Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Wanting is also an achievement

In a world where everyone seems to want more, it is easy to forget how hard it is to really want something. To be left wanting is obviously difficult. It is also difficult to take the risk of saying "this is what I want." It is okay as long as we only admit to wanting the easy stuff, or the stuff that we can live without. But to know real want is to say, "I will be lacking if I cannot have this or do this."

And so the motivational speakers have their cake and eat it too when they preach the virtues of knowing what you want. Because it is much easier said than done, this knowing what one needs and this knowing that acknowledging the want means that something is missing in your life that you might not find. If you really want it, the speakers say you will find it. If you do not find it, they imply you did not want it. We all know that is neither fair nor true.

Sometimes it seems that all the work we do on outcomes and framing and congruency are only ways to define a space in which people are safe enough to know what they want. Even if they do not say it out loud; even if they do not shape well-formed outcomes and strategic plans, they acknowledge that they want. It is a powerful recognition: the truest mirrors show us what is there and what is missing.

We hide our true wants behind a screen of red herrings: those things we are willing to want precisely because we can live so easily without them. We tell ourselves we want a million dollars or a new house or car or toy because these wants are games we can play without risk. We say, "I want a chocolate. I want the latest cell phone. I want a vacation."

The next time you ask someone, "What do you really want?" take a moment to reflect on what you have asked and who you would be willing to tell the truth about what it is you really want.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Learning is Achievement

We taught a new course on the weekend. Learning to Achieve is a development of previous personal development courses and our current coaching program. As we worked on noticing what is involved in learning that leads to achievement, I was also noticing that deliberate learning is achievement. When we decide to learn, we do not so much stretch as grow into a self big enough to hold the new learning.

Learning is a good model for achievement: by definition, we cannot know precisely what we will learn until we have learned it. If it were already within our experience, if we did not have to change to accommodate it, we would not have to learn it. Achievement is like that too: there is a dimension to achievement that surprises us, a confirmation that we have changed and learned and grown into what we have done. A dimension that feels so good that for a moment we glow with the pleasure of a baby discovering peek-a-boo for the first time.

That's what I remembered in the room this weekend. I remembered that learning is achievement and that achievement is fun. It doesn't put us alone at the peak of the mountain: it hooks us in to a wide, supportive network. When we learn to achieve, the learning and achievement are both exciting. The tension between process and product disappears and we enter a time and space where the best expression of who we are is to be just a little bit more than we think.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Stories, lies and listeners

The morning after an election is a good time to reflect on the difference between stories and lies. Some say, of course, that all storytellers are liars and others say that the only way to tell the truth is to tell a story. During an election, we hear a wide variety of divergent narratives. Whether they are seen as facts or lies or stories depends entirely on the people listening.

Since stories are seen as embodying both truth and lies, it may be useful to consider how what we know about stories helps us understand what has been said and what will be said next. Stories are an interactive form; they create a shared space between teller and listener (and, more subtly, between writer and reader, but that is a story in itself). If someone is telling a story, we expect it to be different in response to different listeners - as shared space, some of the story is created by what the listeners bring to the space. If you do not already understand this, simply try telling the same story to very different people (your boss and your five year old, for instance) and notice how the story is and is not the same.

This was said to be an election about telling the truth. If it were an election about the quality of stories we were told, it would be different. We would understand that stories are about relationships, and to maintain relationships as contexts and people change, stories also change. We would know that we have a responsibility as listeners because the way we listen changes the stories we are told.

Whatever happens next, the new government will be liars: they will be liars because they hold rigidly to their own program (thus not giving us a change from a very old pattern) or they will be liars because they listen and adapt (and therefore change their promises). This would be true no matter which party won the election, of course. All politicians tell stories and all storytellers are liars.

Not all liars are equally good storytellers. As we move into the future, it might be interesting to ask: how good are these storytellers and how is the quality of our listening changing their stories?

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Canadians, please vote on January 23

In his book, The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki explores the conditions under which groups make better decisions than individuals. As groups, we depend on multiple, diverse and simultaneous streams of information if that information is to be collated in a way that results in good decisions. What this means in the federal election is that no matter who you vote for, or what basis you have for your choice, when you vote you add to the number of different data points in the pool and make the country's decision better.

It is likely that almost everyone who reads this will choose a different candidate, a different party or different issues than I will choose in making my own decision. While there is a place in an election for encouraging people who think like me to make it to the polls, there is also an overriding concern that as many people as are eligible make their voices heard. No matter how little you think you know about the issues, there is something you know that will make a unique contribution to the collective wisdom of the electorate. I do not say this because I believe in individual value (although I do). I say it because Surowiecki offers persuasive evidence that pools (and polls) can do the right thing even when the people contributing to them have very little to offer as individuals.

Another of my favourite quotations come from Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice. Schwartz says that we all have blindspots and we all have different blindspots. When we make choices together, we have the chance to check each other's blind spots. Of course, you won't always know that your blindspot has been checked - you are still blind to it. But the ultimate result in an election where enough different voices are heard is that we will have made allowances for all the blind spots in the group.

You can choose to vote tomorrow because you are well-informed or because you strongly support a particular candidate or party. You can choose to vote tomorrow because it is a responsibility and you honour your responsibility. Or you can choose to vote tomorrow because your voice will increase the wisdom of the crowd precisely because you will add to the multiplicity and diversity of the information that will be tallied tomorrow night.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Working with a partner

My business partner asked me to explore the difference between partnership and other kinds of collaborations. Since the word 'partner' has become a widely-used verb to describe almost any kind of mutually beneficial activity, I'm going to start by defining my terms. My husband, for instance, is my husband and the love-of-my-life. That relationship encompasses partnership but is not limited to it. My clients are also not my partners, although I might partner with them in limited ways on defined projects, and although I pull from them the effort they need to make in order to reach their goals.

I was not someone who easily embraced the concept of partnership. I hated group projects in school, because I was ambitious and competitive and the marks my group could achieve were seldom as high as the results I would get on my own. Now I understand that had more to do with the nature of the assignments and the group process than it did on the nature of partnerships.

My current partner is my partner because: 1) we share common ground; 2) he makes me better at what I do; and 3) I make him better at what he does. We do have complementary strengths and we do cover for each other when necessary, but that is not the point of our partnership. The point of our partnership is that we cover ground together that would be inaccessible to either of us alone, and we do it because working in relationship makes each of us stronger at what we already do well. We have a very tight commitment to each other because the best interests of the partnership are also in our individual best interests.

Often, this means that my partner irritates me. Like the sand irritates the oyster. Creativity and growth depend on being irritated, on becoming uncomfortable in what used to be a safe bed. Not all irritation produces pearls and not all discomfort ends with growth. The glory of partnership is having someone around who makes you uncomfortable in precisely the most productive ways. Someone, to change the metaphor, who knows how to fertilize the soil even when it changes your growth rate and makes you want more than you wanted the day before.

We are so thoroughly ourselves that we become experts at making ourselves comfortable. Some of us even become experts at being comfortable about being uncomfortable - those people inhabit a state of perpetual irritation because it seems like the right thing to do. In either event, we can grow as far and as tall as we can - and still not have the capacity to fertilize the soil around us or to make a pearl without a grain of sand. Something from outside is necessary if we are to experience precisely the irritation we need to discover that our world is bigger than we thought.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Wrinkles and straight paths

I have always believed that all city streets should form a neat grid pattern; it seems unreasonable to me that a street would start out running east/west and wander until it runs north/south. A spoke pattern, as in the old Celtic cities (like Dublin) makes a kind of sense, too. If you start out a little bit wrong, you move farther and farther away from where you want to be going.

So I have sympathy with people who think in straight lines, people who are great a drawing maps so precise that no matter how many turns one makes, the impression is always that the destination is straight ahead. I appreciate the notion that it is always possible to get there from here, just by following the information we have in proper sequence and with appropriate rigor.

Except. . . one of the books that influenced me as a child was called "A Wrinkle in Time" (by Madeleine L'Engle). In it, a wise character compares the paths that two ants might take across a woman's skirt. One ant has a map: he follows the curves of the fabric up and down, climbing hills, dipping into valley, and moving persistently around the knees or elbows that might appear to block his way. One of the things we know about ants is that they are good at persisting and at getting where they are going. The second ant is also good at getting where he is going: instead of a map, he has a wrinkle. He doesn't have to follow the original plan if the destination and the starting point are suddenly pulled into adjacent positions by a wrinkle in the fabric.

I recognized my friendly ants this week while I was reading a paper on the differences between, and integration of, strategic planning and strategic thinking. My persistent ant was definitely a planner: he could follow the line wherever it led, charting each step on the course and confident that he would ultimately arrive at his destination. My wrinkle crossing ant was a strategic thinker. He knew where he wanted to go and simply stepped into that destination. Plans and maps meant less to him than being alive to the knowledge that where he was going was closer than he thought.

It seems like a long distance between the two approaches, that a strategic planner would have to learn and practice and learn some more in order to become a strategic thinker. He would, of course. The strategic thinker would have a much easier time learning to be a strategic planner. He would simply step across the first available wrinkle, allowing the chasm to become a bridge.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Looking into eyes

I'm reading a book called Mind Wide Open by Steven Johnson. It offers a fresh look at some of the eye-reading and calibration patterns that are taught in neuro-linguistic programming. Let me recap for those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept. Early in its development, NLP taught that people moved their eyes in ways that reliably indicated something about how they were thinking - eyes up meant visualizing, eyes to the side meant "hearing" and eyes down meant either accessing feelings or talking to yourself. Except that the patterns could not be consistently verified in experiments. So a clash existed between true believers, who insisted they got great results reading eyes, and scientists, who insisted it just didn't work.

We have long realized that what those early practitioners of NLP were really learning was that the eyes are a reliable indicator of information about someone's emotional state. Facial expression, as Paul Ekman has shown us, is a universal language and since we have less conscious control of the muscles in the top half of our faces, the eyes are often a reliable indicator of genuine emotion. Focusing our attention on someone's eyes gives us access to the best visual information about their emotional state (voice provides this information in another way).

What Steven Johnson adds to this insight is the neurology of the process. He describes a test devised by Simon Baron-Cohen for identifying emotion by looking at photos of eyes. Johnson's description of his experience with the test will be familiar to anyone who has practiced NLPs version of calibration:

"When I tried to interpret the images consciously, surveying each lid and crease for the semiotics of affect, the data became meaningless: folds of tissue, signifying nothing. But when I just let myself look - look without thinking - the underlying emotions came through with startling clarity. I couldn't explain what made a gleam gleam, but I knew one when I saw it."

What NLP has long explained as a clash between the conscious and unconscious minds, Johnson explains as a discrepancy between processing information through the neocortex (higher logic and language) and the amygdala (intuitive recognition). Johnson concludes: "The next time you're advised to trust your gut when you're meeting someone new, ignore the advice. Your gut has nothing to do with it. But by all means, trust your amygdala."

The amygdala is one of the many brain centres responsible for the rapid and complex processing we have associated with the unconscious mind. Whatever terminology works for you, it is clear that silencing the inner chatter and focusing your gaze on someone's eyes will normally give you your best access to 'mind-reading' what that someone is feeling.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Paying Attention to What's Not There

Technically, of couse, we only perceive what is not there: we experience the world indirectly, through neurological experiences that inevitably lag, ever so slightly, behind the events which trigger them. We trick ourselves into believing that we can perceive what is really there if only we pay close enough attention. This is hard to do with sound (whatever we have heard is gone as soon as we hear it) and easier to do with pictures. We pretend that we can see what is there.

We also pretend, of course, to see what is not there.This is partly to notice that we observe figures and ground, and the separation that tells us which is which is what is not there and yet the focus of our attention. Think about that slowly. The figure is what we are looking at and the ground is the setting in which that figure appears. No figure ever appears without a ground, and we never look at a ground without making some part of it the figure. Try it: look out your window and notice what you notice. You will see the window frame, or the dog being walked, or the window across the street. And you will be aware that each of these things occurs in the context of other things - the ground, the visual information which remains within reach and outside of awareness.

How do you know where the figure ends and the ground starts?. . . finding the edge of the figure is as simple and as finicky as finding the edge of the roll of tape or the place where a story begins. What determines the edge is a relationship between the observer, the figure and the ground. Relationship is always observable and always invisible.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Paying attention through stories

One of the ways we pay attention is to tell stories. When we tell a story, we allow ourselves to focus on different elements that join to form single meaning (if what the story really meant could be conveyed in a phrase, then we would not need the whole story). As we listen to a story, we focus on one element at a time - the colour of a shirt, the kind of chair in the dining room, the lampshade or the leaky ballpoint pen. Each detail catches our attention - it sparks activity in the part of the brain used for processing that particular kind of information - and then connects to the next detail in a web that is not only external (in the language of the storyteller) but internal, in the complex patterns of brain activity it causes.

The best stories are full of detail - some that supports the story's moral and some that appear random or circumstantial. Does it really matter that her dress was red or that his eyes were blue? Why is there a twist of humour or of fate as the story unfolds? Why are the patterns more interesting if their fabric is uneven? We all love a story that surprises us, a story where the last piece in the puzzle changes the pattern we thought would be revealed. Curious, isn't it? We're not often delighted when real life throws us a curve as our plans unfold.

The secret is, in part, that it is the anomalies that catch at our attention and it is our attention that makes the stories meaningful. Change, surprise, twists of fate: they focus our attention with marvellous intensity, in stories as in life.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Paying attention matters

This is a quotation from a book called The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, by Jeffrey Schwartz, M.D. and Sharon Begley:

"Physical changes in the brain depend for their creation on a mental state in the mind -- the state called attention. Paying attention matters. It matters not only for the size of the brain's representation of this or that part of the body's surface, of this or that muscle. It matters for the dynamic structure of the very circuits of the brain and for the brain's ability to remake itself."

What fascinates me most is the correspondence between our internal experience and the world around us: the micro and the macro. Paying attention does matter. Educational experiments done with children have to control for the possiblity that it is not the intervention that produces change; it is the attention itself. In politics and society, the issues that catch our attention are also the ones to which we direct dollars and change. In our workplaces, we know that people feel less stress when they have more control: when they know that their attention matters and that people are paying attention to them. Attention changes structure, often in ways that are surprising and powerful.

Those of us who are aware of the enormous complexity of unconscious processes, the incredible speed with which the brain processes billions of pieces of data, are often tempted to treat conscious awareness as if it were slow, clumsy, and not very useful. And yet, attention matters. In a world where change is inevitable, constant, and fast, attention creates stability, structure, and the promise of identity. Attention is not all we are, but without attention, we would not know ourselves.

Stories are a way of paying attention, a way of slowing down change so that we can become conscious of the transition from one state to another. When we hear someone's story, we allow their changes to become our changes. We pay them with our attention for the creation of alternatives to our own experience. We pay attention and our attention changes the structure of our brains, so that other people's stories leave footprints which become part of who we are and how we make ourselves.

Choose the stories that will leave footprints: the ones you hear and the ones you tell.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Asking for what we want

For many years, I have had a certain ambivalence about asking for what I want. Somewhere, I acquired a belief that it was not exactly wrong, but maybe tacky, to ask directly. So it always seems somewhat unfair to me when I notice that people are getting what they want simply because they ask for it.

I notice that I am not alone, when I search out sales experts and find them divided between the ones who say "you have to ask for the sale" and the ones who say "you do not have to ask if you have done everything else well." Asking for the sale is hard. It presupposes a risk of rejection. It also presupposes that we know what we want and are willing to be held accountable for wanting it. It is convenient to hope that we will not have to ask if we do everything else right. I am always suspicious of this kind of convenience.

Some people carry this further: they do not want even to let themselves know what they want. Nothing will stand between them and the things they want as long as they do not htink very hard about what it is they want. They will not be held accountable, even by themselves. These are not people who have horrible, twisted desires. They are simply people who have good reasons to value being stuck where they are, people who resist the knowledge that the one thing denied us as human beings is to stand still. We need direction because we are always going someplace. Change happens.

I am learning to ask for what I want. Not all the time and not from everyone I meet. Sometimes - when I have a voice for what I really want. I am learning that asking is not always the same as being exposed. The dazzling clarity of a simple request can distract attention from the muddle from which it issues. I am noticing that one of the reasons people who ask get what they want is that life rewards people who believe that change can bring good things. And who show a little moxy as they express that belief.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

What will you do today that will change 2006?

We are all familiar with the concept that a small shift early in a trajectory makes a big difference to where one arrives ultimately. While course correction is always possible, it is also possible that what you do today will have significant impact on all of 2006.

So even though grey Wednesday mornings are not typically the most compelling time of the week, it is possible that what you do this morning will matter: what you think will matter. As you imagine the arc of the year, you notice how a small change today offers new possibilities that widen out enticingly.

What small change will you make today so that 2006 takes you where you want to go? Will you smile instead of snapping? Grab a water instead of a coffee? Write someone a note of congratulations instead of another problem report? Will you adjust your attitude so that you can once again pick out what you want from the heap that waits on your desk?

You can think whatever you want to think this morning, turn your senses to noticing what you want to notice, understand yourself to be moving forward in time and development. As a human being, you are capable of resisting or even ignoring circumstance so that you can focus your thoughts on something that is compelling for you. Take a moment and notice where you will direct your thoughts and actions this year.

You do not have to change everything. A small change will be sufficient to put you on course.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Outside of Time

We are all familiar with being out of time - everywhere we turn, we meet time-pressed people running from one activity to the next. I used to say that I was looking for a role model who wasn't busy - but everywhere I went I met people who told me they were very busy -- too busy. Although different people have different standards, almost everyone seems to feel that they have at least one thing too many in their datebooks.

Being outside of time requires stepping away from the world of change and hurry and understanding that some part of us belongs to a different reality. We remember living outside of time in the summers when we were children and days stretched endlessly in front of us. We remember living outside of time when someone we love has been ill, and the world has narrowed to prayer and presence. We remember living outside of time in that future when we recognize that we have become what we wanted to become.

The trick with goals that sit outside of time is that to realize them would be to drag them back into the world governed by the ticking of clocks and the turning of calendars. It is not that we want them to stay out of reach: it is that they are only touchstones as long as they stay in an eternal present. If we had them in our hands, they would crumble as surely as fairy gold crumbles in the hands of mortal men. If we keep wanting them, that aspiration can continue to shape our behaviours and attitudes as we move through the busy-ness of each day.

There is a corner of my mind where I have already been old and translucent and radically simplified, freed of stuff and of schedules. I am stewarding this body so that it will be ready for that life; I am shaping this mind so it will be ready for those contemplations. I am not ready yet. To be that person now would be to lose myself, and all those connections and goals that give me shape and purpose. That wise old woman can only shape my days as long as she sits, waiting, outside of time.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Consider your sense of time and timing

When someone asks you what you want, where do your thoughts go? Would you think about something you want immediately, something you want this year, something you want ultimately? Try it. Allow any answer to come to mind to the question: "What do you want?" Then notice when you want it. How does the question change when you are asked: "What do you want now?"

There is no right or wrong: all perspectives are useful in some contexts. A cliche reminds us "Even a clock that has stopped is right twice a day." When we have trouble knowing what we want, often we are really having trouble wanting things within a time frame that does not come naturally to us. If our time frames are short, we will be accused of being "short-sighted" of selling our futures for immediate gratification. If our time frames are quite long, we may seem to be unambitious and unproductive to people with shorter time frames.

Optimal time frames change with different activities. In raising children, we can afford to plan fifteen or twenty years in advance: our kids will still be our kids then. In developing business, we might want to plan fifteen years in advance and settle for a long term plan that covers five years. Without a crystal ball, it is hard to be sure what any business will be like fifteen years in advance.

New Year's implies a time frame: it implies that we will think about a year at a time, the year that has ended and the year that is beginning. Young people will find that a year is long-term thinking: it represents a significant portion of the time they have lived. Older people will find a year much shorter: they may have an acute sense that time is a limited and dwindling resource. We all make resolutions some years and ignore them other years. Perhaps this corresponds to our changing sense of how long a year is and how much it can hold. It is not that we sometimes see the glass as half empty or half full: the size of the glass is always changing.

I know of one organizational theory that supposes people can be categorized by their time sense in the same way they can be seen as representing various personality types. Customer service reps need to focus on what is in front of them; CEOs need long-term focus and should see most clearly the things that won't come into being for several years. Think what this means for the entrepreneur who begins by being both customer service rep and CEO. Think what it means to the parent who understands university preparation and yet must also notice that diapers require changing.

Fortunately, we hold within us the experience of all the different people we have been at different stages in our lives. We can not always jump ahead, but we can always jump back into earlier perceptions, so that time slows down as it did when we were very little and we find we have time to make long term plans that will unfold almost immediately.

How will you know that what you want is unfolding at exactly the pace you have determined?