Your mind at work

I was in what was likely the last generation of school children to be paddled by their teachers. I certainly received more than my share of such paddlings, the last of which came in seventh grade. My math teacher, Mr. Melvin, was a former college football player, quite a large man. One day, he was evidently put out with us and he said, “The next one to say a word will need to meet me out in the hall.” We all knew that he wasn’t looking to have a conversation outside the door.

Not two minutes later, I absent-mindedly (note the phrase) made a inquiry of some kind to a neighboring student. Mr. Melvin frowned and said, “Randy, get it out in the hall.” I received my lick from the paddle and came back in dejected. Little did Mr. Melvin know, but he was the first teacher of mindfulness in my life.

I was reminded of this experience when I attended a silent retreat in recent days. At one point, I almost asked the instructor a question — at a silent retreat! Clearly, I have much to learn about being mindful of my actions and my place.

There have been so many changes in how we work and live in the past 20 years, but one that strikes me most is the emergence of mindfulness as something pursued by many average people. There are mindfulness workshops at companies, mindfulness apps on our phone, articles, books, and, most prominently, mindfulness taught at yoga classes.

Occasional lapses aside, I have found that practicing mindfulness at work is transformative. The first time you start to react to some provocation only to catch yourself, it feels like you have grown up a little more. The simple act of noticing your breath can provide just enough of a pause to prevent you from saying or doing something inconsistent with the way you want to behave.

Tony Schwartz writes convincingly “If you feel compelled to do something, don’t.“. Having that sense of urgency, the notion that something must be done or said, is perhaps the most handy indicator you should step back and take inventory of your physical and mental state.

Mindfulness has been described as ““bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis”. Thus, the most obvious professional benefit is to bring your full faculties to any problem or situation. If your company pays you to do your best, we can conclude that your best requires your full attention.

The other motivation for practicing mindfulness at work is stress reduction. Much of our stress comes from worrying about what happened in the past or what might happen in the future. The present moment is seldom the source of stress. As Mark Twain said, “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”

Some of the ways I’ve tried to incorporate mindfulness into my day include:

  • Starting the morning with a period of quiet. Whether you want to meditate or pray or just sit, set the tone for your day by being in tune with yourself and your surroundings.
  • Do one thing at-a-time. It is not easy to be mindful when you are doing one thing. Being fully engaged when you are multi-tasking is not likely.
  • Be present with others. Other people know and appreciate when you are completely there for them. (I was in a one-on-one meeting recently which was scheduled for 30 minutes. I knew it wasn’t going to be good when the other person checked the clock eight minutes after we began.)
  • Don’t fret if you make a mistake. Wouldn’t it be ironic if you struggle with mindfulness because you are thinking back to your failure to be mindful?

Perhaps you are convinced of the productivity benefits of mindfulness but there’s a bigger issue here. By being mindful, you will enjoy your work more. When you walk to another building, you will notice the flowers blooming beside the sidewalk. You will pick up on the fact your co-worker is worried about her daughter and you will connect with her. You will realize your manager is asking for help. In all these things, your life at work will be integrated with the rest of who you are.

A word in time

Sometimes other people in our lives are like beacons, reflecting back to us wisdom based on who we are and where we are in life. Such was the case for me a few years ago when I applied for a job I didn’t get. Toward the end, it was becoming clear that I would not be selected. As the application process wound down, the hiring manager and I had a heartfelt conversation. The manager kindly said, “You need to be doing something else.” This affirmation that I had talents I needed to use was a word in time. In the midst of my disappointment and though I knew this position wasn’t meant to be mine, these words of encouragement provided me with much-needed validation regarding the direction in which I was taking my career. As frightening as it was to leave my comfortable world, this was the correct path. This was the beacon I needed.

Long-held conventional wisdom says that we shouldn’t offer unsolicited advice. While this is true in general, there are also times when others need to hear our observations. When someone is struggling and needs the clear perspective of an outsider. When someone has in earnestness and independence sought to find his or her way. When someone develops a blind spot to what is obvious. When he or she has self-doubt.

An old expression says, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” In the conversation mentioned above, I was beginning to wonder if anyone else saw in me what I saw in myself. Those seven well-chosen words — “You need to be doing something else.” — were sufficient for me in their entirety, as I was open to hear them. Thus is lesson number one: You do not need too much elaboration to help another person, if he or she is ready. By being economical with your words, you make your offering and you’re done. If the other person is open and if it applies, he or she will receive it (if not now, then in time).

Second, you need to know yourself well enough to be sure that this matter isn’t about you. If there is any hint you are making your observations for your own purposes (other than a desire to help someone else), then you should refrain. Our words will not have the same effect when they are meant to manipulate as they do when they intend to encourage.

Of greatest importance, and I may be on shaky ground but it is something I believe, these suggestions we make to others should lead them in a positive direction, and not away from something. This would leave out warnings and admonitions. Our beacons for others might be along the lines of “You have a talent for…”, “You may not know that others look to you as a leader in ….”, or “I would love to see you exercise your skills in …”. Relating these things to another will be like a lighthouse, an indicator of a direction to take.

So much of our self-image forms early in our lives. We might find our way using the personal resources affirmed in us by people long ago, in situations no longer relevant. (When I hear someone say “I’m not good at math.”, I almost always think the estimation is based more on their beliefs than any genetics.) If we are working toward growth, and you probably are if you have read this far, then you have acquired wisdom, skills, and knowledge throughout your life. Others can perhaps see in you what you may not see yourself. And you may, as a lighthouse leads someone to a new shore, change another person’s life by casting a new light for that person to see a new destination.

A haunting memory

In my sophomore year of college in the Spring of 1980, I was taking political science and made acquaintance with a young woman. We were cordial but not close. I knew she was just a bit older than most of us and she was married, so perhaps she felt a bit out of place. I’m sure she appreciated a friendly face.

Late in the semester as I was riding my bike down Franklin Street (the main drag in the college town of Chapel Hill), I saw a bit of commotion up ahead. As I arrived, I quickly surmised that another bike rider had been hit by a car and was lying motionless on the ground. This young woman ran up to me, in tears saying, “I didn’t see him and he came out in front of me.” I lightly hugged her and walked her over to the wall. I listened as she repeated herself. I asked her how I could help. She said her husband was on his way. I was late for what seemed to be important at the time, though I can’t remember now what it concerned.

I told her to remember that it wasn’t her fault and assured her that her husband would be there shortly before riding off.

To this day that interaction haunts me a bit. I would say that I didn’t handle it poorly, but neither did I react as I would have liked. I should have stayed until her husband arrived. I should have not been so quick to tell her that she shouldn’t feel guilty. I don’t believe she was guilty of anything but I wish I had listened more and talked less. More than anything else, I wish I could have been a calming presence.

How can we know how to react when we are witness to life-changing moments? I have had other such moments. None bother me like this one but I’m sure there are other situations I might have handled better.

In thinking this through, I have arrived at three ways I want to be equipped the next time this happens:

Preparation — For anyone in our life, we can pause long enough to know more. What if I had known a little more about this woman? Did she have a particular faith? What was her husband’s name? Was there anything else that might have created a bond which would have enabled me to meet her needs? The point isn’t so much this situation, but rather this: Our lives intersect with others every day. Even a small investment in those relationships might put us in a better position to help if needed.

Invitation — How open are we to others? Do we even notice the clerk at the store? The receptionist in our building? If we have our earbuds on and we avert our eyes to others, are we even available to fulfill the need which exists in the lives of others.

Anticipation — Each day there are small and large crises around us. It is certainly not incumbent on us to solve every problem, but by expecting the unexpected, we open our lives up to something bigger. I catch myself planning everything, where the only place for spontaneity is irritation. If I pull myself away from my schedule, maybe there is something bigger and better than I even knew.

If we want to be available to others, and if we want to be able to pour out our hearts when needed, we need to be available. If our lives have a constant “No Vacancy” sign, we will never have room for others. I can never go back 34 years to that Spring, I cannot plan for the unplanned. What I can do is have a sense of expectancy. When the needy person appears, it should not be a surprise.

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.


‘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.

Life lessons learned on the court

I’m not sure that I was ever happier than when I was on the basketball court near my home, where I spent many hours of my early teenage years. I think back often to what happened, and I realize that much of what I learned applies to every single day I live.

Just as with learning a foreign language, what we glean in our adolescence seems to be firmly fixed in our minds, such that it becomes part of us. These lessons, then, are with me each day:

Better to give than to receive – As is the case on most courts, the winner stayed on while the loser had to sit and yield to whomever was waiting. Thus, there was every reason to do what was needed to win. If that meant you gave the ball to your best player, so be it. Ego would lead to defeat. In my case, I was always happy to pass the ball to Bill Thorne, he with the sweet baby hook that could not be defended. The business analog is obvious: Sacrifice your ego to make sure your business is successful.

Give everyone an opportunity – This is the complement to the previous rule: If you are ahead by a few points, give it to one of the weaker players on your team. It seems fair, it provides him or her with the opportunity to grow, and the results may surprise you.

What goes around comes around – The composition of teams was fluid. Any action you might take against an opponent could come back to haunt you because the opponent might become a teammate in short order. In our business lives, treating everyone with respect is the order of the day, for adversaries often become allies when you least expect it.

Give grace for small errors – If someone was a new player, we’d often look the other way on a traveling violation or a carry of the ball. There would be a time and place to educate that player on the finer points of the game, but criticizing publicly too often was a disincentive, and we really needed every player we could get. Our humanity allows us to make mistakes. Our humanity also allows us to give grace to others.

It’s all about the journey – Even though it’s been four decades since those days on the court, I bet I could give you 50 anecdotes from that time if asked. I’m pretty sure I could not name one final score. Sure, you are there to win (remember, if you don’t win, you have to sit out), but in the final analysis, you’ll remember you how people went about their business. Remember that it’s not just about making a living — it’s about making a life.

These lessons, without exaggeration, taught me more about life than any lecture. I think the joy of teamwork stays with me to this day because it was so integral to my teen years. The most important aspect of those days is this: the relationships formed on that concrete court almost 40 years ago are with me to this day, and will always be. They were formed with love and teamwork and a common goal — and that’s the most important lesson of all.


The Story of My Epiphany

“We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us. ” Marcel Proust

This is the story of rebirth and redemption, how hope can be revived. It is more personal than I would like, but that is part of the telling.

Later this year, I will be celebrating an important 10th anniversary. It was on December 23, 2003 that I reached a turning point in my life. As our company campus was quiet in anticipation of the Christmas holiday, I asked a friend if she wanted to walk across the street to grab some lunch. I hadn’t anticipated we would talk of anything of much importance that day, but I was wrong. The topic of our families came up, one thing leading to another, and it turned out we had in common the fact that we each had a parent who was an alcoholic. (Actually, both my parents struggled with addictions.) She said she had found much wisdom and love in attending Al-Anon meetings. After listening, I told her I’d give it a try, though it would be a month or so before I made good on that promise. She also recommended to me a book, Recovery: A Guide for Adult Children of Alcoholics. In what had to be a providential arrangement, I stopped by Barnes and Noble on the way home and found they had one copy of the small book.

In reading that book over the next couple of days, it became a catalyst for my world to change. I realized that so many of the thoughts I had were not unique to me. I also found the book described many of my feelings and behaviors to the letter. Surely, I thought, anything this accurate has to be important.

I have to believe, though, the book itself was just the beginning, just the start of an avalanche of change. I had spent the previous few years lost in what seemed like a dark room. Though I still maintained a deep faith of sorts, life had ceased to be much fun. My most important role, that of a father to two teenagers, was rapidly coming to an end in many ways, as they were growing more independent.

During those holidays in 2003, as I grew in a spiritual and psychological awakening, I experienced an earthquake in my life. There were many manifestations, some downright humorous. For example, I had the most uncontrollable laughing fit ever during our extended family’s white elephant gift exchange. I’m quite certain they thought I was cracking up. I also developed a rapport with various workers at restaurants and stores, as I found a desire to talk with pretty much anyone who had the time.

There were many changes, large and small:

  • After twenty-five years at a particular church, I stopped attending and found another that nourished my soul. In fact, I had never been to a liturgical church before and somehow wandered in to an Epsicopal church. I was lost with the use of the prayer book, the kneeling, the standing, but it spoke to me, and the practices felt entirely comfortable.
  • I lost about forty pounds as I realized the folly of eating for emotional reasons. (I purposefully gained back about 20 lbs since I had become too thin.)
  • I began a practice of having some silence every day. Before, I wouldn’t let a minute go by without the radio or television. I learned that keeping myself company wasn’t so bad.
  • I discovered contemporary music, especially independent and alternative bands which have since become a staple of my iPod.
  • I took up reading classics, something I’d neglected, and also listening to classical music.
  • I renewed my boyhood love for auto racing.

It wasn’t all roses and sunshine during this time. In fact, this would not have been the same had I not experienced the full range of emotions. There were days when the tears outnumbered the laughs, and my wife had to put up with much uncertainty about her husband.

One other important book during this time, which I read a half-dozen times and marked-up considerably, was Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life by James Hollis. A quote which I’ve thought about often sums up what I found to be true during this time:

“The world is more magical, less predictable, more autonomous, less controllable, more varied, less simple, more infinite, less knowable, more wonderfully troubling than we could have imagined being able to tolerate when we were young.”

Here’s the best part about what happened to me: Right before this epiphany, I really wasn’t sure that life was worth living. I could not have committed suicide, but I had little enthusiasm for what lay ahead. Now, though, as you might have read in my last blog post, I have my goal set on 100 years old. Each day brings a challenge to meet, another friend to make, a race to run, a laugh to be had.

If you find yourself going through the motions, or living with a vague sense on ennui, don’t settle for a life less than you want. If you need an epiphany, believe it will come; it might be as near as your next lunch with a friend.

The lion inside you: Confidence

I had a professor in college who was fond of saying to various students, “I have confidence in you.”  Though he repeated it often, I never tired of hearing it, especially when it was directed my way.  At the end of the semester, we gave him a card which said on the outside, “I have confidence in…” and on the inside was a mirror and under it was the word “You!”

Though I have no psychological training, I have to believe the level of our self-confidence is greatly affected by what one hears when very young.  Having a parent say (either verbally or through action) “I have confidence in you” has to be a big help in growing up to be a confident person.

But I hope you’ll give me literary license to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln to say “Most people are about as self-confident as they make up their mind to be.”  We’ve all seen people who might not leap out to us as particularly attractive and yet they enjoy relationships with very nice looking mates.  Or I think about a friend who had absolutely dreadful G.R.E. scores but suceeded in graduate school because of hard work and a winning personality.

Self-confidence is largely a leap of faith: Can you pull off wearing an outfit that draws the attention of others? Take the leap! What will happen if you introduce yourself to the company director you’ve wanted to meet? Do it and find out. Should you volunteer to take on the huge migration project which strikes fear in the heart of everyone? What’s really to lose?

I can remember standing on the diving board as a kid, afraid to go off. When I think back to that morning, it’s difficult to believe I was scared of such an easy thing. Nevertheless, I made the the lifeguard wait for what seemed like forever for me to summon the courage.

Which brings me here: The opposite of self-confidence isn’t the lack of such. It’s fear.

I was talking with a friend about a colleague who tends to become seemingly overwrought and then focus her anxiety on others. While my friend was irritated with her, I found myself having sympathy; it seemed clear to me this behavior is a result of fear. If we remember fear is behind many unpleasant behaviors, we’ll be more empathetic and therefore better able to help the frightened (and problematic) person and, in turn, help ourselves.

Here, then, are some ways I fight off fear and build self-confidence when I need it:

  • Strike a pose – Research shows pretty clearly we can manipulate ourselves into feeling more confident by assuming a posture consistent with confidence. In fact, just two minutes of such power posing can make a difference!
  • Focus on becoming – Resist the temptation to say to yourself, “I’m just not _____” Instead, consider how you might change to be more like you want. Most excellent athletes can tell you of the results they got when they first tried something and how they improved by working at it.
  • Embrace the single best part of you – A friend once suggested we can usually find one aspect of ourselves that is as good or better than most. Let that part of yourself boost your self-confidence about the rest of you.
  • Mind the company you keep – This is perhaps a no-brainer, but don’t spend time with those who put you down and try to limit you.
  • Be realistic – In his bestselling book “Outliers”, Malcolm Gladwell mentioned the “10,000 hour rule”, in which it is stated that it takes 10,000 hours to master something. This should help you put things in perspective: You can become better at anything if you put in the time.

In addition to the above, I’m not above watching an inspirational speech to get me ready for a difficult task. For you, the task may be to quiesce your fear while taking a leap of faith. Don’t doubt yourself — I have confidence in you!


Nothing to fear: Admitting your mistakes

“As long as the world is turning and spinning, we’re gonna be dizzy and we’re gonna make mistakes.”  Mel Brooks

I received a very unusual note last week, at least unusual in the business world.  The editor of a technical newsletter to which I subscribe, who is also a leader in this particular technical community, said in part the following:

I’ve failed, miserably, and I’m sorry. I’m writing a somewhat lengthy update now, but there are things I really need to get off my chest and shoulders….I’ve dropped the ball and it’s taken a toll on everything I do…I can’t blame anyone or anything beyond myself. I’ve ultimately been responsible for everything that’s happened, including our inability to make a functioning and profitable company. I’ve been responsible for diverting our attention on far too many diverse operations, diluting our efforts, and making everything less focused.

The writer went on to explain specifically what he felt he had done wrong. Upon reading this, I sent him a note telling him how much I admired his humility and courage.  I also told him to not be too hard on himself, and said that he would be much better off in the long run for taking this responsibility.

In a way, this reminded me of a situation I was in about 15 years ago.  A customer of the IT services I provided wrote to explain of a problem.  I acknowledged that this had indeed been an issue.  I told her I would get back to her when it was fixed, but I carelessly asked that she write back if I didn’t respond in a few days.  I received an appropriate note from her that left me chagrined.  “If it is not your job to do what I have asked you to do, please excuse me and tell me whom to contact.  On the other hand, if I have asked you to do something that is your job, please do not ask me to be responsible for reminding you to do it. I should not be responsible for making sure you do not forget.”  Wow.  Even now, I am embarrassed to read how she correctly assessed the situation.

I am glad to say, though, that the incident had a good ending.  I wrote this customer back and said, “You are entirely correct to point out my error and I apologize. I hope to learn something every day and I thank you for helping me to learn this lesson today.”  To this she said, “This is one of the most professional responses I have ever seen.  I hope that I have the dignity to respond in such a manner.  Thank you.”

You see, I know that something good can be salvaged when we are willing to make a heartfelt apology and admit our wrongs.  As Bill Gates said, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”

Why is it so difficult for some to apologize when wrong? Like many things, I believe it comes down to fear. We manage to deceive ourselves into thinking that an admission of wrongdoing will lead others to take advantage of us, perhaps.  In my experience, I’ve found just the opposite.  When we are willing to properly point out our mistakes, it’s almost as if the other party wants to take up for us.

One of the key points in Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People is “If you make a mistake, admit it quickly and emphatically.”  Is there any greater sign of strength than admitting your error?  Our culture is littered with those who made things harder for themselves and others by holding out: Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, Marion Jones, Lance Armstrong, and so many more.

The next time you know you’ve been wrong, admit it quickly, fully, and emphatically.  Remember, an apology doesn’t count if it’s followed by an excuse.  I think you’ll find that in being your own harshest critic, others will come to your defense.


The price of cynicism

“We cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose…Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.“
– Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

I was talking with a friend at the gym the other day when he volunteered, “Randy, my goal is to wake up one day and be a little less cynical than the day before.”  I appreciated his honesty as well as his self-awareness.  Cynicism permeates our culture, and at least my friend is aware of how his life is affected by this disposition.

Cynicism is defined as “An attitude of scornful or jaded negativity, especially a general distrust of the integrity or professed motives of others”.  I don’t know when the United States became so cynical.  I would assume that it must have come after World War II, because I don’t see how we could have met such a huge challenge without a sincere belief that what was being asked of us by our leaders was indeed what was needed to win.  I sometimes listen to old radio programs in which the commercials have an inspiring tone of “we’re all in this together and we can do it”.

In fact, there was a brief time after Sept.11, 2001, when I thought cynicism might have suffered a great blow. It seems during that time we were willing to linger just a little after asking, “How are you doing?”  We had a real interest in being our brother’s keeper, even if just in a small way for a short while.  Alas, after seeing the U.S. Congress sing together on the steps of the Capitol, it was long before they returned to the status quo.

But my purpose isn’t really to rail against society.  I would instead ask you to consider how this environment might affect you.  It’s fully understandable if you’ve become a little jaded.  I think, though, this can take a toll on a life.

Companies spend a great amount of money on leadership events where employees hear inspirational speeches on how a winning attitude can make a difference in the company’s success or how managers can spur direct reports to fulfill their potential.  I’ve often wondered what happens to this material?  Sometimes it seems the words disappear into some ether, never to become manifest in the words and actions of the target audience.

I think what is happening is a mind game where we sometimes seek safety from disappointment by assuming the worst of others.  The problem with this is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.  Selective perception comes into play and we see only what we’re expecting to see.  We dwell in a negative place to avoid feeling negative and, in the process, cut off our nose to spite the face.

Perhaps a belief behind such attitudes is a misunderstanding that those who expect others to treat them fairly are naive and will be taken advantage of.  In truth, limiting our field of imagination to a subset of possibilities actually has the potential to render us less effective.  If I had told you 15 years ago that there would be an online encyclopedia that could be edited by anyone and was generally regarded as accurate, you might not have believed it.

Abandoning cynicism doesn’t mean turning off your brain.  As former president Ronald Reagan said, you can “Trust but verify.” But I think it does mean giving the individual the benefit of a doubt.  Maybe you are suspicious of used car salesmen (or maybe not), but you can deal in a sincere way with any particular used car salesman.  After all, you aren’t going to buy the car because he or she says it is of sound quality — are you?  You will get the car checked out first.  But by not walking into the dealership with a suspicious attitude, you’re doing yourself the favor of enjoying the process, being fully in the moment.  You are giving yourself the opportunity to actually experience what is going on without the filter of some past unpleasantness.

Mark Twain said, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”  Yes, we’ve been deceived.  We’ve had people let us down.  But if we’re not willing to give others the benefit of a doubt, to take people at face value, we risk losing much of the joy of life.