Being Remarkable · Innovation · Inspiration · Leadership

Stay. Stay. Stay.

The amygdala is sometimes known as the “lizard brain.” It’s more or less a holdover from prehistoric times and its role is to activate our primal survival instincts such as aggression and fear. When we are faced with a perceived threat, it can reflexively kick us into “fight or flight” mode. Sometimes–typically when we get overwhelmed and flooded with stress hormones–we can bounce back and forth from attacker to avoider, from villain to victim. Or we can shut down entirely.

At work, the lizard brain can keep us from trying new stuff despite knowing we need to innovate. It can cause us to push back hard on challengers to the status quo because we fear being wrong or looking stupid. Or we can just get stuck, paralyzed into inaction.

In personal relationships, those of us who fear intimacy can push away those whom we love, despite our desire to be more deeply connected. Or we can bolt for the door just as we get closer to what we so strongly desire.

The Resistance is real. So is self-sabotage. But as Pema Chodron reminds us, “fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.”

Clearly some situations are untenable and they deserve to be run from and put well behind us. Frankly, quitting is often under-rated.

Other circumstances require us to stand up and fight and say “enough is enough.” No one should endure tantrums or constant boundary violations or harassment or far worse.

Discerning the situations where we need to get in and rumble and get messy and walk through our fear is not easy. It takes real courage to remain in the arena when everything tells us to to flee. To engage when the fear comes up. To do the hard, uncomfortable work. To be neither victim, nor persecutor, nor rescuer, but an accountable adult, fully present, living in reality and owning our truth.

Our restlessness is part of the human condition. And the lizard brain can be easily activated–even more so if we have a history of trauma.

But like a dog being trained, we can learn to stay. Stay engaged. Stay focused. Stay patient. Stay accountable.

We can do the work.

The challenges are great, but so too can be the reward.

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Inspiration · Leadership

A hypothesis of generosity

None of us suffer from a deficit of experience. In fact, “stuff’ happens virtually non-stop.

The daily rhythm of life is that we have ups and downs. Problems manifest, big and small. Complications arise, both profound and mundane. We encounter joys, concerns and everywhere in between. Items get checked off our to-do list. Or not.

Amidst the backdrop of our existence come the many challenges to our equanimity. Often these arise as times when we feel confronted, slighted, or disrespected, Other times we may feel shunned or even attacked.

Maybe we get get cut off in traffic or treated rudely by a stranger. A friend doesn’t call us back. A co-worker doesn’t include us in an important meeting. Perhaps we don’t feel truly heard by our partner. Maybe we even sense that we are being judged or harshly criticized by someone who loves us.

If you are anything like me, you might find yourself drawn to apply a strong filter of negativity, propelled by self-righteousness, defensiveness and anger. If you are anything like me, you might start to make up quite a lot about what’s actually going on and what it all means.

So what if instead we started with a hypothesis of generosity? What if our filter was set to kindness and curiosity instead of assuming the worst possible interpretation? What if we followed Brene Brown‘s advice in her book Rising Strong and we asked ourselves “what is the most generous assumption about this person’s intentions or what this person said?”

In choosing this path we have to challenge our ego. We have to let go of the need to be right. We have to stop getting our needs met through propping ourselves up by putting others down. We have to move toward connection, rather than run from it. It’s not always easy. And it means telling ourselves a fundamentally different story.

But as Brene goes on to remind us:  “What do we call a story that’s based on limited real data and imagined data and blended into a coherent, emotionally satisfying version of reality? A conspiracy theory.”

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Being Remarkable · Inspiration · Leadership

Nobody should care how much golf we play

Or how many cakes we bake, how much TV we watch, how often we go to the gym or whatever happens to floats our boats or simply pass the time, so long as…

…we honor our most important commitments…

…our words match out actions…

…we take responsibility for our stuff and stay on our side of the street…

…we act instead of complain…

…we are in the arena, instead of watching and judging from the stands.

It turns out individuals, organizations and brands get cut a fair amount of slack and earn many degrees of freedom when they do the work, eschew hypocrisy and can be trusted to show up when it counts the most.

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Being Remarkable · Leadership

The hardest to learn is the least complicated

Gentle reader, congratulations on your wise choice. It is indeed your good fortune to have chosen to read my blog today for I am about to reveal a short-list of virtually guaranteed ways for you to be successful in both your professional career and your personal life.

Intrigued? I bet.

Ready? Let’s do this.

Steve’s virtually sure-fire ways to be successful in business:

  1. Focus relentlessly on the customer.
  2. Never engage in a price war you can’t win.
  3. Defy the sea of sameness and find your purple cow.
  4. Treat different customers differently.
  5. Reject the cult of busy.
  6. Don’t be afraid to fail. Fail better.

Steve’s virtually sure-fire ways to be successful in your personal life:

  1. Accept the things you cannot change.
  2. Live in the now; be present and mindful in all you do.
  3. Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.
  4. Don’t take things personally.
  5. Remember the things for which you are grateful.
  6. Live open-heartedly and with compassion.
  7. Embrace vulnerability.

As a reader of this blog you have already revealed yourself to be a person of great intelligence and discernment, so you have likely already concluded that these ideas– collectively and individually–are both true and useful. More importantly, you probably noticed that they are all conceptually rather simple to comprehend.

So why do we struggle to put them into practice?

The first reason is our habits. If you are anything like me, you’ve been been conditioned to strive for perfection, to associate your self-worth with your job, your busyness and your possessions. Perhaps you’ve also been taught that vulnerability is weakness or that you’re not okay unless the people around you are okay or that it is your job to figure things out without the help of others. These are all rather obvious and destructive lies, yet our negative practice has created deep grooves in our psyche. The only antidote is to develop different habits and practice them until new grooves are formed.

The understanding is not the hard part. It’s the un-doing.

The second reason is our choices. I’ve watched myself (and more than a few friends, colleagues and loved ones) decide to stay stuck in the past, fight things I couldn’t change, drink the poison of resentment, bask in the misguided attention of victimhood and generally engage in far too much ego grasping and not enough letting go.

Again the understanding is not the hard part. It’s the acceptance that every day we start clean slated and I (and you my dear friend) get the chance to make a new set of choices. Our task is to choose wisely and to rinse and repeat.

The wolf we feed is the one that wins.

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h/t to the Indigo Girls for the title inspiration.

Being Remarkable · Story Telling

Tell a better story

You sell a product that is losing out to Amazon on price and convenience?

Stop chasing your tail in the pursuit of ever lower prices or fanciful plans to get into the same-day delivery business. Tell a better story; one rooted in deep customer relevance and remarkability.

You run a non-profit that has trouble getting the attention of large donors?

Stop trotting out endless statistics and convoluted theories of change. Tell a better story, one that connects emotionally, paints a clear picture of a brighter future and inspires hope in a new and different way.

You see yourself as someone who has to do something to prove their worthiness?

Stop repeating the false narrative of victimhood or original sin. Tell a better story, one that rejects the abusive programming from your childhood and one that embraces the gifts of imperfection.

I get it. Facts can’t diverge from an experienced reality forever. But far fewer things are actually facts than we tend to think. And besides, data without a soul, an inspiration or an ultimate hero, is often meaningless.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s a lousy business strategy.

You may feel like you have facts on your side, but hearts and minds (and wallets) rarely open up to the overwhelming force of logic.

The best way to claim our worthiness–to believe we are enough, we have enough and we that do enough-is to buy into the story until it rings true. Until it becomes habit.

People buy the story before they buy the product.

If nobody’s buying the product (even when that product is you) maybe the time you spend trying to be like everyone else or burnishing your PowerPoint would be better spent crafting a better story, believing in it and watching it spread.

Inspiration · Leadership

Waging an air war

Politicians like to talk about avoiding “boots on the ground”–and for good reason. A so-called air war has the promise of victory with little muss or fuss. No uncomfortable and sad videos of bodies returning home in flag-draped caskets. No awkward Presidential calls to family members. No VA hospitals filled with the maimed. At least on our side.

Air wars allow us to fly above the fray. To accomplish our objectives indirectly. To do away with actual confrontation. Death comes from above instead of face-to-face.

I’m hardly a military strategist. I’ve never served in the Armed Forces. Maybe an air war is the best choice in today’s world of combat, under our present set of circumstances.

Back in our every day world, I see plenty of people waging their own versions of an air war. They pontificate on ways to fix the world’s problems from the sidelines instead of being in the arena. They think all the answers will be found at a conference or in a book. They write checks to assuage their guilt. They seem to believe a Facebook post can change the world. They lob in the occasional emotional grenade from afar, rather than sit in actual vulnerability.

And yeah, I’ve been that guy. And yeah, that is still my default mechanism far too often (can we let that be our little secret?).

It’s far easier to sit on one side of town and opine on what everyone else needs to do about the other side of town. And I suspect we all know that passive aggressiveness may be good for our short-term dopamine levels, but rarely actually accomplishes anything positive.

Let’s face it, critics don’t win the awards and cheerleaders don’t win the game.

The fact is, plain and simple, the hard, uncomfortable work–the work that matters– requires us to get proximate, to put our figurative and literal boots on the ground, to get dirty, to fall and get back up again. Rinse and repeat.

We can extend a lesson from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous and acknowledge that despite our hopes there is no easier and softer way.

And we can be reminded by Brene Brown that “if you aren’t in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I am not interested in your feedback.”

 

 

 

Innovation

Welcome to the failure conference

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change”  – Brene Brown

I hope you are familiar with the work of Brene Brown. Brene is a shame researcher and the author of several great books on the power of vulnerability and the gifts of imperfection. She’s delivered two of the most popular TED talks of all time. She’s been on Oprah. She’s helped me change my life. Yeah, she’s kind of a big deal.

In her most recent TED talk, one of the many powerful things Brene said was this:

“You know what the big secret about TED is? I can’t wait to tell people this. I guess I’m doing it right now. (Laughter) This is like the failure conference. No, it is. (Applause) You know why this place is amazing? Because very few people here are afraid to fail. And no one who gets on the stage, so far that I’ve seen, has not failed. I’ve failed miserably, many times. I don’t think the world understands that because of shame.”

When I headed up strategy & innovation at a large retailer several years ago, I had a one-on-one session with the CEO to discuss a new venture my team was just starting work on. Maybe two minutes into our meeting he paused dramatically, looked at me very seriously and said “Steve, here’s the thing. We can’t fail. We can’t afford another (and here he mentioned a failed store concept from years ago which, as an aside, was doomed from the start by a number of bone-headed decisions). I don’t want to take any risk. None. Do you understand?”

Yeah, I understood. I was screwed. We were screwed. Needless to say, innovation, creativity and change were hardly the hallmarks of our culture during that time and any progress we made was, shall we say, not so easily won.

If you are committed to innovation, you are signing up for failure. It’s not being reckless, but it is accepting that failure comes with the territory. The key is not to never fail, the key is to fail better.

If you are committed to creativity, you are vulnerable to criticism. Any time you put something really new out into the world and say “here I made this” judgment (and perhaps outright hatred) is bound to follow. It can’t stop you.

If you are committed to meaningful change, you are almost certain to be walking straight into gale force headwinds. Vested interests and defenders of the status quo will fight you at every turn. Stay the course. In fact, perhaps it’s time to step on the gas.

It’s taken me a long time to learn this lesson–and frankly I still fight the battle every single day–but I know I do my best work when I push through my fear, when I allow myself to be vulnerable, when I accept that failure is inherent to any growth process.

I hope to see you at the next failure conference. Let’s sit right down front where everyone can see us.

 

 

 

Leadership

Choice, practice, action

If you are anything like me, you probably have a pretty good list of beliefs and values you hold dear. You might even have them written down somewhere or make them part of a regular prayer, affirmation or meditation.

The organizations you belong too–whether it’s a corporation, non-profit, church,  temple, mosque, club or a more loosely constructed tribe–likely share a core set of beliefs and values as well.

And this is all good. But it’s just a start, a foundation. Necessary, but not sufficient.

For me, if I’m really honest with myself, I often struggle to move beyond the idea of–or belief in–something, into the actions that belief implies.

In organizations, an annual report or speech by the group’s leader frequently speak to attitudes in support of stated values or strategies, but often little evidence of doing anything meaningful. For real. Over time. Failing better. Adjusting. And forging ahead with resilience.

From the 12 Steps to Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths to Brene Brown’s 10 Guideposts to Wholehearted Living–which is genius by the way–and countless other disciplines, there is a common theme of building awareness, accepting reality, committing to certain attitudes and then taking action. All too often I know I forget (or fear) taking the last, critical step.

I forget it is a conscious choice to embrace action in addition to having the right attitude. It is a choice to pick deeds over creeds. A choice to go through my fear instead of around it.

Deep down, I think many of us unconsciously embrace a fantasy that we can quickly become good at something that is fundamentally difficult. We’ll figure it out, muscle through, stay late at work. Societal norms only serve to reinforce these misguided notions.

Similarly, brands think they can quickly figure out social media, though a recent study shows 68% of CEO don’t have ANY experience with social networks. Companies set ambitious goals for innovative growth, but have little recent experience putting anything truly new into the marketplace.  With predictable regularity, organizations spend months or years studying problems only to be surprised when they fall woefully behind.

Most of the time, we need the practice, we must actively cultivate the habit.

Whether you are inspired to be the change you want to see in the world or be the proverbial “Man in the Arena“, don’t forget it is a conscious choice to move from belief to action and it takes practice.

How many reps will you get in today?