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Is it necessary to expose ourselves to the opposite of our nature in order to grow?

I think it’s safe to say that my nature is very steady, calm, generally relaxed and predictable, and focused on maintaining comfort and predictability. I may not like that reality, but I do think it’s the truth. So then I must ask myself whether, in order to expand my horizons and to become a better person, I must deliberately jump into things that are oppositional. I’m not sure what the answer is.

If it is indeed necessary, it leads me to conclude that not only would real growth occur at the cost of real stress, since anyone seeking to challenge themselves would find their non-preferred mode of being inherently stressful, but that it must be consciously chosen. So we must therefore decide to embark upon a journey of growth, and must then deliberately do the things we prefer not to do, for the sake of growing.

On the other hand, if we doubt the assertion that growth must occur through the different, then we could assert that by diving perhaps deeper into our own natures and preferences can lead to expansion of thought and capability. We’d be foolish in this case to deliberately stress ourselves, since it would be counter to true learning and betterment.

My gut tells me that the challenge is, in fact, necessary to growing; that reaching for the opposite of ourselves is actually a precondition of real change and growth. On the other hand, I also know that my deep preference is for going “with my gut”, and that I should perhaps not trust that direction. That is, since my preference of going with instinct is so clearly my nature, even if I assert that challenge is necessary, since it was asserted through my own instinct, it might actually be an argument in favor of learning and growing through that which comforts. Would I have asserted we should challenge ourselves by first analyzing all options? That’s counter to my nature, and I wouldn’t want to do it.

I read in Rolling Stone that Madonna has always felt herself to “have a fire lit under her ass”, and that she doesn’t feel like she connects with people who aren’t as driven to accomplish things. Perhaps it’s the nature of the person that determines how that individual best moves forward. If we assume that Madonna is a person who likes conflict and challenge (a safe assumption, given her words in that interview, and the actions of her career), it seems doubtful that her own growth could have occurred without that presence of challenge. Would she have thrived in a comfy environment? More directly, does her challenging nature require challenge in order to expand itself? And in the converse, does someone with more of a steadying nature, someone reluctant to challenge for its own sake (maybe like me), grow more through steadiness?

Again the key question arrives: is challenge a necessary precondition to growth and learning? For what it’s worth, I do my best work under deadlines, and Madonna’s been practicing yoga and studying Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, for decades. Are those facts proof of the need to do the opposite, or just happenstance? Correlations, or causations?

What is your nature, and what do you think?

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Something that struck me above all else today is how little time we put towards actually thinking. Whether it be about our jobs, our lives, or even about the movie we watched last night, thought often gets left to the wayside.

After all, it’s much easier to let someone else do the thinking for us. As an example, I hate watching basketball. Yet I find that I often want to turn on commentary from other people about basketball, because then at least I get some sort of description of what’s going on. I don’t have to be responsible for my bizarre choice to watch a sport that just doesn’t interest me. Is that a good example? I’m not sure it is, and that’s part of my point.

I didn’t pause to think of a good example, and it resulted in a haphazard one.

What might a better example be of how we prefer to have others think for us? I’m not sure, but maybe I could Google something. Ha. That’s probably the best example from my daily life. Why would I try to come up with some sort of answer when I can just do some quick “research” and find an answer in a nanosecond?

We also structure our days to prevent thought. Not deliberately, I don’t suppose, but it’s certainly the case. I’ve written before about how we love to subsume ourselves in our busy-ness (and so too, has Greg McKeown, in an HBR piece), and our insistence on this state of being actively prevents us from engaging intellectually with our surroundings.

I just recently moved to Los Angeles, and there’s a lot to think about here. But it’s also true that everywhere you look, there are reminders of the industry nearby that does the thinking for you. That is, television and movies. Rare is the program that actually requires of us more than passive consumption.

Now I love movies, and television shows, as much as anyone. Well, maybe it’s more appropriate to say that I enjoy them tremendously. They’re entertaining, sometimes thought-provoking, and  can be both good escapism and worthy bonding time. However, I also find it hard to believe that our days are so tough that we really need to tune in and tune out the world on a regular basis.

Presumably someone is doing the thinking about television – they must be made and planned, after all. So the producers and directors and second assistants and costumers are thinking. So too are some professional writers who focus on the industry, like Wesley Morris, whose writing about movies earned him a Pulitzer in 2012.

But a distinction must be made both between those who consume and those who produce, and also between those who spew content into the ether without thought and those whose creations bear signs of analysis. I know that most of what I end up reading or hearing, especially, bears little resemblance to a thoughtfully-constructed perspective.

This is ending up being much more like a rant against consumerism than I had intended. Indeed, I’m sure many a wise reader will likely [and rightfully] point out that even this piece of writing isn’t so much thought out as it is extemporaneous. I didn’t carefully think through the intentions of each paragraph, map out the supporting elements and details of each idea, and tie them together in a novel way. So it’s possible that I’m part of the problem of a lack of genuine thought. I don’t think so, but it’s possible!

So where does this lead us? I’ll return again to the concept of a lack of thought. I commit to challenging myself, and to thinking through each piece’s contents and basis structure before simply writing and writing until my words seem to have formed a passable ending.

How will you commit to increasing the amount of thought you put into your day? Some ideas for you:

  1. Prune your contacts tree. Every day for the next month (nearly), pick a letter of the alphabet and review your contacts with that letter as their last initial. Are you doing anything with that contact? Or just letting it sit there? I’m not saying you must delete the information, but evaluate instead whether there’s a connection you could use, or a relationship you could revive.
  2. Stop before you send that email. Must it be sent? Can it be shorter? Clearer? Would a phone call be better? Or a meeting? Remember that not every email needs an immediate response (assuming it needs any at all).
  3. Unplug your modem. After reading this column, power down your internet access. Then you might even have to really think about what to do this evening. What’s for dinner? I’m not sure, but without the internet, you’ll have to really consider available options, which will access your latent memory!

Those ideas weren’t particularly thought out. But I promise to do better next time by actually thinking things through first.

What about you?

Apparently I like structure, and systems, and I have my own little ways of doing things.  I say apparently because I used to think that I was quite the opposite – freewheeling, spontaneous, sort of a go-with-the-flow kind of guy.

That perception started to change when I got into some DISC and Myers-Briggs assessments, and began really pondering their truth. In DISC, my type popped up as heavily Steadiness. So according to the assessment, I like doing things in a slow and steady manner. 

My perception started to change with two main events.  First, I recently got my own office at work. Having shared some cube farm existence for much of the past three years, I had unknowingly modified my style and behavior to fit the setup around me. So I was quieter, less “weird,” and just kind of corporately acceptable.

When I got my own office, and returned somewhat to the state of spending lots of time alone working on projects, I remembered several things that I had previously been stifling. For instance, I like to sing. A lot. I also talk to myself in weird voices. A lot. Perhaps these are remnants of my prior career as a stage actor, but I noticed that when I allow myself to let loose with singing and my Ian McKellan as Magneto impressions, I just enjoyed my time more and more.

Second, my boss recently told me that if there’s one thing I could work on in my job, it was asserting my own opinions and beliefs. In my attempts at being respectful and being a good teammate, I had actually been depriving my colleagues of the full spectrum of who I am, and what I bring to the table.

Other people likely don’t have the same little quirks as I do. But your own quirks are likely what gives you a unique and therefore valuable perspective to contribute on a day-to-day basis.

So I say this: Own Your Quirks.

To own them, you need to know what they are. Most of the time, your quirks surface prominently when you spend time alone; in that context, you can just be yourself, as you don’t have to worry about perceptions or reactions. So I’d recommend the following three things:

  1. Schedule time alone every day. No one is pure extrovert — no one. So I block off several small chunks of time to do things by myself every day. 30 minutes to work out, 15 minutes to write and stretch every morning, etc. You’ll be in better touch with yourself, which is why people hire you.
  2. Weekly, examine your needs. You might need to solicit help for this. This might sound very new-agey, and I think that’s ok! But about once a week, you should carve out time to really ask yourself whether there are activities that you need, but aren’t getting. My wife can spot when I’ve not given myself permission to be weird. She’ll actually say, “You need weird time, don’t you?”, because I start acting “not like myself.”
  3. Own those Quirks, and Show them to others. Believe it or not, other people will remember and respect you more for your unique little qualities than for the things you do that are exactly like everyone else. So bust out that Magneto voice, plan your day down to the minute, proudly show off your knitted hat collection, or do whatever you need to feel like yourself. As long as your quirks don’t become the sum total of all you are and do, I think you’ll be better off.

So I’m learning to own my quirks. The people who sit outside my office no longer look at me askance when I let loose with a refrain from a Sondheim show. Colleagues and clients now know me as the guy who not only is on top of my work, but whose voice on conference calls is soothing, interesting, and reminiscent of the Movie Phone guy. 

Discover and cultivate your own idiosyncrasies; each of us have some, and they’re what makes our differences compelling.

I often find that seemingly disparate books and essays awaken deep connections within me and the world, which is one of the main reasons I advocate reading several things concurrently.

My two sources at the moment are the science fiction masterpiece The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, and a recent publication, The Trauma of Everyday Life by Michael Epstein, Ph.D.  The former chronicles the experiences of a man as he works to understand the truly alien people of Winter, and to re-examine his understanding of love, while the latter uses the teaches of Buddhism and modern psychiatry to understand the inherent trauma of being human.  What could they possibly have in common, and how does it relate to the new year?

Epstein notes that Buddhism assumes the following about trauma:

  1. Trauma happens to everyone, unavoidably.  It is part of being alive.
  2. In order to move past it, one must first acknowledge its reality.

There are other observations as well, but these struck me as the most important.  Epstein relays several anecdotes in which renowned Buddhist teachers remind their students of the primacy of acknowledging the present.  To see the present with a clear-eyed fullness enables students of Buddhism to move not beyond their trauma, but through it.  The only way out is through.

Le Guin, meanwhile, paints a picture of an alien society in which the year always is and always remains Year One.  Unlike earth, about to move from 2013 to 2014, the year in Winter is always the same.  It is the past that grows further distant, while the future remains continually in the future; the future never arrives.  Tonight, the calendar would remain Year One, while 2013 would become “one year ago” or “last year”.

We do this in part, but not as a matter of concept.  As a result of Winter’s different perspective, the ambassador Genly Ai (from Earth) encounters a society “more generally concerned with presence than with progress.”

The two authors write about the same thing, in different contexts and ways.  We must have the presence of the people of Winter in order to possess the clear-eyed acknowledgement of our trauma (and joy!).  How often have you worked with someone, or had a friend or loved one, for that matter, who could not be brought to acknowledge the present reality?  Or does that, perhaps, describe you?

So how do we do it?  How do we actually live with more presence?  My decade of experience in coaching and consulting reminds me that while everyone needs to develop a unique approach, a few things seem to work for everyone.  They won’t surprise you, but they do require some discipline to put into action.

  1. Get to know your body.  Exercise regularly, eat well, and get enough sleep.  Maybe try a 3-day juice reboot (my wife and I did this last month and each lost 7 pounds).
  2. Get to know your mind.  Read books.  Read blogs (like this one).  Challenge your brain capacity and functioning; it’ll teach you a lot about how you think.
  3. Find your meditative state.  For some people, exercise is meditative.  Or maybe you need to get a yoga mat and sit still for 15 minutes.  But I always recommend to my clients that they develop a practice of some sort that encourages stillness.  This will put you in touch with your thoughts and will de-numb you from the stimuli of the day.
  4. Remember that you might die tomorrow.  Some view this as morbid, but I don’t (and neither does Epstein).  Treating today like it actually matters is what going through things is all about.
  5. Be kind to yourself and to others.  In short, nobody likes an a**hole.  Including you!
  6. Figure out what you like, and do it every day.  There’s no reason to wait, and no time for regrets.  Don’t know what you like?  There are a plethora of books and sources to look into.  I like Steering by Starlight by Martha Beck.

Le Guin’s and Epstein’s themes coalesced at just the right time for this post.  I find it meaningful that they wouldn’t have done so had I not known through experience that immersing myself in ideas and concepts restores and invigorates me.  I follow my own advice, and will seek to live this new year with renewed presence.

I wish you all the same.

I have a friend who often describes his job as “soul-sucking.”  That is, a little piece of his soul dies every time he goes to work.  Sound familiar?  I imagine that many of us sometimes feel the same way, and we often either write those feelings off as fleeting, or, worse, simply assume that sometimes jobs must, in fact, diminish our soul.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

In his excellent book, Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore comments that not only does beauty help the soul in its peculiar way of being, but that the impact we feel in a moment of beauty sufficiently eases us out of our usual rush to get things done.  Moore argues that this kind of momentary reflection on beauty feeds our souls, which reminds us of the depth of our imagination.

In our bustling workplaces, we experience the lack of beauty continually, for a variety of reasons.  We might work in a gray, drab building with gray, drab offices and cubicles.  The work itself might be challenging in its repetitiveness.  Or perhaps we’re so overloaded with tasks and activity that we simply do not find the time to feel beauty.

Moore defines beauty, for the soul, as “the quality in things that invites absorption and contemplation.”  That can be brought by us to our everyday experience, and can certainly be applied to our jobs.  Here’s what I mean.

Let’s assume that beauty can be found in moments, like in a sunset or in the way light reflects off of the snow and ice on my rental car in the current 5-degree Colorado weather (true story).  There must, then, be opportunities to find beauty in our jobs.  Here are some examples of the beauty you can find and create in your daily job:

  1. Where you sit and do your work.  The objects we sit on and in front of often contain hidden beauty.  The desk I’m using right now, for example, is long, white, and perfectly smooth.  It looks really cool in the room.  What about yours?
  2. A well-crafted document.  Beauty isn’t limited to things made by others.  A colleague recently made an announcement for a Holiday party, and the poster she designed was just striking.  The colors, fonts, and white space all spoke to me, interrupting my zombie-like trudge through my emails.
  3. Your morning coffee.  Few things are as important in an office as the morning coffee, right?  On Monday morning, get your cup, and set in on your desk.  Watch the steam swirl into the air; what shapes does it make?  Or place it by the window, and notice the sunlight changing the texture of the coffee’s surface.  Allow the beauty of the moment to invite contemplation.

Those are just three quick examples, but I think they can make a difference in your daily experience of work.  What others can you think of?

My friend still finds his job disappointing.  But by taking moments to appreciate beauty as it already exists, he recently told me, he doesn’t feel as strongly that work portends the coming zombie apocalypse.

 

“How can I see the forest if I’ve just learned what a tree is?”

That was the question posed to me by a young woman on my team a few years ago.  I’ll call her Helen.  I was her manager, and I was failing her.

I hired Helen into our work group because she of her high ceiling: she was the top performer at a separate division of our company, and I poached her to help our unit improve the quality, timeliness, and efficiency of our work.  I wanted fewer daily issues coming my way, and wanted to empower people to make fast decisions.

But in her first two months, she struggled to pick up our business.  She consistently made errors, and, most troubling of all, seemed unaware that she was doing so.  My Vice President wanted me to send her back to the prior group.

To avoid doing so, I tried coaching Helen through some of the work that she was struggling with.  At one point I noted that she seemed to get stuck on details at the expense of the larger picture, and she blurted out the question that’s the title of this piece.  “David, how can I see the forest?  I’ve just learned what our group’s trees are!”.  And she was right.

Helen, like most in our group, was new to our industry.  Even our experienced team members had only seen a snippet of what we did.  How, then, could I expect them to grasp the implications of their actions two or more levels downstream?  I realized in that moment that Helen needed a map of the forest.

She needed a systems approach to learning our business.

Systems thinking, you see, is not just a way of seeing the whole.  It’s a way to grasp the whole in an intelligent, helpful way, and to place details and specific events in the context of something bigger and more complex.  Some people seem to be systems thinkers from birth, and others think more particularly.  They see details, and use those details to construct a logical picture of the whole.

Anyone whose job requires an understanding of both the big picture and a grasp of details needs to master systems thinking.  Systems Thinking was recently written about by The Guardian as a key to sustainability, and the Harvard Business Review has outlined operational systems thinking methodology, if you’re interested.

But back to Helen.  I had expected her to look at an event, know what to do, and to consider the vast array of implications that might be triggered.  I made the crucial mistake of assuming if I taught the pieces effectively, she would put that puzzle together on her own.

Wrong!

I realized that a simple systems-thinking model might help her grasp the big picture, without sacrificing the important attention to detail that had made her a rising star for our organization.  I noticed, above all, that Helen (and others) tend to focus on Actions they can perform, to the detriment of secondary Impacts.  I’ve thus divided the model into Actions and Impacts stages.

I also use tree and forest imagery to provide further color to make it more memorable for myself and for Helen:

4-Step Systems Thinking Model (click on the words to see the model itself)

  1. Name the Tree.  Action.  The first step is to understand, literally, what the thing is.  What kind of tree is it?  Sometimes it’s new to us, or perhaps we’ve seen it before.  Helen didn’t know our business that well; she didn’t know the difference between our Spruces and our Bonsai trees.  The action of understanding what the tree is must come first.
  2. Why is the Tree Here?  Impact.  All Trees (and files, and events) happen for a reason.  Therefore the tree has links to other pieces of the business ecosystem.  For example, an email from a vendor about a late order has to be handled in a certain way.  But before we try to trim that Tree, we need to understand whether something upstream in the process has caused it to be late.  Maybe we ordered it incorrectly.  Perhaps we didn’t communicate effectively.  Understanding why the Tree exists requires that we evaluate the history of the process, and that’s important to effectively Tend it.  Understand its Impact before taking the next Action.
  3. Who else Tends Trees?  Impact.  Who else needs to know?  A colleague or client?  A regulatory body?  These possibilities can be defined in advance, but asking the questions prompts good thought.  This step helps shape the Action to come.
  4. Tend the Tree.  Action.  Now that we understand what kind of tree it is, and where it came from, and who else is interested we can truly know how to trim it.  What must I literally do with it?  Is there a process that I must follow?  Do I need to invent a new way?  To use the tree analogy, Palm tress have very different trimming process than do an Oaks (do you trim Oaks?).  As managers we need to explain the difference, clearly and simply.  Learning and understanding the tree-trimming process is the “doing” step of systems thinking.

Most people who learn a system focus on the Actions – steps 1 and 4, which are about What something is, and How to fix it.  Steps 2 and 3, exploring the Impact, the Why and the Who of the thing, sometimes play larger roles, especially from managers’ perspectives.  This model helped Helen understand the many different aspects of her work because it guides her through which questions to ask and what implications to consider.  Helen had to consider implications before acting.

Crucially, Helen could use the model to limit the number of things she had to consider.  Rather than looking at a Peach tree and wondering if maybe it needs trimming the same way Palm trees do, this model encouraged her to eliminate possible actions because they don’t fit the circumstances.  This aspect of the model was crucial for our business.

As for Helen, within a week of mastering the model, all performance issues were gone.  Within four months she was a Team Lead, and within a year she was managing a team of ten people.

The model, in action, lubricates our wheels of thought.  With thought, especially when guided, comes understanding, and the more understanding exists throughout a team, the better it runs.

So I encourage you to steal this 4-step model, or to develop one that might fit your team’s circumstances a bit more.  You’ll be amazed at how well your team can adopt systems thinking, and how much of an impact that will have on collective understanding and performance.

Process is a term often misunderstood.

Most people in business hear it and imagine Six Sigma black belts running around with visio diagrams, proclaiming process efficiency and such.  While that’s not wrong (for efficiency certainly has its place), process can and should be much more than that.

When I tell people that I’m process-focused, it means that I’m less concerned with the end result than with the how of getting there.  I don’t mean that you should ignore the result completely.  Far from it, in fact – a broken process can consistently yield terrible results.  But a broken process can also produce the desired end-game results.  This is an illusion; one that will be revealed in time, as the results begin to fade.

Nick Saban, the head football coach at the University of Alabama, is constantly espousing the benefits of “the process.”  Even his players talk about the capital-p Process during ESPN interviews.  It’s unlikely that Saban is referring to an advanced process-flow diagram.

Saban is instead referring to the same thing that legendary acting teachers like Constantin Stanislavsky, Stella Adler, Uta Hagen, and Eric Morris refer to: the technique you use on a consistent basis to be better at what you do.  That’s it.  Refining your process in acting is about doing the essential.  Non-actors might have heard of this as “the method.”

What’s essential in acting?  Normally it starts with communicating to your scene partner.  Karen, one of my first acting teachers, used to have us sit facing a partner, and repeat words back and forth with each other.  No inflection changes.  No “acting”, please.

If you modified your partner’s word in any way when you repeated it, Karen would say, “bullsh**”, and then you had to start over.  The process of repeating something said over and over to each other forged a connection to the other person.  It enabled the essential – communicating to another human being.

Only after communicating with someone can an actor develop more of her process: How does the character move?  What does she want?  Why does she want this?  Why does she feel this way, and what in my experience can I use to play the same?  Actors must move through the stages of this process in order to fully develop themselves as performers.  When that’s done, they’re ready to really play a part.

Similarly, Saban’s process at Alabama is about breaking down the complexities of football into building blocks: blocking, tackling, proper foot and hand placement, etc.  Only then would Saban and his staff focus on schemes and strategies.  When everyone has developed their own potential, by following the process, good things happen.

But the outcome of the entire process is, in a way, secondary.  For actors, focusing on winning awards or getting a starring role is the wrong way to approach things. Sure, you might stumble into a plum role, but then what?  How will you ensure that you’ll be successful, and that you’ll enjoy the experience?  By having solid process.

Saban’s process speaks for itself – his football program achieves a level of consistent success that is almost historic in its precedent.  Some might say, “But if he wasn’t winning football games, all his talk of process would be meaningless”.  And this is obviously true.  If he wasn’t winning football games, it would mean that the process was broken!

Fix the process, and focus on that, and the results will take care of themselves.  If they don’t, iterate the process, and try again.

So what, you ask?  What does a post about acting technique and a football coach’s osbession with process have to do with the rest of the world?  Most of us work in “results-oriented” environments, so it’s crucial that we root ourselves in solid process thought in order to be consistently effective.

I created this simple model for a struggling operations team recently, and it helped everyone focus on what could be controlled.  In time, results improved.

  1. What are we dealing with?  What is it, literally?  Do I understand it?  This might be a client request, or a widget.  But before you take action on it, you must know what it is.
  2. What does this mean?  This is trickier, but we should always look for ramifications of what we’re looking at.  For the operations team I helped, we often found widgets that were delayed.  What it meant was that we were in danger of missing client deadlines, and in turn, upsetting those customers.  There is chain of possible events.
  3. What must be done?  Are there set actions I should take?  Maybe it’s a new event and I need someone’s opinion first.  But if you don’t know what to do, find out!  Ask questions, and be humble in your lack of knowledge.
  4. Who else needs to know?  This is especially important in a customer service environment.  Will a client be upset if a widget is going to be 5 minutes late?  What about 25?  What about 3 days?  Who internally should know?  These things must be understood and acted upon.

This simple example of a process-oriented model (What is it, What does it Mean, What must I Do, Who should Know) helped our operations team improve customer satisfaction by 30% in one month.  But again, the outcome came from a solid process.  We didn’t reverse-engineer the process, we started with it.

So choose to be like a great actor, or like the best college football coach today.  Focus on perfecting and enjoying your process, whatever field you’re in, and results will come.

In my last post I wrote about how the Fight or Flight response can limit our potential, as it produces what is sometimes an ineffective mode of behavior.  It’s often more effective to initially Stand Upright in the face of the challenge.  Once assessed, you can decide what response the situation best warrants.

But how do we modify our initial Fight or Flight responses?  I like the following two variations of the same technique, which I’ve derived from my training as a stage and screen actor.

The Fight or Flight response stem from our autonomous nervous system.  This means that it happens naturally, and we cannot stop it completely.  However, once it happens, I’ve found that the best way to exit that primal response is by getting out of the head and into the body.

I call this technique the Rock Stomp.

I once was in a musical with an actor whose personal tendency was to be highly reactive and highly aggressive, and this really showed during her acting.  Unfortunately, Fight wasn’t appropriate for a particular role, for a wispy character who was much more passive and restrained than she, and she struggled to modify that autonomous response.

During challenging moments, she used her body in a particular way, as if  she was about to launch into the face of her scene partners!  So I suggested to her one night that she literally carry rocks in her pockets to reinforce her connection to gravity.

She found that the rocks not only prevented her from flying around (have you tried jumping around with rocks in your pockets? awkward), but that the physical restraint of more weight also helped her feel calm.  She was more grounded, and experienced less of a Fight response.  She was then able to gradually translate that calmness into her needed character actions.

A similar technique also worked for a friend I’ll call Mateo, who came to me with tremendous stage fright.  He had to give a presentation in front of 40 people, and this terrified him – he wanted to run and hide in the corner, which is no small feat for a 6-foot-5-inch man.  He was in full-scale Flight mode.

We didn’t have any rocks available, so we just stomped around an empty room for about 10 minutes like heavy cavemen.  STOMP, STOMP, STOMP!  His breath was fuller, and the people in the room knew he was there.  Stomping can help you feel more solid, more grounded, and more powerful.  Mateo then worked on remembering that feeling of power during his presentation.

I’m not suggesting you always carry a big bag of rocks with you in case of a confrontation, or that you literally stomp around the room during a presentation (in fact, please don’t).  Instead, we need to practice the sensation we want to remember, away from the stimuli prompting Fight or Flight.

So carve out 10 minutes a day over the next week.  Grab some rocks, or some dumbbells, or your kids (just kidding).  Practice standing still with the extra weight.  Feel the heaviness.  Where do you notice the extra weight?  In your feet?  Your shoulders?  Your hands, perhaps?

If you’re stomping, where do you notice the solidity?  Your breath?  Maybe your head feels different.  Mateo said his belly button felt big.  I’m not sure what that means, but it worked for him!

Like all stage techniques, the point is to experience a particular emotional response, and then carry that on stage (or into a board room, or to a presentation).  In this context, remembering the physical sensations we’ve practiced through Rock Stomp, we get out of our instinctive reactions and can then assess the situation.

If you felt the solidity in your hands, focus on your hands when your boss yells at you.  If your Stomp made your feet feel gigantic, try imagining size-25 feet if you feel nervous in front of a group presentation.

First, assess your instinctive Fight or Flight response.  Then practice Rock Stomp 10 minutes a day for a week.  I promise you that the next time you feel like fighting or flying away, you’ll be able to begin remembering the solid, heavy, alert sensation of having Rock Stomped, and you’ll then be able to do what is needed.

Where do you sit on the Fight or Flight spectrum?  If you don’t know, that’s a problem.

“Let’s go skydive!!!”  Joey the skydiving videographer was trying to get me pumped up, but I just wasn’t feeling it.  Joey was a six-foot-three, wiry, tanned dude from somewhere in Europe, with an accent that sounded like Schwarzenegger was trying to speak in French.  His presence as videographer was part of a going-away present from a skydive-loving boss of mine.

Joey lived to attack that skydive, mon ami!  Once the camera was on, Joey was going 1000 kilometers an hour.  On the fight or flight spectrum, Joey was a fighter.  

While I liked the effort, the problem was that I wasn’t particularly pumped, so the fight action didn’t inspire me.  But I wasn’t scared, either, so Joey’s approach was more amusing than inspiring.

All photos by Joey, the Fighting Videographer

All photos by Joey, the Fighting Videographer

I used to perform as an actor in front of (sometimes) 1000 people (and sometimes only 5!).  While I certainly would be excited, stage fright wasn’t my problem.  I knew of some performers (like a cast member named Sarah) who got so nervous they would vomit before every show – that’s how afraid she felt every time.  She seriously looked like she’d rather be anywhere than preparing to go on stage.

Unlike Joey, whose fight instincts are heard on the DVD of my skydive, and unlike Sarah, whose flight risk prompted us to consider locking the side door to prevent her escape, I neither fight a challenging situation head-on, nor do I attempt flight from it.

I live in a weird middle ground that I like to call, “Stand Upright”.  Just go with it.

Jim Collins, the bestselling business author, expounds upon the need for firms to think clearly and decisively, while also avoiding rushing into an action, in his latest book, Great by Choice.  Great companies, he and his team found, don’t rush into decisions, but neither do they shy away from new ventures.  Instead, they take their time to get the right perspective, and then act decisively.  That’s what I mean by Standing Upright in the face of challenges.

Most individuals struggle with this, especially in intense situations.  What do you do, instinctively, when your CFO publicly challenges your work?  How do you respond if your client looks bored to tears, and you can sense the deal slipping away?

My experience has shown that if you launch into either fight or flight mode, you’re leaving value behind.  Instead, if you’re able to stand upright to that challenge, collect your thoughts, listen attentively, you’ll then be able to choose the correct response.  It might even be that the correct response was your first instinct!  But if you never take that moment to introspect, how do you know for sure?

What’s the point, you ask?  Being in control, making sound decisions, and responding effectively to challenges is key to business (and acting, and skydiving).  If we’re locked into too strict of a fight-or-flight response pattern, we’ll either attack a problem too aggressively, without foresight or thought, or we’ll run away from it by shelving a project too early, ignoring an office conflict, or backing down to an assertive boss.

But apart from institutional pressures (some are obsessed with quick-strike actions, while others freeze or run away), there’s this simple fact: most people don’t know their own tendencies well enough to modify them.

To maximize our effectiveness in business, we must first understand where along the fight or flight spectrum we habitually live.  Do you tend to fight, or do you veer towards flight?  If you’re not sure, try these things.  Sometimes just reading the examples will shed some light into your predilections:

  1. Try skydiving.  Or bungee-jumping.  Or some other (controlled) extreme sport.
  2. Take boxing lessons, in which your opponent actually hits you.
  3. Sign up for a speech class.  Or a singing class, in which you have to perform in front of a live audience.
  4. Volunteer to give a presentation at work on a topic of your choosing.

These are just ideas.  As you read them, did you recoil in horror?  Or did you say “hell yes, sign me up!”?  Neither is correct – your response is legitimate.  The whole point is to be aware of your response, and to know when you need to work outside your comfort level.

We owe ourselves, and our families, friends, and colleagues, the realization of self-knowledge.  We need to know ourselves exceptionally well, so that we can then perform at the level we desire.  Part of that is knowing how our gut tells us to react when we encounter a challenging client.  Do we yell?  Do we fight?  Or do we retreat with a stream of “yes ma’am” and “sir, yes sir”?

You might be a fighter like Joey, or you might be a flight risk like Sarah.  Either way, you can take immediate action to alter your animal reactions to give more of yourself to the world.  If we know ourselves, and practice moving towards a space of authentic responses, rather than just a stock fight-or-flight response, we can all add real value to others.

Learn to Stand Upright, and leave the fight or flight reaction to true emergencies.  Come back for Part 2, about how to move away from those initial reactions.

Out comes the Chute!

“I hope you kids see what a silly waste of resources this was.”

“He worked really hard, Grandma.”

“So do washing machines!”

One of my favorite exchanges in one of my favorite movies comes from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.  Clark W. Griswold has just completed the big reveal of his 25,000 house-light display, except for one problem.

They don’t turn on.

All that effort, wasted (at least until his much-smarter wife turns on the power switch)!  The reasons behind Clark’s wasted efforts are myriad, but the exchange captures the essence of a problem many of us face.

Don’t be busy.  Don’t work hard, like a washing machine.  Live effectively.

A few weeks ago, I ran into a colleague from my last team, and as she was literally running down the stairs, I asked her how things were going.  “We’re so so busy!” was her reply.  She’s not alone – over the past few months, whenever I ask someone the same question, it generates an automatic response.  How was work?  “Busy”.  Not a single person has said, “Engaged”, or “Happy”, or “Bored as f*ck”.  OK, maybe a few people are bored as f*ck.

But why busy?  What do we lose by clinging to that stock response?

We all deal with the ceaseless demands of daily life: emails, meetings, changing priorities, more emails, crying kids, barfing cats, a phone call here or there.  It creates a constant state of busy-ness that can overwhelm.

Constantly selling the idea of being busy to one another is a way to quickly validate our work day.  I’m important – see how busy I was?  See?

Even the word “business” implies that we should be doing things.  All the time.  According to the Pages dictionary I’m using, the sense connoted by the word “business” in Old English was ANXIETY.  What’s another word for anxiety?  Stress.

The American Psychological Association noted in 2010 that 69% of Americans report work as being a significant source of stress, 41% feel stressed during the typical day, and 51% lose productivity because of that stress.

From the flight of stairs above, I asked my colleague if she was being effective through all that busy-ness.  She had no reply, but the distinction is crucial.

We can easily fill our days with tasks  But to be truly effective at what we do requires that we slow down to process new information.  We have to think things through, and think about connections, and ponder alternatives.  We can’t do that if we’re constantly busy.

By constantly reminding ourselves and others of how busy we are, we are losing our ability to think, to truly connect with each other and our work, and we are turning our days into endless streams of to-do lists.

We need to equip ourselves with tactics for avoiding trap of busy-ness.  I like the following:

  1. Make a plan for the day.  It takes all of 10 minutes to write down what you need to accomplish.  If you think you can’t spare 10 minutes, then you REALLY NEED to spare those 10 minutes!!
  2. Block out time to think.  No one is 100% extroverted.  I like to book myself private “appointments” throughout the day just to ensure no one bugs me.  Or just leave the office.  What will they do?  Fire you for taking a walk?
  3. Turn off your email.  Not all day (although I like that idea!).  But you can certainly shut it down for an hour, right?  If something is so important that your boss needs to reach you immediately, trust me, she’ll find you.

These tips won’t reduce the number of things you need to accomplish during the day, but it will help you refocus your attention without feeling like you’re shirking responsibility.  And it will help you lessen the stress you feel at work, having to manage all those tasks.  After all, that email about the refrigerators being cleaned out probably doesn’t warrant your immediate attention.

So tomorrow, when someone asks you how you’re doing at work, decide to be effective instead of merely being busy.  Working hard is great, but it’s for washing machines.  Humans decide to be effective.