When Great isn’t Good Enough

Even when we create miracles, sometimes the people who have asked for them aren’t able to receive them.

Life can be like that. And it’s frustrating. And somehow nearly amusing.

The smile hasn’t left my face in over an hour. It is an odd reaction, really, having just learned my major client will no longer be in need of my services.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Need and ability are too different things.

The client is no longer able to be in need of my services.

Despite the miracles created. Despite the level of effort. Despite the best foot put forward. Over. And over. And over again.

blueberrypieMy mama never told me life could be like that. She alluded to it with the “Did I ever say life was fair?” adage. But if you tried really hard, knocked things out of the park, did your very, very best, people were bound to reward you for it, right?

It turns out life is not about fairness at all. It is about the events and the moments to which we respond.

And my response is this:

Causality in this instance is misleading. You may do exactly what people ask and then they change their minds. Just like that. You did not cause their reaction. Something else did. And there you stand holding a steaming hot pie, that you thought might be blueberry, wafting a delicious aroma throughout the room that suddenly no one wants. Even though you strapped on your boots and hiked to the Andes to retrieve the berries. And then harvested the wheat to make flour until your hands bled. And ground the flax seeds until they turned to oil. And chopped down a tree to fire up the wood stove. And bent the iron cast to shape it into a pie form.

And you baked it and tended to it and stood proudly as it bubbled syrupy to the top.

The pie is burning my hands now. And yet my smile lingers, as if an inner knowing said: “You’ve been set free. You never wanted to be a baker anyway.”

When great isn’t good enough. Yes, life can be just like that.

Truth downtrodden, not dead

If I were to look at the world from a teen’s perspective, life is pretty black and white. It’s either hot or it’s cold. It’s good or it’s bad. It is right or it is wrong. Despite the backdrop of this simplicity, life is pretty complicated as emotions swell beyond the youngster’s comprehension.

As we grow older and our emotions stabilize, truth takes on shade. Grey areas emerge. Shadows lurk behind the meaning of things. And we grow accustomed to truth’s dimming shine. Our indignation weakens as adult life distracts us. We are lulled into a quiet sleep, fact-checking less, digesting garbage without thought and passing on recycled beliefs we’ve stopped questioning.

During some moments in history, the light switches back on. Our eyelids peel back, our backs straighten. We start paying attention with an intensity long forgotten in those high school hallways of yesteryear.

Now is one of those moments. When truth is on the witness stand. When what is said is scrutinized more closely. When the litmus test of reality races to the forefront.

Bildschirmfoto 2017-03-25 um 11.47.02Time magazine put three words and a question mark on its front cover this week.

Is truth dead?

The very fact that the editors pose the question tells me it is not. If we truly lived in a post-fact world, we would have no mind to engage in the inquiry.

In Trump’s attempt at weakening what is real, at his outright inability to withstand truth’s might, at his blaming and slandering and pouting and thrashing comes truth’s ultimate power. He is inadvertently strengthening the very thing he cannot stand: groups who disagree with him.

You cannot fight against forces stronger than you. No tower so high, no wife so beautiful, no pocket so deep, no office so revered will ever make an honest man out of a liar. A cheater. A profane example of human impotence.

The truth may be downtrodden, but it lives on. We are ever vigilant now. The tempest is gathering its gale force winds. The greatest revenge is our own success.

The truth will prevail. And so will we.

 

Yes, We Kant

It is in times like these that we are most tested. We say we are for equality. We say we are for freedom. We say we are for tolerance. But can we show tolerance for someone we do not believe in? If we fight back with the same vitriol, we do not land higher. We land in the pit with those we do not respect.

The outcome of the 2016 US Presidential election is indeed shocking. I was up all night. Perhaps it is my exhaustion speaking, but I feel the need to stand by my principles of love for everyone.

We create our own reality. And people’s realities have been shaped by false messages based not on facts, but on emotion. The outcome of this election originates within people’s feelings about what is happening, not about what is actually happening. The bigotry shown at the polls by the majority’s support for Donald Trump exceeds my wildest imagination about the United States’ underbelly.

But it is about something more as well.

In the wee hours of the morning, I watched an exhausted German moderator attempt to have a conversation with a panel of three women, two of whom were American. One of the American women was a professor for gender studies at the University of Maryland. Even she agreed, well before the polls leaned in Trump’s favor, that it was an uphill battle for Hillary to win as a woman. Her gender, not just her misguided use of an email server, was a great stumbling block. The professor admitted it would be tough for her to lead the country as a woman because only men had ever held the office.

What?

So just because it hasn’t been done before, she’ll somehow have it harder? Being a trailblazer has been her speciality. In my view, she would have done just fine. Further, that kind of argumentation is what tries to keep women playing small. Hillary wouldn’t have it. She played larger than life. And was crucified for it.

Hillary did everything right. She was prepared. She was disciplined and organized. Hillary Clinton deserved to win, but she did not. If she had made even a fraction of the comments Trump had, as a woman she would have been burned at the stake. But Trump? He is a white man with a lot of money. Being foul-mouthed, the populace claims, is something to be overlooked.

Are we that fascinated with the rich and stupid? Our obsession with the Kardashians tells me yes, we are.

It turns out it’s not so much what you say, but what gender you are that makes the difference. Hillary didn’t fulfill the image of what a woman should be: soft, loving, compassionate, demure, sweet, unthreatening.

She scared the bejesus out of people. It’s a shame that the US voting population couldn’t see that as an asset, but as a threat to their own beliefs about how a woman should behave.

I am disgusted, discouraged and deflated. But there is good news on the horizon.

Germany is the land of Immanual Kant, one of the philosophers who drove the Enlightenment. Rational thought, he argued, was what forms our human experience. I studied his works during graduate school and came to the conclusion that Kant encouraged embedding morality in legality. Formalize the moral code and we will go far in life. Kant was also one of the earliest exponents of the idea that perpetual peace could be secured through universal democracy and international cooperation.

The United States does not have the same philosophical background. It is a land of possibility in which it is truly possible to never have held public office, make outrageous comments with no basis in reality and become the leader of the free world. This too we must accept if we are to embrace the level of freedom so many have fought for.

Today I say: Yes, we Kant. We will maintain our moral codex in the face of this catastrophe. It begins with you. It begins with me. If we come from love, we will never lose, even if our candidate didn’t win.

Dejunking the Funk: A Tale of Spring Cleaning

While we may resist change, shaking things up a bit can help release loads of blocked energy. We don’t have to move house to move mountains. Sometimes it just takes rearranging what we’ve already got.

Blame it on the sunshine, but something got into me yesterday. For three years I’ve worked in my home office with the furniture pretty much in the same place. I added a couch and had to move a few shelves, but other than that, my desk always faced the window. In fact, it was the floor to ceiling wall of windows that convinced me this was the right apartment.

Dance floor office“Sunlight!” I belted out as I viewed the apartment for the first time. Standing in my now office, I waited until the other interested parties left before asking the realtor what papers I needed to sign. Somehow I knew this room in particular was special. South-facing with an adjacent balcony, my home office is my castle. It’s where I spend 90% of my waking hours.

In just one second of those hours, I realized yesterday afternoon that although I had the possibility of light, two things were blocking it: the couch, which rested against the bank of windows and my gargantuan iMac, which blocked my view almost entirely. How could I have been so blind? I mean wasn’t it the light that had attracted me in the first place? Only I had shut it out by the way I placed my furniture. I found myself decluttering, rearranging, dusting, mopping and expanding the space by merely putting things in a different order. I now have a dance floor in the middle of the room. The desk is against the wall, the couch is against another one and the bank of windows can now do its job so much better.

All because I suddenly saw possibility where there was none before.

It got me to thinking about how we do this often in our lives. We block out the very things we want, believing somehow that there is no other way. We are blind to our own potential and to what we already have access to. We think things will never change. Until we make that first step that leads to another and another and another. The next thing we know, we are dancing in the middle of the room. In the light. And we wonder why we never saw it before.

If you’re stuck, dejunk the funk in your life. Clear those cobwebs. Make one little change. Sift through a single drawer and remove what’s not working for you.

My astonishing realization yesterday? One baby step can literally bring the mountain to you.

 

 

When “Why” is all there is

Having a vision is an incredibly important ingredient to having a great life. It is the “what” that we often pursue: more money, more fame, more of simply everything.

But is the “what” really a driving force that can sustain us?

I think not.

Even if we can define our “what”, our vision, our deep-seated desire to articulate that which our hearts bleed for, we may not be sure how to get there.

So we look to the “how” of things. How can we attain that which we hope for? Yearn for? Want more than anything?

I used to believe that if we knew what we wanted, the how would come.

How wrong I have been.

Simon Sinek, the British author of Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, says that we should start with the reason why we do things. Two-year-olds know this. They ask “Why” all the time. They embrace what Sinek calls the golden circle. Start from the center and everything else will come. But somewhere along the line, children accept the adults’ answer that it’s because we say so.

The Golden Circle - Start with the Why and the How and What will follow

The Golden Circle – Start with the Why and the How and What will follow

What kind of answer is that?

Why is where the heart is. It goes beyond our rational thinking to a deeper, more innate understanding. Why lives on a completely different plane.

Change can only really happen effectively if we understand why. So if an organization is undergoing change, employees need to get a grasp on the reasons for the change. “Why should I care?” Answer that question and people will follow you anywhere — or lead others down the path you intend to take them.

Have you ever considered why you do things?

Why do I write? Why do you take pictures? Why does she selflessly help other people? Why does he get up again and again after yet another defeat?

The “why” of things is the underlying power that inform our days. It is equivalent to our life’s purpose. It is the very reason we are here.

Understanding the “why” of things not only helps us accept change, it also helps us learn better. My son recently changed schools. For years he struggled with the German school system – an institution that insists students learn the “what” of things. “How” was even harder and it seemed as if no amount of tutoring was going to help him because he never, ever understood why he was supposed to learn the things they told him to learn.

Why do we learn math? Why do I need to know the inner workings of a cell? My son knew he needed to make a change. Why? Because he wanted to learn. Along with his very powerful reasons, a series of circumstances and good fortune brought him to a new school where his teachers actually take the time to tell him why. And magically he has never been as motivated to run out the door to school as he is today.

The same applies to our lives as adults. Why do we want to achieve certain things? What are our motivations?

Have you ever wondered why certain tasks seem effortless? Why you enter a space of flow — and with other tasks it feels like carrying a boulder uphill to the stars?

When we know why we are doing something (love is a really good reason), we just do it. Without question. Without faltering. With an effortlessness that makes us heroes in our every day stories.

Ask yourself why you do what you do. Do you have the answer? Are you satisfied with the answer you tell yourself? If not, put down that boulder and make a change toward who you really are.

Why? Because your life depends on it.

 

The No Vacation Nation

Our relationship with time is embedded in our culture. It is never so apparent than in the different ways in which people view vacation. For some, vacation is a luxury; for others, it’s a birthright. One glance at this chart reveals how diverse our perspective is about taking time off. It shows the number of mandatory vacation days per year. France wins – hands down – with 30 days. The United States lands on the opposite end of the spectrum with exactly zero.

vacation days 2015

 

After seeing this chart, I got curious.  John Piana, a veteran of Corporate America with over 20 years of experience and a work-life balance proponent, approached me with some of his ideas as to why Americans don’t view vacation as a necessity. He calls the United States the No Vacation Nation. It is so deeply entrenched in people’s minds that anything other than working is considered “time off” (even hospitalization – I swear I can’t tell you how many of my American friends told me to enjoy my time off and to consider it a mini-vacation when I went in for surgery– are you serious??).

Power of Slow: Do you think Corporate America will ever introduce mandatory paid vacation? 

John: If it does happen, it will be awhile.  In order for a fundamental change like this to take place, it needs momentum.  Right now there’s little to none.  And even when momentum begins to build, it will still have to overcome the powerful business lobbyists who will likely keep legislators from getting behind it.  Until the issue gets to the point of a social uprising, mandatory vacation will just be coffee shop talk.  However, I think a potential wildcard is social media.  I’m amazed at how many times social media has shown the power to turn public opinion almost overnight.  A social media firestorm could quickly transform the mandatory vacation landscape.

PoS: What things can leaders do to stay offline and in life while on vacation?

J: Simple.  Make the choice!  Prioritize it.  Set the expectation and precedent beforehand with your manager and with people reporting to you.  Explain you will not be calling or logging in during vacation.  Or if that is an impossibility (which I don’t buy), begin to take back control by severely limiting the contact and explain to others you will be checking in very infrequently, perhaps even defining the specific times of day you will check messages.  When an employee leaves the company, everyone always finds a way to get things done without that person.  It should be no different when an employee goes on vacation.

PoS: How should employees address the lack of vacation issue?

J: Set boundaries and priorities in advance with your manager and co-workers.  Once they know that vacation is a top priority for you, it becomes your holy grail.  Not only should you get fewer interruptions during vacation, but it also can become a motivational/reward tool to be used by your manager.  As far as simply asking for additional vacation, I think that may work in a small business setting only.  Large and mid-size companies will simply give a corporate-speak answer and say their hands are tied due to company policy.

PoS: Is mandatory vacation truly needed?  Does the government need to get involved to correct this?

J: Neither government nor corporations will solve this issue (see my ‘Work-Life Balance Advice That Makes Sense‘ post).  The US government won’t get behind it for reasons I mention above.  Employers long ago abandoned their long-term commitment to employees.  This is no more evident than seeing defined benefit pension plans being phased out.  Also, employees aren’t sharing in the ‘good times’ like they once did, but definitely feel the pain of the ‘bad times.’  If the company had a great year, that 2% raise becomes a 2.5% raise.  However, if the company had a bad year, there’s a good chance you’ll be shown the door.  Definitely not an equal risk-reward trade-off.  However, in general, I think free markets and, more importantly, the will of the worker should be sufficient to address this issue.  Again, I think social media could be a wildcard.

***

Social media has toppled empires. It could topple the belief that vacation isn’t important too. I advocate posting as many palm tree pictures this summer as possible, people. Let us rise up to celebrate our lives — both in and out of the office!

It is the Journey, Not its Destination

Computers get tired. Smartphones too. Every once in a while they get sluggish after all the work they’ve done. They need to be switched off, left alone for a little while and given a chance to reorganize all the information we have put into them.

The human mind is no different. On occasion we too need time to reboot.

It is uncomfortable to move outside of the familiar. In fact, it can be downright terrifying. “What if’s” crop up in our heads like dandelions on a lawn. We grip the ledge of our dreams, hoping we never, ever make a mistake. But missteps and errors are every part of the process. The most painful part is not in taking action, but in our own judgements about those actions.

Take time off? Fire a major client? Rethink what’s next without a safety net?

Major life changes don’t usually happen in an instant. They are typically the product of years of thinking, dreaming and wishing things were different. Then one day you wake up and discover they can be. Sometimes all it takes then is one decision that will turn your life around forever.

The cool thing is that one decision then leads to another and another and another. And before you know it, you are a decision-making machine. You suddenly find yourself in flow, cruising down the River of Life, riding the white waters with ease and grace. Those scary rapids don’t seem so scary after all when you come face to face with them. In fact, the roar of the water gives you great courage to move forward – for what other chance do you have but to bring them into your fold?

Have you ever tried resisting a river current or an ocean wave? Most of the time Nature has its way. It is the same in life.

As my wise thirteen-year-old son recently said, “You have freedom of choice and can decide which path to take, but the truth is you will end up where you are meant to be either way. It is the journey you determine, not its destination.”

I’m in for the ride. Are you?

Daring Greatly or Why Perfection Sucks

I don’t blame religion for our current predicament. Our Western world is obsessed with doing more, being better and engaging in unhealthy competition, especially with ourselves.  I can’t help but wonder how we have gotten so caught up in this notion of perfection. Christianity tells us we are not perfect, but that we should attempt to be like Jesus, who is. It’s a set-up really because perfection doesn’t exist even if Jesus did. It’s a construct that makes us ill as we strive for the unattainable.

“At least you tried,” I hear a small voice say to me. It sounds like a cop-out, like a consolation prize for the just-missed opportunity to show just how perfect you can be.

Only we can’t be.

Brené Brown, an extraordinarily down-to-earth shame researcher who struggles every bit as much as everyone else, says in her recent book Daring Greatly:

Perfect and bulletproof are seductive, but they don’t exist in the human experience.


But oh! How we yearn to be just those things! If we are perfect, we might be seen. People might like us. We might finally be accepted. All clean and neat and fantastically ordered. If we are bulletproof, we will never, ever feel the creep of shame that rides our arteries up to our skulls and back down again.

But have you ever really liked a person you have viewed as perfect and impervious to any kind of mishap? I don’t think so. There is nothing loving and warm and wonderful about someone who tries to be immaculate. Oftentimes they are riddled with judgement, especially about themselves.

To be imperfect and vulnerable is to be human. And to be human is to be alive, making mistakes, getting upset and showing up even in the face of your greatest fear.

The very thing we run away from (the fear of getting hurt) is the very thing that, when we trust that process of opening up to the unknown, makes life worth living. It is that moment when we step on stage, knees knocking, heart pounding, palms sweating, mind whirling, and do it anyway.

Stepping on stage really means taking a risk. When you open your heart, it could get crushed. But to keep it closed means you won’t feel the flip side of fear, which is love.

And love is why we are here.

It’s ironic, isn’t it? It is as if we have to relive the birth experience over and over until we finally get it. Pain is a part of life. It is what ensures us that we get back on our path when we go astray.

And that’s what friends are for. They are the ones who hold your hand across those treacherous ravines, loving you even when you are broken. As Brené writes so beautifully, true friends are the people who love you for your vulnerability, not despite it.

Daring greatly means being in that arena, even if your prospects for success are slim. It’s not about winning, but about showing up and getting up. Time and again. Even when you fall.

I’m game. Are you?

 

The Resistance

Pedaling a bicycle with the brakes on is exhausting. The harder you try, the more you sweat. But despite all that effort, you don’t seem to be getting anywhere — fast.

Have you ever noticed how pervasive resistance is? It is literally everywhere. We combat traffic, we beat the clock, we fight the crowds. Even our language reflects how much struggle we let into our lives.

But let’s back up for a moment. If we start at the very beginning, we begin to understand why we might think life is a constant battleground. The birth process itself involves a lot of resistance. We literally — for the most part — get pushed out into the world. It is no wonder, then, that we think life is a push and pull too.

What if I were to tell you it isn’t?

What if the birth process was just the first test in a series of lifelong exercises to help us come to the understanding that resisting won’t get us anywhere? That resisting is indeed like pedaling a bicycle with the brakes on? That it is pointless and fruitless and completely unnecessary?

Well, if we were to embrace That Which Is instead of demonizing our reality, the world will be a much easier place. We’d jog around the neighborhood with ease, grace, joy and love in our hearts. We would welcome the merging car in front of us instead of flashing our lights and honking our horns and raising our fists — and our blood pressure too.

Not all resistance  is bad. In fact, some of it is very healthy. It fortifies society when people demonstrate and show support for a cause. I am grateful for committed citizens who symbolize democratic values. But we must choose our battles wisely. We really only have a certain amount of strength to enter combat selectively. We must save our energy for that which truly matters to us.

Everything else is simply an exercise in futility.

So if you find yourself standing in line at the check-out counter or in a merging lane, let someone ahead of you. Smile. Release resistance, if only for a moment. You might notice how the tension you’ve been holding slips away. You might start to feel better about yourself, which leads to different choices, which leads to a different experience, which leads to a different life altogether.

All because you decided it was time to let go.

Pretty cool, huh?

 

 

Mystery Unfolding

Wouldn’t life be grand if only it would work out according to plan — I mean our plan. You know the one. All neatly folded and earmarked and tagged with colorful sticky notes that indicate the direction, timing and course of All Things.

And then Life, as it is, unfolds. Exactly as it should. But not exactly as we think it should. Kids get sick. Or angry. Or defiant. Clients move on — without you. Love gets lost. Then found again in a completely surprising, delicious and wondrous form.

I draw strength from Elizabeth Gilbert, kindred spirit of words and author of my ultimate favorite book Eat, Pray, Love. She admitted today on Facebook that she was to go to India tomorrow, a place I also want to visit some day. It had been 11 years since her last visit there. Due to a medical situation she had to change her plans. But not without a fight first.

All I was thinking about — even as the doctor was reviewing my results — was how to salvage this India trip, by any means necessary. At first, I negotiated quite hard against my doctor, trying to talk her out of her diagnosis, trying to convince her that my situation wasn’t really that big a deal, and that my treatment could wait. (Curiously, she was unmoved by my strong and completely un-medical opinion!)

Indeed I can relate to her unwillingness to surrender to her reality. How often do we fight against reality, only to lose on average, according to Byron Katie, 100% of the time?

My son admitted to me tonight that his failing grades might mean he has to repeat a grade.

“So what?” I said. “I have seen you work hard. You want to do well. And you’ve done your best. Trust the timing of things.”

Gilbert’s initial resistance to her medical reality gave way to broader insights, which I also shared with my despairing son.

1) Listen to your body. It speaks a language far smarter than any dialect we can speak.

2) Honor reality. It will win every time.

3) If something is not meant to be, then it is not meant to be — for reasons that you may never even know. You can fight against the timing of your life, or you can trust in it. The flow and the peace will only return when you learn to trust.

My son’s final shudder of relief and an exhalation of elation told me that life’s mystery is what we most honor, not the thoughts, agendas and mind maps we have in our heads.

Trust the mystery unfolding. It’s our beautiful companion. Our failure lies not in our lack of fulfilling what we think we should, but in not accepting that which is.