Category Archives: Personal Development

Rethinking Person-to-Person

Having engaged last week’s post about rethinking, I hope we’re all committing ourselves to adopting an ounce of humility and equal measure of flexibility in our thought patterns. Getting stuck in “being right” isn’t a healthy or profitable way to go through life.

But what should we do when encountering a family member, friend, colleague, or community member who comes across as particularly rigid? Can we hope for a breakthrough? Adam Grant, author of Think Again, offers the following advice:

Approach the discussion with mutual respect and a deep desire for mutual understanding. Treat the interaction as an exploration with two engaged dialog partners, not a battlefield with two sides. Think like scientists. Acknowledge the complexity of the issue and be willing to look at it from multiple points of view. See the shades of gray.

Be an active listener. As the author says, “Interacting with an empathetic, nonjudgmental, attentive listener makes people less anxious and defensive.” Show a genuine interest in their views and ask thoughtful questions on how they came to hold them. How would they translate their views into reality? Tease out the benefits and costs that they’d expect to realize. Be curious, not accusatory. Simply hold up a mirror and let them take a good look at what they see.

Acknowledge common ground. It does not weaken your argument or conclusions to take note of points of convergence. Rather, it demonstrates your willingness to concede valid points and expresses confidence in their thought processes. It also encourages them to consider yours.

Ask: “What facts or experience might change your mind?” This question probes the extent to which one’s dialog partners would be willing to be open-minded. It also reveals what they consider to be the center of gravity for their belief system. Should you choose to provide evidence, focus in on a handful of relevant points, not the entire collective of opposing research. Less is more. An avalanche of input dilutes your message and gives them the option of rejecting your point of view based on your least effective argument. Be attentive to your data sources, using only those deemed credible.

Take the temperature of the conversation periodically. If emotions start to run hot, press the pause button and redirect the conversation to the process. Be curious about the dynamic. Express your frustration, disappointment, sadness, ambivalence, etc. and invite your partner to do the same. See what you might do to ease the tension. If you’ve reached an impasses, try a new approach. For example:

  • Consider how our views might be different had we been born in a different time, place, or circumstances.
  • Take the other person’s point of view and make a strong argument in favor of it. Pick up the mantle with seriousness of purpose – as if you were trying to win a debate with substantive prize money attached to it.
  • Think about how this issue might be viewed from outer space? Or from 100 years hence?

Honor freedom of choice… respectfully. At the end of the day, you may agree to disagree. That’s OK. We each exercise choice over what we believe. Let’s also make the choice to value each other’s humanity.

The Power of Rethinking

Graduate studies in business avail themselves of case studies to stimulate thought and discussion among budding corporate magnates. Some shine a light on success stories to provide exemplars of strategically sound thinking. Others highlight epic failures. The horse-and-buggy manufacturers who failed to take horseless carriages (a.k.a., automobiles) seriously. The purveyors of Encyclopedia Britannica who believed parents would continue to invest in their meticulously researched, gloriously illustrated tomes when personal computers hit the scene. The Blackberry CEO who held fast to miniature keyboards on his devices in lieu of touch screens.

While we may not carry the weight of corporate strategy on our shoulders, we are certainly vulnerable to mental miscalculation. Habitual patterns of thought may weigh us down, stifle our creativity, disrupt relationships, and render us blind to opportunities, dangers, and roadblocks – especially in a world that changes rapidly. Adam Grant illumes a path to mental agility in his book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know.

Most of us take pride in our knowledge and expertise. In fact, the more often our intellectual horsepower has proven right, the less likely we are to question our mental processes, and the more difficult it is to pivot in response to new information or insights. In our conviction that we’re right, we receive data through a distorted lens. Our confirmation bias leads us to focus on that which affirms what we already believe to be true. Our desirability bias gives greater weight to that which we want to be true. Both validate our established notions and feed into the sense of pride that kicked the cycle off. In reality, we are all wrong more often than we’d like to admit!

overconfidence and rethinking cycles

When we commit to being flexible and open-minded in our thought patterns, we proceed from a place of humility. We may be confident in our ability to process data and exercise sound judgment, but we’re open to the possibility that our thought processes may not reveal the best interpretations, conclusions, or solutions. We allow ourselves to be curious about a subject or issue and engage enthusiastically on a journey of discovery. This exercise alerts our minds to the vast sea of knowledge and perspectives over which we are not masters. It keeps us humble, interested, and open.

So, what advice does Adam offer to keep our minds nimble?

  1. Locate your identity in your core values, not your opinions. You’ll gain intellectual flexibility when your sense of self is not tied to a need to be right.
  2. Think like a scientist. Treat opinions like hypotheses that need to be tested and proven true (or false) with hard data.
  3. Don’t confuse confidence with competence. You can hold your mental skills and capacity to learn in high regard while questioning your current thinking on a subject or problem.
  4. Engage actively with facts and opinion pieces that challenge your sensibilities. Lend them a sympathetic ear and see how they inform your perspective.
  5. Be OK with being wrong – in fact, celebrate it! It means you’ve learned something and will invite self-improvement in whatever form it takes. As Thomas Edison was reputed to have said: “I didn’t fail. I just found 2,000 ways not to make a lightbulb. I only needed to find one way to make it work.”
  6. Don’t shy away from constructive conflict. Rather, welcome people into your orbit with whom you regularly disagree. We learn more from people who challenge us than we do folks with whom we share points of view! Make sure your rules of engagement call for mutual respect. Try framing discussions as scholastic debates in service of a spirit of discovery. You might even take the opportunity to argue in favor of a side that you oppose initially to stretch your capacity to see things from multiple points of view.

A final thought from Adam sums it up for me:

“Every time we encounter new information, we have a choice. We can attach our opinions to our identities and stand our ground in the stubbornness of preaching and prosecuting. Or we can operate more like scientists, defining ourselves as people committed to the pursuit of truth – even if it means proving our own views wrong.”

Clutter Free Productivity

Though mostly retired from paid employment, I still like to fill my day with meaningful tasks and go to bed at night with a feeling of accomplishment. I’m open to ideas that will help me feel greater satisfaction out of my waking hours. David Allen’s book – Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity – fit the bill. While the title suggests it’s just one more way to simply check more things off the “to do” list, the author has a loftier goal. He wants us to have more energy, feel more relaxed, and have more clarity in the moment. As he puts it: “Be effectively doing while you are delightfully being.”

overwhelmedAllen’s methodology challenges us to capture all of the things that might need to get done now or later and get them out of our heads and into a trusted system. Why? It turns out that unfulfilled commitments large and small (a.k.a. “open loops”) take up space in our consciousness and drain energy and focus. They stand ready to hijack our attention while doing something else or keep us up at night when we should be getting restorative sleep. That being said, the manner in which we process the resulting list and develop systems to track progress matters greatly.

As we contemplate each item on the list, we need to ask ourselves: Why does this item matter to me? What commitment(s) have I made to myself or others about it? What deadline(s) have I set? How do I define “done” (outcome) and “doing” (action)? What is the next step to make progress? If the task does not hold up to scrutiny, we may decide to jettison it. If it holds interest but requires no action, we close the loop by filing the item away for future reference or placing it in a tickler file for consideration at a later date. If action is required, we can do it, delegate it, or defer it and use a reliable tracking system to free up our brains from fussing about it. (Allen suggests that we knock out any item that takes <2 minutes – i.e., just do it!) Every “open loop” should have a next action and associated due date and system for prompting action.

Of course, we may still face the age-old dilemma of having too much to do and not enough time to do it. Allen presents a “natural planning model” to align our priorities with how our brains work.

  1. Define purpose and principles. Purpose clarifies why the task earns a spot on the list and provides guideposts for success, decision-making, resources, and options. Principles tell is what behaviors are in and out of bounds as we proceed.
  2. Envision outcomes. We need a clear sense for what we’re trying to accomplish by articulating what success looks, feels, and sounds like. This clarity ensures our actions stay on course.
  3. Brainstorm. We capture ideas without judgment to load up on options for consideration in achieving our objective(s).
  4. Organize. We identify natural relationships and structure, constituent pieces, sequences of events, and priorities in sufficient detail to create an actionable plan.
  5. Identify next action(s). The rubber meets the road in this final step. We ask ourselves: Are we really serious about taking this task or project on? If so, who will do what by when?

Having gone through the process of creating the master list, we can create our own system to manage it or take advantage of an app to do that work for us. On a weekly basis, we are encouraged to:

  • Process all of the new stuff that vies for our attention and decide what (if anything) to do about them – including the all-important next action
  • Review the system to ensure that it is still set up to meet our commitments and desired outcomes
  • Update short-, medium-, and long-term task lists
  • Get clean, clear, current, and focused

The more complete the system – and the more we work it – the more we trust it. Allen warns against getting paralyzed in the process or allowing ourselves to procrastinate. We don’t have to get it all done now! In fact, the beauty of sustaining focus on the next action is that we make our lives easier all the while gaining clarity, accountability, productivity, and empowerment.

While we may pride ourselves in having a good memory, the mind really isn’t designed to manage projects and tasks on its own. We can relieve our cognitive load and have more energy for projects, tasks, people, and fun if we let external systems do some work in our behalf. Allen promises rewards in psychology capital – self-efficacy, optimism, hope, and resilience.

Ten Tips for Mastering Self-Control

Having discussed Baumeister and Tierney’s findings on self-control, I now turn to proven strategies to win the game of willpower. The short answer: Structure your life such that you minimize temptation and inner conflict. In other words, avoid situations that will drain this finite resource. Here are their recommended strategies:

willpower improvement planDon’t procrastinate. When you put off a difficult task or give in to boredom over a mundane task, you are more likely to substitute an activity with the potential for immediate gratification – e.g., raiding the refrigerator. Procrastinators tend to perform worse and exhibit poorer health outcomes than doers while still (eventually) having to get the dreaded job done.

Watch for symptoms of ebbing willpower. Are you feeling increasingly agitated? Are you anxious about making decisions? Are you uncharacteristically making mistakes? Do you snap at others? If yes to any of these questions, push the pause button. Relax and breathe deeply. Get healthy food in your body. Then get back to whatever you were doing.

Pick your battles. Set aside a day each year to reflect on your life and create a rough 5-year plan with monthly goals. Then plan to make important changes during periods with relatively low demand on your internal resources. Huge, quick, ill-timed attempts at transformation tend to backfire. Instead, budget your willpower and use it wisely.

Create rules that dictate what you will (and won’t) do – e.g., “I will exercise every morning right when I get out of bed.” “I won’t have more than 2 glasses of wine during the course of an extended dinner party.” Once you’ve made these decisions and take action on them, you won’t waste brainpower on them. They’ll become automatic mental processes.

Beware of planning optimism. Human beings consistently underestimate the amount of time and effort it takes to complete a project. Set realistic expectations by using your history as a guide and/or getting input from others who’ve gone before you. Try to chunk big projects into small pieces and set priorities for how you’ll proceed.

Attend to the basics – diet, exercise, sleep, hygiene. A healthy, rested will is a strong will. An orderly environment creates a well-disciplined mind. Cultivate good habits and get rid of bad ones. Habits are strengthened by routine.

Postpone with a plan. If you really can’t motivate yourself to tackle a must-do project but can’t stop thinking about it, set it up as the #1 thing on the following day’s to-do list. Add pleasurable tasks as items 2, 3, 4… as incentives to knock out the top priority. This strategy frees the mind to do something else in the present moment while providing assurance that the task is not left unattended.

Set aside time daily to attend to your most important priorities. Do not allow for alternate activities to intrude upon that time. Scheduled time prepares the mind to focus on that activity and stops the internal debate about competing uses of time.

Track your time. The more carefully you monitor your time, the better you’ll get at using it wisely. (There are lots of tools to help you do it!)

Give yourself rewards. Acknowledge your accomplishments and the willpower necessary to achieve them. Use little rewards for little things, and big rewards for big things.

Willpower

What is the most reliable predictor of accelerated performance? Intelligence? Good genes? Great coaching? According to Roy Baumeister and John Tierney in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, the answer is self-control.

self-controlIn the famed “marshmallow test,” psychologist Walter Mischel placed very young children in a room with one marshmallow. The children were told that if they left the marshmallow alone while the researcher exited the room, they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow upon the researcher’s return. Later in life, children who successfully delayed gratification were found to be more popular, earn higher salaries, have lower body mass index (BMI), be prone to less substance abuse, and have more stable relationships.

Because self-mastery is such a critical life skill, it’s useful to understand the mechanics of how it plays out in the human body. In particular, we each have a finite amount of willpower. It gets depleted when:

  1. Managing thoughts: It takes effort to focus our minds on the task at hand (and shut out other thoughts), to process and store information, to evaluate data when making decisions, and any other mindful event.
  2. Exercising emotional control: It is effortful to process anger, frustration, disappointment, stress, etc. and stay on task and/or work ourselves into pleasant companionship. Even just “being nice” can be effortful when we’re placed in unfamiliar territory.
  3. Navigating impulses: We spend upwards of 25% of our waking hours resisting temptation – specifically, the urge to eat, the urge to sleep, and the urge to seek pleasure. While we can’t control the impulses, we can determine how we’ll respond to them.
  4. Managing performance: In addition to focusing on the task at hand, we need to attend to the speed, accuracy, and quality of our work, manage external and internal pressure, and prioritize competing demands on our time.

The more we use up our willpower, the less able we are to make good decisions. We’ll postpone, procrastinate, look for an easy out, or simply go with the status quo. We’re also more likely to fail in our efforts to resist temptation, especially sugary foods. With glucose depleted through exercise of willpower, the body starts to crave sweet things to eat. Even an expectation of elevated demands on willpower can trigger a raging sweet tooth. While we can’t get around the fact that we have a human mind that exists in a biological body, we can learn to “feed the beast” in a way that wards off unhealthy cravings:

  • Focus on foods with a low glycemic index. They’ll provide a slow burn that will maintain a steady supply of glucose for the brain.
  • Get adequate rest. Sleep reduces the body’s demand for glucose and creates the space for our willpower reservoir to replenish.
  • When sick, give the immune system first dibs on glucose. We can mitigate the overall demand for glucose by resting, minimizing stress, letting others take care of us, and deferring major decisions.

Beyond simply taking good care of ourselves, we improve self-control by establishing goals, setting clear boundaries, and sticking with them. When we’re juggling competing demands on our time, we worry too much, get less done, feel bad ourselves, and get less sleep. It drains our reservoir of willpower and introduces needless mental drag. We need to decide which goals and behaviors will do us the most good, create reasonable action plans, and then commit to doing them with focused attention. A mind at peace can get more done and be less reactive to the unexpected.

“Stuff” will crop up – i.e., things that show up in our physical or psychological world for which we haven’t determined an outcome or next step. Such things are best handled by the 4 D’s – Do it, Delegate it, Drop it, or Defer it. The latter can be placed in a folder corresponding to the day of the month during which you’ll give it further consideration. By using this system, you de-clutter your mind while creating the means to address important matters at the right time with the right level of attention.

Steady Change, Big Results

I just finished a series of posts on nutrition and am once again reminded of the difficulty of sustaining good eating habits. Having just read James Clear’s Atomic Habits, it seemed an auspicious time to revisit the topic of behavioral change.

James’ core thesis is that seemingly small and unimportant daily adjustments become the compound interest of self-improvement. Think about it. When we commit to being 1% better at any activity every single day, we’ll be 37.8% better at it by year end. Conversely, when we diminish competency at a rate of 1% per day, we’ll have 2.5% of that skill one year later. He says: “Time magnifies the margin between success and failure. It will multiply whatever you feed it.”

identity-process-goalsJames defines three layers of behavioral change. Goals/outcomes provide a high-level description of a future state; they set the direction. Processes establish the systems and daily routines that produce favorable results; they chart and stay the course. A declared identity tells us who we wish to become. Why does identity matter? Because outcome-based habits that focus on achievement can be thwarted by an old, engrained identity. By contrast, identity-based habits motivate us to act according to who we believe ourselves to be. As such, when we’re tempted to forego the daily regimen, we can ask ourselves: Does this behavior (or lack thereof) cast a vote in favor of the person I’ve declared myself to be?

As covered in an earlier post, habits take the form of a cue, a craving, a routine, and a reward. Once formed, our brain activity drops precipitously between the cue and the reward. In a sense, we go on autopilot. It takes conscious effort to create good habits and break bad ones. We can make things easier on ourselves by shaping our environments such that we do not have to exercise extraordinary self-control or needlessly deplete our reservoir of willpower. James recommends the following high-level strategies:

To Form a Good Habit To Thwart a Bad Habit
CUE Make it obvious Make it invisible
CRAVING Make it attractive Make it unattractive
ROUTINE Make it easy Make it difficult
REWARD Make it satisfying Make it unsatisfying

The balance of his book provides concrete advice on how to enact each of these strategies along with engaging stories from those who model forwarding behavior. Here’s a high-level synopsis:

obvious, attractive, easy, satisfying

The Keys to Good Habits

Make it obvious:

  • Log your daily habits and rate them positive, negative, or neutral. Awareness is a precursor to change.
  • Set an intention and stick with it – e.g., whenever I am tempted to eat between meals, I will grab celery and carrots.
  • Add a new good habit on top of something you already do – e.g., whenever I go to the bathroom, I will follow up with 20 abdominal crunches.
  • Create an environmental cue that reinforces the desired behavior – e.g., put my guitar on a stand in my office to remind me to play. James says: “Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior… You can’t stick to positive habits in a negative environment.”

Make it attractive:

  • Tie a habit that you need to do with something that you want to do – e.g., while exercising on my portable Stairmaster, I’ll take a mid-afternoon work break to watch my favorite show.
  • Associate with people who model habits you want to emulate. Proximity and social norms powerfully influence behavior. Shared identity bolsters personal identity.
  • Increase motivation by reframing actions as things you “get to do” rather than things you “have to do.” Tie that sense of agency with a thought, feeling, or action that brings joy right before launching the routine.

Make it easy:

  • Remove barriers. Have all the necessary materials at the ready to engage in positive change.
  • Make good environmental decisions – e.g., join a gym that’s on the flight path to work, grocery store, or other frequent haunts.
  • Pay attention to the moment of choice every day and learn to master it – e.g., set the calendar to include self-care activities and treat these time slots as non-negotiable.
  • Create 2-minute routines – e.g., meditate for 2 minutes every day upon awakening. Extend the time in 1 increments when it feels natural to do so.
  • Leverage technology to automate habits – e.g., deduct X amount from the weekly paycheck and put it in a savings plan

Make it satisfying:

  • Find ways to give yourself immediate rewards for behaviors that provide long-term benefits. Choose rewards that strengthen identify and goals. (A brownie after a workout does not fit the bill!)
  • Reinforce good choices visually – e.g., place money saved on impulse purchases in a glass jar and watch it accumulate.
  • Place a habit-tracker in a prominent location to encourage yourself to stay the course and celebrate daily progress.
  • Commit to “getting back on the horse” if you break the chain. Be a person who does not falter twice in a row.

I really enjoyed this book and recommend that you grab a copy and read it. You’ll get far more benefit out of his words of wisdom with in-depth exposure. If it changes your life for the better, isn’t it worth the investment?

Personal Mastery

During my tenure as a management consultant, I was influenced heavily by Dr. Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. It argues that the only sustainable advantage any organization possesses is its ability to learn faster than its competition and sustain constant adaptation and improvement. Such organizations are fully grounded in reality yet have the capacity to ignite new and expansive patterns of thinking that galvanize collective aspirations and efforts.

Personal mastery represents a key cornerstone in a learning organization. As its tenets bear fruits on an individual as well as a corporate setting, I thought it merited consideration for healthy living.

Senge defines personal mastery as “the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively.” The practice of personal mastery enables us to live in service of our highest aspirations.

Exemplars of personal mastery share the following characteristics:

  • They are clear about what deeply matters to them. They sustain their focus on intrinsic desires, not the goals and actions to support them. This focus provides the agility to change strategies and tactics when higher order objectives drift from line of sight.
  • They are imbued with a higher purpose to which their vision and goals are aligned. Each feels connected to a broad and benevolent human endeavor that extends beyond the individual.
  • They see the truth of things as they are. They recognize that “an accurate, insightful view of current reality is as important as a clear vision.” It demands a commitment to uncovering ways in which we deceive or limit ourselves and challenging the mental models we’ve used to describe the world… even when those insights create discomfort or conflict.
  • They have a keen awareness of the structures within which they operate and use that knowledge to work within them and change them. They challenge assumptions that keep us stuck in dysfunctional patterns of thinking or behaving; they open up a range of possibilities for consideration.
  • continuous learningThey are deeply inquisitive and engage in the practice of lifelong learning. They are acutely aware of their growth areas, yet pursue self-improvement with no loss in self-confidence. Learning confers newfound expertise, skills, and insights, and expands their capacity to create and contribute. Individuals who develop personal mastery do not expect to “arrive”; they enjoy the journey.
  • They enroll their self-conscious in pursuit of their aspirations and values. This engagement enables them to take forwarding actions without having to give them much thought. It also provides the means to access intuition and integrate it with reason.
  • They connect deeply with others and revel in being part of a larger creative process. At the same time, they do not lose sight of their distinctiveness, personal goals, or desires.

Each of us has the capacity to practice the discipline of personal mastery. The promise of living fully and generatively holds great appeal. I suspect that the absence of clear and compelling higher order vision serves as a stumbling block to engaging wholeheartedly in this process. I feel that pain. As a person entering a new phase of life post-retirement, I don’t have a clear definition of how to write my next chapter. Yet as a practitioner of lifelong learning, I have faith that a new vision will emerge.

What captures your imagination? How might you make room to explore that interest and see where it leads? With whom could you engage in dialog to explore the insights that might emerge?

Principles for a Life Well-Lived

In last week’s posts, I shared thoughts on why I find Emilio Estefan’s life story inspiring. For those who haven’t had the opportunity to read his book, The Rhythm of Success: How an Immigrant Produced His Own American Dream, here are some of his principles for a life well lived.

  1. journey to successMake bold decisions and take responsibility for the actions and outcomes that come with them.
  2. Always find the positive side of any circumstance; be grateful for blessings, however small.
  3. Define success based on your foundational values and a knowledge of what makes your life satisfying and enjoyable.
  4. Know what gives your life meaning – e.g., family, a passion for the work, a sense of accomplishment – and let that be the driving force to embrace each day’s activities.
  5. Be open to change and all of the opportunities that it provides.
  6. Find your advantage, take pride in who you are, and work hard to leverage your skills, abilities, and passion to maximum effect.
  7. Honor your family. Commit to their well-being and take comfort personally and professionally in the support they provide.
  8. Be yourself; let your outward appearance and reputation be authentic reflections of who you are. “Don’t spend money you don’t have trying to impress others with a false image.”
  9. Get an education; keep developing skills and talents. Among other things, school provides discipline, teaches you how to learn, and confers a sense of accomplishment.
  10. Do what you love to do. It may take time and effort to find your passion. Commit to the process of discovery for the sake of enjoying your life’s journey. “You can pay off a debt, but you can’t pay off a regret.”
  11. Be meticulous with planning and execution. Time is a precious resource. Planning helps you get more out of what you do and what you have. Change your plans as conditions warrant.
  12. Work hard. Keep your commitments to yourself and others. Never give up. Ever.
  13. Work smart. Have a plan for each day and focus on the tasks and responsibilities that really matter.
  14. Think big and take calculated risks. Don’t be paralyzed by fear when pursuing your dreams. Take appropriately bold steps to let your passion, knowledge, and skills come to fruition.
  15. Have great companions on your life journey. No one navigates life alone.
  16. Expect resistance and make plans to address it. If you are rock solid in belief in yourself and your dream, stand firm. Fight the impulse to give into the idea that it won’t work. Find a way.
  17. Do it yourself. No one will hand you success on a silver platter; no one will work harder to fulfill your dreams than you. Grab the reins and go!
  18. Learn how to turn “no” into “yes.” Don’t be deterred by discouraging news or feedback. Take matters into your own hands. Visualize success and work hard to achieve it. Build a track record of success to support your positions and sway doubters.
  19. Embrace new markets. Introduce your offerings to others, and let their traditions, cultures, ideas, and talents influence yours.
  20. Take care of business. Have an organic understanding of all aspects of your chosen field – how products/services are produced, marketed, supported, and financed. Keep growing in your craft and your managerial skills.
  21. Think out of the box. Fresh ideas are the coin of the realm in business. Quality alone is not enough. Use your imagination, listen to your heart, and trust your intuition. Be resourceful.
  22. Renew. Revive. Don’t be wasteful. Be on the lookout for ways to achieve goals using less time, energy, and money. Give old things new life. Find ways to renew and recycle your skills and experience, too.
  23. Keep growing and innovating. “A successful business is one that never stands still.”
  24. Be a great boss. Take responsibility for your employees. Make sure they have a good livelihood and provide opportunities to meet their needs and realize their aspirations. Treat them well and motivate them to do their best work. Be loyal.
  25. Give back. Do as much as you are able to help others.

Self-Esteem

Gloria Steinem was an iconic figure during my formative years. A pillar of second wave feminism, she made headlines as a speaker, writer, editor, advocate, and community organizer. She embodied the winning trifecta of bold, brilliant, and beautiful. It would never have occurred to me that she ever experienced self-doubt. Yet in Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem, she reminded me that even superachievers aren’t superhuman.

For each of us, the communities of which we are a part exert a profound influence on our sense of self. The dominant culture establishes social hierarchies and normative behavior based on race, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexual orientation. In particular, Western civilization teems with disempowering messages for women:

  • Aristotle’s Politics shaped gender relations for centuries with such assertions as: “A husband and father, we saw, rules over wife and children… For although there may be exceptions to the order of nature, the male is by nature fitter for command than the female, just as the elder and full-grown is superior to the younger and more immature.”
  • A majority of U.S.-based Christian churches continue to place women in a subordinate role by virtue of their interpretation of Genesis 2.
  • Our history books assign power and agency to men. Even today, there are relatively few female role models in positions of authority.
  • Women are regularly chided for being “subjective” or “emotional” in their commentary and analyses rather than “objective” and “rational.”
  • Women are encouraged to be gentle, nice, and agreeable, never bold, powerful, and decisive.

Given the power of these external influences, it’s easy to quash an inner spirit. We become some version of what society expects of us or face substantial headwinds when charting a different course. Gloria’s root thesis: “Systems of authority undermine our self-authority to secure obedience; thus, self-esteem becomes the root of revolution.”

Gloria makes a distinction between core self-esteem and situational self-esteem. Core self-esteem entails a conviction that we are loved and lovable, valued and valuable as we are, no matter what we do. Situational self-esteem ties to evidence of being good at something, praised for something, overcoming obstacles, achieving goals, and/or aligned with the “right people.” The former confers a sense of inner peace and equanimity with which to engage the outer world. The latter places the outer world in control and tells us that we are never enough.

self-esteemSo how does the revolution begin? Gloria encourages us to go on a journey of self-discovery through which we:

  • See through our own eyes rather than those of the dominant culture
  • Give voice to our deepest thoughts, dreams, secrets, and desires and recognize that there is nothing shameful in owning them
  • Call out attitudes and patterns of behavior that have been treated as normal and dare to set different expectations
  • Bond with others who share similar experiences and are traveling on the same path to enlightenment
  • Achieve empowerment and self-governance
  • Find a balance of independence and interdependence

When we come into our own, we gain new eyes with which to see ourselves and a new perspective when looking outward. We experience an inner energy that is ours alone yet connects us with everything else. Core self-esteem becomes a self-reinforcing fountainhead of positive action for one’s self, one’s friends and family, and the world.

As one who has lived for over six decades, I’m not the least bit surprised that this work emerged as Gloria entered her 60s. There’s something wonderful about having a lifetime of experiences when settling in to who and what one will become in the final chapters of life. One feels less of a need to prove anything to anyone else and more of a determination to be fully authentic and fully alive. For me, these parting thoughts say it all:

“Our brains are ever subject to improving, diversifying, and sharpening, if we will only believe in them enough to stimulate them… When our talents are required and rewarded, we can stretch our abilities, use the energy of self-esteem to activate the unique mix of universal human traits we each possess, and uncover a microcosm of the universe within ourselves.”

A Good Life

Now entering my fourth month of quarantine, I’m getting lots of time to read (and re-read) a variety of books. This week, I re-encountered Jonathan Field’s book, How To Live A Good Life: Soulful Stories, Surprising Science, and Practical Wisdom.

If you haven’t read anything by Jonathan Fields, I encourage you to give this book a go. He’s a wonderful writer, and his advice strikes me as thoughtful and grounded in reality. As the Founder of the Good Life Project, he hosts a popular podcast to which I subscribe and also runs conferences for folks seeking to take their lives up a notch.

Jonathan’s formula for living a good life relies upon creating balance in each of three “buckets”:

vitality, connection, contributionThe VITALITY BUCKET acknowledges that we need to be feel sufficiently fit, energized, strong, and flexible to participate fully in life. It entails making life choices that minimize pain, disease, and disability (e.g., nutritious diet, daily exercise and stretching, good sleep habits, eliminating stress/tension). It calls for living peacefully in the moment with gratitude for what we have and optimism toward the future. (Not surprisingly, he’s a big fan of meditation!) It also means cultivating a growth mindset that is open to opportunity and bounces back from adversity.

The CONNECTION BUCKET recognizes that we are fundamentally social creatures. We need to give and receive love. We need to be seen, understood, and embraced by folks who share our interests and values. And we need to connect to something that is larger than ourselves. To fill this bucket, we must do the inner work to understand ourselves well enough to identify our tribes while developing the skills to engage with integrity and compassion. We must also do the legwork to cultivate relationships. (Hint: We need to get our noses out of technology to do it!) Along the way, we can work toward becoming an increasingly better version of ourselves.

The CONTRIBUTION BUCKET entails knowing that we are doing what we’re meant to do and lighting up along the way. For many of us, this bucket may be the toughest to fill. We may have gotten so enmeshed in what life expected that we bypassed figuring out what really matters to us. Jonathan invites us to explore the following:

  • Curiosity: Toward what do you feel a deep yearning to answer a burning question?
  • Fascination: What subject matter triggers an intrinsic desire to learn?
  • Immersion: In what activities do you become engaged and then lose all track of time?
  • Mastery: What expertise or skills would you like to develop at the highest level?
  • Service: Where do you feel most adept and/or energized when contributing to those around you?

He encourages us to identify key strengths (e.g., as revealed by things like the VIA Survey of Character Strengths). They may prove useful for identifying focal areas. Likewise, distinctive skills, talents, knowledge, and experience may come into play. That being said, we may not be excited about things at which we’re naturally gifted or acquired mastery. We’ll only fill our contribution bucket when we’re good at something for which we feel an inner spark.

All three buckets benefit from the art of saying NO. NO to patterns of behavior that drain our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual resources. NO to relationships that distract us from our journeys or are otherwise energy vampires. NO to letting our heads talk us into jumping on paths that our hearts know would be wrong for us.

Finally, Jonathan tells us to “think ripple, not wave.” Simple actions, moments, and experiences delivered with intention and integrity can propel us to a good life.