Monday, January 28, 2008

Mastery and the difficulty of living with other people

I am reading a book called Mastery by George Leonard. A friend lent it to me. It's a wise little book about the value of process and the joy that comes from picking a path that is intrinsically rewarding. I like it, and I believe quite a bit of what the author believes.

Still. I find myself thinking as much about what it leaves out as what it contains. Mastery seems to be a goal for the solitary. It involves a focus on the self as much as a focus on whatever skill is to be mastered. It means making the kind of commitment to a process that we human beings find hard to make to one another.

Maybe it is because relationships change so fast that we cannot master them. We could master some aspect perhaps - a sales pitch or the teaching of a very specific behaviour. But we cannot master the big units of relationships because we cannot repeat them over and over while fine-tuning our abilities.

We are not even very good at imagining relationships. Have you tried to step into a conversation you are planning to have? It's hard to do - hard to picture the sequence of emotions that pass across the face of the person listening to us speak, hard to hear the voice or anticipate the moment of laughter. The other person never has the script and the one thing our experience has taught us unequivocally is that whatever we anticipate will not be exactly what happens.

Paradoxically, both mastery and relationships walk the same line between intention and surrender.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The most influential sound

The sound that influences us most often and most deeply is the sound of that voice in our heads. That's the voice we hear whenever we are excited or frightened, whenever we are faced with tough decisions. That's the voice that is with us 24/7.

It is likely that our ability to influence others depends on how well and how often we sound like the voices they hear in their heads.

Of course, we should not actually be hearing the voices that play inside other people's heads. But we do hear their voices. We even complain, from time to time, about how much they love the sound of those voices. So it makes sense that when we want to have real impact on what those voices are telling them, our voices should sound like their voices.

In person, this is relatively straight-forward. We can change our rhythm, pitch, or cadence to match those of the people to whom we are talking. We can sound more like them so that they can think more like us.

How can you do this in writing? The ability to answer in the same form and tone is the heart of the conventions we have developed for written correspondence. We do it automatically in very short exchanges like those that take place in text messages or instant messaging. We do it in more formal documents by observing the requirements of the form - if I include your address, I also include mine. We include similar salutations and similar closings. We create documents that mirror each other.

What happens in the middle of those documents? How often do you consciously try to write for another person as if you were already the voice that person is hearing in his or her head? Imagine what you would have to do to prepare to send a message that mirrors that voice in your writing. You would need to focus so clearly on your reader that you caught that reader's focus and rhythm and language and tone.

You would need to accept the discipline of writing what works for your reader - even when it sounds different than the voice in your own head.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Closer to God in Laughter

If you are not someone who believes in God, or at least enjoys thinking about the possibilities, then come back in a few days and I will have an entirely secular post.

If you're still reading, then I hope you're ready to smile. Whatever the specifics of one's faith, it seems to me that most religions are interested in power and precision as attributes of the Divine. Whatever, whoever, you believe God is, you are likely to believe that God is capable of mastering (and moving between) both the greatest of big pictures and the smallest of tiny details. God has both power and precision.

Human beings, on the other hand, have to sell one to buy the other. We can have power or precision - but not usually both at the same time. Maybe this is why it is easy for us to understand God in terms of the BIG ISSUES in our lives and so much harder to recognize him in the lightest, most ephemeral of experiences. We are not used to power that appears with the lightest, most precise of touches.

We know that laughter lightens the heart - and we mostly have a concept of God that incorporates light in some way. Why is it that we so seldom notice, when we are laughing, that we are close to God?

Laughter is improbable and inexplicable. It connects us, synchronizes us, energizes us. Some people believe that it heals.

Is it hard to believe that God is close to us when we are laughing?

Friday, January 18, 2008

Goals that work along the way

It's January. Whether you call them gifts, goals or resolutions, you've probably been thinking about what you want. Some of what you want is stuff: it's relatively easy to acquire stuff and easy to know when you have it. Some of what you want is position: the path to position is seldom as straightforward as the path to stuff but it's generally been traveled before. You know what you need to do in order to get what you want, and you know when you have it. Then there's the other stuff you want.

The other stuff includes the person you want to be, the people you want to be with, and the qualities of the life that you want to have. The other stuff includes the sense that you are moving through life with purpose and direction. The other stuff doesn't seem to be acquired by walking a particular path in a particular way. Strategy doesn't work well to get this stuff, although we all try lots of different strategies. Strategy requires knowing what you want so that you recognize it when you have it. We're not always sure whether or not we have the other stuff.

Still, we want it. We want meaning. We want purpose. We want love. We want integrity. We want a life well-lived.

The other stuff is really big: it includes the great goals.

They are great goals for the obvious reasons: the big question goals that drive the progress of individuals and of human kind. They are great goals for a less obvious reason: they change who we are when we set them. When we get them, when we notice we have them, we enjoy them. Yet getting them is almost not the point. Seeking them is the point.

When we actively pursue great goals, we let those goals seep into our being and change the way we perceive the world, the way we act and react, the way we make decisions. We let those goals shape who we are as we seek so that we will recognize ourselves in the moments we achieve them. We recognize ourselves as people capable of seeking great goals, and that changes everything else.

What are you seeking now and how is it shaping you?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Late night and too little sleep

What do you do when you find yourself nearing a crash? We all hit bumpy parts of the road. For a time, we pretend that the bumps add excitement or we more simply grin and wait for a smoother path. After a time, the bumps take their toll. What happens next?

The central challenge in life is not to find the smooth path and it is not to choose bumps for the sake of bumps. The central challenge is to be shaken by the bumps and still be ready for the smooth path when it appears. The central challenge is resilience.

Life is not about bouncing: it is about bouncing back. The bouncing is inevitable. The bouncing back is the product of choices.

You are not the bumps: they happen to everyone sooner or later. Some are, no doubt, rougher than others. Yet everyone gets jostled and bruised. Everyone gets confused.

You are the choices you make when, jostled and bruised and confused, your feet find solid ground. You are what the bumps could not shake loose.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Don't have time to think?

There is only one thing in the world that is more expensive/ more dangerous/ more seductive than thinking.

Not thinking.

The temptation is huge. We are busy. We have to do stuff - stuff that shows. We have to get results. We don't have time to think.

Take time to think about that.

What are you doing while you are too busy to think? How much of it will you remember in six months (much less six years)? Thinking is not the only important thing we do, but we do very little of importance without thinking. Time is a limited and non-renewable resource. We know that if we spend too much time thinking, we miss opportunities. If we spend too little time thinking, we do not even know the opportunities are available.

Tomorrow, be aware of the balance between thinking and doing. Give yourself time to think. Notice that the time you spend thinking is going to accelerate your progress when you get back to doing.

Notice you feel better when you have time to think.

You have time to think.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Big thoughts in a few minutes

My son sent me the link to this sit this morning. He described it as You Tube if videos were posted by Harvard professors.

The site includes video interview clips of big minds talking about big questions. Some are edited compilations and some are edited interviews. They are not as spontaneous as You Tube. They are, nonetheless, addictive.

Most of us like to think big thoughts from time to time. We are less fond of wrestling with them. Wrestling with them takes time and energy away from simply living life. We bounce back and forth between the edict (Sophocles before Jung?) that the unexamined life is not worth living and the equally true sentiment that the unlived life is not worth examining.

See? Caught you. It's a big question, and you want to be intrigued by it, argue it, and then move on. It's like looking at the sun: irresistible but tolerable only in small doses. Even writers who write long books on big questions spend most of their days on little questions.

It's easier to forget to think big questions than it is to leave out all the little questions. Our bodies remind us to eat and sleep and use the bathroom and stretch our muscles. The particular ways we do these things take up a lot of attention. Our senses catch other human beings in their emotions and behaviours and draw them to our attention. We cannot help but notice. Yet we can go months without asking: what is it that makes this job worth doing?

Do yourself a favour. Visit Big Think and let yourself wander through some big minds taking on big ideas. Then let yourself have a big idea of your own. Just don't stay there too long.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

What's new?

The new year has started - or almost started depending on whether or not you have kids who are still home from school. What's going to be new about it for you this year?

You probably did not wake up today feeling different than any other day (although in Toronto, the sun was shining on the snow which always feels fresh and new). You probably have the same job, the same home, and the same goals. So what's new?

We all have lists - some of us have written lists. They are not unlike the lists that make the best course feedback with students:
what should you keep doing? what should you stop doing? what should you do that is new? What happens when you think of your life as something you are doing (not something that is happening to you or something that you have)? Try it.

Six weeks ago, I started going to the gym. So far, it's working for me. Oddly, people respond with "you're so good" when I escape to the gym five times a week. I'm almost finished explaining that I do not go because I'm good - I go because being there makes me feel good. The new year feels new to me because, paradoxically, it is reminding me of who I was more than twenty years ago when regular exercise was part of the way I lived.

I do not have very specific goals for my time at the gym. I have a personal trainer so I can be encouraged and taught, not so that I can be pushed. I do not care very much how fast I improve or what I weigh at the end of the week. I am making progress precisely because I have criteria but I do not have set goals. That's something else that's new for me. I'm reserving specific goals for specific situations and running more of my life on the quality of the process.

Look around. Making things new means adding some things and letting go of others. It means rearranging the furniture - real and figurative. Sometimes it even means knowing you like what you have now. What will it mean for you?