The Edge of the Real: The Unfolding Story

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Our Stories, A Story of Wholeness

Life is movement and change. Each day is different. Each conversation, even on the same subject, is different. Perspectives change. We change. We change jobs. Move to a different city. New relationships start, others end. We grow older, wiser.  We encounter new ideas and ways of doing things. We reconnect with old friends, see our children grow into adulthood, and, for many, we see our parents diminish back into childlikeness.

All this change is a part of the narrative of our lives. But it is not the whole story of our lives.

Combine all the encounters, all the events, all the notions, all the false steps, mistaken assumptions, failed efforts, successful ventures, and times of pure ecstasy, and patterns of meaning will emerge. We'll see that our response to differing situations was often the same, or our opinions about people followed a pattern of judgment that is revealing about who we are, and the truth of our lives and their lives. It is this pattern of response that is the unfolding story of our lives.

What this pattern reveals is the truth about us. It is this truth that I see in our desire that our lives be Personally Meaningful, have Happy, Healthy Relationships and To Make A Difference That Matters. In my previous post, The Call of Desire, I make the point that our desires are a call upon our lives. They bring with them a responsibility to follow where they lead.

This call is a story, an unfolding one that is yet to be completely written. It is not a script that is already written that we are simply following. It is a story that is serialized, a new chapter each day, each moment, each time our desires are exercises in the living of our lives.

Our story unfolds like the opening up of a folded piece of cloth, a large multicolored tablecloth, for example. As it opens, new parts of our lives that were previously hidden from view, now reveal themselves.

If we are stuck, remaining enfolded within what we already know, then, as the world apart from us unfolds its own story, as change happens, we become more anxious about change. We want more and more for time to stand still. More and more of our life seems fragmented and alien. We become more isolated.

This isn't the isolation that comes from not knowing what is going on in the world. We may be fully immersed in the fascinating stories of The Spectacle of the Real. The screen's virtual image may captured our interest and imagination in the lives of others, of celebrities, and events manufactured to create news, that we no longer have a story which is our own. Our story is a vicarious one lived out through the lives of others.

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To find peace, purpose and wholeness in our lives, we individually must establish a connection between our inner selves and the outer world. We do this through the exploration of the desires that define us as individuals.  By acting upon them, we find ourselves in the midst of our own unfolding story. Not someone else's story, but our own.

How ironic that in a time in human history when we are at the apex of the culture of individualism, of the culture of me, that so many people have lost their individualism to The Spectacle of the Real.  It is time for us to recover our individual responsibility to be ourselves in relationship with others as we create a better world.

What Defines Us.

This whole line of thought began for me many months ago with my post, What Defines Us?.  There I referred to the influence of my family upon my sense of identity. In that reflection, I recognized that my story is a part of a larger one, going back at least six generations, and in a specific instance much more. Choices made by various members of my family that led to historic, life-changing moments in time, are today, influencing how I make my choices, and today, are contributing to defining who I am. Their story grounds me in my own unfolding story.

My story unfolds, just as yours is, and every person we encounter. We each have a story.  The closer we get to understanding it, the stronger our sense of who we are as individuals it becomes. My story has not been swallowed up by my family's. Instead, I found myself at a young age jettisoned out into the world with the freedom to follow a path that has matched my Three Desires. Self-knowledge is not just about one's self, but about all those people and events that have influenced us. They are part of our unfolding story. This is why, for me, life-long friendship has always been important. There are no cast-off relationships, for each encounter, whether for five minutes or five decades is a chapter in my unfolding story.

Most people I know are not clear about their story. They know parts of it. Like sound bites. "Remember where you were when the Twin Towers fell?" We remember snippets of people and impressions of events. We need to remember these events so we can remember the people. We need to reconstruct events that have been instrumental in our lives in order to remember how we responded. To know this over time, to reconstruct our past can lead to seeing patterns of attitudes and behaviors that either helped us advance in life or were obstacles that held us back.

Begin with the events, look for patterns, then create a story. Weave in the Three Desires. Show how what took place reveals the things that matter to you. When we know the values that are most important to us, and we see how those values live in the best of our relationships, or their absence is the reason for the worst of those relationships, then begin to see our story.

When the story begins to be clear, then we begin to see those times when we felt at our best. Identifying that moment in time when I was my happiest self is typically one of those revealing situations. We may see for the first time the impact that we want to have through our life and work. The point when we can define the difference we want to make with our lives that matters, is the point when the story has come together.

The point became clear for me during the Questions & Answer session following a conference presentation on leadership. I had been speaking on the Circle of Impact. One of the participants asked me, "What's the impact you want to have?" Up to that point, I would have said, I want to help leaders build better organizations. Instead, in that moment, it became crystal clear to me. In that moment, the Three Desires melded into one, and I responded with,

"I want to see people who don't see themselves as leaders, taking initiative to make a difference that matters. I want to be present for that moment when they make a turn in their lives, to step out and take leadership initiative. There is no more powerful and exciting moment for me than when a person changes their life to become the person they've always wanted to be."

In that moment, my unfolding story took on a new wholeness. My philosophy about leadership was already well developed. My desire for happy, healthy relationships had been born into me as a child, and now, it was clear to me the difference my life was to make. It was then that I realized that I had my story.

The Story We Tell Ourselves

This is how our stories unfold: one page, one chapter, one event, one revelation, one decision, one action, one impact at a time.

Our unfolding story is not the one we tell others. It isn't a brand or a marketing narrative. It is, instead, the story we tell ourselves. This is very important to understand.

Every one of us has a story that we are constantly telling ourselves about who we are and what we can do. There is narrative feedback loop that is reminding us who we are, who we are not, how we are to think, behave and respond in each situation, encounter and decision we have. 

If your story is, "I can't do this!" or "I'm not going to quit this time!" or "I'm not worthy." or "I deserve this; I'm entitled; I've earned this.", then you are going to respond accordingly when you are placed into challenging, unusual and change-oriented situations.

These stories are not written until we write them. There is not a script that we are given that we are obligated to follow. Our stories are unfolding. They are the product of many unseen micro-decisions that lead towards and away from things that could potentially define our lives. As human person, we are free to write our own stories. When we invest our attention in The Spectacle of the Real, we accept the responsibility of following someone else's story for our lives.

I've seen too many people whose lives never approach fulfilling the potential that I see in them because someone else's story for them has control over them.  I see this in particular in well-meaning parents who tell their children that they can do anything in life that they want. As I've learned from those who are enmeshed in this kind of co-dependency, they feel the burden of living up to their parents' confidence in them. With those expectations comes the pressure to achieve, and with that their parents' approval and disapproval. Parents see this as love and responsibility. Their children feel it as a burden to live to expectations that are not their own.

Psychologists call this co-dependency, and we live in a culture of co-dependency. This is the culture of The Spectacle of the Real. It is a culture that says, "Trust us; We know better who you are than you do."  It is a culture of conformity to whatever is the producer of the Spectacle's expectation upon the viewing public. As a result, the #trendingstories of the day replace the stories we tell ourselves. As we lose ourselves in other people's stories for us, we lose the connection we all need between our inner selves and the outer world. The stories we tell ourselves are the bridge between the two, and help us to know how we are live each day.

A Unique Story 

My story is mine. Your story is yours. Your mother's story is hers, your father's is his. Your sister's is hers, and yours is yours. Each of our stories is uniquely ours alone. It marks our own individuality, not for others, but ourselves.

This story is a product of all the interactions, encounters, endeavors, learning, discovery, influences, and situations that we had during our lives. It is a story that provides a way to connect our inner selves with the outer world. It is a story that requires us to have discernment about what is good and true and what is false or fake.

This story begins to be written in childhood. If our parents treated us a precious little prima donna's, then the story that we tell ourselves is that we are entitled to privileges and benefits that others are not. If we were bullied, and no one came to our defense, then we tell ourselves that we are not able to take care of ourselves. If a teacher took time to help us discover some topic of learning that inspires us to learn skills for doing math or writing, then we will look for situations where we can use those skills. If we were close with our siblings and friends, then our story tells us that friendship and family are central to our lives.

Our experiences through life, whether good or bad, don't just happen to us. They form us into the people that we are. As a child, I had great freedom to come and go as I wished. Today, that freedom continues to be lived out in my love travel and the discovery new ideas.  At the same time, the injury my mother suffered when I was eleven years old, which kept her life in pain the remainder of her life, has made me more sensitive to others pain, loss and even death. Our experiences don't just happen to us, they form us into the people we become. As a result, the story we tell ourselves grows out of our life experiences.

An important part of understanding our life's unfolding story is to see that every day we have the opportunity to write the unfolding story we tell ourselves. We don't have to accept the story that we were told us as children, or the one that comes because of some traumatic experience. We each have the power to write our own story, and with it change the course of our lives, and the impact that we can have.  In this sense, to write our story is to bring healing to our lives. To create connection where there was none, meaning where once there was emptiness, and fulfillment in making a difference that matters where passivity and fear once existed.

Writing Our Stories

The stories we tell ourselves affirm who we are, and provide us a way to act with integrity. Whatever the values are that we choose to live by, we must be consistent in living those values in order to live with integrity and authenticity. If we are inconsistent, we create confusion about who we are, and raise questions about the practicality of our values.

It is for this reason, we keep these value words ever present in our minds. My approach imagines various scenarios in my mind about how I'd react in one situation or another. This has been extraordinarily helpful in preparing me to respond quickly and truthfully in complex, emotionally charged situations where I must make some statement or decision.

Living out these stories doesn't mean that we have one story that is fixed for all time. We have a story which has a core meaning that is applied in these differing situations. Our values are like a thematic thread that is woven through the length of our lives. This thread ties each chapter of our unfolding story together. We see our lives taking on the form of a serial narrative that makes sense of our lives.

Understanding that this is my story or your story is the key. We must own our own stories. We create them in real time in real situations and relationships. This is the same story we tell ourselves as we view The Spectacle of the Real. As we watch, our stories are a mirror upon which to see ourselves in the context of the images or commentary that are being presented. Instead of being absorbed and lost in the flurry of images, sounds and opinions, we can see ourselves in perspective. We can see how we fit into situations, or not, and better know how we would respond with integrity and authenticity.

The story we tell ourselves is our living story.  As it unfolds, wholeness, meaning, and fulfillment are possible.


The Edge of the Real: Our Fragmented World

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I have been arguing that in order to make minimal sense of our lives, in order to have an identity, we need an orientation to the good, which means some sense of qualitative discrimination, of the incomparably higher. Now we see that this sense of the good has to be woven into my understanding of my life as an unfolding story. But this is to state another basic condition of making sense of ourselves, that we grasp our lives in a narrative. This has been much discussed recently, and very insightfully. It has often been remarked that making sense of one's life as a story is also, like orientation to the good, not an optional extra; that our lives exist also in this space of questions, which only a coherent narrative can answer. In order to have a sense of who we are we have to have a notion of how we have become, and of where we are going.

Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity

Charles Taylor

We all exist in time. We know that yesterday we went to the market, and tomorrow, we'll visit with friends over dinner or spend our days at work. We look back in remembrance and forward in time with anticipation. We understand the cycle of time as a part of life.

The Teacher in Ecclesiastes wrote a very long time ago,

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
  a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
  a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
  a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
  a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
  a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
  a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
  a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

While we may acknowledge this to be true, we also desire for time to stand still. We desire stability and continuity, to keep the good and avoid the bad. This is a response to a world that is more fragmented than whole.

Look to the conditions of our external world. It is a world of change that is often disruptive, random and unwelcome. Yet, it is this very fragmented world that we ask to be consistent, stable and compatible enough to make us feel good about ourselves and provide a ground for a personal identity that can withstand the change we experience. This fragmentation is primarily between our inner selves and the world that is separate from us.

The challenge to be a whole and complete as a real person becomes more urgent as our world fragments into hyper-realities.  Of course, to see this, understand it, and live into it requires us  to understand how our inner and outer lives have become so fragmented, how the world is and is not a mirror of our inner state, and how we can establish a path to personal wholeness.

The Hyper-reality of the External World

The hyper-real social world that I describe in The Spectacle of the Real is a world of random experiences that are presented to us as daily events of significance intended to define who we are as people.

Look at your Twitter or Facebook feed, or, watch the news scroll across the bottom of the screen of your favorite news channel, and you'll see events, causes, ideas and personalities that are promoted as information that is important for us to engage. These status updates are not descriptions of all that is taking place, but rather a filtering of what is important and what is not. The selection of what is included and not included is commentary on the news, not the news itself.

ALL media content is mediated content, not raw data for our own critical mind to determine whether it is news or not.

The early promise of social media was as a more or less unfiltered reservoir of people and information to connect and engage.  Social media sites have evolved into clever, highly sophisticated advertising platforms, promoting not just products for sale, but perspectives and social philosophies intended to guide our understanding of the future and our place in it. The more they know about us through our social media postings, website selections and online purchases, the tighter and more closed the sources of information that are provided to us.

The hyper-reality of social media fragments the narrative sense of our lives, that Charles Taylor describes. For our lives to be understood as a continuous, unfolding story, we need to be able to see our life experience as a whole in two ways. First, as having continuity and connection over the entire length of our lives, and second, as being open to what is new, different and unpredictable.

Hyper-real contexts always place us on the outside of the screen, looking in at those who are doing the real living. We are meant to see a reality that is larger and more important than our own existence, filled with the fascinating people we must follow, and never, ever, involving us as direct participants in their lives. The result is that our inner lives take on a stunted, not flourishing life, disconnected from an outside world that can fully engage us

I have often heard people say in response to my daily change of my Facebook cover picture, how much they would like to go to the places that I have been. There is nothing unusual about those places. Many are within minutes of where I live. Or, the number of times the thought has crossed our minds about how much we would like to do what those crazy guys in a YouTube video did or say what they said. Social media sharing is a vicarious experience, not a direct one, as it is not quite as real as the one we create when we act upon some desire to go see a concert or hike to a beautiful mountain waterfall.

The reality is that the attraction of the screen is always random, momentary and intermitant, never whole or complete. Our lived lives, on the other hand can be filled with meaning, friendship and a real sense of accomplishment and contribution.

As Umberto Eco wrote in Travels in Hyperreality"the American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake." This is the hyper-real, social media context in which we seek to understand who we are as persons. The more deeply engaged in this hyper-real world we become, the more disconnected we become from our inner selves.

The Numbed Self, or, The Hyper-Real Inner Life

Marshall McLuhan, writing in the 1960s, was one of the first to recognize the social impact of images on a screen. His most famous epigram is the medium is the message. In McLuhan's most important book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man there is a chapter entitled The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis. In this essay, he uses the Greek story of Narcissus as a way of seeing the effect that electronic technology has upon us a persons.

"The Greek myth of Narcissus is directly concerned with a fact of human experience, as the word Narcissus indicates. It is from the Greek word narcosis, or numbness. The youth Narcissus mistook his own reflection in the water for another person. This extension of himself by mirror numbed his perceptions ...

... the wisdom of the Narcissus myth does not convey any idea that Narcissus fell in love with anything he regarded as himself. Obviously he would have had very different feelings about the image had he known it was an extension or repetition of himself. It is, perhaps, indicative of the bias of our intensely technological and, therefore, narcotic culture that we have long interpreted the Narcissus story to mean that he fell in love with himself, that he imagined the reflection to be Narcissus!"

Narcissus was unaware that the image was of him. His inner self-awareness was disconnected from the external reality of the pool. His sense of self or identity was broken.  His awareness of who he was had been severed from his awareness of the world beyond his perception. The wholeness of life was lost on him. He had no way to tell a complete or whole story of seeing his reflection in the water, because his perception of the image in the water and his self-perception were disconnected. He was a fragmented man captivated by a hyper-real image in the water.

McLuhan was one of the first media critics to see electrical technology as a tool for replacing our sense of identity with an artificial image. The computer screen, the iPad, the Smart Phone are objects which are now extensions of our identities, representing our inner selves in the outer world. This is why it is do difficult to let go of them. To let go is to lose our identity.  Whatever is on the screen is not who we are, but, rather, a substitute representation, a hyper-real presence.

Sherry Turkle two decades ago began to speak about how Life on the Screen provides us multiple identities. In her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other  she has similar insights as McLuhan's.

Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies. These days, it suggests substitutions that put the real on the run.

... we seem determined to give human qualities to objects and content to treat each other as things.

But when technology engineers intimacy, relationships can be reduced to mere connections. And then, easy connection becomes redefined as intimacy. Put otherwise, cyberintimacies slide into cybersolitudes. And with constant connection comes new anxieties of disconnection, ...

This is a fragmented relational world lived through the hyper-space of the screen.

At The Edge

Charles Taylor in his book, A Secular Age, draws a distinction between the self of the modern age and that of the premodern one. He speaks of the modern self as being "buffered" against the intrusion of the outside world, and the pre-modern self as being "porous" so as to allow what is in the outside world to take on meanings that intrude into our sense of who we are.

By definition for the porous self, the source of its most powerful and important emotions are outside the "mind"; or better put, the very notion that there is a clear boundary, allowing us to define an inner base area, grounded in which we can disengage from the rest, has no sense.

As a bounded self I can see the boundary as a buffer, such that the things beyond don't need to "get to me", to use the contemporary expression. That's the sense to my use of the term "buffered" here. This self can see itself as invulnerable, as master of the meanings of things for it.

... the porous self is vulnerable, to spirits, demons, cosmic forces. And along with this go certain fears which can grip it in certain circumstances. The buffered self has been taken out of the world of this kind of fear.

... the buffered self can form the ambition of disengaging from whatever is beyond the boundary, and of giving its own autonomous order to its life. The absence of fear can be not just enjoyed, but seen as an opportunity for self-control or self-direction.

As Taylor's description shows, the separation between our inner selves, or "minds"  and the world at large is much more complex than simply identifying either a connection or a detachment between our inner and outer worlds.

The point I wish to draw here is that the extremes of either a "buffered" or "porous" self are products of the fragmentation of the world in which we live. Wholeness is discovered, lived out, at the boundary between them, which I'm calling The Edge of the Real.

Two Questions

There are two questions that I wish to raise that I will pick up in part two of this essay.

1. Is the fragmentation between our inner selves and the outside world neutral, neither good nor bad, just the way things are, and therefore, just something to adjust and adapt to each day?

I am asking whether what I have said thus far has any merit. Am I just creating an issue where this is none?

I ask this because Taylor in his A Secular Age clearly shows that there are benefits to living a bounded, buffered life, creating a safe space between my inner self and the outer world.

2. If this fragmentation is unhealthy, then what does it mean to be a whole person, and how does one bridge, cross over, heal the gap between our inner lives and the outer world?

I ask this question because of what I observe in people who are broken and people who are whole. I see a pattern or a collection of patterns that point to how the boundary between the world of our minds can engage in the world apart can become a place where life is made whole.

The Edge of the Real is a place of discovery. In part two, I'll explore what I see as the source of wholeness, and part three how to create wholeness in our lives and work.


The Platform of Desire, Part 2

Desire or Rationality?

We live in an era created by science and rational thought. But the culture that we live in is not rational. It is sub-rational, almost primal, in its elevation of the expression of desire over everything else.

This elevation of desire is a two-edged promise. It on the one hand, a promise of engagement in all that life has to offer.

On the other a promise of total exhaustion, of even annihilation, if embraced without thought, direction and boundaries.  It is the power behind the passion of ambition and human connection.

Images of desire capture our attention, draw us into experiences that touch us, change us and can ultimately transform us into new persons. Our rational selves rarely do that. It is the passion of desire that makes it possibly for us to make the sacrifices to be people who create the goodness that lies dormant in the potential that we all have.

If that desire is let loose, never guided by our rational selves, then like Icarus' flight to the sun, we can crash and burn.

Desire = Love

I'm calling desire those inner drives that draw us toward what we love. Philosopher James K. A. Smith sees this love lived out in a sort of secular liturgy of worship. There are rituals that we observe because they reinforce the importance of our desires.

“…  we are primarily desiring animals rather than merely thinking things, I also think that what constitutes our ultimate identities – what makes us who we are, the kind of people we are – is what we love. More specifically, our identity is shaped by what we ultimately love or what we love as ultimate – what, at the end of the day, gives us a sense of meaning, purpose, understanding, and orientation to our being-in-the-world. What we desire or love ultimately is a (largely implicit) vision of what we hoped for, what we think the good life looks like. The vision of the good life shapes all kinds of actions and decisions and habits that we undertake, often without our thinking about it. ”

Our loves and desires are shaped by how we live in the world around us.  The social and organizational systems and structures that are the context of our life and work is a place of engagement where we either find our desires fulfilled or frustrated.  Our happiness is not so much about what we think, but how we intersect with the social and organizational places where we live and work. Smith writes,

So when I say that love defines us, I don’t mean our love for the Chicago Cubs or chocolate chip scones, but rather our desire for a way of life. This element of ultimacy … is fundamentally religious. But religion here refers primarily not to a set of beliefs or doctrines but rather to a way of life. What’s at stake is not primarily ideas but love, which functions on a different register. Our ultimate love/desire is shaped by practices, not ideas that are merely communicated to us.

Or to put it another way, our real world context is both outside of us and within us. The  connection between our desires and the physical places where we spend our days is intimate and integral to every aspect of our lives.

If you are like me, there are places you go to find restoration and perspective. For me it is the spiritual geography of wild places. Remove the technological noise and perspective returns. At these places, we reconnect with the desires that drive us toward what we love.

When I go to a place like Max Patch (below) I find myself standing on a high mountain bald with a 360 degree vista of mountain ridges.

Max Patch Edge

The vastness of this mountain scape, like that of this panorama of the Grand Tetons of Jackson Hole (below), touches me deep inside, reminding me of vastness of the opportunities that we each have each day to make a difference.

Jackson Hole Valley

The desires of my life and work resonate with the bigness of these mountains. It is why I constantly return to them, where I find balance and proportion between me as an individual and the bigness of the world in which I live and work.

Smith presents a compelling view that contemporary consumerism is set of liturgical practices that both inform and form us as people. He writes,

"Because our hearts are oriented primarily by desire, by what we love, and because those desires are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate, it is the rituals and practices of the mall - the liturgies of mall and market - that shape our imaginations and how we orient ourselves to the world. Embedded in them is a common set of assumptions about the shape of human flourishing, which becomes an implicit telos, or goal, of our desires and actions. That is, the visions of the good life embedded in these practices become surreptitiously embedded in us through our participation in the rituals and rhythms of these institutions. These quasi-liturgies effect an education of desire, a pedagogy of the heart. ..."

What is true of the mall's impact upon us is also true of the social and organizational structures where we live and work. They are not inert, neutral, artificial places. They are living contexts which engage our desires, and where our lives take root in a real world.  These "places" affect how we develop as human beings. 

It is this deeper truth that lies behind the design development of office space between those of an open plan and the closed kind advocated by Susan Cain in her book, The Quiet.  The architecture of space in social and organizational structures affects who we are and how we perform. This is the tangible representation of the role that human desire has.

A Structure for Desire?

We don't look at the way we organize our businesses and organizations from this point of view though. We tend to see space or organizational systems as just a place where work takes place. We think of organizational structural design as primarily about creating efficiency and production. We don't think of them as a determining factor in how people connect to their inner desire for meaning and impact.Three Goals of Life-Work-CircleofImpact It is the same reason we don't see people, but rather human resources. It is the utilitarian mindset of the industrial age that cannot see what is evident when one stands outside of that context.

The effect of this mindset is to diminish our understanding of human potential, reducing it to whatever is needed for the task assigned. Consequently, any connection to human desire is lost all together.

It was James K. A. Smith who provided me the insight to see something in my work with clients that had been evident all along: three human desires that everyone has. Desires for personal meaning, healthy, happy relationships and to make a difference that matters.

What we love drives us towards these desires. And we need to structure the social and organizational systems of our lives and work to enable these desires to find fulfillment. 

In part 3 of this essay, I will look at how we can create organizational structures that enable people who work within them to find personal meaning, healthy, happy relationships, and to make a difference that matters.


In Transition, Start with Connections

First Posted August 13, 2012.

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Listening to the discussion between Mitch Joel and Jeff Goins about writing, raised the question about how to start anything. This is particularly important if you are at a transition point in your life and work.

I know I need to change. How do I start?

Think. I'm starting fresh. Not starting over.

The best way to start fresh is with connections. The connections to ideas, to people and to the contexts where your transition is taking you.

Starting with Connections to Ideas

Connections with ideas at its most basic level is about communication.

You are communicating a message to someone, maybe even yourself.

My blogging here is primarily about helping me clarify what is going on in my head.

What is going on in my head is a product of what is going on in my "gut"; about what is happening intuitively.

Intuition is nothing more than making meaningful connections with ideas or situations.

You are in a meeting. Something is said.

Boom, flash, I've heard this before.

Then you begin to wrack your brain from where.

What do you do? Start writing down things. You are brainstorming. All of a sudden. You remember.

You do because you have made a connection in your mind. It isn't a direct connection. In fact, there is no connection, yet there is. This is the function of the intuitive mind.

You then speak up and show your brilliance. Simply because you started fresh with the connection to something.

Connections are not always logical or linear. More often, I find, they are random. That is why I read books and blogs that have nothing to do with my work.

There is a common thread of ideas that connect everything together. No one has the final word on what string of connections is. But it exists. I see it every time I engage with other people's ideas.

The more broadly you learn, the more you will see that everything is connected in some way. I find it very comforting and exhilarating. You will too.

What are ideas?

Ideas are nothing more than the rationalized emotions we feel brought to life in a logical order of words that help others know what we mean in our "gut".

Make the connections, and you'll find fresh meaning for starting.

 

Starting with Connections in Relationships

This is probably the easiest way to start fresh in a transition.

Start with people. Here's a simple way to do it. This is what I did 17 years ago when I started my leadership consulting business.

Ask people you trust, "Who do I need to know? Will you introduce me?"

Simple. Because you are not asking them to do anything more than make a connection for you. With that connection, you say,

"I'm in transition to X. Any advice? Are there people you know that could use these kind of services?"

This is how we make fresh connections that lead us through our transitions.

What are Relationships?

Relationships are nothing more than personal connections that are founded upon common experiences, values and mutual beneficial caring for one another. If the relationship is missing one of these, then it is not whole. It has potential, but is not fully formed.

When people make a connection for you, they do because they care about you. They see something worth investing in, even if the investment is as little as an introduction. Respect that gift, thank them for it, and then return the favor in connecting them to people they need to know. This is how we develop strength in relationships during a time of transition.

 

Starting with Connections to Contexts

When we are in transition, it just does not take place inside of our minds and gut. It happens in a real world context. None of us live in isolation tanks, hermetically sealed off from people, places and events. We are living real lives with real consequences. And we live them within contexts that are just as real, if we make to be so.

When we change, our connection to contexts changes.

By far this is the most complex of all the transitions that we are going through. We are changing patterns of behavior, which is the hardest part of change.

It isn't that I have a new job. It is that this new job context is going to be different than the last one. It may be a good change. But it is a change none-the-less.

So, how do you start fresh in a new context?

Simplify around your core values and purpose.

Think of this transition as an opportunity to get rid of some old habits that weren't very healthy for you.

Stop doing somethings that weren't strengthening your ability to be at your best everyday. Then start doing some new things.

The new context may be a new job. It could be your children are now all gone, off to college and their careers. It could be a move to a new part of the country. It could be new responsibilities at work.

Whatever the context, it is an opportunity to change for the better.

What are Contexts?

Contexts are any relationship, place or event. They are the social and organization structures where we live and work.

Family is a context. Business is a context. Friends are a context. Community is a context. Even social media is a context. Natural disasters, political campaigns, vacations and social clubs are all contexts. Mastermind groups, religious congregations, car pools, kid's athletic teams, scout troops, fishing, hiking and drinking buddies, high school and alumni associations, are all contexts. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Ning groups, Slideshare, Google+ are all contexts. 

Any and every person, place and event that our lives touch is a context. Each one connects with us, and contributes or distracts us from who we are and the transitions we are in. It is best that we not take them for granted.

Life is discovered in the connections

Transitions get harder when we try to minimize change, and we try to do it all on our own.

Transitions are about change, necessary change, change that can be beneficial and beautiful, if we can see it that way.

It is for this reason we need to make fresh connections with ideas, with people, and by simplifying our lives around the things that matter most to us.

Make sure you listen to Mitch and Jeff's discussion on writing. It is excellent. If you are in transition, both of these gentlemen have valuable insights, okay, wisdom, that will be helpful to you in adapting to changes in your life and work. Make sure you visit Jeff's webblog on writing. It will inspire you beyond the practice of writing. Writing is a very helpful tool in managing the transitions of change that we experience in our lives and work.


Gaining Perspective

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Over the past three years, the ground upon which we stand has been rolling like the ground underneath this Vermont house after Hurricane Irene came through.

If you are still standing, congratulations. If you don't know which direction you are facing, welcome to the club.

If you have fallen, and are trying to pick yourself up, don't quit. What you've been through, in retrospect, can provide valuable lessons for the future. If you need a hand, just ask. It is how we stand together.

My Experience

Like many people, my last three years have been the hardest that I've ever faced. From losing all my clients within a six week period in the spring of 2009, to 2011 becoming the busiest, most productive year that I've had in the past decade, there are lessons I'm learning that each one of us can apply.

One of things I learned is that I was not as well prepared for the storm of the recession as I should have been. Like many people, I assumed that what I was doing was enough. It wasn't. As a result the process of the past three years has been a process of personal development that enables me to see what I need to do to make the next three years the best that I've ever had.

There are three things I did that have been infinitely beneficial. I want to share those with you in this post as a guide for how to look at the next year.  I suggest that you download my Circle of Impact Leadership Guides as a reference. Print them off, and use them for taking notes to your self. Keep them handy. They will help you gain and maintain perspective on what you are headed.

The Circle of Impact Leadership Guides

I'll give you a quick overview of each guide, and then speak to the three things to do that will help develop the impact in our life and work that we desire.

**************************


12TransitionPoints

Creating Impact In Times of Transition-TP

The first thing to know is that we are all in transition. If you think, maybe, you are just in a disruptive time, and, that things will return to where they were. Look at this list of 12 transition points. This is a random list I wrote down one afternoon. I'm certain that another dozen could be identified. The point is not to be overwhelmed with the sense of disconnection, but rather to see that change is normal. 

Change is happening to us all the time. We each need to make the mental shift from seeing change as random, disruptive chaos to a pattern of change that has a logic that we can tap into and take advantage of. Once we start thinking in terms of transition, we begin to see how a process of development can unfold to our benefit. This is where we start because with a transition mindset, we begin think more opportunistically about the future.

To see our life and work this way is to see how it is a system or a network of connections between various aspects of what we do where we do it.


Circle of Impact - Life-Work Coaching
From this perspective, we can see three broad areas that every leader faces:

The Three Dimensions of Ideas, Relationships, and, Social & Organizational Structures.

The problem is learning how to align them so that they work together. Our experience tends to be more fragmented, which is where our experience of the ground never being stable under our feet is found.

The key to pulling all of this together is being intentional about the ideas that link the dimensions together. These ideas are:

The Four Connecting Ideas of Values, Purpose, Vision and Impact.

Each one of these ideas needs to be clearly defined so that they can be effectively applied.

For example: You are building your team to start a new venture. You want to select or hire people who not only share similar values, but, are also committed to the purpose of the endeavor. Bring these two ideas together in the selection of a team, and, a vision for what is possible will emerge. As a result, instead of never getting by the team formation stage, your team comes together quickly, and, moves well into the process of creating the impact that you desire.

The Circle of Impact perspective provides a way to see the whole of an organization. But just seeing it doesn't mean we know how to apply it.

 

The Five Questions - Work-Life Coaching Guide
The Five Questions guide is the tool that helps us clarify, focus and move more quickly into action. Ask them continually over time, and we begin to see a pattern that helps to make better decisions. This is just a tool. It isn't a magic wand to wave over a problem and it goes away. It is a tool that must be applied and acted upon. So, when you have answered the five questions, make sure that you do something specific in response, and then come back and ask the questions again.

I created the My 5 Questions template to make it easy for me to quickly answer the questions whenever the need arises. The purpose is to clarify, focus and move me to action. There is no limitation on where you can use these questions. Use the personally, professionally, with your team, your family, with clients, or with someone you meet over lunch. The questions work very well in conversation.

Three Things that Mattered the Past Three Years (2012)

It is simple. Just three things to do.

1. Care for people. Regardless of who they are. Whomever you meet each day, care for them. Treat them with respect, dignity, and compassion. I don't mean take over their lives. I mean provide them a relationship that enables them to become a better person.

2. Think for yourself. Decide for yourself who you are going to be. Act with integrity towards your own values and goals, so you can help others do the same.

3. Live opportunistically in the moment. As a planner, I can confidently say that a long-range plan is more often a closed door than open path. The best plan is knowing who you are, what values matter, and the impact that you want to achieve. The process is discovered daily in the moment to moment interaction that we have with people. This is where real freedom is found.

Afterword Three Years Later (2015)

The years 2012 to 2014, for me, were ones of dramatic change. When I wrote the above post, I was optimistic about the future. Instead, within the first year, the non-profit that I had been hired to lead failed and closed. The recession's effect upon my consulting work lingered. And my marriage ended. Hard year, but still a year of transition.

I realized, as everything was ending, that something new was beginning. I had to get to that point so that I could begin. I took the time to reflect, to heal, and, begin to set my sights forward. I found myself working an hour a week with a group of women in an addiction recovery program. A totally new and different experience for me. And, then, I came to see that I need to relocated my life and work to Jackson, Wyoming.

The Circle of Impact Leadership Guides serve as a check point to connect perceptions that I had three years ago with those that I have now.

My Values have not so much changed, but have become clearer, more definitive, and, more focused on putting them into action.

My Purpose has changed. Instead of focused on businesses in a consulting context, I am redirecting my energies towards the personal leadership of individuals.

My Vision has yet to become clear. The reason is that Vision functions in the context of relationship, in a social context of collaboration and community. I have only move to Jackson within the past month, so time for visioning with others will come.

My Impact for the future will emerge as I go through the process of aligning my life and work with The Four Connecting Ideas.

 Attribution Some rights reserved by U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Northeast Region


How to be a Local Leader

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My previous post - The Ascendency of the Local - was a big picture look at the difference between local interaction and global approaches. It is a view of the trends impacting our lives and work as we move toward the future.  I want to take this down to a more practical level.

Here's where I want to start.

Every individual has the capacity to lead. We lead when we act from our point of view, values and commitments. We do this within the context of our life and work. We do this when we look at our local community and see needs.

Where I live in Western North Carolina, a group of people at the church our family attends became concerned about homeless people in our downtown community not having a place to get in out of the cold on Saturday afternoons during the winter. For some reason all the shelters and ministries that serve them during the week close that one afternoon a week. These individuals made an appeal to the leadership of our church, and within two weeks, had a program started that is now in its third winter season. 

This is an example of leadership because a few people took initiative to address a local need. Through their interaction a proposal was presented that resulted in action to address the need.

This picture of leadership through local interaction can be understood through these four steps:

Idea, Initiative, Interaction, Impact.

Remember those four words. Everything happens through them. Let's explore them.

Ideas come from our engagement with the world around us.

It may be a situation where people are are in need or an emotional desire we have, or some notion we pick up for a book or the newspaper.  The ideas that connect with us are related to other ideas, like our purpose in life or the mission of our business or values that give our life and work meaning, or a vision for a better world. These are all ideas that are ways we try to make sense of the world we are apart of it. At some point, it all comes together in a singular idea that motivates us for action.

Initiative is the beginning of all leadership.

Without it nothing happens. Lots of people have ideas, but many are never acted on them. When an idea is compelling enough, we take action. The action may be to research it further, or have a conversation or to ask for permission or clarification, or go do it. Intiative is some action that starts the process of leadership. The most significant, sustainable and impactful initiatives are those that are connected to the values that we have in life.

Interaction is where action and progress take place.

There are very, very few instances in human history where human interaction was not involved. I've yet to identify one. This means that our individualism never functions in isolation from our relationships. The life and work we create is always within a context of interaction. It may be verbal. Or it could be a response to some incident or person in the past. When we begin to interact, we open ourselves up to new ideas, and new paths towards seeing our idea take root and find its impact.

Impact is a way we can talk about the results of our ideas, initiative and interactions.

What we seek through those aspects of our life and work is change. Not random, discontinuous, purposeless change, but meaningful change that makes a difference that matters.

Let me return to my earlier example to flesh this out a bit.

Through an idea, individual initiative, and collaborative interaction, a Saturday afternoon program called Saturday Sanctuary began in the winter of 2009. What began as a program for our church's members to serve, now has people from across our community serving our downtown neighbors.  New people are joining every month.

Today, ideas for how to serve our guests still emerge from the interaction that we have with them.  At one point, someone to the initiative to show up with a hot meal for the 50-70 people who regular come.  I know I was glad to be there the day Andy showed up with Buffalo wings he had grilled at home. Christmas day, which falls on a Saturday this year, will be a time of feasting as all sorts of food will be served to the 300 people we expect to come.

In your local community, there are people today who are taking initiative to make a difference. They may be helping the poor and homeless, or working to alleviate poverty, or trying to provide affordable housing, mentor in middle school kids in math or improving the downtown environment for residents, businesses and guests.

Take initiative to interact with them. Work beside them. Learn how to start and lead a project. Make a difference that matters where it is already happening. As you do, a discovery will begin to happen.

You'll see that ...

You have ideas that matter.

Your perspective has value and is worth sharing.

There are many ways for you to take initiative to make a difference that matters.

You don't have to take on a leadership role to be a leader. All it requires is for you to act upon the ideas and desires that you have for people and your community.

You'll also discover that your circle of interaction grows.

If you really let yourself go, you'll find that your local community is global. You'll meet people, and find ways to engage with people so that together you'll make a difference that matters. You'll discover that someone in France or Omaha has dealt with the same issue, and your interaction provides you a way to understand what you need to do.

You'll discover that you are a person of impact.

I've learned that people measure their life experience in three ways. They want it to be Personally Meaningful because it is connected to the ideas and value that matter to them. They want it to be Socially Fulfilling because relationships matter.  And, they want to Make a Difference that Matters. When we take initiative to act upon the ideas that we have through our interactions with others, we discover that our life and work makes a difference in ways we could never imagine.

This picture is what "local interaction" implies. It isn't just talk, but action. This is what genuine leadership looks like.


The Moral Component

When we are young, the world is an open book.

There is nothing like being 11 years old with a vivid imagination and absolutely no sense of barriers in life. Then adolescence hits, and we realize that there are some limitations.  Some people are more popular, cooler, smarter; some more troubled and broken. Others are destined for success, happiness or a life of hardship and toil.

Then the hard work of finding just how open and limitless one's opportunities are begins. It may start at 15 or at 21. It may not become important until we are 30 or even 45, and when we do, we realize that our life needs to count for something. When we discover, not just our interest or passion, but our purpose, our destiny, then life changes. Forever.

When we discover the difference our lives should make, our options are immediately reduced, narrowed, defined. We find out that life has limitations, all of a sudden, there is an end point, way out there, when we can say, "I'm done."  At least, that is what we think.

At some point, we may also discover that the pursuit of our destiny is more than just achieving something, more than simply a destination. There is something embedded in the middle of that pursuit that when we were young we could not see, maybe only feel. It was always there, but it wasn't clear to us. Then at some moment, a line is crossed, and we discover that there is a moral component to this quest to fulfill our destiny. We realize that it is no longer about just about destiny, but the journey that leads there.

This moral component is not some abstract, philosophical concept that stands as a branded idea for your life. There are plenty of people who brand their morality, wearing it on their shirt sleeve, and capitalizing on it by capitalizing it.  That is not the moral component that I see.

This moral component is something simple, deep, and intangible. It is the quality or rather the virtue that makes a difference in how we live out our purpose. It is something about who we are as individuals, about our life, work and impact.

Martin Luther King had that moral component. So did Mother Teresa, Mohandas Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Abraham Lincoln. Each of them was their own person, standing strong as the world around them went a different direction. That is the strength that comes from the moral component.  It isn't ego that made them strong, though they probably had strong egos.

The moral component is something else. It transcends our circumstances, our place in history and the singular importance of us as individuals. It is that indelible quality that links us with others through time, and gives our destiny and purpose its meaning, and the reason our commitment and resilience matters.

Even if I live another 40 years, given my family's genetics, I see that I have now passed some indecipherable midpoint in my career.  My options are fewer now than they were just five years ago. I see it, and find peace in that. It makes things more simple, and to an extent clearer.

When you are young, there is anxiety about what your life will become, and the difference you'll make, and whether it will truly count in the end.  There are thousands of options, choices, directions to go in. Everyone tells you that you can do anything you want. However, in the back of your mind, you know it isn't true. You just want to know what that one thing is that is your destiny.

I no longer worry about that. I find that as life proceeds, the moral component grows in importance because at the end of life, it is that which is our true legacy. 

A friend said during a group conversation that he wanted his legacy to be that he was a good man, a good husband and father, and ran his business well.  The moral component for him was becoming more clear, and knowing him well, I see it in the life choices that he has made over the years. 

Philosophers and historians speak of the moral component in many ways. One of those is the difference between a naive and reflective view of history.

A naive perspective refers to a lack of self-consciousness about the values that inform our lives. There is a sense of not seeing it at all because it is so much a part of one's life, like breathing air or water to fish, we don't notice it.  There is an innocence about this approach. This experience of the moral component in life is such that we see it as continuous through time, across the generations and the foundation upon which we understand the meaning of life. It is unself-conscious because we do not hold these moral values in any objective sense. They are highly subjective and personal, quite possibly never defined in any specific sense. Yet they exist, and we tend to begin to see them when they are under threat.  They are who we are in a real sense, and this even more so as we consistently live them out in a purposeful, intentional way.

A reflective approach stands apart from the moral component, and attempts to view it objectively. Yet this is impossible in any pure, scientific sense because what brings us to this relationship with the moral component is awareness of the connection between the idea and our own lives. We become aware that we lacked objectivity in our formerly naive view of life.  We may speak of this change of perspective as a loss of innocence or coming of age or quite possibly of becoming a cynic. We experience a disjunction or disconnection between our values and the social and organizational environments where we live and work, and stand apart viewing the moral component, trying to understand how it fits in the situation we are in. 

The moral component viewed from these two perspectives is a very complex phenomenon in our lives. We may find that we want to be both naive and reflective at the same time. We want to believe in our values, seeing them as universal, transcending time, space and culture, the way life ought to be, bring purpose, peace and fulfillment.  We may see that these values are rarely lived to their fullest, that some of the greatest proponents of these values were crooks and charlatans, and that there are other philosophies or perspectives that are compelling and valid in their own right.

Where this leads for some people is to confusion and for some to an abandonment of their hope for fulfillment of their destiny. For others, they embrace the moral component as a guide to create a life of goodness and difference that matters.

The people I mentioned earlier are these people. They held to their values in a changing world where their values were not normative. We remember them as much for their courage as for the values they believed in.

As I have reflected upon this picture over the past few months, I began to see that the moral component of life and leadership matters in ways that have been lost. For many people, their naive view of the way leaders should behave and function in their roles has experienced a loss of innocence. With that loss has come cynicism. And what must come next, is a recovery of a more sober, realistic understanding of the moral component in leadership being that which brings credibility and respect to them.

Making a difference that matters, making our lives count, creating a legacy of leadership and goodness comes from recognizing and developing the moral component in our life and work.

This means that we are aware of the values that matter to us, and that we must live according to them. To stand when everyone else is running away or in cynical denial of their own loss of innocence is to live by a moral code than is more than a brand or an inspiring-idea-of-the-month. In the end, this is what separates the moralists from those who truly lead.  This is the legacy that is possible for us all if we choose.


Leadership is Personal Initiative

Misti Burmeister, at her Facebook page, asked a couple great questions about leadership. She first asked,

"Is self-knowledge essential to leading others effectively?"

She followed that question with,

"How can you lead others if you are not leading yourself ...a distinction that separates ok leaders from awesome ones..."

Go to her page to see what people say.

Here's an expanded version of my answer to the second question. Circle of Impact PPT Values

All leadership begins with personal initiative. Regardless of who you are, what you do, where you live, or the situation you are in, to lead requires initiative, the exercise of your own individual will to create movement toward some end. 

For that reason, we must lead ourselves to have some purpose, some vision for what we want, and a set of values that inform us about what our leadership is about. If I lack perspective about my purpose in life, then I will find it hard to lead.

What on earth would I be leading people toward?

Without our ownership of a moral view of life, personal initiative is empty of meaning. Are our actions just the expenditure of energy to fill up time and move us through space? Our purpose is tied to the measure of our lives, which is the difference that we make, a difference that should matter.

When we have a sense of purpose, we gain the strength to lead others, to stand on principle when it is hard, to have courage to keep going in the face of hardship, and create a future where it seems to be absent.

This is what separates a leader from a manager. A leader is going somewhere, and calls people to join them. A manager organizes the organizational processes that achieve the efficiencies needed for the proper functioning of an organization.

Leadership is personal, regardless of the situation. Whether you are a corporate CEO, a stay-at-home dad, a middle school mentor or the manager of a local retail business, leadership is your expression of your purpose and values that function in a vision for making a difference that is the impact of who we are everyday.

Thanks for the great question, Misti.