Credit: Blue Origin
I recently had an opportunity to tour Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ privately-funded aerospace manufacturer and spaceflight services company. Tucked in an industrial area near Seattle, with no signage divulging its name, Blue Origin felt to me like a cross between the National Air and Space museum, a state of the world design/manufacturing plant, and Disneyland.
Inside the facility, we were invited to enter a version of the shiny projectile-shaped spacecraft described by Jules Verne in his 1865 classic, From the Earth or the Moon. Elegantly furnished with hardwood paneling and Victorian-era memorabilia, the elegant four-chaired sitting room takes you back to a period when space travel was only a fantasy. Now, if company staff members want to refuel their imaginations, they can hold a meeting in the small chamber.
A thrill for me was sitting in a mock-up of the space capsule, currently under construction, which will someday take six passengers for a ride up into space and back. As I climbed into one of capsule’s six reclining, contoured seats, shaped to protect me from the gravitational thrust of a launch and landing, I had a mini-flight experience. I heard the roar of the launch, felt the capsule shake, and watched a video simulation of what I might see out of the large window to my right on a real flight. (Watch a video simulation here.)
Don’t expect to fly economy class any time soon!
Like all visitors, I was sworn to not divulge any other amazing stuff I saw at the facility. But imagine this hypothetical scenario: What if you were the second richest man on earth and had a dream, which you could personally fund, so you were able to hire some of the world’s best and brightest engineers and manufacturing professionals and support them to have fun as they designed and built a piece of the future? Without investors, you wouldn’t need to pressure staff to be profitable from the git-go, yet your staff would inevitably make some incredible discoveries as they worked at the edge of science, engineering and manufacturing. And, chances are, some of those discoveries would be useable in as yet unimagined ways.
That would be an out-of-this-world opportunity! No wonder staff at Blue Origin seem so jazzed to be working there. (Need an energy booster yourself? Watch what 400 crazy-happy rocket scientists look like.)
As I toured the company’s foyers, I saw numerous displays of aerospace memorabilia as well as bold and inspiring quotes.
This one by Antoine de Saint Exupery, author of The Little Prince, and himself an aircraft designer, really caught my eye:
“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” *
That phrase applies both to engineering and to art.
The art of taking away
For ten years, I’ve been a beginning student of the Sogetsu School of Ikebana, “the Japanese art of flower arranging”—to use a poor but literal translation. Ikebana International calls Ikebana “a disciplined art form in which the arrangement is a living thing where nature and humanity are brought together. It is steeped in the philosophy of developing a closeness with nature.”
Instead of arranging flowers by filling a vase Western-style, (which I admittedly still do when my garden is in its abundance), you focus, in Ikebana, on form and movement, line and mass, and highlighting empty space, often pruning material until the essence of an arrangement is revealed.
For as long as I study, I will be training my eye to see “when there is nothing left to take away.” My amazing Japanese teacher, Nobuko Relnick, is able to see what I cannot. Even with fifty years of teaching, she continues to study and approaches her creations with a mix of humility, reverence, delight and art. For me, this is about more than flower arranging: it’s a practice for life.
Four questions for you
Last week, I shared with you that I am starting on a book project (gulp!). Thanks to those who sent encouraging words. I realize that in adding a big project to my life, I may need to simplify, and look for what is no longer essential that I can prune away.
In the spirit of paring down this post, I leave you with these questions:
- What is essential to you right now?
- What clear lines, patterns or forms are revealing themselves in your life?
- What is happening in the invisible or unsaid (or as an artist would say “negative space”) as well as in the visible and spoken aspects of your life?
- What would your need to prune to heighten the beauty and purpose of your work or life?
(*As a quote checker, I think the translation by Eric Raymond may have slightly embellished, but I’ll let it stand as it was on the wall at Blue Origin.)
Before a dream can be transformed into a project in the world, it has to be born.
We talk about “making” dreams come true, but isn’t that a bit pushy for something as tender as a dream? Many books and articles on entrepreneurship explode with archetypically male images about making things happen, straining and striving for success, competing and winning, and being the best.
Let’s add another, gentler perspective.
How about including a few more classically feminine images to describe the process of bringing an idea to life, especially as it just starts to emerge into the world? Words like midwifing and birthing come to mind. Dreams are delicate, especially the ones that we have held deep in our hearts, for many years, waiting until the time was right to bring them forward. Turning a dream into a project, whether it’s a business, book, or some other creative form, requires some tenderness.
After all, you are asking your dream to leave the warm, liminal space where it has been living in your imagination and confront the light of day. That’s risky business.
We need to honor the transition of taking an idea from its secret place in your mind into the world.
When a woman is pregnant, much anticipation and preparation precedes the birth. Selected friends and colleagues are informed; there may be a celebration. The mother prepares herself over the months as she experiences her baby in the womb; the family prepares the baby’s room.
It’s a time for joyful anticipation, not for making decisions about who the child is going to be, and whether she or he should go to Harvard, the Colorado School of Mines, inherit the farm, or become a baker. Parents may hold off picking a baby’s name until they sense the nature of their precious offspring. As the baby is born, no one is grading or evaluating it. (At least I hope not!) The baby needs time to grow, discover his or her nature and find a place in the world.
Don’t new projects need a little time to grow and find themselves, too?
Midwifing the start of a book
I’ve decided to start writing a book. Maybe you’re cringing as you read this, knowing how many people you remember who have said, “I’m going to write a book someday.” When it comes to writing, I believe that either you are writing a book (interesting to me), or you’re thinking about writing one (not as much). I want to move quickly into the former.
I’ve been thinking about the idea (without announcing it) for several years. Not every dream wants to come to life. I have lots of ideas, and I can only sink my time, spirit and resources into a few of them. With this project-idea, I asked myself:
- Is my dream begging to come forward?
- Do I love it?
- Do I believe that it’s needed?
- Is this something I feel I have to do?
It took a while to feel certain, but when I heard my “Yes,” the journey of birthing my project began.
Now, as I midwife it into action, I find myself on a journey where I want to learn and share about how we navigate the very delicate, early stage of a creative project. It’s that time on a project when you put in a lot of effort, yet have very little to show. It’s a time for trusting and holding the course until you start building momentum and see the work start to bare fruit.
How my idea started
The genesis of my big idea began five years ago when I turned 60. I became inspired, even haunted, by the question: “What does it take to re-invent your career/work/life at a time when your friends are beginning to retire?” What I came to believe is that our second half (or “third act”) of life may be our most creative period of life, if we honor our sense of calling and design our work/lives to support what we believe we are meant to do. In this day and age, I think a lot of us are want, or need, to work, paid or volunteer, long after we turn 65.
Do I know what kind of book this should be? No. Am I sure my idea has to become a book? No. Will I self-publish or seek a publisher? Who knows! I want the dream to have a little time to walk about in the world and I need to get better acquainted with my project by writing.
So here’s my plan for the very early, early stage of birthing a dream into a project:
Speak about it – with caution
It’s a big deal for me to tell you what I’m doing, but speaking it helps to make the project real for me. I see my own words flowing on to the page and I learn about them. I watch my friend’s eyes light up when I say what I am doing. Sharing helps me to take my idea out of my head and bring it into the world.
I’m NOT announcing to everybody, including the few friends I have who have a strong evaluative sense and will want to “help” by telling me whether or not it is a good idea. That’s not the feedback I need…yet.
Play with it and let it move
I want to do lots of free-writing and research and let my book-child wander about while I observe the paths that she follows. I want to know what she (the book) is asking of me. I also want to learn about my beloved, potential audiences and how they respond to what I’m creating.
Create some structure to support me
My life is full. LOTS of elements compete for my attention. I need a structure to insure that the book moves forward. Step one: spend a chunk of change on an eight-month program for writers who wish to create compelling books. There’s nothing like spending money to help me put a stake in the ground. I trust that the reinforcement of being in a community with a structured program will be very helpful.
Build daily practices that support the work
I’m still working on this one. Have any hints for me from your experience? Write every morning? Periodically dance what I am discovering? Create some touch points when I will check in with friends, thus giving myself mini-deadlines? To be discovered!
Celebrate the pregnancy as well as the birth
The book may take a long time to complete. I can’t wait that long to celebrate. Maybe I need to start by celebrating that I’m swinging out, daring to feel vulnerable, feeling uncertain, and, at the same time, ecstatic.
Thanks for letting me share the dream with you as it moves into the world. I hope I can do the same in return for you. Do let me know!
If you work in an organization or business, or volunteer regularly in the community, how many hours do you spend weekly in meetings? Count them up and I think you’ll agree, meetings are America’s growth industry! And because of this, improving meetings is the low-hanging fruit for bettering our productivity.
What if we could shift just ten percent of them from gross to great?
Have you ever had the experience of crashing to finish your work, end that telephone call, or put aside something you really wanted to do, in order to rush to a meeting? Then you arrive, watch people straggle in and spend their time waiting, day-dreaming, gazing with false fascination at their cell phones. The meeting leader isn’t even there. And the place feels like a morgue.
That meeting is probably dead before it starts.
We humans are highly adaptable and we shape our expectations based on experience. We learn that the weekly planning meeting for “Project Y” is going to start late (so don’t come on time), its purpose will be cloudy, and conversations will zig this way and that. Or maybe the group will be ramrodded through the agenda like an army platoon marching in lock-step, people will not offer what they really think, and the meeting will end in confusion with no clarity about who is going to do what. We learn to expect the worst and then our low expectations are met!
As I prepare to teach a workshop on facilitation to faculty at a local college, I’ve re-discovered a secret truth: the key to a successful meeting often lies outside the meeting itself. To quote a consulting colleague of mine, who used this phrase as if it were a quote from the Bible, context is king. What he meant is that the set-up of a meeting will determine its success. Elements include having clarity about its intent, knowing how a meeting fits into the organizational landscape, understanding how results will be used, and choosing the right structure.
Here are a few things to think about before you sit down to craft an agenda or launch a meeting:
Why do you need to have this meeting?
Do you need to report out on new developments? If what you’re planning to share can be read, spare me the agony. I can read far more quickly than I can listen. And never read me the treasurer’s report or the secretary’s report, (our garden club used to think this was necessary), unless you have the dramatic flair of a stand-up comic. Nothing deflates meeting momentum like listening to someone read an information document (exceptions allowed).
But it doesn’t have to be like that. A great meeting is a way to build relationships, inspire synergy, increase engagement through participation, learn from a variety of viewpoints, get everyone on the same page, make essential decisions, and even have fun!
What decisions, coming out of the meeting, will make your heart sing?
Or, if not sing, at least beat happily. Be clear on what you need to do or decide, but don’t get greedy. If you try to do too much, and end up having to jam your agenda with decisions to be made every five to ten minutes, (more about that in a future post), I know your meeting’s not likely to work. (If decisions were that easy to make, why aren’t they already made?)
Is there a hidden agenda?
Be honest. Sometimes I’ve entered a group in which there were so many elephants in the room, you could smell the poop. A frank discussion with your planning team or facilitator about the background of experiences people will be bringing to the meeting, and what’s at stake, is critical. Don’t surprise your facilitator (I speak from painful experience).
What format will work best?
Sometimes we get stuck thinking we need to have a 90-minute monthly meeting because we’ve always scheduled a 90-minute meeting. What if the heart of the work could be accomplished in ten minutes? Or maybe a deeper discussion could be better done in a two-day offsite retreat?
Who needs to be there, really?
Don’t sweep the organization inviting everybody, (unless going to a meeting is the core work of your organization), but do make sure that the right people are there. Even if people are “required,” why not treat them as volunteers and make it attractive and alluring to attend? Market your meeting. Enroll people in the benefits. Treat them as if they have choices about what to do with their time (they do), rather than as drones. (Maybe a poor choice of words these days.)
My colleague, visual facilitator extraordinaire Claire Bronson, created a series of fun cartoons we attached to emails in advance of a retreat we were co-directing. Even though participants had already registered, we wanted them to feel jazzed about coming.
Where will you meet?
Typically, you’ll meet close to where participants work, maybe down the hall in the conference room. But that cavern-like dungeon of a meeting room without windows at the back of the building? Not so good. Environment matters. (Look for good light, air, and quiet.)
Occasionally, it may help to go off-site. I worked with a group of executives who went brain-dead when they met in the executive conference room or similar white table-clothed hotel room. They needed to break the routine, be able to walk about, and slump in comfortable chairs. We started meeting in peoples’ homes and at a beautiful retreat site; conversations improved immeasurably leading to a marked difference in the group’s performance.
Do you need a facilitator?
Often not. You, as board chair, program manager, vice president, or volunteer, may be perfectly capable of running a good meeting. But if it’s not your strong suit, it’s OK to ask a member of your team to facilitate the meeting, or bring someone in from outside, so you can be free to participate with the group.
A facilitator can be particularly useful when issues at a meeting are likely to be contentious, stakes are high, and competing factions will be attending. Or sometimes you may want a facilitator to give your off-site a special boost. If you’re unsure whether you need a facilitator, I’m happy to help you think it out.
(Truth in lending, I do this professionally).
The above is just for starters. I haven’t talked about how you plan the meeting, run the meeting, or order muffins. We can talk about this later! Just make sure that your meeting has its best possible chance for success, before it even starts.
Recently, I had an opportunity to interview two cool, world-class disruptors who are challenging society’s beliefs about aging:
Dr. Bill Thomas, author of Second Wind: Navigating the Passage to a Slower, Deeper, and More Connected Life and leader in the world of innovative, human-centered nursing/eldercare, is a seasoned disruptor. He revolutionized the world of nursing homes when he began bringing in plants and animals for nursing home residents to care for. Then he pioneered care facilities that were structured to feel like families, not institutions. Now he’s challenging baby boomers to rethink how they are approaching elderhood, asking them to leave behind a “achievement-oriented, performance-oriented, outcome-oriented, materialistically-oriented, hyper-caffeinated, hyperactive, vision of adulthood” and choose new values that will allow them to embrace being older.
Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism is another crusader, railing against ageism in its many forms. When we’re ageist, she’s says, we’re really attacking our future selves, (assuming we will have the good fortune to get old). Ashton insists that attitudes about aging make meeting the challenges of elderhood more difficult than they need to be.
Through insight, humor and stories, both authors offer manifestos for change, which sent me down the road of thinking about writing manifestos. (From the Latin manifestum, meaning clear, apparent, evident.) Basically a manifesto is a statement that makes clear what’s important to you, in which you can offer your beliefs, opinions, and intentions. It can be as powerful as the Declaration of Independence, or as simple as what follows:
I offer this for those of us who are interested in creating manifestos that can transform issues and offer new ways of thinking and being.
A Manifesto for Disruptors and Manifesto-makers
Play the long haul. Who wants their life to be a series of one-night stands? (You don’t need to answer!) In our fast-moving culture, we worship instant success and crave blasts of viral attention, but the truth is that real change takes time and commitment. My African-American colleague, John Perkins, once reminded me that only entitled people think change has to happen fast. “My people have been working for change for 150 years. We’re not stopping.” So I ask fellow disruptors: are you in it for the duration?
Don’t fly solo. Disruption doesn’t happen in a vacuum. If you think you’re the only one challenging that old conversation about “X,” then 1) “X” may not be so important, or 2) you ain’t looking. Give credit to others. Collaborate. (And if you want to be radical, acknowledge that even your adversaries can teach your something.)
Bold is beautiful. Be willing to stick out and take a strong stand. Who wants a manifesto that whimpers? Give it your boldest voice. At the same time, keep an ounce of humility, knowing that you’re going to be wrong some piece of the time…guaranteed. Life is nuanced. We can’t know everything about an issue or foresee all the eventual consequences of our actions.
Write it out. Despite all the new media channels available, people still read, whether it’s a book, a manifesto, or the back of a box of Wheaties. Writing makes you think things out and it’s still the most accurately quotable way to share information.
Engage others with a creative dash. Talking heads, abstractions and pontifications are boring. Using creativity, artistry, and imagination helps people care. Maybe you combine your words with graphics. Or add stories. Bill Thomas lectures with a band of musicians, dancers and storytellers, and strums and sings his message when he goes on tour.
Live your manifesto from the inside out. Are you consistent— mostly? (see below). I remember how disappointed I was when the brilliant student radicals who tried to change the world in the 60’s with their Port Huron Statement (manifesto) turned out to be narcissistic and sexist. I don’t need people to be perfect, but I don’t like playing with those who don’t take responsibility for the baggage they carry.
Embrace your contradictions. Who doesn’t have contradictions? Perfection is so passé. I want to change ageism, but I maintain the right to dye my hair. We’re all human, and being transparent about our shortcomings keeps us real. So does laughing at ourselves!
Help us hope. Yes, the sky may be falling and the cumulative catastrophe of today’s politics is pretty discouraging, but disrupters and manifesto-makers need to take us somewhere. Please.
See the change you want to be in the world. (Twisting a popular saying a bit.**) Point out where positive change is happening, however small. And then remember, in your body and heart, that good things are possible, always.
So now I turn back to you because I know you have something worth declaring. You can find a lot of examples of manifestos on-line. And I can’t wait to read what you have to say!
**Interesting factoid. Gandhi did not say “Be the change you want to see in the world.” His words were even better:
We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” – Mahatma Gandhi
In a couple of months, I’ll be going to a gathering where the theme is “Sea Change.” The title reflects the big changes going on in the world and what many of us are experiencing personally. As Stephen Stills once wrote for the Buffalo Springfield:
There’s something happening here / What it is ain’t exactly clear
Sea change is a great metaphor that begets other metaphors as we navigate the great, liminal transitions in life. Whether these transitions are societal, like the late sixties or fall of the Berlin Wall, or personal, they can disorient and disturb us as we lose what we thought we knew and can’t see a destination ahead. Like when we lose a job and have to find a new career. Or lose a spouse and start living independently. Or lose our external professional identity and move into second half or “third act” of life.
Popular literature extolls the importance of having a strong purpose and set of values during transitions. Both are useful. But I find that when the seas get really stormy, clinging to a raft of concepts like integrity, contribution, or creativity doesn’t do it for me.
I prefer dark chocolate.
What anchors you in the midst of a sea change when you need to come back to yourself and find your bearings?
It doesn’t have to feel high and mighty. in fact I get a lot of solace, and grounding, just sniffing into the nostril of my horse. (A heavenly grassy smell fellow horsewomen understand.)
Here are a few of my anchors…(I hope you’ll share yours!)
Simple routines. I get up in the morning. Have tea. Write. Feed horses. Eat quinoa. Day after day. Very boring. Very wonderful.
Relationships. Not just any relationships, but that special group of people who keep you tethered to a strong positive sense of who you are. My husband is my rock. And then there are a few “foul weather friends” who understand the storms and don’t judge.
Small pleasures. Sniffing my horse. (Maybe you prefer diesel.) Cutting flowers. In high seas, I’m looking for pleasures that take very little effort but return much.
A quick look back. Sometimes it helps to look at a photo or remember a good time when I felt myself to be on more solid ground. Even when I know I’m not going back.
A tour of the senses. “Be Here Now” is a great adage but hard to hold on to when you’re being buffeted. What helps me more is listening to the sound of my feet crunching gravel, smelling the fresh rain, hearing the crows taunt the raven, and noticing the first dandelion of the year.
Meditation. This can be sitting or walking, or I may turn what I’m doing into a meditation (like singing, in private, to my horses.) Anything that allows me to rest into myself. Not doing. Breathing. Feeling gravity. Allowing. One caveat: it’s tempting to turn meditation into a “to-do,” but when you’re in high seas that defeats the point.
Doing something that requires concentration or imagination without asking myself too many questions about my purpose in life. Editing a podcast.
Doing something that requires little concentration and can be done in a disoriented, zombie-like state. Sorting socks. Weeding dandelions.
As I do these things, maybe my sense of purpose in life will come back to me. Or maybe I’ll ride out the storm. And decide the next action to take.
Or maybe the high seas will subside and the new shore will come into view.
Creative Commons photo by GabboT
Steal if you want to, but I think Springsteen would let you drive away with any insight you’d like from his recent memoir Born to Run.
Even if you aren’t looking for your path to rock ‘n roll stardom, you may get mesmerized, as I was, by a peak into the life of this aging icon of explosive Jersey virility. I’m not into celebrity memoirs, but Born to Run hit the top ten on multiple memoir lists last year. (And besides, I’m a Jersey girl myself.) The book takes you in through the backdoor of a life that started out scrappy before veering to stardom, where the gods continued to chastise hubris by sending down big doses of doubt and depression. His writing is candid and compelling, blending a passionate love of rock ‘n roll with the wisdom of age. Full of images that stick with you, like his songs
Maybe we all have an inner-rock star in us, waiting to be discovered. If you want to know what it takes to succeed when all you have to start out with is grit, commitment and talent, listen up. Here are a few of my take-aways:
- You don’t have to be good at the beginning. Springsteen knew what he wanted—to be good—and then great—at playing rock ‘n roll. He didn’t start out that way. He had talent and drive but it took a long while for his performance to begin to match his aspirations.
- Practice your craft—like crazy. Start anywhere. Get experience. Lots of it. Author Malcolm Gladwell wrote that it can take ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. Springsteen is living proof. Even though he knew he was good, he kept noticing where others were better, and used that as motivation to keep learning.
- Commit. “All in” is how he describes his expectations of the commitment he wanted from band members and what he demanded of himself. They are still giving all in their 60s. Springsteen’s “meteoric rise” to stardom took years of preparation and sacrifice; even becoming a superstar with its financial reward didn’t make the journey easy. What sustained him was a ferocious commitment to his art.
- Know what matters. Springsteen developed his skills and performance chops during the days when he was broke and coach-surfing around working class Freehold, New Jersey. He knew how to keep his expenses low. When he started to gain fame, he put his money into recordings rather than trappings. He lived at the edge financially for a long time, even as his record sales topped millions.
- Leverage your strengths. Springsteen knew that his rough and raspy voice wasn’t the world’s greatest, even as his vocals worked well with his music. But he played to his strengths and built his success upon them: songwriting, musicianship, an ear for talent, love for his audiences, and indomitable energy, especially on stage.
- Acknowledge your roots. Although he never went back to live in Freehold, Springsteen never forgot where he was from. The heart of his Americana—the run-down, disadvantaged, hot-rodded, immigrant-filled Jersey shore—gave soul to his music. And he was always willing to credit the musicians who had influenced him.
- Keep control of the enterprise. When it came to his band and his music, Springsteen wanted control. He would always be “The Boss.” Yet his leadership style allowed his best music to come forward, and he was able to keep changing and developing his music over time without having to go to others for permission. His leadership style wouldn’t work for everyone; but it was right for him and his artistic mission.
- Make lots of mistakes. Part of what’s thrilling about reading Born to Run, is learning about those mistakes. When he was young, wild, and consumed with getting his music to the public, he didn’t read his first contract carefully enough. Five years later that omission exploded into a disastrous fight. Fortunately, he was able to buy back rights to his own published music. Along the way, he hurt people he wouldn’t have wanted to hurt and spent too long and too much money in some of the band’s recording marathons. The mistakes didn’t stop him.
- Take the time. Springsteen worked for six months on his mega-hit song Born to Run, which catapulted him into a new stage of his career. He wouldn’t release an album until he thought it was right. Those of us who feel so much pressure to get things out NOW might think about this. Not all of our projects are worthy of the kind of attention Springsteen put into this records, but we have to discern which ones are.
- Play the long haul. From the start of his career, Springsteen knew he didn’t want to become a shooting star, soaring high and burning out. His goal was to keep doing the thing he loved – playing rock n roll—and growing as a musician throughout his life. He’s done that. Towards the end of the book, he talks frankly about his depression, which became more acute as he entered his 60s. Partly an inheritance from his father, partly a reflection of the roller-coaster rock-n-roll lifestyle, where the give-it-all euphoria of the big stage and adulating fans can lead to brutal post-performance come-downs. Years of therapy, prescribed medications, and his committed, loving wife, Patti Scialfa, became his anchors. Throughout it all, he continued to love fiercely: his fans, his family, the band, and the magic of standing on stage.
My biggest take-away? Springsteen has kept his passion for music pulsing for fifty plus years. And he’s still going strong. He worked hard, really hard, to make the most of his talent, helped by some good people and lucky breaks. But he didn’t hatch overnight. Just as neither do we.
Here’s the original video for Born to Run. Enjoy the energy and remember you, too, were younger once! Click here to listen.