At the bottom of the stairs

IMG_5757I had some time between appointments this morning so I decided to head to the beach for a stroll. I haven’t had my toes in the sand for a while and on this beautiful October morning it seemed the perfect way to use the time.

I arrived at a favorite spot and began the long walk down the steps only to notice that the ocean seemed a lot closer than usual. And a lot louder, too. It was, indeed, high tide. And there was no beach to speak of, at least in the walkable sense of the word.

I stayed on the steps for a few minutes, watching a swarm of surfers make the most of an impressive swell. And then I turned to go.

But something made me pause and turn again. And I went down another flight of steps. And then another one. There, one short flight from the bottom, I encountered surfers leaving the water, having simply paddled up to the base of the stairs. That’s when I noticed, right below me now, the sound the water makes as it recedes over the rocks and back to the ocean.

Here’s a snippet, if you are so inclined to watch and listen:


I didn’t find what I was looking for this morning. I found something unexpected, a natural reminder that I don’t get to decide the conditions. I only get to decide how curious to be about what I find.


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 we expect from work?

Gimbel’s manager: “Why are you smiling like that?”

Buddy-the-Elf: “I just like to smile. Smiling’s my favorite.”

Gimbel’s manager: “Make work your favorite. That’s your favorite, ok? Work is your new favorite.


I recently spoke with a student about her career plans. She’s feeling the tension between her growing sense of direction and purpose and her family’s expectations of transactional practicality. They want her to get a well-paying job. She wants that too, but in a way that allows her to do what she loves.

Her father’s never been happy with his work and he never expected to be. He believes that work is only meant to provide an income and that satisfaction in life comes from the quality of his personal experiences.

We are overwhelmed by dualistic thinking in our society. And when it comes to the workplace it’s sad…heartbreaking even…how willing so many people are to make this trade-off.

Trading time for money is a trap. It’s the legacy of the old corporate ethos that employees are commodities meant to be utilized and operationalized in the quest for even greater efficiency. In exchange for being treated like machines the corporation provided steady employment, medical benefits and a pension fund.

As that era of the long corporate experiment takes its final few breaths we are not left with a clean break from the past but rather a muddied set of interpretations about what the “new deal” should be, or if there should be one at all.

In the face of that unknown, the old pattern of thinking about what work means, what it should feel like and the role it should have in our lives remains largely intact. In the absence of a clearly defined “better,” the human condition is to stick with what we know.

While there are many companies working hard to set a new standard and many firms in existence to measure whether or not they really are, I remain dubious. In part, because the “best places to work” industry feels like the corporate replica of the much maligned college rankings. It’s a game of putting a shine on something that might not be so shiny, after all.

It’s the anecdotal evidence of people like my student’s father that make me take pause. If so many companies are creating meaningful, human centered workplaces, why are so many people still so disenchanted with their work? I think it’s because they expect to be burned, because our faith in institutions remains at a historic low, and that it’s much easier to say “it’s just a job” than to invest that job with any level of personal meaning that, if compromised, would be devastating. Could this explain why, after all of the studies of employee engagement and all of the dollars spent to increase it, the numbers just won’t budge?

I don’t know and I’m not sure we’ll ever know. What I do know is this: it’s possible that “smiling is my favorite” and “work is my favorite” can coexist. It’s possible that our workplaces can foster and facilitate a more human-centered experience while also achieving extraordinary results. It’s possible that we can find employment that feeds our bank account as well as our emotional reserves. It’s all possible.

Will we expect it? Will we work for it?


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.

 

 

Inspiration for your aspiration

David

Photo credit: Cassandra Workman

For in it may be seen most beautiful contours of legs, with attachments of limbs and slender outlines of flanks that are divine; nor has there ever been seen a pose so easy, or any grace to equal that in this work, or feet, hands and head so well in accord, one member with another, in harmony, design, and excellence of artistry”.
  – Giorgio Vasari

Chances are you are not the Michelangelo of your profession. Most of us are not.

And, if you’re like me, comparing yourself to a master like him is the perfect way to kill creativity and destroy self-esteem. Instead, let’s choose to be inspired by him and see what we can learn from his genius to apply to our own work.

Consider this: Michelangelo carved “David” from a piece of marble that had been ignored for more than 25 years due to a repeating flaw in the stone.

The master craftsman’s legacy is defined as much by what he imagined was possible as by his ability to bring it to life.

He worked within the constraints of imperfection and used that limitation as a means of shaping his own capability.

Maybe the door through which you will access your next breakthrough is labeled “flawed” or “passed over.” And maybe that will provide the right conditions to awaken your sense of what’s possible and how to discover it.

Let Michelangelo inspire you. And when you’re done with that, go ahead and inspire yourself.


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.

Anchors, away

IMG_4318

Captain Jim teaches his deckhand the finer points of “anchor management.”

My friend Jim captains the beautiful sailing vessel, Shamrock, whose home port is the Masonboro Inlet near Wilmington, North Carolina. (Shamrock rode out Hurricane Florence a few miles upriver and both she and her captain came through unscathed.)

Last year, happily serving as a “guinea pig” for a sailing-based leadership program that Jim has developed, I spent a few days onboard. During our time together our small crew took turns playing various roles and learning and applying new skills.

One day, we anchored in a harbor for lunch and conversation and when the time came to get underway again Jim asked me to raise the anchor. He cautioned me that it was heavy, that the chain was long and that it would take a considerable effort to get it back into place. I strode out to the bow of the ship, took hold of the chain and gave it a good pull. Nothing doing. I repositioned my grip, more firmly now, and steadied myself for an even stronger pull. No chance.

Seeing my struggle, Jim throttled Shamrock forward to relieve some tension from the chain but this only increased the urgency of the moment as I had to get it up before it came in contact with the hull of the ship. I gave it all I had, with legs, back and arms fully engaged and finally, up it came.

I was thinking today about how I sometimes allow my higher aspirations – assuming the best, seeing the positive, building on strengths – to be anchored by the comforts of cynicism, negativity, and even well-intentioned realism.

I was thinking today that those comfortable attitudes keep me securely – much too securely – in place, defenses against the strong winds and rough seas that sometimes accompany my vulnerability.

I was thinking that, no matter how hard I pull to free myself from those defenses, sometimes I need a hand in getting aligned and ready to fully apply myself to the challenge.

I was thinking that there’s a good reason it’s not called “anchoring” or “harboring” or “motoring.” Shamrock, like all sailing vessels and like all of us, is built to harness the wind and cut through the water.

We are made to be free of our moorings and navigated out to the edges of our potential.


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 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.