A path to success: service to others

There was a time that my paradigm for success in business was to work hard and become as smart as you could and then you would be successful. One of the key things I’ve come to believe in the last ten years, however, is that we will be successful in proportion to our ability to serve the needs of others. For some, that will mean performing a service, perhaps a valuable service, and that’s as far as it goes. If you can do this, however, while making the person feel welcome and honored as an individual, you will find that you will be appreciated with more than just money. This isn’t necessarily for everyone. If your ego demands that you have the trappings of power (and I use the word ‘trappings’ deliberately), or if you don’t enjoy working with people, then it may be that service to others isn’t your calling. That is fine, because it takes so many kinds of people to make a society.

If, however, you find that there’s a harmony between your need to earn a living and your desire to be helpful to others, you can take to heart these words from Dale Carnegie in his book “How to Win Friends and Influence People”:

“The world is full of people who are grabbing and self-seeking, so the rare individual who unselfishly tries to serve others has an enormous advantage. He has little competition. Owen D. Young, a noted lawyer and one of America’s great business leaders once said, “People who can put themselves in the place of other people, who can understand the workings of their minds need never worry about what the future has in store for them.” If you get just one thing out of this book, an increased tendency to think always in terms of other people’s point of view and see things from their angle, if you get just that one thing, it may easily prove to be one of the building blocks of your career. Looking at the other person’s point of view and arousing in him an eager want for something is not to be construed as manipulating that person so he will only do something that is for your benefit and his detriment. Each party should gain from the negotiation.”

The business world is littered with smart under-achievers. Those who can wring everything out of their ability to serve others not only will always make a good living, but will engender great appreciation along the way.

The next level

One time I read a book, a best-seller in the self-help genre, in which despite many good ideas being dispensed, the author seemed to have an awfully short fuse with his children. It turned me off to the point where I almost didn’t finish the book.

I expect abstract truths to result in contentment and practical wisdom. I expect the understanding of platitudes to make for a better life. And when I hear a sermon, I expect myself to be a better person for what I’ve learned.

In that regard, I’ve decided it’s time to level up.  The difficult experiences we’ve had in life need to count for something, and we have all had plenty from which to learn. Recently, I reflected on some of the more harrowing moments of my life.

  • The time I was eight years old and was put on a bus from North Carolina to Georgia. This included a stop in Charlotte where I couldn’t find my ticket and tearfully thought that would mean I’d forever be stranded.
  • A night in a seedy motel in which my mother passed out from a handful of barbiturates while my brother and I tried to occupy ourselves for more than a day.
  • Many times when my father’s voice and fists came violently thundering down on the people who I depended on for my welfare.

I’ve long since come to understand these situations for what they were. I appreciate the perspective they have given me, the ability to empathize with others, and the inoculation from any temptation to similar chemical excess. In the last 15 years, I’ve also learned there’s a difference between survival and truly living.

It’s time, though, to ascend to the next level. If we don’t fully learn from our past, we do dishonor to the Providence who trusted us to be big enough and wise enough to derive all we could from our circumstances.

How might that look? It would look like worrying less about how I might appear and more about what I do. It would mean becoming more stingy about giving time to the negativity and trivial matters which so occupy our world. (I’m reminded of what C.S. Lewis said: “Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that he is ‘finding his place in it’, while really it is finding its place in him.”) It would mean being there for others even if it requires sacrifice of comfort and money.

The reward for this conscious effort to level up is the integrity of matching what I believe to how I live. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not talking about a repentance from a prodigal life. I’m already pretty straight-laced by most standards. But we should raise a red flag on ourselves if we begin to get satisfied with our current state.

I want to take more time each day for being grateful; to be a better listener; to give a smile and maybe a hug to someone who could use it; to offer help to a young person who could use someone to review his or her resume and offer suggestions; to let my co-workers know how much I appreciate them; to tell my children I love them.

This business of becoming your best self is delicate. Push too hard and you miss out on the beauty of grace. Enjoy too much comfort and you fall short. Only you know when you have the capacity to be better, to have your words and deeds and thoughts match. The good news is that the opportunity is never lost, always coming around again. For me, that is now.




When Frank Fischer found his audience

Frank Fischer

This is a story about how what might have been is sometimes less sweet than what was. It’s also about how lives can intersect in a beautiful way.

My daughter’s father-in-law, Frank Fischer, was a young man of about 30 working on a turkey farm near Riverside, California in the early 1970s. He would sometimes write songs. About this time, he wrote “Gospel Plow”, a prayer that the soil of one’s life might be turned over to produce a better harvest. A few years after he wrote it, he realized that the song would be perfect for Johnny Cash. Cash, who grew up on a farm, never wavered in his deep, abiding faith despite a fierce battle with addictions for most of his life.

By the late 1970s, Frank had moved to Yakima, WA. He met a fellow who managed the stage at the State Fair, where Johnny Cash would be playing. “I can get you backstage to give him your song,” the man told Frank.

WhenFrank arrived to the stage, someone told him, “Well, usually the performers hang around, but Johnny and June (Carter Cash) went back to the hotel earlier….But I know where they are staying!”

Frank went to the hotel and camped out in the lobby. After a while, an employee asked why he was there and, hearing the reason, told him that the Cashes had already left. Frank suspected this wasn’t the truth. A young desk clerk kindly confirmed on the sly that indeed they were still there.

Later, the young man told him they had probably gone to bed, but that he should come back early. Frank arrived about 5:00 A.M. the next morning and when he saw a black limo pull up out back, he thought something might be happening. The young desk clerk came to him and said, “Listen, he’ll be out soon. Stand right here and he’ll come right by you.”

He heard a door open, and June came down the hall. When she saw him, she smiled and said, “I know why you’re here.” Frank nervously told her about the song and she said,“I’m sure he would like to hear it.”

A few minutes later, Johnny came down the hall, wearing blue jeans and black patent leather shoes. Frank asked if he could play “Gospel Plow”. “Sure” came the deep baritone response.

Though Frank doesn’t have a natural vibrato in his voice, his nerves caused his voice to waver as he sang the song. Frank, without a shoulder strap for his guitar, dropped to his knee to play the song. He fixed his eyes on Cash’s shoes, but could tell there was a crowd gathering.

When he finished, Johnny said, “That’s just what I needed to hear on a Sunday morning.” Frank had written down the lyrics and music and offered them to Johnny. Johnny said, “I don’t read music. Tell you what, just go to your kitchen and record it the best you can on a boombox.” He asked June to give Frank their address and instructed that the package be marked, “As requested by Johnny Cash”. Frank still has the hand-written address.

Frank’s intention was to do a good job of recording the song despite Cash having told him a kitchen recording would be fine. Months and then years went by and Frank never got around to sending the song.

When he tells the story today, Frank says not sending the song was a mistake. We, his audience in 2016, wipe away tears after hearing “Gospel Plow” and tell him what Johnny had to say about his song is enough.

“Effort is between you and you”

rainrun_lgA few months ago, a group of us were preparing for half- and full-marathons, when our schedule was somewhat disrupted by bad weather. In addition, there were the normal conflicts of life, which make devoting hours to training runs of more than 10 miles difficult. As we gathered together and were checking-in, one woman, a mother of three with a demanding job quietly reported, “I had to do my 20-mile run on the treadmill because of my schedule.” The rest of us were a little stunned in disbelief. This was followed immediately by a bit of humility as we realized that the amount fortitude required to spend three hours by yourself on a treadmill to do a training run pretty much dwarfed our minor training issues.

We are all born with certain physical and intellectual qualities, and then given parents and an upbringing which presents us with a gift or a challenge. One thing that is entirely under our control, however, is effort.  A few years ago, I came upon a pre-game pep talk given by Ray Lewis to the Stanford University basketball team. Leaving aside grammatical and extraneous issues, it made my heart beat faster and I was ready to run through the proverbial brick wall for a noble cause. My daughter, realizing the effect of this talk on me, transcribed it and gave it to me for a gift. Here is an excerpt:

Effort is between you and you, and nobody else. So that team that thinks it’s ready to see you, they think what they’ve seen on film, they ain’t saw what film shows, because every day is a new day. Every moment is a new moment. So now you’ve got to go out and show them that I’m a different creature now than I was five minutes ago, ’cause I’m pissed off for greatness. Cause if you ain’t pissed off for greatness, that just means you’re okay with being mediocre, and ain’t no man in here okay with just basic.

Several days a week, I do a workout with some pretty amazing instructors. It is short and intense and relatively expensive. Sometimes these instructors will say, “This is your workout, don’t cheat yourself.” Here’s the thing, though: only I know if I’m cheating myself. The difference between all-out effort and almost doing my best may be a fairly imperceptible 1/4″ depth. When I walk out, the degree to which I am satisfied is entirely dependent on the effort I’ve given.

More than 30 years ago, I was associated with a graduate program which was fairly competitive in its selection of students. One woman was a particular curiosity, in that she came with the highest of recommendations but truly atrocious standardized test scores. She made no excuses for these tests; she just admitted that was not a good test-taker. Nevertheless, after much consideration, she was admitted to the program and ended up winning its highest academic and character award. She proved that effort matters to a huge degree.

One of my favorite quotes of all-time comes from Jerry Rice: “Today I’ll do what others won’t so tomorrow I will do what others can’t.” I mentioned this quote to a couple of teenagers who come to our gym at 5:30 A.M., when most of their peers are still asleep. They had told me that they come early because they have baseball practice and homework after school. This sort of effort inspires me.

Too often we look at business CEOs and sports stars and talk about how “lucky” they are. The truth is, luck is seldom involved. The road to success is littered with those who could have completed the journey had they made the effort.

This picture would not be complete if I didn’t mention the relational aspect of this. Having others who help us put forth our best effort is essential. In my next post, I will talk about the relationships which make us better people, but let me mention this: In every difficult challenge I face, I look to do it with others. Whether it is some technical task at work or the previously-mentioned gym class, having others there creates a synergy of effort beyond which we could produce alone.

In the end, though, you and you alone hold the pen to writing your future, and that pen is labeled “effort”.

Shame, Humility, and Confidence

Unlike most students these days, I only applied to one college. I had known I wanted to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from early adolescence, and I’m thankful I was academically qualified and I was accepted.

When I arrived, I noticed a great uneasiness in me concerning my place on campus. I felt unsophisticated and unpolished. I don’t think these feelings were particularly misplaced — I was unsophisticated and unpolished. I genuinely felt a gnawing most of the time which said to me, “At some point, they will realize you don’t belong here.” I have no doubt that this feeling, however irrational, had more to do with old feelings than with any particular intellectual, emotional, or character deficits. There were some superstar students, sure, but there were also other North Carolinians with much the same public education as me.

If I were to place a word on this feeling, it would have to be shame. I have since learned a bit about the origin of this emotion, and gained some perspective on it. In fact, a TED talk by Brene Brown on this topic has gone viral and been viewed almost four million times, quite a number for a talk which has a transcript 34 pages long! Brown has also written a bestselling book on the topic.

In my case at UNC, I think this reached a summit for me one day when I walked into a men’s clothing store on Franklin Street. (There weren’t as many options back then for students without cars.) I said to the salesman, “I need a new pair of shoes.” He looked down and said, “You sure do.” For whatever reason, I felt this as great disapproval and judgement. It was all I could do to maintain some composure. I looked at the prices, mumbled something, and left with my figurative tail between my legs. This moment, about 36 years ago, obviously left a mark.

I think my sense of shame, both in this clothing store and in general, was not uncommon for someone with my upbringing. I’ll save a discussion of that for another time. And the good news is that I got over it in a big way. I can only claim one event I would describe as supernatural in my life. It happened, still on campus, when I was about 20. I was walking in an area, ironically called The Pit, when from out of nowhere, I felt a flush run through me in my mind, body, and soul. I knew at the minute it wasn’t a normal occurrence, and I also knew at the time I would never feel irrational shame again (and I never have). I suppose if one is only going to have one supernatural experience in life, that wasn’t a bad time or purpose.

Since that time, I must say I have never felt intimidated by or “less than” another individual. Even those who I most respect or admire, I just see as another human being with remarkable qualities.

This is not to say I am not humbled by others. I’m humbled by the unselfishness of my 97-year-old adopted mother. I’m humbled by the willingness to face danger shown by so many first-responders and soldiers. I’m humbled by the willingness I see in some parents to put their children’s needs ahead of their own. I’m humbled by teachers (especially special education teachers), those who overcome disabilities, and caregivers. I could go on.

What does this have to do with your life? Your professional or business life? I want to encourage you in two ways: 1) If you have elevated a friend or someone in your office or even the president of your company above you, raise yourself to that same level; 2) If you think you occupy some place on the ladder of success above others, then lay the ladder on its side and take a horizontal view of the world. Don’t worry: You can still maintain respect for someone without feeling like less of a person. Humans have a remarkable ability to hold more than one thought in mind at the same time.

Consider your relationship to shame, confidence, and humility. Watch the talk mentioned above. You certainly don’t need a supernatural experience to realize you are made of the same stuff as anyone else and need not doubt it. The person who owns your company and the person who checks you out at the grocery store both deserve your respect, because your attitude toward them is more about you than about them.

There are a lot of ways to increase your self-confidence if needed, but don’t be afraid to ask a trusted friend to help you gain perspective.

In a future post, I will address some of the ways I have learned to keep a strong self-image in the face of challenges. Know that everyone has doubts, and doubts do not equate to reality. I am betting that you have a track record which will give you hard evidence of your abilities. Embrace that track record. As Brene Brown says, “You either walk inside your story and own it or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.”

Life after success

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.  (Aristotle)

I’m very goal-oriented and last year was good for achieving goals. I managed to run a couple of 1/2 marathons, make a much-desired job change, and get two certifications.  The last of these things was done on December 30th, just a day before the end of the year. It turns out, though, the calendar rolled around to January 1st. Having reached some goals ultimately did not produce a catharsis with a fanfare and the words “The End” appearing on the screen.

There is nothing like clear, definable goals to bring out the best in us and push us to apply self-discipline in reaching them. Jesse Owens summed it up well: “In order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, & effort.” The mechanism to reach our goals will chisel our character and force us to live according to our priorities.

But what happens when the goal is reached? Where do you go from there? Sure, there are new worlds to conquer, new heights to reach but that may ring somewhat hollow. Instead, you might consider how you can adopt a lifestyle which enriches everything you do, a way of life which makes every day a reward unto itself.

By adopting certain everyday practices, you can build on your achievements. Here are some suggestions for incorporating growth into everyday life:

  • Make your decision once. When I get up in the morning, I don’t decide whether to go to the gym based on how I feel. I long ago decided this is what I would do barring severe illness. If you are wanting to study, or practice some talent, or learn, then decide when and where you’ll do it. Just once.
  • Dream big. You need small successes but you also need to set goals that are difficult to reach. I have a friend who is spending much time preparing for an international piano competition in a couple of years. He says: “First, you have to accept yourself where you are, not where you think you should be. Then, you just have to decide you’re going to put in the time. Not many are willing to do that.”
  • The world is your canvas. Rather than viewing life as something that happens to you, decide how you will make your mark. What impression do you want to leave and what do you want to have contributed when your time on Earth has passed.
  • Use good tools. The technology at our disposal today gives us unprecedented access to information and entertainment. Unfortunately, it also provides huge potential for spinning off into a world of YouTube videos, blogs and microblogs, and meme-filled distractions. (I know this well.) Thus, content aggregators like Feedly can help you focus on the topics aligning with your goals.

There are many ways to hack your life. My primary suggestion is that your life carry out your deeper purpose, and that your life, soul, thoughts, and actions all be in sync. In the end, what you do every day of your life will determine more than one particular success.


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!

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.