As we watch another crop of new graduates turn their tassels and "commence", we have to consider our own commencements. What are we doing with what we have learned from living and from the world around us, that informs our life purpose? How have our hearts and minds been changing, but not our actions? How are we each graduating to a new and more authentic level of expressing our unique gifts? As we swim quickly though the rough waters of day to day routines, we ignore the water and the incredible freedom we have to change our strokes and explore new direction. How much are we letting other people's expectations hold us back from what we really want to try and do?
I am a connoisseur of commencement speeches. I have witnessed and studied hundreds of them. Not an expert, but David Foster Wallace's brutal truths from his Kenyon College address still ranks #1 in my book. Just found this video that takes an excerpt of DFW's speech and provides outstanding graphics that help drive home the power of his words.
Please watch, listen, read the entire speech. It will alter your orbit and shift your frame of mind to question your own default settings and certainties.
We are all trying to graduate. Get to the next level. Only a few times will these milestones be accompanied by a diploma. Real life is a more powerful teacher than universities, if we pay attention to what we see and feel. There is no "means to an end". Avoid the age old trap of settling for the less meaningful present to build a fulfilling future. The means is the end. To think of the thing you are doing as the purposeful place to discover your purpose. To embrace where you are and do it with passion. Make now, the focus. Now is the best time to live. We have no choice. This next year, will be the best year and the best chance to become you. "Later" is a brick on the path to the Emerald City.
Congratulations graduates, that includes you!
Do we need a diploma and student debt to wake us up?
Stop, tread water. Look around. Notice how fortunate you are. Be grateful. Consider the shortness of time. There are no guarantees. Listen to your heart. The water is amazing. We are in an ocean of opportunity. Now what?
It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers. —James Thurber
Questions have been at the heart of the most life altering moments for me. Questions that stop you in your tracks and shift the way we see the world. These questions that dared me and scared me.
If you knew the date of your death, how would you live differently?
What is your calling?
What would you say or do, if you knew you were dying? Why wait until then?
How much is enough?
What if you removed all of the expectations of others, who would you be?
Questions that assaulted my complacency and sleep walking. They punched me in the face and I punched back. I now dance with these question today. I don't dismiss them as irrelevant intrusions or unwelcome visitors on my well planned life. They humble me, keep me grounded, and guide me into the unknown.
Life is about asking better questions. And given the time and the context, we need to question everything. No assumption when fully examined holds up. The status quo is unacceptable.
But that means we have to stop the carousel of our "busy" lives to wonder about where we are going? To reflect on whether our actions are aligned with our ambitions. To evaluate the joy we have in our lives. Are we deferring joy?!!!!!!
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Mary Oliver
Each moment you think you figured everything out or what your future holds contains the seeds of your undoing.
Questions take you on a journey. And like so many things the journey is the best part.
I have the great privilege of helping different people wrestle with their personal and professional goals. I set a figurative and literal discussion table with some questions that provoke self expression. I am merely attempting to advance conversations. First, an internal thinking conversation within the individuals I address. And then an external conversation between others. Expressing oneself out loud in front of others provides comfort, commiseration, connections and even community. "I am not alone." "I need help to figure this out." "There are ways to get unstuck." etc. During the last few months I have led groups of undergrads, homeless adults, executives, community leaders, and recently released felons. The human needs override the unique circumstances and experiences they bring to the table. Differences matter, but at the core we struggle with the same things. With the same questions.
What people think of as the moment of discovery is really the discovery of the question. - Jonas Salk
Through hundreds of sessions I have stirred up groups with these questions:
Who am I?
Why am I here?
What do I want?
Where am I going?
What difference will I make?
Of course some hesitate to tell the truth and others gush forth. Again the tension between what we say and what we mean emerges into the harsh light of scrutiny. I do not allow clarifications. Mean what you say and say what you mean! Because we all say things and talk without thinking. We are pretty inarticulate as a species when it comes to who we are and what we want.
Some sample questions that emerged from these conversations:
How many friends would you have if they spoke to you the way you speak to yourself?
If you are the average of the 5 people you hang out with, how are you doing?
If you compared your allocation of time and your priorities, how would it look?
When is the right time to change my life/career?
When do you give up on your dream?
Hard, if not impossible, to answer these questions by oneself. Isolation is the biggest challenge. A horrible recipe of wavering self confidence, relative success (others are better off or being behind expectations), perception of inadequate competence, obligation of previous choices (family, debt, etc) and the absence of time to consider the future.
Some people get caught up in versions of the happiness question. "What will make me happier?"
Todd Kashdan, a psychology professor at George Mason University, reported a few years ago on studies that concluded that people who think being happy is important are more likely to become depressed: “Organizing your life around trying to become happier, making happiness the primary objective of life, gets in the way of actually becoming happy.”
Happiness is a brief state of being, so questions about happiness are only briefly relevant.
Yeah, just asking questions changes our behavior. Again authentic curiosity drives us to connections with sources and people that enlarge our pov and our lives. But then we have to act on the answers we encounter.
That's why I updated the Download SWiVEL doc 2018 with 16 questions for 2018. To help people confront these issues. To write down their responses to help them move forward.
These questions are used in palliative care for older patients and were featured in the wonderful book by Atul Guwande, Being Mortal.
1. What is your understanding of your current health or condition?
2. If your current condition worsens, what are your goals?
3. What are your fears?
4. Are there any tradeoffs you are willing to make or not?
5. What would a good day be like?
We just don't understand what we don't ask. We operate on the fumes of assumptions, habits honed out of weakness and biased ideas that reinforce our status quo. We need to stop the car in a new community of questions and ask for directions. We need to get uncomfortable, break habits, confront assumptions, and listen to new sources. To open up new thoughts and destinations. Where are you going in 2018?
Renew your curiosity and let it propel you forward.
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. Rainier Maria Rilke
So don't dismiss the large and perplexing questions you cannot answer, allow yourself to grow into the answers. Learn to dance with the questions, they will teach you new steps.
Here's to great questions, a better journey and the courage to ask for help.
Thanks for reading. John
PS: Please share the question that keeps you honest about your journey. The question that stops and make you think about where you are going. I will send you my latest publication: Life Interrupted and Inspired by Words.
Yeah I talk too much. I know. The more I talk the more I think people want to hear me. That is my delusion. I tell stories. I try to provide insights. I try to use humor to be disruptive. To make us have a knowing laugh where we laugh at ourselves for a moment. I have been giving speeches for decades--pretty much a once a week or so regimen. This unknown Asian guy has been in front of many audiences :) But one of the great curses of people who speak is the way we get asked to speak. The invitation is an honor. The idea that others may benefit from our words is a giant ego boost, no question. No the curse is how we are asked. "So and so (someone who was in an audience who you do not know) highly recommended you as a speaker. They said you were (insert adjectives). I was wondering if you were available" (a date that is not far off--triggering many un-askable questions like, "Did someone cancel? Why are you such a poor planner?" By some quirk you are free) I ask, "Tell me about this event. Who will attend, what is the theme, goals? What did you do last year?" To me essential questions. But to the scheduler (not talking about an "assistant" here-often someone with a title to impress me) really irritating. He just wants to confirm the jester request.
Shanghai International Arts Festival
But I want to know if I am a fit without sounding like an ungrateful jerk. So the battle with the scheduler continues. He says something like, "We really want someone to inspire everyone and make them feel good. Last year we had someone who was a big downer. So and so thought you were really funny." Yikes! Don't get me wrong I want to make people laugh, I try really hard to make that happen. But I do not ever want my takeaway to be, "He's funny." Maybe he made us think or he shifted our perspective. Another favorite: Can you do one of your "inspiration talks". "Inspiration" is one of those words! It is the Mona Lisa of adjectives! Inspire whom, why?!! Like an unfulfilling snack that masquerades as a feast. Never works. Again, I am really grateful to be asked to speak. Really. But the scheduler is a stubborn combatant. What I love is the puzzle of writing something unique that will neatly fit into the group's needs. It take effort and time. It is a brutally fun task of wrestling with words, phrases, timing and delivery. Part of the art of speaking that I thoroughly enjoy --when it is done :)
The scheduler thinks I have a drawer full of speeches for any occasion, for any event, for any group. (what it must be like for a comedian to be asked to tell a joke or make us laugh) True that we go back to the same mines to get nuggets that work, to engage new audiences. After hundreds of speeches you develop themes of humanity, concepts that create a space for reflection, stories that change the way people feel and possibly move some people to action. Then like a competent cook you try and blend these elements with some new ingredients to whip up the stream of words into a newish recipe that has an edge--hopefully a little kick. The scheduler has little appreciation for what it takes in the kitchen. They just want to know if you can serve up the dish! Being a "nice" speaker. And even a "funny" speaker can be a waste of everyone's time. Rather be a bad speaker with a good message. So I turn down speaking engagements where I am a poor fit. Or when the expectations are crazy. And where they want me to travel so far to be "funny" for a few minutes. But more often than not, the unknown Asian jester shows up to try and delight the audience and yes be a little funny too. The scheduler wants to complete his task--book the jester! And the jester just wants people to appreciate his craft.
When I was 12 I was obsessed with the heart. Heart transplants. Artificial hearts. Michael DeBakeyand Christiaan Barnardwere my heroes. I was going to be a cardiologist. I surrounded myself with heart models and books. The idea of replacing someone's heart was so futuristic and mind boggling. But my less than stellar grades in science and math forced me onto a different career path. Yet my interest in the heart grew--the role of the heart both physically and metaphysically. I have always been drawn to people who are wholehearted in their lives. On the other hand, always wondered why some seem to ignore their hearts entirely. I developed a keen ability to hear people's hearts in their words, see people's hearts in their eyes, and sense people's hearts in their actions.
I was paired up with a woman on the golf course and we got to chatting, that's why I love golf--you meet and get to know people. She started talking about her kids and how she and her husband wanted to help her children find happiness in the material world. "Find themselves amidst the clatter and clutter of societal expectations and the system of consumption." How to help them resist the peer pressures and even parental pressures to become people to enjoy life with less--with less than they have now? A very self-aware woman! And a pretty heavy conversation by hole #7! I rarely talk about the volatile topic of parenting and never with someone I just met. Most parents are talking about what their kids lack or are doing wrong. A focus on more. More education. More discipline. More serious. More like them! This mom wants to help her kids develop their hearts!
The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched -- they must be felt with the heart.- Helen Keller
Later that week, I was invited to meet with a group of scholarship recipients. These were college students, grad students and even alumni. One of the most poignant moments was when a young man asked, "I got my MBA. I work for a prestigious bank. I have a promising career in finance. But increasingly, I feel disconnected with the purpose of our work. It lacks personal meaning for me. When and how do I re-think my career, when I have a very good well-paying job?" His heart was getting through the noise and appearance of "success" and he was listening!
Heart-driven conversations questioning the status quo. Their hearts are spilling out through their lips to a random stranger! Trying to resist the gravitational pull of conventional wisdom.
These conversations are like verbal defibrillators for me! It gets me pumped up to talk to others about their truths. It helps me re-ignite my "plan", my assumptions and jolts my heart and the truths within.
"Recent work in the relatively new field of neurocardiology has firmly established that the heart is a sensory organ and an information encoding and processing center, with an extensive intrinsic nervous system that’s sufficiently sophisticated to qualify as a heart brain. Its circuitry enables it to learn, remember, and make functional decisions independent of the cranial brain. To everyone’s surprise, the findings have demonstrated that the heart’s intrinsic nervous system is a complex, self-organized system." Dr. Dominique Surel
Most of us could benefit from a little open-heart "surgery". Breaking our hearts open to guide our lives. Transplant our fear and doubt with courage. Call it a passion bypass!
As a youngster I wondered how many beats each heart had. Each heart has a finite number of beats. When it will stop no one knows. Expecting to live a specific amount of time, defies the reality around us. Today is the only time we can rely on. As parents, employers, mentors, partners, all we can do is create the conditions where this self-awareness can thrive. Where the heart builds an express lane to where courage resides in the brain.
And "courage" is a heart word. The root of the word courage is cor - the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant "To speak one's mind by telling all one's heart."
A close friend was just offered a new job--a "better job". More prestige, more money, more authority. Logical for her to go for it. No brainer, right? But the brain cannot make all the decisions or we are doomed. She came to me for advice. I listened, trying hard not to judge her and not to "fix" her. I heard her inner conflict. Similar to the teacher who is asked to be an administrator. Or the the salesman to be the VP. I heard her talk about losing her connection to the clients, as an advocate of their needs. It was obvious this was a poor fit. But that's not my call. She texted me and wrote: "They are going to offer me the job, what should I do?" I wrote, "At this point, only your gut and heart know the answer. You have all of the facts. Trust yourself."
Your heart talks to you everyday. Are you listening?
It is so easy to ignore the heart as an irrational and emotional voice of distraction. I have. I did. I still fight the tyranny of expectations. The overlord of optics. They are brutal and relentless bullies.
Takes courage to listen to your own goodness, and act on it. Pablo Casals
Practice open heart "surgery" on yourself :) Let your courage speak through your heart. Listen. Then follow the instructions. Failing to do this risks heart failure.
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. —Annie Dillard
The point here is that we all go through phases and cycles that determine our path, trajectory, and destination. Amidst the chaotic stretches where you feel like we have no control there are other moments of clarity, joy and opportunity. Windows of time that give us the chance to make a change, shift gears, pivot—hopefully focus more on what we really want.
Age 26, according to the unscientific longitudinal Kobara study involving thousands of unsuspecting subjects, starts an 8 year time frame (until 34) where the brain starts to shift to serious things.
It all started some time ago…….
High school is a blur that is dominated by embryonic ideas of self and a confusing cocktail of peer pressure, parental expectations, promises and perfection. Angst over picking a college. The future is filled with questions and excitement.
Who am I?
College can be an awakening unless it was just an extension of high school Average college students change their major 2.5 times. Angst over a major that will connect to a career that cannot be predicted. New questions emerge.
What do I want?
Passion and purpose can be submerged to the realities of student loans and dental benefits.
Caring what others think can distract us from discovering ourselves, our purpose and our joy.
"Psychologists and social scientists have found that there are two kinds of popularity: One type suggests people like us, they trust us, they want to spend time with us, they enjoy their time with us. That kind of popularity is really important — it gives us a benefit in life in so many domains, for decades, whether we experience it in childhood or as adults. The second type of popularity is the one we remember from high school, that refers to our status; it reflects our visibility, our influence, our power — our celebrity, in some ways. There’s research showing that type of popularity — status popularity — does not predict long term positive outcomes. In fact, it leads to despair, addiction, and relationship problems. But most people are still confusing the two types of popularity, and searching for the wrong one." Mitch Prinstein, Popular: The Power of Likability In A Status-Obsessed World.
And we can get focused on, even worship things, things we believe will make us happy and or successful.
“....pretty much anything you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.” David Foster Wallace
Am I where I am supposed to be? Am I having fun?
According to the annual Freshman Survey (20 years ago+), the three top goals of first year students in college, in order of preference, are authority in their field (don't even have a major :), raise a family and being very well off financially. The survey reflects the responses of 1.5 million college students from every state. These results have been relatively consistent for 50 years.
That's why I found it fascinating that they did a follow-up study 10 years later when these former 200,000+ freshman were now 28ish. They were asked the same questions. So what were their top three goals now that they have a degree and a healthy dose of the real world?
Raise a family
Develop a meaningful philosophy of life
Become an expert in their field
Help others in difficulty was 4th and being very well off financially fell to 7th.
Develop a philosophy of life?!
Your heart has been giving you signals for a long time but you have muffled those messages by turning up the volume on your life distraction headsets.
You could have one of several "wake-up calls". The world around you starts to call out your name, you wonder how to become an agent of change. You notice something entering or exiting your heart. A brush with death, yours or someone you love, a subtle or not so subtle connection with life's purpose. You get laid off, not promoted. Then the self-interrogator of life rises again with the blinding light of nerve wracking queries.
Is this all there is? What difference am I going to make? Where is my joy?
Graduate school? Graduate school again?
Marriage or kids or no kids? The initial formation of what I call "regret tumors" starts. Beginning with the abandonment of dreams or promises. Not malignant but ominous tumors.
Seeing the present for the first time instead of letting the next bulldoze the now.
Most of you under-estimate yourself and doubt is your enemy.
A few of you over estimate yourself and arrogance is your enemy.
Both are necessary for success but you need more perspective, humility, grit and resilience.
Start re-booting your life--- a life that interweaves your passions and your goals. Start listening and trusting your heart. This is not easy, but it is rewarding.
What is meaningful to you? What gives you joy?
If you are over the age of 34, it is never too late. Your quest for greater fulfillment and your sense of contributing to something larger than you is growing within you. Time is fleeting.
Regrets age you. Regrets can kill you. Minimize regrets!
If your goal is to make meaning by trying to solve a big problem in innovative ways, you are more likely to make money than if you start with the goal of making money, in which case you will probably not make money or meaning. Guy Kawasaki
The key is engaging others in your quest. In your journey. In your dreams. Getting help to pursue your ideas. Getting advice on what others have already learned and tried. Connect! Don't fall victim to the "do-it-yourself" trap. It never works! Listen to yourself! The you that jumps out of the passenger seat and takes over the steering wheel of your life! Start building a life that gives you joy!
So you are waiting for the right time. The confluence of great opportunity, financial security and a sign from the heavens.....
Lot of discussion about how to meet people and the way you say hello. Yes all of the technique driven first impression stuff matters but where are you networking? All of us need practice at just getting out there more and introducing ourselves, talking less and listening more. Having more concise answers and pithy questions at the ready. But what if your ladder is leaning on the wrong wall, you are fishing in unlucky waters, or you are mingling where there are no movers or shakers.
Here's the deal: Get out of your bubblicious world of contacts that are connected to what you already know. You have to get out of the strong tieinterchange of comfortable social and professional networks and branch out to the weak tieworld of new opportunities. Note: See Granovetter research and my related post.
Sure you can look at the job postings or respond to different parts of your Facebook feed, but you will be caught in your own gravitational orbit of familiarity.
We are all sitting on enormous networks we will never use or ever fully appreciate. Like all abundant resources we need to explore them and share them! It is crazy how much influence and power we are connected to. What if we opened up these contacts to others? Help others connect and then get connected. First rule of networking is always give first--to share.
Want a new job, meet new people? Get connected to the people you know and the people they know. On Linkedin it would be your 2nd and 3rd tier connections. Based on interests you get introduced to these connected worlds to learn about work, associations, hobbies, causes... You have a cup of coffee, join an online forum, attend an event through a weak tie connection. For example, you have a family member who is battling a disease, you want to learn about opera, you'd like to more involved with your identity (ethnic, gender, LBGT etc), you want to learn about self-driving cars. Personal stuff, random stuff that you are interested in. Ideally something you have promised yourself that you would pursue someday. Because fulfilling a little promise to yourself feels good! Or helping someone else connect feels great!
You start asking around who is connected with the Alzheimers Association, the Asian American Lawyers, Uber/Google/Tesla. You look deeper into your Linkedin account for such connections. You ask someone you know to share their contact or connection and be introduced and whamo you are off to the races. You have just traversed the weak tie superhighway to something new that you are interested in. The shared network handshake!
And your real handshake and your eye contact also need to be coordinated. Yes, your resume should be updated too.
But more important you need your list of interests!! What's on your list? Note: When is the last time you SWiVELed? Download SWIVEL_new_2017
So the key to networking is who you are networking with--it's the network, stupid!
Perhaps you will really learn about your interest and pursue more ways to get engaged with this interest and meet others who share this interest. But it is equally as likely that you may will be introduced to a new world of opportunities you never knew existed. Every new person will reveal something new, if you allow it. I did not say something amazing that rocks your world I said "new". We need new perspectives on career, happiness, balance, meaning, and fulfillment. We need all the help we can get. This is where the listening and open mind parts are so vital.
Meeting new people on the common ground of interest is interesting. It is not the bobbing and weaving to gain attention or be clever in the semi-dishonest dance of a cocktail reception. It is the sharing of curiosity and knowledge, and maybe even passion.
And you know when you are asked to talk about something that you care about--you like it. Not a burden or a favor. It is always nice and even fun to meet people with common interests and share.
You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help other people get what they want. Zig Ziglar
This type of networking opens your eyes and if you let it, your heart--to new people and ideas.
I have a personal goal to do this once a week! Not unusual for me to do it twice a week. To have the joy of meeting new people with shared interests through referrals or to agree to make the connections for others. It has become a lifestyle of sharing connections. It is also how I rode the Goodyear Blimp, traveled to Cuba, played golf at St Andrews, got job offers, and moved into our current house--but those are stories for another time.
Evaluate your network start linking to the other worlds you don't know and sharing with new people you will get to know!
We unfortunately seem to be unconsciously biased against those in society who come out on top or the bottom. When we assess the world, we tend to see what we expect to see. We can equate degree of success with degree of talent and reinforce our conclusions of causality by noting the correlation. The worst type of confirmation bias. The " I wish more people worked hard, as I have"--myopic self-deception. In reality there is often little difference in ability/talent between the "successful" and the "unsuccessful". The biggest difference is how randomness impacted the outcomes and opportunities.
In Leonard Mlodinow's insightful book:The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, he asserts how things that appear linear, cause and effect, and intentional, all the way down to the molecular level are random.
Whoa, I can feel I pushed your doubt buttons! Fair enough. But let me explain and allow some randomness to influence your thinking oh reader of great certainty ;)
The random motion of molecules in a fluid can be viewed as a metaphor for our own paths through life, and so it is worthwhile to take a little time to give Einstein’s work a closer look. According to the atomic picture, the fundamental motion of water molecules is chaotic. The molecules fly first this way, then that, moving in a straight line only until deflected by an encounter with one of their sisters. This type of path—in which at various points the direction changes randomly—is often called a drunkard’s walk, for reasons obvious to anyone who has ever enjoyed a few too many martinis (more sober mathematicians and scientists sometimes call it a random walk). If particles that float in a liquid are, as atomic theory predicts, constantly and randomly bombarded by the molecules of the liquid, one might expect them to jiggle this way and that owing to the collisions.
So many things we do are impacted by things we don't do and that sets us on a course--or a walk if you will. Things are always colliding with our direction and ideas and once in a while we see them or pay attention to them. We can take credit for these momentary and intermittent flashes of awareness. Our brains want to simplify the timeline so that we can take or give credit or issue blame.
Your place of birth, your parents, your health, your general DNA allocation was random. Even if you think that there was divine intervention or a pre-conceived destiny, there was a huge component of randomness that derived your 23 chromosomes. And all of the "decisions" you made or were made for you.
What if I didn't accept my mentor's advice that led to a new career? Talked to that stranger who I married and have three kids with? Made that turn, or went to that event, or went on that date, or said yes, instead of no, or wore the red tie, or had Mexican instead of Italian...... Do you really know what would have could have happened? What we pay attention to makes a difference.
For everything you have missed, you have gained something else, and for everything you gain, you lose something else. Ralph WaldoEmerson
What we do know is not everyone is born into the same randomness, contexts for chance, opportunities for choice. There is great inequity in the sets of randomness we inherit. We all know the story of the immigrant who overcomes obstacles to become a billionaire. Or a blind singer who becomes a record breaking star. And if we are not careful we believe that random opportunity is out there for every immigrant or disabled person.
We know the randomness at Exeter is different than at East LA Community College. The different molecules that are bombarding off of you will create different drunkard's walks.
I don't think you can be deliberate about shaping your course forward because you then end up somewhere completely stale and expected.
I think a lot about this relationship between cynicism and hope. And critical thinking without hope is cynicism. But hope without critical thinking is naïveté. Maria Popova
So I try to reside between the two to try to build a bridge, because blaming others and feeling hopeless about changing our course generates a feeling of futility. Then cynicism rises up to provide a false sense of protection while our dreams evaporate. We can restore our hope and energy by moving forward even if we are stumbling and failing along the way.
But on the other hand, believing blindly that everything will work out just fine also produces a kind of resignation because we have no motive to apply ourselves toward making things better. And I think in order to survive, both as individuals and as a civilization, but especially in order to thrive, we need to bridge critical thinking with hope."
What appears random or "lucky" was usually right in front of you. You know when you think of something and then it appears everywhere--not talking about Google's algorithms :) Or the so-called Law of Attraction. But it is true when you think and discuss your needs your bucket list, your dream job, yes things "appear"
And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it. Paolo Coelho
So two huge lessons I have learned. Help those with fewer choices and chances see the periphery, see the molecules around them, help them to allow life to happen and divert them from their unsatisfying pursuit of happiness.
Listen to your heart. Open your eyes. Let the paths that are there surround you and reveal themselves.
And for those with fewer chances and choices, those who are more bombarded by the molecules lower on Maslow's, help them have a better chance to see the molecules that are foreign and strange. Guide them to a space where they can see themselves. Where there is sufficiency of opportunity. Not a crutch but a helping hand to give them perspective.
Why? Because we need all of the talent we have to blossom. We desperately need more people to find what they want and to be less oppressed by what others expect.
Randomness enables us to express things we did not know we had or wanted. Randomness awakens the genius in each of us. Randomness is the way of nature.
Not ignoring reality and responsibility, but being more aware of what interests us, taking chances, and eliminating regrets before they happen.
The future is already here it just isn't evenly distributed. William Gibson
Life just appears before you. Choices, chances. Too often we try to take credit for what is and we forget how we got there. All of the advice, education, mistakes, mentoring, role models, and yes luck, should take a rear seat to our false and unfounded control over our destinies.
Yes being focused helps immensely. Yes being planful is also very useful. But what are you missing while you plan? Is your plan and laser-like attention creating a myopia that ignores amazing opportunities or revelations.
Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. Emerson
Random acts of kindness and progress. Allowing the molecules of randomness push us on our own drunkard's walk and discover new people and places.
Judy Rupp's excerpt from Old maps don't work
It is time for the pilgrim in me to travel in the dark, to learn to read the stars that shine in my soul. I will walk deeper into the dark of my night. I will wait for the stars. trust their guidance. and let their light be enough for me.
Another story about networking and allowing life to happen. Late last year, I spoke to a non-profit group and afterwards a nice Asian American guy named Richard Cheung, told me he liked my speech. He asked if I could speak in Pasadena next year. I said what I always say, "Let's see if I am a fit and if we can work out the schedule." The Mayor of Pasadena Terry Tornek asked me to keynote the 44th annual Mayor's Prayer Breakfast on May 4, 2017--on the national day of prayer. They wanted an ecumenical speaker on the the subject of compassion. I know why me? Not sure why either! Richard is a very generous person and he chairs an amazing organization called Friends In Deed, which helps the most vulnerable people including the homeless. What convinced me was the breakfast was a benefit for Friends In Deed. And I was transported into another world.....Anyway here are my remarks I prepared and delivered to the 600+ assembled.
I’d like to thank Richard Cheung and Friends In Deed for the extraordinary work they do, and thanks to Mayor Tornek for the invitation to be here, for your leadership, and vision for a better Pasadena. And thank you—all of you—for coming here today and spending your valuable time to be together; and to express our unity, connection to one another.
I’m here to be a little bit of a catalyst, a little bit of verbal caffeine, a little bit of a wake-up call, about things you already know, things that are already inside of you—things that we need to stir. My job today is just to shift your perspective a little bit, to consider again, how do we build a better community.
Isn’t it nice to just to stop and pause from the speed of life. And take a breath. Let's breathe.
Breathe in the mountain and breathe out flowers.
I think about my family and want them to know how grateful I am for their love and support. Sarah, Jenna, Malia, Bobby. In preparing these remarks, I thought of my grandparents when they came to this country with nothing but dreams of a better life, arrived on boats to work on the railroad and to work on the farms in the San Joaquin valley; to pursue the American Dream. I think about my parents, Rod and Tomi Kobara, who both passed away in the last two years, living very full lives achieving the American Dream. And 75 years ago, this week in northern California, they were rounded up by the government—because of Executive Order 9066 that declared all Japanese residents of the United States to be enemy aliens—and 120,000 other JA citizens were put into concentration camps. They were deprived of all their possessions, rights and opportunities for almost four years. Ironically, they emerged out of that process with a stronger desire to prove that they were Americans, to provide a better opportunity for me and my siblings. I’m inspired by my family every day, and the great sacrifices all our ancestors made for us to be here.
Proud of which the Japanese American community bonded with the American Muslim community, since 911, to prevent such a shameful part of our history from repeating itself. Today, more than ever, we ALL need to be part of this effort.
I think about Young Sook Kim, my mother-in-law, whom I never met, who escaped from North Korea to go to South Korea when she was a teenager yearning for freedom. She started doing the wash and feeding GIs during the Korean War, and ultimately married one of those GIs. She came to the United States and had to learn the language and culture and got her bachelors, masters and her PhD in anthropology and became a college professor—she embodies the American Dream. Her life inspires me. She died at the age of 48. Her legacy was to afford her two children, and her three grandchildren she never met, a better chance.
That’s all any of us are asking for, is a chance. An opportunity. A fair chance, and when that chance exists we have hope, but when that chance doesn’t exist, we lose hope. And when we lose hope, we lose everything.
We’re all losing hope. We are surrounded by an ocean of suffering and it is overwhelming. Each time we say: There’s only so much we can do--We lose hope. And we can think we are just drops in that ocean. We get used to it. The more comfortable we get, we become numb and disconnected from our fellow humans and our sense of humanity. An excerpt from a poem I wrote:
Why do you ask?
Comfort is nice
Good for you, but we need to talk
About what we should do
Now is a good time
Got plenty of that
Got plenty of those
I know what I want
But do I want what I know?
Why are we here?
Where are we going?
What difference can we make?
Endless unanswered questions
Does it matter?
Aren’t we comfortable?
But, we need to talk!
That's what we’re doing
So how do we comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable? How do we reinvigorate our sense of compassion? Because sympathy is arrogant, and empathy is always insufficient. How do we reinvigorate our compassion? For compassion comes from the root, passio or pati, which means “to suffer.” How do we suffer with others? That’s what compassion means. How do we suffer together? Mother Teresa says, “If we have no peace, it’s because we have forgotten we belong to one another.” And we have less peace, because we have forgotten a lot. We sit here politely and calmly, while the current state of our world is in crises, our communities are broken, people are suffering, the needs of others are out of control-we can feel helpless and hopeless. Even a generous and kind group like you, begin to think it is impossible to give and do more.
I am fascinated, energized, my optimism is renewed over our untapped potential, the possibilities within each one of us. Gandhi said, the difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve the world's problems. Kierkegaard called it our Sealed Orders; epigenetics, the new neuroscience, is studying our unexpressed DNA; Nikki Giovanni, the great poet says, “You know, we’re better than we think, but we’re not as good as we could be.” And Bonnie Ware, who studied the regrets of the dying, found the number one regret of people who were dying in hospice— I wish I had the courage to have lived a life that was true to me, and not a life that was the expectations of others.
A man named Dōgen came to Japan almost 800 years ago to teach Zen Buddhism. Zen Buddhism is about living the full life, the fully expressed life they call it the Supreme Meal. He wrote a book called, Instructions to the Cook. Literally the recipe for the Supreme Meal. The Supreme Meal is what we need to make every day, and every week and every month and every year, in our entire lives. The Supreme Meal is the best we can make with everything we have—and we have everything we need. We live in great abundance, and have every ingredient we need to make this Supreme Meal, and yet we fail to use all of our ingredients.
No matter our point of view, what side we sit on, we agree that the status quo is unacceptable. That the suffering around us is intolerable. We need a supreme meal of hope, equity, and opportunity. I am talking about using all of our ingredients: Our moral, spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and financial resources. Putting our full reputations, our social networks, our minds and hearts into the changes that are necessary. This is an All-In MOMENT. A moment to use everything we have.
My mother was a great painter. She painted 1,430 original art pieces during her lifetime. She started painting when she was 48 and painted all the way until her final year of life.
I asked for an art lesson; I asked her to teach me how to paint, and she laughed. In a knowing way, she said, “Oh John, I love the fact that you want to learn to paint, but you’re so busy, and you’re so important, at least that’s what you’ve told me. And it takes time to see before you can paint; and if you can’t see, there’s no way you can paint! And you don’t have time to see.” She finally agreed to give me a "seeing" lesson. She told me it would take at least three hours to see. She started asking me questions about these apples. And I couldn’t see the apples, I tell you, it was hours. And I finally saw the apples, and she mis-quoted Cezanne, “A time is coming when apples, freshly observed, will trigger a revolution.” Actually, he said, “A time is coming when a carrot freshly observed will trigger a revolution.”
And it did. I started to see things. I started to see myself and so much around me. We have so much more to see. We tend to focus on the path and where our feet are leading us, and the path becomes a path of dependency, of certainty. We don’t listen to our hearts. We miss the peripheral view, we miss what’s around us who’s around us, we miss what’s going on right now.
The challenge is in every moment and the time is always now. James Baldwin
So, I have been trying to shift your perspective, to help us think about who we are, and why we are here, and where we’re going. We’re the only species on the planet that gets to ask the question, What do I want to do? Who am I? No other species gets to do that. We must take advantage of this opportunity. How do we unseal our orders, express our DNA, become better than we are? And have the courage to live a life that is true to ourselves and to others.
We can never forget our ancestors who sacrificed for all of us.
How do we comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable?
The giant ocean of needs breaks our hearts, but we need our hearts to be broken open!
Open to our interconnectedness, inter-dependency. Open to our abundant possibilities.
While we sometimes feel like drops in the ocean, we realize we’re the entire ocean in every drop. (Rumi)
I know that what I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand — and one is, after all, emboldened by the spectacle of human history in general, and American Negro history in particular, for it testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible. (James Baldwin)
So, we pause to breathe. Breathe in the mountain and breathe our flowers.
Breathe in your power and breathe out your kindness
So we can have peace. Because, Yes! Yes! Yes! We do belong to one another!
And once we can see, see this potential, it triggers a revolution. For we need, desperately need, your revolutions! We have every ingredient to make that Supreme Meal. That revolutionary meal. That meal of hope—together.
C’mon let’s join Mayor Tornek, Richard Cheung, Friends In Deed, so all of us can begin making and serving that Supreme Meal today!
We have had our little obsession with teacups. Many of us have used, "Not my cup of tea." Originally meant for an unpleasant pain in the arse :) person but applied generally to all things less desirable. Or "a tempest in a teacup", the lesser used and perhaps later concocted version of "a tempest in a teapot". Or George Orwell's rant on a nice cup of tea. But a "cup of tea" was to describe someone you like or think is good.
In this regard, my mother was a special cup of tea.
Many of you know my mother left us last June. She was a remarkable woman who shaped my point of view and my life direction. But if you are a regular reader or have listened to one of my speeches, you know this!
Anyhow, my mother was a prolific artist and created complex oil paintings in minutes or took weeks and months to perfect a painting. She was both a conceptual artist (think Picasso) and an experimental artist (think Cezanne). Cezanne's work may have been her most important muse.
Like many artists she had her secrets. Her techniques. Her way of painting that were hers. The real meaning of her pieces were left to the viewer's imagination. As they say, "Art is in the eye of the beholder." Perspective is everything. No two people see anything the same.
My mother was a prankster with a wicked sense of humor. Some say I got my sense of humor from her, many others have hired a search party for my funny bone. Here is my mother’s last enigmatic prank--That will never be solved.
Years ago, she created a set of paintings of teacups, 15 in all. Somehow they were assembled into a single print—the exact origins are unknown. And where the original of this print went is also a mystery. There are no known copies of this painting, only this low quality photo shown above. With a twinkle in her eye, she told us that each unique teacup depicted her four children and her ten siblings and herself. That adds up to 15. She would never reveal the identities of the teacups! It is hard to see, but there are unique differences in the teacups. One is cracked, one covered, one upside down, one on its side.....Your interpretations start to go wild.
This was all years ago and we had all forgotten these enigmatic teacups.
After Mom passed I went to the print shop where she made reproductions, so called giclees, of her work. It was an emotional meeting. Like all people that knew and/or worked with my mother, the print shop owner had bonded with her. After we cried together and exchanged stories, he revealed, in his moment of weakness, that he had taken an unauthorized photo of the teacups. My sister Katie and I were aghast. No one in our family ever saw this version. We asked for a copy and ultimately received this higher resolution image:
You can see right away this is different from the original, the order is changed and now there are 16! The new teacup is the one broken into pieces (bottom row).
Who is the 16th teacup?!!
We will never know the exact symbolism or identities of the teacups or solve the mystery of the new broken one. But that is the beauty of art and of life as lived and painted by my mother—all to be interpreted. I know she is smiling and perhaps giggling a bit from on high.
My sister Tomi found this poem just after we made this discovery: A cup is more valuable chipped. He was broken. I am broken. And when we can see that we are all chipped and broken, we begin to value our life as an expression of the teaching that we are truly perfect and complete, just as we are. —Pat Enkyo O’hara
Each teacup is special and beautiful.
We know that any fixed, perfect and pristine image we have of ourselves or others is an imaginary teacup.
My mother knew we would see ourselves in every teacup. For we are all of the teacups. Our cupboards house each one of these cups. For we are many things, have been many things and will be many things. Our histories and our destinies are complex and unknowable. We contain the infinite seeds of our family trees and experiences. All of us will never fully express our potential and our possibilities.
So our humanity, our compassion, and our future depends on exploring and embracing our own and each other's teacups.
Here's to our beautiful and mysterious cups of tea in 2017.
One of the most remarkable things in life is how wrong we are about our perceptions. That almost everything upon closer examination yields insights and new truths. Especially people, places, cultures, religions, and lifestyles we are not familiar with. The constant process of learning what we don't know empirically.
One of my newer heroes is Bryan Stevenson. He has devoted his life to justice. Called the American Mandela, Stevenson is ripping back the curtain of mass incarceration and the pernicious legacy of racism. His Tedtalk, his latest book Just Mercy are to be added to your must experience list. His acceptance speech earlier this year for the 2016 Public Counsel awards dinner is among the best speeches I have ever heard. And I have seen and studied my share!
His speech is anchored on four principles to pursue change and greater understanding of difference. A fabulous structure to test our thinking about worlds we think we comprehend, people we think we know, and places we think we understand. This is how I interpret Bryan's advice:
Proximate: We have to get physically close to needs, issues, and people to learn the truth through reality. I know this sounds obvious, but much of our perspective about "homelessness", "refugees", "poverty", "Cuba", "black people" and "socialism" are gleaned through abstract and "distant" information.
Narrative: We have a story running in our head about these issues, ideas and people. These stories are reinforced through selective consumption, our biases, and with the limitations of empirical data. How do we disrupt this story with facts and experiences?
Uncomfortable: When we disrupt our cranial narratives with facts then we get shoved out of our comfort zones--we get understandably uncomfortable. Truth is the greatest source of discomfort, especially when it conflicts with our long held belief system. Discomfort wakes us up and we have to use our brains and think and feel again. Being uncomfortable is a necessary step in our journey to learn and grow.
Hopeful: Gaining new perspectives through experience, opening new parts of our minds to new truths, and seeing new possibilities expands our hopefulness. Because when we learn new things we see how change is possible and that expands the pool of hope.
(Yes I have changed the order of these principles for my own purposes :)
Me and Congresswoman Karen Bass
I recently was included on a special study tour of Cuba led by Congresswoman Karen Bass(One of the most dedicated public servants I have encountered) It was a mind blowing learning experience that changed me. I reflect on Stevenson's principles that helped me re-think everything "I knew" about Cuba. Except the food, music, art, rum and cigars, which are exquisite and met and exceeded my expectations!
US-Cuban relations have been so tortured and convoluted through hundreds of years of American history. We have viewed and treated Cuba as a possession and territory for generations prior to the revolution which triggered the ongoing embargo. Then Cuba was perceived as a threat. Not enough space here to provide or review history. Suffice it to say that the US has imposed its will on this island country for the last 50 years.
We rarely think about Cuba, yet the Cuban people are big fans of Americans. We were greeted by colleagues and strangers with open arms and warm friendliness. I know, it is about the historic antagonistic systems and governments. It is about capitalism vs socialism. And Fidel vs JFK. Here's the deal, that was then and Cuba does not resemble those caricatures of the past. Globalization is here and Cuba has been benched and ostracized. This embargo is not just a political war of words it has really hurt the people. 50 years of no access to anything from the US from anywhere. That includes school materials, medicine and food. I know it was meant to punish the country, but that time passed and it is harming people who pose no threat to us today. As an embargoed country, Cuba is in the same company with North Korea, Iran, Ukraine and Syria. It makes no sense now. It hasn't for many years.
Everything I knew about Cuba was transformed by a closer examination.
The President Obama lifted some sanctions, travel and certain goods are no longer prohibited, but we need to open up our relationship to take full advantage of what Cuba has to offer. Cuban medical training is the envy of the world. They have free medical care from pre-natal to hospice. For example, Cuba has a robust bio-tech industry and have developed a drug called Cimavax which attacks lung cancer cells. NY state now has a few trials of Cimavax, the first medical exchange in 50 years!
Visited the education system as well, which is totally free. By the way, Cuba's literacy rate is about 97%. In fact they have a Museum of Literacy! We visited ELAM(Latin American Medical School) where students from 110 countries receive free medical training. Free room and board and a stipend! We met a number of US students there who are receiving a world class education centered on the patient. Cuba is famous for providing doctors to Haiti, Africa, and other disaster torn countries.
As ethno-centric Americans we worried when every corner has a McDonalds, KFC and Starbucks....... It was interesting not to see Coca Cola there. We asked about these changes, which we thought were inevitable. We heard that they don't need Coca Cola, they have "sugar water". Or more burgers, chicken or coffee... They need infrastructure, pharma, hotels, car parts, educational materials---many many things. We want to get the things we need before we add things we don't. "We don't want to add to the war of symbols." Wow!! Television programs are not interrupted by commercials, except public service announcements and education--mostly health oriented. Yes I know, we have more choices. But we have a lot of noise and interruptive messages too. How would we change our system if we could?
Cuba has many challenges. Poverty is rampant. Inequality is there. Sound familiar? The aforementioned infrastructure is in disrepair or non-existent. But there is a spirit of humanity, of ingenuity, of compassion, and of camaraderie that needs to breathe and grow. US Cuban relations can flourish with great reciprocal benefits to the US and the world.
As Bryan Stevenson advised: proximity changed my narrative, made me uncomfortable, but even more hopeful. Like all life changing experiences you understand one another, you appreciate our interconnectedness and commonalities. Somos Cubanos!
I encourage you to test your own assumptions, by visiting Cuba, or anywhere or any population you think you know, but don't. As John Wooden said, "It is what you learn after you know it all that counts."
What do we say when there is a tragedy, a death, something really bad happens to people we care about?
Most of us are acutely aware of our own struggles and we are preoccupied with our own problems. We sympathize with ourselves because we see our own difficulties so clearly. But Ian MacLaren noted wisely, “Let us be kind to one another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle.”
When I was younger I would try to draw on my capacity for empathy, but I had a fairly dry aquifer of emotional intelligence. Life, death, disease, and unexpected mishaps were frankly just part of the hand you were dealt. Our feline life expectancy dropped a year or two each chapter of our experience until we accept we have one life to live and it is very short.
As we mature and age we are exposed to more suffering, more tragedy, more death. It is a jolting reminder of our mortality and the mortality of the ones around us. We feel more compelled to express our sympathies and condolences. To offer support to the survivors. We struggle with doing the right thing at the right time. We write notes, emails, sign cards, and say things to comfort family and friends. Sometimes we rely on Hallmark for the words, say or write the same thing we always say, or we do nothing. At least for me, it is an awkward process.
What can I say? What should I say? What can I do? What should I do?
I have learned so much being the recipient of these communications. Nothing like learning about yourself by how you are treated.
The golden rule always applies. Say/do unto others as you would have them say/do unto you. What would comfort me?
A rude awakening for me is how selfish I have been and others can be in trying to comfort each other. It is not about me. It never really is. But we can lead with "Me too", or "I know how you feel".
The oddity of our clumsy and sometimes hurtful attempts to help is this: we have clear ideas from what has helped us in our suffering, but we do not adopt it when seeking to love others. We do not always speak to others in the way we would like to be spoken to. Edward T. Welch
I remember a comedy routine, where a distant friend goes up to the grieving mother of a murdered child at the vigil to pay his respects. He gets nervous, then tongued tied, and blurts out, "I apologize." Not the same as "I am sorry." :)
What I learned and others have taught me--Less is more. Stop before you start into your robotic motor mouth routine. Put your well-intentioned pie hole on silent. Silence is better than words. A hug says more than any profound phrases. Everyone deals with grief and suffering in their own ways. But there is a universal understanding that your very presence is more powerful than anything you say.
"I'm sorry." Is enough.
Again, stop and look both ways before you stick your foot in your "me too" mouth.
I really try to give people the benefit of the doubt. I hope people have done the same for me! A dear friend, expressed her condolences and tried to comfort me. Then she took the safety off of her verbal trigger and away she went. "Yeah, not a day goes by where I don't cry about my husband." I knew what she was trying to do, but it was our first conversation and the second thing she said.
"How are you doing, today?" The today part is sensitive to what is happening. "How are you?" is auto-pilot and invokes the silent "How do you think I am?!!"
Do not say: “If you need anything, please call me, anytime.” Another well intended thought but.........
– If ‘comforters’ knew anything about real hardship, they would know that sufferers usually don’t know what they want or need.
– If comforters knew anything about the sufferer, they would know what the sufferer wants or needs.
– If comforters really knew the sufferer, they would know that he or she would never make the call. Never. Tara Barthel
In his book, "The Reality Slap," Russ Harris presents two lists — the first, a few responses that genuinely make you feel supported and understood; and the second, a number of responses that, although meant to be helpful, aren't really all that compassionate. Let's start with the less compassionate responses (many of which I myself am guilty of, and if we're being honest, most of us have said at times):
Telling you to "think positively"
Giving advice: "What you should do is this, "Have you thought about doing such and such?"
Discounting your feelings: "No use crying over spilled milk," "It's not that bad," "Cheer up!"
Trumping your pain: "Oh yes, I've been through this many times myself. Here's what worked for me."
Telling you to get over it: "Move on," "Let it go," "Isn't it time you got over this?"
Here are some compassionate responses highlighted in Harris' book:
Asking how you feel
Giving you a hug, embrace, placing an arm around you or holding your hand
Validating your pain: "This must be so hard for you" or "I can't begin to imagine what you're going through."
Sharing their own reactions: "I'm so sorry, "I'm so angry," "I feel so helpless; I wish there was something I could do," or even "I don't know what to say."
Creating space for your pain: "Do you want to talk about it?" It's OK to cry," or, "We don't have to talk; I'm happy to just sit here with you."
Offering support: "Is there anything I can do to help?"
I took a thanatology class in college---Death and Dying. I learned about the 5 stages of dying that was asserted by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Most of us have heard this. Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. It made so much sense to me. It clearly applied to romantic break-ups :) But death? And the grieving?
Pauline Boss'research disputes the application of these 5 stages to grief. That Kubler-Ross never intended to have them applied to grieving. We all want steps and stages. We want a linear routine to replace the organic reality. Boss' basic thought is closure for grief is a myth. While time heals, you will never be finished with your grief--and closure is only good in real estate. You don't want to forget or get over it. I know there are nuances here but really important ones.
This myth of closure has helped me be more sensitive, more compassionate. Time heals but never erases. I know this to be true.
A colleague who did not know my Dad, said "Sorry to hear about your Dad. Tell me about him." I smiled, because I got to tell a Dad story and share my love and gratitude. For me, that was one of the nicest and most comforting things anyone said to me.
Part of building and maintaining a vibrant, authentic and altruistic network is our ability to connect to support one another. No time is more crucial than in times of loss and suffering.
Remind yourself what would comfort you. Stop, pause, and be present. Say less. Suppress your needs and surrender to the needs of the other. Good advice for all of us almost all of the time. Be kind: For we are all fighting great battles and carrying great burdens that are not known to one another. (my interpretation of Philo)
Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little. Epicurus
A brand new college grad with his mortar board on says to me: Gotta get into grad school!
Comment to me after my 94 year old uncle passed: So sorry he did not make it to 95
Parents remark at their daughter's wedding: Now for my grandkids!
First question in an interview with me: How long do I have to do this job before I might get promoted?
Never enough. Never good enough.
One of the greatest distractions in life is this uneasy and ultimately sleep depriving feeling. It can motivate and haunt you. It can dominate our thinking and our actions. We see it in our social media, we see it in our credit card statements, we see it at work and talk about it with almost everyone. It is a silent and powerful under current that defines our lives. Wanting MORE.
Some believe this constant desire and pursuit for more is rooted in our biology — that it helped us to survive. Some believe that this pursuit is fundamental to a capitalistic society that requires consumerism, propelled by the media, culture and of course, all of us aid and abet the crime of MORE.
It is true that our survival instincts and competitive nature have brought us great progress and material luxuries. But when we lose ourselves to the MORE, that requires an intervention.
According to Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, income does predict happiness—but only up to $75,000 per year.
The infinite and never satiable goal of a bigger, better, and more expensive version. We do live in a Big Gulp, Super Size, Monster truck, Power Ball, iPhone 10, All you can eat, Botox filled world that is relentless and unyielding. It is an epidemic.
The yearning for life and wealth shows no signs of aging even as a man grows old. It does not weaken with age. It is a lifelong disease. The man who gives it up finds happiness. Dharmasutras
I have come to appreciate Marie Kondo'spopular and simple advice about Tidying. I have read her book and saw her speak recently. For me the essence is--Look at your things, things you did not remember you have, so many things--Look at each one of them and ask, "Does this spark joy in me?" If it does not, then get rid of it. Give it away to someone who needs or wants it. We should be surrounded by things and people that spark joy in us, right?
A desire arises in the mind. It is satisfied; immediately another comes. In the interval which separates two desires a perfect calm reigns in the mind. It is at this moment freed from all thought, love or hate. Complete peace equally reigns between two mental waves.– SWAMI SIVANANDA
Regardless of what we believe to be at the root of this constant wanting, it takes a conscious and deliberate effort to experience contentment or satisfaction in our lives — to fully appreciate life, people, and the activities we engage in. To stop and smell the roses, as my Dad used to say. To interrupt the impulses and the continuous thoughts that undermine our sense of self and the present.
Yes meditation helps a lot. Anything to disrupt the pattern and bring the world back into focus.
One of my favorite books is Instructions to the Cookdescribes the Zen Buddhist concept for the supreme meal. The supreme meal is when we live our life fully, wholeheartedly---a fully expressed life.
So the first principle of the Zen cook is that we already have everything we need. If we look closely at our lives, we will find that we have all the ingredients we need to prepare the supreme meal. At every moment, we simply take the ingredients at hand and make the best meal we can. It doesn’t matter how much or how little we have. The Zen cook just looks at what is available and starts with that.
And we become what we say. We evolve into our narratives. So when we say MORE, to ourselves and to others, that's what we believe and that's what we become.
Happiness will never come to those who fail to appreciate what they already have. Buddha
This is most evident in interviews and conversations. How people always tell me they are looking to make a change because they want more. The most over-used term is "growth" followed by "opportunity". I have learned these are code words for more money. Some souls are looking for meaning and fulfillment, but most want the "opportunity to grow". Grow to do what or be what?!! We may never know.
Here's what kills me. Many people have read the same blog posts :), received the same coaching and have the same routines, answers and presentations. And when the vast majority of the walking dead say, "I am looking for a place where I can (continue to) grow." I always ask, "What are your top priorities for personal and professional growth?" This is a stumper. The vast majority of people I meet say that the cause, the issue, even the industry "doesn't matter"!!! I wish I was kidding. They can't articulate what "more" they want. Money is embedded and hiding in these abstract thoughts of more. But what is most often avoided is any self awareness, authenticity, and or introspectiveness to identify what more they want to become.
More is superficial when disconnected from the "P" words of passion and purpose.
How much is enough?
The Illusion of More
Don't need a thing To do our thing We have what we need To pursue what we heed Everything before us Nothing between us The more of our world Is the distraction The less of ourselves Is the attraction When we forget me We build on the we
The more takes from the now It carries us to the next Without gratitude or grace It abruptly changes our place For here is this moment So full and complete It's a shame we might waste it So we can compete For the more of tomorrow And miss this special time Are we deaf to the music And what's left of this rhyme
No things is our aim In the end We are all the same jek
There are a few MOREs that deserve our attention:
More peace and social justice
More time with people we love
More solitude, silence, and soul nourishment
More effort to be kind and non-judgmental
More altruism where we give and help without any expectation
More joy, awe, and wonder.
Let's enjoy what we have . Let's find and nurture the spark of joy around us. Let's interrupt the nonsensical wanting impulses. No more.
As you may have noticed I have been slipping in my poetry into my posts. :) To be honest I am writing more poems than anything else. It is a cleansing, meditative process for me. I know my work is personal. Yet I want to share it in the hopes it resonates with you.
Choice is the enemy of commitment. (attributed to Jerry Brown)
Just know many folks who are going through decision trees right now---school, career, family, relationships......Some dark decision jungles and others delightful and glorious forests. Nevertheless--Choices! First, always be grateful that you have a choice. Second, try to enjoy the process no matter how complex. Third, never look back and embrace the decision!
The challenge is in every moment and the time is always now. James Baldwin
Words mean a lot to me. Perhaps more as I age. I value the meaning of the words we choose and use. People who know me well understand that certain words set me off. My bans on "busy", "when I retire...", "stability" are well documented.
I push myself, and others who will listen, to "play out of bounds" and to not compromise our dreams. Why are we not pursuing what is most important to us? What obstacles prevent us to live the life we want? Am I where I am supposed to be? Are our networks diverse or a bunch of people who are clones --eating, voting, entertaining, agreeing, liking, the same stuff?
My goal is to disrupt the mindlessness of our lives. Where we accept and tolerate what we have and don't want.
I was conducting a session with graduate students about career transitions and got this question: "How long should I be uncomfortable?" It was a great question. Because it was honest. It was a vulnerable question. It was a question about the searching and certainty. After all when you are grad school procrastinating your future :), you think a lot about the land of career clarity. If we are contemplating change in our lives, if we are paying attention to the world around us, we all are trying to get to this mystical land of clarity.
When we are open to what we don't know, when we are open to opportunities that we had not considered, when we become vulnerable to questions and conversations that change us----we get uncomfortable.
Comfort the Afflicted and Afflict the Comfortable. F. Peter Dunne
Perhaps my theme song! And definitely my favorite quote.
In other words, I am not where I want to be. I am not sure where I am going. I feel stuck or I crave more certainty about my path. I want more meaning, fulfillment and a greater sense of purpose. I need an answer to give me comfort.
So here's my answer:
You should never be comfortable. Never.
In terms of life and career development.
Yes, we should smell the roses, appreciate our milestones and yes let's have gratitude.
But before we get too caught up in our greatness, drunk with our achievements, and light headed with thankfulness--let's consider the infinite challenge of serving others. Let's pause and consider our ambitions for our families and ourselves. Let's truly understand that we are not satisfied with our inner or outer lives. So stability is a joke. Certainty is a unicorn.
How do you continuously pursue your own growth and that means your ability to help others?
You can join the growing NIMBY family or what I call the OIMBY tribe (Only In My Backyard)--where you take care of your immediate family and everyone else is on their own.
We have to be uncomfortable with our comfort.
We now face the danger, which in the past has been the most destructive to the humans: Success, plenty, comfort and ever-increasing leisure. No dynamic people has ever survived these dangers.
The status quo sucks! Am I right? The world is not quite right. We are still filling out the breadth of our potential. Our families are a work in progress. Our communities are in great need. The world is at the brink of challenge and change.
When we stop and think about what we can do, what we have to advance our lives and the lives of others, and consider the obscene abundance in which we reside----We can get uncomfortable. :)
Once you accept that our work is infinite. That our role is to advance the work and give the next gen a chance to continue the work. That can give you a modicum of comfort. But then you realize, as I do everyday, life is short. We don't know when our ticket will be punched. So what will I do today?
Don't misunderstand me. Lack of comfort is not lack of peace. Inner peace comes with understanding one's role and opportunity. Inner peace comes with serving others. True peace is the product of an altruistic life of compassion. And compassion literally means to suffer with others. So we come full circle to an uncomfortable peace.
Our truth stands in the doorways in front of us, doorways that excite, invite, and frighten us.
Have I afflicted you?
Here's to your uncomfortable peace. Thanks for reading. John
Infants don't understand the concept of permanence. It is an essential stage of cognitive and sensory motor skill development. We have all done this with little kids. We hide our faces with our hands and then reveal our faces and say Peek a Boo! And the kids are astonished and amazed. Like a magic trick. They laugh uncontrollably because of the surprise.
And when toddlers cover their faces, they think they are invisible.
When we grow up we are still confused about what is real. We think we are invisible. As adults we hide our own faces and our feelings We become quite clever in masking our true selves. And the mask can become the face.
I meet many people at many points in their lives. Junctions, detours, shifts, inflection points, crossroads--all names for the same thing---Life! Every moment considering choices is about change. Anyway, I try to use these moments to see if I get clues about what they really want. Poker players call it the "tell". A sign given off by facial expression, body tics, and or inflection that gives away a truth.
I recently met with a younger man and he was babbling on about who he was and his impressive background ( I remember when I use to show up and throw up) He said, "I want to help people." (When I hear this it takes every ounce of my control not to say, "Yeah "people" that narrows your career choices!") Instead I said "Which people?" And after a series of these back and forths. He spoke eloquently about "helping people overcome what he had overcome." I stopped him and asked him to tell me how he felt. I told him how I felt. It was pretty emotional. His eyes, inflection and body language did all of the talking. And we built a small rhetorical campfire and sat down to explore this personal story. He thought I read his mind, but he opened his book and read from his heart. I was moved.
That honesty about what matters gives me a view of what I think is the soul. The true self who hides in the costume and mask department of our minds. It is a bit of a game of hide and seek I play with others and myself. To get the souls to come out and play and share.
It reminds me to be vulnerable and empathetic in the way I listen and think. It helps me immensely. And I know it has an impact on others and the dimensions of conversation that ensue.
I am convinced that we unconsciously let others and ourselves suppress so much of our potential and our soulfulness. The heavy blanket of expectations, political correctness, not looking stupid, not making other people uncomfortable, not being good enough etc etc.
Sheryl Turkle and her fascinating book, Reclaiming Conversation:
My research shows that we are too busy connecting to have the conversations that count, the kind of conversation in which we give each other our full attention, the kind where we allow an idea to develop, where we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Yet these are the kinds of conversations in which intimacy and empathy develop, collaboration grows, and creativity thrives. We move from conversation to mere connection. And I worry that sometimes we forget the difference. Or forget that this is a difference that matters.
In our daily conversations, it starts with so called small talk, exchanges where we move our lips and sounds tumble out of our pie holes. Classic example is "How are you?" and you reply reflexively, "Fine. You?" and a thousand unthinking variations. But our robotic chatter is not limited to these informal seemingly meaningless verbal transactions. They now consume most of our time. Like bad texting exchanges that say nothing. We partake in a lot of live face to face superficial texting through our mouths.
We say words and others say words we neither listen to or fully comprehend what pablum spews back and forth. It is not that we are uncaring souls, but we have rehearsed our routines like inadequate amateur versions of Robin Williams' improv group of personalities. We pull something from our inner hard drive and it plays without much thought.
How do we disrupt this pattern if we want to have more interesting and meaningful conversations? How do we show our empathy and compassion for one another? Who starts the real conversation?
Do we have the time and patience? Do we?
And yet we want help. We crave and cry out for mentoring for guidance for support--on our terms, just in time, convenient, fast and simple to assemble. We want life and career advice that comes out of an IKEA box, or fits into a 3 minute YouTube. Not a revealing conversation.
Love Akuyoe Graham'sadvice to me about enjoying the taste of the words. Meaning that you take the time and thought to savor what you say. You sense the words you speak, their weight, their intention and you convey those thoughts with your face and your body.
Am I there, present, vulnerable, open, attentive, listening, more interested than interesting? That matters. And can make way to real conversations.
Conversation is a meeting of minds with different memories and habits. When minds meet, they just don't exchange facts: they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, engage in new trains of thought. Conversation doesn't reshuffle the cards, it creates new cards. It's a spark that two minds create.
How many conversations do we have like that? Wouldn't that be good?
In my analysis this real conversation is a meeting of the minds and a meeting of the souls.
It takes both sides to make this happen.
Peek a boo (excerpt from my poem)
I see you
Then you’re gone
I see what you want to be, what you try to be
I see what you want me to see
I saw something
The glint of the sun through the clouds
I felt you
A warm breeze on a summer eve
Something real and fleeting
Like a poltergeist
The warmth and chill of presence
I feel you
Peek a boo
But just like that you disappear
From right in front to out of sight
Are you gone or just hiding?
What are you afraid of?
When will I see you again?
Maybe it’s me
Am I scaring you?
Peek a boo
I see me
Like a mirror image
That glimpse of you was a glimpse of me
I want what you want
And your words are the words I want
I hear me through you
Peek a boo
You are changing me
Am I changing you?
An open heart opens the mind
We are changed
We try to be invulnerable and see no flaw
We become vulnerable and see the light
Peek a boo
I learn from you
When I was teaching you
Peek a boo
You mentor me
When I was trying to mentor you
You helped me
Did I help you?
Peek a boo
I saw you
And you see me
I need you
And you need me
Come out to play and let’s be John E. Kobara
We must help others and ourselves explore and share our truths, our souls.
If we see it, acknowledge it, welcome it. And embrace it.
Build a campfire and listen to each other's stories. We have so much to learn from one another.
What if you looked at your life sideways? Just saw it differently for a moment. How about your relationships? How about your career?
Not abandoning what you have but getting a new perspective so you can appreciate what is there. We all live in great abundance of things and opportunities that we neglect in our haste to the next. We often misinterpret busyness for pursuit of what we want--progress towards happiness or fulfillment. When we pause and reflect, we can realize the error of our ways. It is hard to do this by yourself.
Here is a poem I wrote for the "waterskeeters" who recklessly glide across the surface but never see themselves.
Am I a water bug dancing on the surface tension?
What's in the dark waters below?
An iceberg for your thoughts
Can I summon the courage to dive?
To explore the murky waters of choice and challenge
To test my imagined strength and talent
Why can't I be a lotus plant?
Thriving in and into the water
Turning muck into radiant blooms
Am I just a superficial insect?
That bugs me
How's the water?
Never touch the stuff
I am a water skipper with a free spirit
No time to see my reflection in the glassy mirror
Gliding enviably across the pond so fast
Not even scratching the surface
How can I be so dry and all wet?
The exhilaration seems more than enough
Why learn to swim when I can walk on water?
When we slow down and take stock of where we are going and why--it can be transformative. We have to be open to truthful feedback and a sideways perspective (a new point of view), we can learn something. Great mentoring happens when you suspend your defensiveness, your desire to say the "right" thing, and your ever present judgmentalism. Your eyes and mind, dare I say, your heart can be opened to new truths.
Anyone who knows me, knows my mother has the uncanny ability to give me sideways views of myself. Over and over she has helped me see myself as opposed to the facades I was constructing.
But then it happened to mom! She got a sideways lesson. Her perspective was altered. My mom has been painting for decades and she continues to evolve. A few years ago she lost the cartilage in her right arm and paints on the floor so she doesn't have to lift her arm. This changes the shape and size of her canvases. She also decided to do more "abstract" work. So she started taking classes in her late 80s and got a mentor! Never too late to change and adapt.
So my mom painted this mythical waterfall near rocks and a tree to the left.
Her teacher/mentor came to the house and wanted to see her newest things. My mom has been experimenting with more vertical forms. Anyway, my mother pulled out three paintings and leaned them against a wall, including this one. Her teacher quickly turned two of the paintings on the side, converting my mom's vertical paintings into horizontals. (see below) My mother was astonished. "That IS the way it was supposed to be!, my mother exclaimed. And that is now the way it will be hung and sold. Of course the owner of the painting can do whatever they want, but what was the original intent of the artist?
It is obvious to you, right? Everyone who sees this says that. Now before you doubt my story or my mother's intelligence (How dare you :)). Listen to me. My mother has painted more than 1400 originals. When she paints them she turns them around and views them from all sides. She has an eye like no one else. But like all of us she got stuck in her perspective, she needed help and was open to it.
We all try to will the Ouija board of life. We intend things, we plan things, we set firm expectations. And when things end up differently we are disappointed and worse, we can defend the status quo. The way it is supposed to be, the tradition, the habit, and the comfortable way. No!
We have to be open to a sideways view of ourselves. We need help to see ourselves. We have to invest in seeing ourselves accurately.
The definition of insanity is --doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results!
We need help to change and adapt. Mentors, teachers, coaches, therapists, all are capable of showing us things they see that we can't. Caring for others can help us see ourselves and the world around us. Our biases, our distractions, and our egos limit what we see.
Stop for a moment to see your reflection and explore what is below the tension of the surface. Mentor the waterskeeters in our lives to see what they are missing. Look at your world sideways and you might see new horizontals in your verticals.
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Mary Oliver
Is this the year for your new life? The year you push yourself out and over the edge of your comfort zone.
Why can't this be the time?
The challenge is in every moment and the time is always now.James Baldwin
This can be the time to make your dent in the universe. To go into our garages and build the new mousetrap. To build the new you.
One that expresses who YOU are. Don't confuse this with your FB, Instagram postings, or even your resume, where you look more like wanna-bes than the real YOU.
The recipe is pretty straight forward. You take you with all of the expectations of others removed, add a big heaping tablespoon of courage, add extra chutzpah and then a pinch of regrets to taste and voila you get the real you.
It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it. Seneca 49 AD
I have shared the following with thousands of people to remind them in a few minutes how precious life is.
What surprises you most about human kind?
“That they get bored with childhood, they rush to grow up, and then long to be children again.” “That they lose their health to make money… and then lose their money to restore their health.” "That by thinking anxiously about the future, they forget the present, such that they live in neither the present nor the future.” “That they live as if they will never die… and die as though they had never lived.”
What are some of life’s lessons you want your children to learn? “To learn they cannot make anyone love them. All they can do is let themselves be loved.” “To learn that it only takes a few seconds to open profound wounds, and it can take many years to heal them.” “To learn that a rich person is not who has the most, but is one who needs the least.” “To learn that there are people who love them dearly, but simply do not yet know how to express or show their feelings.” “To learn that two people can look at the same thing and see it differently.” “To learn that it is not enough that they forgive one another, but they must also forgive themselves.”
(Excerpted from Interview with God.net)
How much time we waste. How our priorities are often upside down. How the most precious things we want get pushed into the attic and buried in our "hope chests".
We have to do the best with what we got and then do more!
I live completely in the present, released from the prison of the past with its haunting memories and vain regrets, released from the prison of the future with its tantalizing hopes and tormenting fears. All the enormous capacities formerly trapped in past and future flow to me here and now. Eknath Easwaran
Schedule little windows of time when you will develop your plans and yourself. Time to be focused and unfocused. Nothing will happen if you do not do this! What you need is inspiration. Which can come in a moment, any time, taking a shower, doing the dishes, taking a walk, meditating, reading. Fill your life with more stimulation, different voices, sources, points of view. Change it up. Shake it up. Find things that resonate with you that quicken your heart beat and put a lump in your throat. Then take notes and follow them.
You can work with the usual suspects, but find the new and different, that's connected to what we want, like or dream about. Meet with different people every week or month. Get disciplined about stretching your network. Use the existing connections to bridge to new tribes. Worlds that understand your unanswered questions, your "crazy" dreams and your insecurities and doubts. Tribes that will mentor you.
Still perplexed? Do you believe that every human is an infinite set of possibilities? Are you human?
My life experiences have shown me how people stop digging when they hit a few rocks. They stop peeling the onion when the tears start. They move away from the edge of the cliff when they see the rocks far below.
Get a jackhammer. Put on some goggles. Learn to para-glide.
I frequently worry that being productive is the surest way to lull ourselves into a trance of passivity and busyness the greatest distraction from living, as we coast through our lives day after day, showing up for our obligations but being absent from our selves, mistaking the doing for the being. Maria Popova
What I want for you is the delight that comes from doing what you want. Becoming you. Not merely the achievement of the financial or employment goals or even familial expectations. Yes do them. But make small, medium and large spaces for you. For when your passion bucket overflows everyone around you will get some. Whether you like it or not you infect others with your smile of delight, your glow of goodness, and your engaging enthusiasm for life.
And when you are not yourself, when you are not smiling, and your passion bucket is empty--you also impact others, just very differently.
Ripples flow from your life force either way.
So is 2016 the year of becoming you? Let's go!
To be and not to be, that is the answer. D. E. Harding
"I really do not like what I do but I am 10 years from retirement......."
"Gotta go with the flow."
"I just want to see if I make partner. I should be a partner by now, they owe me......"
"It is what it is."
"My values and my employer's values are diverging, but I'll figure out what I want to do later in my career....."
"Lucky to have what I have."
According to my unscientific survey, surrendering to the status quo starts earlier and younger. Settling sooner for what you can get and shelving what you wanted. I had a millennial call herself an "optimistic fatalist". "I really hope I am wrong, but I am not going to do what I want." It depresses me.
I am constantly and irritatingly asked:
When do you move on to the next thing? At what point do I give up on my dreams?
After one of my workshops I was pursued by an executive who sat at my lunch table. I'll call him Leonard. After listening to the small talk he blurted out some thoughts that were clearly percolating for awhile.
"So John, I get your message--do what you want and even love. I get it. I wish I could do it, I wish it was possible. You know most people just can't do that. People take the jobs they can get and they put up with the toxic worlds they enter to make a living. Having a job you love is a fantasy."
You can fail at what you don't want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love. Jim Carrey
"Leonard. Thanks for speaking up and challenging my words. I do not want to make any of this sound easy or simple. It isn't. Taking control of your life takes courage. Just to be clear, I was not suggesting that finding a job you love will be THE answer. But finding work you love, you believe in, that fulfills you is not a fantasy. It is achievable and doable. Of course, if you need a job to eat and survive, then you need a job and your tolerance for inhospitable environments is much higher. But I am talking about me and you. We are sitting in this nice hotel chatting about our futures. We are over educated and have choices. There are amazing things that people will pay you to do that may be more fulfilling and fun. But I was also talking about building a life you love. A portfolio of things that represent your passions, interests and dreams. That procrastinating these decisions into some sort of sequence of steps and chapters is crazy. There is little chance that one job will provide you all of the fulfillment of your life. But you will spend way too much time working, so how do we make it the best job, a job you care about, as the hub and build out great spokes from there. No one like us has to put up with a toxic job. Does that make sense?
Yeah, but I really thought you were just talking about a dream job, Leonard replied.
No. A dream life. A lot of people struggle with so-called "work-life" balance. This is a myth and a harmful way of thinking. People seek balance because something in their lives is not as good as other parts. What if all parts were good? What if you designed your life to give you the fulfillment, flexibility, and the time to "balance" your life? Wouldn't that be a better life?
Leonard nodded, "I know people(most people say they have a "friend";) who are really unhappy and they just can't leave their jobs."
I hear a lot of people who want to blame everyone but themselves about the predicament they are in. Again, these are first world people with advanced degrees and great resumes. They have convinced themselves they are stuck--stuck like sea squirts.
Sea squirts are odd slinky-like marine life that swim in schools to find a rock or piece of coral to make home. They permanently affix themselves to the rock. Then they do something really odd, they individually eat their own vertebrae and brains. Because when you are stuck on a rock you don't need a backbone or a mind!
I meet a lot of really smart sea squirts! No backbone to stand up for themselves and their lives. Who get shackled to a narrative of high consumption and higher expectations that makes them fall behind in their credit and their careers.
Just like moving from pensions and defined contribution retirement plans to 401K's , we have to run our own financial AND life portfolios.
There is a materialistic and financial delusion that we need so much stuff. And that stuff puts us in debt and that starts the vicious cycle of compromises and postponed plans. We get burrowed and cemented into a rut that imprisons us. We want more and accept less.
By the way, all setting a pattern of optimistic fatalism for our kids.
Yet I watch a growing number of people emerge from the fog and break out of their cells of expectations by following their hearts. Huge changes underway where people are making choices about priorities, downsized lifestyles, and upsized lives. Finding work they love. In the four pay cuts I took for jobs that gave me a more flexible life, I never regretted it.
I recently met a chef, who now has four restaurants. He was defense contractor engineer who was very well paid. He went to these gourmet dinners with wine pairings made by a friend. He loved these meals and quit his job to become a chef at 45. He would have made more money and had a bigger retirement fund, but he chose his heart over his financial plan.
When you're doing something you love and are drawn to it, you want to do it all the time. - Ra Paulette
Or the financial planner who volunteered for the Special Olympics and now is a neuropsychologist. Or the night club owner who decided to give his excess food to the homeless and now manages a social enterprise that does just that.
People who have built happier and more meaningful lives around something that moved them.
What moves you? What is important to you that isn't getting your attention? Build it into your portfolio. Design a life that makes space for it.
Be reckless when it comes to affairs of the heart.
What I really mean … is be passionate, fall madly in love with life. Be passionate about some part of the natural and/or human worlds and take risks on its behalf, no matter how vulnerable they make you. No one ever died saying, “I’m sure glad for the self-centered, self-serving and self-protective life I lived.”
Offer yourself to the world — your energies, your gifts, your visions, your heart — with open-hearted generosity. But understand that when you live that way you will soon learn how little you know and how easy it is to fail.
Clinging to what you already know and do well is the path to an unlived life. So, cultivate beginner’s mind, walk straight into your not-knowing, and take the risk of failing and falling again and again, then getting up again and again to learn — that’s the path to a life lived large, in service of love, truth, and justice. Parker Palmer
We have to wake up from the delusion that choice is a fantasy, clear the fog and take control!
No matter our circumstance we have challenging lives. Each one of us is trying to improve our life trajectory and the world around us. We all want to make a dent in the universe and see our way to find peace, joy and fulfillment.
But our ability to see clearly is impaired by the VUCA world surrounding us. Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. That contributes to our visual impairment. We scan many things but we see very little. Scientists say there are about 11 million inputs to our senses at any one time and we are lucky to decipher and sense 40 of them. What we see is what we get and shapes what we do.
My mother is an accomplished artist and I asked her for an "art lesson". I told her I wanted to learn how to paint. She was amused by my request. "Oh John you are so busy, you have such important things to do, (read with just the right touch of elegant sarcasm that cuts your heart out:) you don't have time for painting." She continued, "Many people think you need special DNA or inborn talent to paint, but it is not true. You simply need the ability to see. And John you don't have time to see." (Ouch!)
She finally relented and agreed to give me a lesson. She set up three apples in her studio. I had picked up a paint brush and found a small canvas. "What are you doing?!", she queried. "I am getting ready to paint". "Before we paint we have to see", she said with a wry smile.
Morgan Russell's Three Apples inspired by Cezanne
Mom began to interrogate me about what I saw. (At least it felt like that) And while she talked I could hear my judgmental mind take over. "Why apples? I want to paint a seascape. These aren't even very nice looking apples....." I tried to re-focus. "Do you see the purple octogonal between the red and green apples? Can you see this shadow and the negative space here? Can you appreciate the geometry of what is here and not what you think is here?" This went on for a couple of hours. It was exhausting and frustrating. As the Buddhists say, "If you are bored you have not done it long enough."
Then the apples started to come into view. I started to really see them.
A time is coming when apples freshly observed will trigger a revolution. Apologies to Cezanne
My mother will never know the revolution she triggered in me!
Hard to do anything if you can't see.
We are in such a rush. We put a premium on speed. But speed kills, our ability to see. We all have ADD.
Call it a lack of attention, mindfulness, or patience. We jump to conclusions. We judge and pre-judge. We want to cut to the chase because we lose interest in the plot. And we miss so much.
Not just in the world of things. But what we hear people say. What we notice about body language or facial expressions. How our food tastes. What feelings we are experiencing. And the people around us.
We are increasingly desensitized and numb and we see and feel less and less.
And through this blur our brains change and evolve. Our judgmentalism puts us on neural pathways that skip any real thought or feeling.
We all operate this way and it under-girds our implicit biases (unconscious attitudes that impact what we see and do). These biases are not detectable through self awareness or introspection. They are embedded in our brains and may and often do, conflict with who we think we are.
Neuroscience is showing us that we tend to convert uncomfortable matters, especially those involving humans, into abstract thoughts. In Simon Sinek's wonderful book Leaders Eat Last, he asserts: "The more distance there is between us amplifies the abstraction and the harder it becomes to see each other as human." He goes on to describe that our "abundance" both in distraction and in need overwhelm our senses and "dehumanizes" our world.
In fact when people see photos of homeless people while in fMRI, our brains don't light up where it would for people we know or like. It fires up portions of our brains where inanimate objects reside--closer to furniture. Why? Because we can't invest the time, empathy, energy, in thinking about the needy so we create a mental short cut. Nameless and faceless people can be tidily put aside as things in our cranial hard drive.
And our sense of humanity diminishes.
Tragedy of life is what dies within us while we live—the death of genuine feeling, the death of inspired response, the awareness that makes it possible to feel the pain or the glory of others. Norman Cousins
So much easier to talk about homelessness than about the people living in tents down the street. When we avert our eyes, hearts and minds from those in need, we lose a little of ourselves.
Mother Teresa said, "If we have no peace, it is because we forgot we belong to one another."
How do we keep our hyper space minds from building more neural pathways and our bulging implicit bias muscles? And restore our humanity.
Check our vision. Quiet our judgmental reflexes. Slow down a bit.
Put down the paint brushes and see what is in front of us. See each other. And connect to our altruistic selves.
We are all connected and our destinies are tied to one another. Can we see that?
For me those unappealing apples triggered a revolution within me. What's your revolution?
Thanks for reading. John
(Excerpt from a speech I gave at Minnesota Council of Foundations on October 29, 2015)
How did we end up where we are, right now? What were the thousand of unmemorable decisions, influences, strokes of luck (bad and good), right place right time circumstances that conspired for you to be right here. Some of you are smiling and others are not. We all have stories, do we not?! While our resumes and bios give certainty of credit and trajectory, we all know better. In fact we have forgotten most of the things that really contributed to our successes. Bits of advice, mentoring moments, what friends said or did, a death, a birth, a movie you saw, a speech you heard......hundreds of things that shaped your point of view and pushed and pulled you to where you are.
Are you noticing what is influencing, could be influencing you now?
In the last 72 hours I was reminded of the subtlety and fragility of those moments and messages. When I was younger I was "too focused" too ambitious" to see so much. I was lucky to have gained anything--and I did. I feel like I see and hear so much more today. Yeah, the clock is ticking but I am paying attention with a heart and mind that knows how much I don't know. That I still have unexplored talents and potential hidden within me.
One of my favorite books is Instructions to the Cook describes the Zen Buddhist concept for the supreme meal. The supreme meal is when we live our life fully, wholeheartedly---a fully expressed life.
So the first principle of the Zen cook is that we already have everything we need. If we look closely at our lives, we will find that we have all the ingredients we need to prepare the supreme meal. At every moment, we simply take the ingredients at hand and make the best meal we can. It doesn’t matter how much or how little we have. The Zen cook just looks at what is available and starts with that.
I lead a workshop for 74 newbies in the field of philanthropy. We all paused to reflect on the unpredictable circumstances that pushed us into philanthropy--a field none of us "majored in" or can explain to our parents! So is this a way-station to something else or is this the most important opportunity of our lifetime so far ?(choose #2). How do we make the most out of what we have and where we are?
Visited the incredible Frank Gehry exhibition at LACMA. The genius of Frank's architecture could have easily been lost to his stronger interest in becoming a pilot. His ceramics class unexpectedly led him to architecture. He ignored his professor who told him that architecture was not his field. And later after he designed a typical shopping center in Santa Monica, a mentor asked him if he was happy designing for others. Frank quit his cushy job and took a giant leap--and the rest is history. How do we respond to self-criticism and the judgment and discouragement of others? How do we do what we love?
Saw He named me Malalafilm where a 14 year old girl literally gets shot in the face with her destiny and becomes the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Her unique parents, her name, her incredible personality, the influences of the needs around her and the Taliban forged her destiny. How do we uphold our values and the rights of others? How do we react to tragedy, pain and threats?
And then to top it off I saw Lost Angels, a gritty documentary about the fates of regular people who end up on skid row. Poignant stories of choices, challenges, misfortune, and the ovarian lottery. How do we manage our balance, sanity, finances, addictions, and demons to stay on the straight and narrow? How do we make the most out of what we have?
Stuff happens. Switches get flipped. New paths appear. People push, others pull. You get bored, inspired, discouraged and educated. Outside forces influence your little asteroid into a different orbit and trajectory--if you let them. What chances and changes do we prevent from happening? What do we suppress, fail to express, and under-value in our pursuit of the practical and prudent? What is right in front of you right now that you can't see because your lenses are zoomed in on what is more important to others than to you?
All of the ingredients are in your cupboard to make the supreme meal. What do you have that you have forgotten about? What do you have that you have never tasted or used? How do you focus on where you are and what you are doing to make it supreme?
Every moment is fleeting, fragile and filled with opportunity. The emergence of your passions and purpose grow within you. Meaning and fulfillment are not foreign destinations you hope to visit some day, they surround you. You have what it takes. The possibilities within you are untapped. The opportunities around you are boundless.
I want to incorporate the flavors of the newbie beginner's mind, the outside perspective of Gehry, Malala's courage, and the humility of the homeless into my cuisine.
What do you want?
Put on your apron, open your cupboard, sharpen your knives---let's get cooking!!
It's a real wrenching thing to go from being a private person to being a public person. But it's what everyone wants - to get everyone's attention, to have your music make a living for you, to be validated in that way.--James Taylor
My Dad Roderick Yoshimi Kobara lived a full and fulfilling life. He died peacefully just before his 90 birthday. His life was a version of the American dream. He grew up in poverty outside of Salinas California. His father, my grandfather, died before he was 50 and only had one good profitable year as a farmer. I never met my grandfather, he was a hard living and hard drinking man of few words. From the little bits I have pieced together it was a brutal life. Dad decided to go to college and forge his own path. His entire family was interned in the concentration camps in Poston Arizona in WWII and lost everything. Nevertheless, he enlisted in the army to serve his country. He emerged out of the camps with a hunger to prove he was an American. He legally added Roderick to his name to become more accepted in the mainstream culture. He got admitted into the University of San Francisco and got straight As his first year. He knew he was not that smart so transferred to UC Berkeley to be challenged. He wanted to be a medical doctor, but his inferior camp education set him back and he pursued business and ultimately accounting. He faced enormous discrimination on campus and after he graduated from Berkeley to pursue a career in accounting. Finally a Jewish accountant in Stockton hired him as an apprentice. He passed his CPA exams and became one of the first Japanese-American CPAs in California. He opened his practice just outside of J-town in San Jose, where he built and operated his firm for more than 50 years. He was a self-made man who valued his heritage, education, hard work, and service to community and family
Despite his success he saw his own potential to do more.
He had high expectations of his children. He desperately wanted his kids to become successful and named them John, Mitchell, Katherine and Elizabeth. Assimilation and fitting in was an essential value. He was a man of few words, not unlike other Nisei men (second generation Japanese-Americans). Hugs and the words “I love you” came decades later when he was a grandparent. Yet he provided for his kids to have every opportunity he did not.
We all want to please our Dads. I was no different.
More than any other person my Dad is responsible for my development as an evangelist for networking and mentoring.
In the early 60’s my parents would have friends over to play bridge or to socialize. He told us many times to come down from our rooms and to shake the hands of his friends and introduce ourselves. We rarely did. It was an exhausting loop of unmet expectations that irritated and I think embarrassed our father. One night, he called Mitch and me into the kitchen for yet another lecture on self-introductions. We were oblivious and disinterested teenagers and this pissed him off. He talked for a few minutes about what it takes to be successful in America. That meeting people, shaking hands, speaking well and becoming a “public person” were critical skills. He talked of his own struggles and wanted us to have an advantage. (I am giving him some eloquence here) A speech he never gave again. We looked lost. So he grabs me by the shirt, just to get my undivided attention while Mitch braced himself for something worse. He says, “If you do not become a public person, I am sending you to a psychiatrist!” More confusion washed over our faces. He left us exasperated and angry.
I never forgot that night and those words. I tried to give speeches in high school; I joined the band and student council. But I was so uncomfortable with myself. In college I continued to push myself to fit in and to become a better speaker and meeting others. But they remained elusive skills. I was introverted and an inauthentic speaker. I sought advice and eventually took public speaking classes. In graduate school, the idea of a public person returned to me and I continued on a winding uphill path of developing my public person skills.
After decades of trying to interpret my Dad’s goal for us, I found my own way. Years ago I invited him to hear me lead a workshop, where I told this story. I introduced him to the class and asked him if the “public person and psychiatrist” part was true—he nodded affirmatively. Then he said, “See and you turned out pretty good!” High praise from my father. But I also saw a flash of parental satisfaction as we both enjoyed a moment from the sculpted versions of our histories.
Today, my goal of being a public person has evolved. How do we reveal our true selves? How do we see as much as be seen? How do we help others without expectation? How do we engage others to pursue our common pursuit of meaning and fulfillment? How do we become part of something much larger than ourselves?
How do we become and how do we help others become a public person?
Bottomline: He mentored me and introduced me to networking. He planted a seed within me that I made my own. He inspired SWiVEL.
Although many think I need a psychiatrist, my Dad’s antidote has worked so far. :)
Thanks Dad for your sacrifices, for giving me so many opportunities, for teaching me how to play golf, for loving me in your own way and encouraging me to “smell the roses”. Thanks for giving me the challenge and satisfaction of trying to become a public person. Your life and your advice will continue to inspire me.
Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything. George Bernard Shaw
Some people discuss "change" like it is a monster. A source of stress and distress. "Change" is a darkening cloud that will bring great tragedy and pain.
Or a savior for necessary evolution. And the light on the path of purpose.
Those who embrace the change are empowered by the change. Yeah, it has to do with risk and self-esteem. If you are defined by your job or your title or your retirement plan then the bogeyman of change is Godzilla.
But if you exist to serve, adapt and pursue your passions, then change becomes your sidekick.
None of us wants the status quo. Right? The status quo sucks. For people suffering. For our careers. For our families. For our communities. Putting our worlds on freeze-frame would imprison everyone to now. Now John, you are misinterpreting me! So tell me oh misinterpreted one, What do you want? Tell me! You want change on your terms, on your schedule, Zeus?!! You want convenient change in the economy size to fit into your carry-on luggage?
Change is the air we breathe and the ground we traverse. Change is life. Life is change. We never step in the same river twice, we never have the same conversation or see the same film the same way. We evolve and the world around us evolves and we both try and catch up. Once you understand change is the water from David Foster Wallace's epic commencement address.
Change is just happening, it is relentless. Not even talking about the shifting sands of the world around us that we are partially or totally ignorant of. The butterfly wings that are shaping El Nino or the currency wars that are impacting our retirement plans........
Yes earthshaking change gets our attention at least for a few moments. You get laid off. Someone becomes terminally ill. You become a grandfather. You have a break-up. You get a new boss. The famous study of recent paraplegics and lottery winners showed that a year after their life defining events, both groups had the same levels of happiness! We get over the big changes. And we miss the subtle and important ones.
Change is how we react to it--if we react at all.
One of our favorite past times is participating in the unnecessary stress inducing game of hating change.
The future is already here it s just not evenly distributed. William Gibson
You hoped things would "stabilize" or "stay the same" for a little while so you could catch your breath? Hah!
Change is neither an enemy or a friend. It is.
Change is subtle and like the glaciers or the coral reefs, big changes occur over long horizons. But if we don't notice them its too late.
Our brains are changing and capable of change. Not just memory loss! If we literally put our minds to it. :)
The Luddite who will not upgrade their flip phone. The smoker who thinks they are the exception. The parent who raises their kids like they were. The manager who does not listen to his staff. The perfectionist who never makes a mistake.......
Time stands still---in their minds. And the world evolves without them.
The crazy thing is YOU are changing and evolving. And could change even more if you let yourself.
Like the lizard or snake that molts and sheds their entire skin we are evolving more invisibly. (the average human sheds about 1mm skin cells a day!)
Here is the big deal. Everything you do, people you encounter, visuals you ingest, thoughts that you entertain, are making micro and macro changes to you--if you let them.
Are you aware of these changes? Good question!
Are we allowing the changes to change you? Better question!
Do we appreciate the changes that are changing you? Right question!
Is your disagreement with my words changing you a little? :)
This is not a solo exercise. It is the process of engagement with others. Change is accelerated in a social network, a trusting group of diverse truth tellers who provide and receive honest feedback and different perspectives.
Networking and mentoring done with altruism, an open heart and mind, fuel change possibilities. Help your colleagues and friends and relatives see and embrace their change.
The tyranny of certainty is the real enemy. We develop "truths" about what we don't know. This can range from naivete to ignorance to racism. Certainty prevents us from learning.
You are a whirling dervish of velcro picking up little pieces of change along the way. But if you whirl on the same beaten known paths then change is relative for you. If you whirl off the known roads of life and explore the world then you change and challenge your certainties.
We must break down the gates of certainty to get to the gardens of change.
All that you touch
All that you Change Changes You.
The only lasting truth is Change.
Change is neither friend or foe. It is a frame of mind. Mind the change and change your mind.
Be the change you wish to see in the world. I humbly offer a version of this timeless quote from Gandhi.
You know when you are thinking about something, then you seem surrounded by that idea. It appears everywhere. That's what is happening with me and the concept of altruism. It is emerging, at least in my worldview, as a trending solution for what ails us. I mean everything that ails us. I know, hang onto your hats and let me finish! :) We all know that in our hearts that caring for one another, unconditionally, is not only right but essential if we are to thrive. We all want to foster a sense of community with others. As Jeremy Rifkin says, a meaningful life comes from belonging not belongings!
No one we know is not empathetic or not compassionate--at least that is what we tell each other!
I had the extraordinary opportunity to meet and interview Matthieu Ricard, the respected scientist and Buddhist monk. His latest book Altruism, asserts that social change needs to start with each one of us. That if we each invoke the power of love and genuine care for one another we will change ourselves and the world around us.
To do this, we must cultivate altruism on an individual level, for that is where everything begins. Altruism shows us what is good to do, but also how one should be, and what qualities and virtues one should cultivate. Starting with a kindly motivation, altruism should be integrated into our everyday lives, and should reflect the unique quality of every being and every situation. We should promote altruism on the level of society through education, through institutions that respect the rights of every individual, and through political and economic systems that allow everyone to flourish without sacrificing the good of future generations.
Altruism is not just being good and doing nice things from time to time. It is a state of mind that grows and develops and is only strong when our self-centered individuality is secondary. You cannot be truly altruisitic if you are thinking about WIIFM (What’s in it for me)
Prior to meeting Ricard I confused the concepts of empathy, compassion and altruism. Ricard set me straight. While we need all of these perspectives and insights, we really need to adopt an altruistic lifestyle. An action oriented lifestyle of helping others without expectation.
Empathy is an act of humanity where we connect and relate with another. Empathy can lead to compassion and altruism but it can easily lead to distress, burnout and avoidance of action. Empathetic distress caused by the overwhelming dimensions of suffering can make us view suffering: abstractly, as disembodied needs, as nameless and faceless non-human objects and therefore not real. Ironically, empathy can push us towards greater isolation and selfishness. We do this to protect ourselves. And that leads to more concern for self—the enemy of compassion.
In fact new research from Paul Bloom and Richard Davidson contends that empathy alone can lead to less compassion. “The more empathy you have, the more violent you are—the more ready and willing you are to cause pain." This research shows that empathy for victims can create hate and anger
Reading Altruism and my time with Ricard shifted my views and assumptions in many ways. This is a book of philosophy and great stories. But this is also an in-depth book of scientific proof. Only a scientist Buddhist monk could write this. Here's what I learned:
Empathy is a vital human lens through which we examine ourselves and others. We need to feel for others and resonate with their circumstances. But empathy can be a step toward compassion and altruism. It is inadequate and even dangerous if it does not evolve into compassion and altruism. Change and action are not assured by feeling for others. So empathy can easily lead to isolation, burnout and empathetic distress.
Compassion is the ability to see everyone as equals and worthy of our care, love and unconditional support. That we are all interconnected to each other. That our fates are tied together. And compassion alone is also inadequate without action.
Altruism is the unconditional assistance of "others". Altruism is relieving suffering without expectation. True altruism is not driven by an “ROI”, reciprocity, a quid pro quo, and/or personal gain.
Altruism is the antidote to empathetic burnout or fatigue. Helping others unconditionally—people we know or don’t know, feed our sense of purpose and gives us a physical and measurable neural lift. Altruism offsets the burden of need and the weight of guilt, and the stress from being unresponsive.
Mindfulness meditation are good if you want to rest and empty your mind. But what do we do with an empty mind before it gets re-filled with the congestion of life? Mindfulness and meditation have to have a purpose, a focus. Meditation focused on compassion fills your mind and shifts your brain toward positive action and behavior. As Matthieu warned us, a great sniper needs to be mindful. He needs to be present, breathe calmly, and reach a state of serenity before he kills people.
Purposeful meditation can change your mind and lead to physical as well as spiritual growth. At any age and at any stage, you can learn altruism and meditation is the path.
We have to see ourselves less as individuals and more interconnected to fates and destinies of all people and living things, including our environment and planet. Individualism is great for talent and competitiveness, but it undermines our compassion and altruism.
What I learned from Ricard is we have to add intentions, purpose, and then action to our feelings. We deceive ourselves that sympathy, empathy, compassion make us altruistic. In the end altruism is about action. Yes we should feel for others and resonate with their suffering (empathy and sympathy). Yes, we should want to alleviate the suffering (compassion). But without action these are selfish, self-medicating, self-absorbing thoughts that fall short of altruism.
Hate, ignorance, anger, indifference, neglect, are heavy burdens we suffer that dissipate when you are altruistic and express compassionate love. We relieve our own suffering through acts of altruism.
Ricard discussed the amazing work he is doing with school children, about 100,000 involved in compassionate meditation. It is having fantastic results. Calming our kids to focus on themselves and others. One of the stories he shared involved elementary school students, referred to as the “stickers test.”
On two occasions, at they gave each of the students a certain number of stickers they adore so much, along with four envelopes containing respectively a photo of their best friend, their least favorite child, an unknown child, and a visibly ill child wearing a bandage on his forehead. They asked each child to distribute the stickers in the four envelopes. They gave almost all of their stickers to their best friend, and very few to the others. After ten weeks of meditation and practicing benevolence, the students were asked to distribute the stickers in the same envelopes. The students gave an almost equal number of stickers to the four groups of children: they no longer made any distinction between their favorite classmate and the one they liked least.
It has changed the way I talk and teach mentoring and networking. Mentoring and networking can be selfish pursuits of manipulation and self-serving activities without compassion and alrtruism. While I have been trying to counter self-centeredness with interconnectedness, I realize that I never explicitly embedded positive care, love and authentic regard for one another in my teachings. I assumed it was there. That was wrong.
We are not that far from becoming truly altruistic. But it requires us to train, learn and continue to evolve. Ricard really gave me new thoughts that help me understand my own shortcomings and growth opportunities.
Empathy is not enough. Mindfulness is insufficient. Inaction and apathy are self-destructive. We have to become more connected, compassionate and altruistic if we want to save the world and ourselves.
Questions that we all ask and must address. The answers define perspective and our path. The answers define what we do and the choices we make. The answers shape our future.
Joseph Campbell: We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.
We can only respond to what is calling us. To what the world reveals to us. To the opportunities that engage our hearts and minds. To the intuition of what we were meant to do.
But what beckons us, pushes us, pulls us, mesmerizes us is a function of our perspective and our willingness to experience these forces.
I met two people this week.
An executive who was at a new beginning of her journey of defining her purpose. 20 years into her career of successful and progressive promotions in the same industry. She was successful in all of the external measures of title, money, and prestige. She is 47. But she realized she had submerged her desires, interests, and passions to the expectations of others. How to please her parents, her mentors, her bosses and her peers. Everyone but herself. She was awakening to her inner voices trapped beneath the rubble of other people’s expectations. She wanted to rescue herself before it was too late. I did little in this conversation but allowed her to speak and express herself. It was powerful to see and witness. It was like the child of possibilities was reborn. She saw that she had a new world of opportunities ahead of her. My only advice was to fully explore her interests and to listen to what her heart was telling her. She was fearful and excited.
Mark Twain: The two most important days are the day you were born and the day you find out why.
Then I met a young man who was the child of drug addicts and was essentially abandoned to a gang. He was angry. The gang became his surrogate family and they cared for his needs-emotional and financial. They gave him a future. They mentored him. He became a father at 13 and then again at 17. He too was awakening. He had surrendered his future to others too. His dreams were left behind. So now he is getting his life together, thanks to a community based youth mentoring program. He is 19. He is hopeful. He was asked, “What advice would you give other young men that are in the situation you were in? He said without hesitation, “Find your purpose. We all have a purpose. We have to find it.” Wisdom comes from unexpected sources.
When will we pursue our purpose? When our hearts speak to us do we listen and take note?
Through the haze of life there are moments of clarity. Moments where we say, "Oh there it is again." That feeling of satisfaction of purposeful activity that aligns with our moral and spiritual compass. Not something that impresses others. Something that impresses you. Not an achievement but an activity or even a persistent idea that aligns with our soul. It may be fleeting. It may be a continuous flow, if you are lucky. A flow of engagement of who you are but almost always about the needs of others. As in love and even answers about our destinies, we have moments of deep clarity that propel us forward. A story strikes us, a Tedtalk, a news item, a childhood memory……We get distracted. We always want more or something else. We need to trust ourselves.
We say we like challenges but we also avoid the challenging work we want to do, we need to do to define our lives. We fill our time with the mindless and defer the mindful. The couch beckons and our courage wanes. The only thing that makes progress is time.
Suddenly I am behind on my bills and my dreams. Les Brown
We plot our lives like a clever chess player thinking 3-5 moves ahead. And we can miss the detours, new opportunities, and unbeknownst options that are right in front of us. The next can be the enemy of the now.
We must suffer, struggle and stumble to give our life the meaning and purpose we crave. Meaning and purpose do not knock on your door or fall into your lap. They visit those who have compassion for themselves and others. Those engaged in the great fight for purpose.
Commencement speakers are always telling young people to follow their passions. Be true to yourself. This is a vision of life that begins with self and ends with self. But people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me?
Their lives often follow a pattern of defeat, recognition, redemption. They have moments of pain and suffering. But they turn those moments into occasions of radical self-understanding — by keeping a journal or making art. As Paul Tillich put it, suffering introduces you to yourself and reminds you that you are not the person you thought you were.
The people on this road see the moments of suffering as pieces of a larger narrative. They are not really living for happiness, as it is conventionally defined. They see life as a moral drama and feel fulfilled only when they are enmeshed in a struggle on behalf of some ideal.
This is a philosophy for stumblers. The stumbler scuffs through life, a little off balance. But the stumbler faces her imperfect nature with unvarnished honesty, with the opposite of squeamishness. The stumbler has an outstretched arm, ready to receive and offer assistance.
External ambitions are never satisfied because there’s always something more to achieve. There’s an aesthetic joy we feel when we see morally good action, when we run across someone who is quiet and humble and good, when we see that however old we are, there’s lots to do ahead.
The stumbler doesn’t build her life by being better than others, but by being better than she used to be.
Those are the people we want to be.
We have to suffer and struggle if we want a life of meaning that is much bigger than ourselves. We have to connect with ourselves, with our purpose and stumble forward, always forward.
Sometimes you have to travel far away to understand oneself. We need the perspective, the less cluttered and noisy view of ourselves to see ourselves. Part of it is the true value of comparative evaluation. You know, sizing up what you have or want against others. There is one thing to see someone confined to a wheelchair, which is so different than imagining you are in that chair! Making that little switch triggers a different level of empathy and insight. In the end, how we view what we have, what has been given to us, the so-called hand we are dealt, and make the most out of it? Even the bad stuff. (Say more John I don't know what you mean) Trying to avoid the hackneyed lemonade bromide. Ooops there it is :)
I had the great fortune to visit the emerging third world democracy of Myanmar recently. (second most isolated country behind N Korea just a few years ago) One of the most beautiful and brutal places I have ever seen. Immersed in these stark contrasts from my life in Los Angeles, I was pulled into a different mindset. I think the overwhelming vistas of sacred edifices, wrapped in punishing poverty and surrounded by the grace of a welcoming people opened my mind. I know all of these elements exist everywhere, if I saw them, but parachuting into a new environment flips a perspective switch. At first I resisted these forces of self examination to stay on task with my trip. But I quickly surrendered to these flowing thoughts and tried to allow them to take me on a parallel journey.
I know that my first world guilt and privilege were drivers here. But I also know that the mind craves the space for thought and reflection. The incredible fusion of this mindset with the inputs from our trek through the Burmese landscape made this trip memorable and meaningful.
Way too much to say here but want to share several images and ideas that continue to energize me.
The Myanmar smile: Everyone in Myanmar. I mean every single person we encountered was friendly, warm, and open to us. There was a avalanche of authenticity. People saying "minglabar" (hello/welcome in Burmese) with true sincerity. I know this sounds naive, and I know that perhaps some of the people were disingenuous. But I felt I was in their presence. It was hard work to try and reciprocate. Part of my detox from the world of being on guard, of the hard bubble of personal space and the root of distrusting others until proven innocent. In my mind, I try to be open to others, but my struggles to receive and return the emotional and spiritual generosity from Myanmar revealed my true potential.
In a meditation session I attended in Myanmar, our leader asked us to sense everything about our bodies--but he cautioned "don't react to anything you sense, observe yourself from the outside--let the monkeys play!" Let the monkeys play. Let things happen and see them without judgment. Quiet the mind and let the monkeys play.....
How can I be more trusting, more welcoming, more open to others? How can I initiate this trust this warmth and this openness?
The Lotus Flower: I have always been drawn to the lotus flower. The beautiful bloom atop a glassy body of water. But like most things I knew nothing more about the lotus.
We spent many days on waterways, rivers and lakes and I was re-introduced to the lotus flower. Our guide Czarina made a comment that changed my view of this plant. She said, "The lotus draws its strength from the dirtiest water, transforming it into a beautiful flower." (these waters were some of the most polluted I have ever seen) What an amazing metaphor for life. How do we convert the pools of negativity that surround our lives into beautiful blossoms by tapping into our inner reservoir of spirit and talent? We all sit in our own pools of impurities--self-made, God-given, environmental--and how do we we convert our circumstances into a thing of beauty? How do we truly embrace "our dirt" own it but also appreciate it to move us forward? For without our dirt we would not understand what we want. Without the dirt we would not have to struggle and suffer. And without suffering we can not live a meaningful life.
I googled the lotus flower and learned that the lotus flower is associated with purity and beauty in Buddhism and Hinduism. The ancient Egyptians scholars observed that in the night-time the lotus closed its flowers and sank into the water, and was reborn the next day. In actual fact the lotus slowly emerges from a pond and then blooms in the morning until mid-afternoon. And the lotus does thrive in murky/dirty waters.
The lotus emerges from the pollution to be faithful to its beauty and purpose. To open to the sun gracing the world, like a humble brag, "Here's what I do!"
All that you touch you change. All that you change changes you. Octavia Butler
A smile, your smile. A lotus flower, your lotus flower. How do we take our great capacity to love one another and share it? How can we be more open to being changed? How do we let the monkeys play? How do we fully embrace our dirt to display our beauty?
I have found that people do not appreciate their own stories. There is such a premium placed on amazing, dramatic, tear-jerkers that average stories, just stories about who we are and what we want are relegated to the "boring" file. So these stories are neglected and unformed. Yet I have found that every personal story told is fascinating.
Our stories are helpful to others so they can help us. But our stories can reinforce our own behaviors and actions and become self fulfilling prophecies.
Not talking about your interview technique or even how to sound clever at a cocktail party.
I am talking about what you say to yourself and how that reveals itself to others.
The classics: "I am not good at math." "I have a terrible voice." "I can't even draw a circle." "I can't even boil water." "I am such a terrible public speaker."
Whether you like it or not these are part of your story and become part of your reputation.
What are you good at? What are you most confident about? Are you risk averse? Are you afraid of failure or looking stupid?
You can become what you say you are and not become what you don't say.
What are you telling yourself about you?
I made a woman and a young man cry recently. I didn't mean to.
It was my interpretation of their stories that got them choked up.
The gentleman was testing his pitch for a new venture he was thinking of starting and I told him that people want to invest in you who are you. I gave him my version of the hardships he had overcome.
The lady was looking to make a very serious career change and I asked her to tell me why? She struggled with her answer. I summarized her rationale, qualifications and the value she would add.
I loved their stories. Basically I told them their own stories. I gleaned from them what they were saying and I crafted the stories--positive stories. I have no special skill or technique. I listened to them and read their resumes. These were uplifting meetings for all of us. To see people's potential and share it with them was inspirational for me! When your story is set free and it resonates with the protagonist it creates vulnerability--like a secret was told out loud. It is liberating. It can be cathartic. It is empowering.
And your story evolves, if you allow it. If you keep an eye on the possibility ahead you can edit your story.
One of the many benefits of mentoring and networking is to work on your internal narrative. What story is guiding how you live and what you do. The greatest gift is to ask someone you trust: "What do you see in me?" 'Where do you see me going?"
Steve Jobs advice from his famous commencement address still rings true. "Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly already want to become. Everything else is secondary."
Hearing your inner voice out loud gives it life and freedom far from the tyranny of others expectations.
Is your story fraught with limitations, excuses and pessimism? Or is it nestled in optimism, opportunities, and lessons?
"I have few options." "I don't have the right (education, job, mentor, financial condition....)"
"There are so many things I can do and learn." "This problem is going to teach me new things."
It is a choice. The story you tell.
Stories we tell ourselves and others define our well-being. Depressed individuals often have deeply ingrained internal stories such as ‘I’m never good enough,’ or ‘My father told me I should have been a doctor.’ Versus athletes who visualize success and use mantras like "You have been here before. You know what to do."
From Phillipa Perry's book How to Stay Sane"The meanings you find, and the stories you hear, will have an impact on how optimistic you are: it’s how we evolved. If you do not know how to draw positive meaning from what happens in life, the neural pathways you need to appreciate good news will never fire up. We need to look at the repetitions in the stories we tell ourselves, at the process of the stories rather than merely their surface content. Then we can begin to experiment with changing the filter through which we look at the world, start to edit the story and thus regain flexibility where we have been getting stuck."
Take control of your story. Own it. Interrupt the negative audio loops. Open it up. Tell your truths. Talk about it. Listen to other people's assessments of it. Edit and enhance your story. See the possibilities over the problems. Your story is amazing. Sometimes you just have to get out of its way.
Like a finely made car, brand new and just out of the factory, there is as they say, fit and finish. It is shiny, everything works well, there are no rattles or dings. But we know when we drive off the lot, the car loses value and it starts its inevitable decline into planned obsolescence. Both its FITness and Finish are victims of time, without a maintenance program.
Your FITness in your life is crucial. Do you still FIT into your professional life? Are you at the right place at this time in your life? Do you like what you do and does your work like you?
Hiring today is more about FIT than anything else. There are still a lot of very qualified competent people with impressive resumes out there. But can they FIT into the culture and get along with the team? Do they FIT?
But many people forget that FITness is ongoing. After the offer letter, retention, growth and success at your employer depends on your evolving and adapting FITness.
What got you here, is not what will get you there.
FITness is a two-sided deal. Your employer is always evaluating your talent. Either you are growing and adapting or you are not. But the key to FITness is your evaluation. Your assessment of whether you FIT, whether the current place you spend most of your waking hours is still the right FIT.
Do I FIT? Is there a FIT? So what is my FITness?
Michelangelo’s sculpture The Captive Slave , seemingly half- finished, shows a figure attempting to escape from the stone. Or is about the struggle for freedom in everyday life?
We can get complacent until something happens. Usually something bad, really bad.
We fall out of FITness like America became obese. When we woke up we were out of shape with our lives. We get stuck in a comfortable cycle that we know is not good for us. We are bloated with apathy and have little energy for change—even though we know FITness is what we need and even crave. We wonder how we got to this point. It just happened.
I don’t FIT into my jeans or my life :)
As a close friend of mine was told by his spouse, “I guess your job needs you more than you do.” That was a 7.0 on the Richter Scale. He left the job when he realized what others saw for years.
My wife told me, after I left one of my 19 positions. “Never do that to us again!” She told me how brutal it was for her and the kids. I was blown away and clueless. I knew it was a bad FIT but I didn’t know how obvious it was. My poor FITness unintentionally hurt my family life too.
On the other side, when you FIT you know it. You feel engaged and you engage people around you. You are leading your life. You don’t talk about how busy you are or how stressed you are (signs of you are not FIT). Instead you have a sense of contribution to the work of a team and a greater purpose. It shows on your face and others see it clearly.
Are you willing to do what it takes to get FIT where you are?
Are you engaged in helping your colleagues and your boss succeed?
Have you negotiated and pushed for what you want?
Have you explored the ways you can develop your skills knowledge and abilities?
More often I talk people off ledges. People who have developed almost self destructive relationships with their jobs. A Stockholm Syndrome like dependency. They are trying to tough out a situation that is clearly wrong for them. I never say, JUMP! I want them to see it—to define the lack of FITness.
“I have just 8 years to get my retirement (8 years! You could get two bachelor degrees!)
“I really like the people I work with, I just hate the work.”
“I can’t quit this job now, how would it look on my resume?”
“I am ready to be promoted, I like where I work even though there is no place for me to move up.”
These are the sounds of people on the River Denial. They hope something will happen. Lightning will strike. Things might get better down the road—after the new VP settles in, or the new product line is launched, or after my vacation……. Waiting is never a strategy. Even if they want to leave they have to invest in a smooth transition.
But bad examples should never motivate. That’s too easy. Here’s the deal. You have limited time to do what you want and pursue what’s in your heart. To have a life that is fulfilling. To find FITness. And then you die. Sorry.
The people who find FITness have a growing understanding of what they want. They have clearer goals about money and material things. They know MORE is not a path to FITness. Purpose is the way to FITness.
They find FITness where they are. They add to their life portfolios to become FIT. They invest in their relationships and their passions. They start to lead themselves and others by setting an example of what they want.
So pull up your big boy and big girl pants and start to take control of your FITness.
Start by articulating what you want. Not by whining about what you don’t want.
Take a swing for the fences of fulfillment. Not telling you to quit, but pack your parachute well. Make plans. Moonlight. Experiment. Talk to people. Explore your network.
This sense of direction and purpose (even if you are not exactly sure where you are going) will give you confidence and inspire confidence around you. Opportunities seek and find such people.
How’s your FITness? Do you FIT? Are you FIT or finished?
Probably my age and stage in life but I am getting more sensitive (that's very funny John). No seriously I cry at TV ads and even the mention of tear jerking stories. I am sure I am going through some type of hormonal change (no jokes please). But I know I am much more aware of the preciousness and speed of life and my awareness about the world around me has been heightened. I see, hear, feel, and understand more--at least I think so.
Vulnerability is a word I encounter and use more often. It applies to so much of what I do and what I am thinking about.
vul·ner·a·ble ˈvəln(ə)rəb(ə)l/ adjective susceptible to physical or emotional harm.
person(s) in need of special care, support, or protection because of age, disability, or risk of abuse or neglect.
We are all vulnerable. There are the truly vulnerable--those who have little or no support systems or safety nets. People who have extraordinary suffering daily. And there is the condition of connecting with the real feelings we have with the suffering around us.There are the vulnerable who need our help. And yet we all need to become more vulnerable--to be more susceptible to our feelings empathy and compassion. Vulnerable are people who are endangered and need help to advance their lives. Vulnerable is also a state of mind and heart that enable us to help the vulnerable.
Still with me?
A lot of guilty people, including me, start sentences with "It breaks my heart that......." We need to break our hearts---break them open to the truth and realities of what we want, who we are, and what we are doing about it.
Our capacity for wholehearted living can never be greater than our willingness to be broken-hearted. Brene Brown
From Parker Palmer's book the Healing the Heart of Democracy:
“Heart” comes from the Latin cor and points not merely to our emotions but to the core of the self, that center place where all of our ways of knowing converge—intellectual, emotional, sensory, intuitive, imaginative, experiential, relational, and bodily, among others. The heart is where we integrate what we know in our minds with what we know in our bones, the place where our knowledge can become more fully human. Cor is also the Latin root from which we get the word courage. When all that we understand of self and world comes together in the center place called the heart, we are more likely to find the courage to act humanely on what we know."
We are all numb and number. We suffer from an overdose of need. So we shut down our feelings to protect ourselves--or so we think. We use our devices, vices, and bad habits to distract us from reality. We objectify people in need and compartmentalize our feelings to keep moving on. As vulnerability grows around us, our ability to be vulnerable shrinks. We build thicker castle walls and deeper moats to protect us from these emotions. There is an internal war of trying to feel and trying not to feel too much. Numbness is winning.
My favorite quote:
Comfort the afflicted (the vulnerable) and afflict the comfortable (to make us vulnerable). --HL Mencken I added the parenthetical comments to show this dichotomy of vulnerability.
You still with me?
How do we help those in need and our own need to help?
We all hesitate to say and do what we think--the things we know are right. We try to suppress our feelings, or hope that the moment will pass. We pretend that the moment and feelings do not matter. We regret those lost moments.
Brene Brown has done groundbreaking research on this latter vulnerability. Her Ted talk is one of the most viewed ever. She found that vulnerability is the source of great insights and development and ultimately a chance to be courageous and say and do things we want to do.
Excerpt from Brene Brown: I cannot find a single example of courage, moral courage, spiritual courage, leadership courage, relational courage, I cannot find a single example of courage in my research that was not born completely of vulnerability. And so I think we buy into some mythology about vulnerability being weakness and being gullibility and being frailty because it gives us permission not to do it.
Please listen to this interview of Brene Brown conducted by the inimitable Krista Tippett. If you are slightly open to becoming more vulnerable this will open your mind and your heart.
We share everything but not what we really think and feel. We conform to the crowd not because we agree with them.
My boss calls it phony nice. But it is more than being honest with one another. It is being honest with oneself.
The present offers so many moments to engage our compassion, empathy, and energy for life. But we squander them. I am trying to change before it is too late.
Awareness is step one.
Force yourself to follow your heart to learn the realities of the vulnerable and become vulnerable. Push yourself into the worlds of suffering you care about. Surrender to the feelings and let them inform you and what you do.
Not talking about serving soup at the midnight mission--although that would not hurt. I am talking about diving into the needs of your network and listen-- before you try to fix things!
Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle--a battle you know little about. attributed to Philo
What are other people's battles? Seek them out to understand and help.
What are your battles? What are you numb about? What is your heart saying? Help yourself.
Until we understand our battles we can not connect or mentor. We can not help one another.
Compassion literally means to suffer with others. We cannot have compassion.
Becoming more vulnerable enables us to help the vulnerable. Every person has a battle. Every person has dreams. Every person wants to have an open heart and the courage to act on their true goodness.
In my greyness I am coming to realize that Brene Brown and Parker Palmer are right. Pursue vulnerability by becoming more vulnerable. Struggle over real things and real feelings is a battle, a battle worth fighting, battles we must try to win over numbness.
I am a racist. You are a racist. We are all racists.
We all harbor covert thoughts about people, communities, religions, and disabilities.
So you are following a Hummer with a Scientology bumper sticker
Or a car full of dark complected youth who have a woofer which is vibrating your dental work
Men with turbans are boarding your plane
Or you see a gay couple publicly expressing their affections
Yeah, whatever pushes your buttons—you think bad thoughts—admit it!
You would never say anything, but “those people should_________!”
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the Ku Klux Klanner but the moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.Excerpts from MLK’s Birmingham Jail Letter
Please do not be one of those people who say they are colorblind. That all people are equal in your eyes. Even if that were true, your blindness would mean you do not care about difference. And difference is everything.
Our greatest vulnerability is that we do not see our fates tied to others. That we believe that our comfort, safety and success can be achieved independently from other people different from us and our families.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.
The brutal truth is we have minimized our direct experiences with difference. Economic diversity in our lives is from the news. We have little tolerance for difference. The last time we had truly diverse friends was in college.
The consequences of these subtle, multiplied, and layered decisions are the increasing inability to relate to the world outside of our bubbles. Our networks are sanitized, pasteurized and free of “unwanted” elements.
We struggle with relating to the I Can’t Breathe campaigns, Immigration Reform, Muslim hate crimes, Minimum wage protests…...
We don't discriminate.
We are not prejudiced.
We care about all of our fellow human beings.
We have lost touch with reality.
We are accidental racists.
There are so many studiesthat show how prevalent our discriminatory inclinations are.
Step one is to own our racism.
Now before you launch into your well-rehearsed denial speeches, listen to yourself and look around yourself. “Some of your best friends…..Really! Now why is it that your church, your kids’ schools, your place of employment, your golf club, your circle of friends do not reflect the communities we live in?
Admit it we have not done enough.
Our kids grow up in segregation and despite our best intentions they become accidental racists.
Susan Fiske’s extensive research at Princeton shows that as income rises we see poor people as objects and not as humans—mostly because they are a foreign and unknown population.
We watch as the world turns on Muslims again. -Treating a giant diverse population as a monolithic group. A group we do not know. Racism at its best.
Conjures up Nazi Germany or WWII with the internment of Japanese Americans…
This has been going on for a long time--too long.
In 1946 (Martin Luther King Jr. was about 17 and 18 years before Civil Rights), Albert Einstein was frustrated and angry and gave a speech at Lincoln University called, The Negro Question-- Here are some excerpts:
Many a sincere person will answer: "Our attitude towards Negroes is the result of unfavorable experiences which we have had by living side by side with Negroes in this country. They are not our equals in intelligence, sense of responsibility, reliability."
The modern prejudice against Negroes is the result of the desire to maintain this unworthy condition.
What, however, can the man of good will do to combat this deeply rooted prejudice? He must have the courage to set an example by word and deed, and must watch lest his children become influenced by this racial bias.
I do not believe there is a way in which this deeply entrenched evil can be quickly healed. But until this goal is reached there is no greater satisfaction for a just and well-meaning person than the knowledge that he has devoted his best energies to the service of the good cause.
Sadly, these words ring true today. And “Negroes” could be replaced with many communities which combat our racism today.
It is well established that diversity is not a nice to have but a necessity to compete, survive, and evolve. Mother Nature knows this well! Investment portfolios require it. The American Medical Association studies prove that life expectancy is extended as much as 9 years for those that cultivate diverse social networks. But to attain and then maintain diversity professionally and socially takes courage, work, and vigilance.
Evaluate your network. Not talking just about ethnicity, but religious, economic, ability, sexual preference diversity. How will you reach out and build a diverse network?
What example by word and deed are we setting, for our children?
If the tables you sit at just look like you, I do not care how smart, witty you are, it is limited table of opportunities.
So what are you going to do honor the legacy of Dr. King? More important, what are you going to do to make sure your kids and all of our kids don’t end up to be racists like us?
Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Einstein