On A Tightrope Over A Chasm of Failure



I wonder about you.Own It!

I know things are stressful, and you’re unsure.

Every day you question. Every day you worry that you don’t know where you stand, and if what you’re doing is appreciated.

Or even seen as important by anyone. At all.

I know it’s not fun to be so uncertain. Not one bit.

So, I wonder if –  for just one day – you could shift it.

That for one day, as a test, you could own that…you actually do know what you’re doing.

That you’re not making it up as you go along. That you’re not walking on a tightrope over a chasm of failure, one error away from falling.

What if – for one day – you could ignore the tightrope and come at your day from a place of calm? Generated from a deep understanding of your own expertise?

Not in a boastful or bullying way, but with a centered sureness.

Sure in your bones that you haven’t gotten to where you are by luck, chance or happenstance.

Because, you, my darling friend, are not a fluke or a mistake.

No, you’ve gotten where you are by showing up, doing what needs to get done and honing your practice.

Whatever your practice might be.

I know it’s easier in some ways to say that it’s all luck. Or chance.

Because then you don’t have to claim anything. You’re sort of off the hook.

And no one can say you’re too big for your britches.

Or that you’re calculating.

Or trying too hard.

Or not nice.

If you shrug off your expertise, you’ll probably continue to fit in with the crowd. You know, the Whac-A-Mole herd-like people who are only happy when no one sticks their head up?

Those people.

There is comfort in a crowd, for sure. But you might also feel anxious. And as if everything could change in a moment.




Do you know what I’m talking about?

Does it keep you up at night?

It doesn’t have to.

You can have calm, steadiness and success. You can have great days.

But to get there you have to own who you are and what you’ve got.

So, for one day – just one – give it a try and see what happens.

Stop pretending you don’t know what you’re doing and start owning everything you do know.

Of course, be open to learning. Be open to the perspectives of others. That’s what people who center in their strengths do.

It’s what the best leaders do.

It’s what you can do.

Step away from the crowd. Dip into your expertise. Feel it. Own it. Live it.

For just one day.

Just one.

I wonder what that will be like.

I wonder if this week holds the day you’ll give it a try.

And as one day leads into another, maybe you’ll happily find that you’re permanently off the tightrope and walking your own, broad path of success.


How The Really Successful Get That Way


The pendulum certainly does swing.Pendulum Of Foucault In Pantheon Of Paris

Seems to me like we are in the widest part of the arc these days with…analytics. Maybe the better word is “metrics”. Or maybe “algorithms”.

Oh, shoot – let’s just say “math”, shall we?

I continually hear stories about how organizations are driving accountability by taskifying every single function of every single employee and then measuring them according to an allegedly quantifiable “goal”, though if you ask me there are so many things at work which just cannot be quantified.

Such as creating strong relationships with customers.

Such as mentoring the next generation.

Such as being a genuinely nice person.

I have railed against the Tyranny of the Bean Counters for some time. But in some ways I get it, I really do.

I realize that there are some people for whom nothing is real unless they can see it, touch it, taste it – and make a little check mark signifying that it’s been documented.

And I know there are some people who are deeply suspicious and are certain that everyone would take advantage of lax supervision and become total slackers if given half a chance. [because, perhaps, they fear that this is what they would do in that circumstance. Just sayin'.]

And then there are those who have worked for large consulting firms, which take bean counting to a whole new, quite expensive level.

These folks represent the far part of the pendulum’s arc and have created a unrelenting emphasis on quantification and numbers. But it’s my fervent hope that at some point the pendulum swings back and rests at the middle point, where there are good goals – but also where the unmeasurable is valued and appreciated.

Because, in the end, success is not driven by numbers but by meaning.

Doubt me?

A recent study led by Yale professor Amy Wrzesniewski and Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz looked at motivation using a group of 11,320 West Point cadets. They wanted to learn if the most successful people are driven by an internal motive, or by what they call an “instrumental” or external motive, or a combination of the two.

One might think that successful people have a perfect balance of internal and instrumental motives. They care about their work, and they care about getting the corner office – doesn’t that sound like the right mix?

But, guess what? The study showed something…different.

People who are motivated solely by what others will think, or how much money they will make - instrumental motives - tend to be unsuccessful over time than those who are internally driven.

Interesting, huh?

So, what if you have a blend of both internal and instrumental motives?

“Remarkably, cadets with strong internal and strong instrumental motives for attending West Point performed worse on every measure than did those with strong internal motives but weak instrumental ones. They were less likely to graduate, less outstanding as military officers and less committed to staying in the military,” say the study authors.

Now, back to the bean counters.

This study clearly shows that they’ve got it all wrong. Giving people better job titles, more money, the corner office as a prod for increased performance? Not going to work.

OK, maybe you get some short-term results – and you can certainly check a box off a list – but over the long-term your organization won’t really be successful because you’ve transformed internal motives into instrumental ones, which are ultimately much, much weaker.

The researchers say, “Rendering an activity more attractive by emphasizing both internal and instrumental motives to engage in it is completely understandable, but it may have the unintended effect of weakening the internal motives so essential to success.”

Meaning. Purpose. Learning. Growth. This is what we all need to be successful.

So, if you want success, transform your focus. Shift your own personal internal motives – the Big Why of why you’re doing whatever it is you’re doing – toward what it means, how it helps, what you learn, how you grow.

And if by chance you have the power to transform an entire organization, get cracking on amping up theses collective senses in your people – starting from the top right on down.

Because, “Our study suggests that efforts should be made to structure activities so that instrumental consequences do not become motives. Helping people focus on the meaning and impact of their work, rather than on, say, the financial returns it will bring, may be the best way to improve not only the quality of their work but also — counterintuitive though it may seem — their financial success.”

And so the pendulum begins to swing back.




You Have Spinach In Your Teeth

Spinach Leaf Isolated On White Background


Let’s say there are some things you just won’t do. Or you think you can’t possibly do.

For instance, here’s a big one: You can’t tell your boss what you really think because you’ll get fired.

At least you tell yourself she won’t like it and you’ll get fired.

Let’s explore that for a minute, shall we?

Just so happens that I was talking with a boss the other day. Let’s call him Dave just because that’s a fun first name.

Dave was worried about one of his key employees – let’s call her Ginny because that’s also a fun name.

Ginny respects Dave so much that she does whatever Dave says to do.

Dave says, “Let’s make all the widgets purple!”

And Ginny runs around like a crazy person organizing the production of purple widgets.

The next day Dave, who is a self-admitted idea guy with a bad memory, has a blue sky moment where he idly says, “What if we made some yellow widgets?”

Ginny nods and says, “Okie doke, yellow” and moves heaven and earth – and spends quite a lot of money – to build ‘em yellow.

The next week, when all the yellow widgets are finished and Dave sees a report about their move to the market, he says, “Yellow widgets? What the hell?”

See, Ginny never once asked Dave for clarification, like: “What about yesterday’s purple widgets? Is yellow in addition to purple, or instead of purple?”

When I asked her why she didn’t speak up and at least clarify what Dave wanted, she was shocked at my suggestion and said, “That’s not my place. He’s the boss and I’m just here to deliver whatever he wants.”

But I talked with Dave, he said, “I need her to tell me when I’m being an jerk, and when I’m costing the company time and money. I’ve got too much on my plate to remember everything and I count on her to keep me in line.”

Well now, people, what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate. 

When I talked with Ginny further, I asked, “If you noticed that Dave had spinach in his teeth just before he was supposed to be on the Today show, would you say anything or would you say nothing because he’s your boss?”

“Oh, I’d say something because I want him to look good,” she said.

“So what if whenever you saw him contradicting himself or not remembering accurately, you simply thought of it as if he had spinach in his teeth and said something?” I asked. She laughed and said she’d never thought of it that way, but then she pulled herself up short.

“Wait. Who am I to tell the boss he has spinach in his teeth?” She started to get anxious. “I’ve just never thought of myself as a person with that much power.”

As we coached around her concern, Ginny realized that she kept hearing her father’s voice telling her not to be too big, not to get too big for her britches, to go along and get along at work. She heard her mother’s voice telling her to be a good girl and make everything easier for everyone else. It really had nothing to do with Dave.

It had everything to do with how she saw herself and what she thought was possible.

This was a pretty big moment for Ginny, I have to tell you.

And it was pretty inspiring to see her as she realized that if she could expand herself in this one way – in essence, to ask Dave if he wanted to know he had spinach in his teeth, and then do him the favor of pointing it out – then she could really grow. She could dare to be more of herself. And maybe lower her stress level a little bit.

Today, Dave and Ginny have a strong and true partnership. The organization is stronger, more efficient and clearer – for everyone. Even the folks on the floor who are making the widgets.

And Ginny? Feels pretty strong, efficient and clear, too.



Mindfulness In The Real World

Open Your Mind Torn Paper 


When I have something I want to think through, I take a walk. If it’s a really big something, I get behind the wheel, take a nice, long drive and cogitate.

Yesterday I took a drive to help me work out a piece I wanted to write on mindfulness.

A few weeks ago, you see, I heard Krista Tippett interview Dr. Ellen Langer – the first woman to be tenured in psychology at Harvard – about the difference being mindful can make in our lives and I was intrigued. Research shows that people who are mindful tend to be happier, healthier and more successful.

What’s not to like?

You know, I’ve heard about mindfulness for years and, to be honest, it seemed like a lot of work. I mean, to achieve mindfulness, you have to sit. With your legs crossed. And repeat vowel sounds. And meditate.

But Langer’s research shows that mindfulness is much easier to reach than that. In fact, it can be achieved by just “actively noticing things.”

That, I can do.

So, on my drive yesterday, I set out to do it – to actively notice something. And I did.

I noticed that my neighbors have new textured shingles on their roof, and that a tree I suspected of being dead had been removed on the corner.

I noticed the red of the neon sign telling me that the nearby Lebanese restaurant was open for the day.

I noticed a riot of color in the new flowers at the local garden center.

And then, I noticed the elderly man trip on the sidewalk and fall into the street right in front of my car.

I noticed what it sounded like when I slammed on the brakes.

I noticed my heart rate zooming.

I noticed the care and concern of the woman walking with him, as she leaned over to try to help him up.

I noticed how my seat belt button felt as I released it, and how my feet felt as they hit the pavement.

I noticed that the man had a white beard, and white hair, and for a moment was reminded of Santa Claus.

I noticed that he fell again trying to get up.

I noticed how strong his grip was as he grabbed my elbow and got back to his feet.

I noticed the other cars that had stopped, and the twenty other people who were out of their cars rushing to help.

I noticed the worry on the face of the woman in the car behind me who had stopped diagonally, to protect me as I got out of my car.

I noticed the elderly man’s sense of humor when he said, “Well, see, I was just practicing falling down and now I guess I’ve got it all figured out!”

I noticed how good it felt to laugh a little.

I noticed the feel of the shopping bags I picked up from where they had been dropped by the couple, and what it was like to ask if I could call an ambulance or give them a ride somewhere. And the gratitude of the wife when she said, “No, we live right here. We’ll be fine” and then, “Thank you for everything.”

I noticed what it was like to see traffic stopped in both directions, people out of their cars, willing to lend a hand.

As I drove away, I noticed so many things. The sudden immediacy I’d just experienced was overwhelming. I still felt on high alert and then tears came to my eyes and I found it hard to breathe.

I was glad I had been able to help, but I wondered what might have happened had I been mindlessly driving. What if I hadn’t been focusing on actively noticing? If I hadn’t been present enough to see the elderly man falling right in the path of my oncoming car?

I choked back the tears and took a few deep breaths. And went back to active noticing.

Because this stuff totally works.


When You Get Off Track


So you’ve got this thing you want to do. Railroad Tracks At Sunset

You’ve got a plan.

And you get started.

You do one or two things, and you get some traction. A little bit of progress. You see a glimmer of your dream coming true.

It’s fun. It’s kinda easy. It’s good.

Then something totally unexpected barrels in from left field and you get knocked completely off track.

Your kid gets sick, or your spouse gets sick, or you get sick.

Your mother, your father, or your dear aunt needs to transition into assisted living.

The value of your retirement account drops by fifty percent.

Your new driver gets sideswiped on the freeway by a smug young dude – talking on his phone, of course – and suddenly you’re looking at repairs adding up to thousands of dollars.

Your spouse asks for a divorce.

You ask for a divorce.

Whatever the cause, things change and the goal you’d set for yourself, the goal you’d actually started to make progress on, seems very far away and utterly out of reach.

What do you do? How do you get back on track?

First, you have to come to terms with how mad, frustrated or sad you might be that you’re not where you want to be. It’s not a failure, you’re not a failure. There are always bumps in the road, sugar, and you just met one. Might have been a doozy, and one you’d rather not have faced – but you did, and now it’s part of your reality. Own it.

Wallowing in the unhappiness of what happened will just take you farther from your goal. So drop the unhappiness and shame you might feel about not doing what you said you would, and pick up some self-love. The kind of healthy self-regard that supports you, and gives you the strength to move forward.

But do you want to move forward on the goal? Are you holding on because you think you should? Because you told a lot of people very publicly that you would accomplish it? If so, realize that there is no shame in revising your plan. Whatever abruptly came into your life may have provided you with important information that radically changes the landscape. Smart people take new information into account and modify as necessary, don’t they? And you’re pretty smart. So go ahead – revise and amend your plan.

Because, honey, it’s your plan – no one else’s. And you get to decide what you do.

Then, if the goal is still important and you still really want to do it, take that first step.

Maybe it’s a wobbly first step.

Maybe it’s an incredibly small first step. Like maybe you just sit and visualize what it’s going to be like when you’ve accomplished what you’re setting out to do.

Doesn’t matter. Even if it’s small, or wobbly, or undramatic - it’s good.

It’s movement. It’s movement in the direction you want to go.

And it’s entirely likely you’re going to get there, because even if you have a changed goal and meet with yet another bump in the road it’s not going to be a problem.

Because you met a big bump before and that didn’t stop you, did it? You kept moving forward and growing and loving and learning.

That’s kind of a big deal, you know.