The Lindau Illusion

I was sitting in a train station in Germany. It was after 9pm. It was cold and damp, and I was hungry. My train had been cancelled and there were two hours to kill until the next one. The only open shop was a kebab place that wasn’t exactly vegetarian-friendly. I had a beer to try and boost my sour mood. 

Tired and bored, I stepped outside. All I could see through the rain were a few desolate hotels. That’s when I declared my judgment of the place: “What a dump.”

This past week, though, I had a wildly different experience. I walked from Bregenz to Lindau along the Lake of Constance, about 7 miles. I had never been to either town. I could see the Alps in the background, and caught myself humming songs from the Sound of Music. (An “American thing” I was told later.) The sun was glinting off the lake and there was a wide variety of birds everywhere. When I reached Lindau, I walked through the historic old town and up the steps of the lighthouse where I was treated to a breathtaking panoramic view. Everywhere I turned there was a beautiful vista or building or image I wanted to capture and take home with me. “What a stunning place,” I remember thinking. “I have to come back.”

The next morning, I needed to take several trains to get to my destination and my first transfer was at the Lindau train station. As I wheeled my suitcase towards the other platform, a jolt of recognition hit me. “I’ve been here before!” It’s the same train station, the same town, that I had declared a “dump” a year earlier.

I can’t believe it. I walk up to where I sat in the cold with my bad food and beer. I step outside and see the same hotels which now, bathed in warm sunshine, look beautiful. I turn right and I see the lake and the lighthouse right from the station. Somehow I missed them both last time in the dark and rain. 

Same town, two fundamentally different experiences. Just based on what I happened to see or not see. I stop and think: If I can be so wrong about an entire town, what about people? What judgments do I make based on a passing glance or scraps of information, missing oceans of stories and wonder beneath the surface? 

A beautiful lesson on multiple levels. 

Lindau from the Lighthouse

Lindau from the Lighthouse

Bregenz Festspiele

Bregenz Festspiele

Lindau

Lindau

The hills are alive….with the Sound of Music…

The hills are alive….with the Sound of Music…

The Marriage Retreat

My childhood memories of my parents are mostly of them arguing. They each had their own stresses - not enough money, too much work, unfulfilled dreams - and it often erupted in disagreements and downright meanness to each other. 

Then, when my sister, brother, and I were a bit older, they went to a marriage retreat. 

The Happy Couple

The retreat was, quite literally, an escape from their day-to-day stresses. Guided by skilled, encouraging professionals, they had a chance to learn and experience a better way of relating to each other. When they came home, they were like a different couple. Sweet words. Small kindnesses. The anxiety we often felt was replaced with warmth and love. It was like magic.

In less than a week, though, the first argument appeared, then another, and soon things became “normal” again. 

I hadn’t thought about the retreat for more than thirty years. But over the next 6 weeks I’m participating in a string of events and conferences and meet-ups. Like the retreat, they’re uplifting and they often leave participants inspired and full of hope. But then everyone goes home. The music and the memories fade. Without a next step - the hard work of deliberate practice over time - the effects are short-lived. Our habits and our environments are almost always too powerful to be changed by a one-off event.

We each have our own version of a retreat in work and life. They can be important and restorative. And yet it’s the steps you’ll take after the retreat that make a sustainable difference possible. That’s where the real magic happens. 

Drip, drip, drip

There seem to be more and more storefront signs like these in New York City. (And perhaps everywhere?) The kind with the hand-drawn witty saying or motivational quote designed to grab your attention. 

This one worked.

On the way to Yoga Vida in Tribeca

On the way to Yoga Vida in Tribeca

It’s truly ancient wisdom, as Ovid wrote it (in Latin) well over two thousand years ago. “Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force, but through persistence.”

I passed it as I was going to a yoga class with my wife, something I never imagined participating in when we first met. Now, though, the class is one of my favorite things to do together and a highlight of my week. As I passed the sign, I reflected on how many drops it took to wear down my resistance and form a new habit, at how long it took for me to change.

Ovid’s wisdom applies to work, too. Yesterday, a WOL Circle shared a photo from their final meeting. In the picture were five strangers from Yemen, Romania, Germany, and Switzerland who came together for 12 weeks, forging connections and sharing beautiful smiles. I never imagined how such a thing might be possible, never mind that I could be part of making it happen. 

Drip, drip, drip. 

Of course, there are other ways to “hollow out a stone”. Yet the other methods I’ve tried tend to feel more stressful and less sustainable. Whether I want to change myself or change the world, I prefer to follow Ovid’s advice. 

Drip by drip, step by step, Circle by Circle, we each need to keep going till a path emerges and we find a way to make a difference. 

***

Note: I’ll be on holiday in Japan for the rest of August, using the time to be with family, explore a country I love, and work on several new WOL methods. See you in September… 

Yemen 🇾🇪, Switzerland 🇨🇭, Romania 🇷🇴, Germany 🇩🇪 … Amazing.

The first thing we must all do to be free

Everybody deserves to be somebody. Yet at every workplace I visit - all of them modern companies in developed countries - I see limits that prevent people from realizing this basic right. 

Some of the limits are at a corporate level. We preach innovation, collaboration, and purpose - “We must change the culture!” - yet the need for control and allocation of power makes it unsafe for those who seek to actually change the status quo. 

Some of the limits are at an individual level. We share universal needs and wants: respect, recognition, the opportunity to contribute. Yet we also share a heightened sensitivity to our status in an organization (and the world at large), and most of us hold back until we know it’s safe.

It isn’t always safe, of course, and so even the simplest of acts are questioned. Can I approach that person? Can I say this? Can I write that? You quickly learn there are unwritten protocols for who gets to say and do what they think is best, for who matters.

Reflecting on this made me search for a speech from fifty years ago, of Martin Luther King Jr. speaking to high school students in Cleveland, Ohio. The recording was only discovered recently. I listened to it multiple times. 

No matter where people are assembled…. The cry is always the same: "We want to be free.” I would like to suggest some of the things you must do in order to be truly free. The first thing we must do is to develop within ourselves a deep sense of somebody-ness. Don’t let anybody make you feel that you are nobody. Because the minute one feels that way he is incapable of rising to his full maturity as a person. 

He was speaking to an audience that faced oppression more severe than anything at a modern workplace, more than anything I can imagine. Yet even in those dire, unsafe circumstances he told them not to wait for change but to realize more of their potential now, through action, with whatever was available to them. 

We must make full and constructive use of the freedom we already possess. We must not wait for the day of full emancipation before we set out to achieve certain basic developments in our lives.

Quoting a poem by Douglas Malloch, King exhorted the students to “be the best of whatever you are.” That advice applies to each of us now as it did then. Yes, the people and environment around you may not make it easy. But don’t let anybody - even yourself - make you feel that you are nobody.


Opportunity can’t knock if it doesn’t know where you live

I was walking through the Frankfurt airport, jet-lagged and rushing to catch a train, when a poster in the terminal caught my eye. I stopped and took a photo. 

An ad from SAP in the Frankfurt airport

An ad from SAP in the Frankfurt airport

The tagline made me think of Working Out Loud, and the resistance I sometimes encounter when I suggest people make their work visible. 

“I don’t like to toot my own horn.”

“Why would anyone care what I’m working on?”

“My work should speak for itself.”

“What if they don’t like it?”

“I’m too busy for that.”

“What if I say something stupid?”

“I’m an introvert.”

And so on.

It’s understandable if you feel uncertain or uncomfortable about “being visible.” But you have many options. What you share, how you share it, and with whom you share it are all up to you.

If you do nothing, however, then you have ceded control over your reputation to others. A bad word from the boss or an unhappy client will have more weight than all your many contributions. If you insist on never showing your work, you have given up the chance to be discovered, and have greatly reduced your own odds. Imagine an artist with no portfolio. Or a writer with no articles or books. How would you know what they’re capable of?

Think about your online presence: your profiles, your projects, your ideas, your learning. Are you and your best work easy to find?

Opportunity can’t knock if it doesn’t know where you live.



Sunday Night Syndrome

The symptoms appear gradually. A slight knot in the stomach. A mounting sense of dread, a feeling of irritation, even anxiety, about what’s about to happen. Sunday Night Syndrome affects an alarming number of people, and it’s beginning to feel like an epidemic. 

A telltale sign is when you say, “I wish I didn’t have to go to work on Monday.” 

I suffered from SNS for most of my life. Sometimes the symptoms appeared as early as Sunday morning, even Saturday night, further spoiling the already too-short weekend escape.

Since everyone around me suffered from the same symptoms, I did nothing about it. Week after week after week. 25 years old, 35, 45, 50. I sat there like the proverbial frog placed in a pot of water on the stove, slowly dying inside, never jumping out.

Do you suffer from any signs of Sunday Night Syndrome? Or know someone who does? The only cure I’ve found is tap into a sense of self-determination, a sense that you have some control, that you’re not a victim. 

It doesn’t have to be a big leap. You don’t have to quit or change your entire life with a bold move. I find such remedies too risky anyway, and not terribly effective. Instead, I recommend a small step, an experiment of a kind: block out one hour every Monday to invest in yourself. 

Maybe you use that hour (less than 3% of your week), to work on a new skill or research a topic you’re interested in. Maybe you use the time to shape your reputation, sharing what you’re learning or doing on your intranet or LinkedIn. Maybe you form a WOL Circle and meet on Mondays, taking advantage of the structure, shared accountability, and support to make progress towards a goal you care about.

Don’t be the frog, waiting to be rescued. If you don’t invest in yourself, who will?

Disengaged at work.jpg

“Learning is my shield against irrelevance”

“No one is immune,” he said. “I fear growing rigid in my thoughts and outdated in my ideas.” I was sitting in a packed stadium, listening to the dean of Northeastern University speak at my eldest daughter’s graduation. I started taking notes.

He talked about several students’ projects and start-ups, applying what they learned to address challenges like diabetes in Honduras and supporting small farms in Kenya. “Learning is a lifelong journey,” he reminded the graduates. 

I might have dismissed the speech as just encouraging words for young people, except that I had read very similar words a few months earlier, written by the CEO of a 400,000-person company.

Learning at Work

For most of my career, I invested much more into making my boss happy than into developing my skills. Though I worked in a highly technical field, almost no one around me read books or did research about what we did. We were too busy. Learning was something you did on your own time, something wholly apart from work. The unspoken assumption was that you were supposed to already know what you needed to know.

The words of Bosch’s CEO, Volkmar Denner, were a radical departure from what I was used to hearing. First, he offered some sobering statistics.

“Lifelong learning is essential… But the truth is that people aged 30 to 44 spend just nine minutes a day on average on improving their qualifications. And for people aged 45 to 64, the figure is even lower — only four minutes.”

The dean had said, “The world doesn’t stop changing, and we must continue to discover and learn,” and the Bosch CEO embraced the need for people at all levels of the company (including himself) to continue exploring and learning as an integral part of the work we do.

“It’s more than just a challenge our children have to face…In the digital world, people who have achieved success in their careers cannot afford to rest on their laurels and refuse to learn anything new. The more successful the company, the more alert its executives have to be to change, and the more they have to preserve their curiosity.

[It is] important to see working and learning as a whole, and to combine the two. This can only work if further training is no longer seen as something that is merely “nice to have” — a seminar every so often, then back to routine. We want further training to be an integral part of company strategy. It is this that is giving rise to new forms for self-organized learning [such as] “Working Out Loud.”

What’s it for?

The Bosch CEO saw learning as good for the individual (“a way of advancing our personal careers”) as well as for the company. The dean saw it as imperative for the planet.

“Inequality, injustice, and intolerance cast long shadows….Use your gifts to eliminate the dark. You are torch bearers in an age that longs for light.”

What about you? Whether you need your own “shield against irrelevance,” are looking for ways to advance your career, or want to contribute to a better world, standing still is not an option. 

What are you learning? Why?

Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University


How to get better at remembering names

Daria looked at me as if I just pulled a rabbit out of a hat or a coin from behind her ear. “How did you do that?!”  It was no trick, however. All I did was remember her name. But to her it was remarkable.

We were in Germany at a conference, and though we had never met before, her face was familiar. Then, in a flash of recognition, I exclaimed, “I know you!” and mentioned her last name that I remembered from Twitter. It was a bit unusual, so I spelled it out too, to make sure I got it right. 

That moment reminded me how, for most of my life, I told myself, “I’m no good at remembering names.” I figured that, like my bad eyesight or bald head, my poor nominative recall was a genetically-dictated trait.

But then I changed.

A little bit of magic? - Photo by  Mervyn Chan  on  Unsplash

A little bit of magic? - Photo by Mervyn Chan on Unsplash

You are not good at remembering names…yet!

What opened my mind to change even being a possibility was a book called Moonwalking with Einstein. The author, Joshua Foer, is a journalist who became interested memory tournaments, where people compete for prizes based on remembering an extraordinary number of digits or the exact sequence of a randomly shuffled deck of cards. 

Some of the feats seem impossible, until Foer learns a few techniques and begins practicing. He ultimately decides to participate in the USA Memory Championship and (spoiler alert) … wins. Aha! I realized: my memory can be trained.

The Best Tip for Remembering Names

There’s a lot of good advice available for remembering names. The best tip for remembering them is the same tip as for holding a good conversation: pay attention

The biggest problem that most people have, including me, is that in the moment when you meet someone (in person or, as with Daria, online), you are paying attention to so many other things - what you might say, what they might be think of you - that you never really process their name in the first place. 

Dale Carnegie said, “A person's name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” Eighty years later, the Washington Post’s business section cited that quote, and explained why it’s so important to use people’s names. 

“A person’s name is the greatest connection to their own identity and individuality. Some might say it is the most important word in the world to that person.

It is the one way we can easily get someone’s attention. It is a sign of courtesy and a way of recognizing them. When someone remembers our name after meeting us, we feel respected and more important. It makes a positive and lasting impression on us. To not remember a name, especially when someone has had to repeat it several times, is to make that person feel slighted.”

How to Pay Attention

When I meet someone now, I make it a habit to ask their name, and repeat it. If I haven’t heard properly, or I’m not sure how to pronounce it, I may ask them to spell it. For names that are foreign to me, I may ask if it has a certain meaning. Recently, a woman named Chungfeng explained her name meant “Spring breeze” and that people often call her Breeze. How could I ever forget that, or her?

After the initial contact, I’ll pay further attention by using their name whenever I can. Whether it’s in email and social media or in person, instead of “Thanks!” or “Hello!” I’ll say, “Thank you, Sabine” or “Hello, Martin.” It’s such a small thing, and yet that simple act helps me remember their name and further personalizes my communications. 

It’s not fake or a trick. I practice remembering names not to be clever or to get something from the other person. Rather, I view it as a form of respect, a way to say “I see you and care enough to pay attention.” That’s a good basis for any relationship. 


Exhaling on the scale

The first time I noticed it, I smiled and thought, What a strange thing to do. Then I noticed it again the next day, and realized it was an unconscious habit. Every morning, before stepping on the scale, I breath out deeply, as if that will make a difference in the results. 

It doesn’t make any sense. Yet I think I figured out why I do it: it gives me the perception of control without having to do the more challenging work required to affect the outcome. It’s as if I’m telling myself, “Well, I haven’t exercised for the last few days, and I ate and drank too much last night…but I can do this!” Then I slowly blow out a gust of air. Whoooooooosh.

It would be funny except that I do something similar when it comes to work. 

Like many people, I have a fuzzy notion of the important things I’d like to accomplish. Yet there’s usually enough uncertainty or doubt surrounding those things, or they may seem too big, that they trigger anxiety and resistance. To deal with that, I would find myself filling my day with small tasks and activities, chipping away at an infinite todo list. I would feel busy, but all I really accomplished was avoiding the difficult work required to do something meaningful. 

So lately I’m trying something new. Every Monday I have a short call with a friend, and we each share the top three things we need to do during the upcoming week to make progress towards our big goals. We don’t talk about everything we might do or could do. We just list three specific things we will do, work that will move us in the right direction.

On the next call, we’ll talk about what happened in the past week, discuss adjustments we might make, and share our goals for the following week. There’s no judgment or competition. Just learning and encouragement to focus and to keep going. The mutual accountability helps us maintain both motivation and momentum.

A nice phrase to describe what we’re sharing is our “essential intent,” a phrase from Greg McKeown’s Essentialism. The phrase is usually applied to longer timeframes, but I’ve found it useful as a way to describe nearer-term goals, too. What is the essential thing you intend to do this week/month/year/life? Think of it as a way to distill the truly important from the sea of possible activities, and to state it in a way that’s both actionable and measurable.

Reflect for a moment on your own big goals for your work and life. Do you know your essential intent for this month or this week? For tomorrow? Are you doing work what matters, or are you exhaling on the scale? 


Perfect just the way you are. And...

That’s the thing about Zen masters. You never really know when they’re joking.

Shunryu Suzuki is best known for founding the first Buddhist monastery outside Asia and one of the most influential Zen organizations in the US. In the late 1960s, he was giving a lecture on “non-gaining mind” in which he was emphasizing practice for its own sake, as opposed to some benefit in the future. The striving and clinging to expectations not only distorted your practice but could also leave you miserable. 

“You become very idealistic with some notion or ideal set up by yourself and you strive for attaining or fulfilling that notion or goal. But as I always say this is very absurd because when you become idealistic in your practice you have gaining idea within yourself, so by the time you attain some stage your gaining idea will create another ideal…Because your attainment is always ahead of you, you are always sacrificing yourself for some ideal. So this is very absurd. “

A student asked Suzuki to clarify what he meant, so he simplified it.

“You are perfect just the way you are. And there’s room for improvement!”

Although I’m not sure if Suzuki was kidding, something clicked for me when I read that. I had always thought that being content with the way things are would be a sign of laziness, something not to be tolerated. My way to motivate myself has been to keep focusing on the improvement, the thing to be fixed or made better.

But as I get older, I see it only leads to a life of never-good-enough. You race towards a finish line that doesn’t exist, unable to complete the simple declaration: “I will be happy when…”

What if you could tap into all the benefits of getting better without the stress and drama? What if you accepted yourself exactly as you are - and others exactly as they are - and still remained open and curious about further development?

An example of kintsugi, or making art from damaged pottery - Photo credit: June’s Child