Begin Again: 5 tips to immediately change attitude
The nicest part of starting a new school year is the sense that you can begin again. New faces, new schedule, new attitude…wait, new attitude? Is that really possible? Yes, it is.
Small kids can keep you from focusing on the past or the future. I remember when my children were very young, and you basically got them up each morning, dressed and ready for school, and the next thing you know the milk from breakfast was split all over the clean outfit. Or there was a tantrum about going to school. Or the kids were fighting over someone’s fair share of something. So, what did you do? You had to begin again…and again…and again.
It’s a great lesson in staying in the present moment as much as possible. If you would like to begin again, take a deep breath, pause, and imagine the refresh button on your computer attached to your forehead. Now push refresh, and see if that doesn’t help you to come back to the present moment. I’m in that mode myself right now as I am reshaping both the way I live my daily life, and eventually my practice.
In that present moment, here are a few things you can do begin again right now:
- Be grateful and focus on the positive. Having a sense of optimism about what you have in front of you is a good idea. If you have a job, that’s great. If you have friends, family, or pets, that’s great. Literally count your lucky stars.
- Let go of negativity. If you think you are a failure, you are. But thoughts can be changed. Reframe those negative thoughts, even just a little, right now. “Well, that didn’t work like I expected. I’ll try something different tomorrow that can be successful.” Thoughts are not facts! They are just thoughts.
- Check whether or not you taking care of basics: eating, sleeping, exercising. Plenty of literature out there on how to do this; I’m just reminding you to check on whether or not you are following through with it. You can check to see whether too many toxic habits for your body have crept in, and start thinking about eliminating those.
- Be patient with yourself. The first time you try to change your attitude, you may not be able to sustain the optimism, and immediately slip back into “who does that jerk think he is, anyway?” But, just like dieting where 1 pound a week is a good pace to go, 1 reframed thought a day can lead to more positive thoughts over time.
- Remind yourself you are unique. No one else has had your experiences, or knows what you think. Stop comparing yourself to anyone else, and see if that doesn’t immediately lighten your load.
Each of these actions will help you appreciate the present moment, and the present moment is the only place where you can begin again.
5 suggestions for giving your brain a break
As the end of the summer approaches with the new school year, make sure to give your brain a break. “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets,” essayist Tim Kreider wrote in The New York Times (June 6, 2013). The two big “why’s” for this are giving your brain a chance adapt by rewiring new neurons, and to sort through all the information coming at it all the time.
Neuroplasticity, or the ability of your brain to change, helps to allow the two halves of our brains to work together and to absorb all that information when you stop trying to hold everything in it all at once. It turns out that we learn better when we space the learning out over time instead of trying to cram it in all at once.
So here are five suggestions for giving your brain a break now:
- Do something physical, or “step away from the computer.” A short walk in nature can be particularly helpful. But if you can’t do that, just standing up and stretching in place is a brain break.
- Do something you love, whether it’s playing a quick video game or catching up on Facebook friend news. Those hard-driving innovative computer companies are onto something with games readily available to employees.
- Sleep. Naps are especially good in the summertime if you can steal some late afternoon time when it’s hot, and you can sleep for 10-20 minutes. There is some evidence to suggest that neurons can get fatigued just like muscles and this is helpful to recharge them.
- Mind-wander. Just like it sounds. Let your mind wander wherever it wants to go: whether that’s Hawaii, Mars or home to loved ones. Sometimes called daydreaming. This, like sleeping, may actually help memory and cognition, by allowing us to leave the present moment to engage with the past or future possibilities.
- Engage with an animal. There is ample evidence to suggest that just sitting with a domesticated cat or dog can calm down the active, or overly anxious, areas of the brain. It may boost your immune system, too.
It appears the brain requires more downtime than is generally recognized to let it actually work hard and generate creative ideas. So, taking my own advice, I am giving myself a break and cutting the newsletter short this time!
5 more ways to increase positivity in your life
Last month, I looked at 5 ways to increase positivity in your life by focusing on joy, gratitude, serenity, curiosity, and pride (in actual accomplishment). This month, I am adding 5 more ways to increase positivity in your life, by looking at amusement, inspiration, awe, love and hope. These may seem a bit more ambiguous, but recognizing these various forms can help you see there is a real correspondence to being positive and real success in your life. For me, learning to love a new family as a result of my recent marriage has been expanding my horizons and created a new context for shared understanding that helps me put my work in perspective. Time off, taken specifically to nurture these new familial relationships, is as valuable as time in front of the computer.
But before we look at love, let’s look at the other paths to positivity.
Amusement: When was the last time you laughed? Really laughed? To be amusing, somehow a story or joke or even a funny reaction has to surprise us. If we anticipate the punch line, a joke ceases to be funny. One time, a friend and I were sitting together in her living room, when her daughter said, “I’ll get a ride, just in case,” concerning how she would get home from a football game. Her mother said, “What do you mean, ‘just in case,” and the answer was, “But that’s his name, Justin Case.” Laughter all around. Humor at its best gives us the unexpected, and when we share that delight with one another, we often feel warm and safe and happy. It builds our human connections. Take action by watching a comedy with friends, or sharing a joke with others who haven’t heard it yet.
Inspiration: This is a tricky one, because it has what Barbara Fredrickson calls “an evil twin.” If you watch someone else excel, you have two choices: 1) you can celebrate all that they have achieved, whether it’s a perfect golf game, an aerial loop de loop, or a group dance well executed 2) you can beat yourself up as you compare yourself to them (my automatic choice, and one I have to guard against quite vigilantly). It’s too easy to give in to being discouraged. Instead, celebrate the excellence you see in others and be a cheerleader for them. Honoring those who have failed many times before succeeding can warm your own heart to try again. It is truly inspiring to recognize the resilience it takes to get “back in the game.”
Choose inspiration over discouragement
Awe: I think of awe mainly in natural terms, such as the beauty of a night sky so clear you can actually see the billions and billions of stars making up the Milky Way. It is so clear when we witness this sight that we are but a minute particle in the universe. Yet your own existence is important to the whole, no matter how small (a bit like Dr. Suess’ Horton Hear a Who, isn’t it?). You may be awed by amazing human accomplishments, like my namesake’s scaling of Mount Everest. What’s worth noting is the sense of belonging to something larger and more complex than self. Bring on a sense of awe by deliberately gazing into the night sky when you have clear weather, or watching documentaries on human exploration of land, sea or sky.
Hope: This is another tricky one, because its evil twin is despair. And there are situations where holding out hope becomes irrational and won’t allow you to let go and move forward in life. But hope is the emotion that allows us to look into the future with a sense that things are going to get better. It allows you to savor your life, even when the immediate present doesn’t feel so great. If you’ve made a mistake, and learned something from it about what you don’t want to repeat, hope is what lets you get up and dust yourself off, to try again. I’ve even seen a bumper sticker literally spelling it out: Hold On, Pain Ends. So try this, when in the depths of misery: rather than giving into thoughts of “nothing can be done,” let yourself think, “maybe it’s possible.” Or post this adage somewhere you can see it: Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift, and that’s why we call it the present.
Love: I saved this positive emotion for last, because it is so complex. But love is where you get to practice all the other positive emotions, from gratitude that someone special is in your life to hope for the future in the form of new life. You may laugh for years at some private joke that developed on your first date. With luck, you have found someone who loves you in spite of your flaws. Or maybe even because of your flaws. Kindness and remembering that none of us is perfect also helps. Be OK with being mutually confused, as long as you can mutually forgive one another. You can be inspired by how love shows up in your life or awed at the way you are still learning new things about each other years after the first encounter. Love is not limited to a significant other, either: it can apply to anyone in your kinship circle, from siblings to cousins twice removed, or to anyone in your friendship circle where feelings are deeper than mere acquaintance would admit. So, the action to take in this case is all about appreciation. Notice when you feel love for someone and let them know it.
Each of the emotions tackled in this post are a bit more ephemeral than those found in last month’s post. Yet each lends itself to building positivity in your life. It’s easy to get caught up in self-doubt and cynicism. Instead, start by noticing all the good around you, and celebrating it.
5 ways to increase positivity in your life
I am heading to my younger daughter’s graduation this month where she will receive a Master’s degree in International Relations. It’s one of the places where we do mark real transitions from one stage of life to another. These young people are still optimistic, despite focusing on some of the most egregious problems of our time across the world. But as we get older and more cynical, we may need a little help learning how to increase positivity in your life.
This is not easy, because from a survival standpoint, the negatives are louder and harsher because the consequences are greater than with positive experiences. Rick Hanson says negative experiences stick as if you have Velcro in your brain, whereas the positive experiences tend to slide off as if your brain were made of Teflon.
I know this is true for me, and sometimes makes it really difficult to write. I get more positive than negative feedback. Yet, that one comment, even the one that seems to come from someone with a poor command of the English language, that tells me I am “crazy for thinking that this could possibly work,” takes a lot of positive comments to outweigh!
This is also sometimes referred to as the “negativity bias” that we all experience. Recognizing this issue can help you focus on the feeling you want, rather than things you want to have. This is the place where you say to yourself, “I am safe, here and now; there is no saber-toothed tiger hiding behind that bamboo. Negative thoughts make you want to run away from danger as fast as the adrenaline in your legs can carry you.
Why should you bother to enhance positivity in your life? For one thing, when you can get fear out of your way, you become more productive. Some experts estimate as much as 31% more productive! Here are 5 positive emotions (with thanks to Barbara Frederickson’s work) and some steps you can take to enhance them:
- Joy: Create a “happy place” in your brain that you can return to at a moment’s notice. Positive memories can be that refuge: Celebrating a special event with friends, remembering a walk in the woods on a blustery day, or the sound of a Carolina wren singing on a spring morning outside your bedroom window. Or it can simply be a place in nature you know really well, a safe place from childhood that you can recreate in your mind: a special garden, a ledge looking out over a valley, a waterfall with rhododendrons. It also doesn’t hurt to scatter a few simple pleasures through your day, like a good cup of tea or coffee while sitting on your porch, or bring the outside in with a bouquet of fresh flowers.
- Gratitude: A gratitude journal is a useful way to remember all the good things in your life. Take a little time at the end of each day to see if you can name something new each day. We are all grateful for love of family, but maybe someone in your family did something special for you. Or maybe something good happened because you reached out of your own comfort zone. Acknowledge your own part in creating the good stuff. Alternatively, you can lie in bed for a few minutes before you get up, and remind yourself of all the good things in your life, as simple as being warm and dry.
- Serenity: Use inspiring quotes, or lines from poems, that speak to you of the positive side of life. Many, many people from prisoners of war to refugees from natural disasters have used this strategy to get through some of the worst of times. I find for myself that singing songs with a positive message makes it easier to remember (the rhyming scheme) literally lifts my sagging spirits with a lilting melody. One of my personal favorites is “Sing a Song” by Joe Raposo. Another technique when someone throws a negative comment your way that upsets your peace of mind is to imagine it as a drop of dark-colored ink in clear water. Now watch how fast that ink dissolves as it mixes with the rest of the water and all becomes clear again.
- Interest (curiosity): Curiosity is frequently defined as the intellectual quality that makes you want to learn more about a given topic. When Terry Anderson was a hostage in Beirut, Lebanon (1985-1991) he remembers being continually beset by ants. He would stomp on them, grind them out, and still they came. Finally, he began to take an interest in them, and noticed the complexity of their social life, and how the group would actually attempt to carry out a single wounded ant. This is a rather extreme example to be sure, but being curious about what is happening in your life can help you learn new things. And while you are busy asking those who, what, when, where, how and most particularly why questions, you are not likely to be focusing on the negative.
- Pride (in actual accomplishment): Create a file of things you have accomplished, things you know you did well. Include any time someone praises you for a job well done, or thanks you for your part in something a group did. Notice your own talents. Notice what you have learned from these experiences. If praise comes by email, print it out and stick it your file. Then, when you are assailed by negative thoughts, pull out these glorious words and remind yourself of how wonderful you actually are.
Make a commitment to yourself to pursue positivity in your life. Not just at some surface level of smiling when things are not going your way, because there will always be a time when things don’t go your way, but at a deeper level. Interpreting events away from the inherent negative bias has lasting good consequences. It’s an investment in yourself and your future.
Next month we’ll look at 5 more positive emotions and how to enhance them.
5 strategies for dealing with negative self-talk
As was mentioned in the last post, getting still is the first step to helping yourself grow and move from an inspired place, and the second is decreasing the negative aspects of your mind. I know: I have an exceptionally unkind inner critic that has frozen me in place and even tried to kill my creative side on occasion. So, I must be active in talking back to it.
I know I am not alone in this, and many, many intelligent people have to deal with it. Where it comes from is a bit of a mystery, but Byron Katie suggests that there is a list of common human beliefs, like “I don’t belong here,” and “I’m not good enough,” may have been a way historically to keep us in line socially, with whatever “tribe” we identify with, whether nuclear family, work group, city, state or nation. But they stop serving us once we become adult enough to actually examine what the negative messages are really telling us. She calls dealing with these negative stories “The Work” of a lifetime, because we have to keep doing it as we grow and change.
I am using close-up photograph of the “Sword Gate” because we all have a tendency to crucify ourselves with the “inner critic.” Manufactured by Christopher Werner and installed at the entrance to a private Charleston residence in the mid-19th century, each half of the gate has a central cross, formed by two vertical spears meeting in the middle of horizontally placed broadsword.
The negative self-talker has many names: Critic, Gremlin, Saboteur, but it doesn’t really matter what you call it as long as you know how to talk back to it in a respectful fashion that allows you to move on. It’s no fun telling yourself every day how awful you are, or listening to an internalized someone that has no idea what the true, great you is capable of doing. You would not tell your best friend or a child or someone you work with on a regular basis something like “You know you’re kidding yourself if you think you can do that.” So, stop slinging mud at yourself right now and start cleaning up your act.
Here are 5 ideas to begin dealing with this messy mind:
- Start by giving your inner critic a name. Mine is called Elf but it is not so benign as that might sound. It’s much more like a mean little goblin, somewhat akin to Dobbins from the Harry Potter series. The funnier or stupider you name it, the harder it is to take it seriously. “Fat Traffic Cop,”, “The Nag,” “Old Man Smithereens,” “Mother Hen,” all help you take the critic a little less seriously. “Here comes old Mother Hen telling me the sky is falling again. Bah, humbug.” (See Overcoming Resistance to Writing on dealing with gremlins.
- Take a good hard look at what your inner critic is saying. It doesn’t hurt to take a piece of paper, fold it in half, and on the left hand side, write down all the nasty little things you hear it say to you. It’s good to do this in your own handwriting, rather than on the computer. There is something about writing things down that seems to fire our brain neurons and connect us to our subconscious. (That’s one reason why journaling is so often recommended when we are struggling to deal with psychological wounds.) So, start with even the simplest statement, ”I never get anything done;” “I’m so disorganized;” “I can’t lose weight;” “I’ll never be able to [fill in the blank].“
- Then literally turn it around, by unfolding the paper, and re-framing the statement on the right hand side of the page. This re-framing is going to help you create some affirmations about who you are, and not what you do. It’s part of learning to be kinder and more compassionate with yourself, and that will change your life. So, instead of “I can’t get anything done, allow yourself to imagine changing the wording to something more like “I am learning how to get organized and beginning to get things done.” “I can’t lose weight” becomes “Losing weight is easy for me.” That’s what you write down as the affirmation on the right hand side of the page. Then actually remind yourself of something you did get done recently, no matter how small. Did you get milk on your way home because you were running low? That’s getting things done! Joe Dispenza, author of Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself (2012), suggests whenever you imagine yourself operating out of old behaviors, literally say “change” out-loud and imagine a different outcome. Believe it or not, because you are rewiring those old neurons to stop firing together, eventually you will find that the negative beliefs begin to disperse.
- Rather than getting caught up in the notion that this is all about “positive thinking,” try calling the whole process “possibility thinking.” Is it really true that you made a complete fool of yourself at the last departmental meeting because you spilt coffee on yourself? Isn’t it possible that most of the people at the table never even noticed, or if they did, were actually sympathetic because they have done that to themselves at some point in time? This is a way of “changing the story” so you can stop haranguing yourself. What would your best friend say about it? “Oh, please, did spilling coffee ruin your career, or take away from the content of what you were saying?” In possibility thinking, you can see the answer is, “It really wasn’t the big deal my inner critic is making of it.” This helps you move on instead of dwelling on it.
- One of my very own favorite actions is to take a box, literal or imagined, and put negative or anxious thoughts into it. When a negative thought intrudes, like “I am a fool because I told the board I thought that was a stupid idea,” put the thought in the smallest box you can, and see that it is manageable. Change the self-talk to, “I didn’t use the best words possible to tell the board what I thought about that idea; next time I will be more careful in my choice of words.” Squishing it down into something small helps make it easier to manage, and changing the possible outcome makes you more confident that you will do better next time.
These are five simple things you can do to deal with any negative self-talk that threatens to overwhelm you.
3 Small Mindfulness Rituals to Create Stillness and Focus
As usual, I am writing about what I am currently dealing with in my life and practice as a career and life coach for academics in transition. What is on my mind right now is mindfulness, particularly how to create stillness for yourself, in order to grow and move in your life from an inspired place. For those of you who are oriented to a more theoretical way of thinking, this can also be called the science of positive neuroplasticity.
The brain is not just some three-pound muscle that resides in your head; it may exist both inside your skull and through mind or consciousness, outside your head, too, in connection with the other minds around you. Mindfulness is about tuning into your own mind, and keeping your awareness on the present moment. I am often asked about “time management” and really that is another way of saying, “How to I deal with being overloaded?”
The surprising answer is “cultivate mindfulness” because it teaches you how to focus on just one thing at a time, and let’s you know what to do “right now, in this very moment.” It helps you get in touch with what is truly the next best step. Being still is about step one, just learning to be with your mind, by putting your mind in a restful mode that stops the on-going chatter. The next step is decreasing the negative aspects of your mind, and the third step is increasing positivity so that the mind can become an ally for you by building inner strength.
Today I want to give you ideas for increasing the stillness in order to hear the rest of the story in your mind. Many of you know the expression in yoga that the mind is like drunken monkey, jumping from branch to branch and never settling in one place. Many of you have also heard “sit still for at least 15 minutes a day” and for many busy people that feels like an impossible goal. So, let’s start smaller, with three simple actions that will help you develop focus. Pick something you do every day and turn it into a more mindful ritual.
- Pay attention to brushing your teeth. Do it mindfully, actually concentrating on the feel of the brush against your teeth and the flow from one tooth to another. It allows you to be more conscious of the beginning of your day.
- Pay attention to eating. You have to eat every day. Can you put away all other things that might distract you from what you are eating, newspaper, tablet, cell phone, and then concentrate on exactly what you are putting into your mouth. What is the texture of the food? Is it crunchy or soft? Does it taste good because it is fresh and ripe? This helps you become more present.
- Be grateful for those near you. Actually look at them with gratitude and hold them in your gaze. Be thankful for having those people in your life, and know that being here for each other is truly what our life is about. It’s a reminder that no matter what form the day takes, and no matter what happens in the course of the day, we have people to care about and love and people who care about and love us. This helps us with gratitude.
Each of these very small practices can help to still the mental chatter, remind us to focus on just one thing at a time, and to create the stillness in your mind. From this place of stillness, we can more easily answer the question, “What am I being called to do now?” Remembering what it feels like to focus on just one thing at a time will help you stay with the answer to that question.
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5 big tips (and one bonus one) on how to let go
Since 50% of us will make resolutions for the New Year, and 90% of us who make them will break them, according to Dr. Gregory Ramey, I have decided to continue with the theme of letting go. This month, I want to focus on the how rather than the why, with these 5 big tips on exactly how you practice letting go. This practice can stop you from beating yourself up when you fail to live up to your own aspirations. It’s not that aspirations are bad: I actually believe they serve a very important purpose in helping us create our own ideal life, one that is good for those around us, too. However, I have realized that without creating the space for myself to think and contemplate, I will wear myself out and produce little of actual long-term value, and I am practicing what I preach by letting myself let old stuff go as part of the my 2015 game plan.
That said, here are the best 5 BIG tips I know on how to let go:
- Appreciate abundance: Too often, people think of abundance in financial terms. Are you rich in love and joy? I am extraordinarily rich in terms of familial and friend relationships. Where are the areas in your life where you are rich? Sometimes I get caught in my own rhetoric of scarcity, and thinking that I will never do enough, be enough, have enough, etc., etc., but the truth is all around us in the natural world. Walks in nature continuously surprise me with joy. Nature is abundant: witness this huge mass of shells in the photo above along Edisto Beach. Nature produces such abundance precisely to make sure there is enough, knowing that not every seed will sprout or egg will hatch. You have to try many different things as they won’t all succeed and that means letting go of the ones that are not working.
- Take small actions: There are plenty of things you cannot control, like the weather and the world economy. But that shouldn’t stop you from doing whatever you can do to change your own life. We have far more control over our daily actions than nearly any other creature on earth. And many of us have far more control than we realize over how we make a living. You can reach out for an informational interview, research a different organization, and apply for a new job. Who knows, you might even get it!
- Live in the moment: What is in front of you, right now? Meditate or do yoga to help you stay in the present, instead of dwelling on old hurts or failures. One technique for this is to visualize a box in your head labeled “Expectations.”Whenever you start dwelling on how things should be or should have been, stuff that thought into this box. You can create a real box, too. A friend of mine calls it her “God Box” to remind herself to “let God handle it.” If that sounds too religious to you, just adapt the name to “Let Go.” If you are worrying about how to get a new client or finish that big project, write down your worry, and put in the box. Then take that big worry, and go back to Tip #2, and start taking small actions.
- Fully experience emotion: A psychologist friend of mine likes to say that the word “emotion” contains the word “motion” in it. You don’t get over something without moving through it. Try giving yourself “a rant window” or a “grief time” to fully experience whatever emotion is keeping you from letting go of something or someone, maybe 15 minutes or so a day for a week or a month. After venting or sorrowing for a specific amount of time, stop! If you do something too much, you create neuronal pathways, like ruts deepening from wagon wheels, getting harder and harder to jump out of over time.
- Express your feelings creatively: Draw your feelings, free write in a journal, play a musical instrument to express your anger, happiness, frustration, joy, whatever emotion is currently ruling your life. Once you’ve finished, remind yourself that you have now released those emotions. You might even want to burn that picture, throw away those journal pages, or pound out some scales to move on.
- Be who you are now: If an old love, teacher, parent, child, friend, or anyone else in your life, has a way of describing you as “Good old loyal so-and-so, s/he’s always there to clean up the mess,” is that still descriptive of who you are now? Is there an old voice telling saying “You can’t?” You might need to let go of a pre-conceived notion of who you are, to get to a new version of yourself. You can still be loyal, but no need to be a doormat or a punching bag. Start 2015 by respecting yourself. The new you can let go of the old self that was being hurt or abused by others. Your new self may even enjoy life more.
As we come to the end of 2014, what are you ready to let go of that’s no longer serving you well in your life? I am asking myself this question in relation to myriad items: in life, love and friendships, and in work from clients to accounting and all the other administrative tasks that must be accomplished to maintain a soloprenuer practice. It’s not easy, letting go. I dread it, actually, because it brings up loyalty issues for me. However, I have come to realize if I do not let something go, I am going to continue working too much and playing too little. As a friend of mine (now dead) used to say to me in the cubicle we once shared, “No one gets to their deathbed and says, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office.’ ”
Ironically, this is the very thing I talk to with clients about quite a bit. As a career coach specializing in working with higher education professionals, such as professors and administrators, we discuss what happens to your brain when you fail to let it rest, and give it a chance to play. Rest is what restores our brain chemistry, and that in turn, restores our creativity.
“The opposite of play is not work, it is depression.” This aphorism of Stuart Brown, M.D. (quoted in Brown & Vaughn’s 2009 book, Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul), noted play researcher and president at The National Institute for Play, has been extensively quoted because it resonates with so many people. Play is a catalyst for good work and learning at any age. Working on something new—letting the mind play—will ease feelings of being overwhelmed and lack of fun. Google is one company that has taken this idea to heart. For 20 percent of their time, employees may go where their minds ask them to go. The proof is in the bottom line: fully 50 percent of new products, including Gmail and Google News, came from the 20 percent “free,” mind-wandering time according to John Medina (2008).
“Sleep on it,” your mother might have said, and in fact that is excellent advice at two levels: your brain repairs the chemistry it has expended during the day making all those thousands of decisions (What to have for breakfast? Which project to tackle first? What do I really want to say here, anyway?). Your subconscious noodles away on the big issues as you sleep, often presenting you with solutions upon waking.
I know this works for me, and I even try to encourage it by asking myself the big questions just before drifting off, and keeping a dream journal by my bedside to record the answers on waking. It’s a practice David Whyte, poet and career advisor, recommends. I recommend his poem on the topic, What to Remember When Waking (2013): “…coming back to this life from the other…there is a small opening into the new day which closes the moment you begin your plans.”
So back to letting go: The hardest part of business and life for me has been learning to let relationships go that no longer serve me. This may sound selfish at first, but the truth is that you can’t serve others well if you are not taking care of yourself. I had to let go of my family of origin to go to school and start a family of my own; I had to let go of my husband when he died in a car wreck; I had to let go of my children in order for them to fledge successfully, and I am now learning to let go of old friendships or business relationships that I have simply outgrown. And it ain’t easy!
I fight the old voices that tell me loyalty is more important than how I am treated, and that if I want a relationship to succeed, I have to do all the work. But again, that’s not a useful way to look at it. The truth is that putting energy into a one-way relationship just drains me, and leaves me with less to give the people that really do matter, like the man I married six months ago.
As a semi-retired academic, he holds the mirror up to me and my behavior and says, “I’m playing, why aren’t you?” Ouch. Inside, the pusher voice says, “Don’t listen to that man! The only way you are going to succeed in this life is to work harder than everyone else.” Never mind that my rational mind actually knows this is a lie. It’s really hard to break old patterns, to play more and work less. Not to mention that I actually love a lot of the work I do, exploring one-on-one with clients what direction they want to take their lives. This part doesn’t even feel like work: it feels like play. The work part comes in all the other administrative details that have to be taken care of in order to do the play-of-work.
As you find your own way forward by letting go, here is my seasonal blessing for both of us (with thanks to Jim Koehneke for sharing his version):
In the good, we trust,
With the good, we let go,
In the good, we receive and share
In the good, we know joy.
Smart Leadership™ Embraces Diversity and Paradox
In October, I had the privilege of being one of the first speakers at a new pilot program begun by the Center for Women here in Charleston, SC. The purpose of the program is to engage both women AND men in learning to lead by managing paradox. As we set forth in the Participant Guide, “Smart Leadership™ is the process of recognizing, balancing, and using conflicting yet complementary attributes to drive cultural change for success in a global economy.”
The problem many leaders face is being focused too often on a single outcome, looking at only half of an equation at any given time: short-term results OR long-term-results; task completion OR relationship outcomes; quality work OR quantity of goods and services. The reality for the modern leader is actually the need to deliver both. The real formula is: short-term results AND long-term-results; task completion AND relationship outcomes; quality or work AND quantity of goods and services. The fundamental nature of using paradox to lead is learning to hear both sides of the equation at the same time, and acting on that information even if it initially appears to be contradictory. As professor, consultant, and author Charles Handy put it so succinctly and beautifully in his book The Age of Paradox (1995), “Paradox does not have to be resolved, only managed.”
Smart leaders need to embrace paradox. As they participate, smart leaders will find the usefulness in engaging with what may initially appear to be contradictory, and be able to create a new middle path. The word paradox assumes an equally weighted set of choices, but that is not necessarily so. Sometimes, the paradox comes from listening to the minority point of view. A smart leader is going to have a team that allows for different perspectives and points of view, and is going to be happy to hear from the minority position on any given topic.
Why does a smart leader do this? Because as Liane Davey explains in You First (2013), it helps leaders with seeing opportunities, spotting threats, leveraging strengths, and mitigating weaknesses that might otherwise have been missed. Here’s what she says about the challenge leaders face: “Diversity of thought slows you down. At least it feels like it slows you down. In reality, without diversity you might rocket through the decision-making process only to grind to a halt during implementation.” Differing perspectives leaders need to include on a team must include those from diverse functions and roles, stakeholders inside and outside the organization, and different “thinking styles” from the big picture to the minutia of execution. It can be truly uncomfortable to listen to alternate points of view at first, but you are ultimately going to serve the greater needs or your organization if you can find a way to listen to the minority voices.
Here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter whether that minority is the number of women to men, white to black, introverts to extroverts, gay to straight. What matters is that the minority gets heard, and that any paradoxes get addressed. Not necessarily resolved, but certainly managed.
So, how do you make room for the other side? You must create the space for them to be heard first. Use your agenda and let folks speak for or against any particular item. If you only hear from one person on the issue, use your power as a leader to appoint a different person in order to get a different voice. Some teams use personality tests that are color-coded to remind themselves to look at the red and the blue, the green and the yellow perspectives.
You can specifically ask members of your team to take particular points of view: How does this challenge look to the relationship-focused client? How does this look to the task-oriented administrator? What will be lost AND what will be gained by changing from a quality to a quantity output? Where is the third way, the middle ground between that takes both paradoxes into account? As a smart leader, it is your job to notice if someone on the team is being stifled or never speaks up, and directly inquire into their position.
Tim Cook, Apple’s current CEO, just came out as gay in a Bloomberg Businessweek essay (published October 30,2104), saying that while he never before has publically acknowledged his sexual orientation, he has “come to realize that my desire for personal privacy has been holding me back from doing something more important.” He quoted civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King, saying: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ ”
He added that “being gay has given me a deeper understanding of what it means to be in a minority and provided a window into the challenges that other people in minority groups face every day,” and finished with the statement that he has been lucky to work for a company that “loves creativity and innovation and knows it can only flourish when you embrace people’s differences.” That is exactly what Smart Leadership™ is all about: interdependent apparently paradoxical situations that require great social sensitivity to manage, thus allowing both the leader and the leader’s organization to thrive in the global economy of the 21st century.