There are mornings, here in the Pacific Northwest,when the fog covers the fields in a sheet of gray, and I can only see a few feet ahead as I walk out to feed the horses,
Then there are mornings when a mental fog descends, and the path that seemed so clear the day before is nowhere to be found.
When I’m lost in the fog and can’t find the trail, I need markers placed a few feet ahead of me more than big goals or strategic objectives.
Traditional planning focuses on goals, objectives, and indicators–and these all have their place. But when I’m walking the trail of transformation in uncharted territory, I want signs that reassure me to, “Keep going.” I once meandered onto a goat path while hiking up a mountain and ended up completely lost as the sun was going down.Now, when I’m hiking, I keep my eyes peeled for little orange tapes wrapped around branches to reassure me that I’m on track.
Because a mental fog can roll in without notice, I want to be prepared. One day, I’ll be on fire writing my book. The next, I’m ready to throw my hands up and cry, “Uncle.” When I can’t see more than ten feet ahead, I need a marker at nine feet. When I’m lost in a morning funk and finding writing a book too overwhelming, (yes, it is!), identifying one small step to take can be a lifesaver.
Maybe to find that step I’ll choose to sit quietly or have a brief chat with the muse, that compassionate voice I call upon in just these situations. She’s very good at coming up with three to five very specific, small, no-nonsense steps: “Read a little Elizabeth Gilbert to motivate you.” “Write 800 words even if you hate your words.” “Pick up your closet floor.” “Breathe.” When I follow her suggestions and take one or two steps, I will often find my groove and be on my way again.
I reserve long-range planning for clear, blue-sky days, with no fog interference. Then I can stand at my whiteboard and plot my best-guess trail map for my project over the next three to six months.
How markers can help
If you’re starting a business: What’s the one small, but necessary thing you could do right now to support your key direction for the week?
If you’re designing a course: What small portion of the design could you develop?
If you’re painting: What’s the smallest step or gesture you could take that would allow you to feel like you are advancing–as simple as selecting brushes or setting up your easel?
If you’re needing exercise: What’s the smallest thing you could do today to move forward on your program?
But when the fog comes in, I say that markers are what’s going to keep you on the trail.
Brené Brown did the world a great service when she shared, from her research and experience, about the importance of being willing to be vulnerable. But just because her TEDx talk went wildly viral and has been applauded by millions around the planet doesn’t make it any easier to stand, exposed, before others.
I know, because I teach. Not the kind of stand-behind-a-podium-reading-notes-you-developed-years-ago teaching, but teaching where you know you have to always be a learner, that each group you teach will be different, and that what matters most is always their engagement, not your glorious words. Teaching, facilitating. and sharing stories are areas of my work where I challenge myself to stand in front of others in the vulnerable void, a place where I’m willing to let go and not know.
Where do you practice working from that place of vulnerability?
I wrote this on the eve of launching a new course. (Not surprisingly, it feels vulnerable to share it!)
I love it I hate it
It is my audience, my stage
Where I come out to the world
It is my place to design
my excuse to spend hours reading
tied to my computer, mapping the timing,
dreaming of guests
I’m anxious to meet.
It is my prison
Where I have to wake at ungodly hours
to alarm clocks designed to crush the muse.
They call it training; I don’t like the word
I train my dog and horses.
Educare, to lead forward, is the verb I follow.
Not pretending that I see a world
you haven’t imagined.
It is where,
after eight hours of communion
evaluation forms are passed around.
On a ten point scale how did I do?
Tell me, did I change the life you have yet to live?
My fifteen-year old granddaughter and her BFF cousin spent last week with us (such joy) and entertained us by singing most of the songs from the musical Hamilton. They did a wonderful rap, introducing us to the work of actor, director, and visionary, Lin-Manuel Miranda. I’m smitten (I know I’m terribly late to the party, but out here on America’s West Coast we’re thousands of miles from Broadway!). For anyone whowants to see a great example of theatrical storytelling: watch Miranda’s rap for Obama’s 2009 Poetry slam at the White House (and long for better days!). I like it so much that I’ve watched it without sound just to enjoy the energy and charisma Miranda brings to his performance, even without his terrific lyrics.
The other reason I’m smitten is because Miranda is using his fame to focus attention on immigration by supporting the Immigrants: We Get the Job Done Coalition with some personal, Hamilton-inspired fundraising. He just released a video that riffs on the line from Hamilton: “Immigrants (We Get The Job Done).” The rappers K’naan, Residente, Riz MC and Snow Tha Product combine forces to show how vital immigrants and refugees are to America, addressing both their contributions and sufferings. With gritty clips of dark subway cars filled with the frightened faces of immigrants going to yet another of their many jobs, dirt-smeared workers doing work no one else wants to do, and hostile police raids, it’s not a light video to watch. But it’s worth seeing and I’ve seen it now multiple times.
I pray that Miranda does for immigration what his play Hamilton did for American history: get people interested.
As we celebrate Independence Day in the United States, we can think of George Washington’s response in Hamilton to the question “Does this mean freedom?” with two apt words: “Not yet.”
Freedom. Not to be taken for granted. Let’s get the job done.
Creating a story about technology and the future is risky. But it’s all the more risky when it means taking on a titan like Steve Jobs. Jobs had a narrative driving his strategy at Apple that didn’t include creating a phone or dealing with telephone carriers. “We’re not very good going through orifices to get to the end users,” he said referring to phone companies. He stubbornly refused to expand on the success of the iPod by building an iPod-like phone.
As competitors began building phones that looked increasingly like the iPod, members of the executive team at Apple argued for the merits of building an Apple phone. Jobs didn’t see it.
Yet in the top ranks of Apple were engineers and executives with the courage to go toe-to-toe with Jobs and argue for an alternate story about what was about to happen in the market and the industry. They backed their arguments with data, designs, prototypes, chutzpah and a big vision of the future. They created a more compelling narrative.
Jobs finally changed his story and launched the top secret project (code name “Purple”) that produced the iPhone. What ensued had all the passion, drive, jealousy, cunning, secrecy, rivalries and obsessions of a Puccini opera. The project would make careers and break marriages.
Fun reading for those of us interested in the origin stories behind companies and game-changer products. I’m looking forward to reading the whole book. But today’s takeaway is simply this:
Big stories shape what people can imagine and what gets done.
What stories are you shaping as you think about the future?
Of course, not all stories about the future get it right. For a little fun: here are some failed predictions about technology:*
1876: “The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.” — William Preece, British Post Office.
1876: “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.” — William Orton, President of Western Union.
1966: “Remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop.” — Time Magazine.
1995:“I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.”— Robert Metcalfe, founder of 3Com.
2007: “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.” — Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO.
Do you ever feel like you’re just rolling the rock uphill?
As I face that huge to-do list of things-that-have-to-be-done, I’ve been thinking about Sisyphus, the hero of Albert Camus’s famous 1942 essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus described Sisyphus, a mortal in Greek mythology, who offended the gods and was punished by being condemned to roll a rock uphill for eternity. Each time Sisyphus reached the top of the hill with his rock, its weight would send it cascading back down the hill. For Camus, the myth demonstrated man’s existential plight, and the absurdity of having to do work that is futile, day in and day out. (Watch Peter Dronen’s animated film here.)
That’s how I feel in the springtime when life and all the weeds return to my garden. The gods warned me (through a number of gardening colleagues) not to plant such a huge garden, but I, as a proud, inquisitive, and energetic mortal, decided to defy them. I created something way bigger than I can manage. During the springtime, I weed one area one day, then move on to the next, return in a week to the first, to find, guess what? A new set of weeds has taken over and my work must begin again. Like Sisyphus, I will never get it all done.
Should I just throw in the spade and crumple into a pile of (unwanted) buttercups?
An actress friend of mine from New York City has a different take on the matter. When she heard how overwhelmed I was feeling trying to manage our property, she laughed. “Oh, you get used to that living in New York City. Every day there’s so much you can do in The City, but you realize that you will never do most of it. You get used to knowing that what you do will only be a smidge, compared to what you can’t do.”
A lightbulb went off! I saw that I had been believing that I should get it all done. It was as if my life was constructed around a huge game called “accomplishing all there is to do.” But I had forgotten that I’d chosen the game. Maybe there’s a different game out there called “it will never be done and much of what lies ahead of me will never get finished.” Sure, there are responsibilities in life, like mine to my family and clients, that have to get done; I am accountable for managing these. There are consequences for not doing some things. Yet I’m the one who chose many of the obligations on this man-made mountain I have chosen to climb.
Awareness may be the first step in recovery. But I still need strategies that can help me navigate the absurdist drama before me. I’m experimenting with these.
Stop and smell the roses. Or the peonies. Or the unwanted buttercups.
The peonies are blooming in the garden and they are luscious beyond belief. Their intoxicating perfume lifts me out of my hopelessness about the garden. The weeds can wait. Checking into my here-and-now sensory experience, helps me bypass my mind’s diagnosis of “there is too much to do.”
Get some perspective.
Have you ever been sick, really sick, when even doing the simplest task seems out of reach? When I’ve been laid low by sickness or hurt in an accident, one of the gifts I’ve received has been to watch the list of what I expect from myself miraculously shrink. When I am able to leave my bed, I delight in what I can do, such as make my first cup of tea, in the face of all that I can’t.
I want to remember that perspective, that gratitude, as I get swept back into the rhythm of regular life.
Track your real accomplishments.
On the surface, this can seem like returning to the land of the ever-present to-do list, checking things off the list, and watching how new items magically spring up to replace what you’ve checked off. But I’m talking about a different kind of reflection.
This week, I discovered a little software app called “Idonethis.com” that allows you to track accomplishments. (It’s free in its hobby-personal version , and requires almost no learning curve.) You can either list tasks and check them off (the old way) or pause a moment, reflect, and record what you accomplished that matters most to you.
For example, my big accomplishment on Tuesday was not tied to any goal. It was a surprise insight that came out a conversation with one of my former podcast guests. “Don’t try to write another career book about working in the 3rd act of life. Connect working with the kind of questions of meaning that show up in writers like Parker Palmer and Richard Rohr.”
One five minute insight meant more to me than a mountain of to-do’s done. And taking a moment to record this was very satisfying, a glimmer of meaning I could take from my work.
Meditate. Become more mindful.
This is a longer-term strategy, so I won’t write about it here, although I know it’s the door into a way of being that is not dependent on the world becoming fixed, ordered, or behaving as it should.
From animated film by Peter Dronen on YouTube
Camus was interested in finding meaning in an absurdist world where the tasks of life seemed overwhelming and futile. (And if you need to practice feeling the absurdity of life, just turn on NPR and listen to the news out of Washington, D.C.)
He thought the world was godless. I don’t agree, but I appreciate his wrestling with the question “why bother” in the face of the craziness of life. His essay closes with Sisyphus accepting his fate and the absurdity of his work, finding, within his choice, the possibility of happiness.
Accepting that part of life that may always seem a bit futile, absurd, and at times overwhelming, seems wise.
Some years ago, I was walking my beloved Springer Spaniel, Lady, to the dog park. She was pretty well trained to heel off-leash, and sat calmly beside me as we waited to cross a busy arterial and enter the dog-friendly area on the other side of the street.
Bad choice. Before I knew what happened, I saw a brown and white bullet race across the street, into the heavy traffic. She’d seen a squirrel. I screamed “LADY” at the top of my voice, hoping to startle and stop her, but she continued to run right into the trajectory of an on-coming car. Then I heard her hit.
Mercifully, the god of small animals was with us that day. She hit the tire of the car from the side, and bounced off. One moment sooner and she would have been under that tire. She limped to the side of the arterial, shaken, but miraculously alive and intact.
I never let her walk off-leash near busy city streets again. Her primal instinct for SQUIRREL was stronger than any command I could give.
How we all chase squirrels
Dogs aren’t the only squirrel-chasers. We humans, too, have our own versions.
We sit down at the computer, primed with our to-do lists, and set about our work, (spoken as one who works, with some freedom, for herself). But then the squirrels come out, with messages sent to tempt us. Is Meryl Streep really dead like that click-bait notice says? Does Brad Pitt have a new girlfriend? And the President just tweeted…whaaaat?
Yep, it’s SQUIRREL time!!! Before we know it we’re charging ahead, off-leash, forgetting our erstwhile priorities, mumbling, “I’ll just check this one little thing.”
SQUIRREL isn’t just about the Internet. It could be any distraction we know we shouldn’t take on. Maybe it’s a committee we could join, a tempting invitation from a friend, that extra piece of research, or a magazine that just arrived. The challenge with SQUIRREL is when something else starts driving our brains.
Not that we always have to be rational. We don’t. It’s just that SQUIRREL can lead us into an alternative reality from which we emerge minutes or hours later, with nothing to show for it, frustrated with ourselves and what we haven’t been able to accomplish.
There are a few ways to put ourselves into obedience school.
One, is to get clearer about our intentions and what really matters, taking time to focus before we plunge into our work, or our day.
Second, we can use those handy-dandy Internet tools like Freedomthat block websites and apps while we know we need to be working. These are great for writers or others interested in doing deep work. A New York Times article summarizing science research suggested that we’re happier when we can stay focused on one activity rather thinking of something else. (And yes, there’s a new psychological diagnostic code called Internet addiction.)
Third, we can allow ourselves to play SQUIRREL, but with intention. Give yourself a finite period of time and web surf, catch up on all the Facebook traffic you missed, or feast on click-bait. Until your time is over. (Maybe set a timer.) SQUIRREL loses its power when it’s played with intention.
Finally, you can just call the game for what it is. My husband and I will sometimes disappear in the evening into our respective offices “for just a few minutes.” As time clicks away, it may take one of us calling out, “Are you playing SQUIRREL???” to break the trance. We laugh at how easy it is to be seduced.
I’ve heard that awareness is the first step in breaking any habit. Lady couldn’t reflect on her habits. But we can. Which I plan to do. Right after I find out if Angelina might take Brad back.