Telephone Poles, Fence Posts and Railroad Ties

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I routinely make the mistake of downloading hundreds of podcasts to my iPhone because I have no clue how to successfully navigate the new iTunes interface. The old one was fine and I am slow to change. So be it. (Yes, I am a curmudgeon in training.)

One of my favorite podcasts is This American Life by Ira Glass. Since it usually airs on Sunday afternoons I rarely hear it live so the podcast is a God-send. Scrolling through my hundreds of unlistened-to recordings in the car the other day I came across this one: Episode 494 – Hit the Road. The first story is of a young man, Andrew Forsthoefel, who decides upon losing his job to walk from Philadelphia to the Pacific Ocean wearing a sign that says “Walking to Listen.” It’s an incredible, beautifully told adventure and one you deserve to hear for plenty of reasons and especially for his interview with a man named Otho Rogers of Melrose, NM.

At age 73, Mr. Rogers reflects ruefully and honestly on the passage of time and his personal loss of physical ability. You ache with him when he describes the shame of having to climb a fence rail to mount his horse when all he wants is to be able to get his foot in the stirrup and haul himself up the way he used to do without a thought or a care.

Mr. Rogers thoughtfully describes our shifting perspective on time as the difference between viewing telephone poles, fence posts and railroad ties as you drive along the road. The longer we live the less space there is between each marker and that the accelerating vehicle that is our life in the span of time gets moving so quickly that the railroad ties of everyday existence become a blur of activity speeding to the certainty of our final moments.

We come to know in a real and often painful way that time is both unstoppable and completely unsympathetic to our plight: that we have what we have and how we spend it is completely up to us.

And to that end, Mr. Forsthoefel shares his own response to a question he asked of many people he met during his journey: what advice would you give to your younger self?

His answer is a guide for all of us, whether we are counting by poles, posts or ties.

You know exactly what to do.

There’s no need to be afraid.

Keep walking.

Rules for Making It Up As You Go…

It dawned on me as I reviewed my last post that I missed an opportunity to provide some perspective on just how you go about “making it up as you go.” Yes, yes, I appreciate that it is a contradiction to establish “rules” for such a thing but we must learn to love the contradictions! So, lets all rest easy and think of them as “guidelines” or “recommendations.” The larger point is that I do believe there is a method to the madness of living life without a playbook.

1. First, know thyself. To put it bluntly, there’s not much chance of you weathering the storm of isolation that comes with creating something new if you don’t have a firm hold on who you are. By that I mean the vulnerability and awareness that comes from stretching yourself to really discover what makes you tick; at your best, your worst and everywhere in between. Knowing this means you know what sets you off, how you react under pressure, how good you are when you’re really good, how you respond to and recover from disappointment, how much tolerance you have for ambiguity, uncertainty and the reality that the world is not going to roll over for you just because you’d like it to.

2. Stand on the shoulders of giants. Assemble the best group of supporters, mentors, teachers, coaches and friends you possibly can and use them as much as you can. What’s the point of having people in your life who truly care about your success if you’re not willing to ask them for help? Take stock of those you most rely on in your life. If this group doesn’t inspire, challenge and implore you, doesn’t push, cajole, beckon and admonish you in the best, least comfortable way (meaning, they actually tell you the truth) to be the person you are most afraid of being, well then, you’d better find a new crowd. It’s not happening without them.

3. Practice courage every day. You don’t have to win every day. You just have to practice. Small acts of well-placed, well-timed insubordination against the known and the expected are exceptional ways of reminding yourself that (a) you are, indeed, alive and (b) you can break away from the pack and plant a new crop of awesomeness in YOUR section of the field. I’m talking about mild and enjoyable insurrections like striking up a conversation with someone you don’t know or practicing a new discipline even though you are confident you will be terrible at it (meditation comes to mind). It might be starting a blog or volunteering to help kids or anything that requires you to get out of your own way, to get a little exposed and to wrestle with the unknown.

4. It’s not all about you. At precisely the time that it feels like it is all about you (you’re exploring the undiscovered country, right? you’re moving towards this big, scary risk, aren’t you? you’re well-being is on the line, isn’t it?) it is the perfect time to be reminded that it absolutely is not. It’s all about everybody else and what you can do for them. Deepak Chopra taught me the law of Karma and I am 1,000% certain he is right! In my family we like to say “give a little, get a little.” It means that the world is reciprocal and you’ve got to go first. No matter what. (Check out this article I just read in the NYT that discusses this at length.)

5. Go slow to go fast. My guess is that if you know you’ve got something important to create; some new possibility to bring to life that’s got you tied up in knots you have spent considerable time thinking about how big and scary it all is without doing much about it. You know, of course (because everybody does) that small steps, those seemingly insignificant acts (and funny, isn’t it that we tell ourselves that they are insignificant because they are “small” and “small” is just so undervalued in our culture even though any one – ANY ONE – who ever accomplished anything worth writing about will tell you that they started SMALL?) that are related, directly or indirectly, to your larger purpose, are essential to getting the snowball started. This may strike you as tired advice  – baby steps and all that – and perhaps it is. And, it’s funny to me how the “tired” advice is typically only tired for those who have never put it in play.

One of the best admonitions I have ever heard is that if the path you’re on is clear/smooth/straight/easy, you’re on someone else’s path. My hope is that you are on YOUR path and that these “rules” are helpful for the way forward.

Making it up as you go…

Inspired by a friend who occasionally decides that she’s a “real” artist and treats herself to the “good” paint.

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The problem with life is that there is no playbook. You arrive on the field and, if you’re lucky, some nice people take care of you for a while and then, when you’re old enough you venture off to another part of the field and see what you can make of yourself. Still no playbook but thoughts of possibilities abound. And, after a while longer you figure out that in many ways it’s easy; that most people “get it” and, because they do they drive on the right side of the road, pay their bills and even hold the door open for you once in a while.

And then you decide to pursue one of those possibilities you dreamt up and you learn that it’s not so easy as you thought. Because now you’re operating outside of the accepted behaviors of the many. You’re hanging out on a part of the field that few if any have visited before. And this is where it gets interesting because now you have a decision to make: will you stay long enough to sort it out, to make it up as you go and normalize this place? Will you keep discovering new parts of the field or will you retreat towards what you know because, after all, it’s what you know? And, like most of those who have come this way before you decide to go back. And you feel pretty good about it because it’s predictable and understandable and it allows you to fit in with the rest of the gang who are operating from the same set of rules.

Until they’re not.

Because of course what you weren’t banking on is that the rules you accepted as a “given” can change with more impact and velocity than you can possibly imagine. And they will. And they do. And now you’re wondering which was the better deal: blindly expecting the known to remain the known so you can feel the false sense of safety you have learned to crave or risking the responsibility of defining a new set of rules in an unknown territory, scaring yourself to death by the possibility of utter loss but wondering if that’s not the point of the whole experience anyway.

The joy of life is that there is no playbook. You arrive on the field and, if you’re lucky, some nice people take care of you for a while and then, when you’re old enough you venture off to another part of the field and see what you can make of yourself. And you learn that you can create and so you keep venturing out, determining new rules as you go, experiencing new things, engaging new people, discovering new abilities and passions. And you begin to feel a powerful discomfort with the seduction of the known and you find yourself straddling two worlds; one beckoning you back, the other calling you forward.

And you get to decide. And it’s the most important decision of your life.

The Child Inside

At the invitation of Dr. Bennett Cherry I had the opportunity this week to speak to both sections of his “Creativity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship” class at Cal State San Marcos. Dr. Cherry (@edgentrepreneur on Twitter) is an engaging  and natural teacher who aspires to both support and witness his student’s achievement in bringing new ideas to life.

It was a pleasure to join him in this endeavor if only for a day and I am honored that he would call on me to support his work and their learning.

I spoke to the students – mostly in their senior year and beginning to wrestle with the big question of what life will look like after college – about the importance of recognizing, nurturing and enlivening the child inside them; the child who is innately curious, who explores unceasingly, who is willing to take risks, who is unafraid of judgments or criticism. I implored them to recognize when they are playing it safe; when they are favoring the safety of the known over the perceived danger and uncertainty of the unknown. I assured them that their willingness and ability to challenge themselves to move towards their own personal “edge of possibility” will differentiate them as highly desirable employees in a world of organizations so desperate for meaningful evolution but so confused about how to actually make it happen.

And, as I was carrying on, I couldn’t stop thinking about a short movie featuring a young man named Caine Monroy (you can watch it here). His story is one of the most compelling examples I’ve seen of a child’s full expression of creativity and the absolute conviction that his creativity will lead to possibility. More than that, it is a story of how one person’s belief can inspire another person – even an older, “wiser” person – to do something powerful and unexpected.

For all of the students I had the pleasure to meet this week and to all of us who strive to create and contribute to something larger than ourselves, I hope you will find Caine’s story fuel for the journey.

Congratulations on moving towards your possibility.

Stranger in a Strange Land

“Traveller, the path is your tracks
And nothing more.
Traveller, there is no path
The path is made by walking.
By walking you make a path
And turning, you look back
At a way you will never tread again
Traveller, there is no road
Only wakes in the sea.”

Antonio Machado

Being in transition feels weird. It feels incredibly odd to be in a completely new situation professionally and yet have all of my surroundings remain familiar. This is still my house; these are still my children; these are still my clothes; that is still my dog. And, yet it all looks and feels so different. Different because that is NOT still my job. That place I made tracks to and from every day for nearly eight years is no longer my place. Those responsibilities are no longer my responsibilities. Those politics are no longer my politics. Those victories, those losses; those aspirations and those complexities; no longer mine.

I am out of my body just a little bit. Just enough to feel the disequilibrium of the change. I walked away willingly and with purpose, but that doesn’t mean I am clear, confident or confirmed in my new venture. I am in progress. I am discovering that everything that is the same no longer looks the same because I am seeing it with new eyes. The eyes of someone who must see the world anew if I am to be in it in a new way.

I am in the world in a new way. I am a stranger to it and it to me. It is stunning to me how much possibility there is in a new beginning. That must be why I feel stunned.

I am a traveller on a new path. This is my path. These are my tracks.

Here I go.

Here I come.