Love as a verb

I spent much of this morning finding and listening to music about home, love, peace, and compassion. And on the way, I ran across a video called “Beautiful Earth” celebrating Earth Hour in the United Kingdom. Blake, the British musical group whose music you hear in the video, is loosely called a “boy band” although that hardly represents the vocal talents of this gifted vocal quartet who named themselves after William Blake, the poet and writer.

All this was sort of a mellow prelude for an after-lunch trip to the fish market and a local retailer that features close-out merchandise. A Saturday afternoon distraction of sorts.

I was unprepared for what would happen, an important lesson about living love, not just thinking about it.

After a quick visit to a nearby pet store to look at cats and dogs up for adoption, I headed to the real destination. Inside, in the bedding section, was a mother and her 22-year-old son who appeared to be a significantly challenged special needs child. He was hunched over and stared vacantly at the collection of colored sheets somewhat neatly stacked on the table.

As I walked over, I found myself uncomfortable being there, even wondering if it was safe. I walked down a different aisle to avoid him. A few minutes later, when I returned to an area just a few feet from him, I felt a certain eerie-ness. I turned. It was the young man, his head pointed away, but his right eye fixed intently on me.

I felt strange, “weirded out,” as some would say.

And then, in what had to be just a split second, I wondered how many others—like me—judged him with their eyes while avoiding our hearts. The feeling of eerie left.

I turned, looked directly at him, smiled and said, “Hi, how are you.” In a clear, strong voice he replied, “I’m fine. Are you okay?”

We had a 30-second conversation about what he was buying with his mother. “Sheets,” he told me saying that he really didn’t understand this “thread count” thing. We laughed.

And then the conversation ended but not before he looked at me and said, “Thank you for talking to me.”

As I watched him disappear down the aisle to join his mom, my eyes filled with tears.

I was embarrassed by my selfishness and all-too-quick judgment. But at the same time, I found myself being grateful for a moment in which love became an action and not just a thought.

High above this overcrowded place
A distant blackbird flies through space
And all he does is search for love.
Love is all that matters in the end…

Love is the oldest secret of the universe
Warm as the touch of two innocent lovers
When they discover that
Love is what we ever really know.

A past and future come and go
Because they do, Love stays with you…

Celebration” by Paul McCartney

Six lessons from Dylan and Trevor

Life lessons come in many shapes, sizes and situations and mostly when we’re open to learning them.

One recent Saturday dished up some pretty good ones, each served by a couple of unlikely messengers—my coworker’s sons, Dylan and Trevor, ages eight and five. She and the guys showed up to help with some serious office cleaning and straightening.

Now I don’t hang with kids much, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Because I follow their comings and goings pretty much on a daily basis, I knew that her sons are (1) all boy, (2) very polite and (3) extremely smart.  I figured I was in for either a real treat or a pretty long day.

The workday began with lunch and a detailed movie review of the new Dreamworks film “How to Train Your Dragon” that they’d seen a few days before. I was struck that these guys were using complete sentences that logically developed from one thought to the next. I was still learning to tie my shoes at the age of seven. At five, I was sticking my head in chimneys and who knows what else…

Then it was on to the work of the day: packing, shredding, and boxing stuff—all of which was punctuated with lots of questions, laughter and, well, did I mention questions? Bunches of them.

It was a quick 2-1/2 hours. While driving home, I found myself laughing out loud at the time we spent together. There were lessons here. I counted six. Call them Lessons from Dylan and Trevor:

  1. Expect good from everyone you meet.
  2. Think of work as a joy because it can be if you let it.
  3. Tell stories about what you like to do as it makes living more fun.
  4. Say “Yes” when asked if you want to do something—even if you don’t really understand what it is.
  5. Thank people, even if the gift they give you is small.
  6. And, finally, love each other, because it makes everything better.

Thanks guys!

Listening for everything

The more you listen, the more you hear, according to Gordon Hempton*, an acoustic ecologist.

But Hempton says that if you listen for something, you stay inside a narrow expectation of your previous experience and tune out what you’re not listening for. In other words, when you listen just for the sound of the cricket, or the bird, or the wind, you will often miss other sounds going on at the same time.

He contends that real listening occurs when we truly pause and let everything in, opening our ears, our heart and our mind to be filled with all there is to hear.

It’s in this listening that we hear the Universe speak.


*Hempton is the author of  One  Square Inch of Silence and is waging his own war to save silence from extinction.

Ideas that just “drop in”

Like many people, I’m fascinated by how creative types find their ideas. (Or maybe that should be how creative ideas find people to express them, but that takes us down a totally a different rabbit trail.)

A recent broadcast of Diane Rehm’s popular radio show on NPR shed a little light on the topic. Her guest was Carole King, probably best known as a singer from the 1960s whose distinctive sound and style created the 1971 chart-topping Tapestry album, a record (and now a CD) that remains popular even today.

Despite her acclaim as a performer, in her heart, King is a songwriter, pure and simple. It’s a fact borne out in dozens of her tunes that have been sung by such divergent artists as Aretha Franklin, James Taylor, the Monkeys, and Celine Dion.

King’s lyrics tell stories, and her music—a pop and folk infused mix—brings them to life. One of her best known songs, “You’ve Got A Friend,” is particularly soulful and was popularized by James Taylor in 1971. Listening to the words makes one wonder how the song came about—a question that didn’t escape Rehm who posed it to King during the interview.

“It just ‘dropped in,’ ” King said.

“When I sat down at the piano,” King recalled, “that song just ‘came,’ and I’ve always considered it a gift. And I’m glad it came through me… It has touched a lot of people.”

Others have explained their creative sources using images. Merle Shain, Canadian author and journalist, wrote about it this way in her book, When Lovers Are Friends:


Poets talk of “having lines land on them” and claim that what they write is hanging in the air for anyone to reach. When someone asked William Blake where he got his ideas, he said that he stuck his finger through the floor of heaven and pulled them down.

King went on to use the “dropped in” phrase at least twice more. When asked to explain, she likened it to writing a letter, but not knowing exactly what to say. Then, suddenly, you find the words effortlessly coming out of the pen and onto the paper. For her, it happens at the piano—suddenly music just comes out.

Franz Kafka, noted German fiction writer, explained his own down-to-earth approach to writing:

There is no need to leave the house. Stay at your desk and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t even wait, be perfectly still and alone. The world will unmask itself to you, it can’t do otherwise.

Creativity can be thought of as an intuitive process, nurtured through prayer, contemplation, walks in nature, etc. Sometimes the ideas come as hunches or inklings of something to do. At other times, in the case of Carole King, they come as complete songs or ideas. We do know that the more we act on our intuitive hunches, the stronger and more readily available they become.

For me, it’s a sort of “let go of Jake and just let things be, without judgment or conditions.”

Perhaps it is the rabbit trail we didn’t go down: maybe there are all these ideas just swirling around in the universe—just waiting for someone who is ready to hear them.

Don’t know for sure, but it just might be!

You’re more creative than you think!

NOTE: This post also appears on

When a friend threw out the idea of writing about creativity for When Creativity Knocks–the website of a mother and daughter team who share crafting skills–my mind went conveniently blank. That is until I remembered my all-time favorite story about Michelangelo (you know, the painter sculptor, architect, poet, engineer and original Renaissance man). It is said that someone congratulated him on turning a block of stone into a man. Skirting the compliment, he merely said the man was in there all the time and just needed a little help in getting out.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been much good at seeing objects in chunks of marble. Evidently, it’s not one of my “gifts.” Truth is each of us has our own special gifts. One of mine is writing music. People sometimes want to know where the music comes from. Usually, I say that I just sit down at the piano, stop thinking about things, and just listen.

Creative folks listen and observe, often looking for ways to connect seemingly unrelated dots. That’s part of the creative process itself.

Think of it this way: How many ways can you use a paperclip? Once you get past the “holding paper together” answer, the list begins to grow. It can become a device to repair a hem, serve as a hair barrette or unclog an Elmer’s glue bottle. Or, if you’re in the eight grade and combine it with a rubber band, it can help you earn a three-day “vacation” from school. But I digress.

Think of the crafting ideas on the When Creativity Knocks website. Each is the result of using common (and not-so-common) materials in different ways—in many cases, very unintended ways.

Take “All Decks on Hand” for example. It’s a great example of connecting a skateboard with artwork to aid a worthy cause—helping people with autism. Those are certainly unrelated dots, don’t you think? You can watch the video HERE.

Want to be more creative? Start by acknowledging that it’s possible. Then, do your own paperclip exercise by asking yourself: What are ten different things I could do with [fill in your own blank.]

Remember, all ideas in brainstorming are good.

Then, get ready for creativity to knock on your door!

Writing to students

It’s nearly impossible to catch a network newscast of late without hearing a story about people helping people.  Even CNN has added its touch with “CNN Heroes, everyday people changing the world” broadcast Thanksgiving evening. It’s a welcome change from the (unfortunately all-to-common) coverage of violence and hate that, if unchecked in our thinking, can jade and discourage.

Dan Stroup's story of writing birthday letters to his students was shown on the Today Show. You can watch the segment by clicking on the photo above.

A particular story caught my attention this morning—the account of a teacher who, for the past 30 years, has sent handwritten letters to his students on their birthdays. You can watch the video HERE.

The ritual takes place every night in the living room of Dan Stroup, teacher of Bible studies at Heritage Christian School in Indianapolis. Stroup, with an uncanny memory of his eighth-grade pupils, reflects on their time in class and poses questions about their lives today. Every note is closed with a Bible verse, written in red, at the bottom of the page.

He takes the job (he wouldn’t call it that) seriously and hopes that each letter brings encouragement and serves as a reminder that he remembers them.  “I don’t know who is going to need what and on what day, and I don’t know how God is going to use this,” he says.  “I want to make sure that I don’t drop the ball. Maybe this letter today is exactly what that person is going to need.”

Sometimes we don’t know the words that others need or how, if spoken, the words will fall on their ears. Maybe, if we listen, they’ll come to us. And if Stroup’s 30-year labor of love holds a lesson, it could be that his yearly act of 2500 individual letters will nurture each student. One by one.

“I will listen…”

Sometimes the story isn’t what we think


…the things we don’t always intend to happen, but they take our eyes off the “current ball” and give us something new to focus on. Sometimes planned. Sometimes unexpected. Always interesting if we choose to let them be.

A friend, former boss, and smart guy (all the same person) decided several weeks ago that the world needed an iPhone App (short for application) that would put important data at people’s fingertips. He approached the subject by teasing me with the notion of, “What if you wanted to find the best car dealership to service your, say, transmission? I want to develop that App to help you find that.”

Well, the App had nothing to do with cars or transmissions, but much to do with service.

After signing an agreement carefully crafted by his wife, an attorney, to not let the cat out of the bag and promising first borns, fingers and other unspecified objects, I was permitted access into the inner sanctum of what it was about. Turns out to be a really interesting and useful tool for travelers and others who need the services of professionals in a specific field.

But that’s not the story here. The story is about being open to possibility (there are other posts about that topic on the blog), knowing that we can choose to be a contribution and find tremendous joy and satisfaction in that—even if our “real job” isn’t the most satisfying.

The joy is that I’ve spend the past few days doing artwork, research, and thinking about subjects that I have no firsthand knowledge of, and, to be honest, not an intense interest in. And that’s the point.

Sometimes, our gifts, our talents, our skills, apply broadly to many fields. We only restrict their application by the limits we put on them and ourselves.

My friend, the App owner, literally lectured me a few days ago about that very thing. I didn’t like the conversation at all. But I listened.

And I learned.

Diversions can be good things.

And this one has given me one of the best weeks of my life.

You can have a good week, too.

Make that choice!

On right questions, open doors and staying on top of your game

The other day a friend called from across the state. She was considering a job in another part of the country in an area where I grew up, and she wanted to know what it was like to live there. We talked about it, but the conversation soon shifted from the locale to the new job and what she’d be doing.

My friend is a smart, articulate, good thinker. But, even the smartest among us can get confused—especially when seemingly easy decisions become complex as heaps of personal and professional issues get piled on. That’s where my friend was at the moment.

Been there. Done that myself. Here are three ideas to consider.

Castle portalFirst, get the question right. For my friend, the question seemed to be, “Should I take the job?” Ultimately, that’s not a bad question. Yes, the job would bring her closer to her family, it paid well, and it was very stable. These were important criteria for my friend.

But the answer to a different question gave another perspective. When asked if she’d really enjoy doing the work, the answer was, “Not really.” My friend is an outgoing, fun-loving person who spends most of her work time helping people solve problems. The new job (call it “a heads down job”) would entail much individual work with little interaction with others. Even though it would address some of her important criteria, long term it wouldn’t be a good fit.

But this seemed like one of the only jobs that would get her closer to her family. Not taking it was troublesome.

Here’s where the second idea comes in: Look for other doors to open. In the same way that there are rarely (if ever) single right answers to problems, there are always other opportunities on the horizon. The belief in limitation or even defeat is self-fulfilling. Accepting that there are options and other possibilities presents a series of opening doors—if only we are willing to see them.

In my friend’s case, we talked about the people who would, based on her reputation, be willing to explore options with their colleagues. She turned the job down and is actively looking for the next open door (or window for that matter).

And finally, stay on top of your game. That’s right up there with some of mom’s other wisdom such as always wearing clean underwear. Staying on top of your game can get difficult during times of change, but it’s essential to delivering your best performance, doing it consistently and being ready for the next opportunity that comes along.

Although my friend is usually on her game, some of us may not be—especially if we’re in what feels like a dead end job, or one we’ve taken because it was all that was available. As a result, we may take on a half-hearted attitude, just putting in the hours and hoping for something better to come along. Maybe you’ve run into someone like this or been there yourself at some point.

One way around this (or through it, as the case may be) is to find “the hook” you can buy into as your reason for being there. Maybe you provide customer service today, but your real goal in life is to be in marketing or to be a teacher. The hook might be to be the best at what you currently do: to be enthusiastic, provide good information and advice, and to help your customers be successful.

This may sound a bit pie-in-the-skyish, but it works because it focuses us on the moment and what is going on, not on a future that has yet to materialize. All the while, you’re doing your best, a best that people around you see and appreciate. It’s not that you don’t think about the future, make plans and follow up. Those are all good things to do. Rather, you deliver the best you can at the moment without reservation or holding back.

It’s not always easy, that’s for sure. But it helps you find the right questions and to be alert and ready for the next doors to open.

Being the change

DENVER, COLORADO. It’s not your usual story about restaurants, food, or about prices and cash registers.

It’s about serving people, serving dignity, and serving hope.

You see, when you have lunch at SAME Café, you become part of a larger mission of helping others, So All May Eat.

picture-201SAME Café, sandwiched between local bars, thrift stores and tattoo parlors on East Colfax Avenue, is the loving work of Brad and Libby Birky. “We think that everybody deserves to eat well,” says Brad. They started the small restaurant by borrowing from their own retirement accounts when no bank would lend them money.

The menu changes daily and features soups, salads and pizza, using mostly organic ingredients prepared fresh by chef Brad.

Customers place their food order and receive a small envelope in which they put their donation for the food they eat. There is no cash register, credit card machine or change drawer. Some pay sparingly. Others are extremely generous. Others can’t pay. They are encouraged to donate an hour doing dishes, sweeping floors, wiping tables, doing some mopping.

Today, with the economy, SAME Café finds more people volunteering.

Despite that, affluent couples mix with those in need. Each enjoys the good food, the chance to be warm and to sit and chat.

One news reporter likened SAME to Gandhi’s admonition to “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Brad and Libby are inspiring builders of a better society. One thing we know is that there are many other Brads and Libbys out there. Their spirit of giving is part of who we are, too. The question is how we will pass it on to others.

You can visit to learn more or make a contribution and you can watch the NBC News report on SAME Cafe here.


Creating art from words

Thanks to a friend, I was introduced to this really cool website that literally turns words into an art form. creates “word clouds” in which the most used words take a more prominent place than lesser used ones. Commonly used words like “a,” and “the,” are left out, leaving only the major ones to find their place in a Wordle.

The program is the brainchild of Jonathan Feinberg who, on IBM’s nickel, produced this amazing piece of code that’s entirely free to all of us. Feinberg, who claims the site gets about ten hits a second, collaborated with a couple dozen people-among them artists, software developers, Java experts-to visually depict the power of language.

Although uses for Wordle seem more whimsical than practical, a word cloud, if studied, can say much about the meaning of a speech, phrase or letter, etc. Here, for example, is a word cloud of Barack Obama’s inaugural speech using the program’s standard setting which automatically filters out commonly used words.picture-14In this rendition, “new,” “nation” and “America” seem to be the most frequently used by the new President.

However, a different pattern emerges when automatic filtering is turned off.

picture-15In this version, “our” (used 68 times in the address) and “we” (62 times) are most prominent.

And, it would seem that Obama is saying…?

The way it’s supposed to be

The water landing of US Airways Flight 1549 and the rescue of all 155 aboard is truly a tremendous feat, if not-as some say-a miracle. The quick thinking of the pilot and co-pilot, the decisive actions of flight attendants, the passengers’ relative calm in the midst of chaos, and the flawless, timely rescues by passing boats and helicopters made for a tragedy that could have been, but wasn’t.

_45384654_-18Who among us didn’t feel a sense of awe as we took in television or radio accounts of The Miracle on the Hudson, as it’s been dubbed?

But, what we should also recognize is that all that surrounded The Miracle was “the way it’s meant to happen.” Well, except for the birds in the engines, that is.



Quick thinking.



The system worked! Think about that. That’s the way it is supposed to be.

Who did not go home that day thinking, “I’m honored to have done my part. I was in the right place at the right time.”

It’s reasonable to conclude that passengers would heap mounds of praise on the crew and that both passengers and crew would heap mounds of praise on the rescuers. Each would probably say, “I was just doing my job.”

In fact, one of the rescuers, a scuba diver, described the training that equipped him to work in freezing Hudson River water that is totally black just inches beneath the surface. When submerged, they couldn’t see anything, so they worked by feel.

When a reporter asked if he felt fear when he jumped from the hovering helicopter, he paused, then said, “No, there wasn’t time for that. There were just people to be rescued from the freezing water.”

There are many lessons from this, but one stood out to me today while at the drive through window of a local fast food restaurant, the one with yellow arches outside. Oftentimes, such places don’t attract the most enthusiastic workers. For many, it’s just a job and a way to pay the bills which often gets played out as disinterest and rudeness.

I couldn’t see the woman who took my order, but her voice came clearly and professionally through the speaker. After carefully repeating my order and giving me the total, she concluded with a confident, “Thank you for your order, sir. Please pull forward at your convenience.”

I handed her the money when I reached the window. She was a 50s-something African American woman with graying hair pulled tightly away from her face. I inquired if she was the person who took my order. “Yes,” she said, “why do
you ask?”

I looked her in the eyes and said, “Because I have never been treated so professionally here. You have lots to teach others about customer service.”

As I said it, I thought about the people whose actions lead to the safe outcome of Flight 1549. Someone was there to thank them–even though they were just “doing their jobs” just like this woman.

Her eyes sparkled. The smile on her face was real. “You just made my day,” she said.

As I pulled away I couldn’t help but think, “That, too, is the way it’s supposed to be.”

A concert at the train station

On a cold January morning at the L’Enfant Plaza Station in Washington DC, a man, non-descript and dressed in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and baseball cap, pulled a worn violin from the case at his feet and began to play six classical pieces. picture-7

It was about three minutes into the performance when a middle aged man briefly slowed his pace and then hurried up to stay on schedule.

Another moment went by before a woman threw money in the open case, his first tip.

A man leaned against a wall to listen, glanced at this watch and moved on.

It was a three-year-old boy who appeared most fascinated. But he was hurried along by his mother who pushed hard as the child turned his head, struggling to hear the music.

The violinist finished playing. There was no applause. No recognition. The metro station was silent—or at least as silent as a metro station can be.

By actual count, 1097 people listened as they hurried past the 43 minute concert, most on their way to work. Just six people stopped. About 20 gave money totalling $32.17.

joshua_bellWhat wasn’t apparent was the identity of the player. It was Joshua Bell, notably one of the world’s best musicians, who performed some of the most intricate and mesmerizing violin music ever written for the focused commuters. He played an instrument made in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari and worth a reported $3.5 million. Only two days earlier, he sold out a Boston performance where tickets averaged $100. Bell, who usually commands $1000 per minute in concert, would have averaged about $40 per hour that day.

The story behind the story is this: It was a social experiment organized by the Washington Post. Bell, performing incognito, was a test about perception, taste and priority. What would happen if you put a classically trained and dressed-down virtuoso in a train station at an early morning hour? Would the preoccupied commuters perceive his talent? Appreciate it? Would people recognize a gift when it presents itself in an unexpected context?

The experiment raises manifold questions. One that comes to mind is this: Would you or I have stopped to listen or would we have moved on quickly and passed up a nearly priceless seat at the concert-cum-social experiment?

Note: Versions of this story (some more accurate than others) have appeared on the Web. The complete account, a Pulitzer Prize winning article from The Post, can be found here. The video is cool, too.

Does this subplot play out in your life, too?

He wants to be a hard news reporter. But it turns out that John’s real gift is writing columns about happenings in his own and others’ lives. Connecting with readers in a personal way brings him energy and enthusiasm. His editor calls his work “a national treasure” or, at least, a “regional” one (if I remember the line correctly.)

picture-33His full name is John Grogan. You might recognize him as the author of the bestselling book Marley & Me which was just released in movie form over the holidays.

The main story line is, of course, Marley the dog and his penchant for disobedience in pretty much any form one might imagine. Grogan’s dubbing him “the world’s worst dog” is a well-deserved rap in both book and movie.

But within the Marley movie is a small, easily-missed subplot about the author (played by Owen Wilson) and his struggle (perhaps that’s too strong a word) to pursue his life in his own way as a newspaper reporter, instead of using the gift that brings him, his wife (played by Jennifer Aniston), and thousands of readers much pleasure.

I would have missed the significance of this subplot had it not been for a colleague’s account of seeing the movie with her soon-to-be husband. “Like many of us,” she said, “We think we’re supposed to be doing one thing, when it’s another that we get so much personal and professional satisfaction from.”

It’s unfortunate that many of us feel the same way. For whatever reasons, we’re doing good work but we’d really love to do other things. In some cases, we may be completely dissatisfied with what we’re doing.

Can we make money doing what we really like to do?

Marsha Sinetar thinks so. She’s an organizational psychologist and author of the book Do What You Love the Money Will Follow. She poses four questions:

1. What is my real life’s purpose? (What do I want to have accomplished when I look back upon my life in old age?)

2. How, specifically would I have to think, speak and act in order to bring that purpose into being? (What habits would I need to cultivate and what would I have to delete from my present life to live out my true purpose?)

3. What activities—what actual daily choices, attitudes and concrete accomplishments—would I do if I lived as if my purpose meant something to me?

4. How would I live, on a day to day basis, if I respected myself, others, my life’s purpose?

So, what do you love to do?

Here’s another post that looks at this topic from a different angle.

The book, its cover, and slowing down

It’s an unusual art project that was recently unveiled in the small town of Cochrane, Alberta, Canada. The effort offers learning at many levels, not the least of which is that what we initially see and experience may be quite different upon closer inspection.

picture-32Take “Trust,” Cochrane’s art project, for example (shown on the right).

From a distance, the painting appears to be a young cowboy and horse providing each other comfort and support. But when you look carefully, you find not a single painting, but 216 of them, each a foot square, each a complete painting in itself.

Founding artist Lewis Lavoie calls it a mural mosaic.

He creates a master image then designates panels to numerous artists who are provided color guidelines and, perhaps, some shapes to use. But each is free to create, so long as it fits within the theme of the mural. Lavoie points out that, unlike photo mosiacs which are individual photographs arranged like pixels using a computer, mural mosaics are fully hand painted by individual artists.

To see for yourself, go here. Click on any single image to see the individual artist’s contribution to “Trust.” Creating “Trust” is an illustration of teamwork and of appreciating how an individual’s contribution can be part of a greater tapestry. It’s a lesson in diversity.

It is also an example of what a friend, his wife and I were talking about as we discussed the old admonition to not judge a book by its cover. “I heard a father give advice to his son,” my friend said, “Judge slowly.”

How easily and how often we rush to conclusions about people or events without really understanding them. In fact, the world often rewards decisions and smart conclusions that get us to the bottom line quickly. Even author Malcolm Gladwell pontificated on the topic in his best selling book, “Blink,” in which he concluded that we’re able to make decisions with far less data than we thought.

I don’t mean to argue with a noted author (he gets, after all, big bucks to discuss his blinking theory), I just suggest that we can often miss the richness and beautiful complexity of events and people by judging too quickly.

Without getting closer to “Trust,” would we have looked into the horse’s eye to find a boy who is hang gliding, or at the cowboy’s finger to see a peasant woman gathering grain? Each painting is its own message, yet each is part of the whole—much like you and me.

If we should ever doubt our significance in the scheme of things, we only need to step back to see the bigger mosaic to which we contribute. And, if we think that our significance is greater or lesser than anothers’, perhaps we should think about it from a different standpoint: which is the most important painting in the painting?

The answer is none is more important than the other. In fact, the bigger painting cannot exist without the little ones. And the little ones exist to make the whole. We’re all important, all valuable, all needed.

“Judge slowly,” the father said to his son. Judge slowly.

How can I help you?

Ever wonder why some people are just so darned helpful? I was talking to a colleague yesterday and I learned something that helped me understand the question.

istock_000005066727xsmallKris (name changed to protect the innocent/guilty) is an organized, unassuming woman who works in a different department and who will do just about whatever it takes to meet your needs. At least that’s been my experience. She’s got the tough exterior of a former New York City gal and the presence of mind to keep her cool when things heat up.

I had called to ask a few technical questions on some IT matters. The conversation ended along the lines of, “You know, I always appreciate your help, Kris, and the way you think problems through.”

Then she said, “Well, you and your team are always such nice customers and so appreciative. I just love working with you.” Hmmm. I’d never thought that we were nice customers—probably because I hadn’t thought about it one way or another.

It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon, of course, to conclude that “nice customers” get better treatment than those who aren’t. That’s how all the members of our team try to be—not consciously, I’m sure; it’s just the way they are. The question, then, might be: Does Kris give us better treatment because we are nice folks?

Knowing Kris, I’d say, “No, she’s just that way.”

But it does raise a good point: If we try to be good customers by being courteous and appreciative, we help the people who are trying to help us. It’s a sort of “helping others be successful” approach that has some great, positive consequences.

The same holds true in the normal work setting, too. Working with people who are serious about their work, dedicated and thoughtful but who go about their work in a pleasant, fun-loving manner are always easier to be around than those who are down, dour and in the dumps.

That goes to the “happiness rubbing off” flavor in the previous blog.

Daniel Pink and the magic chopsticks

Have I mentioned lately that I’m a fan of Daniel Pink, bestselling author (A Whole New Mind and Free Agent Nation), public speaker, and all around smart guy? His latest foray into writing is not a book in the usual sense, rather it’s The Adventures of Johnny Bunko, which is created in the popular Japanese manga mode—a comic book for adults sort of thing. Pink has attached “the last career guide you’ll ever need” to the title and, in fact, he could be right. You can watch the trailer here.

johnny-bunko-book1I met Dan in December 2007 when he spoke to a large group of company managers. His message, that if we want to attract and retain a new generation of employees we’ll have to think more like they do and less like we do, resonated with me.

But what really intrigued me was on his MacBook: the not-yet-printed version of Johnny Bunko. I think I said something like, “Pink, this is either going to be a major success or a huge flop.” He looked at me and said, “Yes, you’re right.”

Turns out, it’s a success! It’s also pretty cool career guide that challenges conventional wisdom, puts Marcus Buckingham’s “strengths movement” in a useful context, and pokes fun at itself along the way.

Johnny, it seems, is a pretty typical guy who is trapped in a job that requires him to do what he doesn’t like to do or isn’t good at doing—not unlike many of us. Through a strange set of happenings, he’s introduced to Diana who magically shows up to help him anytime he snaps some chopsticks apart. (Yeah, it’s a bit out there, but stick with it.) From Diana, he learns six “lessons” that will help him redirect his career, life and fortune.

The six lessons Johnny learns are not your usual career advice–at least the kind you got from the parents. The first, for example, suggests that it’s not possible to create some sort of “master plan” to get us from here to there–there are just too many variables. This will certainly provoke some lively dinner table discussion. But the broader message in the book is that when we do things that intrinsically motivate us, we’re happier, more successful and make a more meaningful contribution in the world.

Good advice, Daniel Pink!

The gem inside

Diamond with Clipping PathWe were told during a pre-boarding announcement that the flight from Atlanta to Denver would be completely full, a fact born out a few minutes later as fellow passengers crammed the aisles and moved slowly to their seats.

Traveling used to be fun but, today, it’s not. At times I wish for the appearance of Star Trek’s transporter technology or, at least, to borrow Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak–if for no other reason than to get between here and there with as little fanfare as possible. But today I decided to embrace the experience in a different way.

I made a point of looking at each person as he or she boarded the plane, watching their eyes, their smiles and frowns, their clothes, the ways they moved. And, I thought of something positive about each one of them.

The lady with the small child seemed like a caring mother. The businessman in a dark suit carrying a large briefcase was self-assured as he barked on his cell phone. The older man with a calm demeanor and stooped shoulders had, without doubt, traveled many miles in his life. The dangling earring on a young girl bounced as she held her doll close, protecting it from unspecified, but sure to materialize, harm; she’ll make a good mother, I thought. A muscular guy with a tattoo on his leg told his younger sister to keep moving toward the back of the plane, assuring her that she’d be at her seat very soon. The fear in a teenager’s eyes probably told the story of his first plane flight; I imagined him courageous. Another woman smirked at the flight attendant as she was told that her carry-on was too large for the overhead bin; it did fit after all.

Each person had a story to tell or to keep quietly inside. One passenger, a woman in her late 40s or so, asked a tall, gangly 30-something if he was a runner. “No,” he answered, “I’m a dance instructor.”

“Well, I’m running a marathon next year,” she said, “and I was wondering if you had any tips.” He didn’t. “So that’s what a dance instructor looks like,” I thought.

It reminded me that judging books by their covers and people by their appearance is hardly foolproof and mostly inaccurate.

I don’t know that people were better off for my thinking good about them, though I’ve often thought that good thoughts have power. I know, however, that I am better for it, if only to remind myself that there’s a gem inside each person, if we only have the desire to look for it.

Giving an “A”

Boston Philharmonic conductor Benjamin Zander is, among other things, a noted interpreter of composer Gustav Mahler. But it’s his book, The Art of Possibility, that has had my attention the past few weeks. Zander and his wife Rosamund have collaborated to produce a manuscript that not only encourages the heart but inspires the soul to help others find their place, their gifts, and their talents in a way that the world doesn’t always let us do.

art-of-possibilityThe chapter “Giving an A” makes a convincing case that life is less about getting high marks and comparing ourselves with others, and more about helping others be successful. (The “giving an A” concept is also attributed to Garry Ridge, CEO of WD-40, by the way.)

Zander explains that his 30 graduate students at the New England Conservatory are charged, over a two semester course in musical performance, to learn the psychological and emotional factors that stand in the way of great music-making. As great musicians know, musical accuracy and precision are one of the hallmarks of great performances. But, more so, is musical interpretation—connecting with music on an almost spiritual level, finding the deep-seated meanings in the notes and phrases and executing them with passion.

Zander believes that the quest for accuracy often trumps the search for passion. So, he takes the accuracy requirement off the table telling students that they already have an “A” in the class. They are free to explore the composer’s works and soulfully decode the music for themselves. In turn, he tells them to place themselves in the future, look back, and report all the insights they gained in a letter to him, written as if the end of the second semester was behind them. “Dear Mr. Zander,” the letter is to begin, “I got my A because…”

The dozen or so letters he shares in the book are jewels of self-discovery. They are testaments to the importance of shedding judgment and grades and taking on the mantle of writing our own future, devoid of the expectation of always playing the right notes and never making mistakes. “All songs are beautiful,” Zander might say, “just let us hear you, let us hear yours!”

Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is the last completed before his death. It’s one of Mahler’s most musically challenging but also one of the most uplifting as it chronicles the composer’s life of triumph and tragedy.

It’s a test of technique, but mostly of interpretation and expression. It’s a little deep, a little dark, but also elevating as it shows how passion makes the best performance—in music, with family, at work, wherever.

If you already had an “A” in any subject in life, how would that change your performance? And, if you were to help people get “A’s,” how could it change their lives?

Your song for world peace

Sitting quietly and almost hidden in composer and conductor John Williams’ immense body of orchestral work is a gentle, but insistent, almost five minute composition called “Song for World Peace.” It’s part of his “American Journey” album.

The idea that earth’s seven billion inhabitants could live together without strife is a concept almost too large to comprehend.

But, Williams’ musical development of “Song for World Peace” is a metaphor, of sorts, of how peace might come to our planet. French horns introduce a simple theme that is echoed by flutes, later by clarinets, then strings and the entire orchestra. But, slowly, the theme dies out and falters.

Williams then begins a new, but complementary, theme. Again, it begins somewhat tentatively, but it grows much richer and more confident, bringing an affirmation that peace may, in fact, be possible.

World peace would imply that individuals are at peace, too, meaning that the tiny moments of impatience and the bigger moments of personal anger would not exist either. The sometimes strong desire to honk at the slow driver and harsh words would yield to love and compassion. It is a tall order.

Which raises the question: Would I be ready for world peace if it should break out? And, even more important, how am I waging peace in my life? What are my individual peace efforts?

Philanthropist Kathryn Wasserman Davis provides her own practical example. “I want to use my 100th birthday to help young people launch some immediate initiatives,” she said, “—things that they can do during the summer of 2007—that will bring new thinking to the prospects of peace in the world” You can learn about her work here. It was such a successful effort that 100 Projects for Peace continues in 2008.

“My many years have taught me that there will always be conflict. It’s part of human nature,” Davis wrote. “But I’ll remind you that love, kindness, and support are also part of human nature. My challenge to you is to bring about a mindset of preparing for peace, instead of preparing for war.”

How do you prepare for peace?

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!