I Know That I Am…

While on the road last week, I did a pretty good job of meditating each night. I’ve found this is the best way to overcome both jetlag and the buzzing distraction of being on the road.

Most nights, I did one of the guided mediations on my Insight Timer app. Near the end of my trip I found a guided meditation by Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn.

“OK,” I thought, “this is going to be some serious meditation!”

The foundation of this meditation, in the words of Thich Nhat Hahn, is the breath, and is paying attention to it by thinking, “When you breathe in, know that you are breathing in. When you breathe out, know that you are breathing out.” He must have said that fifty times in the meditation.

Really? I’ve done lots of meditations where I count my breaths, or focus on a thought or an emotion or an object. But “I know that I am breathing in?” Something about that from the great Zen master wasn’t what I was expecting. Still, I went with it, and the meditation turned out to be quite nice in its simplicity.

I didn’t think much more about it until today. I was walking from my parked car into the supermarket, needing to grab one last-minute item quickly for some houseguests that were coming over for Memorial Day. Conscious of time, I had a moment when I thought, “I know that I am putting the parking ticket into my back left pocket.”

Now, this may not seem like a big deal unless I say out loud that the supermarket parking ticket is the bane of my existence. Between getting my kids out of the car and making sure that they’re not endangering themselves in the parking lot, half the time I seem to misplace that ticket or find it in a pocket despite having no recollection that I’d put it there.

And today, while I wasn’t trying to do anything different, I knew exactly where it was because I was fully present to what I was doing in the moment I put it into my pocket.

When we lose a parking ticket, it’s pretty clear that we weren’t paying attention to where we put it when we got out of the car. In most other situations the feedback is a lot less obvious – how often have I thought, “what went wrong in that conversation was that I wasn’t paying attention to what was being said to me while it was being said?” How often do we actually notice that what’s missing isn’t the right analysis or people being aligned to the same goals, it’s simply that we, or the people around us, aren’t present to the conversation that is happening right at that moment?

I for one almost never notice it. I also am almost never just doing the dishes when I’m doing the dishes, I’m almost never just walking down the street when I walk down the street, I almost never am just saying hello when I meet someone.

Almost never, but not never. And that’s a start.

My ask of you today isn’t that you’ll share this blog post or talk about it. It is that you, before jumping to the next post or email, stop for a second and, for five (just five!) breaths, know that you are breathing in, and know that you are breathing out.

If it helps, imagine that you are joining thousands of other people who, right about now, have also reached the end of this post.

Please, begin.

First, balance

The way we used to teach kids to ride bikes is all wrong. The trick is to get them, from a very young age, onto a balance bike so they can spend a year or two wooshing around by pushing the ground and, in the process, they slowly learn balance.

Image by Burley Bike

Then, when they’re ready, “learning to ride a bike” is just about being comfortable with a higher seat and learning to pedal.

Think how much harder we make it with training wheels: kids learn to ride and pedal, and, mile after mile, it’s reinforced that balance doesn’t matter at all. Then one day we take off the wheels and say, “keep riding this bike you’ve been on for years, you’ve just got to unlearn the not-balancing part.”

This kind of misdiagnosis happens every day in our grown-up life, only this time “balance”—the core skills we expect you to develop by unlearning all sorts of bad habits–are the long list of “soft” skills that are devalued by the very label.

Here’s a  starting list of the grown-up-skills equivalents of ‘balance’: a good attitude, not getting ruffled easily, apologizing in a genuine way, being deeply curious, willingness to hear and adjust to feedback, knowing how to consistently write in a professional but human way, being straight with people, caring, responsiveness, honesty, being in touch with your emotions at work, learning to say what you really think, demonstrating respect, disagreeing constructively, not overreacting to criticism, actually believing that, sometimes (even when you were positive you were right), it will turn out you were totally wrong and someone else was totally right, saying ‘let’s go for it’ even when you’re not sure it will work out.

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.

merlin_137214267_769927ce-4919-4ac7-bc41-2bc7113c1d00-superJumbo.jpg
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.