Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Thoughts for Samhain

Have you ever been away with the fairies? It's a Celtic term for daydreaming or, more accurately, for drifting deep into the unconscious mind. On Samhain, the Celtic precursor of Halloween, the worlds of people and faerie came close together, the boundaries blurred, and creatures from both sides crossed edges and got lost. It's a good reminder that the unconscious is not the answer to all our problems: it is wonderfully beautiful and strange and powerful, but it is not always the answer.

Maybe you know someone who has danced at the ball of the fairy queen, someone so wrapped up in the wonders of an inner vision that the rest of the world seems strangely dull and plain. These are people who would rather paint lovely pictures of what could be than take one mundane step towards making a change in their lives. They are the people who believe in world peace - but not in making peace with their neighbours.

Maybe you know someone who has squandered three wishes, or whose riches have turned to dust (as fairy gold always turns to dust in the pockets of mortals). These are the people who have a creative spark so bright it illuminates in a flash, and then goes dark, the one-hit wonders, the has-beens and the never-quite-weres.

Maybe you know someone who has lived a better story - someone who has visited the realms of faerie and brought back, through force of will and force of heart, the one thing that she needed most that was hidden therein. These tend to be stories of women, who go deep and go smart and integrate the two worlds through the power of sustaining love and laughter.

As the evening grows late, and the spirits come knocking, remember that kindness, common sense and a good heart will do more than keep you safe - they'll gain you lasting gifts on a night of tricks and treats.

Monday, October 29, 2007

back to 110%

We are in the process of relaunching our CD, Signs, and I am reminded that Chris does a really nice bit on what happens when we push other people to give more than 100%. He talks about what happens to kids on the sports field when their parents start to yell "try harder." The harder they try, the more they miss. They miss the ball; they miss opportunities; and they miss the intrinsic joy of being fully engaged.

As human beings, we fully engage at some point where our minds and bodies still have some flexibility. We perform at our best when we still have some stretch in us. At 100%, we become uncomfortably aware that we have nothing left. Becoming aware that we have nothing left takes attention away from our actions, and so we drop down below 100%. It's a really useful feedback loop that automatically kicks us back into a place where we have the flexibility we require.

It's not possible to give more than 100%. When we try to push ourselves to give more than we have to give, we over-extend and over-commit and over-exert. None of these produces good results. We push past the barriers that exist not only to keep us safe, but to keep us at optimal levels of stress. We try harder instead of accomplishing more.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Hypnotic language, focus and manipulation

It seems to me that hypnotic language has been largely misunderstood and misrepresented. On the one hand, it's largely dismissed as filler or nonsense; on the other, grandiose claims are made for its usefulness in controlling other people's behaviours. Both factions miss the point: hypnotic language is immensely useful for the same reason that hypnosis is useful. It is chosen precisely because it gives focus to the audience's imagination. The audience (the listener or reader) of hypnotic language is pulled away from outside influence and encouraged to play with his or her own perceptions.

If I were to write this using more hypnotic language patterns, you would begin to slip out of the frames I am setting and into a deeper focus on whatever is now within you, calling for attention in the midst of all the noise you hear from other people. You would begin to drift away, comfortably, not into the world I chose, but precisely into the world of your own making. Ideas might click into place; sensory representations might float into and through your awareness. You would begin to think your thought through my words.

And as your thoughts were released from the noise, your breathing might slow, and depen, and become even more comfortable and the oxygen might flow more freely through your system, and you might begin to noitce that you were letting go of aches or pains or distractions. You might feel your muscles relax as you noticed what you were noticing. Your eyelids might resist following my train of thought, so that you could more easily pursue those thoughts, your thoughts, floating into your awareness now.

But since you need your eyes to read, your eyes will stay open and you will wonder, a little, what it was that was said in that paragraph. And then you will leave this page, and move on, with a clearer sense of what you want to do next. And the thoughts on your mind will be your thoughts. And you will be so engaged with them that you wil hardly be aware that. . .

You were freed to think those thoughts, those thoughts that are so precisely your own. You were freed because you began with focus on sentences that seemed to have no focus of their own. Sentences that rambled, gently. . . so that you could walk with purpose.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

110% (or more)

We want you to give this 110%.

Maybe it's just the math that confuses people. You can have a rate of growth that exceeds 100%, so the people who say such things must reason that you can also grow your efforts by more than 100%. What they want is probably an exponential increase in effort, but relatively few people are comfortable with the mathematics of exponents and even fewer are comfortable with what exponential increase means to human beings. The few stories we tell about exponential growth (one is called The Token Gift) are nightmares of small things that suddenly become overwhelming.

Let's assume that there are only two groups who can hear the sentence "give this 110%": there's the group that can do the math and the group that can't do the math.

The group that can do the math hears the statement and knows that you think they are incapable of doing what you have asked, even if they put forward 100% of their best effort. Depending on the situation, they are now free to give much less than their best (because even their best will not get the job done) or to try wild and crazy solutions (because they know they need something outside their area of competence in order to get the job done).

The group that can't do the math hears only that you want a big effort. This suggests that effort is more important than competence. Even those who want to comply will turn their attention to trying harder instead of performing better.

If they give you 100% effort, they will have nothing left for the automatic processes that keep them alive. They will have nothing left for the automatic processes that keep your business running. They will be finished when the task is finished. Why would you want that?

If you really want to get something done, focus on getting it done. Effort is irrelevant; results matter.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

burnt pizza

At the moment, my house smells of burnt pizza. Turns out the oven was set to broil - not bake - and my hungry teenager has been reduced to eating pizza that is soft on the bottom and crispy on the top. His language was also rather heated when he discovered that setting the temperature and waiting the recommended time had not produced the perfect pizza he was anticipating.

As so often happens, the instructions were not adequate to the context. They assumed that the cook would use the appropriate setting on the oven. The cook assumed the same thing: he didn't check to see that the last person to use the oven had left "bake" as the default. That person assumed that when all the indicator lights were out, the oven had been turned off. These are all reasonable assumptions. They were not all accurate.

I spoke to my business students today about the need to be ethical in writing. They all agreed that writers should be ethical; they were only a little vague about what constituted ethical behaviour. I do not think the problem was that they lacked good behaviour, but they might be lacking a context for ethics. It's possible that they have never looked in the mirror and seen a stranger they didn't like very much looking back at them.

Until the day the oven is set to broil, it doesn't occur to us that the pizza will be crispy on top and soft on the bottom.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Your brain on collaboration

Today I bought a book: I think the title is Your Brain on Music. As is often the case, I bought it online and will not have it in my hands for a few days. It's by a rock musician turned neuroscientist and one of the things it talks about is how many parts of your brain must work together to make music. It claims that music integrates even more mental resources than language does.

That got me thinking. I wonder how much of my brain lights up when I am actively collaborating. My training partner and I often lead trainings together - both of us at the front of the room, co-creating the experience we offer our clients. When we are at our very best, it feels like every part of my mind is fully engaged - tracking information, drawing on memories, creating new thoughts and sometimes, a new way to think. There's lots of traffic on my neural pathways and it's moving fast.

This may account for much of the difficulty we have in tracing where thoughts or practices begin, and who is leading whom at any given moment. We always work together - sometimes while we are working at different tasks in different cities. We have so much experience of thinking together that we continue the process even when we are not physically in the same place. That means that whenever we think about business, more of our brains must be lighting up than would happen if we were working alone.

This does not mean that we always agree or even that we always complement one another. I, for one, am capable of internal disagreement. I am sometimes of two minds about something even before I consider what Chris might think or say. Collaborating does not always mean being in sync or being in agreement.

It does always mean that more parts of my brain are actively engaged. From a neurological standpoint, the argument is generally that more is better. The more parts of our brains fire and wire together, the healthier and more resourceful our brains become. Active collaboration - involving sensory inputs, the centres for reading expression in faces and voices, reason and language and memory - active collaboration means engaging lots of each brain in the task at hand. It means feeling one's mind expanding (not always comfortably) even when exploring a problem that has me (temporarily) stumped.

Sometimes people have asked why we stick together - we live in different cities, have different backgrounds and interests, and often have schedules that do not fit together easily. Often I have said that we complement each other, that we can do different things together than we could separately. That is one kind of truth. Another kind might be that we are simply smarter together than we are apart - not because we share information, but because we use more of each of our brains thinking together than we would if we were working alone.

Monday, October 15, 2007

what is different when you become the seed?

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a young explorer from another planet, a place where things do not grow or do not grow as they do here. You are sent to observe a garden on earth. And you have been trained well, and you are a careful observer. You take good notes, and you base your judgments on solid evidence.

You watch the garden and what you see is the gardener. She appears every day; she works hard. You watch her care for the earth, and then for the plants as they appear. She weeds and fertilizes; she supports and prunes. She shelters young plants from cold and wind, and she waters the plants when rain doesn't come. She creates drainage.

It seems to you that she creates growth. Of all the things in the garden, she is the one who takes action. Without her, you think, nothing would thrive.

And that's what you report.

But because you have come from a different world, that is not the end of the story. Once you have learned all you can by observing the gardener, you are given a new assignment, a new point of view. Now you are not only in the garden; you are in the seed.

You learn with all your senses as you push, with the seed, through the darkness and dirt. You wait patiently for signals that it is time to move, to reach through the darkness, to draw in moisture and nutrients. You expand in particular directions. You are driven by an imperative deeper than words. You do not create growth. You are growth.

You know light and dark and cold and heat and moisture. You know bugs and chemicals. You know the pulse of life that pushes you outward. You do not know the gardener.

What has changed when, your assignment complete, you are called again from the garden?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

I just have to make myself do it

Do you catch yourself saying that you will make yourself do something? I wonder how often that works out for you. When I hear the phrase, I will admit that I do not count on hearing that "something" got done. "Make myself" is often a plan to expend more energy on thinking than on doing.

If you really want to get something done today, tell yourself "I will do something," imagine yourself doing "something" and then imagine yourself after you have done "something." No "making" is required. If you have the ability, do "something." If you are missing a necessary skill or resource, acquire it. And if it's not worth doing, let it go.

You cannot "make" yourself do something - you can only "make yourself" into something.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Why do masters take classes?

In the visual and performing arts, they are called master classes. In sports, they are called training camps. In both, performers who have already reached peaks strive to develop new skills and acquire new knowledge.

Academics is not much different: research grants and publications depend on the interaction of peers to monitor and encourage top performance. The point is not competition: the point is that everyone benefits from scrutiny and process. Top performers learn from one another and from the synergies created by their interactions.

Do you take your results as seriously as top performers in other fields take their results? Is your passion for improving deep and compelling? Are you energized by the thought of achieving something that is just beyond your reach now?

Getting better requires a commitment to working through confusion as you try new things and pay attention in new ways. It requires a guiding hope - something to which you aspire and which provides incentive. And it requires the perspective that comes from a proven process and an external point of view.

If you have hope and commitment, you have the right raw materials. You might be able to transform them working alone. It's more likely that you will transform them when you work with a master - a coach or guide whose process is proven to develop those raw materials.

Friday, October 05, 2007


There is a lot of wisdom in counting our blessings and more wisdom in remembering to be thankful for them.

Many, many motivational movements are built around the idea of focusing on the positive and noticing the things we have already acquired and achieved. Some of them move from noticing the positive to offering something positive to others - either through charities or through acts of random kindness. All of this is good.

To be thankful is more than this, and trickier. Thankfulness means acknowledging that we are not, alone, responsible for our achievemnts. Thankfulness means acknowleding that we are not, alone, responsible for what we have acquired. Someone or something has given us a gift - many gifts. We resist knowing this because knowing it means acknowledging that things could have turned out differently. Someone could have given us different gifts (or no gifts at all).

I remember sitting in a math class in grade eight and realizing that I was lucky that I could do math. It wasn't that I didn't do the work: I did all the work. But I was helping someone who was working harder than I was and she just could not put the pieces together and understand math. I would work hard and do well. She would work hard and do less well. That's what we say people who have talent are "gifted."

What changes in us when we are thankful for the gifts we have been given? Think about someone you love handing you a box. Open the box, and find that it contains something you have wanted for a long, long time - something that you did not believe anyone knew you wanted - something you did not believe you would have. Now look up from the gift, and look into the eyes of the person who has given it to you. What do you feel?

My partner and mentor, Chris, tells a story that his mentor told him. In it, he says that everything comes down to one question: Do you believe the world is a friendly or an unfriendly place?

Whether or not we believe the world is friendly, thankfulness reminds us that there are friendly forces in the world who provide us with what we need when we need it, and who surprise us with the joy and comfort we need always. When we are thankful, we connect with the world that is connecting with us. When we are thankful, we are supported by more than the resources we contain within us.

Look into the eyes of someone who has given you something you value.

Be thankful.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Absolute dollars and relative value

I am enjoying Stumbling On Happiness, a recent book by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert. It's an effort to make sense of how human beings decide what choices to make in order to make themselves happy. As anyone who has stood by a friend through a bad relationship knows, those choices often seem mysterious or even perverse.

In particular, I am enjoying the distinction Gilbert makes between our sense of value and absolute dollars. He gives this example to explain the distinction: you order your favourite beverage and discover that it's price has doubled in just one day. It is likely that you compare the new price to the old price and make the decision that you are not willing to pay twice as much for the same amount of enjoyment (relative value). It would be more logical, Gilbert says, to compare the new price to other things that you could purchase for the same amount of money (absolute dollars) and decide whether or not the purchase is still worthwhile.

Is the argument interesting? Yes. Is it true? I am less sure. Many beliefs can get tangled up in the decision to buy something and not all of them are as clearcut as the experiments that purport to tell us about our decisions. Human beings share the properties of emergent systems: we have qualities that cannot be predicted by looking at simple components.

What happens when we replace absolute dollars with absolute time? We talk about taking time and making time: we cannot really do either. Time is a limited resource and it cannot be replaced. Whatever you do today, you will be giving it time that you can never get back or replace or give to something else. Your time is an absolute.

Or is it? If you rest for ten minutes you have not wasted ten minutes: you have prepared for the intense burst of activity that will take place next and that could not have taken place if you had not rested first. The value of that ten minutes appears to be relative because it is relative. It depends on what happens next.

How will you spend the next hour? Will you spend time as an absolute value, doing something that is worth more than anything else you could do with the same time? Or will you spend time as a relative value, doing something whose value depends on what you did before or on what you will do next?