The unfinished puzzle

In my family, jigsaw puzzles were a holiday tradition of sorts. We’d set up a special card table in the living room and work a little each day until the pieces found their ways to the right spots.

I’m not sure how it happened exactly, but one of our favorite puzzles (a 1000 count version of an autumn forest scene) was missing several pieces. We’d go into it, fully knowing that 99.7 percent of the pieces were there. And when we were done (well, as done as you can get with missing pieces) we’d all admire it until it went back in the box to be replaced on the table with another one.

I was reminded of this while watching a video today. The speaker was talking about how, rather than focusing on the completed parts of our lives–the parts that are going well–we often focus on the unfinished elements: The ideal job that we just missed landing, or the partner we can’t find, or an income that’s short of what we need.

The unfinished elements of our lives can certainly seem huge. And focusing our thinking around them can become a serious downer. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be alert to finding the new job, or partner, or increasing our income. Those plans are important!

But while looking, we might be best helped by focusing on the parts of our lives that are working and leverage them–the jigsaw puzzles pieces at play, if you will.

A friend of mine put it this way. “I may not have the perfect job or car or living situation,” she said, “but I’ve got this really great bunch of friends who I’m always there for, and they’re there for me, too. When I’m tempted to get down about what I don’t have, I just remember what I do have.” It’s much the same way we put the puzzle together when I was a kid–by focusing not on the missing pieces but the ones we had.

What completed puzzle parts do you rely on? Tell us in the comments section.

The (sometimes) wisdom of reader boards

I’m not usually one who pays attention to reader boards and the sometimes successful (but not usually) attempts to be funny or clever in 20 words or less. But while visiting a local gas station this morning, I couldn’t help but notice a pithy one outside a Days Inn. “The years teach much which the days will never know,” it read. “Interesting,” I thought and turned away to find out how much gas would cost this time around.

Then, I turned back and re-read the board. What a commanding ten-word reminder that perspective, the ability to put events in context, is a powerfully freeing skill—though it often eludes us in the press of daily life.

Turns out that the words are Ralph Waldo Emerson’s, the mid 1800s author, poet and philosopher.

I think there’s a difference between gaining perspective and “rolling with the punches” or “letting water run off your back.” While there’s something to be said for lightening up and not taking things seriously all the time, there’s a certain beauty or wisdom in being able to rise above the moment to see how it fits with days and weeks and years. It promotes a kind of learning that helps us see how all the dots actually connect together.

Yet, that’s not easy to do sometimes, especially if something feels personal, emotional or if the skin that’s in the game happens to be yours.

Several years ago, I was faced with a difficult job and an equally testy boss. The whole situation became so complicated that I could see no way out. I temporarily lacked the insight to see what was really going on, my role in it, and any possible future that could be less miserable. Things were not only unhappy, I was beginning to lose energy and enthusiasm.

Then I recalled working for a boss who was in charge of testing some very complex, expensive equipment. On the late shift one night, technicians incorrectly programmed a computer. The result was that the equipment literally dropped several inches resulting in perhaps catastrophic and expensive damage.

I learned about the problem the next day. The office was buzzing with engineers forecasting dire consequences for the program and for some of the leadership, my boss included.

In one meeting, men were wondering how our boss could remain so centered and focused. In his characteristically thoughtful and unflappable way, he reached into a drawer and pulled out what looked like a very large aspirin pill about three inches across. It was made of Styrofoam and covered with paper on each side. On the paper were written these words, “Anti-glum pill. Take with a large dose of perspective.”

We all laughed, in part to break the tenseness of the situation, but more because it was funny. He went on to say, “All we need do is our best. That’s why we’ve been successful in the past and what will make this project work. Let’s focus on the future because it’s darned sure to be better than the past couple of days!”

Applying that to my own situation, I asked myself what was the worst possible outcome, the most awful thing that could happen. That was an easy answer: I could lose my job. And, if that happened, what would I do? I’d sell the house, pack things up and go back to school. I could support myself playing the piano in clubs. Life would be okay.

That dose of perspective was what I needed to make a decision. I left that job within 30 days on a Friday. On Monday, I was doing consulting work for a large company.

Perspective is a great tool.

UPDATE: November 15, 2008. Today, the sign reads “Sofa for Sale.” Hmmm.

How do you maintain your perspective when things get tense? Add your comments!

When as good as it gets isn’t good enough

Actor Jack Nicholson is often cast as quirky movie characters and his take on Melvin Udall in the 1997 film “As Good As It Gets” is no exception. Melvin is the supremely cranky, obsessive-compulsive writer who finds his life totally uprooted when his gay neighbor/artist is hospitalized and he’s left to canine-sit the man’s small dog. To make matters worse, the only coffee shop waitress who can tolerate him must leave work to care for her sick son, making it impossible for Melvin to eat breakfast. At some point, we are left to conclude that this may be as good as it gets for him.

While Melvin might dream of a major, sweeping change transforming his peculiar life, it’s hard to imagine that happening.

Truth is, for Melvin—and you and me—life is more frequently a series of incremental changes, not major transformations. And that has its plusses and minuses.

On the up side, small changes are easier to handle and keep things on an even keel. On the down side, by only making small changes in our lives we may become complacent and accept the status quo—a sort of “as good as it gets mindset” that keeps us from taking leaps of faith.

Here’s a question for you: If you could do anything in the world, without restrictions of any kind such as income or education or experience, what would it be? No limitations at all. What would it be? It’s a sort of, “If I could relive my entire life—wipe the slate clean, if you will—this is who I really want to be and what I really want to do” question.

Maybe you want to be an author, or design golf courses, or help kids in Africa stricken with HIV-AIDS. Or perhaps your other calling is to be a minister, to own your own coffee shop, or to become a famous chef.

Here’s a second question: What’s the essence of your first answer? What’s behind it? What would that mean to you?

For example, if your goal is to move to Africa and provide help to children suffering from AIDS, what’s behind that? Perhaps that would mean educating parents, to relieve suffering and reduce the number of HIV cases each year. In other words, you want to make a small difference in the lives of people who are largely forgotten in the mainstream.

Or, if you want to write a book, what would it be about? How would that make a difference to others? Why is that important?

Now, for most of us, pulling up our job-stakes and embracing a life changing transformation is not practical or doable. Lots of things stand in the way. But if your dream is big and would really energize you, is there a way to give yourself—and the world—its gift?

One last question: What can you do today to bring even a small part of your ultimate dream into your life? Not the whole thing, but a part.

If becoming a chef is your big dream, what about taking a cooking class? Or preparing a special meal for your family? Or volunteering at a local food kitchen?

If you want to help with AIDS in Africa, is there a way to contribute money to those who are doing such work today?

Or, if you really want to write a book, is there a way you can share your writing skills in a slightly different way? For example, there are literally hundreds of online, part time writing jobs on the internet. Many of them pay quite well.

The case can be made that we should always pursue our dreams and maximize the way we use our talents. No question about that. But a single step toward that dream is better than no step at all.

One last thought…it’s amazing that when we share our talents with others, everyone benefits.

Tell us how you are pursuing your dreams in the comments section.

On blogs, what people are thinking, and TED

I’ve been reading blogs lately. Blogs on leadership. Blogs on spirituality, making presentations and on the Heisman Trophy. And blogs on blogging. It’s fascinating to learn what people are thinking about and why.

All this blog-reading has made me realize that I live in a pretty narrow world, one I’ve carefully constructed to preserve my way of thinking.

And then, a couple of weeks ago, on some blog, somewhere, I ran into, a fascinating website whose tagline is “ideas worth spreading.” TED stands for technology, entertainment and design and was started, in 1984, as a conference to bring together “the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes.)” That’s TED on TED.

In April 2007, TED began putting videos of these talks on its website under a Creative Commons License, making them available for public use—with only a few restrictions.

You gotta visit TED. It’s amazing. Where else could you see vice president Al Gore, primatologist Jane Goodall, orchestra conductor Benjamin Zander, and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin?

Why care about what these people think? Because the challenges we face today–as individuals, businesses, countries and the world–require a new kind of thinking, thinking that is more broad and expansive than what we’ve applied in the past. And one of the best ways to do that is to expand the size of our “mental box” to include ideas that may be totally foreign to the way we think today.

Here’s an example. Without doubt, Paul Simon is an incredible musician. And like many good musicians, his career has had peaks and valleys. Yet it extends across decades because he constantly looked to outside influences to shape his tunes.

In 1985, for example, Simon first heard the African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo while on a humanitarian trip there. This group’s musical style of unique native rhythms and almost chant-like lyrics stuck in his head. The result: the 1986 hit “You Can Call Me Al.”

Perhaps the video that most caught my brain by the edges and stretched my thinking was this presentation by artist and computer wizard Jonathan Harris. Talk about driving home the point that we’re all connected more closely than we may believe!

So, I say, “Go TED!” What a powerful, selfless concept: making the thinking of some of the world’s brightest minds accessible to those of us who wouldn’t normally be exposed to it. Who knows, maybe we’ll learn something!

Your turn: What stretches your thinking? Tell us in the comments section!

“Don’t give in,” he prodded.

When it comes to taking “the next steps” on a project, I’m usually pretty good at figuring them out. The ideas come at odd times and in strange places. I often joke with colleagues that I do my best thinking in the shower. They cast funny glances, laugh and say something along the lines of, “Okay, what is it this time?”

But last week, I found myself in a royal funk of not being able to figure out what to do next. A pet project of mine had been rejected (rather rudely, I might add) as “not corporate enough.” The baby wasn’t just ugly, it was the wrong gender! It was apparent during the discussion that the rejector and I looked at the same concept from two entirely different standpoints. It was even more apparent that anything I might say would be met with total disregard. It was a good time not to back an angry opponent into a corner, I reasoned.

I didn’t feel personally rejected, rather I was personally frustrated because this project was to become a tool to help thousands of company employees. My goal was to help others, something that seemed right at the time. But I felt stuck and totally unable to move forward. The next step eluded me.

I was driving to work when my cell phone rang. It was a friend who, somehow, sensed something was up (or, in this case, down). I told him about what happened and he very calmly said the problem was not about winning or losing, it was really about finding the “gift” in the situation. It doesn’t have to be a setback, he reminded me, rather, it could be just the opposite. “Don’t give in,” he prodded.

That’s sometimes easier to say than to do, especially if you’ve been dealt what feels like the sucker punch of punches. But when I paired the “gift idea” with the “don’t give in thought,” I realized it wasn’t a matter of giving up the idea/project concept but not giving in to discouragement.

The more I thought about it, the more I saw that the disagreement was deeper than I originally believed, and that I didn’t have to make anyone (including myself) right or wrong.

And then he said something that really hit home: Stop thinking about it! That’s like telling someone to get an image of a pink elephant in their head and make it vivid, and then telling them not to think about it. While that seems funny, it’s also true that ruminating over a problem doesn’t help solve it. Maybe a shower would help, I thought.

It’s now several days later, and I still don’t really know “the next step.” I do know that being open to the world around us–and the people around us–often leads to the next step. I’m not fearful, lost or uncertain anymore, because I know that the next step will be there. I’ll know what it is when the time is right.

Your turn: how do you “find the next steps?” Share your ideas by adding a comment.

Courage on the field

“He was an outstanding young man of great character who served—and my hope is, will continue to serve—as an inspiration to the young people of this country.”

…John F. Kennedy on Ernie Davis

The movie, The Express, came out this weekend. It’s the story of Ernie Davis, the young African-American football standout whose conviction, character and performance won him the coveted Heisman Trophy, given each year to the most outstanding college athlete. In the case of Davis, he was the first African-American to receive it.

The Express is a vivid and sometimes painful reminder of America in the late 1950s and how a man, determined to be the best football player he could be, helped our country move past its long-held views of people of color.

Davis was born in 1939 and was raised in poverty in Pennsylvanian coal mining country by his grandparents. At the age of 12, he was reunited with his mother and new stepfather. They moved to Elmira, New York where he became the star player on his high school team—a fact that did not go unnoticed by more than 50 college teams who offered him scholarships, something unheard of among Black players at the time. He chose Syracuse and went on to help the school achieve national status including winning the Cotton Bowl against the University of Texas in 1959.

As a movie, The Express is probably “just okay.” The acting is a bit stilted and some of the casting of the players is inconsistent. But as a story of determination and quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) standing for the fair treatment of everyone, it’s unmatched and inspiring. As I watched the movie, in scenes of anger and hatred so strong that I winced at times, I couldn’t help but think about my biases, subtle and not-so, and wonder how they cloud what I see and how I think about others.

The Express stars Dennis Quaid as coach Ben Schwartzwalder and Rob Brown as Davis.

Living unselfishly

Burris Hall, Virginia Tech

Burris Hall, Virginia Tech

FEBRUARY 2008. It was Saturday morning on the campus of Virginia Tech, an overcast 35 degrees with a chilling wind blowing across the drill field toward Burris Hall. Less than a year earlier, the field was the scene of a tribute by thousands of Hokie students, faculty and administrators as they remembered their 32 friends who, a few days earlier, had been killed by a gunman, one of their own, in the most tragic college shooting ever.

But this Saturday the drill field was empty. A colleague and I parked our Ford Explorer nearby, several blocks from the place where we’d soon be speaking to engineering students but only a few feet from the semi-circular memorial honoring VT’s slain students and faculty.

As we walked down the gently sloping path to the memorial, I couldn’t help but reflect on how honorably the 32 Hokie Stones, as they’re called, marked the lives of such diverse people. And, if there’s a blessing in the tragedy, it may be that Hokie students and alums are more steadfast in their love for their school and what it stands for—a place to “invent the future” as they call it.

Sadly, only two weeks earlier, another tragic college shooting took place when a gunman killed five Huskie students on the campus of Northern Illinois University. Trying to make sense of the shootings at Virginia Tech and NIU is difficult, if not impossible. A friend of mine, writing in a blog a few days ago, called it “an extreme form of selfishness.” An apt description, that’s for sure.

But as my colleague and I stood at the memorial, numbed by the moment and the cold wind, I told her of my friend’s description of selfishness. She paused for a moment and said, “You know, it’s also an extreme form of loneliness. The killers in these cases were all alone with no friends to listen or talk to. Or at least that’s what they thought.”

It made me wonder if selfishness, when taken to an extreme, is really an inability to see how we fit together in a sort of inter-dependent universe, one in which no one stands alone? Could it be that selfishness is nothing more than a trick that obscures how we are really all part of a great big “whole?”

I realized that the healing of selfishness occurs when we “operationalize love” by both knowing that God is Love and by living a life of loving one another through inclusion and compassion. Such living would not only help change loneliness into inclusiveness but selfishness into concern for others.

Our talk later that afternoon to 25 engineering students would be about preparing themselves for the world of work by choosing to make a difference in the world. We used an idea from the movie “Pay It Forward” in which a social studies teacher challenges his students to come up with an idea to change the world. One of them decides he will do something good for three other people. They cannot return the favor to him, but must “pay it forward” to three others who, in turn, must pay it forward to three more. (If you do the math, the number of people who are touched grows very quickly!)

As we talked about this idea with the engineering students they laughed about the fact that the size of the act wasn’t important, it was the act itself. One person told me later, “Good doesn’t come in sizes—good just is.”

The idea of paying it forward can make a huge difference in the lives of people who are lonely and hurting. Even the act of selflessly listening to others can break the spell of loneliness. Such acts of love help clear the dark of loneliness with the light of inclusion; they extinguish the trick of selfishness with the truth of unity and oneness.

We may never know the results of paying good forward as it’s almost impossible to know if doing so prevents bad acts—however minor or extreme—from happening. That’s the wonder of it. We may never know how we’ve made a difference. We just need to remember that we have.