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From My Lips To My Own Ears 1 comment

After a long session of student presentations last Friday, one student turned to me and said, “I hate doing this. I know I have to do this, and I have to get better at it, but I hate making presentations so much. I get so nervous. I’m really terrified.”

In truth, this is actually a composite student because, with each round of presentations, at least six students per class look to speak with me privately to confess their terror and fear. The course is Business Communications and I freely admit that my personal bias is that I lean away from emphasizing the writing aspects and more towards lifting up their presentation skills. In 14 weeks, I can’t make students better writers when most of them come in with such a poor grasp of the basics of English. However, in 14 weeks, I can see vast improvement in personal confidence, organization and team-work when we focus on individual and group presentations. Therefore, this is where I invest most of my energy and effort.

Over and over, as I speak with these students about their fears, I hear the following truths flow forth from my lips:

  • Feel the fear, and do it anyway! Being afraid of trying something isn’t necessarily a good reason not to make the attempt.
  • The number one fear in our population, as shown in survey after survey, is public speaking. This fear is greater than death, heights or snakes. And, yet, the activity of public speaking has never, itself, been known to cause physical harm or death.
  • Repetition and preparation. These are the keys to reducing your fear. Feel prepared and ready. Keep trying. Keep practicing in front of others. Acknowledge your success every time you stand up in front of others and speak – just the act of trying marks success!

As I engage the students on a deeper level, asking them what they are actually afraid of, getting them to talk about their fears, it becomes clear that they are afraid of failure. Of being perceived as failing. By others. By themselves. It shakes them to their core.

It is harder to get the students to reflect on the role of failure in their learning processes. If I could get them to think about this a bit, I’d suggest that all learning requires new behaviours, new thought processes, new ways of assembling information. By definition, it is a numbers game. In order to learn anything, one must experience failure, or partial failure. Tiger Woods didn’t emerge from the womb hitting perfect golf balls. He has had to hit thousands, perhaps millions by now, in order to hone his technique. The vast majority of these attempts could be seen as failures or partial failures. And yet, he is regarded as being highly successful in his profession. Failure is a crucial element to success.

Men seem to be socialized to manage a higher degree of risk/failure tolerance. Boys are encouraged to stretch themselves physically, to try many activities. To physically engage with the world, to have an impact on it somehow whether through team sports or building forts or bashing each other in a Wii environment.  Girls, on the other hand, are trained to be more sedate, less encouraged to go out there and have an impact on the world. Boys are acculturated to “do”; girls are encouraged to simply “be”.

So, when women experience “failure”, we experience it as a failure of “being”. A failure at some essential level of who we are, an indication of some flaw of our very being rather than a failure of some activity we have attempted. Some of us have connected, very closely, the notion that what we do is also who we are. It is no wonder that the students who confess to me their degree of fear regarding making presentations are predominantly women.

The universe plays clever tricks with me. A long time ago, I learned to listen to the input I’m asked to give to others, be they students or friends, and to ask myself “what am I supposed to be listening to here?” In other words, when situations present themselves to me and I have some opinion to offer, I tend to mentally turn the tables and ask myself if there is something in my own words to (or about) others that I’m supposed to be listening to myself. Is there something about “feel the fear and do it anyway” that I need to hear myself right now? Have I blown my own fears out of proportion to reality?

Have I associated my own feelings about failure too closely with my perceptions of my essential self? Am I letting these fears hold me back from moving forward in any way?

The answers are complex. I’m still mulling this “table turning” over. I know I’ve spent more time than I’d like to so far this calendar year struggling with amorphous fears that are like ghosts moving through my life. I brandish my mental sword of analysis at them and they disappear, momentarily, only to re-appear and hover over my emotional life, lending a cold leaden chill to practically all I experience. I know that the times I feel sunniest and most at peace are times when these ghosts have retreated far far away. The trick, of course, is to remember – as I keep reminding my students – that fear is like a filter, a lens, through which we see situations and circumstances. It does not help us interpret reality accurately. Rather, fear is designed to distort reality. It is best acknowledged (feel the fear) and then set aside so one can proceed (do it anyway).

Anaïs Nin – Re-Run Click Here To Comment!

A re-run from my Vox blog, last October. Seems timely to re-visit.

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A few weeks ago, I stumbled across an Anaïs Nin quote that I’d forgotten about.

And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.

It captured something that I needed to be reminded of in that moment. Remembering this, I did a Google search for Anaïs Nin quotes and found quite the treasure chest. I thought I’d share some of what I found here.

Age does not protect you from love. But love, to some extent, protects you from age.

Do not seek the because – in love there is no because, no reason, no explanation, no solutions.

Dreams are necessary to life.

Dreams pass into the reality of action. From the actions stems the dream again; and this interdependence produces the highest form of living.

I postpone death by living, by suffering, by error, by risking, by giving, by losing.

If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.

It is the function of art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see. The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and, as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it.

Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death.

Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.

My ideas usually come not at my desk writing but in the midst of living.

People living deeply have no fear of death.

The dream was always running ahead of me. To catch up, to live for a moment in unison with it, that was the miracle.

The only abnormality is the incapacity to love.

The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say.

We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.

Art – Tanya Davis Click Here To Comment!

Suzanne sent this link along in her annual New Year’s e-mail message. I think it is sweet and profound and definitely worth a few minutes of your time.  (Thanks, Suzanne!)

More Tanya Davis excerpts here. Enjoy!

2008 – Viva La Vida Click Here To Comment!

“Live the Life”, is the translation of the title of the Frida Kahlo painting “Viva La Vida”.  This is also the title of Coldplay’s big hit this year.  Here is a link to a YouTube version of the song with decent audio quality. And nice pictures.

“Viva La Vida” (Live the Life) seems to have been my theme song this year and, for some time now, I’ve been pondering why that is, planning to take a shot at discussing it here. I’m at that place where I’ve almost over-thought this … but I’m going to give it a go anyway.

I need to back up to mid-2007. Changes needed to be made. Primarily, major re-construction needed to happen from within. I was stuck on so many levels. Some might say burnt out. However, for changes to occur internally, things need to happen externally. I needed to shake things up on a grand scale – job, personal habits, relationship(s). For a time there, I contemplated new living space but, thankfully, I pulled my horns in from that decision.

Change, meaningful internal change, doesn’t happen overnight. Old habits don’t break and new ones form in their place in the blink of an eye. Change happens, as I’ve come to believe, with steady, small, incremental adjustments. It takes time. I needed the latter part of 2007 to get some momentum going. This was achieved by creating the environments for change and then monitoring and tweaking my responses. A job change. A romantic relationship ended. A commitment to new diet and, eventually, new exercise habits.

2008 has been a year of ups and downs, primarily ups, some dramatic downs and I have learned so much from all of it. Here is the primary learning for me:

I’m not in control of anything more than my responses to my external world. Even at that, I can choose only my behavioural response. I’m not even in control of my emotional response. Emotions just *are*. It is what I choose to do with them that constitutes active decision-making on my part. The harder I try to “control” the world around me, the more the world around me will resist.

This is a hard pill to swallow for someone who is not only a natural planner but a trained planner. An attempt to overly-manage one’s life is, really, an attempt to control the uncontrollable.

Here are some things I believe do fall within my locus of control:

  • how I spend my time
  • who I spend my time with
  • how I spend my money
  • where I focus my energy
  • what I ingest

If I spend my time well, with the right people, if I focus my energies on making good things happen – for me and for others – if I spend my money with wisdom and judiciousness, and if I eat properly consistently … on balance, this will keep me on track for an interesting and healthy life.

If I spend my time around people who are judgmental and cruel, if I waste time and energy working on projects that do not make good things happen, if I waste my money on frivolous things, if I eat badly consistently, I simply won’t feel well, I won’t think well of myself, and I will have failed to provide myself with the internal and external supports I need to feel whole and healthy.

In MBA-speak, this would be called “positioning”. Making the consistent day-to-day choices will, on balance, position me well – with the right people, the right personal and professional projects, the right sustenance.

Another way to think of this is that the right choices, the small consistent ones, create in me enough strength to tackle whatever “big stuff” the external world has to offer me, be it a tough emotional situation to resolve, or a fabulous new project to take on. Both will take time, energy and thought as investment. I need to be well-positioned and well-supported to “live the life” that is presented me.

Here is what I cannot control:

  • how others behave
  • how others feel
  • how others feel about or perceive me
  • how others make their decisions

How much time, measured likely in years, have I wasted worrying about what other people think, and then basing my own behaviours on my assumptions in this regard? Not having the opportunity to be present inside the unique psyches each individual possesses, I can’t possibly anticipate how another person will respond to me or my words.

The only “stuff” I can control is my own.

Which brings me back this fabulous song, Viva La Vida. The lyrics, almost Shakespearean in nature, just knock me over.

I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sleep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own

I used to roll the dice
Feel the fear in my enemy’s eyes
Listen as the crowd would sing
“Now the old king is dead! Long live the king!”

One minute I held the key
Next the walls were closed on me
And I discovered that my castles stand
Upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand

This first set of stanzas creates a picture, for me, of a person who created a life based on an illusion of control and, upon his/her illusions being challenged, found that his/her life was build on “pillars of salt and pillars of sand”. The thing is, you can get away with this for a while – you can imagine that you control enough of your world, and understand enough about the people around you, to manipulate yourself into a pretty solid looking castle. Until the walls close in, that is …

(Chorus)
I hear Jerusalem bells a ringing
Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror, my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field

This part of the chorus is repeated intact several times and, to me, speaks of the level of ego required to imagine that one’s control is absolute … it is a form of megalomania.

For some reason I can’t explain
Once you’d gone there was never
Never an honest word
But that was when I ruled the world

This part of the chorus alters slightly when it is repeated. Here, the “controller” is abandoned either by his/her loved one, or by his/her sense of conscience and ethics, as symbolized by a persona. Without this element, either figuratively or symbolically, the “controller” has no reason to behave ethically, or to trust that what he/she is hearing represents truth, having surrounded him/herself with courtiers (one presumes).

It was a wicked and wild wind
Blew down the doors to let me in
Shattered windows and the sound of drums
People couldn’t believe what I’d become

Revolutionaries wait
For my head on a silver plate
Just a puppet on a lonely string
Oh who would ever want to be king?

It was a sudden and dramatic event that led to the “controller’s” downfall. Damage and mayhem everywhere and astonishment at the “controller’s” egocentric belief that he/she can, actually, control their world. Harsh judgment and loneliness follows, along with the ultimate question, “who would ever want to be this kind of person?”

(Chorus)

I hear Jerusalem bells a ringing
Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror, my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field

For some reason I can’t explain
I know Saint Peter won’t call my name
Never an honest word
But that was when I ruled the world

Again with the judgment … as Saint Peter isn’t going to call his/her name.

But, for me, the song, or the story, ends at the beginning. “… sweep the streets I used to own”. The person survives the experience of a perceptual downfall, from “king” of their world to street-sweeper. And, yet, the song is upbeat, musically, and the title, Viva La Vida, is almost joyful. Has this person not been liberated from the shackles of control, micro-management, empire-building and decision-making?

Musically, the song begins with an almost militaristic, insistent, march-like beat. The beat itself, like a heart-beat, doesn’t disappear but it does get adorned, in layers, as the song progresses. The bridge between the first chorus and second verse is the first significant shift in the musical structure. The “heart-beat” sustains, but a new guitar motif starts sparkling along, almost asking the drums/violins if they should really be taking themselves so damn seriously. After the second verse/second chorus, there is another bridge in which the heart-beat stops, momentarily, and the violins themselves seem to question the wisdom of carrying on in the same manner, as if deciding which path to follow. Then, the heart-beat plunges back in, but is layered with the haunting vocal wailing of the lead singer, Chris Martin.  There is lots more going on at the end, as the chorus returns over the wailing. Then, suddenly, the song tapers off on “… never an honest word, that was when I ruled the world.”

To me, the ending is the kicker, suggesting that less is more. That you really only rule your world when you stop trying so damn hard.

What I want to say about this song, as it pertains to me, is this: the more I set my heart on specific external “needs” and expectations, the more I try to “control” things to make those outcomes occur. And the less happy I am, and the less happiness I bring to others in my world. When I set my sights on my own internal health and well-being, and sit back a bit to see what comes my way, the happier I am, and the more prepared I am to respond authentically to the people and events around me.

Living more “re-actively” than “pro-actively” goes well against my nature, as some kind readers may know. 🙂 It’s ok … I’m learning. 🙂 I’m a Libra, so maybe I’ll find some happy balance somewhere.

Here are some kids having fun with this song … this is by far my favourite rendition.

I spoke with my sister on the phone on Boxing Day and it was lovely to re-connect. It was so interesting to hear how she has, in her own way, come to this same place, at almost the same moment in time.  She too is a planner, list-maker, organizer, “controller”. She told me vignette after vignette, with each little story ending with her finally shrugging, smiling, and saying, “… and then I realized, it is what it is.”

It is what it is.

Live the Life.

Viva La Vida.

Root Cause Analysis Click Here To Comment!

One of the more enjoyable aspects of my teaching practice involves guiding students through the process of problem-solving. In particular, I'm the hard-ass (a quote from a former student) who demands that teams dig all the way down, sort out symptoms from actual causes, to define, in a single sentence, the actual problem that they are attempting to solve. The word "solution" is tossed around technology circles in a manner distinctly out of proportion with the word "problem". Without understanding the exact nature of the problem, most attempts at "solutions" are less than likely to succeed – a waste of resources, in my opinion. Problem-definition is a tedious and frustrating exercise, especially in a cross-cultural, cross-functional team environment. The reason I love teaching it is that when the light bulbs go on, and the analytical rigour pays off, each successful student has a tool they can apply to their own lives in any circumstance, to their workplace, to their relationships to an extent … even to themselves if they choose to go there.

As you can imagine, my students, the ones who actually show up, like me a whole lot better at the after-party than they do prior to the final exams.

I think it is telling that the student who called me a hard-ass did so over ice cream a few weeks after she graduated. She was looking for some guidance in finding employment and she seemed to know I'd be ok with this descriptor. She was right. Not so much of a hard-ass that I couldn't be approached to join her for ice cream, I guess. Apparently, I was also called "The Time-Keeper" which strikes me as being kind of benign, really, as name-calling goes.  I gather this is in reference to my penchant for giving teams specific lengths of time in which to complete tasks. "OK – here is this three paragraph case – each team has 15 minutes to read through, discuss, and respond to the two questions below … GO!"  Yeah, my classes sometimes have a sort of boot-camp-esque quality to them. At least I don't ask any student to "give me 20" if they don't complete the tasks on time. Honest.

Nonetheless, imagine my joy when I find that one of my key clients wants me to add a service level clause to an agreement that I am working on demanding that an external organization follow a recognized root cause analysis process when approaching problems. Rapture!

Recently, I've been hoist by my own petard on this issue of root cause analysis. Here is generic version of a conversation I have about three times a week:

Kind, Interested Person: So … what is the single biggest factor that has resulted in your successful weight loss?

Me: Well, I think the single most important thing I had to do was decide I was ready, that I really wanted it. After I really made that commitment, it was just a matter of finding the right "program" that would work for me.

So far, so good, right?

As I've thought about this, I realize I've been lying all this time. (Sorry.) For me, there is a deeper root cause than the decision and the commitment. Good critical analysis methodology will lead the questioner to ask "why" until there is an endpoint.

Why was I ready … what drives the commitment, the decision?

The flip response to this is that I'm doing it simply because I can. Not to prove that I can … but because I'm coming to a place in my life in which I am starting to banish my ghosts and fully appreciate what I'm capable of. This is roughly the same driver/motivator that got me into, through, and successfully out of, the MBA. I knew I could do it, so therefore I had to.

I'm so very incredibly lucky. I have a healthy body, cancer-free (so far), and otherwise disease-free. My mind is clear and strong. Physically, and in so many other ways, all the parts work. I fire on all cylinders, so to speak. I have a roof over my head, access excellent quality food, and an ability to prepare it properly. I get to drink clean water, right out of my tap if I like. I'm blessed in so many other ways … I have a lifetime of complex experiences that I've tried to learn from. I have had an excellent formal education. I have the pure, unadulterated luxury of time to enjoy excellent music that moves my mind and my heart, to indulge in culture, friends, extended family, lovers … I think of people who would give their right arm to have been granted the life I live right now. If I don't stretch myself, pour myself into my life fully, I feel as though I'm squandering this amazing opportunity, this outrageously blessed life I've been given to live.  If I am going to pour myself into my life, fully, I need to stay healthy, in all respects. To do otherwise feels vaguely irresponsible and wasteful.

There is another piece to the "because I can" motivator.  

We are, some of us, trained to disrespect ourselves, to de-value so many aspects of our lives, not believing our actions to be significant, important or impactful in any way. Like so many people, I received really mixed messages as a child. I was told by my mother that I could do anything, anything at all that I put my mind to. I would then be informed, forcefully, by my much older brothers, whom I worshiped and whose love and approval I sought constantly, that everything I did was worthless and unimportant. I fight this internal battle between these two competing forces all the time.  I will take some important step or reach some achievement, personally, professionally or spiritually, enjoy a moment of satisfaction – or, more often than not, eye-brow raising surprise – and then immediately dismiss it as being irrelevant. It is how I'm programmed. This makes it extremely difficult to really find satisfaction in the things that others, looking in from the outside, view as "successes".

I sense that I'm not alone in this kind of programming.

Henry Ford reportedly said, "Whether you think you can, or you think you can't, you are right." Depending on where one places one's locus of control, this can either read as inspiring or threatening.  I've seen it both ways at different times in my life but, at the moment, I see a third element that I've missed until now. The actor/thinker grants themselves (or is granted) a great deal of power to decide, either way. So, I'm developing my own version of this philosophy. It goes something like this: If I think something is important and worthwhile, or if I think it isn't, I am right. No one else can decide this for me.

There are a series of things I'm trying to put in place in my life that will help me keep moving forward in a positive way. These things feel "important". Weight loss is only one of them, but it does seem to be the most visible. The point is, I get to choose the belief system that will support this part of my journey, and I'm choosing to believe that I can do this, and that it is important.

Some days, my self-talk veers dangerously close to some kind of mutant lesbian feminist Tony Robbins which can be a bit startling, especially as a visual. Thank goodness that, with the exception of this particular posting, I'm the only one who hears it.

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My Dog Doesn’t Say GoodBye 1 comment

Every once in a while, my dog Freddie comes to visit. For a few days, or sometimes a week. I'm going to have her for almost a whole month, straddling April / May, and I'm really looking forward to that.

This is part of a shared custody arrangement that developed after my ex and I broke up. It is, as Martha would say, a good thing.

Soccer - Summer 2006
Soccer - Summer 2006

When Freddie sees me, when she first arrives here, she is absolutely joyous. Gleeful, ecstatic. Her doggie voice, in my head, says, "Mommy Mommy where have you been? I've missed you so much … " She barks and wags her whole body and leaps in the air. She jumps in my lap, several times, and tries to lick every part of my face that I will permit her to. She smiles in that doggie way that some dogs smile. You know they are smiling.

When it is time for her to leave and go with her other Mum, she simply walks out the door without a backward glance. Oh sure, I pick her up and cuddle her and pat her and thank her for visiting me and tell her how much fun we'll have next time … but she knows she is about to have a change of scenery and she is staring at the door, intent on what happens next. Not on the emotional disentanglement of the moment.

She is incapable of saying "goodbye". Or rather, she is incapable of behaving in a way that I can anthropomorphize as "Goodbye, Mommy … I had fun! See you next time!"

No navelgazing here. No wrapping up, summarizing, reviewing, pondering … nope. "What's next?" is her general approach to life.

Sometimes, I think it would behoove me to take a page from her book.

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