How to be immortal

It is the quality of our relationships that most determines our legacy. ~James Kouzes


I’ll wager that few people had as profound an effect on the lives of other as did Eve Carson in her brief 22 years. The former UNC-Chapel Hill student body president was on a prestigious academic scholarship, volunteered in the U.S., Cuba, Ecuador, Egypt, and Ghana, and found time to be a part of campus life in the same way as other students. But what really drew many to Eve, and what draws me to her memory today, was her ability to make others feel special and valued. Her friend Matt Saldana described her saying that “she had the uncommon ability to make everyone around her feel like the most important person in the world.”

Eve’s life came to an end much too soon, the victim of a senseless crime, in a tragedy that Chancellor James Moeser said was “magnified and multiplied by the number and depths of relationships—meaningful relationships—that [she] had on this campus.”  Eve thus found what many seek: immortality. Her spirit lives on through those who knew her, as well as those (like myself) who only know her from reading and hearing about her.

I thought about Eve this morning as I asked myself a question I’ve asked many times: What is most important to me? We can only line up our actions with our beliefs if we have those beliefs firmly in mind, so making sure we reaffirm what’s most important periodically (daily even) is a good idea.

To a large extent, our society worships celebrity as the highest of achievements. As Tama J. Kieves said, “We live in a world where we know too much, and yet we know so little that matters. We know what Kim Kardashian ate for breakfast. Still many of us don’t know what we want from this lifetime. We don’t know what brings us unmitigated joy. We do not know how to let go of information and comparison and listen, instead, to conviction and inspiration.”

We not only put the rich and beautiful on magazine covers, we sometimes put ourselves down because of what we aren’t.

I would challenge you to aspire to something much greater than power or wealth or beauty. To have a real impact on the world, to be not only respected but also to be someone held dear even after your time on Earth is gone, make it a goal to make others feel important.

Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” I would add that no one cares how wealthy, beautiful, or powerful you are if you do not care about them.

What are some specific ways we can help others understand their importance in our lives and in the world? Here’s a partial list:

  1. Tell them! If you’re glad you met someone, express it to that person.
  2. Celebrate the other person’s success.
  3. When you introduce someone to another, make sure he or she knows how proud you are to be a friend.
  4. Overlook his or her mistakes.
  5. Look him or her in the eyes and listen.
  6. Put away your phone when you are with another person.
  7. Buy an inexpensive gift which shows you’ve thought of him or her.
  8. Plan and go on adventures.
  9. Know the names of those important to the other, especially his or her family.
  10. Don’t waste your time together with complaining or gossip.
  11. Greet others with enthusiasm. It sounds obvious but a smile when you see someone is so warm.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Material things are not to be taken for granted, but an object cannot love us back, and the latest smart phone will be a paperweight in ten years. People will always remember how you treated them and made them feel, even long after you’re gone.


Business lessons for my daughters

Both my daughters have chosen careers in human services, with one working as a speech language pathologist and the other in school for social work. This comes despite my exciting career in information technology; I don’t know how it was they resisted IT after seeing me respond to midnight outages, poring over log files, and spending hours puzzling over the most arcane problems.

There are certain principles I would convey to my daughters and to anyone else who is starting a career or who just needs a reset. In fact, I recently started a new job. During the transition, I felt the need to get back to basics, to review the things that have helped me achieve any degree of success. I walked into my office one morning and quickly scribbled down everything I could think of that might form a basis for a career. With it being the beginning of a new year, I offer these as fundamentals for making you a superstar, or at least a valued contributor.

1. Seek out the wisdom of others.

2. Expand your world. Read books, travel, talk to those who are different from you.

3. No investment in a relationship is wasted.

4. Go to the other guy’s place. Visit them rather than make them come to you.

5. Over-plan and over-communicate.

6. Never let a day go by without telling someone you appreciate him or her.

7. Do your homework. That is, learn about what you need to know. This alone will differentiate you from others in a positive way.

8. Go the extra mile. Cliche, yes, but it makes a difference.

9. Be an example.

10. Think of possibilities. Take a step back and be open to what might be.

11. Think! (One of my colleagues who worked at IBM keeps a notebook on her desk with the word “Think” on its cover.)

12. Front-load your work.  Do as much as you can early in the process. This is also vitally helpful.

13. Always use the highest bandwidth. Talking in-person is better than talking on the phone which is better than text which is better than email. Oh, hand-written notes are much-appreciated.

14. Return calls promptly.

15. Keep the larger perspective in mind.

16. Take a personal interest in others. People love to have the opportunity to talk about their family, pets, and hobbies, and you’ll learn things too.

17. Make deposits in the emotional bank. If you have to make a withdrawal, you’ll want to ensure a credit balance.

18. Be proactive in relationships. Don’t worry about who takes the initiative.

19. Make it about the other guy rather than you.

20. Always be positive.

When I finished writing these on my white board, I knew I have everything I need to do well. Let me hear about any principles to which you return time and time again!

You won’t hear it from me

“When you judge another, you do not define them, you define yourself.”  Wayne Dyer

Much to my regret, the only information I know about some of my colleagues came when someone blindsided me with a chunk of negativity about someone else. Maybe this person is known to have had an affair, or someone made a demand which blew up in his or her face. Maybe someone made an error in judgement which was uncharacteristic and was attributable to the worst day in his or her career.  For some reason, I was chosen to hear about it.

Perhaps the goal was for the speaker to feel better about himself or herself. (In an episode of The Simpsons, Homer rationalizes spreading gossip about his neighbor Flanders: “It’ll make me feel important, without being drunk. That’ll be weird!”) Or maybe it was to influence me to think a certain way. There is even evidence that gossip forms a strong bond between us. Perhaps I’m closer to “the enemy of my enemy” than I am even with my own friends.

Psychiatrist Frédéric Fanget points out the social role of gossip: “We gossip to share our worries, seeking reassurance and support. It’s an indirect way of speaking well of yourself, and your listeners. It’s also fun to arouse others’ curiosity and monopolize the conversation, when you have information to reveal.”

For whatever reason, the result is that now when I see certain people, I think of some particularly ugly aspect of their lives which they would be shocked to know that I know.

I decided long ago that unless something unflattering was actually a matter of consequence in my life, I would keep it to myself. I don’t hold myself up as virtuous in this regard; I’m sure I’ve engaged in gossip in my life. But the fact is that when we choose to introduce someone to someone else by describing the worst in another, we rob both of the opportunity of making up their own minds.

Perhaps you’ve heard the idiom, “What you spot, you’ve got.” In other words, in describing someone else, we may very well be talking about what we fear about ourselves. To the degree you believe this to be true, you might want to keep it in mind the next time you are tempted to air someone’s dirty laundry at work. Perhaps that trait you so desperately want to point out is your worst fear about yourself.

In the last regard, our desire to speak ill of others actually provides an opportunity for us. When that ugly creature raises its head, we can ask ourselves if perhaps the reason we are tempted to do so is our own insecurity about some aspect of ourselves.

This isn’t to say that we can’t seek help and confide in our friends when we have a difficult relationship which threatens to drain us. The distinction, however, is whether our discussion of another is gratuitous to our everyday life. Most of the gossip I might read in The Huffington Post, for example, has nothing to do with me.

I’ve noticed in my favorite people a reluctance to criticize others, perhaps even more so if I don’t know the other person. From these people, I’ve learned to take on that same reluctance in my approach. My goal: If you know something bad about someone else, you didn’t hear it from me!

Leadership better than fiction

I finally saw “Iron Man 3” this past weekend and enjoyed it thoroughly. This might be expected given that I’m a bit of a comic book junkie but, in addition, parts of the movie were filmed where I’ve worked for the past 22 years, SAS in Cary, NC.

In the building that served as the home for the fictitious Stark Industries works a real-life industry leader, maybe not a super hero but still a hero of sorts to the more than thirteen thousand employees who work for SAS.

I will admit that I’ve put off writing about Jim Goodnight for some time, because some might question the authenticity of a laudatory post about the President and CEO of the company providing my paycheck. (Note that these opinions are completely my own and not those of SAS.)  Still, if you’re looking for examples of leadership, the kind of spirit that embodies the American dream, it would be difficult to discount the actions that Dr. Goodnight has taken over the course of the past 37 years in building SAS into the world’s largest privately-held software company.

I cite the following:

The time he started a business — Dr. Goodnight could have had a comfortable life as a professor but realized that he had something special in the form of the statistical procedures he had developed for his research. When SAS Institute Inc. was formed, the notion of making it big in software was not common.

The time he re-engineered his bread-and-butter product — Dr. Goodnight saw the potential of the C programming language in making it possible for SAS software to run on all popular programming platforms. He changed the development language for SAS from PL/I to C in what became a hugely important technical move.

The time he decided not to go public — When the rest of the computer industry was cashing out by going public, Dr. Goodnight ultimately decided to keep SAS private. This has given him the freedom to run the company in the way he thinks best, rather than doing what short-sighted stockholders might want.

The time he started a school — Dr. Goodnight and his wife Anne found that the kind of school they wanted was lacking in the community where they lived, so they funded the building of Cary Academy, a private school near the SAS campus which hires talented teachers willing to use appropriate technology to carry out its demanding curriculum.

The time he refused layoffs — In the recession that began in 2008, many companies laid-off workers to avoid losses. Dr. Goodnight went to his employees and simply asked that they watch their spending. Through careful expenditures, the company managed to keep its 13,000 employees with no layoffs and another profitable year in the books.

There are many more examples of Jim Goodnight’s leadership I could cite. If it seems an indulgence to write complimentary things about one’s employer, then I hope you’ll grant me such every 22 years. To ignore these lessons would be to miss an opportunity to learn.


Questions I ask myself

Sometimes, I wonder.

What if I put away my phone anytime I was in a meeting or dining with someone?

What if I actually got eight hours sleep each night?

What if I took a few minutes each day to reflect on my goals and what I’ve done to achieve them?

What if I listened more than spoke?

What if I avoided spending time aimlessly web surfing?

What if I made sure to thank someone in person or in writing every day?

What if I turned off the television except for special programs?

What if I read the classics?

What if I learned a language not my own?

What if I gave some time to a worthy cause?

What if I tried harder to understand than to be understood?

What if I made sure I thought before speaking?

What if I took ownership for all my actions?

What if I chose to give my colleagues the benefit of a doubt?

What if I acted without regard for who gets the credit?

Finally, what if I gave myself and others grace when we aren’t able to do all of the above?



Winning the inner game

In every human endeavor there are two arenas of engagement: the outer and the inner. The outer game is played on an external arena to overcome external obstacles to reach an external goal. The inner game takes place within the mind of the player and is played against such obstacles as fear, self-doubt, lapses in focus, and limiting concepts or assumptions. The inner game is played to overcome the self-imposed obstacles that prevent an individual or team from accessing their full potential.   (The Inner Consultation By Roger Neighbour)

I have a habit of picking up older books that might be somewhat dated but nonetheless useful. This was the case when I paid less than a dollar for a paperback copy of “The Inner Game of Tennis”, a best-seller from the 1970s by Tim Gallwey. While this is ostensibly about tennis, it is much more about life.

Whether from Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Eric Berne, Arthur Koestler, or Joseph Campbell (or even the Bible), the idea of a consciousness at battle with a “sub-conscious” or “unconscious” is a well-established notion as we have considered our existence in this world. What I liked about “The Inner Game” was its practical approach to this duality.

Gallwey’s basic assertion is that we often get in our own way. In his terminology, Self One is the conscious nagger, while Self Two is the unconscious doer:

  • Self One criticizes ourself and others, while Self Two goes about the business of doing what it knows how to do.
  • Self One over thinks and is full of itself, believing it always knows best. Self Two reacts spontaneously and without thinking.
  • Self One is confident it can learn from analysis and instructions. Self Two learns from observing others and from experience.

We marvel when athletes and others are “in the zone”. We hear stories that when basketball players are playing at their best, the hoop looks twice as big. Baseball players describe the ball as looking bigger and coming in slower when they are batting well. The fact is that athletes and others can seldom think themselves into the zone. If it were so, why would anyone ever leave it? The reason coaches call timeouts before an important field goal or free throws is so that the athlete will think about the consequences; it is hoped that the timeout will remove the player from being in the moment.

I find reassuring the notion that we already know what to do if we can just quit trying to force it.  “Trying too hard” is an understandable mistake.

How can we make things easier for ourselves?:

  • If we want to capture an audience with a speech, we can let go of trying to impress them and instead just give ourselves to them. Generally, we know more about the subject at hand, and our audience wants us to do well.
  • If we want to succeed, we can stop worrying so much about the consequences of failure.
  • If we are trying to learn the truth, we can stop judging. Judging is all about our version of the truth, and gets in the way of a more objective view of reality. (Gallwey points out the irony in the fact that the judge in a tennis match is probably the only person not placing a value judgment on whether the outcome of a particular point is good or bad.)

At the end of a yoga class once, I sensed, perhaps for the first time, that there was a “me” beneath the thoughts and feelings that so dominate the consciousness. I found happiness in this discovery, a lessoning of pressure. The thoughts and feelings we have are no doubt useful to navigating through life successfully, but they can also limit us greatly and cause quite a bit of consternation.

Much of the current emphasis on mindfulness arises from an almost universal sense that we over  think much of our lives, to our detriment. We ruminate about the past, and we worry about the future. By focusing on the present moment, we stand a better chance of winning the inner game.

You know what to do most of the time. Quiet your mind and let it happen.


‘Thou mayest’

When I had the chance to meet the members of my favorite band, I asked the keyboard player the derivation of her name, Timshel. I smiled when she confirmed that her parents had taken it from what is my favorite work of literature, “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck.

The word “timshel” figures prominently into the book (spoiler alert). A group of studious, wise men are discussing the banishment of Cain into the land east of Eden. At issue is whether God tells Cain that ‘thou shalt’ conquer sin (a promise) or ‘do thou rule over’ sin (a command). After much study, the key word — timshel — is finally found to mean ‘thou mayest’ conquer sin — a choice.

This becomes key in the interpretation of the events of Genesis as well as those in the book. ‘Thou mayest’: the assertion is that it’s up to us.

I feel that a man is a very important thing—maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed— because ‘Thou mayest.

What a burdensome, wonderful privilege we have to choose. I realize that many of you reading this may not be religious, and I honor and respect your beliefs. I hope that regardless of this, you can agree that the soul is a ‘glittering instrument’, one that can descend into genocide, or soar to the ultimate self-sacrifice, laying down one’s life for another.

Let me share a story that is a little embarrassing but illustrative of this belief. When I was in fourth grade and was in hot water (most likely for talking out of turn), I was taken to the guidance counselor who asked me, “Why did you behave that way?” In an answer that was as misguided as it was precocious, I answered, “I don’t know — I guess it’s fate!” She responded in a way that I never forgot and which shaped my perception ever since: “I believe you make your own fate!” Timshel.

When my sweet wife gave me a Road ID last year, lest I keel over from running in some strange town, I wanted a way to make it personal, but was limited to a few characters. I thought about what might make a sincere declaration of my beliefs (or, worst case, an epitaph), I added the word “timshel”.  The weight of it, ‘Thou mayest”, is much greater than the few ounces of the bracelet, but is a weight we are blessed to carry.

Ten Rules for Happiness by Dorothy Dix

(Dorothy Dix was an advice columnist during the first half of the 20th century. This was one of her most frequently reprinted columns.)

First. Make up your mind to be happy. Happiness is largely a matter of self-hypnotism. You can think yourself happy or you can think yourself miserable. It is up to you…learn to find pleasure in simple things. If you can’t go to the opera, you can turn on the radio. Nail on your face the smile that won’t come off, and after a bit you will find that it comes naturally.

Second. Make the best of your lot. Of course, you’re not everything you want and things are not just right. Nobody is that lucky. Even the most fortunate have a lot of crumpled rose leaves under their forty mattresses of ease. There isn’t a single human being who hasn’t plenty to cry over, and the trick is to make the laughs outweigh the tears.

Third. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t think that everything that happens to you is of world-shaking importance and that somehow you should have been protected from the misfortunes that befall other people. When death robs you of one you love, or you lose your job, don’t demand to know of high heaven why this should happen to you and grow rebellious and morbid over your sorrow. We are never happy until we learn to laugh at ourselves.

Fourth. Don’t take other people too seriously. They are not so much, anyway. Don’t let their criticisms worry you. You can’t please everybody, so please yourself. Don’t let your neighbors set your standards for you. Don’t run into debt trying to keep up with the Joneses, or bore yourself to death trying to be as intelligent as the Highbrows. Be yourself and do the things you enjoy doing if you want to be comfortable and happy.

Fifth. Don’t borrow trouble. You have to pay compound interest on that and it will bankrupt you in the end. It is a queer thing, but imaginary troubles are harder to bear than actual ones. There are none of us who have not lain awake at night petrified with dread of some calamity that we feared might befall us and that we felt would shatter our lives if it should occur. Generally it never happened, but if it did, it was not so bad after all and we survived it without serious injury. Enjoy today and let tomorrow take care of itself. There is no sounder adage than that which bids us not to trouble trouble until trouble troubles us. The only good that worrying ever did anyone was make him thin. It is grand for the figure but hard on the disposition.

Sixth. Don’t cherish enmities and grudges. Don’t keep up old quarrels. Don’t remember all the mean things people have done to you. Forget them. Hate is a dreadful chemical that we distill in our own hearts, that poisons our own souls. It takes all the joy out of life and hurts us far worse than it does anyone else. There is nothing so depressing as having a grudge against someone. Nothing makes a home so miserable as for the family not to be on good terms. Meeting someone you don’t speak to will spoil any party. So if you have an enemy, forgive him and kiss on both cheeks, not for his sake but simply because it is to making you unhappy and uncomfortable to be stirred up in wrath against him.

Seventh. Keep in circulation. Go around and meet people. Belong to clubs. Travel as much as you can. Have as many interests as possible. Have hosts of friends. That is the way to keep yourself cheerful and jolly and thinking that this is the best of all possible worlds.

Eighth. Don’t hold post-mortems. Don’t spend your life brooding over the mistakes you have made or the sorrows that have befallen on you. What is done is done and cannot be changed, but you can have your whole future life in which to make good. Not all the tears can bring back those we have lost, but we can make life miserable for ourselves and those about us by our unavailing weeping. Quit beating upon your breast because you haven’t as much money as you used to have. Don’t be one of those who never get over things. Have the courage to take misfortune on the chin and come up smiling.

Ninth. Do something for somebody less fortunate than yourself. Minister to other people’s trouble and you will forget your own. Happiness is a coin that we keep only when we give it away.

Tenth. Keep busy. That is the sovereign remedy for unhappiness. Hard work is a panacea for trouble. You never saw a very busy person who was unhappy.

Positions, power, and people

Mark Horstman, whose Career Tools podcast is usually on my iPhone, says there are three kinds of power in business.  That which comes from 1) position, 2) skills, and 3) relationships. Sometimes these coincide, but often I’ve found that people look to #1 as a substitute for #’s two and three.

In my heart, I would like to derive all my power from skills and relationships, for it seems the most genuine, lasting, and meaningful way to get ahead. In fact, for the first couple of decades of my career, I never even considered deriving any power from position. There’s a part of me that has less respect for those who depend solely on their position to win the devotion of those whom they lead.

If you are given (or, better yet earn) a position in which you lead others, there’s no reason you can’t also cultivate the other two kinds of power. What could be more powerful, in fact, than a leader who nourishes relationships and cultivates skills to win the respect of others.

The skills you develop will depend somewhat on the nature of your business, but we can all work to nurture relationships by:

  • Being fully present to others.
  • Learning the thing a person regards as most important, such as about his or her family, passions, and background.
  • Regarding the other person’s needs as important.

When I find myself unconsciously putting emphasis on my position as a source of power, or more often, when I aspire to some position of authority as a way to bolster others opinion of me, I know the source of that is insecurity. This results in a very unhappy life, as we can find ourselves in a never-ending spiral of striving for ever-higher places in the organization as a way to feel good about who we are.

Fighting this is much more difficult than it might first appear. Doing so requires a leap of faith that we are useful to our employers and others even when we’re not calling the shots. It means we need to move projects forward through collaboration and persuasion rather than autocratic directives. It also means that how others regard us as colleagues and leaders is more important to us than the title after our name.

A power based on relationships and skills has a distinct advantage over that based on position: You cannot lose those relationships and skills without your complicity. Your position can change with a reorganization or reassignment. Those relationships you’ve developed will stay intact if you nourish them.

Your power at work can reside in something as slender as a title or as strong as the relationships and skills you’ve worked hard to earn; your decision about this will set the tone of how you spend your time, and how you live your life.



A remarkable kiss

From “Mortal Lessons”, Richard Selzer M.D.

“I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy, clownish.  A tiny twig of the facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth, has been severed.  She will be thus from now on.  The surgeon had followed with religious fervor the cure of her flesh, I promise you that.  Nevertheless, to remove the tumor in her cheeck, I had to cut the little nerve.

“Her young husband is in the room.  He stands on the opposite side of the bed and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, private.  Who are they, I ask myself, he and this wry mouth I have made, who gaze at and touch each other so generously, greedily?  The young woman speaks.

‘Will my mouth always be like this?’ she asks.

‘Yes,’ I say, ‘it will.  It is because the nerve was cut.’

“She nods and is silent.  But the young man smiles.

‘I like it,’ he says, ‘It is kind of cute.’

“All at once I know who he is.  I understand and I lower my gaze.  One is not bold in an encounter with a god.  Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth and I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers, to show her that their kiss still works.”