A week to smooth some edges

Once not so long ago, when I was working hard in a yoga class, I heard the teacher suggest, “If you are a Type A, if you’re always striving and pushing, try working a little less hard.  And if you know that you tend to slack off, push yourself today.”

We are (mostly) who we are.  We do things a certain way.  We have certain habits, and these tend to be hard to change (and, most of these habits have gotten us where we are today.)

But what’s important to remember is that while a few people may have been born great leaders, most great leaders are made through a constant practice of self-reflection and evolution.

What better example than President Obama?  Recently, Michelle Cottle wrote a piece in The New Republic titled “The Cool Presidency: An Inquiry into Obama’s hipness,” which concludes:

…the dirty little secret of our new president’s cool is that no element of it came with ease. Obama achieved his laid-back, too-cool-to-care persona by being a committed grind: He spent years working through his insecurities, learning to control his emotions, and sanding down the rough edges of his personality…

So what if you start smoothing some of your own rough edges: pick something you’re interested in doing differently, and spent just one week acting differently?

Do you always have something smart and constructive to say in meetings?  Spend a week saying absolutely nothing, just listening, and see who else starts to speak up (and how you feel staying quiet).

Do you “need” to go online every 15 minutes to check your email, your Twitter feed and the latest news headline?  Spend a week with your Internet connection turned off except for two hours a day, and see what happens.

Always getting everything right before launching the next new idea?  Take something half-baked and move it forward quickly.  Are you the last person on your team to arrive in the office every morning?  Arrive first for a week.  Eat lunch alone?  Invite a friend.  Always eat with the same people?  Invite someone new.  Blog posts always long?  Shoot for less than 200 words this week.  Always short?  Develop an idea.

A lot of these habits are the stories we tell ourselves.  We justify our unexamined habits by saying “this is who I am.  It worked to get me here.”

Big changes are hard.  A one week experiment in acting differently is risk-free.  So spend a week smoothing off some edges, and see how it feels.

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What would Alice do?

Today was a day for me to spend some time with my family, so I’m short a post.  But reflecting on Barack Obama’s speech on Monday night reminded me of the open-ended hope so many felt when he was elected on November 4, 2008. Somehow it feels like we’ve fallen back down to earth, beaten down by month after month of grim economic news.

Here is a letter from Alice Walker to President Obama, written on November 5, 2008.  This was on my mind at the start of Monday night’s speech as Barack Obama so genuinely acknowledged Michele Obama.  My hope that theirs is a true partnership and that they have refuge in each other, even in the midst of the overwhelming challenges and pressures they – and we – are facing.

If you don’t start with and preserve love in your own home and your own life, where do you turn for strength?

Nov. 5, 2008

Dear Brother Obama,

You have no idea, really, of how profound this moment is for us. Us being the black people of the Southern United States. You think you know, because you are thoughtful, and you have studied our history. But seeing you deliver the torch so many others before you carried, year after year, decade after decade, century after century, only to be struck down before igniting the flame of justice and of law, is almost more than the heart can bear. And yet, this observation is not intended to burden you, for you are of a different time, and, indeed, because of all the relay runners before you, North America is a different place. It is really only to say: Well done. We knew, through all the generations, that you were with us, in us, the best of the spirit of Africa and of the Americas. Knowing this, that you would actually appear, someday, was part of our strength. Seeing you take your rightful place, based solely on your wisdom, stamina and character, is a balm for the weary warriors of hope, previously only sung about.

I would advise you to remember that you did not create the disaster that the world is experiencing, and you alone are not responsible for bringing the world back to balance. A primary responsibility that you do have, however, is to cultivate happiness in your own life. To make a schedule that permits sufficient time of rest and play with your gorgeous wife and lovely daughters. And so on. One gathers that your family is large. We are used to seeing men in the White House soon become juiceless and as white-haired as the building; we notice their wives and children looking strained and stressed. They soon have smiles so lacking in joy that they remind us of scissors. This is no way to lead. Nor does your family deserve this fate. One way of thinking about all this is: It is so bad now that there is no excuse not to relax. From your happy, relaxed state, you can model real success, which is all that so many people in the world really want. They may buy endless cars and houses and furs and gobble up all the attention and space they can manage, or barely manage, but this is because it is not yet clear to them that success is truly an inside job. That it is within the reach of almost everyone.

I would further advise you not to take on other people’s enemies. Most damage that others do to us is out of fear, humiliation and pain. Those feelings occur in all of us, not just in those of us who profess a certain
religious or racial devotion. We must learn actually not to have enemies, but only confused adversaries who are ourselves in disguise. It is understood by all that you are commander in chief of the United States and are sworn to protect our beloved country; this we understand, completely. However, as my mother used to say, quoting a Bible with which I often fought, “hate the sin, but love the sinner.” There must be no more crushing of whole communities, no more torture, no more dehumanizing as a means of ruling a people’s spirit. This has already happened to people of color, poor people, women, children. We see where this leads, where it has led.

A good model of how to “work with the enemy” internally is presented by the Dalai Lama, in his endless caretaking of his soul as he confronts the Chinese government that invaded Tibet. Because, finally, it is the soul that must be preserved, if one is to remain a credible leader. All else might be lost; but when the soul dies, the connection to earth, to peoples, to animals, to rivers, to mountain ranges, purple and majestic, also dies. And your smile, with which we watch you do gracious battle with unjust characterizations, distortions and lies, is that expression of healthy self-worth, spirit and soul, that, kept happy and free and relaxed, can find an answering smile in all of us, lighting our way, and brightening the world.

We are the ones we have been waiting for.

In Peace and Joy,
Alice Walker

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Why I’m making a donation to Dave Farmar

I’ve never met Dave Farmar, and he’s never met me.  He’s a yoga teacher in Denver who has a free podcast which, if you’ve got a strong yoga practice, I recommend highly.

Dave puts these podcasts out into the world, and I’m practical enough to understand that he does this both to be generous and as a way of raising his own visibility.  At the same time, Dave isn’t asking for anything in return for the 20-30 of his yoga classes of his that I’ve done in the last year, and that’s exactly why I feel like I should give a donation to him or to a charity he supports (and blogging about it is a great way to ensure that I follow through).

I spend a lot of time on this blog encouraging more generosity, and it occurs to me that part of this process has to be me cultivating my own generosity in tangible ways – big and small.

The trick here is the dreaded Free Rider problem.  It’s downright irrational to pay for things where you can get the benefit without paying the cost (the classic example is national defense or a clean environment; but you can free ride by not voting in a national election too).

How do we act when no one is looking AND where it makes sense – economically, rationally – to do nothing?

The same question came up today when I went with my family to the Museum of Natural History.  The teller told us that the price was $47, and he kept on saying, “But that’s just a suggested admission.  How much do you want to pay?”  In a situation like that, with the teller essentially saying, “Hey, most everyone pays a lot less than this,” it’s hard not to feel silly saying, “No, I’d rather pay the $47.”  And, in all candor, if it hadn’t been for my wife’s encouragement, I’m not sure I would have paid the full “suggested admission” of $47.  It felt like a lot of money, and the teller – who was trying to be nice – was encouraging me to take a pass and spend the money on something else.

(footnote: the museum was fabulous.  Definitely worth the $47.)

My point is not that I’m some paragon of generosity — it’s something I struggle with as much as anyone.  My point is that we’re all have to practice being more generous, especially in situations where it doesn’t make rational sense to do so.  Donate or not, I’ll continue to have access to Dave Farmer’s great yoga classes for free; the Museum of Natural History will get most of its funding from corporations and other major donors and doesn’t need my $47; and Barak Obama would have become President even if I hadn’t voted for him.

But if we don’t put our money where our mouth is — if we don’t step up and support things that are good and beautiful and hopeful in the world — we have no right to complain when we treated ungenerously in return.

And, increasingly, I believe that giving, generosity, kindness, forgiveness and hope are, first and foremost, acts of self-expression.  And, as we’ll see on January 20th, millions of small acts of self-expression can make historical change in the world.

Enjoy the innaguration.

Kiva’s Kenyan customers on Obama

In case you needed more proof about how small the world has become, here’s a video from a Kiva Fellow who decided to ask some Kiva customers what they thought about Barack Obama.

Hat tip to the Kiva chronicles blog for the video.