Becoming a Person

I don’t want to start a philosophical or theological debate about this so let me offer a caveat at the outset: when I distinguish between a human being and a person I am distinguishing between the common accident of birth all Homo sapiens share and how some turn that accident into an intentional, conscious life. In my experience there is a vast difference between the two.

In my case, I don’t think that I became a person until I was 35 years old, because up until that age, even though I had done so many wonderful, beautiful things and faced so many deeply challenging circumstances, I had not honestly confronted my lack of consciousness about my self…my person.

You could argue that what I’m getting at here is more a question of maturity than personhood but I don’t find that word satisfying since it implies that if you live long enough you’ll get to self-awareness; again, the accident argument.

To become a person then, requires a conscious choice to venture out and away from the self in order to fully and wholly return to it. I am reminded of Mary Oliver’s poem, The Journey, which begins:

“One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
Though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice –“

That bad advice?

“Don’t do it! Don’t go! Stay here in the pleasantly familiar, entirely predictable pattern of a semi-conscious life. Don’t realize how you have allowed your circumstances to rob you of your freedom to choose how you will live.”

And (even more desperately now),

“Don’t remind me of my own fear, my own shame, my own self-satisfied stuckness by confronting your own!”

To become a person is to leave behind the relationships that hold you down – including the one with yourself – and take on the ones that build you up.

What is it, though, that gets you to the place where “you knew what you had to do and began.”?

For some, it’s tragedy; surviving an illness or a disaster, or grieving someone who did not.

For some, it’s the advent of anger that persists in unexpected, irrational ways. This can emerge in a new marriage or at the arrival of children, deep tears in the fabric of the familiar.

For others, it’s meeting a person of considerable influence who will not be bound by our rules of engagement, who hits us right between the eyes with the feedback we always knew was true but could never willingly hear.

And for others, it’s the revelation of childhood trauma, the awareness that their vulnerability was victimized by someone who knew better but still succumbed to their worst inclinations.

Whatever the source, our inner dynamics always find a way to emerge and provide us with a choice: will I remain constructed in this way (human) or will I set out to reconstruct myself into a person, by stepping into “…a wild night, and the road full of fallen branches and stones.” (again, The Journey.)

There is no path to becoming a person that is not littered with risk, real or imagined, which is why many people choose not to walk towards transformation.

Once again, I am neither a philosopher nor a theologian. Rather, I am a student of the human experience, as practiced through executive coaching and organizational consulting. My domain of interest and influence is organizational life and how it can be made richer, more positive and more productive for every human, indeed, for every person who participates in it.

This is, then, a request to all leaders to take the steps necessary to become a person. Until you do, your human leadership is a roadblock to the positive, productive richness that your people both deserve and crave. For yourself, for them, please walk out into that wild night, leaving the voices behind and “save the only life you can save.”

Here’s the poem in full:

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

– Mary Oliver


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.

Timing is Everything

Not Here

There’s courage involved if you want
to become truth.  There is a broken-

open place in a lover.  Where are
those qualities of bravery and sharp

compassion in this group?  What’s the
use of old and frozen thought?  I want

a howling hurt.  This is not a treasury
where gold is stored; this is for copper.

We alchemists look for talent that
can heat up and change.  Lukewarm

won’t do. Halfhearted holding back,
well-enough getting by?  Not here.

– From Soul of Rumiby Coleman Barks


The adamancy of this poem is startling, when I stop to think about it. Rumi gives no quarter. “It’s all or nothing,” he seems to say. And a huge part of me agrees with him, trained as I’ve been in, and inclined as I am, to the practice of disclosure for the purpose of developing greater intimacy and deeper connections.

But, not so fast.

Not so fast for everyone, that is.

My urgency to “go deep” is not always aligned with your willingness to enter those waters. And there are times when I catch myself in a judgmental state for your lack of willingness to meet me there. This is the truth as I know how to tell it.

It is not a stretch to say that where my family is expressive, my in-laws are not. I am not suggesting that we ritually descend to the absolute depths at every possible opportunity, but we are practiced at getting to the heart of things in a very emotional way, productively or otherwise. It’s who we are and what we do.

My in-laws are the other sort. Lots of fun, lots of laughter, but a rather certain sort of even keel prevents the kind of emotional verisimilitude that pervades so many of my family’s gatherings.

Until this past weekend, that is.

In the very best way and in a manner, thanks to my wife’s genius, perfectly appropriate to her brood, there was an outpouring of expression on the occasion of her father’s 90th birthday.

We are blessed that Bob, at 90, is a healthy and happy man. This is quite a gift, for him and for us. Appropriate to that good fortune, Theresa invited all of those assembled (and many from afar) to write a letter to him of both congratulations and appreciation. Documents in hand, and immediately following a glorious prime rib dinner just two days removed from the Thanksgiving feast (I married well!) we sat around the dinner table and read to Bob our expressions of love.

The tears flowed. Generously, genuinely they flowed. From sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, and this son-in-law, they flowed freely and well. It was a beautiful and sacred space made possible by Theresa’s initiative and the willing participation of the assembled clan.

My point is only this: we dare not assume what is present in the hearts of those near us. We dare not assume their willingness or ability to express it. What we can only assume is that if we, if I, am patient and thoughtful and lovingly present, that the right amount of expression, in the right way, and in the right time will find its way to the surface and become a blessing that will never be forgotten.


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. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.

A Midweek Thought Experiment

Imagine that it’s five years ago. If you could meet yourself on October 10, 2013 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) express more, more often.

Imagine it’s five years from now. What advice can you give yourself today that will help you wake up on October 10, 2023 satisfied that you lived the last five years with intention?

My advice to my future self is the same: (1) trust yourself, (2) open yourself, (3) express more, more often.

Maybe it’s unrealistic to separate my present and future selves. It’s a tough thing to be objective about. Or maybe it’s that, having landed on these themes, I recognize that the work 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?


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. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.

What do you wish you had learned in school?

I was a fortunate college student. I had parents who didn’t care what I studied, maybe because I was set on Political Science and seemed to have myself sorted out, or perhaps because I am the youngest of six kids and concern over the choice of a college major was dwarfed by the real challenges of adult living.

Whatever the case, “Poli Sci” didn’t last long and I ended up in something even less marketable, “Humanities.” I can’t imagine a degree program any more broadly defined or open to my interpretation and application. It was a dream come true for someone who has an enormous appetite for both variety and learning.

I took language courses: Latin (to stretch the vocab) and Russian (cause I was going to help Ronald Reagan take down the Soviet Union. I was late to that party though my roommates and I did manage a toast to the fall of the Berlin Wall with some St. Pauli Girl).

I took history, literature, philosophy, theology, cinema, debate, music theory, a few poli sci classes for good measure and my favorite of all, art history. Art history was this magical, even combustible combination of visual beauty, historical/political intrigue, and biographical complexity. I ate it up.

For all of that diversity of subjects, teachers and disciplines, it seems a little crazy that I could have a “What I wish I had learned” list but I do. So here goes…

I wish I had studied psychology and human behavior. And that’s not just because of my current professional life. It’s because of this human being thing I keep running into every day.

I wish I had learned to do less, but better. I thought involvement was the key to a happy college experience but I overdid it, burned myself out and suffered academically. Which leads to…

I wish I had learned to value time with my professors and with the really smart students. I didn’t have to go far. I had a number of friends who were expert at balancing the work and the fun. I was capable but intimidated, so I just didn’t ask.

And I wish I had learned to trust the process, that “success” looks different for different people. I was hard on myself from about 22 years old all the way up to (almost exactly) my 35th birthday. Because I just couldn’t figure it out! And all those smart students I was busily avoiding seemed to be certain of their paths: medical school, law school, Peace Corps, grad school…look at ’em go!

I needed more time…for the yeast to activate, or the top to brown, or some other awkward baking metaphor. But I didn’t know it could…or even that it usually did work that way.

No regrets, truly. But I wouldn’t mind having some of that energy back. The energy I spent on worrying, doubting, kvetching…and the unkind way I “shared” some of those feelings with people who were in my corner and on my side.

Over time, probably right on time, I learned those lessons. And maybe, had I had them earlier, they would have been wasted on my younger self, as so much mature wisdom is (says the father of a college freshman!).

I keep learning and I hope you do too. And maybe the point of the exercise is to simply acknowledge that we’re never quite done; that “What do you wish you had learned in school?” can be better asked as “What do you want to learn today?”


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. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.

 

It’s four letters and it starts with “L”

I attended a wedding on Monday afternoon.

Monday afternoon is not a typical “wedding day.” Monday afternoon is the time when most of us are at work, the time when we have shaken off the weekend and placed our noses firmly, if not reluctantly back to the grindstone. But there we were, on a Monday afternoon, in a church, at a wedding.

And it was peaceful and intimate. It was sincere and lovely. In fact, it was the expression and experience of love itself.

In that church on Monday afternoon, feeling displaced by the difference between a “typical” Monday and this particular Monday I started to wonder why we work so hard to separate feelings and experiences that are more powerful when joined together.

Why do we work so hard to separate love and work? Our workplaces can and often do facilitate deep and extraordinary relationships between people gathered together in common cause. These are relationships of trust and dependence, of mutual respect and concern, of help and collaboration. We should be celebrating this for what it is (LOVE) rather than euphemistically calling it “teamwork” or “partnership” or, and it pains me to write it, “synergy.”

But that’s what we do because it’s “appropriate” and “conventional” and allows us to forego the hard work of expanding our definition of “love” beyond our present and limited understanding. (The Ancient Greek’s had six words for love – it’s a good place to start!)

And as I continued my reflection I realized that we have begun to wrestle with this question in contemporary terms. I remembered Tim Sander’s 2003 book, Love is the Killer App. I remembered Herb Kelleher, the visionary founder of Southwest Airlines saying, “A company is stronger if it is bound by love rather than by fear.” And I remembered this piece from Virgin.com, Does love have a place in business?

And I thought, there should be more Monday weddings! And Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday weddings as well. We need more reminders that a workplace – and a church – that is filled with love is vibrant, alive and full of possibility. And one that is not is just another building.


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.

Change One Word

Think about your job, your commitments, your responsibilities.

Have all of that in mind? Now, say to yourself: “I have to do this.”

Ok. How does that feel?

Keep thinking about all of those things you do every day.

Let’s replace one word and try it again. Say to yourself, “I get to do this.”

What do you think? What’s the difference for you?

Please comment below and let me know.

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.

 

 

Now. Here. This.

Every day – and I mean EVERY DAY – I spend some time thinking about and feeling the emotions related to the following:

1. Some event or person in my past that hurt me or that I perceive as having hurt me.

2. Concern/anxiety about the future. Will there be enough? Will I be able to provide? Will I have the courage to do what I most want? Et cetera, ad nauseam.

3. What I am doing right now that excites and energizes me, the contribution I am making, the purpose I am living into, the possibility I am fulfilling, the lives I am changing, starting with my own.

A good day is one in which numbers one and two are kept to a minimum and number three ascends with vigor. A bad day is when I let the past and/or the future determine the quality of the present. And, more importantly, my presence.

Replaying the difficulties of the past – especially by casting oneself as a victim of circumstance – as if doing so will yield a different outcome only robs you of the opportunity to create something new in the present.

Anxiously anticipating the future – especially through some story about insufficiency or inadequacy – when all you can control is your own behavior, your own choices, is energy lost to fear of the unknown.

There is nothing you can do to change the past. There is nothing you can do to predict the future.

What you can do is decide in this moment, at this place and with these people, that you will become as clear as possible about these things:

  • Who you are.
  • Where you are going.
  • The next step you can take.
  • And how much you are willing to love and serve the person in front of you right now.

Thanks to Fr. Greg Boyle, S.J. who, in his talk with Krista Tippett referenced the musical “Now. Here. This.”

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.

The Messy Human Real Thing

“There is always an easy solution to every human problem: neat, plausible and wrong.”  – H.L. Mencken –

The journey from the age of machines to the age of meaning is proving to be a bumpy one. It’s telling, and not at all surprising, that the more complicated and pervasive technology becomes the more people seem to want to get out of the “cloud” and back on the ground. Our collective cognitive dissonance suggests that we believe we can get the meaning and connection we seek if only our technology continues to offer better, faster means of doing so. As that dissonance festers our only choice is to resolve it by either letting go of our need for authentic connection or reconsidering the role and purpose of technology. That’s not much of a choice.

In the age of machines people are treated like machines in order to build machines. In the age of meaning people are treated like people who are brought together by the common cause of creating something of value, machine or otherwise. There is a shared human need to connect to something larger than ourselves and while technological solutions can provide tools to aid that connection, to assist in that creation, it’s time to stop confusing that assistance as an end unto itself. It is, in fact, a terrible substitute for the real thing.

But the real thing – the messy human real thing – is precisely why we keep turning to technology. The clean landscape of ones and zeros tempts us to believe we can manufacture a more Disney-like version of the human experience. For too long we’ve been trying to outsmart ourselves and it’s time to get real about that. Despite our clever ability to build an even better mousetrap at some point we must learn that the path to freedom demands a humble reckoning with what has been denied: each heart’s deep longing to be seen, heard and understood.

When the organization becomes a place where that can be expressed freely, openly and with a strategic understanding of its relevance to the bottom line, the age of meaning will have arrived.

After the Harvest

I’ve lived nearly my entire life in the land of perpetual summer. The 84° forecast for Thanksgiving just something that comes with the territory. My storybook idealism longs for crisp air and cozy sweaters while my mature realism enjoys t-shirts and flip flops. Even though it doesn’t feel like it, at least not according to my more romantic sensibilities, it is still fall and the natural world continues it’s progression, if more subtly than elsewhere, according to plan.

You can miss the signs, to be sure, but they are everywhere. No amount of dry desert air can change the fact that the days are shorter, the nights are cooler (“cold” would be an overstatement so I will refrain from embarrassing myself) and growing has given way to rooting. No more tomatoes in the garden, no summer squash or green beans. We’re planting sweet peas now. We may even try some onions or carrots or broccoli.

I also see the change in our backyard grass, the last swath of green we’ve held onto in the face of persistent drought and escalating water bills. It browns in certain places, some seasonal weeds emerge, it’s less vibrant and certainly less hearty. I’ve never given this much thought before, accepting it as part of the cycle but then I wonder why we wouldn’t give the lawn the same consideration as the garden and help it take full advantage of these new conditions.  For the first time, then, I decide to overseed and as I appreciate the purpose and application of each step I realize that this process of revitalization and renewal is as crucial right now for my internal landscape as it for my external one.

Overseeding a Lawn – Overseeding a Life:

Step 1: Cut the grass low. This creates the space necessary for new seeds to take root. What needs to be trimmed away? What have I been paying too much attention to that’s taken me away from what I care most about? Symbolically, that might mean the ritual of giving away clothes I don’t wear or books I don’t read. What am I hanging onto that no longer serves me? I’m going for a mindset of simplification and preparation.

Step 2: Aerate. Most soil gets compacted preventing new seeds from getting established. I’m punching some holes in my thinking, allowing some air below the surface of my point of view. Considering ideas thoughtfully and tentatively. Testing them out again. Making them stronger by not holding them too tightly. I’m spending some time concentrating on my breath, my fitness and my stillness. I’m going to create more space. Two months ago I gave up on checking my phone first thing in the morning. Huge relief.

Step 3: Spread seed. Most new seeds don’t germinate so you need to spread a lot of it to get a good yield. I’m trying lots of things to see what sticks. Experimenting. Playing. Discovering. Listening to new podcasts, meeting new people, going to concerts, having new conversations, all in the name of affirming my commitment to those things I can’t stop paying attention to. I’m resisting the urge to jump at the first thing that seems right. I’m trying to wait, to trust that if it’s right it will still be there when I’m ready. Chances are the first thing is there to distract me from the real thing.

Step 4: Spread topsoil and fertilizer. The new seeds need both nourishment and protection. I’m finding support for my new ideas and intentions while remaining open to having them influenced. If “we are what we repeatedly do” then I’m going to do a lot of paying attention to what I have planted and trust that the right elements will emerge. And, those people who really care about my well-being, my success, my wholeness? I’m going to give them a chance to help. I’m going to ask for it. Because I don’t have to go it alone. And I know I can’t anyway.

Step 5: Water (plenty of water). Above all else, successful germination depends on water. Not too much and not too little. I’m attending to my intentions every day. I am practicing showing up and being present to them while also working very hard (and this is very hard work) to remain detached from outcomes. The rooting, the germination, takes time. This is a time of year for the patient appreciation that while so much is happening, so much of what is happening is happening below the surface. I will thoughtfully and energetically remain present in anticipation of what is, as yet, unseen.

Offered with thankfulness for all that has been and all that will be.