The Next Right Thing

“The purpose of life is not to maintain personal comfort; it’s to grow the soul…’The work’ does not need to be grand, only fitting. It is guided by asking ourselves over and over: What is the next right thing?”

~Christina BaldwinThe Seven Whispers: A Spiritual Practice for Times Like These

My daughter auditioned for a high school theater production yesterday. This cannot be classified as “typical” or “expected” behavior. As she grows up she leaves behind some old fears about risk, exposure and failure. It is her “next right thing.”

My son moved into his dorm today and starts class on Monday. This is his “next right thing.”

A friend says “yes” to a call to serve his church. His “next right thing.”

A client turns his belief system into concrete actions for his team. His “next right thing.”

A friend commits to a daily writing practice. She’s going strong a month and a half later. Her “next right thing.”

As for my next right thing…something fitting…I am trading, piece by small piece, “competent composure” for “human presence.” It sounds abstract but it’s concrete as can be. It means to feel what I’m feeling instead of lifting the shield.

It means that when I am terribly sad and reach for the phone seeking consolation via text message, I say instead, “I’m terribly sad and I am just going to feel it.” That feeling has something to teach me and my challenge is to learn.

My life is not a competition to be won through sheer force of will. It is not a race to be run at full sprint.

It is a quest to grow my soul by asking over and over again, “What is the next right thing?”


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.

Put Out Into Deep Water

Casting-Net-Maintenance

Each one of us has a net in which we capture an understanding of ourselves. That net is strong, it can hold a lot. And testing that strength scares us so we don’t do it very often, if ever. Instead, we keep tossing our net in the shallow end of our experience, catching and re-catching what we have long known about ourselves, hoping that this time the limitations of our understanding won’t hold us back, won’t prevent us from getting closer to our heart’s desire.

Put out into deep water. Go to the depths that frighten you. Find there, in the shadowy darkness of the water a revelation of who you are. Only then will you be equipped to determine what serves you and what must be thrown back. 

Each one of us has a net in which we gather the collective force of our connection to others. That net is strong, it can hold a lot. And testing that strength scares us so we don’t do it very often, if ever. Instead, we keep tossing our net on the surface of our experience, keeping our relationships at a safe distance, rarely risking bringing them closer and almost never including someone new. We falsely believe that this distance protects us, reducing the risk of being known for who we truly are.

Put out into deep water. Go to the depths that frighten you. Find there, in the shadowy darkness of the water a revelation of who loves you, just as you are. Only then will you be equipped to close the difficult distance between the fear of loss and the exponential truth of full relationship.  

Each one of us has a net in which we collect all the learning of our adult life. That net is strong, it can hold a lot. And testing that strength scares us so we don’t do so very often, if ever. Instead, we toss our net in the shallow waters of what is known, comforted by the embrace of the status quo, keeping a wide territory between us and the edge of the new with its persistent threat of exposure, embarrassment and failure.

Put out into deep water. Go to the depths that frighten you. Find there, in the shadowy darkness of the water a revelation of new learning. Only then will you be equipped to say “I am, and always have been a beginner.” 

Each one of us has a net. It is large and strong. It works fine along the shore but it is built for deeper water.

It cannot throw itself.


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.

 

Ode to Not Having a Clue

Last night after class a student posed this question:

“If accounting majors become accountants and finance majors work in finance, do management majors become managers?”

It’s such a pure and literal question, and it was posed with a wonderfully perplexed sincerity. I could see the wheels turning…”I’m hearing these words come out of my mouth and I know they don’t make much sense but I don’t know how else to ask this and I really want to get this figured out!”

As I was processing just how funny the observation within the question is, I said “No, it doesn’t really work that way…and good for you for asking. What makes you ask?”

Which is how we got to the bigger question lurking behind the scenes: “How do I figure out what I’m supposed to become? How will I know?”

And that question, more like a plea, sent me back in time a couple of decades to my own period of fruitless confusion about the road ahead.

I first wrote about this in 2010. I’ve reprinted it below for your consideration.



When I was in my early 20’s, I was searching. When I was in my mid-20’s, I was searching. When I hit my late 20’s and early 30’s, I was still searching. What was I supposed to “do”? What was I supposed to make of my life? How is this thing going to go down? I really didn’t know and, though I started to piece it together bit by bit, I lacked the confidence to “go boldly in the direction of my dreams” because the dreams were fuzzy and the path ahead was definitely a scary one.

One of the things that helped get me through the great unknown (or that portion of it anyway) is the following brief essay by James Michener. Shared with me by a dear friend at a crucial time, it became a close companion on the journey. It helped me to realize that my exploration was “normal” and “creative” and that I needed to trust the process. Today, having found my path and the confidence to walk it more purposefully every day, I relish the opportunity to pass the essay along to those who may benefit. Please read it and do the same.

The Lost Years

We all worry about wasting time, about the years sliding past, about what we intend to do with our lives. We shouldn’t-for there is a divine irrelevance in the universe that defies calculation. Many men and women win through to a sense of greatness in their lives only by first stumbling and fumbling their way into patterns that gratify them and allow them to utilize their endowments to the maximum.

Actually, I wrote nothing at all until I was forty. This tardy beginning, one might say, stemmed from the fact that I spent a good deal of my early time knocking around this country and Europe trying to find out what I believed in-what values were large enough to enlist my sympathies during what I sensed would be a long and confused life. Had I committed myself at age eighteen as I was encouraged to do, and as we all are encouraged to do, I wouldn’t even have known the perimeters of the problem, and any choice I might have made then would have had to be wrong. It took me forty years to find out the facts.

As a consequence, I have never been able to feel anxiety about young people who are fumbling their way toward the enlightenment that will keep them going. I doubt that a young person, unless she wants to become a doctor or a research chemist, in which case a substantial body of specific knowledge must be mastered within a prescribed time, is really capable of wasting time, regardless of what she does. I believe that you have until age thirty-five to decide finally on what you are going to do, and that any exploration that you do in the process will, in the end, turn out to have been creative. Indeed, it may well be that the years that observers describe as wasted will prove to have been the most productive of those insights that will keep you going. The trip to Egypt, the two years spent as a runner for a bank, the spell you spent on the newspaper in Idaho-these are the ways in which a young person ought to spend her life-the ways of waste that lead to true knowledge.

Two more comments. First, I have recently decided that the constructive work of the world is done by an appallingly small percentage of the population. The rest simply don’t give a damn or they grow tired, or they fail to acquire when young the ideas that would vitalize them for the long decades. I am not saying that such people don’t matter; they are among the most precious items on the earth. But they cannot be depended upon to either generate necessary new ideas or to put them into operation if someone else generates them. Therefore, those men and women who do have the energy to form new constructs and new ways to implement them must do the work of many. I believe it to be an honorable aspiration to want to be among the creators.

Second, I was about forty when I retired from the rat race, having satisfied myself that I could handle it if I had to. I saw then that a person could count their life a success if they survived, merely survived, to age seventy, without having ended up in jail because they could not adjust to the minimum laws that society required, or having landed in the booby hatch because they could not bring their personality into harmony with the personalities of others.

I now believe this without question: Income, position, the opinions of one’s friends, the judgments of one’s peers, and all the other traditional criteria by which human beings are judged are for the birds. The only question is-can you hang on through the crap they throw at you and not lose your freedom or your good sense. I am now sixty-seven and three-quarters and it looks as if I’ve made it. Whatever happens now is on the house and of no concern to me.

~James A. Michener
Author of Hawaii, Centennial, The Drifters, Adventures in Paradise, and other works.


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.

Cages or Keys?

The small man
Builds cages for everyone
He
Knows.
While the sage,
Who has to duck his head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
For the
Beautiful
Rowdy
Prisoners.

~ Hafiz


Not a bad question at the end of the day: did I build more cages or drop more keys? The “Cage to Key” ratio may end up as one of the best gauges of true leadership impact.

The “small” leader needs to control because he feels out of control. He is small because he does not trust himself which means he cannot trust others. He is small because change frightens him, imagination freezes him, possibility unnerves him. He is small because what he cannot imagine for himself he must disallow for others.

He is a blight on the human spirit.

The “sage” is a towering figure not because of stature but because of presence. His equanimity comes from learning to see control as an easy, costly fantasy. He trusts himself because he knows himself; he has done the work. And by doing the work he has developed the capacity to accept the unfinished in others. He is unfinished as well.

Change is welcomed by the sage, because it is inevitable. Imagination is his well-spring of possibility, energizing both mind and heart. He knows that he is a catalyst for the emergence of these qualities in others.

Their rowdiness does not unsettle him, it’s what makes them beautiful. And he takes seriously the responsibility to unlock it because otherwise it will die.

The sage is the very best of what we can be.


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.

Do the Work

“If we do not transform our pain we will most certainly transmit it.”

Richard Rohr


There’s a line from the poem “Out on the Ocean” by David Whyte that conveys Rohr’s meaning with visceral urgency:

“Always this energy smoulders inside, when it remains unlit the body fills with dense smoke.”

That unlit energy is the potential and possibility within each of us to transform ourselves from who we are to who we want to be.

If it is not activated it turns into acrid smoke that at first only chokes us, but in time finds its way to others in the form of resentment, jealousy, harshness, impatience and intolerance.

It can be grueling to bear our own pain, the wounded, unrealized or unfinished parts of ourselves. So we either keep allowing it to spill over onto loved ones and colleagues or we decide to do the work to transform it from an anchor to a sail.


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.

The Stream Becomes a River

When I wrote about love a few weeks ago I wrote from a place of inspiration. I witnessed love in an unexpected time and place and expressed my hope that the expansiveness of love could be normalized within the more sterile landscapes of organizational life.

Today as I write about love, I write from a much different place. It’s mired rather than inspired in feelings of loss; loss of control, loss of solutions, loss of the familiar.

Some of that loss is about my son’s impending departure for college and wondering if I’ve done enough, been a good enough father.

Some of that loss is connected to a current family crisis that has resurfaced old hurts, bringing a sense of childlike helplessness.

Poet David Whyte says it is a delusion to believe that we can “take a sincere path in life without having our hearts broken.” That is, anything we wholeheartedly devote ourselves to – marriage, career, children – will undoubtedly, inevitably pull us apart at the seams.

It takes resilience to stitch those seams of sincerity back together, and resilience like that only comes from a more expansive heart.

Each of us is moving along a continuum of pulling apart and stitching together. For some it’s conscious and deliberate work. For others, it’s beyond awareness but present in corrupting behaviors. Some are inspired, others are mired. This is in the marketplace, in our homes and in our workplaces where we spend so much precious time and energy.

Which is why we must – especially as leaders – cultivate a presence that not only accepts this truth but also helps us learn how to work with it.

We can do this – I can do this – if I remain open to experience instead of turning away; if I remain open to learning from the wisdom of others instead of struggling alone.

Here is one example of that wisdom:

“If you pour a handful of salt into a cup of water, the water becomes undrinkable. But if you pour the salt into a river, people can continue to draw the water to cook, wash, and drink. The river is immense, and it has the capacity to receive, embrace, and transform. When our hearts are small, our understanding and compassion are limited, and we suffer. We can’t accept or tolerate others and their shortcomings, and we demand that they change. But when our hearts expand, these same things don’t make us suffer anymore. We have a lot of understanding and compassion and can embrace others. We accept others as they are, and then they have a chance to transform.”

 – Thich Nhat Hanh –

I know that the feelings of loss that come with change are temporary. I know that the seams can be stitched back together. What I must learn, and what I remain hopeful we all will learn, is that the garment itself can not be repaired to what it was. That in fact, with time and faith, it will be even more beautiful than before.

Though I feel like a stream, I seek to become a river. And streams become rivers as long as they continue to flow.


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 little more risk, a lot more luck

Here’s a little inspiration for your Monday:

Years ago, just starting out in my business as a leadership coach and organizational consultant, I decided to market myself by doing a bunch of pro bono speaking engagements. Organizations like Rotary Club always need speakers and this newly minted “freelancer” needed the practice.

On one occasion I accepted a lunch time engagement at a restaurant about 40 miles from my home. I was assured that there would be “at least 20 to 25” participants which sounded fine to me. Upon arrival, I discovered that the restaurant was more like a diner, and that the meeting was in a backroom that was connected to the kitchen. It was loud and noisy.

And six people showed up.

Between tentative bites of my Cobb salad I began to feel doubt, regret and a healthy dose of self-pity. “What the hell am I doing here?” echoed through my mind along with a few other colorful thoughts.

And then I made a decision. I saw the faces of my mentors, I examined the truth of my own intentions and I simply decided to take the risk of speaking to those six people with the energy I might give to 60…or even 600.

I gave them all I had…my very best. And as a result – would you believe it? – one of those six (1 of 6!) invited me to his organization and offered me a project that turned into a multi-year engagement. It was the most significant financial transaction of my first year in business, by far.

It happened because I took the risk of showing up and because I took the risk of playing big.

I was inspired to share this story after watching this short, sweet and totally compelling talk by Tina Seelig. In the spirit of small risks and big luck, I hope you’ll take 10 minutes to check it out.


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.

Today, at work

Today, at work you can spend as much creativity, energy and initiative as you want.

And if there is anything getting in your way of spending every last penny, today is a very good day to sort out why that is.

My guess is that one of two things is true:

1. Your boss has failed to create an environment worthy of your considerable investment.

2. You are playing it safe.

My life’s work is to make a small dent in #1.

Your life’s work is to make a big dent in #2.


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.

Go Do It

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

—Dr. Howard Thurman (1899-1981), theologian and civil rights leader

We are living at such an extraordinary time when it comes to career options and opportunities. It’s a time when the cliché, “You can be anything you want to be” is truer than it has ever been.

Long gone are the days of slotting into a certain professional track or working your way up in a business to enjoy a lifetime of employment. Long, long gone.

In my capacity as a college professor I have the opportunity to formally and informally advise students about their career paths. Inevitably, even those with a pretty good handle on the degree they want to earn are beset by the question of what they want to do with it, what they want to be. And it is, of course, a vital question to answer well. But it is not the most important question.

For years now I have published the same post on Labor Day in which I talk about my personal journey of vocation seeking and finding. It took me a good long time to realize that I was asking the wrong question about how to discover and participate in my life’s work. Those were days made harrowing by feelings of inadequacy and a deep fear of wasted potential…unfulfilled expectations. I bounced around to roles and organizations that sounded good, sounded like me but that weren’t at all for me. I did this enough that I finally sunk into what today would be called a “quarter life crisis.”

I spent an awful lot of energy on “poor me” because I was stuck on that wrong question of “what.” I needed a concrete, black and white answer so badly that the harder I tried to figure it out the more elusive it became.

And when I finally stumbled out of another failed opportunity and sent my plea for meaningful employment into the freshly minted ether of cyberspace, a single response about an unthought of opportunity helped me begin to shift the question.

That most important question, that right question is not “What do you want to be?” but rather “Who do you want to be?”

When I started to ask “who” I was reminded of the best of myself. I was reminded of the times, places, roles and experiences when I felt most alive. And the sensation I felt was not the satisfaction of having an answer, but the appreciation of finally having discovered my compass and my map.

{An enormously grateful hat tip to Cathy Earley for helping me connect the dots.}


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.

Before Asking Others to Change

How will you change first? How must you change first?

It’s a radical question because it puts the responsibility back on you. And few people, few leaders are willing to take that kind of responsibility.

Or ask it this way, from The Art of Possibility , “Who am I being that my player’s (my colleague’s, teammate’s, direct report’s) eyes are not shining?”

“Who am I being?” is not just a call to self-awareness but to a humility that opens you to another way of being.

And those “shining eyes”? If they are “windows to the soul” they confirm that those we are privileged to have on our team are fully with us. Even more than that, from our sincere commitment to learn those eyes shine with the anticipation of their own learning.

It is in our very nature to grow, to learn and to make more meaning.

Effective leaders make that possible because they go first.


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.