Early in high school, I discovered what Tyler Cowen calls a “quake book” – a book that fundamentally alters my world view and how I live. Tuesdays with Morrie is a book about death, and it has changed how I view, and talk about death, ever since.
When my best friend was diagnosed with breast cancer almost a year ago, I re-read Tuesdays with Morrie. I began to have a lot of conversations with my friend and her spouse about death, dying, grief, and love.
Even beyond the breast cancel diagnosis, this year hasn’t been exactly mellow. My little company Zander Media had an epic year, and that growth came, in equal measure, with a lot of challenge. My aunt died in August, and my car was totaled on the freeway driving home from her memorial in October.
I’m returning from a week in Vieques, Puerto Rico, where my best friend has lived for the last few years. As we ever do, we spent the week talking about taboo topics and trading “lessons” – gentle, somatic movement – and swimming in the Caribbean. Six weeks after my car accident, I’m through most of the shock.
I’ve finally begun to slow down after the marathon-sprint that has been the last year.
In “Tuesdays with Morrie” the author, Mitch Albom reconnects with his old teacher and mentor, Morrie, who is slowly wasting away from Lou Gehrig’s disease. Gifted with a dozen brief visits, these two men resume their friendship and discuss a myriad of facets of life. The book ends, of course, with Morrie’s passing.
My friend and I have talked ever day for 15 years. I’ve always assumed we’d have 30 more years together. Now, I don’t know how much time we’ll have left.
I’ve learned, again and again this year, that we never really know.
With my friend, with myself, and with everyone I love – I intend to make the most of this time. As young as I feel at 36, I’ve realized that these lives we are given are short and fleeting. I intend to live fully, but not go too fast. To love fiercely without holding too tight. I’ll also be back to Vieques to see my friend, very soon.
I was driving home after my aunt’s memorial on Saturday afternoon when my car was hit by someone pulling onto the freeway.
My car was slammed across two lanes of traffic into the median; airbags deployed, and my Prius totaled. The other driver’s SUV spun nearly 180 degree; airbags deployed, front axel broken, and his car, too, is what’s called an “expedited total loss.” Miraculously, we both walked away. Severely shaken, but for the most part unscathed.
The entire weekend, beginning with the family memorial and ending with drive home from Southern California with my parents, has me reflecting on the shortness of life. On where we choose to spend our energy. On the limited amount of time each of us has remaining.
I’m know to be intense. An ex- calls my “thorough.” I routinely do bonkers things like start businesses with no experience or do handstands on stage. But my energy, my intensity, comes at a cost. I say “yes” to meetings with strangers; I’m constantly pushing myself to do more, to take on additional responsibilities. I’m not great at delegating or asking for help. As a result, throughout this last year, I’ve spent 70 hours a week working, and not enough time prioritizing actually connecting with the people I love.
In 36 years full of intensity – and more than my share of close calls – this is the most intense near-death experience I’ve had.
And while I’m still processing the experience – doubtless will be for quite some time – here are some of the things I’d like to do differently with however much time I have left.
I was driving at the speed of traffic, when the collision occurred. But I like moving fast, in many aspects of my life. I eat fast, I talk fast, and I change my mind, sometimes, too quickly. (Sorry, Mom.) That’s all fine, and fun – right up until someone gets hurt.
I’m reminded of the phrase, coined in the SEALS: “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” That’s the kind of fast I’d like more of.
Less drama, more love
I put up with, and, if I’m being honest, manufacturer a lot of drama. I like drama! Most of us do. Why else would we rubberneck at a car accident, as everyone did as I limped past them across the freeway.
I used to bike down steep San Francisco streets at 45 miles per hour. On a bicycle. In traffic. One minuscule misstep… And while I don’t do that crazy ride anymore, that thrill-seeking boy remains with me.
At my best, I’m intense, but also intensely kind and gentle. And I don’t like quite that much cortisol. I think better, perform better, and love better, when I’m not living on the edge.
It can wait
I didn’t have a device in my hand in that moment of the accident – but I have done.
I’ve gotten pretty comfortable texting a colleague, changing the music, checking directions while
I’m driving. And while “fault” isn’t much in question in this case… I can’t help but wonder if I might have been able to swerve out of the way. Maybe not, too. Life’s like that.
But I intend to take this near-death experience as a ‘shot across the bow.’ We got lucky, and I’m not going to bank on that, again.
Focus your attention
My time this year has been scattered, fractured, and intense. I’ve been frenetically building my company, Zander Media. I take meetings 8 hours a day, then do actually work for a handful of hours. And I’m still trying to find room for my own creativity, my art. Not to mention things like a relationship, my family, and my dog.
An old teacher used to say: “What you put your attention on, you make bigger.” When I look back on my calendar from the last 6 months, I’ve been putting my attention on every damn thing.
I don’t remember the accident, itself. But I remember walking away from my car, the airbags deployed and smoking, limped across the freeway, stared into the stunned faces of the cars driving slowly by. The other driver was sitting, remorseful, his head in his hands. He was worried about his son, who was just then in the hospital. He was in shock, even more than me. The bystanders who’d stopped, took pictures of the scene at my request. Someone called the California Highway Patrol. We both felt terrible, scared, shattered.
A few days have passed, and I’m better. Achy and shaken up, but walking around. Damned grateful. My digestion, which was all bolloxed up for several days, has slowly begun to improve. But when I think that my parents, who drove me away from the scene, might have seen the mangled body of their son… . I feel a reverence since the accident. A gratitude that I can’t quite put into words.
I’ve been offered Grace.
I’m writing this, and publishing it, so that I can hang on to the experience. So that I don’t take my dog Riley for granted, but keep precious the gratitude that she wasn’t in the car with me. Life is short, precious, and can end – abruptly – at any moment. Tell someone you love that you care for them. Slow down a little bit, and love more.
I visited my middle school last week, which is the location of the darkest moments in my life. There were times in 6th and 7th grade when I did not think I would survive the experience.
I was a sensitive boy growing up. We didn’t have the word “bullying” back then, but that’s what it was. Basketball to the face, getting called “girl” every day, coming home from school every day in tears.
We all have demons. At least, everyone I know has demons! But while they are so big in our mind, they aren’t actually so big in real life.
Watch this video for some stories about those times, and how those times have made me the man I am today.
Eldra is a TED main stage speaker and the co-executive director of Inside Circle, a non-profit which works to end cycles of incarceration and recidivism. Eldra was incarcerated for 24 years, with several years of that time spent in solitary confinement.
Eldra now spends most of his time sitting with people inside and outside the prison system, helping them uncover their own truths to find greater internal peace.
I first met Eldra through a Zander Media client, The Trium Group, where Eldra serves as a strategic advisor. I have since come to call him a friend.
With their focus that “not all prisons have walls,” Inside Circle does transformative work to address the trauma and other wounds that create cycles of incarceration.
Any time spent with Eldra is time well spent. I’m also pleased to share that Zander Media now produces The Inside Circle Podcast with Eldra Jackson III, with guests including Byron Katie, founder of The Work, Soren Gordhamer, founder of Wisdom 2.0, and many more. I hope you enjoy this wide ranging conversation with my friend, Eldra Jackson III!
When the pandemic hit in early March, everyone had to make changes. In addition to observing my own responses, it was interesting to see how other people reacted, as well. Everybody I’ve talked to this year has been impacted, but nobody has been impacted in quite the same way.
I first heard the metaphor that strikes me best to describe this scenario from Katelin Holloway at Responsive Conference 2019: “We are all in the same storm, but we are weathering it in different boats.”
This was true of parenthood and work, which was the theme of Katelin’s talk last year, but it is even more true now across all of our lives.
For me, as the leader of a company, as well as a colleague, friend, brother, and son, recognizing the reality of this metaphor has been an exercise in humility. We never truly know what someone else is going through. And acknowledging this has never been more true than during the current crisis.
On a day that I might be feeling hopeful, energetic, and ready to get work done, it’s necessary to remember that another member of my team may be in a completely different state. And whereas they might have been able to communicate that clearly to me in the pre-pandemic era, even the expectation that people are able to describe their experience or ask for help, needs to be adjusted in the current times.
The global recognition of the Black Lives Matter movement has increased many people’s awareness that the daily experience of a black person is fundamentally different than that of a white person. So, too, the day-to-day experience of someone who has children at home is completely different than another person without kids. This is true of a wide variety of situations and circumstances: mental health, living situations, physical wellbeing, and more.
There is no simple solution to this challenge. Throughout this year, I’ve had to remind myself that I, too, have never lived through a global pandemic and am figuring things out as I go along. The best that any of us can do is recognize that our experiences do not necessarily echo another person’s, and we must continually update our awareness.
We are all in different boats. We don’t know what someone else is experiencing. The only recourse is to show up with greater empathy.
One of the premises of Responsive.org is that the rate of change is accelerating. Over the six years that I have run events about the Future of Work, we have seen that the ways we work and organize are changing ever faster.
The COVID-19 pandemic has expedited this rate of change and fast-forwarded the Future of Work into “now.” All of the trends that define what we were calling the Future of Work are now abruptly commonplace: distributed work, digital collaboration, rapid adaptability.
But one of the most important, and under-valued, aspects of this sudden shift is the increasing emphasis it places on leadership and our people.
My philosophy on leadership is “love, guide, let go.”
Love – Support your people with empathy and understanding.
Guide – Guide people towards desired outcomes and objectives.
Let go – Let go of what you cannot control, and hold people accountable for their actions.
By placing people first, supporting them where they are, and recognizing that we are not ultimately able to control others, we are able to build more successful organizations.
There are lots of tactics for treating people more kindly. At Zander Media, we begin every meeting with a Check-In Round, which is a chance to connect personally before discussing business. Check-In Rounds consist of a simple question like “what is a book or movie you are enjoying?” to something much more vulnerable like “what is something about the current crisis that you are scared about?” These questions provide an opportunity to get to know your people, while safely developing the habit of vulnerability across a team.
Ultimately, though, tactics are much less important. When we show up as humans first, and only secondarily prioritize business performance, we are able to build companies that can not only keep up with the current times, but flourish.
A week ago, I conducted a webinar with former Navy SEAL, Chris Fussell, about the Coronavirus Pandemic. Chris was a speaker at the First Annual Responsive Conference, and we have maintained contact ever since.
I started the interview asking about a longtime curiosity – what makes high performers, like the military special forces – calm under duress? Chris described the intense training Navy SEALs are subjected to, including long periods of sleep deprivation, rigorous physical and mental exercise. But then he went on to say that whether resilience is inherent or learned is debated even within the special forces.
We expect a Navy SEAL to be calm amidst crisis, but for the rest of us, who have not spent our lives preparing for catastrophe, what do we do?
Emotional resilience has been a lifelong practice for me, of necessity, because I have always been very sensitive. As a child, I was always deeply impacted by my surroundings, and it has been the work of more than 2 decades to learn to leverage this as a strength. We are all struggling with the COVID-19 crisis, each of us in our own way. In calls over the last two weeks, several people have asked me for help maintaining a positive outlook.
For me, the key to resilience is not about always staying positive. Throughout my life, I’ve often gotten overwhelmed! The practice has become picking myself back up again and getting back to work. It is okay to feel discouraged, stressed, and afraid. The solution – the practice of emotional resilience – is to take care of yourself sufficiently so that you can come back ready to try again.
In our interview, Chris also provided one key which got him through Navy SEAL training: helping others. We are all struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing world. The practice is one of getting overwhelmed, working through it, and then – when we can – turning to somebody next to us and offering support.
We don’t know what the world is going to look like on the other side, but by taking care of ourselves first, and then supporting those around us, we can keep practicing resilience together.
Every year, for nearly the last decade, I’ve conducted an annual review.
When writing a personal annual review, my process looks like this:
Going on the week by week view of my 2017 calendar and listing out every single thing that I spent my time doing. Given that most days I usually have 10-20 things on my calendar scheduled per day, this ends up being 4 or 5 handwritten pages. It goes faster than I would expect but usually takes about 2 hours. I list everything from phone calls, trips, and time spent in transit to meals (personal or professional), time at the cafe, time spent meeting vendors, and weekly standing meetings.
I go through and sort all of the items listed by category: business appointments, hours spent writing, hours spent exercising, hours working at the cafe.
Once I’ve organized everything by category, I give it a positive value judgement – a score from 1-10 on how much joy I derived from this activity, and a negative value judgement – a score from negative 1-10 on how much dissatisfaction I got from this activity. Each data point gets two specific numbers.
I mostly pay attention to the high scores of joy and the high scores of dissatisfaction. I circle the 8, 9, 10s of both positive and negative. I’ll list those out by peak experience by the positives like surfing, travel with my family, and time with my girlfriend, and the negatives like raising sponsorship, handling vendors at Robin’s Cafe, and time spent driving.
Next, I take this into action for the new year by grading the quality of my experiences over the year. If there are specific people that fall in the negative 8, 9, or 10 category, I may have to sever ties with them, which can be very challenging. I may email the person outlining the reasons why I am taking steps to set new boundaries in our relationship.
Ex: When I did this reflection in 2016, I noticed that there was a person that I had spent a lot of time with that year who I hadn’t enjoyed the quality of our time spent together. I asked myself – would I rather spend this time with this person or would I rather spend this time alone? To make a change going forward, I stopped calling him up. He invited me to a few things this year, and I declined. It was a pretty easy change.
Ex: Writing – I spent a lot of time writing in 2017. How much satisfaction did I get from the act of that process? Is that something worth repeating in 2018?
Ex: Time spent exercising – I spent significantly less time exercising in 2017 than in 2015 when I studied ballet every day. Is that amount of time per day enough? If the answer is no, I can schedule time to exercise everyday for a few hours in my calendar for 2018 for first few months.
Finally, I write down the 3 – 5 most significant changes or projects that I accomplished for the year (my trip to Morocco, my training in Puerto Rico, the 2nd Annual Responsive Conference, Responsive the book, and my relationship).
Significant Events & Projects in 2017
I’ve written about cultural lessons learned on my trip to Morocco but less so about the importance of time spent with my parents. Growing up, I traveled with my immediate family several weeks per year but have not done so regularly as an adult. For my 30th birthday present, my parents took me on a 5 week trip to Morocco. What is interesting, in retrospect, is that even more than the cultural experience of traveling, was the importance of that time with my family. Taking time as an adult to get to know each of my parents, see myself in them, and be grateful for the quality of time spent has been, and continues to be, life changing.
Puerto Rico training
I spent 4 years in my early 20’s studying deep somatic practice with Anat Baniel and another 4 years studying at the Option Institute. While I no longer participate in either organization, I achieved a level of mastery with the tool sets that each of these organizations teach and continue to practice them to this day. On my first day of my first training with Anat Baniel, I told her that someday I would like to teach this material, and now 10 years later, I have done so only minimally.
The Puerto Rico training, which I co-taught with a friend in June of 2017, was my first public offering to teach and further refine the tool sets that I was fortunate enough to be exposed to and truly changed my life throughout my 20s. I am excited to further teach these tools through a variety of mediums in 2018.
The 1st annual Responsive Conference was a giant unknown as I had never previously curated and directed an event of that magnitude before. The 2nd Annual Responsive Conference was less of an exploration and more of a refinement. My single biggest goal was to form a cohesive organizing team, and in that I succeeded magnificently. Further, I sought to make intentional the curatorial choices I had begun in 2016 including factors like venue, speakers, and working with speakers to present fresh and relevant content. Across the board, the 2nd Annual Responsive Conference was a triumph. We had 225 people from more than 10 countries and with the help of my production team, the event went off pristinely. I am excited in 2018 to further refine and automate the processes that made the 2nd Annual Responsive Conference a success – aka to do less!
Responsive: What It Takes To Create A Thriving Organization
I have never been able to write as other than a very intentional act, and writing had been one of the primary things I avoided throughout most of 2017. Thus, I am thrilled to have actually publishedResponsive: What it Takes to Create a Thriving Organization which is a compilation of three years of interviews and curation on the future of work.
Finally, and by no means least important, I entered into a new relationship midway through the year. I moved in with my girlfriend in December of 2017. This is far and away, the most significant romantic relationship I have ever had, and it’s no coincidence that we have become collaborators on multiple professional, as well as personal, projects. Relationships of all kinds are perhaps one of the three most important aspects in any of our lives, and I couldn’t be any more pleased with this developing romance.
What were your highlights in 2017? Lowlights? What do you want to build on in the year ahead? Let me know in the comments!
He spent the first season of his business career in the manufacturing sector, principally with The Morning Star Company of Sacramento, California. In addition to being a world leader in the food industry, the Morning Star Company is known for being a completely self-managed organization, which we discuss in the interview.
Doug now engages with the Morning Star Self-Management Institute and other vibrant organizations and leaders to co-create the future of management.
I asked Doug to come on to the podcast because he has more experience than most with non-hierarchical organizations and I appreciate the philosophical underpinnings that shape his thinking.
My guest today, Meredith Haberfeld (@merhaberfeld), is the co-founder of Think Human, a coaching company that has worked with a wide variety of organizations – including, among many others, SoulCycle, Spotify, and Flat Iron Health – to foster leadership and build high performing organizations.
Meredith looks at things from a unique viewpoint bridging a scientific, business savvy, and soulful perspective. Since we first met over coffee half a year ago I have been increasingly impressed with Meredith, and how she carries throughout her professional and person lives.
I had the opportunity to spend time with Meredith’s family on a recent trip to New York, enjoyed late night conversation on human development and organization design, and saw first hand the quality with which Meredith treats everyone: using questions to foster each person towards growth.
2:00 Meredith’s personal story
5:45 Think Human
9:00 3 lenses: Science, business, and soulfulness
11:30 Coaching and training
15:00 What differentiates the people that work at Think Human
18:00 Building the right team
21:00 Shifting an organization
25:00 Rewire your brain
34:00 Meredith’s experience with SoulCycle
37:00 Having a clear vision
41:00 Building wins for everyone
44:00 Meredith’s vision as a parent
47:00 Meredith’s purpose
Reach out to Meredith: http://www.think-human.com/
Happiness is an overused term, and rarely well defined.
The Happy Idiot
Usually, when we think of a “happy” person, what comes to mind? A kind-hearted, somewhat bumbling buffoon. Charlie from Flowers for Algernon in the earliest and latest stages of his development. And yet we spend most of our lives, in innumerable ways, trying to achieve fulfillment and satisfaction.
What I Strive For
When I was eight years old I wanted to own a drum set and to be a drummer. Why? Because I thought that becoming a musician would make me happy.
When I was eighteen and had never been kissed, I wanted a girlfriend. Why? Same answer.
I’m twenty-nine years old and I’d like to think that my aspirations are a bit loftier. Certainly, I strive for a fulfilling personal and professional life, which includes financial success, satisfying relationships—all the usual. But I can want those things and still celebrate the moment. In short, I strive for happiness.
How Will You Define Happiness?
Define happiness however you like: fulfillment, gratitude, gratification, achievement, joy, or something more personal. But inevitably, we find that everyone is seeking the same thing. The toddler and the jihadist, though they seem to have nothing in common in their pursuit of specific goals, are actually both doing what they’re doing because that’s what they want to be doing. Because they believe it will lead them to more happiness, now or in the afterlife.
These are personal questions, without clearly defined answers. Consider them.
I’ve never considered myself a sophisticated business person. Several years ago (albeit, after interviewing more than a dozen MBAs) I decided against going to graduate school in business, focusing instead on a less tradition career of which business is more the necessity than the focus.
That said, I enjoy learning. And “business” – encompassing everything from tax law through client sales – have increasingly become a part of my daily life. And still I’ve carried around the idea that compared to those who make the study of business their life’s work, I’m an amateur.
So it was that after 4 cups of coffee on a recent flight from New York City to San Francisco, as I was stretching in the back of the airplane that I got to talking with the flight attendant. He had a menu displayed on his computer and we started talking. It turned out that he and his partner run a Soul Food Truck in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I began to ask questions about his food, employees, marketing efforts, revenue and more.
In 2014 I’ve read more books than in any previous year of my life. That includes the Reed College humanities curriculum, which is just ridiculous. I chalk up the depth and breadth of my reading to the combination of my infra-red sauna, Amazon Prime, and the fact that I’ve been writing. These are some of my favorite books, and miscellaneous media, from 2014.
A Fighter’s Heart – A must read for anyone who has tried a martial art and everyone on the other end of the spectrum who has asked the question “why fight.”
Apollo’s Angels – Your primer in the history of ballet. Also, a national bestseller..
Average Is Over – Read this book! Think of it as an investment in your future. The best future-thinking and economics book I’ve read in many years.
The Monkey Wrench Gang – A classic which is responsible for my love affair with the desert. Also useful if you’re feeling a bit rebellious.
The Morning Pages – This workbook is the most useful tool I’ve discovered for unearthing obstacles. I think of it as a tool for getting my crazy out on a page, so I can spend more time doing productive work.
The Number of the Beast – Heinlein is responsible for coining the term “grok” and the “Heinlein” crater on the moon. This book is a wild romp through time, space, and mathematics.
Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit – Dance choreographer Twyla Tharp tackles the question how to be more creative, more regular, more diligent and more productive. Hard work, clear thinking, and a lot of sweat. The specific tools in this book are invaluable.
Well Fed – Whether you’ve considered the Paleo diet, read cookbooks for pleasure (inconceivable to me), or just want to talk about food this is among the best.
I hope you enjoy whichever of these books catch your eye. Each has served me well in 2014, and I’m looking forward to many more discoveries in 2015. On a related note, if you’re interested in a similar exploration into a diverse array of topics, try my Learning List emails.
Fair Warning: This post is more personal than many of my solution-oriented articles. If you are more interested in specific tools for cultivating successful habits, the blog is full of them. I think it is only fair to share stories of challenge, too.
I have fallen over more times that I can possibly say. Literally, in my variety of movement disciplines, and figuratively, into wells of recrimination and despair – I am no stranger to feeling like shit.
One particular evening a few weeks ago I rushed out of ballet class early to see the dance company Batsheva. The performance was simultaneously inspiring and deepened the gulf between where I am and what is possible.
That performance was the capstone on a challenging couple of weeks. I had been trying and failing bring all of my attention to ballet, and learn as quickly as possible. Instead, I was floundering through four hours of ballet technique every evening in a self-referential cycle of feeling awkward, making a mistake, and then feeling worse. To compound matters, though my professional life and dance life are mostly not directly overlapping, some of that despondency did seep into my workdays.
I’m on the mend from a whirlwind of activity, action and misery, and I’m excited to report that there’s bright sunlight at the end of this tunnel. Every tunnel I’ve ever been in the midst of seems to eventually reveal sunshine.
In reflecting about my experience of that period of a few weeks that culminated in the Batsheva performance I notice that this fall into a descending cycle, like the last and all the others, wasn’t any easier. I’m quite as capable of making myself unhappy as I was as an angst-ridden teenager just beginning to date, or a hormone-heady early-twenties scared of my place in the world. If anything, these days my unhappiness is more nuanced and more complicated. I’m more aware, and feel like I have more to lose. It turns out that falling down doesn’t get any easier.
There is an upside to this story. From the middle of my ballet upset or in watching Batsheva and wondering how I could fall so far short of what is possible, my assent to joy seemed impossible. And yet through my writing practice and asking myself a few loving questions, I realize that no matter how inadequate I feel, I will keep on trying.
It is probably a combination of the passage of time and application of specific tools I have cultivated, but I am pleasantly surprised at my rapid return to normalcy. While the fall was no less arduous than any I’ve experienced, the return to comfortable action was. Through practice, we can get better at picking ourselves back up and trying again.
Habits are the future of our health and livelihood. While you might not think in terms of the word “habit” you probably recognize that you are pulled between nearly infinite information and how you chose to spend your time. Current educational systems are unable to change to teach to 21st century challenges quickly enough. The solution to modern problems are up to us, and the individual choices we make. Even more simply, the habits that each of us build into our daily lives are going to shape the future.
Consider the number of ways that you might receive communications each day: instant messages, text messages, Google+ messages, Facebook messenger, Snapchat. And we haven’t even begun to consider email or phone calls. The amount of information is enormous and we have very few tools for handling the influx. For those of us who decide that we aren’t 1. Going to completely cut ourselves off from the modern world or 2. Approach these problems with a lack of attention and let the industries that create these products and services dictate how we use them, there is only one option. We have to be the ultimate arbiters of how we consume information, what kinds of information we decide to process, and when we say enough.
Self Motivators Win
The future is going to be determined by those best at self-motivating, at moving themselves in the directions they want to go instead of letting their fates be decided by the tools they use, the world they grew up in, their current socio-economic status, or their health. In Average Is Over economist Tyler Cowen paints a stark vision of a future where people are divided into three categories: self-driven, those with money who can afford expensive personal coaches and boot-camp like schools, and the rest. Habits and learning are learnable skills, that we can all use to self-direct and self-regulate our educations, relationships with people and technology, and futures. Short of epiphanies, which I, for one, don’t know how to trigger, or magic pills, which I don’t believe in, simple interventions in our daily lives that have lasting impact are the quickest, easiest way to foster change and growth.
Simple Changes Have Substantial Impact
It has been repeatedly demonstrated in scientific studies that small adjustments can create life-long changes. A famous example is a study for which families of severely underprivileged toddlers in Kingston, Jamaica were educated in simple nutrition, social and motivational skills. Twenty years later those individuals were found to be indistinguishable from more wealthy populations (Gertler, Heckman, et al., 2014). Those simple interventions were able to effectively erase the fact that those children came from impoverished backgrounds.
Marshmallows and Delayed Gratification
Another example is the oft-cited marshmallow study, in which a child’s early-life ability to delay gratification has been shown to be predictive of life-long measures of success (Mischel, Ayduk, et al., 2010).
However, interventions, when poorly designed, can have contrary effects. In a lesser-known variant of the marshmallow study, prior to being given their first marshmallow the children were promised crayons or similar enticement by an adult who did not deliver on the promise. In all of the cases of this reneging on a promise, children ate their first marshmallow right way (Kidd, Palmeri, and Aslin, 2013). Children were trained to take what was available because they could not rely on a future promise, which has implications for the long-term future of those children.
Characteristics like the ability to delay gratification in the marshmallow study are a part of a broader theme, namely meta-learning and the ability to learn how to learn. Meta-learning encompasses learnable skills include creative problem solving, critical thinking, and collaboration. Education often fails to teach to these goals, instead focusing on training domain-specific knowledge under the assumptions that these more complex skills will come about naturally. Specific knowledge is valuable, but in the modern era information is abundant and relevant knowledge changes very quickly. What actually matters most is the ability to learn whatever new information may be important, and to use it productively.
Habits and Meta-Learning
Habits can be learned, practiced, and improved. Wether you are starting from a very basic perspective of looking for simple solutions to improve your health, or have already read Getting Things Done, mastered “Inbox Zero” and want to further optimize your efficiently systems, the skill of habit building is worth developing. You can never get too good at building better systems. Just like neural connections can be improved and myelinated in the brain through increased use, habits can be trained, strengthened, and improved. The end goal is empowered people, capable of making their own informed decisions and acting with clarity of purpose. This comes of an understanding of yourself and the learning process. All of which starts with small habits.
If this sort of post is interesting to you, please let me know in the comments!
I’m spending all of my waking hours working on these topics. My next book “Unstuck” will be coming out this November. I’m project managing, putting out fires, and studying meta-learning at the educational start-up Socos. I’m organizing Design for Dance, exploring the impact on learning, creativity, and health through dance in the workplace. Oh, and I’m training classical ballet 30 hours a week, which is about as on-the-ground as learning can get.
When I find something I like – a new sport, person, company or restaurant – I fixate. Culturally we usually discuss fixation only in terms of “addiction.” I’ve discussed before the benefits of enthusiasm for special needs children and non-attachment for overcoming hurdles. There is utility to the boundless (perhaps incessant) enthusiasm that accompanies discovering a new passion.
Learn From Your Enthusiasm
Children fixate beautifully. When a child discovers her fingers for the first time, her delight in her own experience is all consuming. In adults, this behavior would be called self-centered and selfish, but we’d never challenge a child in her explorations. Enthusiasm can be all consuming, and some of the richest learning experiences are to be had when 100% of the learner’s attention is fixated on the object of study.
Forming Habits – The Good and Bad
Many are the times that I have discovered a new fixation. Sometimes this just looks like somewhat obsessive behavior. For example, I have eaten the same type of burrito for lunch for several years. In other situations, fixation can become a problem. I think of myself in a specific college relationship with exasperation – refusing to admit that it was time to move on. The word “fixate” tends towards negative connotations because of situations like this last: times when we completely shape our behavior around a non-healthy focus or endeavor. Ignore the potential outcomes of fixation at your peril; go in eyes open, knowing that there are downsides to forming new habits.
Build the Habit of Pursuing Perfection
Perfection is an unachievable state. There is no “there” there because as soon as you have accomplished your goal, the objective has shifted and become even higher. Dancing ballet for me is a constant struggle between seeking perfection, and the impossibility of achieving that state. There is no achievable “perfect” ballet technique. Unlike my burrito habit – which hasn’t changed much in years – dance is always new and challenging. And while I fixate like a child discovering her fingers, dance is an outlet in which I can continue my pursuit without negative side effects. Dance has provided a point of fixation where the focus is not a succeed/fail endeavor. As a result I can relentlessly strive for perfection that can never be fully attained.
Find a fixation, and constantly strive to improve in that domain. Forming habits has a downside, but fixation can also serve you well. Get curious and discover a new depth of learning.
I am always cross-training. I’ve just returned taking letters to the post-office, meaning that I ran there and ran back. I could have used Shyp or driven to the Post Office but it took less time to run, and besides, I was cross-training.
I don’t mean cross-training in just the traditional sense. While I do find it valuable to run in addition to studying ballet, I was actually doing a lot more. If we could have fMRIs while I was running we would have seen a lot more activity than from just my running circuits. I was training. Specifically, I was training jeté en tournant.
I cannot actually do jetés nearly to that degree, but I was mentally rehearsing even while running. A little like the scene in Billy Eliot where he is leaping down the street, whatever it is I am doing, I am always practicing.
There are always more obstacles, bigger challenges. You’re always fighting uphill. Get used to it and train accordingly.
There is always going to be someone more talented than me. So I practice getting used to it, and train accordingly. I didn’t start dancing ballet at 8 years old like most professional dancers, or drop out of college to work for entrepreneurial titans like marketer Ryan Holiday. Consequently, to make up the time, I think critically and hustle.
Cross-training doesn’t just mean doing an activity that complements a primary purpose, like running might complement ballet. It also means thinking hard about specific directions you’d like to go. Though I’ve flirted with the idea of starting a new company, I haven’t done so because I’m not convinced that doing so is the best use of my time, talent and resources. Instead, I’ve begun to advise several other companies, simultaneously learning, cross-training a skill-set applicable for my own business, and helping out. All for a few hours a week.
As a result of a talk I gave at Design For Dance, I’ve begun to explore Design Thinking. Instead of spending $40,000 and two years in school, I’ve begun to get acquainted with the domain by readings – a lot! I might found another company company in the future and I might go back to school in design. Right now, I’m thinking about what I’m interested in and looking for the connections across disciplines. In other words, cross-training.
Anytime someone is completely fixated on a specific outcome, they are doomed to fail. I recently found this to be true when a broken toe severely limited my ability to turn in ballet, but we see examples across the board – from special needs to athletic performance to business successes. When someone is fixated on things going a certain way they are much more likely to go in the opposite direction. This post picks up where we left off last week: on some solutions for being attached to the outcome.
Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. – Albert Einstein
Though we use the word failure, what we mean is more complicated. We have a stigma around failure. We believe that failure is bad, never mind how many times a child falls down before he learns to walk. Actually, failure is a fundamental part of learning. We are built to try and fail many times for each success. This didn’t help on the day I was determined to ride a “broken” motorcycle but embracing the concept of failure as part of any growth is the simplest pathway to overcome the limiting belief that failure is bad.
The most common situation I see is someone wanting a specific outcome, and thus getting committed to that outcome regardless of the path necessary to get there. One of my favorite shortcuts entails circumventing the attachment by reorienting the outcome. If I still want to train my ballet turns while recovering from a broken toe, I can strengthen my non-dominate side and visualize turns on my dominant side. Trying to force myself to turn on my broken/dominate foot doesn’t work. What happens if we come up with several more variations? Greater flexibility.
5 New Routes Challenge
I have a challenge which I call the “5 New Routes” challenge. When I drive I usually have a systematic route that I take to my destination. To add some variety I visualize 4 other entirely new routes to the same destination. These might be routes that I will never actually drive (like from San Francisco to Mexico on my way to visit family in LA). The point isn’t the routes themselves, but to expand the current realm of possible options. When I began this exercise years ago I would map out routes on paper. These days, I just visualize the trajectories beforehand. Build the skill of flexible thinking before circumstances demand it.
The last 5 months have a been a whirl-wind. Since January 1, 2014 I’ve founded a corporation, attempted to launch a 500+ person workshop in the Bay Area, failed to publish a book, begun ballet and achieved triple pirouettes, spoken at Stanford University, UCSF, and Ignite SF, and more.
Today I’m going to look at something I’ve been exploring as a part of all of these projects, and probably the single biggest factor that keeps me sane. I have been cultivating presence. First, though, let’s look at this presentation which I gave to a group of professional runners.
So much of our day-to-day is spent in a state of judgement. As an example, just one time bend down and touch your toes. About 98% of the population has self-judgements about not being flexible enough. When I ask almost anyone to bend down and touch their toes, they immediately begin to judge themselves for not being flexible enough.
Every one of the runners I was working with in the video noticed differences after doing the second series of exercises. Why? Simple: they were much more present during the exercise. They were curious about what they were doing. Without former knowledge of the activity they didn’t have as many pre-held judgements. I gave the instructions slowly and carefully. And I gave very different instructions the second time. I had participants notice themselves and pay attention to their environment. We did a lot of variations. But most of all I didn’t put the runners in a situation that triggered all of those self-judgements they had about their flexibility. I had them put their hands on your knees and round and arch. This isn’t a series of movements that most people have ever trained, and it certainly isn’t one that most people have judgements around.
Being present is a seemingly simple concept with vast implications. People who practice being present have more (to quote Martin Seligman) self-reported well-being. Athletes who take presence to an extreme in flow states are exponentially more effective. I write better.
In the movement sequence above, here are some of the aspects I employed to help people notice a difference:
Check in with yourself (or someone else)
Practice small bits in situations that aren’t already stressful
Why do these elements impact the runners’ flexibility? Simple. They are some of the simple building blocks that allow for increased presence. By slowing down the nervous system, reducing fear and stress, and allowing time for learning, change happens much more quickly. But what are specific ways that we can use being present in our daily lives?
The Attitude that Works is how I describe an attitude I bring to my coaching with special needs children, and try to apply everywhere, in any learning environment. The attitude consists of three parts:
For background, I’ve been developing an attitude that works for years. When I talked a guy down from jumping off a bridge in college, this is what I was using. This philosophy is what makes me effective in coaching children, and also throughout my physical studies. I am by no means perfect – far from it – but formulating guiding principals has been extremely useful as a reminder of what creates an effective environment for learning.
When I began working with children with autism I discovered that they often lack the social standards that we take for granted. I found that the only way to work with these special children was through being completely compassionate to their experience, even if I didn’t know what that experience was. These children rely on their sense of those around them – their intuitive feel for the attitudes held by others – instead of just the social niceties. It turns out that we all sense the attitudes held by those around us, whether we recognize them or not, and that these attitudes profoundly shape how we behave. When we are compassionate or loving with someone else we are much more inviting to that person, and more likely to foster a connection. The rule holds true for ourselves, as well: when we are compassionate with ourselves our brains are literally more available to process new information and form novel connections.
I chose the header of this blog for a very specific reason. The up and down arrows are a reminder to me that learning anything has ups and downs. Last week I wanted to punch things and felt like sleeping all day to avoid reality, but had to get out of bed, answer emails, issue refunds, and make sure I wasn’t sued. Within the course of 3 days, the project that I have put 80 hour weeks into for the last 4 months folded, I and two friends lost $60,000 in business, and I was threatened with a lawsuit over the publication of an e-book. Rough and cause for a step-back.
So, what do you do when life knocks you down? For a start, watch this video…
A couple of things I’ve learned already from last week’s dip:
Build the Habit of Self-Care
I cannot emphasize self-care too much. For the last four months I’ve exercised 6 days each week. I always eat (at least) 3 meals every day. These two components made getting through the more difficult moments last week possible. I build habits that reinforce taking care of myself because they feel good on a day-to-day basis, but I am really, really grateful for them when the going gets rough. Last week there was never a doubt when I would exercise or what I would eat for breakfast. Similarly, I find mediation (or my preference: gratitude training) works best though daily practice.
Learning anything worth learning is tough. And especially for those of us who want to not just learn a skill but excel, there are a lot of ups and downs. It seems that the more exciting a venture is, the more I’m liable to turn manic-depressive. This is actually the reason I created the header of the Learning Curve Experiments blog- to remind myself that learning is full of ups and downs, victories and setbacks, along the way.
So when I saw this video recreation of Ira Glass’ talk on “Closing the Gap” it struck a cord. It is hard to fathom Ira Glass as other than the calm and loving voice we know him to be. (Even if you don’t know his name, you’ve heard his voice.) But apparently even Iran Glass was once a beginner.
Ira gave a talk at Reed College in 2010 during which he insisted that when he started out in radio he sucked. Ira Glass not good on the radio? Inconceivable! But in watching this video I’m reminded that in any endeavor we can only start from where we are and move forward from there. The more we try, the more our skills catch up to our taste.
So here’s to taking steps forward! And maybe – just maybe – celebrating some of the pit-falls along the way.
I have spent most of the month of January refreshing my study of the Option Process Dialogue, a form of socratic questioning which I have found invaluable in my practice, personal life, and physical training. If you haven’t heard me discuss questions before then by way of introduction, I suggest reading my post Ask More Loving Questions.
In a world full of people willing to give advice, there is a scarcity of good questions asked without a directive intent. Thus the Option Process Dialogue, an incredible way of being present with another person and asking them questions. I completed a recent course alongside these five fabulous certified Option Process Mentors, each of whom have put in their 10,000 hours refining their practice and understanding of this process.
I have read Socrates’ thoughts on the purpose of questions and seen many fine examples of well-honed questions used to extract information, assist someone in hard times, or convince of a particular viewpoint. (For an amusing recent example of two world-class questioners take a look at this interview of Neal Strauss by Tim Ferriss.) While I don’t generally conduct playfully combative interviews, I recently practiced asking questions on a live stage…
Stretching for a Couples Dialogue
One scene from these last weeks stands out. I am in front of a room full of people, facing two friends – a couple. I am the “mentor,” responsible for asking these two questions and aiming for a non-directive, following attitude. Years ago, when I began my study of this dialogue process, it was a struggle to just be present with one person for 5 minutes at a time. Last January I acquired the requisite skills to maintain this presence for 50 or more minutes at a stretch, with few or no momentary lapses.
In the room with my friends this last week I stretched even further. I was asking both of them questions and switching back and forth between them based on my momentary decisions, best judgement, and trained instinct. The system for asking questions is straightforward. While there are many sub-components, it is loosely designed to help the “explorer” uncover beliefs, following an ABC for Adversity -> Belief -> Consequence model for understanding human behavior. We call it Stimulus -> Belief -> Response.
While I find the technique of questions equally fascinating, what actually makes ours unique and useful is the attitude with which we ask questions.
Tiny Habits.com is my all-time favorite habit building tool, created by B.J. Fogg, PhD of Stanford University.
BJ studies how to change habits. and over the course of his decades of research B.J. has come up with the Tiny Habits system. The idea is quite simple: smaller habits are easier to build and sustain than big habits. Habit building is a skill that can be improved. When people aim to change small habits they are much more likely to continue building the skill of habitual change and thus make bigger changes in their lives.
In the last year I have used Tiny Habits half a dozen times to encourage myself to do projects ranging from handstands to monitoring my finances. Tiny Habits is free, lasts for 5 days, and has allowed me to adopts several habits that I will use for the rest of my life. Even more exciting, though, are some of the aspects of building habits that I have gleaned from Tiny Habits and begun to apply elsewhere.
In The Art of Learning Josh Waitzkin has a chapter called “Making Smaller Circles.” These three simple words have profound implication on the learning process and on rapid skill growth.
Making smaller circles fits with my experience of learning in several different ways. First, I’ve been making a habit of examining the small steps necessary to make big changes. The smaller the steps the easier it is to create lasting change.
I also make a habit, personally and professionally, of asking questions. In my friends’ and clients’ answers I see another example of circling. Hundreds of times, while describing an obstacle, I have heard someone say “I feel like I’m just going in circles.” And in a way, they are. Last week a friend described his romantic difficulties and then complained that he was just circling around the same issues of a year ago. In fact, he was struggling with romance a year ago, too.
When I heard that comment though or when I am trying (and sometimes failing) to take small steps towards my goals, I prefer to think that we are all making smaller circles.
His hands were tied behind his back and he was standing on the outside of the bridge railing, preparing to jump. As I moved towards him, he shouted over to me: “One step further and I’ll jump!” He sounded hoarse and it was clear he had been crying. I stopped and stood, waiting.
This occurred six years ago, in the middle of the night, in Portland, Oregon. I had been biking along the river, taking a break from a college all-nighter when I came across this man.
I stopped, as instructed. And as I stood there I had an amazing experience. It was as if I was at the center of a deep, wide pool. His shout and threat were like a pebble hitting the surface and I was so deep down in the pool that they made no impact. Inside I felt quiet and still. “How are you feeling?” I asked him, calmly.
“Thinking is just the process of asking and answering questions.” -Tony Robbins
Today I make a habit of asking this sort of question. These questions sometimes sound a bit odd but provide the person I’m with to examine themselves in a way not otherwise available to them. I can only ask such questions by intentionally falling into that calm attitude that I found so many years ago on the river in Portland. In that state of mind, anything – and I do mean anything – that someone says is okay. In that mindset I am completely accepting and totally nonjudgmental. This is a mindset that I trained on my own and then later at the Option Institute. In what follows I’m going to detail a number of different reasons we ask questions and discuss what makes loving questions unique.
In my experience there are four different types of questions, each with its own purpose.
Questions that Judge
“Why did you do that!” (We often leave the “you idiot” left unsaid.)
The question “Why did I eat that pint of ice cream when I know I feel sick after eating ice cream?” is really a statement of self criticism. What I am actually saying is: “I’m dumb for having eaten ice cream. I should have known better!”
Questions to Learn
Imagine a reporter interested in your story. Reporters, and all of us, ask directive, inquiring questions to gain information.
Questions that Teach
Teachers ask their students subtle or even blatant leading questions like “Why do you believe that is the best answer to this math problem?” or “How would you go about solving it?”
Questions to Explore
“Why didyou do that?”
That night on the bridge I used what I’ve come to think of as exploring questions. These are the rarest of questions in that they are non-directive and completely accepting. I have studied what is formally called “The Option Process(R) Dialogue” which teaches how to use these questions to help explorers come to their own conclusions. With the man on the bridge these are the sort of questions I asked. Guided by instinct and luck I asked the bridge jumper how he felt and then later why. I don’t know what would have happened if I had told him not to jump, or tried to teach him that he shouldn’t. I can speculate that things might not have gone so well.
For the record, I spent three hours with the man on the bridge. He ended up sitting and crying with me. The next morning he called his sister and I left him in her care.
Why Ask Loving Questions
Everyone has opinions and most people are willing to share them. What people don’t do, though, is set aside their personal biases and become completely present with another. Instead, meaning well, most people judge or try to fix. By providing the person questioned with the option to discover answers for themselves, we provide a safe space to step forward and, if we so choose, come to our own conclusions.
These are the four components of a loving question. These four make up what is termed the “attitude” by the Option Institute. I have called it the Attitude That Works.
This is what distinguishes these questions from all others. To ask these questions the questioner must completely let go of the belief that they know what’s best for another.
To ask non-directive questions the questioner must be completely present with the person being questioned. Otherwise, it is not possible to follow where they lead.
Often loving questions are asked in the face of self-judgements. It is essential to not buy in and engage with those judgements.
Of all four this is the most important. Having compassion for another is fundamental to asking this sort of question.
I don’t always ask loving questions. Not even most of the time. But I have the capacity to sit across from someone considering suicide or crying over heartbreak or jumping for joy, follow exactly what they say, and then ask them what they are thinking, what they feel or why. I’m not unique and anyone can learn to do this. The more I ask such questions the better I get. And as an added benefit: it feels great to be there for someone in this way.
So here’s my advice: next time you or someone you care for is in a slump, don’t try to fix them or solve the problem. Ask just one loving question. It can make a world of difference.
I’ve talked before about one of the reasons I love working with autism. Kids on the spectrum are constantly violating my assumptions and in order to be effective I have to continue re-evaluating my beliefs and discarding what doesn’t work.
This week I am in Buenos Aires, Argentina working with several families with special needs children. And I’m experiencing a whole new model for breaking down my assumptions. Growing up I was taught that it was useful to travel because it “expands horizons.” I never really questioned that that means. On this trip I’ve come to see why traveling can be extremely useful and how expanding horizons actually works. To make a long story short – it can be hard, but it is very worth doing.
First off, my work can be challenging. I am work with children who may bite or scream or both. (Theyareincredible, too.) But on this trip I’m also in a new city, speaking a non-native language, and practicing tango. The number of challenging factors has increased by several exponents! So let’s look at how exactly this is a good thing…
The more time I study learning the more I realize that the tools which improve performance apply across disciples. Everywhere we look there are struggles and every-day heroes overcoming those struggles: athletes achieving record-breaking feats, regular people losing that last 10 pounds and children with autism self-regulating, tantruuming, and improving.
I make a study of the commonalities (and differences) between seemingly unrelated disciplines. What does the Gymnastics Giant and curing autism have in common? It turns out there is method to the madness and more commonality than difference among disparate paths.