Directing your attention in a more conscious manner

A common piece of criticism people give me about wearing a nametag every day is, well you’re just doing it for attention.

And my short answer is, you’re absolutely right. That is exactly my reason for doing it. The attention is great.

But my experiment is not quite as narcissistic as it may initially seem. Because while someone wears a name tag to get attention, they also wear it to give attention. That’s the second half of the equation that most people miss.

Human interaction is a reciprocal system. It’s a highly sensitive exchange of energy. Newton famously discovered that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and the physics of intimacy are no exception to his law.

The most common example is when a waitress wears a nametag so customers can flag her down at the restaurant. Of course she does that to get attention, but she also does that to give attention.

Because once that silence is broken, once that dance begins, now she can come over to the table and deliver a service. And now the attention is back on the customer.

Social psychologists call this reciprocity, which is social norm of responding to a positive action with another positive action. And in a world where attention is our most scarce commodity, there is nothing shameful about becoming an active participant in that dance.

It’s among the great joys of being alive. To see and be seen, to feel substantial enough to register on each other’s societal radar screens, since did we decide that was a sin of the flesh and spirit?

Tillich, in his groundbreaking book about the courage to be, once said that the section of reality in which one participates was the community to which one belongs.

Perhaps the practice of directing our attention in a more conscious manner is precisely what makes us human beings in the first place.

Which social dance are you unashamed of participating in?

That which happens when we come together

Buber saw the path to divinity through human contact.

He speculated that a person could not approach the divine by reaching beyond the human:

God is not in me and not in you, god is simply what is between us. God is the collective involuntary nervous system of human beings. The electricity that surges amid physical bodies. Anytime one person relates to another, and relates also to that relationship, both authentically and humanly, they relate thereby to god.

Mathew’s gospel popularized it with the oft quoted scripture, for where two or more are gathered in my name, the divine is among them.

The beautiful part about this theory is, it has nothing to do with organized religion. It’s not a monument to ancestral superstition, it’s not an intellectual ruin from a bygone era, it’s not a magic act people use to justify horrifying acts, it’s not a theological insurance scam for the neurologically challenged, and it’s not satisfying and smiley illusion for a wonderful eternity coming.

It’s just us. People. God is that which happens when we come together.

When we are most aware of relating to another being, we are most in touch with holiness.

Because each of us carry within us a divine spark, and when others witness it, our lives suddenly have dignity, meaning and hope.

It’s like the quantum physicists have said, particles cease to exist until they are observed.

Before there is a self, there is an other.

Only in the continuous encounter with other persons do we become and remain a person.

What if god was equally approachable through all religions, and through no religion?

Every decision we make is a brick in our foundation

Most of us are uncomfortable making decisions when we don’t have a lot of information.

The idea of moving forward with very few data points is a terrifying prospect. Better to do additional research and get feedback and run a few more tests and then we can think about the possibility of maybe taking action.

But the thing we forget is, we learn by making all decisions, even bad ones.

Because decisions are progress. Each one we make is a brick in our foundation, even if its edges have a few cracks and chips.

But as my favorite economist once said, if you wait until you have a fully informed opinion, then it will be too late.

Falsani’s inspiring book about the intersection of popular culture and spirituality describes her favorite film protagonist in a similar way:

A man is paralyzed by the choices he wasn’t able to make. And the paralysis led to the calcification of his heart. Afraid to make a decision, take a chance and reach out for the love he deserves, he passes through life like a sleepwalker. But waiting for clear confirmation that a decision is exactly right is a recipe for mediocrity and almost a guarantee of eventual failure.

Decision making, then, is not only a business practice, it’s a spiritual practice as well.

Think about it.

It involves having faith in our own judgment. It involves having faith that we made our decision for a reason. And it involves having faith that if we make someone on our team a little upset with our initiative, they will still forgive us because of the forward momentum our decision created for the project.

As woo woo as that sounds, it really does a measurable impact on company growth. The daily practice of making small decisions, in real time, that are good enough for now, even with a dearth of information, affects the bottom line.

Gilt is a perfect case study. The founder of the online shopping group is often asked why his famous sales always take place at noon every day. To which he replies:

Wwell, we had to pick a time, so we just picked it. We literally spent ten minutes on that decision. And now there are hundreds of thousands of people who orient their schedules around our sales.

This is the ultimate definition of empowerment.

The ability to make decisions that have a tangible influence on our work.

It sure beats researching ourselves into a corner. 

Do you need more information, or do you need to decide?

Plans that are blown aside by every shift of the wind

Dilbert once said that strategic planning is hallucinating about the future and then something different happens.

It’s like work but without the satisfaction of completing anything.

You have meetings and talk about the company’s strategy in vague, emotional terms. And then you sit in a room with inadequate data until the illusion of knowledge is attained.

Anyone who’s ever sat on a board of directors can relate to this characterization.

It’s not that strategic planning is never useful. Having some kind of vision does serve some purpose.

But when it comes to planning, the process can be time consuming to complete, the content can become divorced from reality, and the result can be challenging to implement.

And to what end? To make us feel important and alive? To preserve the illusion of knowledge?

And yet, that’s pretty much how planning breaks down in most areas of life.

Out of our fundamental fear of losing control, we stamp our foot down and made demands of the universe, without a care for what it has in store for us. And the moment anything upsets our carefully orchestrated plot, which it almost always does, we shake our fists at the heavens and demand a recount.

Because the world didn’t give us exactly what we wanted.

The other night a woman sitting at the table next to me asked her date.

Do you think you’ll still be working there at age sixty?

And my thought was, wow, twenty years from now? What about twenty minutes from now? Do we need another hallucination about the future to take us away from the present moment? How exactly are we supposed to relax and watch the glorious tapestry of life unfold when we have such rigid expectations of the universe?

Fact is, there is no such thing as any event going to plan. Nor is there any event going contrary to plan.

There is only what happens. There is no how things should be, there is only what is.

And so, if we can elect to believe there is wisdom in the unfolding of events exactly as they are, and be willing to cooperate with that unfolding, then maybe we wouldn’t be so stressed all the time.

Put it this way.

All of our grandest plans can be undone in less than a minute. Instead of making ourselves fearful by being a planner, let’s make ourselves joyful by being present.

Because the amount of work is the same.

May as well go with the one least likely to cause a stress related illness. 

Which situation could you allow to unfold more gently?

Burn all of your worries, geography is on our side

Like the kid from the horror movie who saw dead people, I see friendly people. They’re everywhere.

And the really spooky part is, my body warns me right before it happens.

One millisecond before some stranger sees my nametag and says hello, there will be a twinge in my stomach. It’s the strangest thing.

Like having my own spidey sense, except instead of an extraordinary intuitive ability to sense imminent danger, it’s more like, hey, this drunk guy is about to yell your name and give you a high five.

Fine with me. Keeps things interesting.

And the best part is, with obscure power comes zero responsibility.

But despite this strange biological feedback loop, the reactions to my nametag are still variable depending on geographical factors.

Living in a large city, most people are far too busy to notice a sticker on my shirt. Maybe an occasional disapproving glance or a pointed finger to remind me of my fashion faux pas. Which doesn’t necessarily hurt my feelings, but it certainly doesn’t add any additional fuel to my idealistic fire.

But there is one exception in a big city. Touristy areas.

In midtown, as an example, the interaction level around my nametag increases by a factor of five.

It makes sense. Tourists are visiting for that exact reason. To notice the details of their new environment, to soak the scenery in, and to do things worth telling a story about back home. Like waving hello to a random guy wearing a nametag. All part of the big city experience.

Another factor that transforms the activity level is urban versus rural environments.

When we leave the city to visit friends or family back in more suburban areas, everybody notices my nametag and says hello. But it’s a different kind of hello. There’s none of the big city suspicion or sarcasm attached to it. Just good old fashioned friendliness. God bless southern hospitality. It offers a nice dose of validation that my idea isn’t as crazy as it might seem.

Buffet sang it perfectly:

It’s those changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes nothing remains quite the same, with all of our running and all of our cunning, and if we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane.

Proving, that despite the flotsam and jetsam of our internal geography, sometimes all we need is a little change of scenery to remind us of the approachability of humanity. 

What dislocation might help you renew your journey?

Criticizing ourselves for the path we took to get here

Regret is a normal emotional response to missed opportunity.

We risk it every time we make a decision. And nobody is immune to it. Even the most conscious among us know that to admit our regret is to understand we are fallible and human.

But there’s a fine line between honoring our humanity and prosecuting ourselves for crimes past.

If our regret about yesterday’s decisions and actions helps us do better work today, then it’s served a useful purpose.

If our regret puts us in a more generous relationship with our future, then it’s worth having.

If our regret makes us stop for a moment to remember accidents that have befallen us while we were uncentered, then it’s probably healthy in the long run.

But most of the time, though, we use regret as this anvil to keep our life from moving forward. It’s a punishment we administer to ourselves. Because we are unable to forgive and have compassion for our own missteps, we dwell on the past as a way to distract ourselves from the present.

Whether we realize we’re doing it or not.

But honestly, do we really need another thing to take us away from the only thing we have, which is this moment?

Do we really need to shred ourselves into pieces through ruminating bouts of merciless scrutiny?

It comes down to energy management. Spending vast amounts of energy bemoaning what we should have said or could have done or might have been, it’s simply not a smart use of our time.

We’re just adding insult to injury. Pouring salt on our wounds.

Here’s another way to think about it.

Do a word study on the term regret, and the antonyms that come up will be satisfaction, delight, joy, contentment and shamelessness.

Meaning, these are the things we miss out on when we pull out the whip and start beating ourselves up for being so stupid and naïve and shortsighted.

How could we possibly revel in the ecstasy of where we are if we’re too busy criticizing ourselves for the path we took to get here?

It’s time for each of us to spritz some mindfulness onto the rusted gears of our minds and get present with our lives, right now.

Which doesn’t mean that we will never have to endure a burst of fleeting regret.

But let’s not craft an entire identity around it.

Are you paralyzed by regret over unfulfilled possibilities, or can you forgive yourself for unrealized potential?

Opening a valuable door of growth

Boundaries are deliberate limits that protect what we care about.

And what’s empowering about setting them is, they not only keep us safe, but they can also spur another person’s growth.

Years ago, my application for membership in an exclusive leadership group was approved and moved forward to the group interview stage.

Which meant sitting in a chair facing twelve strangers who apparent job was to intimidate and challenge me.

The first word out of the big swinging dick alpha male’s mouth was, what the fuck is with that stupid nametag?

Didn’t flinch. Gave my normal response. Smiled wide.

To which he replied, well, what if we told you that you couldn’t wear your nametag as a member of this group?

Since that’s not the first time somebody has said that to me, and since it seemed appropriate to match this guy’s level of intensity, my response was:

Well, that’s unfortunate, because then you would be missing out on a valuable member of this group for a very stupid reason. Look, wearing a nametag is a daily commitment that’s deeply meaningful to me. It doesn’t come off. But if you’re so threatened by my little sticker, then perhaps you need this group more than me.

Five seconds of stunned silence later, he moved onto the next question and never bothered me about wearing a nametag again.

Boundaries are gifts. Both to us and those with whom we set them. Because when we stay comfortable within our new boundary, without weakening it to make the other person feel better, or without tearing it back down because of someone’s reaction, the balance of power shifts. The other person gains a greater respect for us.

And if we’re lucky, we might open a value door of growth for that individual.

It’s actually a form of leadership.

Going first, as is the literal translation of the word, to set limits that protect what we care about. 

Are you able to hold a courageous conversation to reinforce your boundaries?

When the insanities and horrors of the world exhaust me

Reality is not interested in our opinions, objections or agendas.

It is the one thing that’s ever renewing and ever progressing from one state of completion to another, with or without our consent.

Question is, how do we forgive reality for being what it is? When things go south, how do we keep ourselves from punching holes in walls and hurling heavy objects across the room?

There are two words that have been deeply useful in my own journey of compassion and forgiveness. Two words that make it surprisingly easy to laugh in the face of misfortune. 

Of course.

This is the phrase we say, either to ourselves, to others, or to the universe, that suggests whatever is happening is normal, obvious and perfectly human, and it should therefore not surprise us one bit.

In fact, the word course literally means onward movement and motion forward. Because that’s how reality rolls. It just keeps on doing its thing.

When something happens to me seemingly out of nowhere, something frustrating or absurd or infuriating, my first response begins with those two words.

Of course my flight is going to be four hours late and disrupt my itinerary.

Of course my door key snapped off inside of the deadbolt and costs hundreds of dollars to replace.

Of course we just ran out of printer paper and nobody in the office but me cares enough to run the store and pick up a fresh ream.

Not sure about you, but announcing those two words makes it surprisingly easy for me to laugh in the face of misfortune and not fall to pieces when disaster strikes.

Vonnegut used the trademark phrase so it goes in his bestselling novel. Same concept. The words followed every mention of death in his book, equalizing all of them natural, accidental, intentional and otherwise. But the repetition of the words almost kept a tally of the cumulative force of death throughout the novel, pointing out the tragic inevitability of mortality.

Kurt’s words epitomized his acceptance that no use ever comes from shrinking away when the worst happens.

Call it morbid, fatalistic, nihilistic, but hey, at least the guy was willing to admit that we all do what we have to do to keep the shit at shoe level in this circus called life.

He had the grace to simultaneously accept and dismiss everything.

Which brings me peace.

This embracement of the absurd provides a safe place to turn when the insanities and horrors of the world exhaust me.

Of course. 

What do you say to yourself in moments of honest acceptance?

Hospitality is the work of the host, not the guest

My friend belongs to a church who has used nametags for fifteen years.

In fact, their congregation has grown to a few thousand members, which is no small feat.

The challenge is, several of the new hires to the church staff have opposing views about nametags. They out rightly refuse to wear them. Either because they feel silly, the badges clash with their wardrobe, they don’t like the attention, or they’re worried about everybody knowing their name.

She told me this in an email, and here was my response:

One part of me thinks that those are perfectly normal objections. Totally understandable. Nobody at the church should have to wear a nametag if you don’t want to. Another part of me thinks, hang on, scripture says the founder of your religion had nails hammered through his hands and feet and hung cross until he died, but you aren’t willing to wear a sticker for a few hours on the weekend just to make strangers feel more welcome?

There’s a disconnect here. If someone works in the field of hospitality, nametags should not even be a debatable issue. There’s a perfect scripture about this very idea, if the bible is your jam. Hebrews says:

Fear not to entertain strangers for by so doing some may have entertained angels unaware.

Hospitality is the work of the host, not the guest. Whatever objections you have about putting one on, odds are, it has nothing to do with the strangers and everything to do with your own ego.

What better way to turn from our selfish ways? What better personification of love than to stick ourselves out there for the people who are feeling scared, lost and alone?

If you’re still recoiling at the thought of wearing a nametag at your church, remember, it’s not about you. 

What could you do for someone right now that would be obscenely selfless?

Save the trees, the bees, the whales and the snails

There’s an idealistic part of me that weeps for the future of the world.

Because if we take a good look around, there are all these profound, pervasive, urgent and expensive problems that are not going away anytime soon.

Somebody should definitely do something.

But then there’s the pragmatic part of me that wonders if obsessing about and trying to create a solution for the world’s biggest problems isn’t the best use of my time.

It certainly makes me feel noble and powerful and virtuous in the moment. And it’s absolutely true that one person really can change the world with their own two hands.

But what’s wrong with solving small problems? Where’s the shame in both thinking and acting locally? When did we decide that if a person wasn’t grandiosely crusading for the fate of civilization, then they weren’t upholding their duty as a member of the species?

Buddha said that in the end only three things matter, how much we loved, how gently we lived, and how gracefully we let go of things not meant for us.

To me, the last part is the key. Because it’s so easy to get sucked into dramas that don’t belong to us. It’s so tempting to obsess over just one more item on the list of things we can’t change.

But the truth is, the world doesn’t need my two cents on every issue. And in fact, it’s not actually necessary for me to add to the slagheap of bullshit that’s already out there.

Because there are already enough small problems in my life and the lives of those closest to me that are more pressing and require my immediately attention.

Carlin had a great joke about how everybody’s trying to save something now:

Save the trees, save the bees, save the whales, save the snails. And the greatest arrogance of all, save the planet. Save the planet? We don’t even know how to take care of ourselves yet. People don’t actually give a shit about the planet. Not in the abstract they don’t. They’re really just interested in their own habitat. Worried that someday in the future they’ll be personally inconvenienced. Narrow, unenlightened self interest doesn’t impress me.

Anthropologists would call this behavior virtue signaling, which is the conspicuous expression of moral values done primarily with the intent of enhancing standing within a social group.

In short, not actually caring, just caring about looking like they care.

Happens all the time. Because in a culture where everybody is hero, nobody would be caught dead not trying to save the world.

It makes me wonder, what if more people were humble enough not to take on the big problems?

What if people focused on gracefully letting go of the things not meant for them?

Maybe the inches would take care of the miles.

What are you trying to save?

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