Becoming Extraordinary

This series of posts was originally published as blog entries from  2015 through October 2016.  They have been pulled from archives and made available on this page. 


Navigating People

Not that long ago, when we wanted to find out how to get somewhere we pulled over and asked for directions. Or not; we got hopelessly lost and drove in circles.

Today we have navigation systems built into our cars or we use apps like Google or Waze.

My car’s navigation system always makes wrong assumptions about downtown L.A.  Every time I’m driving through the spaghetti of freeway interchanges near downtown, she and I have words.  She tells me to exit onto surface streets and then onto another freeway a few blocks away, or sometimes the same freeway one exit later.

Or she takes me the long way around, asserting that to get from the Santa Monica Freeway (aka, the 10 eastbound) to Interstate 10 eastbound I need to take the 110 to the 101 to the 5 and then back to the 10.  I could, but I could also just stay on the 10.  Even if it means slowing down for traffic.

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In other words, I have a choice. I can take directions or not. I can trade off sitting on the I-10 if it’s a parking lot for the promise of 5 minutes gained by a little inconvenience or risk. Ultimately, if I pause or if I don’t listen, the navigation system will recalibrate.

When dealing with people, we need to sometimes pause and take a second look before we continue.  Sometimes we need to recalibrate.

Sometimes people who should know better still make assumptions about others that – instead of highlighting their mental superiority or gimlet eye – reveal their ignorance.

For example, Dr. Jones is a professor at a private university.  Apparently his education, tenure, and the fact that he can Google –  entitle him to be a sarcastic pompous asshat with most people – except the ones he considers so far below peers that he can be casually patronizing.

He’ll write a scathing, bombastic email peppered with multisyllabic words underscored by a signature that occupies 10 lines of screen real estate, including the fact that he won an award for something.  This is supposed to impress.

A few hours later, he writes an (apparently) friendly email signed with his first name to someone else.  The recipient and the signature tell the story. The recipient’s job – administrative, not executive.  The assumption:  “My intellectual equal would not hold a support job.”  The signature: “Sent from my IPhone” in Spanish. A completely wrong assumption of ethnicity based on the recipient’s name which he feels entitles casual familiarity.  It does not.

My point is that it’s easy to tell ourselves that our quick assumptions makes us look clever or informed.  Instead, leaps to assumption reveal our ignorance or our biases.

Sometime we have to overrule the mental GPS.   There are times when jumping to that conclusion, leaving our homework undone, or trying to save five minutes now can cost us dearly in trust capital.

Whether navigating streets or navigating people, let’s check our impulsivity.  Let’s check our tendency to judge another, whether that judgment affects our words or – more importantly – silently directs our actions.

It is my honor to hold a leadership role in a global volunteer organization working to improve the lives of women and girls through programs leading to social and economic empowerment. In Soroptimist, our dream programs are designed to give a hand, not a handout, to women and girls who have already started turning their lives around. The actions we take as representatives of this organization come from a place, not of charity, not of superiority, but of respect.  We feel only respect for another human being who walks beside us –  not behind us or below us – in the journey of life.

Navigating any person-to-person interaction means treating the other person – no matter what their station – with respect. With appreciation. Without bias, condescension, or rudeness. We are all on the same level as human beings, no matter what we wear, where we came from, what our jobs are, what alphabet soup does or does not follow our names, or titles do or do not precede them.

Just like we don’t have to accept a route to a destination because we know it’s just one of a million ways to get there, let’s not decide there is just one story about someone we don’t know.  Let’s pause to gather facts before writing another’s story and using our account instead of facts to color our interactions.


Deconstructing Loyalty

For some time now, I’ve been testing hypotheses about what loyalty looks like when examined closely.

I thought, at first, that it might be a formula.

screen-shot-2016-09-13-at-7-11-50-pm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yes and no.  There is no loyalty without these elements but these are not the defining elements.

Or maybe it’s like this.

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I visualized it this way after hearing a tremendously insightful keynote address by Manley Feinberg at a conference a couple of weeks ago.  I learned a great deal about vertical mountain climbing and the reserves of courage, trust, and determination we all have to call on in ourselves to succeed in any task work accomplishing, any mission worth pledging to.  I left that meeting recharged.

After that experience I had more perspective, but before I had an answer to the question of loyalty there were more sketches, more long reflective runs, more observations of the world around me, and more trial balloons floated – and popped.

I thought of the unconditional loyalty of some dogs to their people. You’ve heard the stories.  Dogs who have saved lives.  Dogs who ran toward danger, who didn’t run away from devastation or death, who remained at the graves of their people, sometimes for years.

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Admirable, remarkable, touching.  But… dogs.  We love them but we are not wired like they are.  Our motivation isn’t unconditional even if it is unwavering because a certain set of conditions had to exist to initiate and maintain the relationship.  We know we’re human.  We know we’re flawed.  Unlike our canine best friends we see our warts and we see their shortcomings.

Despite that or because of that we can be and are loyal to other flawed humans.  But it takes practice.

Loyalty: active participation in another’s successes while predicting and mitigating adverse consequences. 

Active Participation in Another’s Successes

Your commitment means you don’t quit. You don’t walk away. You don’t stop because it gets hard or because it’s not convenient.  You work at it.

Why? Because no human succeeds alone.  It is not possible.

Think about any success in life:

That track and field medal?  Coach.

That diploma?  Professors. Parents. Advisors.

That project?  Team. Sponsor. Mentor.

That victory?  At least one other but more its likely they were plural or even legion.

Victory follows battle.  Battle, by definition, is fought by men and women loyal to a country, a cause, and their corporal or their general in all their glory and imperfection.

Predicting and Mitigating Adverse Consequences

Life brings challenges.  Some days more than others, some weeks more than others; some years more than others.

Counterintuitively, if you have someone’s back, you’re the one in front who sees what’s ahead.  You’re the knight protecting the queen from check and mate. That’s what you’ve signed on for.

Because he or she would do the same for you.

Becoming extraordinary is taking one new step every day, on top of all those steps you took in the days leading up to today.  That’s how you train for a marathon.  That’s how you train for life.

So today, practice loyalty.

Actively participate in another’s successes while predicting and mitigating adverse consequences. 

And we all succeed.


Imperfections

A few years ago I rediscovered knitting, a skill I’d abandoned since first learning it as an 8-year-old from a friend of my parents.  For about 18 months, as an avowed true believer, my inbox was full of patterns and my RSS feed alerted me to new comments on a knitters’ forum.

I learned a great deal, most of which had nothing at all to do with knitting but more about people and about life.

My intense desire to knit at every opportunity (lunchtime, while watching TV, while on a plane, in a hotel room on vacation or for work, or while at seminars or conferences) passed as quickly as it started and I haven’t picked up a pair of needles in about three years.

In the back of our home office/gym behind the treadmill, a 3-foot high wicker hamper full of yarn of every fiber and hue is sadly waiting to be remembered.  Like Andy, the child who outgrew his toys in Toy Story, I’ve moved on.

You can’t knit daily for two years and not produce something.  Baby blankets and hats, shawls, scarves, sweaters, fingerless mitts, and lap robes and hats for patients undergoing chemo were some of my creations. I knitted for charity and for friends, for family and for fun.  I followed fads (hello, lace scarves) and followed my own path.

I IMG_20130503_080539don’t know where some of my creations ended up but this I do know: not a single one was perfect.

And that’s okay.

The members of my knitting forum were very supportive; their advice carried me then and still does now.  A mistake isn’t an imperfection but a design element.  Or it’s a lesson in humility (based on the legend that the Amish deliberately include a mistake in their quilts to remind them that only God is perfect).

These days I don’t knit, but some mornings I need to remind myself that nobody, especially me, is perfect. On those days I wear my “oops” earrings.  Long story short, they are not exactly the same size, and that is by design.  That is to remind me that I’m not perfect and that’s okay.

Imperfections are what make us us.  Imperfections prove our humanity.  They’re the clues in the scavenger hunt that direct us onward to the prize.

Don’t get hung up on the fact that you’re not perfect or that some else isn’t either.

But hey, this doesn’t mean you get to make the same mistake more than once. Like the single deliberate imperfection in that quilt, reflect on it for a moment and don’t make that same one again. Not in that quilt or knitted shawl, and not in life.

Accept that you’re not perfect but learn from the outcomes of your imperfection.


Please, No People Pleasers!

The best leaders are marked by integrity, honor, service, and not a little humility.  The complete absence of any level of bombast, braggadocio, or bloviation would also suggest that a person is now or may someday become a great leader.

In my life I have had and still do have the great fortune to know several remarkable leaders across the organizations in which I serve.  I try to learn from their example in any way I can.

Then there are the cautionary tales, people in positions of influence who set an entirely different example. I try to learn from them as well.  What not to do, that is.

Much has been (and is currently being) written about people who clearly don’t have what it takes to lead an squad of fruit flies, let alone a team, a department, a business, or the free world.  Not that I’m calling out the elephant in the room.

Let’s move on, though, to a different type of ineffective or sometimes destructive personality in leadership: the people pleaser.  I’ve been trying to figure out for some time the problem with a manager I’ll call Herbie.

The other day it finally hit me.  Herbie is a people pleaser.  While the term usually describes a person in a dysfunctional (codependent) relationship who will not face or effectively deal with another’s abuse, addiction, or dysfunction, it just as often can refer to someone who manages others by people-pleasing.  The sad thing is that this MO isn’t in anyone’s best interest, least of all the people who rely on Herbie for executive support, wise decision-making, and plain old common sense.

You see, people like Herbie have an open door policy because they want to be accessible, because the more accessible they are, the better people will like them, right?  This isn’t a bad thing except that people who have an agenda to grind or a sequoia on their shoulder glom onto the Herbies of this world (who will always listen) with their daily whine or rant.

So Herbie hears from so-and-so that so-and-so’s manager has the audacity to ask him to come to work on time every day and, you know, do an honest day’s work, and how unfair this all is and how mean the manager is.  And instead of giving the person’s manager a heads-up and the opportunity to find and correct the actual organizational problem, Herbie the people pleaser tells the complainer he’ll fix it for him.  Before you know it, word gets around to so-and-so’s like-minded friends that here is someone who will stop and listen, and who won’t tell you to get back to work. Then they line up at Herbie’s door.

People with entitlement issues or grudges, whether they be staff, customers, or spoiled children, can sense a people pleaser, and they will use them to their advantage.  This wouldn’t concern you and me except for the cost in morale from the majority of the staff who believe in the mission and who are there to get the job done.

While we can’t change people like Herbie, and we can’t change our organizational relationship without abandoning those who are counting on us to do right by them, recognition of the issue and its underlying pathology can be liberating.

Put differently, if you know the fire extinguisher is empty, don’t waste time pointing it at the fire.  Find another way; get rid of the fuel or get rid of the oxygen it needs to exist.

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I’ll leave you with this article I found, in which the author, Ron Edmonson, has named seven casualties of a people pleaser in leadership.

If you know a people pleaser in leadership, don’t let yourself be his casualty.  Recognize the signs.

If you, in a leadership role, find yourself thinking about taking any action so that someone will like you, knock it off.  The people counting on you  want you to lead them with integrity – not seek their approval.


Keep Talking Until You Say Something

This past year I haven’t written much or regularly.  Reasons for this are legion, but let’s start here:  I’m afraid I have nothing new to say.

And that may be true.  Billions of human beings have existed through the ages and somewhere north than 7 billion of us are sharing this planet right now.  All of us have something to contribute; most of us have something to say.  That means that whatever I say, whatever I do, is not likely to be unique.  It’s presumptuous to assume so.

And, given the state of the world as portrayed with disturbing immediacy by the media, why should anyone listen to me?

Right?

So should I keep talking? Should I keep writing, even as I wonder if what I’m saying has any value?

Writers through the ages have asked themselves this question.  The ones whose work has legs, whose work is taught in schools, is probed and analyzed, and to which shifts of culture and thought and world views are attributed, have never stopped even when they doubted.  It’s more like this: the fact that they kept going despite doubt, or dread, and sometimes dreck, is why their work matters now and still will when we are all gone.

Writing is something you do; and doing anything well means doing it often, even on days when you don’t do it well. It means getting up and doing it again after you’ve quit.

I ran a half marathon this morning.  I ran despite July, humidity, sunshine, and no shade.  I ran though I’d rather have slept in.  I ran though I’m not in great shape this year and it’s hard.  I ran the Beach Babe Half Marathon with nearly 300 other beautiful women (and a few men) of all ages, backgrounds, and skill and fitness levels.

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I was there to support; I was there because I need support.  This is something I really can’t be trusted to do alone. Trust me, I can’t.

Just like you have to keep running until you cross the finish line, just like you have to keep cooking until it’s a meal, just like you have to keep turning in homework until you pass a class, you have to keep talking until you say something.

Each and every one of us, as grains that comprise human infinity, will leave behind treasures of great meaning to those who know us and perhaps to those who don’t.

So let’s all keep talking until we say something.


Can’t Complain

Things happen in life.

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We can deal with them in one of two ways:

1. We can complain. Or whine, or rant or vent, whatever we choose to call it. We gain momentary relief from this.

2. We clean up the mess, we realign our perspective of the situation or the person, and then we carry on.

Number 1 is easy.  I know it’s easy for me.  I catch myself doing it far too often.  I’ve even sought out opportunities to talk about people and situations that irk me, while understanding that (a) that makes me feel worse and/because (b) I can’t change the person or thing I’m complaining about.

Two nights ago, we experimented with beef empanadas for dinner.  They were okay but not great, and we had leftovers we had no interest in keeping.  So we tossed a (foil wrapped, mind you) empanada in the top of an already full trash bag.  I replaced the trash bag but decided to wait until the morning to take the full one down to the dumpster.

We have a beagle.  Let’s call her Red (because that is her name).

Red, the Beagle
Red, the Beagle

If you have ever had a beagle, you see where this is going.

Red likes food. A lot.

Around midnight a terrible smell and bizarre clinking noises dragged me out of bed. I found the kitchen trash all over the house and Red in the middle of the mayhem licking her chops.  She’d dragged the trash bag, which was four times her size and nearly twice her weight, down the hall toward the bedroom before having her midnight snack of empanada and anything else in that bag that was edible, leaving coffee grounds and watermelon rinds for me to wipe off the floor and walls. I’m assuming she wanted to be caught because if she’d left it in the kitchen I probably wouldn’t have smelled or heard.

As I mopped up the stinky mess and rebagged the trash I looked over at Red and decided I wasn’t very happy with her in that moment.  I also decided there was no point in getting mad or complaining.  To whom? The one other human and the two other canines in the house were asleep.

My last thought as I crawled back into bed, the trash bag outside on the porch with two locked doors between it and the beagle, was that at some point I would probably find all this funny.

I woke up the next morning and realized that it was hilarious. One more beagle war story. More importantly: it was my fault anyway.  A beagle’s got to do what a beagle’s got to do, and Red isn’t our first beagle.

It comes down to this: You can complain but it won’t help. You can’t change another’s nature or actions.

Instead:

Clean up the mess.

Reflect on the situation.

Change what needs to be changed.

Carry on.


You Say You Want an Evolution

On our trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota, we were delighted to find that there’s more than gold (or Mount Rushmore) in them thar hills.

There are bears.

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Black bears in South Dakota in late May

And wolves.

There are bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer, bobcats and many more – peaceful herbivores and their natural predators living in apparent harmony.  Or so it would appear on the drive through the Bear Country animal park a few miles outside of Rapid City, SD.

On our tour through the park, I was struck by the behavior of the predators towards their circle of influence including their land, their neighbors – who would, in the wild, be prey – and their guests (us).  Something about all this seemed – familiar.

To Be or Not to Be – Territorial

The wolf paces his perimeter, including the apparently open gate between his land and his neighbors’, a herd of reindeer.  He has one eye on the prize, the other on us, the competition.  He can’t actually reach the reindeer because of the virtual fence under his feet that, from experience, he knows he can’t cross.  So he paces. He covets. He guards.

Timber wolf eyeing the reindeer - his prey
Timber wolf eyeing the reindeer – his prey – and us
Timber wolf guarding the gate
He’s making sure we know who owns the reindeer
Satisfied that all is well, time to rest
Satisfied that all is well, it’s time for a break

Think about these behaviors for a moment, and consider where you’ve seen them before.  Look around you – at the big wide world of commerce or work relationships where some people forget we’ve evolved.

It is true that boundaries are necessary in a civilized environment for predictability and to keep chaos at bay.

However, territorial behaviors around those boundaries limit growth, both personal and organizational.

Managers of the most successful organizations recognize that boundaries between and within job classifications, between and within departments, and between and within projects and tasks have to be understood and respected but also, at times, ignored – especially if they have a self-appointed sentry keeping close watch.

The Paradox

At first glance, it is counterintuitive that guarded, territorial behaviors prevent organizational growth.  After all, if you hoard something, doesn’t that guarantee that you will have it forever?

Well, that doesn’t work with money (stuff it under your mattress and not only will it not grow, but spending and inflation will eat at it until it’s gone) and it sure doesn’t work with other resources, especially the human kind.

In millennia past, the predator-prey model worked for us, but we’ve evolved.  A more collaborative, more open model works better now.

Just as a wolf or bear isn’t likely to attack a healthy, united herd, we’re unstoppable if we work together.

No Borders. No Walls.

Some of us have had the experience that stepping across a departmental line to lead a project or offer expertise will get you mauled in a dysfunctional organization, just as surely as stepping into a wolf or bear’s home uninvited would.

A few such experiences might make us tiptoe past the flashbacks of corporate traumas – the blame games, unwarranted credit taking, ego-driven actions, and dizzying coattail rides by colleagues and managers whose successes depended on others’ missteps or failings.  For protection, we might hide behind cubicle walls or by keeping our head down and doing just. our. own. jobs.

This doesn’t work.

We haven’t evolved this far only to regress now.  We need to draw on our collaborative strength.

In a healthy organization, cross-functional teams built on individuals’ strengths and complementary expertise instead of merely job titles or organizational hierarchies mean that project after project gets done – creatively. Successfully.  On time. Under budget.

Share expertise and ideas instead of holding them tightly to your chest and the associative interaction that results will grow bigger, stronger, brighter ideas.

No Territories. No Limits.

Empower staff to choose their projects and to collaborate with each other without interfering, but step in when they need support or guidance.

Support the best and brightest by helping them break down barriers to success —

Barriers like outdated policies or the “we always did it that ways” that stunt organizational growth and which can seem as solid as masonry walls to the staff who are trying to get work done.

Barriers like the people who spend time and energy to build silos around themselves or their allies instead of working, the people pacing territorial perimeters to keep people or bright ideas out in case that makes them look bad, the people so busy protecting themselves by hoarding information or resources while standing in the road of the rest of us trying to get the job done.

An organization without protected territories has no limits.


Much Obliged

In recent weeks I’ve been thinking about obligations.  I haven’t been able to help it, as I’ve done things to cause some of the give-and-take relationships across the segments of my life to bark at me, but not in that cheerful tail-wagging way that says welcome home.

Imagine how this little guy might sound at first.  Then imagine him growing a few inches every day until he is 10 feet tall and standing in a narrow doorway and you have to deal with him before you can do anything else.

It’s like this:angry chihuahua

It took me too long to call my mother.

Consider a small pebble at the bottom of a backpack.  I slung that pack on my back the day after I last called my mom.

A couple of weeks went by with the pebble in the bag on my back. I didn’t feel it.

Before I knew it, a month had passed. The backpack now contained a rock the size of a grapefruit.  It wasn’t particularly heavy but when I sat down and leaned back, I could feel it prodding at me.kid in backpack

A few weeks later, I was carrying a boulder.  I called my mother.  The boulder disappeared instantly along with the 20 heavy wool coats I didn’t realize I was wearing over it.

So… discharging an obligation is a relief and should be done before it is cause for preoccupation and dismay.  That is not breaking news, but it is worth a mention.

How Much Obliged?

The problem with obligations isn’t that we owe but that we owe more that the principal.  When we contract with another in any way other than literally with lawyers – verbally, socially, professionally, informally, charitably – interest is implied and calculated if only in our own minds.  Whatever you call it – going the extra mile, giving 110 percent, paying it forward – extraordinary commitment means giving at least a little if not a lot more than just what is expected.

I didn’t invent this concept.  It’s called the Golden Rule.

You ask me for a favor.  If I say yes, I am saying yes to doing it cheerfully. Kindly.  Passionately.  If it’s in confidence I take it to my grave.  I am not obliged or somewhat obliged.  I am much obliged.  There is satisfaction and personal growth in every job that’s done better than right.

However, we have to remember that this does not go both ways.  Another person is not so much obliged to you.

We live in a world where “much obliged” (which used to be synonymous with “thank you”) isn’t used anymore.  Gratitude no longer implies debt.  In fact, if you say “thank you,” you’re very likely to hear “no problem” in response.  Because that’s the long and the short of it: it’s not a problem. It’s as done as it’s ever going to be and the expectation is that both sides now move on.

Our mental health and productivity depends on not expecting anything extra from others whom we’ve asked for help.  We do not have the right to take others for granted or to expect any more than what they originally agreed to.  We don’t get to keep moving the finish line like we might with our own commitments.  We do get to manage within the original scope of the agreement, to accept whatever we get, and to move on.  No problem.

Remember:

  1. If I agree to do it for him, I’m much obliged.
  2. If he agrees to help me, no problem.

68,000 Steps

I got a Fitbit for Christmas. Even though I didn’t ask, it tells me anyway how many steps I take, how many miles I run or walk, how many flights of stairs I climb, and how many calories I burn.  It also tells me how many hours of sleep I get.

I typically do about 10,000 to 15,000 steps a day.  Today isn’t over yet, and the little monster on my wrist tells me I’ve taken more than 68,000 steps.

Those steps began at Dodger Stadium at 6:55 this morning, took me through Chinatown, Downtown L.A., Echo Park, Silverlake, Hollywood, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Century City, Westwood, Brentwood, and Santa Monica.  And then somebody handed me a medal.  This one.

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LA Marathon 2016 – My 10th LA Marathon

I mentioned once before that I run marathons more for the work than the pleasure.  This is how I remind myself that anything worth doing is worth working for.

It’s worth frustration or elation, joy or despair, pelting rain or the blazing sun.

It’s worth getting up at 4 AM.

Worth listening to Randy Newman’s I Love LA four times before crossing the starting line.

It’s worth really ugly blisters or sunburn or rashes or KT tape that sticks too hard and takes part of you with it when it comes off. Ouch.

It’s worth all the hours running, walking another mile to the car, and the slow ride home in traffic.

A thousand smiles, because funny signs:

“You think you’re tired?  My arms are killing me.”

“Worst parade ever.”

“Free hugs.”  (Brave people.  We’ve been running for miles and aren’t very fresh).

Complementary couples T-shirts.  Hers says, “This is the best Valentine’s Day present.”  His adds, “Said no one ever.”

It’s so worth watching young teenagers (go Students Run LA!) running their first marathon literally carry their team mate the last mile across the finish line.

Sore muscles. Chapped lips.  Gallons of Gatorade.

Even free beer, donuts, chocolate milk, and chili cheese dogs handed out to runners on the course (but not all at the same time.  That would be gross).

A marathon is life in 26.2 miles with its sea of humanity, the infinite support from 25,000 runners and at least as many volunteers and residents with hearts of gold who show up to give you oranges, bananas, pretzels, candy, (did I mention chili dogs?), ice and cold wet towels, sunscreen (thank you to the man in Beverly Hills), hugs, high-fives, and encouragement.

It’s a dress rehearsal for the rest of your life.  It’s a thousand metaphors on so many subjects – from the value of a work ethic to a lesson on the basic goodness of people.

Of course, not everyone can or wants to run 68,000 steps.  To those I say: find something so hard you barely believe you could do it and then do it no matter how hard it is to do.  It’s worth it.

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The Bunker Hill Drum Line, Mile 4

 

Finish mile from half a mile away
Finish mile from half a mile away

Professional Symbiosis

I’ve had dogs as companions for nearly two decades. The lessons our Border Collie Tommy taught me were priceless and will long outlive his 13 years on this earth.  I’m realizing lately that the other species with which we share our lives never stop teaching us lessons regardless of their IQs or English vocabularies.  While Tommy was a professor among dogs – an Einstein – and our other Border Collie Polly was brilliant in her own right, our two Beagles and our two terriers (while much less adept at deductive reasoning) have had just as many invaluable lessons for us.

For example: symbiosis.

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(Left to right) Red, Jessie, Zena Sharing the Sofa

Systems or people working together to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts is usually referred to as synergy when discussing organizations.  I prefer to think of this phenomenon as symbiosis because we can’t ignore the human element — that very unpredictable blend of history, emotional baggage, and education (from both the book-learning and hard knocks schools) we each bring to our organizations.

Any organization experiences growth and attrition at the same time with the balance hopefully tipping toward stability if not expansion. Staff are hired, staff retire, people evolve. Look around you and you’ll see a slightly different team than you saw last year, even if they are the same people as last year. That is inevitable. That is progress. That is life.

In dealing with colleagues, it’s good to follow the example set by our companion animals.  They don’t always get along; they sometimes compete for attention or resources, but they do recognize each others’ value in the whole.  They embrace their differences or perhaps they don’t consider differences as divisive as you and I might.  I’ll never forget the first time I took 7-pound Jessie to a pet supply store.  We came around the end of an aisle and she came face-to-face with a 120-pound Great Dane puppy.  No fear. No flinch.  Size didn’t matter.  Tiny dog and huge dog were complements, not competitors.

Recognize the value of each individual member of your team.  Consider that they, like you, are probably there to contribute.  Even if they aren’t, professional symbiosis and your own positive perspective will carry you – and the team – much farther than you could imagine.


The Quality Imperative

This video says it better than I can.

Unless we set our sights on and demand top-tier performance pinnacleand results from all team members and suppliers…

Unless we continuously study and improve processes…

Unless we hold each other accountable for our actions and outputs, then

We may not only not achieve our objective but may sow the seeds for disaster on some scale.

Let’s not cut corners or ignore team mates who bring uncomfortable issues to our attention.

Let’s not look for someone to blame when things go sideways.

Let’s not wait for our customers to complain before acting, and

Let’s not put Band-aids on problems but drill down to and correct root causes.

If we’re all relentless in our quest for only the best from ourselves and from each other then we’ll live in a better, safer, smarter world.


Grudge Pickles

The past few days, I’ve been waging an internal battle in which positivity and grace had held the high ground but were taking tremendous fire from resentment, apparently far more aggressively armed.

In a moment of ceasefire, I’m sending reinforcements to grace. Because grudge pickles are deadly.

Grudge Pickles?

Growing up in a Polish-Canadian family, there were always pickles in the house.  They never came from the store.  We grew the bigger cucumbers in our garden, and the tiny ones for baby dills came from a local farm.  Late every summer, Mom spent hours sorting and cleaning the cucumbers, then packing them into Mason jars with fresh dill (also from our garden) and enough garlic to mow down a squad of vampires.

IMG_0849She’d fill each jar with hot vinegar brine, then carefully seal each one, more than a hundred jars in all.  Then they’d go downstairs to the basement pantry where, in cool silent darkness, a transformation I still consider magic would turn them from raw vegetables to something else entirely, perfect baby dills that would last us through fall, winter and spring and all the way to the next summer — when the cycle would happen all over again.  The circle of life, pickle style.

Mom stopped making pickles when she and Dad divorced, my brother and I graduated high school, and we all pretty much went our separate ways, but I still remember the smell of hot brine in late August and the amazing taste of Mom’s pickles.

It’s important to note that in that same basement, while a hundred jars of cucumbers were metamorphosing from sweet to sour, something else was happening a few feet away.  Three or four bushels of fresh-picked Cortland apples, preserved by the cool air and lack of light, were doing nothing at all except staying sweet, crunchy, and delicious for months and months and months.  Buying apples out of season from a store was unthinkable in my family when there were always fresh-picked ones close to hand.  By some alchemy, apples lived forever in our basement.IMG_0850

My point?   Both the cucumbers and apples were preserved in that same basement, but preservation by pickling (heat, acid, chemical changes) is vastly different from preservation in a cool, dry, and calm environment.

I say this because this past week, for a few days I chose to pickle my grudges (examine them closely, clean them off, flavor them in spices and brine, and put them in a jar to ferment).  I also shared too many of my grudge pickles with friends and colleagues.  The more I did this, the more it showed on my face.  Sour.  In my outlook.  Acetic.

This bothers me.  It’s too early in a new year to already be sour.

The good news?  With 355 days left there’s plenty of time to make better choices.

  1. Don’t store grudges in a recess in your mind so they can ferment, then show in your face and flavor your words and actions.
  2. If someone gets in your way and you have no way to change that, let them do whatever it is they are doing.  You can only affect your own outcome and your own attitude.

Don’t eat grudge pickles.


One Year Later

One year ago I thought I should start Becoming Extraordinary.  Like any journey, this blog has had its moments, its inspirations, and its banalities.  It’s been an endless hall of mirrors, each one reflecting a lesson from a failure or a success.

hall of mirrors

Key to becoming extraordinary is listening to others’ cautionary tales or using another’s parables to pave your path, because in one short human lifetime we’re not going to find the secrets of the universe on our own.  It is only when we share our own – and voraciously acquire others’ – experiences, mis-steps, and epiphanies can we have a chance at brilliance.

Brilliance is not an entitlement, nor can it be purchased.  It is available to all of us who’ve committed to its pursuit.  We become more brilliant each time we share knowledge we’ve found on our path.  We take a step or a mile backward when we don’t share or don’t listen.

What needs to happen next, at least for me but also, more importantly, for my readers, is a move to the next level.  I’m convinced that the next level that leads to a life lived extraordinarily far transcends my own experience, which has been my focus until now.  On a personal level, looking inward and sharing just my own flashes of insight is barely adequate anymore.

So —

There will be more inspiration drawn from others’ far more remarkable stories.

And —

There will be parables. Anecdotes. Tales, tall and short. Yarns. Legends.  This, not for its own sake but because life lessons are better shown than told.


Asking Wise

Not long after they learn to talk, young children prove they’re smarter than the rest of us.  The littlest kids we know have root cause identification and analysis figured out.

Santa Clarita, CA
Nothing but Blue Skies, Santa Clarita, CA

“Mommy, why is the sky blue?” “Because…” “But why?” “Because…” “Why?” “Because…” “Why?” “Because…”  “But why?”

There’s no limit to their tenacity and patience. They will torture you with “why” until they get an answer that makes sense. Or until you say, “Because I said so.”  Or the bribe, “How about some ice cream?”

Unless the oracle runs out of patience or wisdom or research data, the end of a chain of whys – and the recommended number is usually five or more – is the reward or root cause of the issue.

In life, it’s often tempting to stop at the first answer we hear or know.  That may work a little bit or it may be a temporary fix.

You can’t open a puzzle box with just one or two moves — you have to keep asking what’s next until it pops open to reveal the prize within.

Let us let our littlest sages teach us to keep asking or answering until we reach the prize.


Consequences or Truth

These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.

Few of us are Jedi knights, but the Jedi mind trick could come in pretty handy at times.  As most of us know,  C3PO and R2D2 actually were the droids the stormtroopers were looking for, but when told otherwise, they moved on.

How?  Because, delivered with a pure conscience, that truth was believable.

To be clear, this is not about deception. It’s about conviction expressed with intention for a result that serves both if not every conceivable side.

The truth has to be acceptable.  Counterintuitively, facts aren’t always believeable in their naked form. They need clothes or makeup before people can warm up to hem.

Consider your face as it is when you wake up in the morning in all its creased, smudged, or unshaven glory. If you leave your house with it just as it is, that’s not likely to work for you in the business world.  You are going to have to make it fit for human observation. What that means is up to you, whether it’s 40 minutes of makeup or five to 10 minutes with a toothbrush and razor. This isn’t about deception but acceptance.

If your spouse or best friend asks you, “Tell me the truth, do I look fat in these jeans,”  you’d better tell the truth but depending how that truth sounds, you may not like the cold front that blows in suddenly and hangs around for a few days.IMG_0161

Or a colleague’s work product barely meets expectations, but she presents it with a big smile, expecting high praise for her effort.  You can tell her the naked truth, “That’s not good,” which will return resentment and even less effort on the next go-round.

You can lie, “Good job!”  Whatever its color, white, or bald-faced, know that the result of rewarding mediocrity with a lie is more mediocrity.

Or you can frame the truth so that it’s accepted and believed.  “I like how you did X, Y, and Z; but have you considered doing A or B?  I think that really worked in [legendary outcome].”

The truth isn’t just a kernel or nugget but also the flesh and skin that gives it substance, context, and the power to effect change.Rodaja de sandia color (2)  The whole truth.

Maybe that’s all the Force really is.

 

 

 


Impetus

Chocolate croissant? Or almond croissant?

This morning, in the afterglow of a chocolate almond croissant it occurred to me that once upon a time I made better choices when it came to issues affecting my health.  I followed that train of thought to the end of its track, more precisely this:

Sometimes the way to a better choice is to redefine the question.

Not, “This dysfunction or that one?” Instead, “What would push me out of this gnarly decision tree to a place where the choices are better?”

gnarly tree

In other words, what impetus would it take to drive me to the outcome I really want?

Twenty years ago, I found myself in a place in which realizing my true potential was just not an option. Individuality was discouraged.   blog-obedience

Unfortunately, I was so deeply invested that leaving seemed impossible.  One day I realized that staying would be fatal and that I had to leave. Immediately.

That decision was the impetus that carried me to opportunities and rewards I could never have imagined, and away from a future of progressively worse choices.

Impetus is the invisible hand that pushes you forward into the scary unknown and out the other side.

We’re all still writing the stories we live, even as we  progress, step by step, toward our own sunsets. IMG_0598

One way to live a more compelling story is to not just make the choices we see.  Instead, step back and find the impetus to extraordinary.

 

 


Stairway to Success

Any organization’s prime objectives are carried to success on a staircase of achievers.IMG_0528

These are the one, the two, or the few on every team without whom nothing would get done. They’ll be out breaking ground in a downpour while the rest of the group members are just starting to talk about about getting out the raincoats and umbrellas.

These are people who will say yes when it’s right, no when it’s wrong, and let’s try this instead when there might be a better way to get it done.

Sometimes they are visible because they are the elected or hired leaders or managers leading the charge.  We see them up ahead.  We may not see the objective because we can’t see that far, but we know they do see it and they won’t stop until they’ve led us to it.

More often, they are invisible because we’re standing on their backs, and we’re so busy looking forward that we’re not looking down.

Often they are the only ones in motion, the escalator most others ride to the top.IMG_0262

You won’t find them by peering into generational pigeonholes because they are not defined by their generations. They are defined by the strength and wisdom of their souls, not the ages of  their bodies.

It’s not likely you would recognize them by reading their social media profiles.  You have to find them in the real world. It isn’t their words that define them but their actions.

Often, other team members don’t recognize them.  The other people are too busy climbing the staircase, sitting down on one of the stairs to rest, or sliding back down the bannister away from the goal.

From time to time, look ahead, behind, or below you at the staircase you’re climbing, and note the achievers.

Even if you don’t see them, believe they are there, carrying the team to success.


The Fork in the Road

When you come to a fork in the road, take it.

yogifork01The late great Yogi Berra is famous not only for being a baseball legend but also for saying some profoundly useful things. I particularly like this one.

The choices we make daily define our level of success in the short, and ultimately also the long, runs.

I realized a couple of weeks ago while running that had I made better choices it would have been easier for me to complete a half marathon more easily and sooner than I did.  I told myself unhelpfully I’d made bad choices.  If I had trained more, I’d have gotten a better time on the run.  If I’d eaten fewer bacon cheese scones, I’d have felt better climbing those hills as I’d be carrying less weight.

It’s easy to define choices as good or bad, but in reality it’s not that simple.

What we’re really doing when it comes to making choices that don’t give us the result we want is dealing with the fork we’ve come to in the road in one of two ways.

One — we’re not taking it.  In other words, we’ve made the choice to not make a choice, to turn our back on the problem.  We’re focusing on something else, and then never coming back to to the actual problem or choice.

In this case, the choice wasn’t, as I perceived it, to train daily for that run or to not train at all.  Defining it that way, the options were either unrealistic or too clearly “bad” so I did neither.  I left the fork stuck in the road and turned my back on it.  I trained a little bit – just enough to feel like I wasn’t making the bad choice but not enough to positively affect the outcome.

This is where you walk up to diverging paths and instead of taking the right or the left, you turn 180 degrees and go back the way you came.

It’s impossible to arrive somewhere when you are walking away from it.  Yogi would agree.

The other fork-in-the-road dysfunction is to take the fork, and then drop it.  In other words, we’ve made a choice but then we haven’t followed through to a result, any result.

Any path, any decision, leads somewhere.  If you take one path or you take the other, you will eventually reach some destination, probably one that is ahead of you.  But if you stop after a few feet and go no further, you will not get anywhere.

It’s impossible to arrive when you haven’t really left.

So make a choice, then act on it. Don’t overthink it. Don’t stop.  Don’t waffle.  Don’t give up, and and don’t turn back.

When you come to a fork in the road, take it.


Uplifters

None of us lead lives that carry us exclusively through meadows of fragrant wildflowers or from mountaintop to mountaintop.  maxresdefaultBehind or beneath a fragrant meadow you’ll often find some sort of stinking swamp to navigate with a clothespin on your nose.  Mountaintops wouldn’t exist without unmarked trenches, black valleys or black ice, or bottomless crevasses.swamp_LinoDriegheArt

By now many of us have figured out that the swamps and trenches have much greater value in our growth than sunny fields of cornflowers and butterflies or the lofty highs that mark victories.  There, we’ve learned to hold our breath, hold our tongues, or hold judgment, along with many other lessons on life and love.

Of even greater value than life lessons are a few of the people we’ve met in life’s battlefields and trials – the uplifters.  We got to where we are today because they risked life or reputation to reach out to pull us from a bog or because they lay across the abyss and let us walk across on their backs.  Once there, they’ve walked with us side by side.  They’re not afraid to tell us the bald truth or to shine lights on our blind spots.  They constructively criticize our art or our work product.  They’ll pour a bucket of icewater on us if we need waking up.

Together we’ve navigated childhood, high school, our parents’ divorce, and early adulthood, forging a bond stronger than any alloy.   Together, we survived harsh betrayal of trust and escape from an untenable situation.  We’ve been richer or poorer, sick or healthy, better or worse together.  We’ve worked through high highs and even lower lows – together.

Lift is what keeps the plane from falling out of the sky.  Uplifters keep us firmly grounded.

We succeed in life to the degree that we hold onto and nurture our uplifters by being the same for them as they are for us.

Recognize your uplifters.  Keep them safe.   Thank them from time to time.

We’re only as extraordinary as the company we keep.


For the Prize

Four times a year, I go somewhere and I run.  I run 13.1 or I run 26.2.  This morning I ran in Fresno. I ran around a very large park on a very loopy course. It was ridiculous fun. IMG_0475Wascally 2015 Map

Running long distances is a good thing.  Because you’re out there for some time with nothing to do but run and think.  Or run and not think, which is how the best ideas happen.

The very best concepts or solutions to problems you’ve been grappling with usually sneak up on you when you’re doing something else, something entirely unrelated to the subject of the idea. A little distance is all it takes.

So I run.  For  another person it could be a walk, a hike, laps in the pool, rowing, or reps in the gym.  Or it can be knitting (but not if you  have to count stitches or rows; more like a scarf in garter stitch). Rhythmic physical activity or a simple craft or simple manual labor like painting a very large wall all work very well for creativity or problem solving — or creative problem solving.

IMG_0482Going for the prize doesn’t mean getting a shiny thing to hang around your neck or on your wall.   The prize isn’t at the end of the road.  It is the road — and what you might discover on the journey.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Cascading Commitments

I’m standing at the brink of a new commitment, realizing that if I move towards its acceptance, time will add more freight to it than it carries now.

By the time the commitment reaches its end, it will include not just the work visible now but additional cascades.  Some of those may be around the bend of the river, unknown until the journey takes me there.

th

Recently I’ve become aware of the fluid nature of a commitment.  It is rarely exactly what it looks like at its start.  It can become a flood of delightful surprises, or it can look more like the iceberg that sank the Titanic.   A force no one saw coming  and whose deadliest aspects were invisible.

It’s usually not that dire, but remember that when you commit to a task, an office, or any project, be prepared to embrace its descendants (whether delightful or black sheep), and not just the parent you see, know, and trust today.

A year ago, when I committed to this blog, I had no idea where that commitment would lead.  At first I thought I was responsible only to myself, but I know better now.  I know that as this venture has evolved and grown, so have the stakeholders.

Any commitment includes the consequences of its consequences and resulting expansion of accountability to others, sometimes to more others than could have been foreseen.  If you expect even the smallest commitment to grow exponentially, then you can deal with the inevitable cascade.

The challenge, however, is consistency.  Whether you are dealing with the unexpected or even just the relentless expectation of constant product, it’s inevitable that some of that product will not be exceptional.  Make your peace with that.

Keep the core commitment and give that your best effort always.  Do the best you can with the offshoots — assess for any that could be abandoned if not helpful, healed if dysfunctional, or disowned if destructive.

Recognize that as commitments we make evolve and flow, so must we.


The Wretched Burden of a Single Voice

I was sucker-punched this morning by the realization that one big reason I don’t always feel heard is that I haven’t actually said anything.

To the right people, that is.

There is a natural tendency in us to talk to people with whom we feel safe about tough issues we’d like to see changed.  That’s all well and good but that isn’t what brings about change.

It’s like praying to the god of fire to bring rain, then feeling disappointed when it doesn’t rain.  It doesn’t matter how fervent, how sincere, or how elaborate the prayers are, they’ve been misdirected and won’t be answered.

In that case you are, as one of our Beagles used to do daily, barking up the wrong tree.barking up the wrong tree

Speaking up about difficult issues is easy if you’re venting to a friend or even if you are sharing ideas or recommendations with top management and not with the managers or staff actually responsible for the issue.  It’s not only easy to do, but it can make you feel like you’ve done your part when you actually haven’t done anything at all–

Except put a burden on the shoulders of the person you’ve told in isolation, because your friend can’t do anything about it, and because a good manager won’t generally act on a single report or recommendation when it concerns a complex issue.  He or she will either direct staff to come up with a solution or will  collect facts and then act.

The more effective approach than venting to a confidante or telling one senior manager what you believe should be done about it is to tell the people around you about the issue and offer your insight on how it might be solved.  Then let synergy take its course to formulate and execute a holistic solution to the problem, one that considers the views of all stakeholders, not just one or two.

It takes courage to put yourself on record as having an opinion on a topic that you’re not nominally responsible for.  You might say something naive or misinformed; or someone might think it’s none of your business and why don’t you get back to your own job.  The feared “mind  your own business” comeback is often what’s kept me silent.  And it’s certainly a valid comeback if all you do is talk about things and never take part in the team effort to fix them.

Which is why I offer these caveats if you have something to offer in pursuit of a shared objective:

  1. Think it through first. Don’t blurt out or email out the first reaction you have about something.  (This is something I’m working on, as I tend to jump in with both feet in situations where testing the water with one toe might work better as a first step.)
  2. Frame your statements calmly and respectfully.  Support them with facts.
  3. Finally, speak up about a problem only if you’re prepared to roll up your sleeves to execute the solution, a solution which — when all is said and done — may not be the one you proposed.  It might be a collaboration, a compromise, or something else entirely.   Ego has to take a backseat to results.

Communicating in this way will lift burdens rather than adding to them and is a skill worth practicing.


Down the Rabbit Hole

Sometimes I look around and wonder what wrong turn led me down the rabbit hole.   At times, the events unfolding around me can only mean that I’ve fallen into some alternate universe where reason does not exist and actions defy all logic.  I’m Alice, and this is the Mad Hatter’s tea party.  Baloney is served but it’s labeled filet mignon.  The craziest thing is that everyone else at the party thinks that everything is perfectly normal.

mad hatter tea party

Events like this could launch a destructive process that looks like this:

You’re served up some flavor of nonsense and told it’s fact.  There are generalities (“people” say…)  There’s a grain of truth in it or maybe one or two actual events taken out of context.  [You’re now in the danger zone].  You can’t resist.  You engage on the visible facts (also known as quicksand).  Logic should lead you out, but it doesn’t.  The more logic you deploy, the more ammunition you hand over.  Suddenly you’re the one on the defensive.  Retreat seems the only option; and at that point, the battle is lost.

This happened to me recently.  A workgroup had circumvented a procedure, inconveniencing staff who were following protocol and opening the door to potential liability.  When asked about it, fingers were pointed in every direction.  No one was responsible. Every question led to more questions. The story that finally emerged was that they were doing as they’d been told and that I was being mean and unreasonable to expect personal accountability.

This lunacy will repeat itself unless you realize that this is not about mere dysfunction.   Collective narcissism is pathological, and band-aids won’t work if a more invasive approach is needed.

By invasive action I don’t mean group action.  Just like you wouldn’t issue policy to a large group to address a performance or ethics issue limited to one or two people, collective narcissism isn’t resolved by engaging on the visible problem or by taking action on the group as a whole.

Instead, the next time you find yourself at a mad tea party where nothing makes sense but you’re being told you’re the illogical one:

  1. Don’t let it get personal.
  2. Realize that you are dealing with collective narcissism.
  3. Identify the one or very few in the group who are the heart of the problem.
  4. Deal with that individual or those few individuals appropriately and privately.
  5. Restore sanity to the larger group by example and public dialogue.

Climb out of the rabbit hole.


A Step Ahead

This is part of an intermittent series featuring strategies drawn from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.  Wisdom from this ancient work is worth considering from time to time as its principles apply in any endeavor.

The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.
Sun Tzu

Simply replace “enemy”  and “attacking” with more appropriate nouns and this sage advice speaks to productivity and consistent results.

More concisely,  “Luck favors the prepared.”  Edna Mode

Edna Mode, from Disney-Pixar's The Incredibles
Edna Mode, from Disney-Pixar’s The Incredibles

In life and in business, the question regarding challenges or battle isn’t if but when.  Effective risk management is making our positions unassailable.  How?  By considering all possible scenarios from the most optimistic to the calamitous, formulating a simple strategy for each eventuality, then being prepared to execute whichever strategy is appropriate.

If you’re prepared for the worst, everyday challenges are easier to face.


People are Mostly Human

No, I don’t mean that three out of four people walking around are human and the fourth is something else.

Silhouette of 3alienThis is what I mean.  The visible part of someone you don’t know well — whether that is someone with whom you get along or not — is only a fraction of the person.  A small fraction.

Pie-Chart-of-a-Human-400x212

When dealing with another individual, particularly in a professional setting, it’s easy to believe that the cover is the book, that the job title is the person.

The reality is that between the time we wake up and the time we arrive at work, most of us have carefully assembled our bright, colorful, shiny, and hard M&M candy shells to effectively protect and hide the softer filling —  the actual human inside.  That’s by design; we need armor to deal with the battles and we each need a solid, dependable professional identity.

Most of the time when dealing with others professionally we see only the veneer or the game face and it’s easy to forget that behind that demeanor is flesh and blood. There is a lifetime of experiences, some perhaps as recent as that morning, ranging from exultant to tragic or devastating.  Working with others, we have to consider their humanity, their vulnerability.  Even more so when it’s well disguised — as gruffness, as terseness, as civility, sometimes even as arrogance.

As you travel through your workday or work week, keep that in mind.  Certainly, expect that people keep their personal lives out of the office, but don’t expect them not to be human.

Becoming extraordinary means developing sixth, seventh, or more senses so that we can see beyond the obvious.  Maybe dealing with the humanity that people hide from us means we to have to work to develop superhuman qualities ourselves.superhero

 

 

 

 


Projectile Thinking

Thinking it over without overthinking it is hard.  The sweet spot is probably closer than you’d believe, and easy to overshoot.

This isn’t about analysis, research, math, or any other science-based cranial work which requires an iterative processes that takes exactly as long as it takes to get the right answer. If only it were that simple.

Projectile thinking is purely subjective thought, usually some form of self-reflection on events that led to an undesirable outcome.

The easiest way to start a chain reaction of further undesirable outcomes – for both self and others – is rumination.   It can’t possibly work because you’re not working with facts.  You’re working with what is in your head, much of which is nonsense.   The result is often an unholy trinity of tangled barbwire: Dysfunction.  Distress.  Drama.7239080730_d74ea76f83_z

Teenagers and young adults are great at this.  First day in a new school, eyes meet across the classroom.  Oh god, did he look at me?  Did he look at me because I look great today or was he looking at the girl next to me or do I have something stuck in my teeth or a zit on my nose or is my hair weird or are my shoes totally wrong I look like a dork oh no nobody will ever love me and I’m going to die alone with a dozen cats who will eat me for dinner and no one will even know I’m gone or care my life has no meaning.

Projecting insecurities on another with no facts.  Projectile output.

Most of us are well past that stage of life and level of functioning, but occasionally still suffer the post-traumatic stress of adolescence — the nightmares, the flashbacks, and the ruminative thought process that can only lead to a wrong if not absurd conclusion.  Some people never stop coping that way.  Watch any reality TV show or observe a particularly dysfunctional workgroup.

My advice?  Unless you have facts, don’t make a habit of thinking too much.  If you do start projectile thinking, stop and get some perspective or better yet, just the facts.


When you Hear Hoofbeats

— don’t look for zebras.zebras

(At least not here in North America.)

What this means is simply that the answer to a puzzle or challenge you face is usually the most obvious. That’s probably true, oh, about eight times out of ten, which makes this concept a useful antidote to analysis paralysis.horses

To state the obvious, attaining an objective requires that we move forward in its direction.

We do this most successfully by slowing down infrequently and stopping almost never as long as that is possible without compromising quality and safety.

Decisions have to be made.  Obsessing about them before, or ruminating over them afterwards, is spending time that most of us don’t have the luxury of – whether in the heat of battle or the heat of life.  Like anything, we get better at it with practice.

In forty hours I shall be in battle, with little information, and on the spur of the moment will have to make the most momentous decisions. But I believe that one’s spirit enlarges with responsibility and that, with God’s help, I shall make them, and make them right.

 


The Practice of Humility

Near the top of the list of what makes a leader (or anyone) extraordinary is his or her genuine humility.  They’ve earned loyalty and respect by putting others first.  They acknowledge the efforts of the group or of others in it over their own efforts.  483310_454451167912656_2123064779_n-2

This past week I’ve observed various behaviors that might have looked like humility, and no doubt the owners of the behaviors might have thought they were being humble, when in fact, they were not.

Genuine humility is a rare and remarkable trait; usually those who possess it innately don’t realize they have it.  It’s an important attribute to practice on the road to becoming extraordinary.

By practice, I don’t necessarily mean that you should stand in front of a mirror saying self-effacing things, but to start by recognizing what humility is not.  That way we can spot its impostors in ourselves.

What might they look like?  Here are a few:

#1 – Passive Aggressive

The one I see most often and which is probably the hardest to spot in the moment, because it often sounds sincere, is passive aggressiveness that looks like humility.  It might sound like this, “Thank you so much for the opportunity to ___.   I’m honored that you thought of me for this.  I’ll do my best to do a good job.”  And then the person drops it, works on something else entirely, or does a sloppy or ineffective job.  By definition, what a passive aggressive person says (which sounds humble or supportive or enthusiastic) and what he or she does (nothing or worse) — are two different things.

Most of us have acted this way at one time or another, sometimes using it as a coping mechanism in a toxic workplace where staff are punished for admitting weaknesses or saying what they really think.

Even if that was or still is the case, though, practice this approach instead:  Express yourself civilly but honestly.  If there are challenges, say so but don’t stop there;  say how you’re going to try to solve them.  Say what you’re going to do, then do what you said you would.

#2 – Scripted

Have you ever noticed that when a professional athlete is asked about a great play he made, he’ll respond by minimizing his accomplishments and applauding his team mates?  I sometimes wonder how many of them are thinking to themselves, “Yeah, that catch I made in the top of the ninth inning really did save a run and the game – you’re welcome” as what is coming out of his mouth is “the other team is great and played really well but we all played a little bit better, held on, and got the win.”FullSizeRender

I’m pretty sure that wiping the word “I” from an athlete’s vocabulary is a little bit of benign brainwashing that goes on from the time a kid first starts learning to play a team sport:  “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team.'”

To some, using we instead of I comes naturally;  to others — who, left to their own devices, would brag about the great job they did unassisted — not so much.

There’s a lesson in this for the rest of us;  I’m sure we would all would much rather hear “we” than “I” about anything anywhere.  So if you have to practice saying “we” in front of a mirror, do so.  The better we get at using “we” when talking about accomplishments, the more people will respect and support what we do.  People want to be part of what “we” did;  they don’t much care what “I” did.

#3 – Self-Serving

If your self-deprecating attitude comes with a price tag (being liked, getting something in return), then it’s not true humility, it’s something else.   Putting yourself down disingenuously or building someone else up to butter them up or curry favor is dishonest.  Don’t.

Instead, think of the people you know who say please and thank you; people who are defined by their kindness.  The people who ask you questions and who listen attentively when you answer, who rarely talk about their personal accomplishments but are quick to acknowledge a job well done. People who lead by example and by service.  People who relay good news as what we did together or what the other person did.  People who keep their word.  A humble person is defined by his or her actions, not words.

Practice these traits to become a person of humility, a better, more extraordinary person.

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15 Minutes

I’m taking 15 minutes to practice a skill – completing something in 15 minutes.

clockOne quarter of an hour, one 48th of a day, one 336th of a week. It’s not a long time but it is enough for many tasks.

The currency of our lives is units of time.  Units of time can be divided along many different lines including whether or not we are earning a living during that time unit (work/play, weekdays/weekend, billable/nonbillable hours).

We’ve all noticed that time spent in a purely pleasurable pursuit is a mad sprint, over before it’s begun, where time spent doing a chore can drag endlessly.

I find it helpful to think of tasks that must be done now or they never will be as a game, a race to the finish line.

I’m not saying a task that takes an hour to do well should be rushed into a quarter hour.  I’m saying that actual 15-minute tasks should be attacked from the perspective of let’s play.  Let’s enjoy the challenge.  Then let’s celebrate when it’s done.

The next time you have that little task that’s been sitting on your to-do list for days (that obligatory call to return, that appointment to make, that little errand to run), set the timer to 15 minutes (or 10, or 5, whatever it’s worth), focus on it (no distractions), do it, and when the timer goes off and it’s done, cross it off the list.  Every one of those 15-minute tasks undone is a sandbag on your shoulder; every one that gets done is that sandbag gone.  The more sandbags you toss, the straighter you stand, and the better you see what’s in front of you.

Start now.


Circle Back

Also known as “close the loop” or simply “respond.”  Don’t be that person — the one who never responds or responds so late you needn’t have bothered.  Organize your day so that acknowledging communications is a priority.  It only takes a moment to digest the communication and either deal with it on the spot or make a decision when you can, communicate that decision, flag it for yourself so you don’t forget, then don’t forget and get it done when you said you would, or sooner if you can.  Then check it off your list and move on.  People dealing with you will feel heard and respected; meanwhile, you’re not wasting brain cells wondering if you ever responded because you did.

close the loop


Own it and Move On

Sometimes I struggle to understand another’s perspective or even that they have a perspective different than my own.  Sometimes I rush to judgment of another before considering my part in the situation.  Tempers flare, valuable time is wasted.  You want to keep digging it up like a dog digs up a bone.  You really, really, don’t want to let it go.  It’s at these times I need to remind myself to own it and move on.  Take a breath. Step back.  That finger you pointed in accusation? Put that thing away.  It’s not easy but it sure is simple, and like anything else it’s a skill improved with practice: own it, and move on.

own-it-and-move-on


Service and the Ethic of Reciprocity

January 22nd’s Daily Gratitude* [reproduced below] features service-minded people; people at all levels of an organization who live the Golden Rule.  Every interaction with a person puts a coat of cordiality on the interaction, makes that moment, that hour, that day a little better.

keep_calm_and_follow_the_golden_rule_by_luckydragonfly-d72k8nh

*Daily Gratitude Post 1/22/15:

[I’m grateful for] service-oriented individuals.  I love them — people whose mission on the job is to be responsive to the job at hand.  People who don’t put off or refer, just cheerfully get it done.

servicewithasmile
Who I want to be when I grow up

Execution

Expressing a concept I found worthy of gratitude on my daily gratitude post for 1/20/15* [reproduced below], I realizes this is directly related to the concept of executing work as a chess game which I think about every now and then.

When I was a kid, my dad taught me chess. I haven’t played in years; in fact, my last game might have been as a child at home with Dad as my opponent. But the skill and mental process of the game has served me well throughout my professional life – always be several moves ahead.  Be agile.  Think through the possible alternative scenarios. Don’t be afraid to consider the unexpected or bizarre.

A chess board is a friendly battleground; a battle of wits, mathematics, and creativity.  Sun Tzu’s concepts are fundamental to success there.

*From Daily Gratitude 1/20/15:

Ran across an article today discussing shiny objects for the sake of shiny objects.   In the article, The Art of War by Sun Tzu was quoted:

“Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”  Apt. Very apt.  Searching for an image, I found more context, which added another dimension to the concept.

sun tzu

This is just great stuff.  Take a minute to ponder the next time you are trying to accomplish a long-range goal by performing a long-range action.   It’s like trying to swallow an elephant whole.


Perspective

Sometimes the best way to improve your daily and long-range productivity is to just stop.  Step away.  Get out of the office with someone you can talk to, and talk it out.  I do this regularly with different people whose opinions and perspectives matter to me.  It’s very different from meeting in a work environment; having a conversation about a puzzling issue at work outside at a picnic table or in a mom-and-pop cafe is invaluable.

For the same reason, I take mandatory (mandated by me) daily walks.  No matter what is going on indoors, I come back refreshed and ready to go.

So take a walk, grab a cup of coffee or lunch.  You’d be getting coffee or eating anyway – make it a productive time-out.


Professional Development

I think it’s important to keep learning — new soft or hard skills, the next level of higher education, exchange of expertise from peers, seminars or conference sessions by professional or networking groups, webinars, one-on-one coaching, and a host of other opportunities to gain knowledge that helps one improve professionally.

Just as beneficial to one’s development, though, is teaching or coaching others in a skill.  Each exercise of teaching another or others, I have found, any skill at all, will give me one or two aha! moments of my own.  I think we who have the opportunity to instruct others in any skill or technology learn just as much, if not more sometimes, than our students do with each repetition of the class.  Each class gives at least one but often many new perspectives into the subject.


Milestone

In December 2014 I celebrated my one-year anniversary in my current position.   I enjoy my work; I enjoy striving to exceed expectations — to anticipate needs, to be one step ahead.  I think the people I work with deserve no less.


About Becoming Extraordinary

My goal and passion is the pursuit of excellence in my job.  I aspire to being remarkable.

May I never be complacent.

May I never stop learning and growing.

May all my interactions with others — internally and with customers, vendors, and stakeholders — be courteous, cheerful, and improve their day.

Although I am human and will fall short at time, may I always work towards the best possible result – the brilliance and perfection of exquisitely cut diamonds.

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