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.


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?

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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. 


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

What could WOL for Healthcare look like?

Her note started off nicely enough. Then I read her feedback, including a challenge I didn’t know what to do with.

Bettina had heard about WOL Circles at a conference and liked the idea. “I started my first Circle directly. With great success!” She said she is working as a Change Manager in a large non-profit healthcare organization in Germany, and that she wanted to spread Circles. But she made it clear that WOL, in its current form, would never work. 

“The nurses, doctors, and other professionals do not have 60 minutes a week for WOL, there is too much text, the examples have to refer to the health sector…” 

Ouch. She even said the German translation wasn’t acceptable, as the informal pronoun (“du”) simply isn’t used in her organization’s “official papers.”

I knew she was right. I asked if we could speak on the phone. 

The challenges in Healthcare

Healthcare organizations suffer from the same cultural issues that plague many large companies. The hierarchical structures limit information flows in ways that are bad for individuals, the organization, and the patient. Too often, nurses don’t question doctors and medical technicians don’t question the ambulance manager. (Atul Gawande, surgeon, author, and CEO of the recently-formed healthcare venture formed by Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JP Morgan Chase, captured these challenges in dramatic fashion in The Checklist Manifesto.) 

The same is true across the hierarchy as well. People in a given role are not in the habit of of sharing problems and solutions to improve quality, and in many cases there may be no mechanism to do so. So the same mistakes get repeated, and innovations don’t spread. 

On top of such challenges, all of this takes place in an environment that is extraordinarily demanding. It’s busy, stressful, and unpredictable - and the stakes are extremely high.

One possibility

Of course, not all healthcare organizations have the same cultural issues. Buurtzorg, for example, has over 10,000 professionals in “a nurse-led model of holistic care” that emphasizes “humanity over bureaucracy.” They are portrayed in Reinventing Organizations as a model of self-organization and self-management. But for every Buurtzorg, there are thousands of traditional companies. 

How could WOL help?

I told Bettina how we had already adapted WOL for leaders by making it shorter and simpler, and by integrating it into a reverse mentoring program. Perhaps we could do something similar. 

Together, we decided that Bettina’s colleagues could also meet in pairs (perhaps one with more experience and one new to the organization), and we could limit meeting to no more than 30 minutes. Then we identified eight different exercises over eight weeks - eight contributions they could make that would help them find their voice, improve their craft of patient care, and enable them to re-connect with the sense of purpose that inspired them to join the profession in the first place.

What would you do?

The challenges faced by people in healthcare environment are similar to those in other operational environments, be it manufacturing, retail, transportation.

As different as those jobs may be, the people doing them all share the same human needs for control, competence, and connection. And all of the organizations they work in need to improve quality for their customers and for their own sustainability. The future of work isn’t limited to people working in offices.

Bettina and I will meet in Frankfurt this week to work on details of a pilot. Whatever the outcome, we’ll surely learn something that can help us take a next step and try again.

If you were Bettina, what would you do? What could WOL for Healthcare look like?

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“What’s one thing I could do better?"

Imagine you’re about to deliver a presentation. You’re nervous, and uncomfortable talking in front of groups. But you prepare as best you can, muster up your courage, and deliver the talk. 

Afterwards, you breathe a sigh of relief and ask someone the worst possible question you could ask:

“How did it go?”

At Zukunft Personal in Köln, September 2018

Just because everyone does it doesn’t make it good

The other person knows your anxious, and she wants to be supportive and encouraging. So she responds, “It went well!” 

And in that moment, you missed a chance to get constructive feedback and learn, and the other person is robbed of the chance to help someone. 

I realize this exchange is so common that it may seem strange to deviate from it. But ten years ago, I learned a better way from Keith Ferrazzi.

From criticism to contribution

It was 2008, and I was sitting in the Relationship Master’s Academy, a 30-person course from the bestselling author of Never Eat Alone and Who’s Got Your Back. It was that course that made me think differently about how to ask for feedback (and about relationships in general). Keith Ferrazzi taught me how to turn a potentially uncomfortable conversation into one that can benefit both individuals and even deepen the relationship. 

The problem, Keith pointed out, is the way we frame the question. “How did it go?” ( or“How did I do?”) puts the other person on the spot, uncertain of what they should say and worried about offending you. The only safe thing for them is to give you a generic, positive response. 

Instead, Keith suggested, you should explain that you’re trying to improve, and then ask, “What’s one thing I could do better?” That turns an imposition into an invitation. Now you’ve given them explicit permission to give you specific critical feedback. It’s no longer personal but about the learning, and they get to feel that they’re being genuinely helpful.

The cumulative power of “one thing”

I’ve been asking Keith’s question ever since, and it’s led to many interesting conversations. People seem grateful to be asked their opinion in this way, and they almost always come up with something I can do better.

“You should move side to side a bit less”

“That slide was hard to read”

“You should use some different examples”

“You talked really fast”

“You should hold the microphone closer to your mouth”

I listen intently to each bit of feedback. Sometimes I don’t agree or may get conflicting opinions. But I almost always learn about new ways I can improve and about things I need to keep working on. Each exchange is also a chance to practice, both offering vulnerability and receiving constructive criticism.

Try it for yourself. Asking “What’s one thing I could do better?” can help you with any skill you’re trying to develop or improve.

Change your life in 5 minutes a day

I try to avoid sensational titles, and I don’t mean for this week to be an exception. “Change your life in 5 minutes a day” is based on my own experience. Sometimes, it only takes me three minutes.

Ancient wisdom

I’m referring to keeping a gratitude journal. Each morning, the first thing I do when I wake up is to reflect on what made yesterday a great day, and what three things would make today great. It’s so simple it verges on trivial, and yet so useful I never miss a day. I’ve been writing in it for over a year now. I even take it with me when I travel, just for those few minutes each day. 

Ever since the advent of positive psychology in the late 1990s - "the scientific study of positive human functioning and flourishing on multiple levels” - there has been a wealth of research on the benefits of varying gratitude practices. (You can find popular summaries here and here.) It’s not a new idea, though. Practicing gratitude falls into the category of “ancient wisdom,” and has long been advocated by a wide array of sources.

“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has." - Epictetus

“If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, “thank you,” that would suffice.” - Meister Eckhart

“When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the morning light, for your life and strength. Give thanks for your food, and the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies with yourself." - Tecumseh, Shawnee Chief

“A grateful mind is a great mind which eventually attracts to itself great things.’ - Plato

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others. - Marcus Tullius Cicero

In The Book of Joy, practicing gratitude is listed as one of “the 8 pillars of joy” by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. In The How of Happiness, it’s one of 12 practices advocated by Prof. Sonja Lyubomirsky.

My own results

By the time I saw an ad for The Five-Minute Journal, I was convinced and ready to start, though it wasn’t easy in the beginning. I would forget to write in it, or find myself saying the same things a few days in a row. Then I put the journal in a place where I knew I would see it when I woke up, and writing in it gradually became something I looked forward to doing. It became a habit.

Over time, I became aware of certain patterns. The things that appeared on the list most often were particular people in my life, and the time I could spend with them. Searching for new things to write, I became more aware of just how many precious basics - good health, food, and shelter to name a few - I had taken for granted. The act of listing what I was grateful for day after day helped to shift my perspective from overly-negative to something more balanced, and that made me happier.

Writing down my intentions - What will make today great? - had a somewhat different effect. It helped me to focus my attention on what mattered at different points throughout the day, and that helped me to make better, more mindful, choices. When I reflected on a prior day, I noticed how doing what I intended always provided a sense of fulfillment or completeness. Instead of being buffeted about by things out of my control, I found I could “live intentionally,” and it proved to be extremely satisfying. 

I’ve found this simple practice so helpful that I included it as one of the five self-care practices in WOL-SC.

Getting started

You don’t need The Five-Minute Journal in particular to practice gratitude. Some of my German friends use Das 6-Minuten Tagebuch. (Though I do wonder why they need an extra minute.) A blank book will do, or even placing notes in a jar. 

You might also try DayCatcher, a more visual and creative way to practice gratitude which I started using just last week. At the end of a day, you choose a photo that captures one special moment from that day, and add a short note or caption. Doing this has already attuned my attention to look for my “catch” each day. It helps me to savor the best moments and be thankful for them right before I go to sleep. At the end of the year I can use it to create a beautiful album of memories.

Your mother or grandmother probably told you to “count your blessings.” And now science has caught up with her, explaining why the advice she gave was so good.

But do you put that advice into practice? Why not start today?

Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll probably find it

I was going through a stack of old books, re-reading things I had highlighted, when I found this parable in Happiness at Work by Srikumar Rao. He was describing how a shift in your thinking, in how you choose to see the world, can change everything.

“The abbot of a once-famous Buddhist monastery that had fallen into decline was deeply troubled. Monks were lax in their practice, novices were leaving, and lay supporters were deserting to other centers. He traveled far to see a sage and recounted his tale of woe, saying how much he wanted to transform his monastery to the flourishing haven it had been in days of yore. The sage looked him in the eye and said, “The reason your monastery has languished is that the Buddha is living among you in disguise, and you have not honored him.
The abbot hurried back, his mind in turmoil. The Selfless One was at his monastery! Who could he be? Brother Hua? No, he was full of sloth. Brother Po? No, he was too dull. But then the Tathagata was in disguise. What better disguise than sloth or dull-wittedness? He called his monks together and revealed the sage’s words. They too were taken aback and looked at each other with suspicion and awe. Which one of them was the Chosen One? The disguise was perfect. Not knowing who he was, they took to treating everyone with the respect due the Buddha. Their faces started shining with an inner radiance that attracted novices and then lay supporters. In no time at all, the monastery far surpassed its previous glory.”

There's a natural tendency to label people and file them into categories and boxes. It makes life simpler in some ways, but also poorer. 

What if, instead, we remained open to the possibility that each person has something precious inside them? What if we looked deeply for the gifts they have to offer? What if we listened carefully for the stories they have to tell?

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Waiting

As I approach the checkout lines at the supermarket, I quickly scan to see which one will be shortest. I count the number of people, of course, but also consider the items in each cart. I carefully scrutinize the cashier and even the customers. Will they require a delivery service? Do they have young children? These things can slow down the process.

I narrow it down to two alternatives, and then, confidently, I make my choice: register 11.

Within seconds, though, I sense something is wrong. There’s a hint of frustration on the face of the customer at the front. The cashier, with a disturbing calmness, is methodically packing her bags in slow motion. I consider switching lines but it is already too late as other lines have grown longer. 

A minute passes. Then another. My hand reaches for my phone, a salve for my restlessness, but I try to resist as I’ve been wanting to use my phone less. I look at the magazine covers instead, and the odd array of other items. I wonder about who chooses what to put there, and who buys them. More minutes pass.

I feel trapped. I advise the people behind me to pick another line, which they do. They smile, first with gratitude and later with a hint of embarrassment as they leave the store while I am still waiting.  

My sense of irritation increases. I want to find someone to blame! I want to commiserate with other customers! Isn’t this terrible?! Then I remember I have a book in my knapsack. Mindfulness on the Go. I take it out and open it to the place I had marked. The next chapter is titled, “Waiting.”

“Any time you find yourself waiting…take this as an opportunity to practice mindfulness.”

It seems the universe has a sense of humor, so I smile for the first time in 10 minutes and keep reading. It seems that waiting has presented me with an opportunity.

“As you undertake this practice, you learn to recognize early the body changes that accompany impending negative thoughts and emotions such as impatience about having to wait, or anger about “that idiot” ahead of us in the checkout line. Each time we are able to stop and not allow a negative mind-state to come to fruition (say, getting irritated at the traffic or angry at the slow cashier), we are erasing a habitual and unwholesome pattern of the heart/mind.”

My irritation melts. My judgment of the cashier - What is wrong with this guy? What is his problem? - is replaced with empathy. What if I had that job? I’d be even slower! I think, “Maybe he’s new, or had a bad day, or is disabled." I imagine what it would be like, to do a job surrounded by visibly annoyed customers, and I’m ashamed.

Eventually it’s my turn. I offer to pack the bags as a way to help out and move things along. By now, my negative feelings have been replaced with gratitude, and I see how even a long wait can be a teacher.

The next time you approach one of those seemingly empty spaces in your day, what will you fill it with? Will your habits take you somewhere you don’t want to go? Or will you try to take a step in a different direction?

“If we don’t let the cart of the mind keep running down the same deep ruts, down the same old hill, into the same old swamp, eventually the ruts will fill up. Eventually our habitual states of irritation and frustration over something like waiting will dissolve. It take times, but it works. And it’s worth it, as everyone around us will benefit.”

The first draft of the rest of your life

The subject of the email was “Need your help.” Since it was sent by a strong, confident friend who had never asked for help before, I was worried. It turned out it wasn’t a crisis, but she was stuck on something. “I’m in big trouble…do you have time?” So we scheduled a call.

The problem? She had committed to submitting a paper for publication, and she couldn’t get started. Though she has a lot to say on the subject, she had struggled for weeks to make any progress and now the deadline was looming. Her anxiety was evident.

I thought of the many bits of advice I had benefitted from and might share, and then I discarded all of it.

“Open up your laptop,” I said. “Let’s start right now.”

At first we just talked about the topic, and after a few minutes a theme emerged. We exchanged ideas for a phrase or sentence that might capture it until we came up with a headline that felt good to her. “Great,” I said. “Write that down.”

We moved on to headings. What were the main points she was trying to make? She talked about a wide range of ideas, including some resources she found helpful. It was scattered at first. She was still overwhelmed. I listened, and reflected back whatever major points I heard. When one made sense to her, she wrote it down. Then we came up with another. “That reminds me!” she said, erupting with ideas now. She began recalling related things she had written and read and thought about before.

Soon there was less talking and more typing. Her energy had shifted from nervous to excited, and she was still writing as we hung up. A few weeks after our call, she sent me a note that she had finished it. It wasn’t perfect, she told me, and she would do it differently next time, but she was glad for the chance to learn and get better.

Since our call, I’ve been thinking of how my friend’s experience is a metaphor for how many of us live our lives. We struggle to think through what we want our life to be like. We may have ideas but it can be hard to put them into a coherent picture. And we may feel time is running out.

Waiting doesn't help. The only way out is through. Maybe you start with writing a letter from your future self, or describe your perfect month, or do whatever exercise would help you capture the first draft of an intentional life. It may not be exactly right, but that step attunes your attention and opens you up to next steps and new possibilities.

As the poet Mary Oliver asked

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Voice your intention. Pick up your journal or laptop and begin writing. Clip pictures from magazines and craft a vision board. Call a friend if you need to. Let’s start right now.

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