A Horizon for Self-Reliance

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Pursue some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence. Wherever a man separates from the multitude and goes his own way, there is a fork in the road, though the travelers along the highway see only a gap in the paling.

Henry David Thoreau
Journal, 18 October 1855

Wallace Stegner in his collection of essays, Marking The Sparrow's Fall, writes on American self-reliance.

"Henry David Thoreau was a philosopher not unwilling to criticize his country and his countrymen, but when he wrote the essay entitled 'Walking' in 1862 ... He spoke America's stoutest self-confidence and most optimistic expectations. ...

(Christopher Lasch in The Culture of Narcissism) reports 'a way of life that is dying - the culture of competitive individualism, which in its decadence has carried the logic of individualism to the extreme of a way of all against all, the pursuit of happiness to the dead end of a narcissistic preoccupation with the self.' ...

Assuming that Thoreau spoke for his time ... and that Christopher Lasch speaks for at least elements and aspects of his, how did we get from there to here in little more than a century? Have the sturdiness of the American character and the faith in America's destiny that Thoreau took for granted been eroded entirely away? What happened to confidence, what happened to high purpose, what happened to hope? Are they gone ... ?"

The American virtue of self-reliance sounds archaic compared to the modern conventions of self-improvement and self-help. The difference is worth noting.

We think, possibly, that Thoreau's time was much simpler, and being self-reliant was easier to achieve. Today, everything is so complex. We may wonder whether being self-reliant is possible? 

Self-reliance today as compared to Thoreau's day is quite different. As the world has become increasingly complex, to think that we can do all that we need to do on own is a recipe for frustration and aggravation. Unlike in Thoreau's day, today, we interface with so many organizational structures. Independence as described by Wallace Stegner is no longer really possible. As a result, self-reliance has to be understood in the context of living and working  in organizations. There we must related to a widely diverse set of people. Self-reliance and people skills go hand in hand today. 

Self-reliance is not narcissistic self-centeredness. It is rather the ability to know that we can walk into any situation and know that we can figure out how to function well in it, making a difference that matters because of who we are and what we desire.

My series of blog posts Situational Awareness gets at this reality.

Situational awareness is a skill of insight, anticipation, and respect for personal boundaries in social and organizational contexts.

It is the skill of perceiving reality as it is, not as we want it to be, or how others see it, but as it is.

Situational awareness is knowing how to be yourself regardless of the context you are in.

This is a core skill of self-reliance.

The Horizon of Self-reliance is not independence but freedom. Our freedom to adapt to situations, to connect with people in meaningful ways, and, to take initiative to make a difference that matters.

 

To find out more about this way of approaching our lives, sign up for my email list which will go live in 2017.


The Recession is a Game Changer

Do you need proof that the world has changed with this recession?

Check out Tom Peter's list, Recession46: Forty-six “Secrets” and “Clever Strategies” For Dealing with the Recession of 2008-XXXX.

He starts by stating the obvious.

You come to work earlier.
You leave work later.
You work harder.
You may well work for less; and, if so, you adapt to the untoward circumstances with a smile—even if it kills you inside.
You volunteer to do more.
You dig deep, deeper, deepest—and always bring a good attitude to work.
You fake it if your good attitude flags.
You literally practice your “game face” in the mirror in the morning, and in the loo mid-morning.
You give new meaning to the idea and intensive practice of “visible management.”
You take better than usual care of yourself and encourage others to do the same— physical well-being significantly impacts mental well-being and response to stress.
You shrug off shit that flows downhill in your direction—buy a shovel or a “pre-worn” raincoat on eBay.
You try to forget about “the good old days”—nostalgia is self-destructive
(And bores others.)
You buck yourself up with the thought that “this too shall pass”—but then remind yourself that it might not pass any time soon, and so you re-dedicate yourself to making the absolute best of what you have now.
You work the phones and then work the phones some more—and stay in touch with and on the mind of positively everyone.
You frequently invent breaks from routine, including “weird” ones — “changeups” prevent wallowing and bring a fresh perspective.
You eschew all forms of personal excess.
You simplify.
You sweat the details as never before.
You sweat the details as never before.
You sweat the details as never before.
You raise to the sky and maintain at all costs the Standards of Excellence by which you unfailingly and unflinchingly evaluate your own performance.

In effect, you need two plans going forward. You need a new business plan. And you need a personal development plan.

Even as government becomes an increasingly intrusive part of our lives, we are more independent than ever before. The social support structure of family and community are not what they once were. Which means that if you do not have an attitude and the behaviors to be resilient and adaptive, then you are going to have a hard time coping with the changes that are taking place.

Read Tom Peters whole list. Copy it. Reflect on it. Factor it into your personal development plan.

HT: Dan Pink


The Real Secret to Success

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Attitude has a lot to do with whether we succeed or not. Read Twitter posts on a regular basis, and one of the patterns you'll notice is unbridled optimism in a formula for success. Too often this optimism denies reality and leads us to a kind of self-deception that is destructive of the very success we desire.

Bright-Sided:How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich and We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism by John Derbyshire approached the topic of optimism from opposite sides of the political spectrum.

Megan Cox Gurdon in her review in the Wall Street Journal quotes them.

"We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world," warns Ms. Ehrenreich. "Things are bad and getting worse, any fool can see that," warns Mr. Derbyshire.

Though naturally an optimistic person, I do find the modern phenomenon of positive thinking highly problematic. Sort of a "mind over matter" for modern people. It is often used as bulwark against the realities of life. For many of us, we are a pain-avoiding, death-denying culture that runs from conflict into the arms of an uncritical belief in positive. While it may appear that the opposite of being positive is being negative or pessimistic, I believe it is a more complicated. Megan Cox Gurdon continues.

Especially provoking to Ms. Ehrenreich is the pervasiveness of the notion that a woman can improve her chances of survival by maintaining a perky outlook. The scientific basis for this belief is thin at best, yet, as she writes, it's a powerful "ideological force" that goes well beyond medicine and "encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate."

Her curiosity (and disgust) aroused, Ms. Ehrenreich delves into the long history of positive thinking in America, which might be summarized thus: dour 18th-century Calvinism begat floaty 19th-century New Thought, which begat 20th-century New Ageism, Norman Vincent Peale and today's mega-church "prosperity gospel."

As Ms. Ehrenreich disapprovingly explains, positive thinking has saturated not just American religion but also corporate life and popular culture, and it is rapidly soaking into modern psychology. The problem for her is that people who are insistently reciting inspirational phrases won't hear the siren's wail in time to save themselves. Ms. Ehrenreich cranks her indignation up highest when aiming at the bankers, economists, bureaucrats and business honchos whose near-hallucinatory positive thinking, she believes, has pushed us all to the brink of economic collapse.

For me the dividing line is not between optimism and pessimism, but between entitlement and responsibility. 

I find in many people that optimism is a shell covering over a belief in one's own entitlement to health, wealth, happiness and a life free of hardship. It explains to me the century long shift from an Emersonian self-reliance to the point that we have become wards of a benign, beneficent state.

I don't believe optimism in itself is bad. Rather, the popular contemporary form that denies responsibility which is.

The Five Questions - Work-Life Coaching Guide

My conversation guide the Five Questions That Every Leader Must Ask is built around a more realistic perspective of our life and work situations. The fourth question focuses optimistically on the opportunities that we have now. These opportunities require us to take action. There is no entitlement here. All there is an opportunity and a choice whether to pursue it or not.

The third question focuses on the problems that we personally have created. Intentionally, I am not looking at the challenges that our various contexts provide us. For example, we can see the recession as a problem that entitles us to feel sorry for ourselves and receive a government bailout. Instead, we need to look at what situations we have control over, and address them effectively.

The problematic issue of optimism that Ehrenreich and Derbyshire address is really a modern phenomenon. It was social philosopher Thomas Hobbes, 350 years ago, who wrote that "the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." This is no longer a view widely supported by the average person. Prosperity, even in the midst of a global recession, is rapidly expanding throughout the world. In places where poverty and disease had been the normal experience of people for centuries, middle class wealth is beginning to emerge.

While I would not suggest we go back to the days of Hobbes, I would suggest that a more realistic approach to life accomplish precisely what the optimists and positivity-gurus promise. This realism is not quite the pessimism of Ehrenreich and Derbyshire. Instead, it is closer to the thinking of the ancient Stoics.

Greek slave and Stoic teacher Epictetus wrote,

"Difficulties show men what they are. In case of any difficulty remember that God has pitted you against a rough antagonist that you may be a conqueror, and this cannot be without toil."  Roman emperor,

Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote,

"You will find rest from vain fancies if you perform every act in life as though it were your last."

When the hardships in life are faced with reason and determination, we gain a richer appreciation of success and happiness.

It is this perspective that guided Admiral James Stockdale (whom I've written about here) as the highest ranking officer imprisoned at the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War. In his discussion with Jim Collins, when asked who didn't make it out, and his response was "the optimists". This was so because they believed that if they just were optimistic that it would counter reality. Optimism only serves us when we use it to generate a determined will and persistence to work through hardships to achieve success.

A positive outlook serves only when we embrace reality and commit ourselves to overcome the obstacles that stand in our way of success. This is not an entitlement mindset that comes from believing that we deserve success because of our positive attitude.

There is no replacement for hard work, realistic self-criticism, a passionate vision worked out with commitment and perseverance and a recognition that much of our success is a product of other people's contributions and the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time.

To succeed in this way is to understand life and work on a much broader canvas that miniature one's that many of us see before us.


Quick Takes: That No Quit Attitude - Waddie Mitchell

During tough times, our attitude is often the key to whether we'll thrive or merely survive. Waddie Mitchell,Waddie Mitchell - That No Quit Attitude Waddie Mitchell - That No Quit Attitude  the world's foremost cowboy poet wrote a poem - That No Quit Attitude - for the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics that has been a great encouragement to me. Here is my transcription of the recording.

THAT NO QUIT ATTITUDE  -Waddie Mitchell

While gathering cattle near the ruins of a long abandoned homestead in the shadows of the mountains, questions swarmed around my mind of the people who had claimed there, most forgotten now, and long dead still.

 I wonder what had prompted them to leave their worlds behind searching for a life uncertain, in a vast and rugged region up and leave their home and kin for opportunity to find.

Taking little more to start with than an idea, and a reason and a dream of their succeeding in a future yet defined.

Soon these queries led to more like …

Why it is that some folks always need to push their borders out beyond the furthest milestone on a never-ending quest to find new ways and trails to blaze and in the process stretch that realm of what is built and done and known?

From the little draw above me and my pard’s ride with his fine’ns, throwing his bunch with mine now shaded up and settled down.

I could see that he had gone through battle for his pony sporting lather but his smile claimed that he had made it in with everything he’d found.

The sweat and dust and brush streaks on that pair done heaps of speaking as he pulled up near, dismounted and loosen latigo a bit.

He said, “We jumped them in the rough, and would have lost them had we weakened  but I swear, this here caballo ain’t got one half ounce of quit.

And that no quit phrase speaks volumes on one’s character and makin’s to a cowboy drawing wages riding ranges of the West.

Them who have it you’ll find usually conquer most their undertakings for the best in them is drawn out when their spirits put to test

Then I spot my cow dogs bushed up staying well hid from the cattle knowin’ with a cue they’d give all to do anything need done.

I thought then how the most of us will opt to shun that battle never knowin’ fully what we could accomplish or become.

Still, I believe like dogs and horses we’re all born with resolution.

Like muscles and good habits it needs use and exercise, if left dormant, its in jeopardy of lost evolution for eventually it shrivels ups and atrophy and dies.

But when flexed, it blossoms heroes in a source of inspiration for we all recognize that virtue and a no quit attitude.

And it proves its attributes in competition and vocation that evokes appreciation and a show of gratitude.

And since mankind started walking, it has been swifter, higher, stronger, as if pushed by some deep need to keep their limits unconfined

Almost thriving, always striving for things bigger, better, longer in an unrelenting pursuit of perfection, redefined.

And in this world that is soft complacence there are still a few among the masses who will readily give all to see a job or dream fulfilled.

It’s a trait that’s void of prejudice toward races, sex or classes just demanding its possessor be of valor and strong will.

Then as we start our cattle homeward lettin’ the dogs bring up the rear, and we leave what’s left of once somebody’s hopes and dreams behind

I’m convinced that no quit attitude will always persevere. Now it's the essence and the promise and the crown of human kind.


Whatever you are facing in your business or life, having a No Quit Attitude is the only one that we'll get you home. I am referring to an old American virtue long sense fallen out of favor in the public's eye, and that is self-reliance. To be reliant upon one's self is like the two cowboys in Waddie Mitchell's poem. They live and work in a dangerous environment, and they find a way to make it through.

Self-reliance, as I've learned from guys who spend their days on the back of a horse, is not about being the hardening loner, unreachable, not needing other people. Rather, it is a person who accepts the responsibility of their life, and because of that capacity are able to help others as they seek to become so.

As  I've told my sons and daughter, the only failure in life is to quit. If you don't, if you keep trying, you eventually succeed. It may be different than you expected, but it won't be failure. There is a huge difference between mistakes and failure. We learn and improve by making mistakes. We quit when we fail.  And these times, there is no place for quitting, and every reason to learn how to live That No Quit Attitude.


Quick Takes: A Bright Spot in this Financial Mess

Reading Tom Friedman on Citibank bailout left me a bit disappointed. Oh, I think he is correct in all that he says, but he doesn't say what we all need to hear.

This financial meltdown involved a broad national breakdown in personal responsibility, government regulation and financial ethics. ... That’s how we got here — a near total breakdown of responsibility at every link in our financial chain, and now we either bail out the people who brought us here or risk a total systemic crash. These are the wages of our sins.

The bright spot in this mess is that we should all be wiser people.  It is a hard earned wisdom that points me to the following realizations.

1. We live in a highly integrated world where our futures and fortunes are connected to one another. We need to better understand that this integration, while beneficial in many ways, also leads to the tsunami effects that we have seen over the few months. So, we need to develop redundant, non integrated systems, that provide ways to thwart the kind of things we are seeing happen.

2.  We need to renew the virtues of self-reliance and community. The purpose of these values is to give each of us the confidence that whatever situation we are in that we together as individual members of our local communities can work through the crisis to a successful end.We need to understand that we cannot pass off the health of our communities or nation to someone else. It is now clearly our responsibility.

3. We need to emphasize the importance of innovation and entrepreneurship education and development for our children, and provide the practical structures where they can learn to be self-reliant and collaborative.  If you are unsure what this means read Peter Drucker's Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The opposite of this approach is a one size fits all system that is highly integrated and efficient. Instead, every person and family needs to develop multiple streams of income in order to provide a buffer against financial loss.  And the place to start to find it is at your local community college.

4.  The bright spot in this financial mess for me is that I've seen this shift to greater self-reliance, community-building, innovation and entrepreneurship already at work in many, many ways. I already see a growing emphasis on entrepreneurship that is both technological and social.  I see a growing willingness of people to put aside their own personal needs to care for those in much worse shape. 

However, I don't see this happening by large institutions like the kind that Washington is bailing out. I see it in local communities, where individuals and small organizations are both connected and independent. And for this, our financial mess will encourage these counter measures, and will strengthen our communities and build greater resilience to the challenges that will inevitably come.