Ted Does TEDx

By: On April 24, 2017

Bread Dude hits UW Madison

What would you talk about if you were invited to speak for no more than 18 minutes to 100 bright university students? At 10AM on a Saturday morning? In December? In balmy Madison, Wisconsin?

That was the challenge I faced after exchanging emails with a client’s daughter who was running the TEDx conference at UW Madison last December. Given my first name, I’ve always wanted to do a TED talk. I would even have considered changing my middle name to Xavier so that I could legitimately do a TEDx talk.

Now it was right in front of me and I had to find an angle.

I puzzled for a few weeks, pretty sure that trying to wow students with my insights on strategy or how executive teams work would be a real snoozer for 20-somethings who had wrestled themselves out of bed on a wintry Saturday morning. But I never learned to juggle. I haven’t cracked the code on cancer. I’m nowhere close to figuring out how to get to Mars. I didn’t think I had anything dazzling to say.

Then, while talking with my friend Amy, it hit me. After 25 years in the everyday work world of organizations big and small, what do I know now that I wish someone had told me when I was 21? Or 25? Or maybe even 30? Heck, what do I still have to remind myself about even as my wife reports I have a growing bald spot and my goatee threatens streaks of grey?

The theme of TEDx UW Madison was “Thinking Differently,” so I chose to tackle thinking differently about being happy at work. Just a teeny, tiny topic.

For inspiration, I tapped into the adventure my family and I have been embarked on called Noonday Bread. And my dad’s little-known yet inspiring story. And observations from working with hundreds of senior leaders over the past couple of decades, too many of whom are far too unhappy at work.

Stir all of that together, add the yeast of a creative Prezi, let it ferment for a few months and you get this presentation, called Getting the Math Right: Thinking Differently About the Good Life. I hope it challenges you as much as it does me.

And hats off to the group of students who pulled off TEDx UW Madison with such a high degree of professionalism. It was a pleasure to be part of the experience.

Be Bright.

I Gave Up Criticism for Lent

By: On March 15, 2016

I gave up criticism for Lent.

My Lenten practice in real life

My Lenten practice in real life

This seemed like a good idea at the time. I’ve noticed how I reflexively see and point out flaws in those around me – clients, colleagues, friends. And then there are my kids. And myself. There are so many flaws to point out and fix. It’s a target rich environment.

But I don’t think criticism – at least criticism in the absence of love – creates much value. I wondered what life would be like without it. After a lifetime of diligent practice to the point of perfecting it as an art form, I had given up sarcasm years ago. I realized sarcasm was just contempt masked with humor, and contempt is rarely an attractive quality.  Walking away from sarcasm was no great loss even if I sometimes had to forego a snappy comeback.

So I decided to give up criticism for forty days.

And then the latest phase of the presidential election came along. I wondered if this is really a good time for this particular Lenten practice.  I spent several days suffering criticus interruptus. My running partner asked me what I thought of a particular candidate and I stammered through my thoughts like a truculent witness under cross examination, choosing words like I’d choose steps in a minefield. As a dad, I’m used to having to edit my words. But weeding out criticism when the warning lights of wrongness are blinking like strobe lights at a rock concert – well, that makes you swallow hard and often. I fear getting a kind of criticism indigestion.

And yet, taking on a challenge like this may be a very useful enterprise. I’m coming to see work as a laboratory of the soul. And while I may find my ability to point out flaws endearing, I’m pretty sure those around me at work find it less charming.

A couple of weeks into my Lenten experiment, I noticed something. Avoiding criticism is good, but it’s not the whole picture. Given my long history of seeing and saying faults, avoiding criticism just looks like being quiet a lot. In itself, silence is not bad. You can do a lot worse than not saying unhelpful things.

Of course, the sad truth is that I still see the flaws. I just talk to myself about them instead of saying them out loud. I’m probably not a good enough actor to convince people that I’m not being critical when I think and feel critical thoughts. Those thoughts and feelings ooze out of us in ways we don’t see but are obvious to everyone else.

No, where the lab experiment gets interesting is when you turn your attention from only avoiding criticism and instead actively seek to bring good into the lives of others. The old-fashioned word for this is blessing, to will and to actively work for the good of those around you.

That’s easy enough to do for those I already like – the client who usually agrees with me, the colleague who amazingly laughs at my jokes. It’s harder when dealing with the difficult people in my world – the guy whose default setting to my ideas in a meeting last week was skepticism and (ironically) criticism; the colleague who misses deadlines; the Delta airlines employee who had the gall to stop me (a United flyer with status) from using the express line at their TSA checkpoint; the taxi driver who I couldn’t describe to my wife when I arrived home because doing so would have been non-stop criticism.

Those situations require me to seek the grace to step out of myself. I have to put myself in the shoes of the skeptical client, the tardy colleague, the helpless Delta employee following blind rules, and the hapless cab driver – to imagine what might be their circumstances that could lead to these reactions. Moving from empathy to blessing – well, that requires a level of grace well beyond my natural ability.

And maybe that’s why this is the perfect time for this soul experiment. Maybe putting yourself in a situation where your own resources are simply inadequate is exactly what it’s about.

Noonday Sun

Be bright.

Choose Joy

By: On November 23, 2015
Emptiness or Joy?

Emptiness or Joy?

I don’t know about you, but some days I hate my job. I wake up to a calendar full of meetings – or worse yet, a day with few meetings at all and a deep sense of smallness as I wonder why no one wants to spend time with me. I feel pressure to swing the day’s events in my direction. I look around me and see climbers, people who are going up and up and up. Just seeing them out of the corner of my eye makes me feel a jolt of anxious energy to get going, to not fall behind.

I can’t help but hear all of the voices of our culture shouting insistently that I have to run faster, go farther, be smarter. That standing still is falling behind. That no one else is going to look out for me so I’d better get busy with self-preservation.

So I go to those meetings but I’m preoccupied. I feel impatient when someone in a meeting takes a little too long to get a point across or influences the agenda away from my interests. As soon as topics move away from what I care about, I’m tempted to check my email or plan for  the next meeting. I try again to redirect the conversation toward what I want, things that will make me happy. I categorize people in my day in terms of their ability to influence my personal self-interest. I completely miss or willfully ignore people who don’t directly advance my self-centered agenda.

I think my motives throughout the day are invisible to everyone around me, that I’m a splendid actor fooling everyone into thinking I’m actually a good and noble person.

I come home exhausted and cranky, because no matter how many wins I got, no one wins them all. And I’m not satisfied unless I win them all. I slouch through the evening at home, trying not to engage too deeply with my family and friends. I slink off to bed grumpy, only to start the cycle over the next morning.  Bottom line: I’m empty.

—–

I don’t know about you, but some days I love my job. I wake up to a calendar full of meetings or perhaps a day where there are wide open spaces. I remind myself that good days aren’t about me anyway. That the big questions in life – whether I matter, to whom I matter, whether it will all work out OK – are settled and done with.  And that good days are about living in that reality.

I look at my scheduled appointments and sense a quiet whisper asking me a simple question: “How can you love and serve these people today?” I know it’s a countercultural question in the marketplace where I work, a place where competition and self-preservation rule. I choose it anyway, not because I’m morally superior but because I know it simply works better. I do better work for people and I’m more tuned in. Others react better to my contributions. We all end up happier.

I walk through my day looking for opportunities to be of deep service to those I encounter, whether they know it or not. I make eye contact with people often overlooked by the movers and shakers in our world – the admins and custodians and the security person who signs me in at the front desk. I smile at them and exchange a pleasant word, maybe even a simple act of kindness.

I wave at the cranky people on the highway as they veer past, cutting me off. I try to be sure I’m using more than one finger as I wave. I imagine all of the valid reasons they could be in such a hurry and wish them the best.

In meetings, I try to attend to the other participants. I quiet the voice in my head that wants to control the meeting only for my own gain. Instead I try to see how I can serve the others as well. If my agenda is not truly in their best interest, I release it. If my agenda is truly in their interest, I pursue it – but gently, respectful of their freedom to choose even if they choose a way I see as less advantageous.

I come home tired but full of joy and peace. I have connected with those around me during my day and I enjoy the afterglow of that connection. I can listen to the stories of my family and enjoy them. I have teenage boys, so these stories may be short on details and long on grunts. I smile inwardly since I was there at one time. I have empathy for their plight as not-fully-baked young men. After all, I can be gooey myself sometimes.

Bottom line: I’m full.

—–

Looking at the calendar and external circumstances, these days are virtually identical. But one is marked by the emptiness that comes from following a path of foolishness. We hate that word, but it applies to a life consumed by climbing ladders and chasing self-aggrandizing dreams. The other is marked by joy that comes from following a path of wisdom. We feel skittish about that word, but it applies to a life that is focused on descending ladders and serving others.

Many will think I’m crazy to aspire to live in the second scenario. I don’t blame you. Our world screams at us in ways obvious and subtle that the only way to happiness and wholeness is by getting ours, by taking care of #1, that living the second scenario is a mark of laziness or limp ambition. The problem is that our world is plain wrong. In fact, taking care of #1 is the root of most of our troubles. Nothing could be more ambitious than becoming the kind of person who can live full of service and humility and goodwill toward others without a heroic act of the will. Because it’s who they are on the inside, not a pose they’re striking on the outside.

We’re entering a season where the buzz of consumption is confused with the joy of self-giving. It’s a mistake not limited to one month of the year. We make that mistake all year round, usually in our everyday work.

Choose joy.

Are You Critical Thinkers… or Just Critical?

By: On September 22, 2015

You’ve probably been in a meeting where someone floats an idea that’s imperfect, maybe even half-baby calf
baked. They do it tentatively because they know the thought is emerging like a calf out of the womb, wobbly and likely to crash land onto the floor of the barn. It rests there, helpless, soaked in afterbirth, looking around the room with big brown eyes behind long, innocent eyelashes.

And then someone in the meeting gets up, walks over to that young idea, and smacks it across the face .

We call this critical thinking. We praise it. We hire for it. We promote it into the C-suite. We put it into a group of like-minded leaders and call it a strategy session.

And we wonder why strategy sessions and leadership team meetings often feel sterile, dull, and tense all at the same time.

Maybe it’s because we mix up critical thinking and having a critical spirit. Here’s the difference:

  • That idea might end up in here someday...

    That idea might end up in here someday…

    Critical thinking listens to an idea. It holds the idea up to the light like a gemstone being evaluated by a skilled jeweler. It tests and probes. It tells the truth but with an eye toward discovering potential. When it sees a flaw, its first impulse is to try to polish it, to take what’s good about the idea and improve upon it. It resists the urge to demolish and discard too quickly. Crucially, critical thinking is at least neutral toward the person who brought forth the idea. On good days, it is generous toward that person, perhaps even grateful that they had the courage to bring their idea out into the open. It not only allows the calf to stumble around. It puts its hands under the calf’s shoulders and helps it walk.

  • A critical spirit is different. Rather than focusing on the potential of the idea, it focuses onCynic its flaws, just waiting to pounce on it and destroy it. Worse yet, a critical spirit evaluates the person who brought it forth through the lens of the unfinished idea. Inwardly, a critical spirit says, “I have way too much to do to bother listening to this clown. I never thought she/he was so bright. That half-baked idea just confirmed my suspicions. I can’t wait until they stop yapping so that I can point out the flaws in the idea.” Outwardly, the answer to every question is no. Period. End of story.

Fill the room with critical spirits and you can watch the creative oxygen leave the room. At the very least, no one is really listening. After a little while, no one is really talking either. They’re just waiting for your so-called strategy session to be over so that they can go back to work.

Fill the room with critical thinkers and well, watch out. You can sense the creative energy buzz into the room. There will probably be laughter and curious looks and shy smiles. Confidence will grow in the group’s potential to crack through their collective mental barriers.

If work is a laboratory for the soul, then here’s your next experiment: shift from killing ideas to nurturing them and see what happens.

Noonday SunBe bright.

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