Silver Linings

Without them, we suffer for suffering’s sake. 

With them, they give life meaning. Suffering has purpose and it’s ours to define. We become the author rather than the narrator. We search for the meaning hidden in the struggle. 

They help us put gratitude into practice. 

They give us pause to be mindful that we don’t have to accept the default script in our head. They give us agency to define what the moment means.

They have power to define reality.

Watching my father deteriorate to Alzheimer has been one of the most paradoxical experiences of my life. On one hand, it’s heart-wrenching to watch the person that shaped me most become a shell of himself and lose his light. And yet, it’s also provided an opportunity to strengthen my relationship with my mom and siblings. It’s been both the hardest experience of my life and an opportunity to cultivate gratitude in abundance. 

Without the silver lining, we focus only on what we lack, all the while being blind to all we have.

What, How & Why, and a Foundation of Trust

I’ve noticed that we spend a lot of time defining the what – what’s the goal, what’s the metric, what’s the next thing we want to accomplish.

I’ve been guilty of this on a personal and professional level. I obsess on goals and defining the right metric to track them. I also see this happen at an organizational level. One thing that always seems to be clear is the what.

The what is an important piece of the puzzle to achieve a goal. Yet, we often fail to see that it’s just a piece, instead, substituting it for the whole. 

The what, I’d argue, is the easiest part of a goal. I could spend all day writing SMART goals that paint a beautiful and vivid picture of what I want to achieve. 

Alas, the what is useless on its own. 

The best leaders provide the what, but recognize that in order to really challenge people to grow and move towards a goal, they need to paint a vibrant picture of the how and why. 

And once the picture is painted, they are relentless in reinforcing it. 

The how tends to be a bit more malleable. There are many ways to get from point A to point B and the route will most likely shift based on changing conditions or ideas from the team on how to do it better (leaders must always be open to feedback from the folks who do the work).

The why, however, must connect to a larger purpose. For the more challenging goals, people must be bought into the why, especially, if it will require sacrifice (of time, energy, or emotional investment). The why must be clear so people understand what their work is contributing to. 

I’ve stated before that people want to be part of a journey. 

The best journeys are aligned deeply with our values. Great leaders see the what as a point on the horizon to reach for but spend more time amplifying the why in order to get people committed to the journey. Once people are enrolled in the journey, it’s easy to engage them in helping to define the how. 

If we spend enough time getting people to buy into the why and ask their help in shaping the how, the what will take care of itself. 

Most importantly, for any of this to work, there must be a foundation of trust in your team. Otherwise it’s easy to hide behind the what and convince yourself it’s all that’s required from you as a leader.

Missed Shots

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take

Wayne Gretzky

I get the point Wayne Gretzky was trying to make with this oft repeated quote. But, I think it ignores the subtlety that catchy maxims gloss over.

This idea that we should be prepared to take the shots or opportunities we’re given sets a false expectation. Is every opportunity worth pursuing? And if I don’t take the shot, will my opportunities in the future diminish?

What if the shot isn’t aligned with my purpose or overall vision for life? 

A mentality where we believe we must take every opportunity is finite thinking, it’s a life of scarcity. 

What if, instead, we just realize the shots for what they are – a decision point, a juncture, a choice. 

And just because you choose to close yourself off to some, doesn’t mean you’re doomed to never get more. 

If anything, these opportunities are a marker you are on the right path. 

Success generally breeds more success. The real challenge is not grasping for every opportunity that presents itself. Rather, we must define what’s important to us so we can take the opportunities that align with our purpose. 

Opportunities have trade-offs. Saying yes to one, closes you off to others. You cannot get something without giving up something else.

Without acknowledging this, you risk living a life reacting to whatever is presented versus one of your own design.

While it is true that you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, a life of purpose necessitates we say no to many of them. 

It All Starts With Values

Without clearly identifying your values, it’s easy to get lost in a culture of comparison. In a world where choice is abundant, there will always be a better choice or an opportunity for more.

But if we take the time to define our deepest values, we make a clear judgment on what’s important to us. Anytime I’ve felt adrift and at the mercy of the currents of life, I usually find I’ve lost sight of my values.

Values are the raw materials of purpose. 

Values allow us to focus intentionally on the things that matter most. Values provide clarity about how to move towards our highest aspirational self. 

This clarity provides the path we must take to live into our values.  The path is the journey and any journey worth a damn requires discipline.

This disciplined pursuit liberates us from the tyranny of choice. 

And without the constant fear that we’re making the wrong choice or failing to make the best choice, we’re free to start living a life of our own design. 

But it starts first with values. 

What’s the Point?

I remember when I was 10 or 11, my dad, the ever-avid soccer enthusiast, decided he wanted to coach the youth league soccer team I was a part of.

By that age, my perfectionist tendencies were already budding. If I couldn’t do things perfectly, I’d get so frustrated and want to give up. I’d get disappointed and fume if I did not perform according to the level I believed I was capable of.

My dad recognized he had a special opportunity to do what coaches do – use sports as a vehicle to instill life lessons that apply outside the context of the sport. 

He began every practice with a reminder. “Remember why we’re here. We’re here to play a game and have fun. If we can’t have fun, then what’s the point?

Every practice he’d hammer that point home. 

Every time anyone on the team would get frustrated (including myself), he’d remind us. 

Before games, he’d remind us. 

During half-time, he’d remind us.

Win or lose, he’d remind us.

In the car, on the way home, he’d remind me.

Over and over and over again.

—–

As my dad’s Alzheimer progresses, I’ve been reflecting on stories like these. I search for the memories I want to keep alive. The lessons learned that shaped me and continue to influence me for the better.

In my search for a purpose-driven life, I’m trying to find the stories that gave birth to that idea.

My dad had known a truth about life and how to live it joyfully. He loved his career, he loved his family, he loved to travel, he loved food and he loved to be surrounded by loved ones. 

He was clear on what was important to him. He always seemed to have lived as if he knew the true purpose of life.

He lived it beautifully. He made a point to have fun and live it to the fullest.

And at the end of my journey, I hope I can say the same.

Because, we only get one life.

If I can’t enjoy it and have fun, what was the point?

Give yourself an A

The following is an idea that I “stole like an artist” from The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander and highly recommend the read.

This world we live in, this one right here and now, is a world of measurement. 

Everything is measured, managed, benchmarked, compared, and stripped down to a piece of data that can be tracked and analyzed. 

Measurement is important. It allows for continuous improvement.

But measuring has limitations. It can only be done to that which is finite, concrete, or tangible.

A company can measure how much of its product it sold. They can compare that to their competitor. 

If they sold more, this company can claim a larger piece of the market share pie. 

But, this world of measurement, more often than not, leads to a zero-sum or finite game. There is only so much of the pie to go around. The more someone else gets, the less someone else gets.

Further, measurement cannot stand on its own. For it to have meaning it requires comparison. How is something tracking compared to something else – a past measurement, a competitor, etc.

Because it’s everywhere, we can’t help but let this world of measurement influence our thinking to our own detriment. We view the world as a zero-sum game, a world of scarcity – of time, money, resources, power – where our job is to get the biggest piece of the pie. We compare ourselves to everyone around us and find that we don’t stack up or if we do, we feel like an imposter. 

The world of measurement can lead to a downward spiral – a race to get more than everyone else.

But there is another world.

THE UNIVERSE OF POSSIBILITY

This world extends beyond the borders that define the world of measurement and includes all worlds: infinite, generative and abundant. This world requires a posture of openness and an unrestricted imagination for what is possible. 

Action in this universe is defined as generative or giving – creating new ideas, consciously ascribing meaning, contributing, and yielding to the power of context. Emotions, often associated with spirituality, are abundant here – joy, grace, awe, wholeness, passion and compassion. 

Many experience this world in the presence of natural beauty or at the sight of something of infinite magnitude – a breathtaking view, an ocean that goes on forever. 

Overall, success is more likely if you participate joyfully with projects and goals and don’t fear as if your life depends on achieving a mark.

Resources are likely to come with greater abundance when you are generous, inclusive and engage people in your passion for life. It’s not guaranteed – success never is – but when you orient yourself towards abundance, you care less about being in control and you tend to take more risks.

The world of measurement requires you to set a goal and strive for it. The universe of possibility requires you set the conditions and let the journey unfold.

GIVING YOURSELF AN A

Grades are another example of the the world of measurement – it is a way to compare students. From an early age, grades teach us that success is a measurement of comparison against others. 

And as we move into adult life, grades may disappear but we carry with us the idea that we must habitually compare ourselves to others.

But what if there’s another way…

Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it. I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.

Michelangelo

Rather than comparing ourselves to others, what if instead we focused on chipping away at whatever is keeping us from making our highest level of contribution – from developing skills, mastery or self-expression. 

This practice is known as giving yourself an A.

This practice allows you to speak openly about your own thoughts, feelings and aspirations. It allows you to support others to be all they dream of being without the need to compare.

An A can be given to anyone you may encounter.

Doing so allows you to speak from a place of respect. It allows space for others to realize themselves rather than measuring how they stack up against another.

The A becomes a possibility to live into, rather than an expectation to fulfill.

The practice of giving an A recognizes the inherent desire in people to contribute to others, no matter how many barriers there may be.

You can choose to validate the apathy of a boss, a friend, or co-worker or you can choose to honor in them an unfulfilled need to make a difference.

When you freely grant an A to yourself and others, it cuts across the ladder of success/failure in the world of measurement, to the world of possibility. It is a framework that allows you to both see and be all you are, without having to resist or deny any part of yourself. 

The Paradox of Busy

Busy is our default. We justify busy because it keeps us in motion. In a culture that rewards achievement, we equate busy with progress. We hold tight to busy like a security blanket even when it isn’t necessary. 

When we do slow down, it comes with a feeling of guilt or a thought that “I should be doing more.” When we don’t bake stillness or recovery into our existence, it can feel foreign, awkward and insecure. We find that we have no idea what to do with it.

Eventually, we return to busy.

This obsession with busy and the detriment it has on the culture isn’t a novel idea. Smarter minds have written about it. But when we frame something as toxic, it can trigger shame and cause us to over-rotate. 

Like dieting, we can yo-yo between busy and stillness. And like dieting, swinging between both ends of the spectrum isn’t sustainable and gains are short-lived.  

I’d argue there is nothing wrong with busy.

Busy is only toxic when it isn’t balanced or is without purpose or intent. 

Parkinson’s Law states, work expands to fill the time allotted for it. The key is learning to make space for stillness and busy by constraining the amount of time we spend on both.

Too much stillness feels boring and meaningless. As with dieting, we over-restrict ourselves thinking this type of extreme will help us compensate for our imbalance. Eventually, we feel unsatisfied and the itch to contribute begins to appear.

We revert back to old habits and binge on busy. This leads to exhaustion and burnout. We let things slip and fall short of making our highest level of contribution. 

This is the paradox of busy. 

Without intent driving us, we accept our current state as gospel and fluctuate between extremes. 

Busy and stillness are opposite sides of the same coin. 

Our level of busy will define our level of stillness. Our level of stillness will define our level of busy. If we’re constantly feeling out of balance in one, we’ll be out of balance in the other.

Intent makes the paradox evident. It helps us discern and eliminate the unnecessary things keeping us busy so we can focus on what’s most essential. 

A balance between moments of busy and stillness are necessary to contribute in a meaningful way. 

There is no winning, no competition and no award for busy. However, finding a balance keeps us in the infinite game so we can continue to come back and attempt better.

The Little Things

Your brother may have saved my life,” my sister says as she finishes telling the story. 

We both pause to process the reality and weight of that statement. 

That’s heavy shite!” My sister breaks the silence, and exclaims playfully. 

I’m flabbergasted. I had completely forgotten about that story. It had been a serendipitous encounter many years ago but hadn’t made a lasting impression. 

Let me rewind back to the beginning.

My sister had called to share an encouter she recently had with a mutual high school teacher – a teacher we had both been fond of.

They had run into each other out on a walk. During their conversation, the teacher recalled the following story to my sister.

It had been many years prior. His spouse was suffering from some serious health problems. He told my sister that that period of his life had been incredibly difficult. The uncertainty of whether or not his spouse would pull through was a heavy weight.

It was during this period, that he had been walking the streets of Chicago. He was lost in thought thinking about the uncertain road ahead. When out of no where, he heard someone scream his name in excitement from up ahead. 

He broke out of his thought and looked up. He heard his name shouted once more with even more excitement. 

He noticed it was me. 

I, joyful at confirming the person I was seeing was indeed a beloved teacher, ran up to him and gave him a big honkin’ bear hug.

By some chance encounter, fate decided that on that day, during that exact moment, on a crowded city street, I would run into an old high school teacher and he an old student. 

He told my sister, “Your brother may have saved my life that day.”

I’ve been reflecting on the power of this story for a couple of days now. When my sister told me it, I felt my existence validated and (if I’m being honest) It. Felt. Grand.

But, I wanted to be careful and find the true lesson from it, something other than an ego ass-kissing. 

After noodling on it for a while, it reminded me that the little things can often have the biggest impact.

Because, the beauty of life is often found in the little things. 

If something as simple as a hug and a little expression of joy made that big of an impact, we must be intentional about the little things.

We may not have control over much in life but we can control the little things – how we show up, how we serve others, how we define what the day means.

Focus on the little things. They have the literal power and possibility to make an impact in a big way.

How We Define Ourselves

How we define ourselves can shape our view of the world.

One option is to define yourself as something you are not. 

The non-conformist rebels against the majority and the masses. A line is drawn. Those who want to push back and swim upstream from the majority to one side and everyone else to the other side. If you define yourself as being against something, any option outside that which you are against meets the criteria. 

The cosmic humor in identifying yourself as something you are not is that you still let yourself be defined by others. If the opposing worldview were to disappear, how would your identity fare? 

Being against something is a finite game. Once one side wins, the other loses.

Another option is to define yourself as part of the majority. 

It may be safer or easier to do so (and safety or ease may be the end goal). Perhaps you don’t care enough or don’t know how to define yourself any other way. This identity may be so baked into the culture that it becomes ubiquitous and we forget we have a choice. 

If we’re curious enough, we may come to find we have a choice. We don’t have to do things the way they’ve always been done. 

And when that occurs, we may believe our only option is to rally against the identity and swing to the other end. When we realize we no longer believe what the culture believes, we can convince ourselves that the next best option is to move towards non-conformity and rebel against it. 

A better option is to define yourself as being for something. 

This requires effort on our part because it challenges us to think deeply on what’s important. What values do we want to exemplify and live by? What purpose do we want to care enough about to see it through the long-term, perhaps beyond our own lifetime?

It means we must find the courage to stand for something inspite of what the culture thinks. 

Defining yourself as being for something is an infinite game. Because there is no end, there is only better. We play with hopes to move the culture in the right direction.

This pandemic has revealed cracks in the culture that were previously hidden or ubiquitous. It has upended many assumptions we had about the importance of work and life.

We’ve been provided an opportunity. 

We don’t have to accept things as they were. We have a choice. We can continue down the path of worshipping at the altar of capitalism without regard for the impact its unrestrained pursuit has on the culture. 

Or we can find the courage to demand better from the culture. And we can challenge it to stand for something, to have an end other than a perpetuation of its own growth. 

How we define ourselves shapes how we define our purpose.

If we want to change the culture, we have to be committed to the long haul. We have to be prepared to play the infinite game. 

To My Fellow Journeyers

Perhaps you’re like me. 

Life can be hard and it can be a grind. I won’t admit otherwise. 

It is precisely because of this challenge that we need a purpose, a reason to endure and rise above the gravity that pulls us down. 

We search to uncover our values, the deep beliefs that anchor us down to weather the storm when it comes (and it always comes).

And while we don’t deny the storm exists, we also do our damndest to not focus on the storm. Otherwise, if all we see is a storm, what else do we know? 

We search for purpose. We won’t accept anything less than uncovering our contribution in order to make this short life worth obsessing over.

We make this life a journey, a road worth taking in service to something larger than ourselves. Because, otherwise, what’s the point? 

We believe we are at our greatest and most generous when we offer up our talents from a posture of service.

The path ahead may be littered with peril and pain, but we can choose whether to proceed in despair or in hope of better. 

We can accept these hazards as the price we pay to live. 

But we will not give anything less than the best we have. 

The only way to make that possible is to know in what direction to travel. We choose a clear destination that pulls us ever forward. 

Perhaps you are unsure of your purpose (yet). But, I’d argue that a desire to uncover it still makes you a fellow journeyer. 

Because pursuit of purpose is still a journey with purpose.

So if you’re on this journey, you are not alone

There are others like you. 

In a world that rewards short-term, finite thinking, we must make the most of who luck and seek out fellow journeyers. 

Sometimes, surrounding yourself and sharing the journey with other like-minded journeyers is the difference it takes to stay the course in the face of a world that wants you to play it safe. 

Sometimes, knowing you aren’t alone is the light you need to keep going.

Stay the course and safe travels.