it possible for us to assess any significant question (Should I move there? Take that job? Work with/for those people? Build a stronger relationship with this person? Fight for this idea? Spend my money on this initiative, project or idea?) and make a decision that resonates as true and appropriate to who we are and what we stand for. It’s the feeling of clarity, especially with the big decisions, that allows us to get to sleep at night once we’ve made them.

Your values, whether you understand them explicitly or not, are always at work. One simple way to find this out is to do a monthly review of your calendar and your bank statements. Undoubtedly, you will see a pattern of time and money spent that reflects your value system.

For example, if you notice a lot of time spent at the gym and a regular investment in workout gear, chances are you value fitness or health or wellness, however you choose to name it.

If you love to exercise but notice that you only ever do it with your friends and family, chances are that in addition to valuing fitness you also value relationships or community or an active social life, again however you choose to name it.

So, let’s run a little further with this idea that you are a person who, above all else, values your health and your relationships. Along comes an opportunity to advance within your company. This new role brings an expanded and exciting set of responsibilities, along with the requirement that you travel four days a week, three weeks out of every month.

Knowing your values of health and relationships does not mean that you would refuse the new work opportunity outright but it would help you to evaluate it in a more thoughtful and comprehensive way. You might take it as a challenge to get creative with your exercise and eating habits on the road. You might also invest more energy in coming up with new connection opportunities with friends and family both while you’re on the road and off it.

You might also decide that the new opportunity will satisfy another one of your values, let’s call it achievement, and that for the next six months you are going to allow that value to supersede the others, while keeping an eye on what happens to your health and relationships. You might decide, of course, not to take the job because achievement has never been as important to you as health and relationships. 

Whatever you decide, the point is that you know how to think about this decision, both critically and emotionally. You can do so because you have taken the time to conduct a values inventory, to identify, define and rank your values in a way that makes them readily available as perhaps the most important tool in your life management toolbox.

It takes courage to name and live your values. Doing so means that in addition to saying “yes” to a handful of core beliefs, you must also say “no” to many others. This can feel isolating, especially when others choose values that are not the same as your own. But over time it is nothing less than energizing and powerful to live a life that is guided by what matters most to you.

To me, this is the path to mature and lasting happiness.


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#2 – Change Starts Within

Between now and March 22, I am happy to share “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.”


If I could only write about one thing it would be this: all meaningful, sustainable change starts from within.

For so many years I blamed my parents, my bosses, my siblings, my friends, my children, and even perfect strangers for my inability to get, to be, to have what I most desperately wanted.

I blamed them because I was not ready to accept responsibility for myself. I was not ready to accept the truth that I was the only one standing in the way of becoming the person I knew I could be, feeling the sense of security, composure and equanimity I knew I could feel.

I blamed them because that was much easier to do than to accept the fact that my old patterns of compensation were no longer enough, no longer capable of supporting my facade of competence and composure.

As many have said, “You are not responsible for what you received as a child but, as an adult you are 100% responsible for fixing it.”

When I finally did, the world opened up to me as it never had before. I found possibilities and experienced freedoms I never knew existed, because I was able to put to rest the old hurts that kept me from becoming myself.

All meaningful and sustainable starts from within.


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#1 – Read More Poetry

Between now and March 22, I am happy to share “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.”



“Poetry is language against which we have no defenses.”

{David Whyte}

Do you know that feeling, that feeling of something being so overwhelmingly right and clear that you have no words to describe it? That’s what poetry’s for.

Do you know that feeling of being so immeasurably sad, grief-stricken and broken that you have no words to describe it? That’s what poetry’s for.

Do you know that feeling of being so overwhelmed with awe and wonder at the creation that surrounds you? That’s what poetry’s for.

Poetry is how we fill in the space between what we can explain and what we cannot. It is how we make sense of the in-between, our thresholds, our liminal space. It is how we celebrate what we do not know or understand. It is how we ground our self in our not knowing.

Poetry belongs in the bedroom and the boardroom. It belongs around the dinner table, at the cafe and in the classroom. It belongs in the hardest conversations when we are utterly vulnerable as well as in the most joyful ones when we are, yet again, utterly vulnerable. It belongs at every wedding and funeral and birthday and breakfast.

Poetry is the stuff of life, the language equivalent of our very lifeblood.

Here are a few recommendations for getting more poetry into your daily, working, living, feeling life. Please, please use them. It will be – it is – a far better world when we do.



“I’m less interested in people respecting poetry. I’m really interested in people realizing that poetry respects them.”
{Pádraig Ó Tuama}

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I Don’t Know

“The human ego prefers knowing and being certain over being honest. ‘Don’t bother me with the truth, I want to be in control,’ it invariably says. Most people who think they are fully conscious or ‘smart’ and in control, have a big iron manhole cover over their unconscious. It does give them a sense of being right and in charge, but it seldom yields compassion, community, or wisdom.”

– Richard Rohr


If you want to encourage more compassion, start with “I don’t know.” Your vulnerability will signal to others that their vulnerability is ok, and normal. The other day, not knowing what to say to a sick friend, I somewhat shamefully Googled, “what to say to a sick friend.” It turns out that there are some very compassionate people in the world with more practice than me in being in those tough situations. My “I don’t know” led me to the help I needed.

If you want to establish a stronger community, start with “I don’t know.” You will become an invitation for others to share what they have to offer. The best leaders I know consistently and sincerely ask for their team’s ideas on how to address the endless supply of opportunities and challenges they face. This may sound obvious but the need to be the smartest person in the room drives many leaders to disconnection and isolation, the opposite of community.

If you want to discover more wisdom, start with “I don’t know.” A momentary pause leaves space for more thoughtful consideration, for a deeper learning to take place. Early in my work as a leadership coach, I felt self-conscious pressure to fill in any gaps in the conversation. I have learned to pause and allow brief silences to serve as catalysts for my client’s inherent wisdom to emerge.

It’s tough to remove the manhole cover. There are lots of days when it’s just too darn heavy. But I do have many encouraging examples of ways I have learned to let go of being right, to let go of being in control, and I am at my best when I let those examples help me to rise above myself.

I am reminded, again and again, that they all start with “I don’t know.”


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Poem for a Sunday Morning

Dear Darkening Ground
{Rainer Maria Rilke}

Dear darkening ground,
you’ve  endured so patiently the walls we’ve built,
perhaps you’ll give the cities one more hour

and grant the churches and cloisters two.
And those that labor-maybe you’ll let their work
grip them another five hours – or seven

before you become forest again, and
widening wilderness
in that hour of inconceivable terror
when you take back your name
from all things.

Just give me a little more time!
I want to love the things
as no one has thought to love them,
until they’re real and ripe and worthy of you.

I want only seven days – seven
on which  no one has ever written himself –
seven pages of solitude.

There will be a book that includes these pages,
and she who takes it in her hands
will sit staring at it for a long time,

until she feels that she is being held
and you are writing.


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It’s in Your Pocket

In a recent talk, Tara Brach shared the following story:

“A master thief waited his whole life to acquire the most valuable diamond in the world. When he heard it had been purchased, he spent three days trying to steal the rare jewel. He failed.

Finally, the thief walked right up to the owner and asked, “How did you hide this precious jewel from me?”

To which the owner replied, ‘I placed it where I knew you would never look—in your own pocket.'”

That thing you’ve been looking for, that you’d be willing to steal, that thing you have convinced yourself is too far out of reach, have you checked your own pocket?

Chances are, it’s already there.


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What Will Be?

It is worth remembering that between takeoff and landing there is a period during which you are aloft, held up by unseen forces – the miracle of air flowing over a wing.

This is the gift of in-between time. Just as the excitement and stress of preparation recedes and just before the anticipation of arrival enters in, there is a space, sometimes brief and sometimes generous, called flying.

You are not meant to take it for granted. You are meant to marvel at your suspension over the earth, granted for a time the gift of neither here nor there.

No longer leaving and not yet arriving. This is the time for a long look around. Not to solve, not to know, but to wonder, what will be?


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Who Am I Being?

“I was clever, so I wanted to change the world.
Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”
– Rumi


Ben Zander, orchestra conductor and co-author of “The Art of Possibility,” had an epiphany about why his players weren’t producing the sound he wanted. Instead of berating them for a lack of preparation, professionalism or skill, he decided instead to look at himself.

“What are they doing wrong?” or “Why can’t they get it right?” became, “Who am I being that my players are not playing the way I would like them to?”

He began a practice of placing a blank sheet of paper on each player’s music stand, on which they were invited to give him any and all feedback they wanted to share. And because he was willing to change himself, to change the relationship between a conductor and his orchestra, they did exactly that.

Every time – every single time – I have applied this same approach to my own circumstances I have found myself not only happier but more effective, too. When I stop trying to change my clients and instead change my approach to our interactions; when I stop trying to change my children and instead change the quality of my listening; when I stop feeling frustrated with other’s negativity or cynicism or disconnection and instead become more positive, optimistic and connected, this is when good things start to happen.

And to those who suggest that this is an unfair division of labor, that changing oneself is an unsustainable approach unless others are willing to do the same, I can only say that leader always go first. As a result of doing so, one of two things tends to happen: others positively respond to the leader’s personal changes and begin to change themselves (like Mr. Zander’s musicians learning to give him feedback) or they reveal their intransigence, helping the leader better understand which relationships and opportunities to invest in and which to leave behind.


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You do not have to be good

In memory of poet Mary Oliver, who died one year ago today, I offer a reflection I wrote in 2016 on her poem, “Wild Geese.” 

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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.

“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.