Wisdom Wednesday, Vol XLIV

The greatest gift to receive is perspective

Twice a week I drive to the South Bay - a two to three hour round trip commute. I spend those hours with podcasts - squeezing in any opportunity to learn. Some podcasts help me strengthen my craft as a coach while others draw me in with their stories.  Ear Hustle is one of my newer favorites. It is a podcast designed to provide a glimpse into life at San Quentin. When I tune in, I broaden my perspective on humanity, find new ways to build empathy, and feel closer to my brother.

On my drive yesterday, I found myself shocked by the wisdom from men on death row. Most people's gut reaction to death row inmates is “what could I possibly have to learn from them?”

A lot.

“It is easy to be melancholy in a place like this. That is easy today. That is not hard to do. My sentence was sentenced to death. I wasn’t sentenced to be reformed. Any acts of redemption or self transformation that anyone makes on death row has to come from themselves. Who am I, why did I come here, and what is my purpose. And so if you can find out what your central purpose is in life, then that not only becomes your anchor but that becomes your alarm clock that inspires you each and every day to get up and want to do something to pursue that mission.”

Any acts of redemption must come from themselves. This is about finding and claiming your own sense of worth - separate from others. So many of my clients struggle to sense how they are doing without someone letting them know. We feel good when someone tells us we have done well. We feel bad when we are not rewarded in a way we deem appropriate by others. Or when someone expresses disappointment in us. Worse still is when people do acknowledge us, but we dismiss what they say because we don't see it in ourselves. These men have to see their own value to embody any sense of value. No one is going to give them recognition. Where might you give yourself recognition today? Where do you see your own growth?

“It starts in the morning. It is the most important decision each and every single one of us make that we take for granted. We chose to wake up happy or we choose to wake up sad. Make that decision. Hopefully, it’s happy. And then from that point on you know I just continue trying to figure it out. Why am I still alive? Why am I still breathing? Why do I still exist? And I think it is not a matter of knowing what that purpose is, it is about the journey and the discovery and understanding what that is. And it constantly changes.”

It can be so easy to see life as happening to us and impossible to see what role we play in our own life. This inmate challenges us to see that everything we do is an active choice. He reminds us that our lives are a series of active choices. Clarity comes from knowing what we are saying yes to and what we are saying no to with each choice. What are you choosing today?

"Being up there - what gives your life meaning?," the host asks. 

"I know the conditions aren’t the best, but it’s noticing the little things along the way that I am more in tune to seeing now than I was prior to getting here."

"Can you give me an example of something good that could happen during the day?," she inquires further.

"It could be something as small as walking outside and feeling the sun on my face. That is just one small little example that again people walk through each and every day without reflecting upon that one single instance that many just take for granted and I guess now because my life is just so slowed down, I can focus on those and it is those little things that make life beautiful."

Many clients see objectively that they have abundance in their life. After all, they are paying for coaching. Yet, day to day, it is hard to see that. It gets lost in the chaos of life. We naturally look to big milestones - a promotion, a relationship change, an upcoming vacation, shipping a product, signing a new client - and feel blank in the gaps between. We need big things to see our abundance. This inmate reminds us that it lives in really small things too. If we are willing to slow down to acknowledge them. Where do you have abundance today?

Similarly, I adopted a new perspective from Jack Kornfield last week. Jack is a renowned Buddhist teacher and practitioner. Tim Ferriss featured him on his podcast recently, giving me the gift of his wisdom.

At one point, Tim asks Jack, “what was the longest period of time that you spent in silence?” Jack’s response, without skipping a beat was. “I spent about 500 days. So less than a year and a half in silence.” Tim Ferris chuckled in the background. I did the same.

Efficiency runs our lives today. We fill the small, rarely available windows on our calendars with anything. 500 days is an unimagined luxury that feels long. Jack found it to be “less than a year and a half.” Imagine saying “I only spent 5 years building a company.” Or “I only spent 3 hours preparing for a presentation.” Or “I have only spent 10 years building my career.” Jack saw a lengthy investment as nominal. Where might an "only" perspective benefit you?

This week’s challenge invites you to find a new perspective. Who inspires you and what perspective might you borrow from them for the week?

Wisdom Wednesday, Vol XLIII

Everywhere you go, there you are. Until you are not.

“Transition always starts with an ending. To become something else, you have to stop being what you are now; to start doing things a new way, you have to end the way you are doing them now; and to develop a new attitude or outlook, you have to let go of the old.”  - William Bridges

The experience of travel is visceral. It is much more tangible than our day to day lives. When we are away from home, our senses - sights, sounds, smells, and tastes - become overwhelmed with novelty. The poignancy of travel memories make them the perfect entry point into larger reflections.

Travel becomes a milestone to evaluate the degree to which life has changed since the last trip. When I look back at my life, the years get clearer when I reflect on where I traveled each year. When I shine the light on a particular trip, the bigger circumstances of my life at that time is easier to grab.

I increase my degree of reflection when I look at different visits to the same destination. When I look at my visits to Minnesota, the place I grew up but have not lived in 15 years, the changes in my life are obvious.  When I look at the handful of times I have visited Paris, I can see who I was within each of the visits. I can see how the person I am existed even then. I can see what parts of me are no longer recognizable. If I drop myself back to the aimless walks I took across Paris, it is easy to recall the celebrations and challenges that met me on those walks.

Last week, I spent a couple of days in Colorado - a place I have lived twice and visited regularly. I have always held Colorado as my default place. The place I will eventually return to settle down. In 2013 when I last left Colorado, a friend said to me “You can take the woman out of the mountains, but you can’t take the mountains out of a woman.” I clung to that as my deepest truth.

Yet lately, I have had a developing sense that maybe Colorado will never be my home again. At first, the sense came in small droplets. I would be on a long drive in the Sierras - another mountain range closer to the Bay area - and feel home. I hike the same trail that is 15 minutes from my home in Oakland weekly and the earth beneath it is part of me. These are small invitations I thought would never rise to meet me outside of Colorado. And here they are.

Like most things that start out as a sense, my initial reaction was to deny their significance. I would lay out the facts. I would point to the span of seven months since my last visit to Colorado and know the reason things felt distant. Physically, they were. I would tell myself that when I next landed back in Boulder, my feelings of home would return again. Boulder's beauty would capture me, as it had on so many occasions.

And yet, when I was back last week, that didn't happen.

I felt lost. I was lost. On my second day in Colorado, I rose early to meet an old friend for a hike at one of my favorite trails. I navigated instinctively to Broadway, one of the main roads through Boulder, following a path I have driven thousands of times. After a few minutes of easeful driving, I found myself in a panic. I could not remember where to turn. I looked in my rearview mirror to try to get my bearings. I wanted to understand if I was too far South, having missed my turn, or if the road I needed was still ahead of me. The order of the streets was out of my memory. The forever familiar no longer made sense.

After a few minutes of discomfort, it became clear to me that I was no longer a Colorado woman. My identity had shifted. I couldn't see it from afar. I needed to be in it.

Last year, I wrote about William Bridges, a man who gave me a renewed perspective on transitions. Transitions are more than a change in circumstances. In his book, he says “Without a transition, a change is just a rearrangement of the furniture. Unless transition happens, the change won’t work, because it doesn’t take.”

Moving across state lines is rearranging the furniture. Until I could shift my identity away from Colorado, I was still in transition. Though it has been more than 5 years since I moved back to California from Colorado, I had not let Colorado go, yet. Part of my identity still lived three states over. Everywhere I went, there I was.

Clients hire coaches in times of change - those that are already in progress and those that are just beginning. They want to rearrange the furniture. Others want to find their place in a world rearranged by someone else.

With coaching, come to realize that rearranging things does not create change that sticks. Change requires courage to see the identity of who they are shift. To transition away and towards at the same time.

For those of you navigating change, ask yourself:

  • What do I have to be willing to see about myself to transition to where I am going?
  • What do you I have to be willing to let go of holding to create the space for what is next for me?
  • How do you want to see yourself on the other side of your circumstances? Slow down enough to see the droplets of that version of yourself now.

Wisdom Wednesday, Vol XLII

There will never be more time.

“Time is a created thing. To say I don't have time, is like saying, I don't want to.”
Lao Tzu 

“I haven’t had time to write a letter,” my brother says forcefully. He was expecting me to understand his priorities.

“Time?” I say in disbelief, leaning towards him. “How do you not have time in here? That is all you have is time?”

I sit facing my brother, a tiny plastic table separating us. We are in the visiting room in the institution in which he resides - Sandstone Federal Prison. Families surround us - some drove days to spend their Sunday with incarcerated loved ones. Murals cover the walls. In the 3 years I’ve been visiting him, not one single mural has changed. Time stands still here.

I have mixed emotions about my brother's incarceration. Those feelings have visited in waves since he first entered the system in 2013. The emotion that most surprised me was envy. Envy for the large expanses of time he has had to be with himself. He has spent that time reading hundreds of fictions books for the first time in his life. He has studied new disciplines. He finally became fluent in Spanish. He wrote endless pages about his experience which he mailed to me for safekeeping. My envy was stronger earlier when I worked a high-stress job for a technology company. Then, time was the last thing I felt like I had. I craved the kind of space he seemed to have. One that seemed to include no real responsibilities. The abundant life I had on the outside seemed too full much of the time.

Fast forward 5 years and he no longer has time. On that Sunday visit, earlier this month, he explained his problem with time. There is never enough. His words resembled a conundrum explained by many of my clients. The same problem I come up against every single day as an entrepreneur.

There is never enough time. The actual, real limitation of 24 hours in a day, makes it impossible to do all the things we want or need to do. 

But, what struck me most about my conversation with my brother, is what came next.

“If I write a letter, it will take me all night, since I have to do it by hand,” he explained. We talk like this sometimes - my painting him a picture of life with technology and he doing the reverse. He continued, "I have something every night that the guys rely on me to show up for. I play bridge twice a week and I am on a team of four. My team needs me. Not that many people know the intricacies of bridge and we want to keep our team in good standing. Or we have to decide before lunch if we want to play pool because one of us has to skip lunch to reserve the table. I can't ask someone to do that and then decide, nah I don't want to play pool anymore. That would piss people off."

What emerged with his added detail is a different reality. Time is not the issue. Planning and prioritization are the real problems. It is never about time.

How should he prioritize his time? Does he focus on himself, the relationships he has on the "inside" or those that support him from the outside? What response will he get from his community if he lets them down by stepping away from bridge for a night? If he doesn’t show up one night, will they find a player to replace him? Is there quiet time outside of the evenings he can identify to write a letter? Will the friends and family expecting his calls be angry if he adjusts phone time to put pen to paper? What if he misses a critical conversation over bridge?

He is putting off the hard thing - writing a letter about something important and personal. He is putting off the thing that he wants for himself, but that no one else is expecting from him. He is saying yes to the things that others want of him to preserve the relationships that are important to him. He is saying yes to the opportunities immediately in front of him. He is saying no to investing in the future because it is quite literally very far away. Life on the outside that is becoming less familiar as the years' pass.

A funny thing reveals itself every time I visit my brother. Time passes so fast. One would think that 5 hours with one individual - no technology and no distractions - would feel like a lifetime. The reality is quite the opposite. I center my visits back to Minnesota, where I am from, around the trip to see my brother. I make it my priority.

We will never have more time. We will always have more opportunities to slot into the most precious limited resource - time.

Our relationship to time must be active. The commitment of our time must be a conscious decision. 

Try to sit in the driver’s seat and see your time allocation as an exercise in prioritization. Understand the reasons why you commit to the things taking up your calendar. Do you feel comfortable with those reasons? If you were to continue making decisions with that same reasoning for the next 10 years - What would be possible? What will you have left behind?


Wisdom Wednesday, Vol XLI

You Will Never Prevent Reactions. Here Is What You Can Do.

Last week, while waiting to board a flight, I mindlessly scrolled Instagram. A simple announcement by a Bay area photographer I follow interrupted my scrolling. A far deviation from his photos was a simple box that read “I am taking a break from Instagram.” Despite his superb ability to make even a small piece of text beautiful, what caught my eye the most was the comments that followed.

Below his image was a war field of battling emojis. The first comment was a one character emoji of sadness. Others followed with the opposite - a simple happy face, some with red cheeks above their smiles. There were thumbs up of encouragement and others took it further expressing, “we should all take a lead from you.” Some followers wanted to understand why. They speculated about if Facebook's recent exposure in the news had prompted his decision. As a person fascinated by human behavior, I wondered if he’d jump back on to reply to his followers’ comments (he did).

One action, taken by one person, created at least a dozen different reactions. All within one hour.

Our actions create reactions.

Our presence and our work have an impact on others. This - our actions, our way of showing up AND others response - is the focus of a lot of the conversations between my clients and me.

One of the biggest mistakes that I see leaders make is choosing actions that cause the least reactions. This does not define good work. This is a formula that supports bringing the least of yourself into your work. You show up as half a human in relationships and you reduce your imprint on your communities.

Further, it is impossible to create no reactions. All actions create reactions.

So what is the right formula?

A few steps can create a thoughtful approach:

  1. Get clear on our intent. What are you trying to accomplish.
  2. Choose actions that align with that intent. Ask yourself honestly if your actions easily support your intent.
  3. Think through possible reactions. Know the people you will impact and plan for possible reaction.
  4. Adjust our actions, as needed. Try to prevent mistakes before they occur. Communicate our intent as clearly as possible. “My intent is…”
  5. Take action. Make it an active choice.
  6. Be open to feedback, iteration, and learning. It doesn’t need to be perfect.

The Instagram exiting photographer didn't trick himself into believing that no one would have a reaction. He planned for possible reactions, he weighed them against his intent in leaving the platform and then he made a decision. The planning and clarity he pursued, in advance of his action, minimized the weight of others reaction on him. In doing so, he trusted himself to course correct in any direction needed.

Not everyone will react positively to everything you say or do, but will you pass your own test?

Wisdom Wednesday, Vol XL

The Key To Better Answers Is Asking Better Questions

The question “Why?” has two quite different meanings. One looks backwards for a cause and treats our behavior as determined by prior events. The other looks forward for a purpose and treats our behavior as a subject to our free will…We can choose to look back or to look forward.   - Getting to Yes

Any question requires us to seek out and deliver an answer. Excellent coaches ask excellent questions - succinct, curious, poignant, powerful. These are questions that send clients to a land of discovery and possibility.  A new uncharted territory that uncovers an answer that is surprising to the client.

Early in my coaches training, the curriculum designed to ask good questions seemed ridiculous. And yet, I found myself stumbling. I quickly learned that I defaulted to asking yes/no questions as a way to get quick answers. Or I would offer up a set of options and ask someone to choose between my preconceived ideas. Both of these tactics limited the potential of good responses. They elicited easy, thoughtless responses. Things moved forward, but very slowly and with a very narrow focus. Past knowledge limited the answers.

To overcome this bad habit, I forced myself to ask questions that began with “What.”

What is possible?

What is most important to you?

What would success look like for you?

What is the best case scenario?

Second, I eliminated “Why” from my vocabulary. I practiced reframing any question beginning with “Why” into the “What” framework.

“Why did you do that?” became “What is driving your behavior?”

“Why do you want that?” evolved to “What is important to you about that?”

“Why should we do this? shifted in “What does this change accomplish?”

Third, I had to learn to keep things simple. I came to understand that my lengthy questions sought to do more than seek answers. I posed questions that would showcase my knowledge and lead to my answer. I was already on a path that would rarely shift regardless of another person's responses. Simplicity came by from reducing the length of all my questions to less than 10 words. Shorter questions led to more expansive responses. I gave up control and let my clients take the lead in the direction of our discovery.

The easiest way to change the answers you receive is to change the questions you are asking. Focus on questions that seek forward looking answers.

Wisdom Wednesday Vol XXXIX

The Pledge of Allegiance starts with “I” and ends with “all.” That’s what America is all about - “I” (individual) and “all” (all of us). When all of us understand how valuable each of us is, that’s powerful. And here’s what else is powerful: When each of us understands how powerful all of us are. - Jim Rohn

Power is polarizing.

Most of us can name a half dozen people who have abused their power to cause more harm than good. These are people in our own lives, political figures, or leaders within organizations. We have seen the story play out - someone reaches the pinnacle of success and “lets it get to them.” In a worst-case scenario, we let these stories be the whole truth about power. We limit the amount of power we want to claim for ourselves out of fear. Fear of following the same path or fear of association with the few that have given power a bad name.

At the same time, many of us can name people we deem powerful with admiration and respect. These people may carry themselves with confidence - taking risk after risk. Others have inspired us with their success in moving people towards a single cause. We can look to a speaker on a stage or in a TED video and think to ourselves - that person is powerful.

Most of us can see the power in others, but it is hard to see it in ourselves. In both of these scenarios - other people, out there, have power - good or bad.

When introducing the word power to any client, 90% of the time, they immediately look out there, beyond them. They wouldn’t dare claim that label. This is even harder for women. Others cannot see in us what we cannot see in ourselves. We have to get comfortable with the idea that we have power. When we fail to consider this, we become irresponsible with ourselves and others. We have to see how valuable each of us is, including ourselves.

We are most unwilling to see ourselves as powerful when we view power as a limited resource. We ration or assign power based on some arbitrary scale created by someone else. If you have power, I cannot. If I have power, you cannot. Each of us needs to understand how powerful all of us are. Leaders operate from a place where power is an unlimited resource. They aim to create the largest value for all people rather than allocating it to a few. Power is a pie that can grow large enough for each of us to have a slice.