“Don’t Be Seduced By Low-Hanging Fruit”

10 12 2015

Avoid Low Hanging Fruit

Recently, I was reviewing some future vocational pursuits, and courses of study to prepare for them, with a mentor of mine.   He admonished me twice, “You must not be seduced by low-hanging fruit.”  He went on to encourage me to set vocational and educational goals that were neither too easy nor out-of-this-world in difficulty, but instead targets in which “you have to stand on your tiptoes to reach.”

That was a new twist.

My own human nature and the bent of our times drifts toward, even craves, things that require little or no effort.  Low-maintenance relationships.  Things you can “wing.”  Problem-solving that demands no more than easy, black/white, either/or solutions that don’t have to grapple with the complexities of our times and its issues, which are impatient of petty annoyances like nuance and clarification.  Or, better yet, long-term thinking.  (Current immigration debate and Donald Trump come to mind.)

The challenge for growth is something that requires stretching.  We all know this when we get to the gym.  But we tend to forget this once we’ve showered and leave the environment where sweat is accepted as part of obtaining the prizes.

What goals are you setting for yourself?  Do they cause you discomfort or are they well within your current competencies and are guaranteed to cause you little frustration?  Little effort can only yield small rewards.

These are necessary questions, because low-hanging fruit is cheap and easy.  But, you have to climb to get the good stuff.

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A Failure of Nerve

7 12 2015

A Failure of NerveThe book you see above this post is simply the best book on leadership that I have ever read.  Ever.

I read a lot.  A great deal of what I read devolves in some way upon leadership–autobiography, biography, leadership as art and craft, critical leadership arenas, failures of leadership and so forth.  This is a rich field as there are so many great authors and leaders.  The usual suspects: Winston Churchill, Steve Jobs, Douglas MacArthur, John Maxwell, Seth Godin, Warren Bennis and political leaders ad infinitum.  I’m sure you could assemble your own list of leaders and leadership mavens and their writings.  (Matter of fact, please load up the combox with your suggestions!)

Edwin Friedman was a rabbi and therapist who did most of his work in and around Washington, D.C. up until his death in 1996.  The strength of his work (his entire corpus comprises five volumes, two of which were published posthumously) is that leadership is ultimately a function of the leader himself/herself (hereafter his/him for the sake of brevity).

A Failure of Leadership gets at the essence of good leadership.  The focus of this book is on a leader’s self-leadership, rather than leadership techniques, punch lists, alliterations and the like.   The leader sets the tone in any environment by 1) maintaining a non-anxious presence in the midst of anxious and emotional people, whether family, congregation, business or government and 2) practicing his own inner leadership as a self-differentiated individual; that is, one who is clear about his goals, vision, purpose and values and is able to hold to them in a steady way, especially when times are tumultuous and the tendency to herd rears its head and threatens to pull him into its toxic vortex.  The self-differentiated leader is moved by reason–namely, his goals and values–rather than emotional current.

There is so much more to this book in general and Friedman’s work in particular that we will explore in future writings.  Topics such as orienting towards adventure rather than safety, focusing on personal responsibility and challenge and not simply “feeling another’s pain” (empathy).  Fodder for later posts.

Buy this book.  He wrote it during the Bush (41) and Clinton years–years in which he described our country and culture as anxious and stuck.  One can only imagine his response to our own times with the challenges of the post 9/11 world and ubiquitous social media which, at best, is a mixed blessing.

Stick around.  There’s more!

Further reading:

Friedman’s Fables

Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue

The Myth of the Shiksa and Other Essays

What Are You Going to Do with Your Life? Unpublished Writings and Diaries
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Putting In Your Time and Paces

31 07 2014

Putting In Your PacesJim Rohn is one of my favorite self-development teachers.  I’ve been mentored by him over the past few years through his writings and recorded seminars.  I have never met him.  He died in 2009 after a full life.

Some time ago, I heard him dispense this nugget, worthy of wrapping one’s head around:

“Make rest a necessity, not an objective.”

Now that’s a new and powerful way of highlighting the importance of working hard.

Rest is something we earn.  This sounds foreign to American ears.  We are used to the “standard” of a forty-hour work week.  But forty hours of labor over a seven day period—as enough to get ahead–is distinctly Western and recent.  Our grandparents didn’t think like this.

I’ve heard it said that if you’re only working forty hours a week, it’s not likely you’ll get ahead–certainly not as far ahead as your dreams, goals, and ambitions.

Even God worked six days out of seven when He created the cosmos.  He wasn’t done on Friday afternoon at 5:00.

I have family members who are doctors, attorneys, investment bankers, hedge fund managers, Federal officials, and much more.  They’ve all gotten where they’re at the old-fashioned way:  They worked their tails off.  Nobody handed any of them anything.

Here are just a few benefits that will return to you with greater effort and longer hours, as you create a life:

  • You will certainly grow in your chosen fields of vocation and avocation.
  • Your sense of accomplishment will increase as you tackle and master more skills and meet goals.
  • You will run far ahead of the pack simply because many, if not most, are content to put their expected time in, satisfied with “working their forty hours.”
  • Your earning potential will undoubtedly increase, especially if the extra effort is focused and you strive for greater levels of excellence at all to which you put your hands to.

This isn’t a paean of praise to workaholism, far from it.  But in a culture that lives for the weekend, for partying, for good times and leisure, one tends to get an unrealistic picture of what it takes to win at life and realize your full potential.  It’s simply a matter of adjusting your perspective to accord with reality.

So my advice is this:  See work and labor not as a curse, but as a blessing.  Some of the most successful people in recent memory got that way, in sizeable measure, because they love working:  Donald Trump, Gene Simmons, Jack Welch, Bill Gates, and Oprah Winfrey.  Look for lots of increases in many different ways as you likewise work harder toward fulfilling your destiny.

And, when you have striven and exerted and are tired, then rest.

You’ve earned it.

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Measurable Goals and Growth

23 07 2014

Measurable GoalsGoals.  How do you hit them?  How do you place them within sane and profitable range?  How do you avoid the extremes of setting the bar too low—being unchallenged and bored—and shooting unrealistically high (and being discouraged and defeated)?

I once had a helpful conversation at work. One of my colleagues and I were discussing the importance of setting goals that were challenging yet attainable.  My friend told me that when he was an insurance salesman, he and his fellow agents would huddle in the mornings and lay out their sales goals for that particular day.  His buddies would generally shoot for the moon:  “I’m gonna sell ten policies today.”  He would set more modest but sufficiently difficult targets: “I’m going to sell two of this policy and one of that package.”  And he would usually hit the mark, while his co-workers failed to meet theirs and were thus discouraged.

There’s an old adage that says “slow and steady wins the race.”  This, of course, is a nod to Aesop’s famous story of The Tortoise and the Hare.  Through patient plodding, the much slower and ungainly tortoise won the race over the flashy and fleet-of-foot hare.  If you persevere, you win.

This is not to discourage the practice of giving yourself a worthy but difficult task.  But it is important to keep a healthy balance between mediocrity and insanity.  Those who avoid the shoals on either side generally sail on to success.

What are your goals for 1) continuing education—whether at a learning institution or through self-education via reading, listening and viewing, 2) physical fitness and weight loss, 3) strengthening your relationships, 4) improving your vocational skills?  Have you written them down, which is critical to their fulfillment, having engaged your conscious and subconscious mind by doing so?  Have you a process, broken down into manageable bites—“baby steps”—whereby you can meet these destinations?

Here are some of the benefits one derives from setting goals and then meeting them:

  • You get the benefit of meeting the goal itself.  If you lose that portly thirty pounds, you feel better about yourself and have become healthier.  If you learn a new skill, you can use that to help others, elevate your station and earn more.
  • You receive a boost in self-confidence and self-respect rooted in genuine accomplishment, rather than in aspiration and fantasy.
  • You strengthen your goal-attainment muscles because you are encouraged that, yes, you can do this!

Set goals.  Set them high enough to stretch you.  Write them down, with concrete dates and metrics indicating you’ve met them.  Then hit them!

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Drama, Catastrophizing, and the Freak-Out Gene

15 07 2014

Freak out geneTrue Confession: Any sense of drama in response to the stresses of life exhibited in the lives of my daughters they got from me, not their mother.

There, I said it. It feels good to admit the truth.

Psychologists call this tendency towards the dramatic, towards planning for the absolute worst, towards injecting a perfectly good molehill with steroids—to make it a mountain, duh—catastrophizing.

Guilty. And embarrassed.

A friend of mine got sick a few winters ago.  In his 50’s, career Army retired.  1st Sergeant.  Ranger Battalion for 6 years.  A remarkable guy and dear to our family.  I work with one of his sons, who is a chip off the old block and a close friend as well. And doesn’t freak out.

When my friend got sick, I was concerned.  It was serious enough that it put a retired Army Ranger in the hospital for a few days.  I asked the son about the father and he said that, though worried, his dad didn’t show it.  The son, one of our managers, is pretty good under pressure.  Just like his dad.  When asked by one of our colleagues if he was a mess because of his dad being in the hospital, the son said, “I guess [like dad] I didn’t inherit the freak-out gene.”

Man, I’ve had to chew on that one. And have been eating that business for a few years now. Why? Because I’ve not been great under pressure.  Candidly, I’ve been lousy in the clutch.  But the example of my even-keeled Irish buddies has been inspiring and convicting.

As I’ve thought about this, I realized that when stresses mount, one does not have to freak out.  Cave.  Bolt.  Come apart.  But I’m learning that a good deal of my responses to the tensions of life have to do with what I think about and tell myself.  Right thinking and talk are one of the secrets to poise, grace under pressure.

It’s that simple and that powerful.

To be sure, we all face things much larger than we are.  That overwhelm.  That can sink the boat of the ablest mariner.  But there is in our society entirely too much drama and meltdown.  For guys, it’s really an effeminate thing that insults the high call and dignity of manhood.  Great military leaders in combat are as scared as those under them but they mask it and charge ahead. They just don’t let their troops know they’ve filled their shorts.

What to do when stress comes?  Some hints:

  • Hit the gym rather than the bottle—or any other medicine, like shopping, sex, drugs, and other sundry ephemeral escapisms—for relief.
  • Remind yourself that you are equal to the task and think positively.       It certainly hasn’t worked for you to work yourself up to face the worst, has it?
  • Take a walk or a run and reflect.  Often stresses overwhelm simply because we don’t take enough time to think through challenges and find creative solutions to meet them.
  • Pray.  And act.  Do both, not one or the other.
  • Ask yourself, “Will this matter in five days, five months or five years?” Perspective gives proper weight to problems.
  • Lead.  God help you, but whatever you do, stand up like a man and walk on.  You will astound people, because leaders are rare.

I’m learning.  Slowly.  Very slowly.  I hope you are too.

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Passion: A Stallion’s Default Setting

13 07 2014

Passion StallionDo you know what gelding is?  It is a stallion that has been neutered.  Testicles removed.  Castrated.  No stones.

Those who raise horses geld stallions for lots of reasons.  One of them is to make the horse more sedate.  Well-behaved.  Easier to manage.

There is one considerable drawback.  Geldings cannot stud.  They are sterile.  Unable to reproduce.  But they’re nicer, I suppose.

In his book The Journey of Desire, John Eldredge recounts an unsuccessful counseling experience he had with a guy named Gary.  Gary was nice.  Well-behaved.  Easy to manage.  His wife was worried because he had no passion for anything.  He was a “nice Christian boy.”  Did all the right things.  But not out of any deep sense of conviction.

A gelding.

Eldredge was unable to help a man who’d lost all drive for anything in life.  A good deal of this hemorrhage of basic testosterone was no doubt rooted in a distorted idea of what the ideal Christian male is.  “Gentle Jesus–meek and mild.”  You get the picture.  Not the type of person who drives thieves from the sanctuary with a whip and uses strong, impolite language with religious bullies.

Passivity, especially in males, is the bane of our age.  It sours marriages.  It produces mediocre job performance.  Is often sedentary and unambitious.  It leaves those who count on us without a leader.

Geldings don’t change the world.  Sorry, but it’s true.

When I read about heroes in history, I find they were possessed with passion for whatever their mission was in life.  Teddy Roosevelt.  King David.  Richard Branson.  Judas Maccabeus.  Steve Jobs.  And Jesus Christ.  True, they made mistakes (Jesus excepted).  And when they screwed up, it was a disaster.  But when they triumphed, it made history.

Your wife wants you to be passionate.  So do your kids.  Your friends and colleagues too.

In fact, the whole world wants it.

This is your time to be all there.  Find something—anything—worth doing and do it with all your might.

Suggestions:

  • Get out of your chair at night and get moving.  Exercise, do extra work, take on a new project demanding effort and adrenaline.  You don’t want to end up like so many poor souls whom you see at the discount stores, grossly overweight, listless and unhappy.  Too many cheap carbs and time in front of a television or computer screen.  It doesn’t have to be you.
  • Start a blog.  I did and so have countless others.  This one is sticking and having the net effect of making me get off my duff and practice what I preach to my readers.
  • Repeat after me: “I matter.  I can do this.  I am not a nobody.  And the world is counting on me being fully there in whatever I am doing.”  Again, if it isn’t worth doing with all your might, it probably isn’t worth doing.  You be the judge.

You’re called to be a stallion.  Don’t sell yourself short.  Go and produce life!

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If You Have to Correct, Be Decent About It

11 07 2014

Correction with graceThree years ago, I changed departments within my company. I accepted the new assignment, welcoming the chance for advancement as well the challenge of learning a new skill set. I’ve learned a lot in the past three years.

I work in Information Technology. IT is a field that is characterized by regular innovation and obsolescence, multiple problem-solving opportunities and, if done well, precision. I work in the Quality Assurance department of our company. It is the task of my very able colleagues and I to assure that the product we deliver to our clients (Fortune 500 companies and others) is of the highest quality and functions flawlessly. In a word, our work has to be perfect. Or as close to perfect as is humanly possible.

This means that the regular requirement of my job involves inspecting the work of my colleagues and calling them over to my desk to go over what they’ve submitted, praising wherever possible, but also pointing out errors and mistakes, how to correct them and improve the overall quality of their work.

We have an office full of winsome and intelligent professionals who take their work very seriously and are sensitive to any shortcomings in what they produce. I’ve watched as some of them look crestfallen —furrowed brow and all—when I’ve brought an error to their attention. I try not to be calloused when dealing with people. Ask those who know me. They’ll tell you. Especially when I have to look in the eyes of the one I am critiquing. I fall all over myself, feeling bad that I have to take some sunshine out of their day.

Real correction is not a picnic. Real, meaning when you have to look square in the eyes of someone and smell their perfume, cologne or even their breath.

I must tell you that this has given me an entirely different perspective on the often irresponsible practice of criticizing another human being who doesn’t happen to be in the same room, out of earshot and eye contact.

I try to critique those for whom I’m responsible with as much grace as is humanly possible. I have to look them in the eye when I do it. It’s really easy to be a critic when those who are the target of your criticisms will never be within breathing distance. That’s like shooting fish in a pail. No challenge. No intelligence needed. And often, given the nature of the criticisms, no intelligence involved at any stage.

Maybe this should be the benchmark for our often glib and sloppy criticisms of people and stuff. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21) the Scriptures inform us. Can you look the person in the eye? Would you….?

Think about it: How quickly would I criticize someone (a politician, a performing artist, a minister, a member of my circle) if I was required look them in the eye when critiquing? Just like I have to do each day with my co-workers. I’ve found that showing genuine appreciation wherever possible creates life. In others and in me. And it makes the corrections a lot more palatable.

As a man named Paul once wrote, “…speak the truth in love.”

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