Going Through the Motions

If all you do, each and every day, is go through the motions, then something’s not quite right.

But going through the motions also gets a bad rap.

Each time I start a run, or stand at the side of the pool before swimming laps, or contemplate an at-home yoga or meditation practice, the only way I’m able to start is by going through the motions.

Just start running, slowly.

Just jump into that too-cold water and go.

Just stand, or sit, and breathe a few times.

Before starting, I have lots of ideas about what my experience will be. It turns out that these ideas are terrible predictors of what ends up happening. It’s the act of going through those motions that creates my experience – at times powerful, energizing, or transformative, at times just as plodding and heavy as I feared it would be.

The consistent choice, day after day, to start even if we don’t feel like it, to willingly and deliberately go through the motions, is the embodiment of our persistence. We persist when we ignore the voice that says, “Not this time, not right now, not yet. Today I really can’t.”

It turns out that the story about how terrible it’s going to be doesn’t represent any sort of profound truth. Nor is it a story that’s going to help you to reach your goals.

Rough Draft Packing

I find packing for work trips onerous and unduly stressful.

I think it’s the mental exercise of trying to anticipate the details of the trip (including weather, any free time, etc.) and the associated things to bring, coupled with my unrelenting desire never to check a bag (which is helped by having my One Bag to Rule Them All).

One thing that has helped is a checklist that I consult before international trips. I’ve built it up over the years and included stuff I might otherwise forget (international currency, water bottle, Oyster card, plug adapters) as well as things I need to do (set up international data plan). I don’t always remember to check this list, but every time I do I find a few things I might have forgotten.

My new addition is to do “rough draft packing.” The goal is to decouple the gathering of the things I know I will need from the mental work of making sure I’ve got every last thing.

The idea is borrowed from how I now write blog posts: instead of doing them all in one sitting, now, when an idea hits me, I just sit and write, unedited, to get the bulk of the post down on paper. I write until I run out of steam, which is hopefully near the end of the post, and then I leave the post alone for a day or two. When I come back to it, my job is to be a finisher and editor, not an author. This decreases stress and leads to a better finished product, since I’m almost never looking at both a blank sheet of paper and a deadline.

So too with rough draft packing: no stress about getting it just right, no running mental checklist in the background while folding shirts or counting socks.  I know the main categories (work clothes, sleep clothes, exercise clothes, toiletries, etc.) so I just run through these categories and make a pile of folded stuff all in one place. Then, I return to that pile later, see it with fresh eyes, and start to make any obvious cuts (“am I actually going to swim on this trip?”), and find the things from my checklist that I’ve not gathered up.

Somehow this approach takes the stress out while also helping me pack right.

For more advanced tips (almost half of which, to my surprise, I seem to use), here’s a useful list from T+L.

Einstein’s Intuition

Famously, Albert Einstein wrote the special theory of relativity while working full-time at the Swiss patent office. Prior to taking that job, Einstein had tried and failed for years to get a job as a professor. In fact, he’d even been turned down for a job as a high school physics teacher.

This tidbit is often shared as a curious anomaly, reinforcing the image of Einstein as an iconoclast who was an underachiever early in his life.

But there’s another version of the story, one in which Einstein never would have achieved what he did but for his anomalous surroundings. Quoting Walter Isaacson’s Einstein, His Life and Universe:

The most important and obvious [source of Einstein’s insight] was his deep understanding and knowledge of theoretical physics. He was also helped by his ability to visualize thought experiments, which been encouraged by his education in Aarau. Also there was his grounding in philosophy: from Hume and Mache he had developed a skepticism about things that could not be observed. And this skepticism was enhanced by his innate rebellious tendency to question authority.

Also part of the mix—and probably reinforcing his ability to both visualize physical situations and to cut to the heart of concepts—was the technological backdrop of his life: helping his uncle Jakob to refine the moving coils and magnets in a generator; working in a patent office that was being flooded with applications for new methods of coordinating clocks; having a boss who encouraged him to apply his skepticism; living near the clock tower and train station and just above the telegraph office in Bern just as Europe was using electrical signals to synchronize clocks within time zones; and having as a sounding board his engineer friend Michele Besso, who worked with him at the patent office.

It seems little coincidence that the formulation of Einstein’s breakthrough theory of special relativity—the theory that stated that the speed of light is constant regardless of the speed of the observer— was grounded in a thought experiment of a person observing a beam of light from a stationary position and from a train traveling at 2,000 mph.

As Einstein himself observed, “A new idea comes suddenly and in a rather intuitive way. But intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience.”

Intellectual experience, yes. And also how we spend our days, the stimuli we take in, the people around us, the type of thought that our work requires.

Cue: Instagram, Facebook, Candy Crush.

Or ask if this weekend might be the time to create a useless invention or start journaling or finally learn what the blockchain is.

While we cannot predict or fully control our future intuitive breakthroughs, we have the choice to see our days as an ongoing chance to assemble the ingredients of that future intuition.

Perseverate

Perseverate: to repeat or prolong an action, thought, or utterance after the stimulus that prompted it has ceased.

Put more simply, it’s continuing to react in the same way even though the situation is different.

It’s the narrative that says:

“We need this in order to…”

“I know I’m the kind of person who…”

“I always…”

Not always.

Maybe not even today.

Culture(s)

Cultures, like personalities, aren’t just one thing.

There is our organizational culture on our best days…

…on days when things are going badly.

…when the going gets tough.

…when we are facing a risk.

…when we are balancing between the short and long term.

…when we are stressed.

…when faced with a crisis.

…or an unexpected challenge

…in different offices, functions, geographies.

…when we talk about ourselves to others.

…when we talk about ourselves to ourselves.

In each situation, different elements of culture show themselves. Most of the things that come out aren’t the things you’re writing on the wall or in the employee manual.

What you should care about are the elements of your culture…

…that don’t change regardless of the situation, or the ups and downs, or the people involved.

…that you’re willing to uphold even if it means sacrificing immediate results.

…that make you different from everywhere else.

…and that help you deliver sustained, differentiated performance over time.

Here’s a hack for a culture exploration.

Step 1, the easy part: get a group of team members together and ask them to jot down, privately, how ‘we’ act in the long list of situations on the first list.

Step 2, which is tough and daring: have an honest conversation about what everyone wrote down.

Visiting the the National Memorial for Peace and Justice

I had the chance last week to go to Montgomery, Alabama to attend the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum.

The short version of the story is: if you care about the history of the United States, and about questions of race, justice and the criminal justice system, you should find a way to get to Montgomery, to see it for yourself.

Both the museum and monument are flawlessly executed. They somehow co-mingle beauty, sorrow, outrage and objectivity in ways I’ve never experienced.

The museum, which I went to first, is unlike any I’ve ever gone to. While most museums of this type feel like an educational collection of history, facts and stories, the Legacy Museum has a thesis that it states strongly and clearly: that there is clear through-line from the forceful extraction of 12 million Africans from their homes (2 million of whom died in passage), to the institution of slavery, to the history of lynching, to the Civil War, to segregation, and ultimately to today’s criminal justice system which systematically enforces mass incarceration of people of color.

While I thought I was familiar with much of this history, I had not understood, until my time at the Legacy Museum, the stubborn persistence of a system of sanctioned, legalized, socially-acceptable oppression of people of color. I had not seen how this oppression has evolved over time without any proper reckoning. I had not seen, until I saw the Museum and heard the words of Bryan Stevenson, whose Equal Justice Initiative conceived of and executed this massive undertaking, that if you cannot go to South Africa without hearing about and grappling with apartheid, and if you cannot go to Rwanda without hearing about and grappling with the Rwandan genocide, and if you cannot go to Germany without hearing about and grappling with the Holocaust, then you should not be able to come to the United States without hearing about and grappling with the history of slavery and lynching.

If the Legacy Museum is a distilled, forceful argument, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice is, even on its opening day, a timeless witness to violence, cruelty, and a hundreds-of-years wide stain on the history and narrative of the United States. As I walked through the memorial, I felt that I was standing on sacred ground, and that I was bearing witness to the souls of lost lynching victims who were killed for walking too close to a white woman, or demanding a receipt at a store, or for acting “disrespectful” to a white person.

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Photo credit: Audra Melton for The New York Times

To imagine that black men, women, boys and girls were systematically and publicly murdered, and that, beyond being implicitly sanctioned, these lynchings often drew jeering crowds of hundreds or thousands, crowds so big that food vendors would arrive to sell popcorn…I found this to be so deeply shameful and disturbing that I’m still trying to understand how this could possibly be part of our recent history.

I encourage you to read more about the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum, and to find a way to see them for yourself.

Not Sales mode, Amazing Interesting Allies Mode

The biggest challenge we all face in terms of nonprofit sales isn’t how to win people over, it isn’t how to pitch, and it’s not how to close.

The biggest problem is access.

We are not selling a product with a defined market price, which is why it can take the same (or more!) time, effort, passion, and skill to raise a $1,000 donation as it does a $100,000 donation. What matters is how big that donation is for each person.

So the question arises: how do we get access?

The only real answer—which on some days feels energizing and on others relentless—is to generously, consciously, and actively be in always-on sales mode.

“Generously” because the only way to make real connections is to actively, deeply, and truly care about creating value for the people you’re connecting with, with no expectation of return.

“Actively and consciously” because this requires clear and deliberate prioritization in the midst of an already too-full agenda. That can be hard if the yield isn’t immediate: this next person simply is not going to write you a check for $100,000, so, do you meet her anyway?

It helps to remind ourselves that our most valuable connections are “weak ties”—the ones at the edges of our social network. This means that what we’re really doing in this next hour is taking another step in our multi-year project of creating a strong, connected, personal web of shared values, purpose, and mutual support. The web we are weaving creates real and lasting value for all of its members, including, hopefully and eventually, for us.

Tangibly, this means things like:

Always, every time taking the extra conversation that might lead to something that might lead to something.

Keeping your antennae up for people with the same type of passion that you have.

Remembering that your job is not to get the next lead, your job is to collect allies and advocates, the kinds of people who make things happen with verve and joy and passion, because that’s the virtual army that your life’s work deserves.

Because, when you boil it all down, people who do amazing interesting and important things know other people who do amazing interesting and important things.

And, if you find and add value to enough people doing amazing interesting important things, and if at least some of them become wildly passionate about YOUR amazing interesting important thing, eventually they will roll up their sleeves for you, eventually they will lend their best thoughts to you, eventually they will become part of your journey.

Bit by bit, over time, those relationships will lead to more relationships that will eventually get you in the room with a person who can write a 10x or 100x bigger check and who is positively disposed to the conversation they’re about to have with you, because they’ve heard about you from one or three or five other amazing interesting people doing important things. Then you need to close that sale.

It’s a long road from here to there, but you distinguish yourself on Day 1 by committing to walk this path.

And, if you’re just beginning on this journey, and especially if you think of yourself as “results oriented,” I’d encourage you to be a little less discerning, a little less linear, and a lot more energetic and generous, and see where that path leads.

Why the signs matter

Check out the signs in your office, the photos, how clean the kitchen is, whether the clocks are set to the right time.

Or, pay attention to what happens when you have a visitor. Who greets them when they come in? No one? Just the receptionist? Or anyone who walks by?

When you boil it down, there are two kinds of organizations in the world: ones in which everyone acts like owners, and ones in which people just do their jobs.

In ownership cultures, people lean in on tasks big and small — because it’s ours, not someone else’s, and every last detail matters.

There’s no in between. Choose.

Spring

Right here.

Right now.

At this moment.

I stand.

My feet are on the ground.

Breath enters my nose.

I hear.

Birds. So many of them, in wild conversation. As I keep walking, I notice more and more. Are they always there and I just don’t pay attention?

Cars. The sound of their tires humming against the pavement, each wave of sound a bit different from the last.

I see.

Branches swaying gently. Leaves emerging, daring to show themselves after a long, long winter.

I breathe. In. Out.

I feel.

My clothes on my body.

A first spring breeze on my face.

A hint of heat.

Look what happens when I stop, just for a second.

Look how much is around me.

This kind of moment is always here, available to me. This quality of attention is something I carry with me.

If only I remembered that more often.

I am. Here. Now.

Four Steps in Selling

  1. Great to meet you
  2. Asking questions
  3. Making the pitch
  4. Closing

It’s amazing how often, as salespeople or fundraisers, in our breathless urgency to make our pitch, we skip to step 3.

Ultimately there’s a wrapper around this entire conversation, and that wrapper is our true intention.

Every moment we spend demonstrating genuine curiosity, we make clear that we care most about meeting their needs, and will pursue a sale only in service of that end.

Yes, our future customer wants to know that we are smart, capable, and that we have a great solution for the price, but the first thing she wants to know is: what’s this guy’s true intention? If we don’t pass that test, we never get out of the gate.

The truth is, today everyone has a nearly infinite choice about who they are going to work with, or what organization they are going to support. The deeper truth is that no product, service, intervention, or charity is so much better than everything else out there that it wins solely on the merits.

This is why we begin with courtesy and basic good manners.

We follow that with genuine curiosity around the problem someone else is trying to solve, and, from that deep interest, we explore if, how, and in what ways the thing we have on offer today might solve that problem.

These aren’t boxes to check so we can get on with our sale, these are the first steps towards building a partnership on a foundation of respect and service.

No skipping steps.