Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Monday, March 12, 2018

Listening to the Call of Growth

I have long maintained that growth is life's imperative. A concept I recently wrote about (click here.) Additionally, there is a great line, in the Kabbalah, which hints at the idea that all things have angels who encourage them to grow. I recently read an article, by Rabbi Alan Lurie, which I thought was really great. And, I wanted to pass it along. Here is the article in its entirety:

In the Talmud - the encyclopedic compilation of Jewish moral and ethical debate - can be found this beautiful and mysterious sentence:

Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.’

For some, this sentence presents several obstacles to understanding its message. First, based on painting, statues, and greeting cards, we may think of angels as pretty, androgynous beings with feathery wings. If these actually do exist, can there really be one of these over every blade of grass? Second, even if we do have a less literal image of “angels”, we may associate them with miracles, or of conveying a crucial message to human beings - not of hovering over blades of grass. Lastly, you may simply say “I don’t believe in such nonsense as angels”, and dismiss this sentence as superstitious nonsense.

These obstacles stem from the reading of this sentence as a literal description of an actual event. As with any mystical text, however, we must read deeper in order to understand the writer’s intent. Within the spiritual vocabulary, “angels” are the non-physical carriers of the Divine will in physicality, just as gravitons are postulated to be massless manifestation of the force of gravity, photons are the basis of electromagnetism, and wave-like electrons underlie all matter. According the Talmudic writer, one of the forces that angels carry is the urge to grow - to develop, improve, and evolve. By noting that even every blade of grass is imbued with this urge, the Talmudic saying teaches that, like light, gravity, and electromagnetism, growth is a ubiquitous force of nature.

Everything yearns to grow; it is an inherent drive embedded in all creation. All you need to do is watch a seed push through the earth, or see a child’s relentless urge to walk, to understand that everything is pulled forward by the call to growth, like a plant leaning toward the sun. As the Talmud writer implies, the persistent whisper “Grow! Grow!!” calls to all creation. Like grass, we grow physicality, because physical growth is naturally built in to the cycle of all life. Unlike grass, though, we also have the capacity to grow in another, more crucial way. We can grow in consciousness - in our ability to connect to others, to live meaningfully, and to have a positive impact. This force of conscious growth is what drives us forward to create a personal and communal future that is better than what we had yesterday and what we have today.

We can choose to hear and to act on this call to conscious growth, or we can ignore it, drowning out the angelic whisper with the noisy external distractions of constant entertainment, the internal chatter of our mental judgments, or the drone of our unconscious routine ways of thinking and reacting. We resist the call of conscious growth in order to feel safe and to avoid the discomfort of change, but this strategy inevitably backfires. Since this resistance is in opposition to nature, it will eventually lead to feelings of frustration, dissatisfaction, meaninglessness, and depression.

Conscious growth, then, begins when we chose to listen to its call, and invite it in. We invite growth when we are willing to examine our fixed beliefs: who we think that we are, why others behave as they do, and how the world works. Many (perhaps most) of our beliefs about ourselves and others are simply constructs that we created, usually at a very early age, in reactions to fears, unmet needs, and disappointments, in order to protect us from the uncertainties that we could not understand, and to ensure survival. Because these are built on our fears, many of these constructs are negative, such as: people can’t be trusted, I’ll never be good enough, what matters most is what others think of me, that which I can’t control must be eliminated, those that I love will hurt and betray me. We then grow up believing that these constructs are absolutely true, and since we can not imagine another way of responding we assume that everyone else lives from the same constructs that we’ve created, thereby driving us further in to a self-protective stance and away from others.

Conscious growth happens when we break this pattern and begin to realize that there are other, more effective, more positive ways to be. This can happen through the example of another person, or by experimentation. Let’s say, for instance, that you “just know” that if you’re not perfect you will be hurt in some way (criticized, rejected, abandoned), and you make a mistake in front of someone who you respect, but that person shows no signs of the rejection and criticism that you had assumed naturally accompany such an event. Perhaps this person actually draws closer, and supports and encourages you! Or you may find that you’ve come to a crisis in your life (another failed relationship, fired from a job, a health crisis) and out of shear desperation you are willing to try anything new, and decide to step in to the darkness - of trusting someone, when you just “know” that people can not be trusted, or telling someone about your fears, when just “know” that you will be taken advantage of if you reveal your deepest feelings - and to your shock, you find that this desperate measure works; the person is trustworthy, and vulnerability brought you closer.

Now you begin to realize that there are possibilities for understanding the world to which you were completely blind, because you absolutely believed your construct about how things are. Suddenly the incredible possibility arises that your construct may not be the absolute truth, and there is another way of seeing things. Then, in the birth of new possibilities you grow and are pulled forward, as new ways of seeing your life and the world appear. Then, you look back of where you’ve been with gratitude at the urgent, persistent whisper of growth.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Everything is an Oversimplification

Last week I said culture is a pattern of assumptions. We need to operate based on assumptions to get by in the complex world we live in.

The world is, indeed, vast and complex. Have you ever spent time thinking about this? It can be a pretty intimidating idea, for sure.

To get by we need to utilize assumptions, shortcuts, heuristics, etc. These are necessary simplifications because there is a limit to how quickly we can process information. Indeed, everything is an oversimplification.

So, what are we to do? I guess the short answer is to not settle, and put time to work in our favor. Meaning, though the brain can only process so much information at a time, it can process for long periods of time.

I recently read Anders Ericsson's book Peak. If the name does not ring a bell, he is the guy who did the research which ultimately led to something called the 10,000 Hour Rule.

Like many oversimplifications, the 10,000 Hour Rule is not actually a rule. But, it sounds nice. So, Malcolm Gladwell put it in his popular book Outliers.

The idea is relatively simple and it goes like this. The human brain is extremely adaptable. And, with enough practice it can master just about anything.

Putting in 10,000 hours takes about 10 years. Which is, of course, a long time. But, the result is expert performance (a level few aspire to) so most things will not take as long.

Though I know I am rambling in this post, my point is the following. Life is complicated and it takes time to figure out. So, don't give up.

Depending on your persuasion, the fact of life's complexity can be either stimulating or depressing. The depressing slant would be that 10 years is a long time to work hard. The stimulating idea is that we need not ever get bored.

I mean, let's face it, the time will pass either way. Look at it this way, 10 years is about 12.5% of the average lifetime. Doesn't look so long anymore, does it?

I will leave you with that famous quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes, “For the simplicity on this side of complexity, I wouldn't give you a fig. But, for the simplicity on the other side of complexity, I would give my life.”

Monday, February 26, 2018

On Culture and Leadership

The universe is a complex and ambiguous place. Reality is not always easy to grasp.

A few weeks ago I said the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. Through this process of repeatedly defining reality, a leader creates a culture for his or her organization.

Culture is a difficult, but important, topic. Perhaps the world's leading expert on organizational culture is Edgar Schein. Ed spent much of his career as a professor at MIT.

I recently read Schein's landmark book Organizational Culture and Leadership, and loved it, so I thought I would pass along a portion of that love.

Schein defines cultures as, "A pattern of basic assumptionsinvented, discovered, or developed by a given group as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaption and integral integrationthat has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to the problems."

He continues, "Because such assumptions have worked repeatedly, they are likely to be taken for granted and to have dropped out of awareness."

Culture is the result of the assumptions we use to get along in this crazy world. The assumptions we live by. Assumptions about the way the world works.

All is well-and-good as long as the assumptions hold. However, the world is constantly changing. And, eventually, good assumptions will turn into bad assumptions.

For this reason, it is wise to periodically question your assumptions. Perhaps every couple years ask yourself, "Are our assumptions still valid and effective?"

Especially after you experience an unexpected failure, you should reevaluate your assumptions. Unexpected failures are often the result of flawed assumptions.

Like Schein said, very often our assumptions and beliefs operate outside of conscious awareness. As you probably know, we humans tend to operate on auto-pilot. The key, just like with a pilot, is to know when to turn-off the automatic assistance, and fly the plane conscientiously.

Don't forgot to question your assumptions.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Does life have no meaning?

Last week, I talked about the idea that two people can look at the same set of facts, come to different conclusions, and both be right. Does this mean we should all simply become nihilists? Does life have no meaning? Well, yes and no.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would say that life has no meaning. That is to say, your life does not have some preordained meaning, which was written amongst the stars.

To clarify the point, Csikszentmihalyi then says this does not mean your life cannot be given meaning. Indeed he says, "The meaning of life is meaning." By that, Csikszentmihalyi is saying it is incumbent upon each of us to discover, and cultivate, our own life's meaning.

To say we must each discover, and cultivate, our life's meaning is to say we must each define our own reality. And, this brings us back to the Max DePree quote from two weeks ago, "The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality."

In my life, one thing I have discovered is that leadership is largely a function of effective living. Effective living gets results. And, people tend to follow results.

The problem, of course, is that life is complicated. And, getting results ain't easy. Especially with entrepreneurship!

So, to the extent we are effective in our own lives, we are better able to lead others, because we know how to get results. As Carl Rogers said, "What is most personal is most universal." 

Life does have meaning. It has the meaning you give it. And, the same thing happens within organizations. Businesses are given meaning by people because leaders help define reality.

I think Csikszentmihalyi was on to something. The meaning of life is meaning.

Monday, February 12, 2018

"It is not logical..."

Last week, I talked about Max DePree and how he said the first job of a leader is to define reality. This week, I wanted to elaborate on the concept because defining reality is harder than it might sound.

I want to bring Stephen Covey into the discussion. Have you ever read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People? It truly is one of my all-time favorite books. In 7 Habits, Stephen Covey talks about the subjective nature of reality. Covey says two people can look at the same reality, come to different conclusions, and both be right.

To illustrate the point, Covey includes the following image:

Apparently, this is an exercise used at the Harvard Business School. During the exercise, half of the class is shown an image which primes them to see a young woman, in the image above, and the other half is given an image that primes them to see an old lady.

Then, when all the students are shown the image above, and asked what they see, they end up arguing over whether it is an old lady or a young woman. Both sides can become incredulous even accusing the other side being being completely ridiculous.

The students use lots and lots of words to try to convince their counterparts of what they are seeing. Unless you have done this exercise, you have not been primed with regards to which woman you should see. So, let me try to explain how to see the two woman.

In the picture, the young woman is looking away. She has black hair, a feather extending from her forehead, and some sort of fancy white head-dress. With her looking to her right, we see a clear shot of the left side of her jawline. She also has a black necklace and a fluffy dressy shawl type thing. Can you see her?

The old lady is shown more in profile. The necklace of the young woman becomes the mouth slit of the old lady. The left ear of the young woman becomes the left eye of the old lady. The jawline of the old woman is the profile of the old lady's left nostril. What had been a stylish white head-dress becomes a more functional head cover.

Whereas the young woman is looking to her right, perhaps to see what all the excitement is about, the old lady is looking forward, towards the ground, with her chin tucked in, as though she were feeble or cold. Do you see it?

I have tried to explain the differences to show how futile words can be. If I have done an insufficient job, you can click here to be primed with the young woman, and click here to be primed with the old lady.

By the way, according to Wikipedia, "Priming is a technique whereby exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus, without conscious guidance or intention."

We are all the sum of our life experiences. These experiences have primed us to look at the world in various ways. And, we have all had different experiences. As such, we have all been primed to look at the world in different ways.

So, who was correct? The people or saw the young woman? Or, the people who saw the old lady? The answer is BOTH. Again, two people can look at the same set of facts, come to different conclusions, and both be right. Covey says it is not logical, it is psychological.

Monday, February 5, 2018

The First Job of a Leader

I sit here, typing these words, with a hot cup of coffee, a warm pair of slippers, and perhaps the most comfortable chair ever invented. The chair is called an Aeron, and it was created by the Herman Miller company.

Herman Miller is a very interesting company. Their designs are beautiful. Which causes them to win all kinds of awards. And, as I have mentioned, their products are simultaneously elegant and utilitarian.

Herman Miller got its start in 1905. The company was, and is, based out of a little town called Zeeland, Michigan. Knowing this, we immediately encounter a challenge. How do you attract high-level designers to a little town in western Michigan? In a word; excellence.

The company was started by DJ DePree, who obviously did a great job, before turning the reins over to his son Max. Throughout its history, Herman Miller has focused on building a great organization, not just great products.

The level of institutional intelligence, at Herman Miller, is quite impressive. Today, I simply want to mention one point. It is a quote from Max DePree. Max said, "The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality."

This is a really important concept because, the truth is, many people try to deny reality. You see, we humans have mastered the art of wishful thinking. For various reasons, we choose to believe reality is what we want it to be, rather than what it truly is.

Life is to be lived and enjoyed. This I truly believe. So, there will always be room for romance. There will always be room for wishes, dreams, and fantasy. That said, leadership is about getting stuff done. The right stuff!

I think I am going to leave it at that. If you are, or hope to be, a leader, your first responsibility is to define reality. It is your job to distinguish between truth and fantasy. And, this is usually not very easy because we have a real knack for wishful thinking.

How do we overcome our proclivity to delude ourselves with wishful thinking? I wish I had a magic potion to give you. Truth be told, I think it boils down to an old, boring word. Practice. (sorry not sorry)