The places that scare us

“A further sign of health is that we don’t become undone by fear and trembling, but we take it as a message that it’s time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us. ”
― Pema Chodron, The Places that Scare You 

Halloween is an interesting tradition.

While there is some debate as to its precise origins, by now we’ve mostly come to see Halloween as a fun way for kids to dress up and score some treats and for everyone to playfully indulge in fantasies of terror and some rather benign scariness.

Perhaps the construct of a day focused on “safe” fear is a way to channel both the conscious and unconscious reality that we live in a pretty scary world and that most of us experience fear each and everyday.

Fear of failure.

Fear of rejection or abandonment.

Fear of injury or death.

Fear of being discovered for who we really are.

The truth is that there are plenty of places that scare us and once the make-believe of Halloween passes, those thoughts and feelings will still be there.

The only way to conquer our fears is to confront them. The only steps that work are awareness, acceptance and action. The only path is through, not around.

When the oxygen leaves the room

In the Republican Presidential race Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson are sucking up virtually all the oxygen in the room. It may be for reasons that suggest mass psychosis, but I digress. The fact is that news of their campaigns dominates the airwaves and most political conversations, leaving little or no space for other candidates to garner attention, much less gain any real traction.

During my time at the Neiman Marcus Group, the vast majority of the oxygen was consumed by our hyper-focus on growing profits with our very top-tier customers–mostly through price increases–and executing our current operating strategy. There was little oxygen left for cultivating other important customer groups or working on the new ideas that a maturing business would need to gain share. It’s not terribly surprising that those initiatives withered on the vine. Nor should anyone be shocked that today’s growth pipeline is sparse and the company is now focused on cost-cutting.

Since Eddie Lampert has helmed Sears Holdings, his focus has been on extracting cash from many aspects of the core business, while throwing money at various vague digital initiatives, creating a culture of internal competition and his crazy notion of Sears’ becoming a “membership” company. The oxygen needed to fix the basic issues in Sears value proposition has never been there. This is certain to end badly.

Of course, this notion extends well beyond business strategy.

When protection of ego and the need to be right consumes most of the oxygen in the room, there is little or nothing left for connection.

When we are focused on judgment or condemnation of others, compassion has no room to breathe.

When we stoke the flames of hate, the fire of love goes out.

It’s easy to say we don’t have the time, money, skills or energy to do otherwise. But, for me, it’s really pretty simple.

Sometimes we are the ones sucking the oxygen out of the room through the example we set and the actions we take. It’s a choice–our choice–to stay on that path.

Sometimes the oxygen is being sucked out of the room by others. And sometimes, despite our best intentions and strongly held hopes that it might change, the stark reality is it won’t.

The only answer then is to leave the room.

99 problems but a botch ain’t one

For many of us, it’s so easy to identify with a story about all of our problems. My boss is a jerk, it’s too hot, I’m so busy, my back hurts, allergies are really bad this year, this idiot cut me off in traffic, and on and on.

In this line of thinking, stuff happens and somehow or other we’re a perpetual victim. Who cares that much of this is out of our control or that few of these situations truly arise to being much of a real problem at all. Indeed, to paraphrase Eckhart Tolle, “the problem is not the problem, the problem is our thinking about the problem.”

Yet, for me, it’s interesting how rarely our narrative includes owning up to a botch, a blunder, a mess we made, our glorious failure or bungled experiment.

Sometimes it’s just too painful to admit we took a chance and it didn’t work out.

Sometimes we’re scared to say “here I made this” and face criticism or outright rejection.

Sometimes, we conveniently ignore our role in a less than desired outcome.

Of course, sometimes there can be no botch, because we took no risk. The fact is it’s almost always easier to do nothing.

Growth doesn’t come from rehashing life’s little inconveniences or slights. It comes from taking the leap and exposing ourselves to the harsh light of both the tribe and the trolls. It’s not about trying to avoid the botch, it’s about being prepared to fail, fail again and fail better.

Ultimately we must make a choice. Will it be “V” for victim or “V for Vulnerable”?

Why weren’t you Moses?

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the Hasidic Rabbi Zusya who, as he lay crying on his deathbed, was queried by his disciples: “Why do you fear God’s judgement? You have lived life with the faith of Abraham. You have been as nurturing as Rachel. You have feared the Divine as Moses himself. Why do fear judgement?”

To which he responds: “In the coming world, they will not ask me ‘why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?”

As Steven Furtick reminds us, so often we struggle because we compare our insides to everyone else’s highlight reel.

Maybe we’re the entrepreneur who measures herself against Jobs or Zuckerberg or Musk–or whomever happens to be the next rock star innovator.

Perhaps we’re the non-profit executive struggling mightily to emulate the playbook of Teach for America or charity: water or Acumen.

Or instead we’re the corporate leader obsessing about “best demonstrated practices” and beating ourselves up for our imperfection while our head spins wondering what would Jack or Jeff do?

We hit the golf course and curse ourselves because our drives don’t fly nearly as far as Jason’s and our putts don’t fall like Jordan’s. We castigate ourselves for not being as disciplined as this one and not being in as good shape as that one. We wonder what’s wrong with us because we don’t have the big house. And when we get the big house we worry about why ours isn’t decorated as nicely as our neighbors or what we see on TV.

It’s exhausting. More importantly, it’s pointless.

It’s pretty unlikely we find happiness through relentlessly competing and comparing to overcome our own insecurities. And I can’t think of one instance where meaningful change came from merely copying someone else.

I like what Oscar Wilde said. “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

HT to Dr. Laurel Hallman for inspiring this post

Judge slowly 

It often appears that we are biologically wired and socially conditioned to quickly form opinions, some rather strong.

I like you or I don’t.

You’re right or you’re wrong.

That idea will never work.

Trump won’t gain any support (or Hillary’s a shoo-in).

It’s a fad.

He’s guilty.

And so on.

Sometimes our reactive minds and intuition serve us well (see Blink); other times not so much (see Thinking Fast and Slow).

Beyond the intellectual debate, it’s plain to see that we live in world of increasing complexity, expanding choice and nearly infinite access. We are connected in ways never thought imaginable. The “wisdom” of crowds can cause a trivial concept to gain notoriety, while something substantive and important fails to gain any traction. What often appears to be winning or noble is eventually revealed to be anything but.

As it turns out, our ability to predict the future is pretty poor. Our skill in seeing the present reality is often not a whole lot better. More and more, it’s harder to detect the signal amidst the noise, at least at first.

It’s rarely to our advantage–or mankind’s for that matter–to form snap judgments about people and their ideas. Well, unless we take some pleasure in being wrong an awful lot.

If a bear is about to attack you by all means reach a quick conclusion and spring into action. In just about all other cases, judge slowly. We’ll all be better for it.

Away from or towards?

There are times when we’re just standing or sitting around literally without any real direction in our thoughts, feelings or actions. But most times, if we’re honest and aware, we do have leanings, we do possess strong opinions. And the road we are on may not always be completely clear, but it has a most certain vector.

Is it a path away from or toward compassion and justice?

Is it one that embraces innovation or runs from it to defend the status quo?

Is the destination a place of tolerance, respect and inclusion, or a rejection of it?

Do we see prudent risk as a means of growth or is it our enemy?

In our most important relationships, are we turned toward each other committed to build understanding and connection and work through our vulnerabilities, or have we pivoted away out of fear or self-righteousness.

There are only a few values that really matter, that advance our humanity, that bring us together, that move us all forward, that fundamentally heal the world.

Whether we have complete clarity on all that isn’t the point. Nor is doing it all perfectly.

Knowing which direction we are headed most certainly is.

Pure unicorn dust

Do you know companies that say they are all about growth and innovation, yet completely lack any semblance of a process or a modicum of dedicated funding and resources to support these efforts? Do they even possess a culture that not only celebrates taking risk, but that actually knows how to fail better?

Have you heard brands’ espouse a commitment to omni-channel and seamless integration that still operate with silo-ed organizations, silo-ed customer data, silo-ed systems and channel-driven, rather than customer-focused, metrics?

Perhaps you have a friend or a loved one who say they are full of love and compassion and who constantly speaks of making big changes in their life, but has yet to put any of it into practice?

When was the last time something worth doing spontaneously emerged at your organization? When the last time a major transformation happened without an all-in commitment from leadership and a willingness to take on the status quo? When was the last time you’ve made a big change in your life merely through talking about it?

Intentions are great. Concrete plans are better. But the work that matters is in the doing, in taking the plunge, in taking head-on the things that scare us, in making a ruckus.

Yes, it might not work. Sure, you could look stupid or reckless. And, there is a pretty good chance you’re going to piss some people off along your journey. That’s probably a clue that you’re on the right track.

Get out of the stands and into the arena. Anything else is just really good imagination.