Some things I’ve learned


For almost all of the first part of my life, up to my early 40s, I resisted anything the smacked remotely of self-help or personal development.   I suspect this had to do with the possibility of discovering weaknesses (couldn’t afford to do that!) or maybe infringing on my idea of orthodoxy.

I won’t go into the various ways this changed, but it’s safe to say it started with a 12-step group (I didn’t know what those were for a long time, either) and has since turned into a happy pursuit of learning about living.  We live in a time when we have access to many good thoughts.

I would be the first to tell you, though, that there is no silver bullet for what ails you.  As one of my favorite writers, James Hollis, says, there are no self-help gurus who can rescue you.

Still, there seem to be some commonalities or what I would determine to be clear truths which I’ve come to regard as wisdom:

  • Sleep is important to good health and a good state of mind.
  • It’s bad policy to assume you know the motives for others actions.
  • Unless you’re playing racquetball, it isn’t good to be reactive.
  • It takes more energy to maintain an enemy than to maintain a friendship.
  • Our appreciation for nature is strongly tied to our appreciation for life in general.
  • There are no bad days, just bad moments.
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously.
  • Once we’ve reached adulthood, we are almost entirely responsible for our own happiness.
  • Don’t hold post-mortems over mistakes you’ve made and brood on what you might have done differently.

These are just of few things I try to keep in mind.  I’m thankful for friends who demonstrate many of these principles to me regularly.

I’d love to hear your wisdom!


How do you spend your precious life?

My task here is to convince you of the great value of your life.  Because I think your time is precious, I will try to be brief.

I visited my soon-to-be 26-year-old daughter last week in her home in Austin, TX.  We did many things but the time I liked best was when we camped at a coffee house for an hour or two and then went next door to a vinyl record store.  It reminded so much of the “special time”, as we called it, we shared each week when she was a little girl.  I didn’t realize at the time how important that time would look in the rear-view mirror.  I’ll go so far as to say that whatever destiny I might have fulfilled to this point in my life, that time was a significant part of it — shaping her life, shaping mine.

Treat your life as the incredibly limited resource it is.  Please think twice, make that three times, before you give a significant part of your life over to television.  I try not to be too preachy but I’m not shy about this point.

This morning my mind was concerned with many Monday  tasks and I was ready to make a “To Do” list and then attack it.  While grabbing a snack from our break room, though, I peered out a big window and saw a light coating of snow, fresh from the early morning.  I saw tall evergreen trees, and two birds happily trying out perches on a building that had no doubt been lovingly designed by an architect 20 years ago.  I realized that this scene had rescued me from the brink of a little functional insanity, and I thanked God for this intervention.

When I think about the best moments of my childhood, almost all of them involved doing things that seem pretty mundane by today’s standards:  Circling the airports (that appear as airplanes) on a state map; Walking to get doughnuts, cutting through the graveyard on the way; Taking the money we earned by mowing lawns to the curb market to buy penny candy.  What they had in common was that we were in the moment, single-tasking.  We hadn’t even heard of Zen but we were monks in our own way.

When you go through today, give yourself fully to another.  Laugh.  Take a recess period like you did when you were in elementary school.  Read something really difficult that takes all your concentration.  Call one of your in-laws.  Go outside at night and look up at the stars.  And whatever you do, do it with you whole heart.


Pity the poor extravert

Maybe it’s selective perception, but it seems like I’ve seen many references lately celebrating the introvert.  I get the feeling that perhaps introverts are tired of being misunderstood as shy or socially awkward, neither of which is necessarily true.  Indeed, introverts are often successful in jobs that we normally associate with those who are more externally focused.

I guess we should define our terms, though there isn’t necessarily a consensus about this.   Since I’m not beholden to psychology (or even facts for that matter), I’ll echo the popular understanding that introverts find energy through time spent alone while extraverts become energized in spending time with others.  Neither of these characteristics is mutually-exclusive, however, and most people view  introversion/extroversion as a continuum.  Some might only label the extreme ends of this continuum as introverts and extraverts.

I can certainly appreciate both types of people.  I love my introverted friends for their thoughtfulness and reflection.  My wife is an introvert who is loved by many for frequent laughter and ability to make others comfortable.  (Myers-Briggs geeks will appreciate that I feel perfectly complimented, as a ENFJ, by my ISFP wife, which perhaps accounts for our 30 loving years together.)  Still, I will sometimes leave the house early with my wife quietly in a chair enjoying a book or doing correspondence and she’ll Lonely Batmanstill be there when I return hours later.  For me, this would be a punishment.

This leads me to conclude that some may not realize that life is sometimes challenging for extraverts like me.  Let’s talk about the practical implications.  I believe strongly in learning from books, both in academics and in professional competence.  Reading is fundamental but reading is not a team activity.  Much of my life, I’ve felt a tension between trying to get through the reading material I need to devour and my preference to talk with others.  When I was in school, I often accomplished what was needed by studying with my friends.  For me, nothing was more enjoyable than being at the library with someone else, satisfying the desire for achievement and avoiding solitude at the same time.  Similarly, I’ve been handicapped in my efforts to learn the piano because all that practice isn’t a social activity!

This reminds me of the plot of a Batman comic that I read long ago and still think about often.  (Stay with me here, I’m making a point.)  Batman, who is likely not an extravert but still gets lonely, called his friend Aquaman over to the Batcave to help him with what was an impossible project.  After an evening in which Batman prolongs the process with a number of extraneous tasks, his perceptive friend says to him,  “Bruce, listen, next time just ask me to pick up some beer and videos on my way over, okay?”

I love the work I do but I am admittedly somewhat miscast in the field of information technology, where I cannot do my job well without much solitary concentration.  I can feel my spirits lifted when I have a reason to leave my desk and consult with others.  On the too-rare occasions when I get to do some public speaking, I get totally pumped up!

The next time I come to your door to borrow some milk or if I ask you a broad question, seeking your opinion, please know that you are imparting some of your energy to me.  Don’t worry — I won’t take more than my share!


Strength in numbers

When I was visiting my daughter, who is almost 26, last weekend, she told me about a new activity amongst her and her friends, which she called “Skills Night”.  The idea is that each person wrote down three skills that she could offer to teach, and three skills that she would like to learn.  The moderator took the results of the little census and put together a schedule where these young women would help each other grow.  I was impressed with what an industrious and fun idea this was.

People who are intentional about growing aren’t rare, but there are far fewer than there should be.  To strive to be a better person is a noble pursuit, at least as important as pursuing a formal education.  Carl Jung said, “We all walk around in shoes too small for us.”   I think this is by choice.  We know that we can be more but we settle.  Our society doesn’t encourage us.  The advertisements that come our way encourage us to relax.  Take it easy.  Enjoy convenience and comfort.

For these reasons, we sometimes need the strength that comes with accountability to others.  We need encouragement, a kick in the proverbial pants, and the wisdom that is collected when those from different families and backgrounds are together.

Last year I participated in a series of meetings in which we studied various self-development topics like emotional intelligence, gratitude, and stronger living in general.  We called it the 1% club, a few months before “1%” became synonymous with that which is the stuff of the occupy movement.  In our case, 1% was derived from a book by Tommy Newberry and meant this:  If you can see yourself as being even 1% of who you want to be, then you have hope to become more.

One from our group started a business that she’s been intending to do for a long time.  Another retired and is pursuing with vigor the next chapter in her life.  Another has nourished an idea for a non-profit that has been a glimmer for quite some time.

Whatever you choose to call your gathering, such groups are far from new.  The concept of Mastermind groups was popularized by Napoleon Hill in the first half of the past century.  In a sense, many civic organizations for men and women were intended to foster becoming good citizens and better people.

All that is history.  The point is just to encourage you.  If you want to be with those who want to make the most of this too-brief life,  invite others to join you.  Sure, it may seem a little embarrassing if you’re a little shy, but your friend or associate will be flattered that you want them to join you.  There is no shortage of books to study or topics to discuss.  You can start a meet-up group if you want.

What is difficult to convey, though, is the sense of connectedness you can experience by working with others who are looking to move beyond where they are now.  There is something about the vulnerability the comes with sharing your goals with others who are supportive, with being fully-present voluntarily for friends and associates who want to ask more of themselves.

Draw strength from your family and friends and they will draw strength from you.

When winning isn’t the goal

What if you could negotiate on your behalf or on behalf of others without compromising that which you think you deserve and being a decent person?  What if you could separate a problem facing you from the person you think is the problem?  And what if you could invent options that will benefit both you and the person with whom you’re negotiating?

Over these past holidays I read a book that I’ve been meaning to read for a long time, “Getting to Yes” by Roger Fisher and William Ury.  This is considered somewhat of a classic, and it is for good reason.  To summarize the content here would be a challenge, and it is a challenge to leave anything out.  Instead, let me focus on one aspect, that of separating the people from the problem, which is essential to coming to agreeable terms without letting a relationship suffer.

To separate the problem and the person, you need to be concerned with three things:  Perception, Emotion, Communication.

When it comes to perception, you should constantly challenge yourself to see things from the other’s point-of-view.  You can’t really read his or her mind so why tell yourself that you know their intentions; in fact, many times you base your ideas about their intentions from your own fears.  If I’m afraid that someone will take advantage of me, I’m much more likely to interpret his actions as being movitvated to do so.  In fact, we sometimes blame the other person that the very problem exists instead of proceeding with the understanding that it is your mutual problem.  One way to combat perception problems is to look for opportunities to act contrary to their perceptions.  If the other person is afraid you are withholding information, then offer to answer any question, to open the books for him or her.

Emotions can also run high and be an enemy when thorny negotiations are in progress.  To prevent emotions from taking over, you need to exercise your best emotional intelligence:  recognize the emotions that are present, theirs and yours, and be prepared to make them explicit by acknowledging them.  If you sense when you are being defensive, you’ll be much less likely to let defensiveness cause you to react instead of to act.  You can also be charitable here.  If the other person does react with some emotion, be willing to let it pass and not hold it against them.  Remember, the goal is a successful negotiation, and some forebearance may be what is needed.

Finally, communication is essential.  You may be tempted to slam shut a notebook and walk out but that will only make you feel good for a short time.  Instead, listen actively and acknowledge what is being said, speak clearly and directly, and speak about yourself (“I”) and not about them (“You”).  If each word you speak contributes to the purpose of the negotiation, you’ll indeed make progress.

The biggest takeway I had from “Getting to Yes” is that we’re to focus on interests and not positions.  If I’m negotiating a price on a house and I say, “I won’t pay a penny more than $200,000”, I may have missed an opportunity for creative thinking that would benefit both of us.

The authors relate an anecdote that occurred in England in 1964 when the Frisbee was just becoming known.  After two Americans had finished a session of throwing the disc, someone asked “Who won?”  Just as the question of winning isn’t appropriate for Frisbee throwing, “Who’s winning?” isn’t the right question for a negotiation.  Winning might best be described as both parties walking away feeling good about the outcome and good about themselves as human beings.


Avoiding grievances

Some suggestions for “How to avoid grievances” by John Wooden

1. Get all the facts. What went wrong — not who is to blame.

2. Stay calm. Find the solution together. Do not permit emotions to take over.

3. Criticize in private.

4. Commend before and perhaps after you criticize. Help save face.

5. Keep your criticism constructive. Criticize to correct, help, improve, prevent — not to punish.

6. Treat all people with dignity and respect.

My brief life as a vagabond

There was a  time in my early 20s when I found myself to be homeless. My father had died and I hadn’t much wanted to go home before that anyway, as he was in the last throes of his life of alcoholism. When the college dormitory was open, it was entirely sufficient but between semesters or in the summer when I wasn’t enrolled, I had to find a place to lay my head.

Now, don’t for a minute think I was even close to the destitution in which so many find themselves.  I was in the midst of pursuing a college degree, and if things had gotten too bad, I could have put aside my pride and asked for help.  As it was, it was just a tight spot for about a year.

Still, I learned much from the experience.  Like the importance of knowing which public restrooms were open 24 hours.  Like knowing that a spacious, gas-guzzling car can function as an R.V. when needed.  And like knowing that even a nice loaner apartment doesn’t work well if the electricity isn’t on.

My best friend during this time was the library where I was working.  At night, I would steal away to a dark room where excess stock was stored.  The A.M. radio reception was poor but kept me company.  In the morning, I would sneak past the cleaning crew, always a dicey proposition.  During the day, I would stash my suitcase in nondescript bushes, usually staying with a “hide in plain sight” strategy.

I was understandably embarrassed about all this.  Now, though, I see that it was pretty plucky, if I say so myself, and I know it was necessary to get through those last three semesters of school.

I have fantasies sometimes of providing a home for someone who is coming up short, and I believe I’ll be able to do such a thing one day.  My brief homeless life is one of those important threads that make up the tapestry of life, that help make us who we are.


How do you approach important conversations?

Do you sometimes send an e-mail to avoid a difficult conversation? Have you left voicemail as a hit-and-run technique? Have you made yourself scarce from someone’s presence so that you could stay safely away from a topic of conversation?

I recently came across the book Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Kerry Patterson et al. This is not a new book; it’s one of those that I wish I had read in my 20s, and I can’t recommend it highly enough for leaders (and everyone for that matter).

Just the other day I was speaking with a friend who has many years in human resources and is pursuing a PhD in sociology along those lines now. I asked him about leadership books and he said the problem with most of them is that the assertions they make are not in context, and context could make all the difference. The one book he did recommend, though, was “Crucial Conversations”.

If the point of a conversation is to win, to make the other feel bad, or to stay safe at all costs, then it’s probably one you’ll regret. This book provides strategies to understand how you can add to the “pool of meaning”, as the authors have labelled real, helpful dialogue. Much of the process requires the same self-awareness that is essential for any effective give-and-take. I suppose what I found most helpful were the examples, and I could see mistakes I’ve made many times in the past.

I’d encourage you to read this before your next difficult talk.

A crisis of confidence

It was mid-afternoon on a Friday when my colleague and I were troubleshooting a problem with some of his code. He seemed a little down, but In my role as a systems administrator, I was happy to help any way I could. While we were waiting for something to finish running, I was making small talk and asked what he was doing that weekend. He said that he and his wife would be celebrating their anniversary, “but I will probably mess that up too.”

My heart sunk. It was clear that he was in a bad place as far as his confidence for his work was concerned. We’ve probably all had our low moments, and it’s certainly not the place of a co-worker to play amateur psychologist. Still, no one of us can do our best work when our confidence is flagging. We cannot afford to waste anyone, and when someone has let their work affect their self-esteem (or vice-versa), we shouldn’t be reluctant to come along side that person with an encouraging word.

Most people have colleagues to whom they look to for inspiration. This may or may not be someone in a direct managerial line, but, we instinctively know when someone needs a pat on the back or kind word (or a figurative kick in the pants for that matter). I can’t tell you the number of times in my career that I’ve lifted my chin a little higher and quickened my step when someone, a peer or manager, has encouraged me.

Lest you think I’m referring to some artificial or contrived sentiment, let me make it clear: pretty much everyone is hired because of some talent they’ve evidenced. Sometimes, folks just need to be reminded about that talent. Take some time periodically to think about someone who might benefit from an encouraging word.