Being held by the larger stream of life

Olympians are inspiring to me.

Not only for their dedication and athletic ability, but also for their grace.

One notable story comes to mind. After competing against one another in the four hundred meter dash, two olympians crossed the finish line and embraced. Then as a symbol of respect, they exchanged nametags.

James, the nineteen year old champion and gold medalist, didn’t flaunt his victory, but instead, made the eighth place finisher feel important.

This simple interaction, according to sports journalists worldwide, did not go unrecognized by the olympic committee. James was hailed as a perfect model of class, and a fine example for other sportsman. He was celebrated for their achievements, even if he don’t celebrate himself.

Upon further research, it turns out that the post event exchange of nametags is not a common tradition among competitors. But maybe it should be.

Imagine the kind of message that would send to the millions of viewers, not to mention the other competitors. It would be like a three dimensional expression of namaste, as if to tell the other player, the spirit in me honors the spirit in you.

You wear my nametag, and I wear yours, because in the end, we are all the same. It doesn’t matter what people call us, it doesn’t matter what labels we wear, it doesn’t matter what place we come in.

We are winners simply by virtue of being here. We have nothing to fear, nothing to lose, nothing to hide, nothing to prove.

Who we are and what we’re worth does not need to be evaluated in terms of what we actually have produced or done. Our being is enough.

That’s real grace. Being held by the larger stream of life. And it’s available to all of us.

We don’t need to run races, we don’t need to wear nametags, we just need to remember that we’re not alone. 

What would persuade you to value connection over competition?

My heart’s saying no, but my body’s saying let’s go

Cognitive dissonance is a powerful psychological force.

It’s the mental discomfort we experience when holding two contradictory beliefs.

Like when an entrepreneur has the opportunity to engage in a business deal that makes economical sense, but at the same time, feels opposed to his self image.

Should he pull the trigger on this new project, or pass on the deal?

Should artistic sensibility take a backseat to commercial consideration, or should he put his foot down in defense of his soul? 

Christina’s pop song comes to mind:

My heart is saying no, but my body is saying let’s go.

Those lyrics are cheesier than a parmesan milkshake, but that doesn’t make them wrong. Ask anyone who has had a moment of cognitive dissonance before. If the genie wants out of the bottle, you gotta rub him the right way.

One of my old friends has spent her entire career working in the tobacco industry. She doesn’t smoke, and she’s fully aware that cigarettes are the number one preventable cause of death in our country. But she’s also a remarkable leader who does valuable work with her growers, whose customers and team members look up to her, and whose life is deeply fulfilling.

Sleeping at night isn’t a problem for her, because she’s learned how to manage her cognitive dissonance in a way that makes her feel okay with herself.

That’s a skill worth building, regardless of the kind of work we do. Having a deep awareness of your contradictory feelings, and still be able to make a contribution in spite of them, that’s real power.

Do you find yourself at the crossroads of integrity and practicality?

You’re not alone in your suffering. Cognitive dissonance comes for all of us eventually. The key is to make sure we’re not becoming numb to our own desires in the name of being sensible. To make sure we’re not missing out on valuable opportunities by convincing ourselves of our own moral superiority.

But the reality is, when our heart says no, and our body says let’s go, sometimes we have to let that genie out of the bottle and see what kind of wishes we can convince him to grant for us. 

If you had the chance to sell out before you burned out, would you take it?

You haven’t earned the right to that part of me

America is long past the nostalgia for a golden age of company loyalty.

The idea of the company man, someone with an excessive commitment to serving the interests of the organization which employs him, is an outdated movie trope at best, and a misguided dream at worst.

Woolridge wrote a popular article at the turn of the millennium about this trend. She observed in the early nineties, the corporate world tore up the social contract that bound employees to their companies. Downsizing and reengineering made it clear that employees were expendable commodities, not valued resources.

Fast forward to today, and the business world is no different. Probably worse.

And no doubt, there are many amazing organizations out there who know how treat people like human beings. I’ve worked for several of them, and still do, and been deeply grateful every step of the way.

But many of my friends and colleagues have had jobs where they worked consistent all nighters and back to back weekends, finding themselves sending emails from their bed thirty seconds after waking up each morning.

And my thought was always, wow, maybe people should step back and ask themselves some very practical questions like.

Why are you killing yourself for these people? Why are you giving the best years of your life to a job that replace you within a week if you dropped dead?

Don’t be ungrateful or unprofessional or unproductive, but don’t sacrifice the best years of your life for this organization either. Learn to put boundaries around your generosity. Do as much as necessary and as little as possible. Save some of your talent for yourself.

Because if you give a company the best of you, they might never let it go. And you will only resent them in the end. Focus on giving yourself the best of you. Create value for the company, but service your gifts on their own terms. Do great work, but frame it in a way that makes it part of your legacy, not just theirs. Show up and contribute to the team, but find a way to become whole on your own terms.

Zuckerberg broke it down perfectly in the award winning biopic about his social network. He told the team of attorney trying to sue him, you have part of my attention, you have the minimum amount. The rest of it is doing things you’re not creatively capable of doing.

Remember, every business will use you, so why not use them back?

They haven’t earned the right to your deepest gifts. Do one for them, two for you. Or three or four for you.

Because loyalty is a commodity, not a commandment. 

How strong are the boundaries around your generosity?

Use what you are to become what you’re not

Core values exercises are highly useful in helping us figure out what’s most important to us, so we can prioritize our lives accordingly.

As my mentor used to tell me, values make all decisions easier. Once you know who you are, all you have to do is execute your actions against that framework, and you’ll have a greater probability of authentic fulfillment.

But there’s another compelling aspect of core values work that most people miss, which is noticing what’s not important to us.

Because most of these exercises start with the same exhaustive list of common personal values. There may be a hundred or so to choose from. Participants are then encouraged to circle the ten or twenty words that resonate with them deeply, rearrange them into groupings, create a hierarchy for which values matter most, and come out with a short list that feels true to who they are.

However, let’s not overlook the values on the list that make us feel nothing. Or better yet, the one that make us cringe or laugh or tilt our heads like a confused puppy.

The last time I did one of these values exercises, several words caught my eye as laughingly antithetical to my core.

Patriotism, justice, loyalty, strength, ethics and competition, gag me with a spoon.

Nothing against those values, and no judgments for people who cherish them, they’re simply not for me.

Creativity, connection, generosity, discipline, joy and independence, now those values feel much more authentic to my core. And that’s a good thing to know about myself.

Are you clear on who you, but more importantly, who you are not?

It’s a useful starting place for reverse engineering what matters most. Doing so will help you make future decisions based on your values, not out of fear.

Because the big picture here is, living in a universe where your values have been successfully achieved, that’s about the greatest source of renewable fulfillment available. Each day is another chance to make yourself proud by living according to your values, not someone else’s.

The exercise itself might seem laborious and contrived, but the thoughtfulness you experience along the way is a worthwhile use of your time. 

What if you decided to practice your values, rather than simply professing them?

Maybe that’s just what she looks like when she’s happy

We spent some time with an old friend recently, and something was glaringly different about her. Both visually and energetically.

Did she change her diet? Restyle her hair? Start a new career? Find love with a new partner? Couldn’t figure it out.

Regardless, it was delightful being around her, and in a way that felt refreshing to us. At the end of the evening, I asked my wife if she noticed the same. Her theory was:

Well, maybe that’s just what she looks like when she’s happy.

Have you ever noticed that glow in someone? More importantly, has anyone ever noticed that glow in you?

It’s truly a marvel of human biology. When we feel relaxed and happy, cortisol isn’t being secreted as intensely through our system, and our skin and energy follows suit, and that makes us feel even more relaxed and happy, and that starts the cycle all over again.

Makes me think of a question my colleague asks when she runs leadership training programs:

When you walk out of a room, does the temperature go up ten degrees?

Some people are really like that. Rather than injecting optimistic energy and inspiring greater joy in others, they deliver discontent and unhappiness. In their everyday state of mind, they can’t seem to summon even a shadow of a smile. Now, some people are perfectly fine with that.

Enthusiasm simply isn’t part of their value proposition. They have zero interest in being the master of morale.

In my experience, few things have taken me further in life than being the positive force in the room. It actually runs in my family. My parents and their parents alike have all modeled this trait since day one. They showed me that we don’t always have to be positive, it’s just that negativity keeps us focused on the problem, but positivity finds solutions to it.

That matters in our dealings with others. Particularly in an organization. The morale boosting value of that process is more important than the actual results it produces.

One study found that happy employees were twenty more productive than unhappy employees. They believe happiness should be an organizational policy objective that is here to stay.

And naturally, many people are frightened of this kind of emotional experience. Because happiness is really scary. It makes us vulnerable to the low peaks and the thieves of joy. That’s why we have to think of it as gift, rather than a trait.

Prager’s contrarian book on how happiness is a serious problem says that we tend to think that we owe it to ourselves to be as happy as we can be. But happiness is far more than a personal concern. It is also a moral obligation. We owe it everyone who comes into our lives, to be as happy as we can be.

This does not mean acting unreal, and it certainly does not mean refraining from honest and intimate expressions of our feelings.

But it does mean that we owe it to others to work on our happiness. We do not enjoy being around others who are usually unhappy. Those who enter our lives feel the same way.

Think about my friend’s question again:

When you walk out of a room, does the temperature go up ten degrees?

If you’re starting a new job, joining a new community, or simply trying to make some much needed upgrades in your life, show people what you look like when you’re happy. Access the glow that’s been there the whole time.

How would your energy change if you no longer needed to criticize or attack everything?

An entertained person is an open person

My public speaking mentor once told me that the content of someone’s presentation was irrelevant, because anybody can deliver any given material.

What he focused on was the speaker’s humor, because humor is the only universal language. Humor is one of the few things in this life that has the capacity to override people’s native defenses, he instructed. Laughing lubricates people’s intellectual digestive system, the surprise of humor creates tension in the air, and that’s the ideal time to introduce new ideas to an audience.

How are you using laughter to relax people and accelerate the receptivity of their learning?

And we’re not talking about telling knock knock jokes. This isn’t about turning yourself into a standup comedian or a performance artist who’s trying to manipulate people into laughing. The goal here is to invite people to laugh at what you find funny.

Think about that for a moment. That is a profound, vulnerable, joyful expression. One that has the ability to lay a foundation of connection and trust in an interpersonal exchange.

It’s one of the reasons my answers to people’s questions about my nametag are almost always playful, absurd and comical. Because people are only asking me about it resolve their cognitive tension. Seeing a guy wear a nametag consistently without an apparent reason either offends their sense of order, piques their curiosity, or bothers them enough that they feel the need to investigate further.

For example, if a stranger in a bar walks up and pokes me on the shoulder and asks about the nametag, my instinctive answer is often a joke about having memory problems, my bad habit of getting lost, my need to have everyone know my name, or the problem of forgetting who I am.

People almost always laugh, at least a little. Dad joke as it may be, that’s a very real, human connection. This moment is, to quote my favorite fiction novelist, like trying to lasso someone with a joke and a smile, teasing them back from whatever far off fields they’d been galloping through.

It matters. Especially if the conversation delves into deeper territory, having already shared a laugh with someone in the first ten seconds of the interaction overrides both of our native defenses and makes us more open to each other’s viewpoints.

Because an entertained person is an open person. Humor opens up the ditch so the truth can fall into it.

And considering that we live in an interpersonally impoverished landscape, where face to face interaction is space of threat, pain and difficulty rather than richness, connection and meaning, this is a small victory worth celebrating.

Where might your interactions go if they started from a place of joy?

Make investments today to personal selling pricing tomorrow

Homeowners are always renovating with an eye on resale value.

Whether it’s a basement remodel, deck addition, roof replacement, kitchen counter upgrade, or installing a multi lane racer waterslide from your bedroom window into your saltwater swimming pool, anything you can do to boost your selling price down the road is a worthwhile investment.

Even if it’s frustrating and expensive and not especially gratifying in the moment.

During my time as a homeowner, my real estate agent made a strong recommendation for installing a new air conditioning system around five years into my ownership. And based on the cost and labor involved, it seemed like a superfluous renovation.

Especially since my current system, while a bit outdated, worked fine.

But my agent promised that the few weeks of aggravation and three thousand dollar expense were worth the resale value down the road. His data showed it would quickly increase my home’s marketability.

Five years later when the recession ended and we put our condo on the market, his hypothesis proved out. Not only had our zip code appreciated significantly, but the property itself had become more attractive to buyers, especially in the brutally humid summer months, thanks to our pristine air conditioning unit.

I ended up making a significant profit on the sale, the proceeds of which went into my savings, not to mention a celebratory vacation to wrap up ten years of the pain the ass known as home ownership.

To me, the big lesson here isn’t about real estate, it was about resale value. This is a concept each of us can apply to our own personal and professional development.

Because in the arc of our careers, we will all work jobs that include tasks, projects and activities that are not particularly satisfying or enjoyable in the moment. Truth is, some of them are mind numbingly dreadful and make us want to smash our heads against a rusty nail.

But if we keep an eye on the resale value of our work experience, it makes the suffering easier to swallow. If we learn to tell ourselves a meaningful story about our own struggle, it fuels us do make investments today that boost our personal selling pricing tomorrow.

Adams’s book on failing his way to success as the world’s most famous cartoonist suggests we think of each new skill we acquire as doubling our odds of success and increasing our market value. While not literally true, he reminds us, this construct helps guide our behavior in a productive direction. It tricks our brain about the pursuit of success. Looking at the familiar in new ways can change our behavior when the new point of view focuses on the imaginary.

What if you started thinking of every crappy work experience as an asset that appreciates in economic value every day that you show up?

It may make boring meetings and seemingly useless projects more sufferable. As they say in the real estate world, your home is your castle, but it’s also an investment to care for and manage.

Same goes for your professional house. Keep an eye on resale value, and you’ll boost your selling price down the road.

Even if the team you work with today doesn’t value the work you’re doing, some company down the road might be waiting for you to deliver that very experience to enhance their organization. 

What have you done in the last thirty days to increase your personal and professional marketability?

Nominating yourself to go on an epic journey

Gallup’s annual poll on employee engagement has collected survey results from nearly forty million people.

Here’s one question from their inventory:

At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best?

This sounds like a dream job, right? Who doesn’t want walk into the office every day and stretch their best muscles?

Sadly, not everyone has this luxury. The daily experience of using one’s unique talents to make a difference for people and on the organizations of which they are a part, it’s not guaranteed. For many, it’s not probable. For some, it’s not even possible.

But something that is available to everyone is the existential exercise of taking a heroic stand inside our own heads about the work we do. Believing that we are mythological characters who have nominated themselves to go on an epic journey.

Sound grandiose and childish? That’s the whole point.

In order not to feel pushed around by the chaotic and mundane circumstances at work each day, we have to do some serious reframing. We have to consciously reinterpret our professional situation in a more positive light.

Nepo writes that myths and stories have been a way to carry forward the quandaries of living, to help keep in view what’s hard to keep in view, and to return us to what matters when we forget. He’s whispering a reminder that even this mythology that only exists inside our heads is still worthwhile. If it helps us get through another day without choking our team members with orange extension cord, it’s worth it.

Gallup’s survey question, then, could use an existential update.

My colleague who runs a successful branding agency has a fascinating way of approaching employee engagement, and her version of this question has always resonated with me.

Have you reframed the work you do in the world so you can see your role in a light that makes best use of your talents?

Having worked at a few agencies and startups in my career, this question has been a life saver for me. Because when you spend eight hours a day on tasks like writing ad copy for banks, auditing focus groups for the department of health, and doing research on the tequila drinking habits of recent college graduates, it’s helpful to tell myself a meaningful, mythological story.

Considering my basic existential fear is having no identity or personal significance, this reframing tool that helps me feel heroic. It motivates me to walk into the office every morning reframing my work as another opportunity to take part in the ongoing creation of the world.

In a world that feels more and more like a dystopian fiction novel every day, we may as well imagine ourselves as the protagonist in a heroic narrative. 

What if your sense of personal vocation in your work made you not want to get away from it?

The eudemonic joys of connection

Gallup has been conducting public opinion polls for the past eighty years.

Founded by one of the great market researchers of the last century, their name has become synonymous with relevant, timely, and accurate research on what people around the world think and feel.

If you’ve never read their annual happiness and well being index, it’s a fascinating study on human behavior. Their survey questions ask people to think about yesterday, from the morning until the end of the day, reflecting on where they were, what they were doing, whom they were with and how they felt.

Gallup poses a series of specific questions, asking people to remember the following:

If they were treated with respect all day, if they smiled and laughed and learned something interesting, if they were satisfied with their job and the work they did, if they got to use their strengths to do what they do best, and if the people at work created an environment that was trusting and open.

Happiness, seems to be driven more by experiences than by things. Not just by the hedonic pleasures of the senses, but also the eudaemonic joys of connection. Having a horizon to point to. Having multiple centers of belonging. Having a daily doorway to both sustenance and sanity.

Having things in our lives that make us excited to wake up in the morning. Having a combination of positive emotion, engagement and meaning and satisfaction. Having a connection that will feel real enough to get us through the day.

The irony is, inasmuch as we need to relate to and connect with others to become happy, the world will not devote itself to making us happy.

Ultimately, we are still accountable for our own happiness.

It’s an inside job that too many of us try to outsource and wind up profoundly dissatisfied as a result. 

Are you still making an attempt to remedy an inner problem with an external solution?

Treat your dreams as starting places, not destinations

Dreams in and of themselves are meaningful, but only to the extent that we know why we have them in the first.

That’s the cleanest and truest fuel that drives us to move our story forward. Without it, we’re just postponing our happiness until some imagined moment in the future when everything is just right.

Except that time never comes. Just when we get there, there disappears.

Think about how many people have seen their dreams come true, only to discover that it wasn’t what they envisioned. Think about how many people have accomplished their goal, only to realize that it didn’t live up to their hopes and hypes.

All of a sudden, their heart is broken for no apparent reason.

If we want to insure against the inevitable and crushing disappointment of being human, we have to treat our dreams more as starting places, not destinations.

Because it is the system we follow along the dreaming path that secures our fulfillment. Not some item we wrote down on a list we keep in our wallet. That’s the only thing guaranteed to evoke the gravity and joy of life right now.

Looking back to the young age of seven, my only goal was to become a writer. Not a famous writer, not a successful writer, not a paid professional writer, not even a good writer. Just a writer. Somebody who made things.

This was my special talent. It was highly useful to myself and others. Regardless of the whims and wills and ways of the world, if my ideas were being put on paper, then fulfillment was not far away. If this gift was being used to make a difference in every part of my life, then the destination was irrelevant. And so was the vehicle that carried me there.

Who cares where we’re going? Can we make stuff along the way? Awesome. Sign me up.

What started out as my dream turned into my scheme. A system that guaranteed feelings of fulfillment and satisfaction anytime it was running. As opposed to sitting around with my thumb up my ass, waiting for happiness to drop from the sky.

If you find yourself just barely outrunning hopelessness each day, find out what energies are behind your dream. Use them as fuel to get your system up to operating temperature.

And every single day, instead of restricting your satisfaction to one specific dream, organize your life in a way that you become satisfied anytime your machine is running.

How could you structure your time to let go of whether or not your dreams came true?

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