About Conversation Kindling

The purpose of this blog is to share stories, metaphors, quotes, songs, humor, etc. in hopes they'll be used to spark authentic and rewarding conversations about working and living fruitfully. There are at least three things you can gain by getting involved in these conversations. First, you'll discover new and important things about yourself through the process of thinking out loud. Second, you'll deepen your relationships with others who participate by swapping thoughts, feelings, and stories with them. Finally, you'll learn that robust dialogue centered on stories and experiences is the best way to build new knowledge and generate innovative answers to the questions that both life and work ask.

I write another blog called My Spare Brain. This is where I am "storing" ideas for use in future books, articles, blog posts, speeches, and workshops. There is little rhyme or reason for what I post there. I do this to encourage visitors to come as treasure hunters looking for new ways of seeing and thinking vs. researchers looking for new or better answers to questions they already know how to ask.

16 May 2014

Amateurs Teach Amateurs to Be Amateurs

In early 1980, while vacationing in Palm Beach, FL, I stopped in at PGA National Golf Club one day in search of someone who could help me with my golf game. At the time, I was a decent golfer, but I had plateaued; I had been shooting in the mid to low 80's and high 70's since my early 20's and no matter how much I worked to get better, it just wasn't happening.

The first place I stopped was the driving range. I figured I'd hit a bucket of balls to warm up before I headed to the clubhouse to schedule a lesson with someone ... anyone. When I went inside the shack to purchase the bucket, I was greeted by a friendly gent who was manning the cash register. I figured he was an early retiree who had moved to Florida to get out of the cold, and was working to make a extra few bucks a week so he and his wife could take advantage of the early dinner specials for seniors put on by every other restaurant in town.

After smiles, a handshake, and the exchange of first names - his was Mike - he started asking questions. He wanted to know where I was from and what had brought me out to PGA National that morning. He asked me about my golf game. He was curious as to why I had come to the range to practice that day, instead of teeing it up and playing 18 holes.

I had answers. I told him I was from Minneapolis, MN. He said he loved Minneapolis. He played in the 1959 PGA Championship at Minneapolis Golf Club. He shot 67 in the first round and was tied for the lead at that point. He didn't do so well in the second round and failed to make the cut. I was just a pup in 1959, but attended that tournament. I didn't remember seeing him there, but I started to wonder just who this Mike guy was.

Next topic. I said I'd come to PGA National to take a lesson from a pro. He asked me why I thought I needed one. I explained my predicament. I hadn't improved in 15 years. I'd read all the instruction books. I'd tried all their suggestions. I'd asked my friends for advice. I'd hit hit thousands of range balls. I'd prayed. Nothing.

At this point, a young lady came in to take over behind the cash register and Mike suggested we head up to the main golf shop to continue our conversation.

When we walked in, he pointed the way to his office. Office? Yup. And, his name was on the door: Mike Krak. PGA Professional. Director of Golf. Hmmmm.
I sat and we talked. Or, rather, I talked and Mike listened. He was trying to understand my golf swing problem from my point of view. He later explained that knowing how my mind worked would help him communicate with me in a way I could understand. Toward the end of our conversation, I glanced up at the wall behind his desk and saw a quote etched on a plaque. The words struck me:
"Amateurs Teach Amateurs to Be Amateurs."
I asked him about it. He told me a story. He had been giving golf lessons for over 30 years. He had given 10-15-20 thousand lessons. He had worked with pros - including some who were on the PGA and LPGA tours - and amateurs ranging in handicap from scratch or better to the sky's the limit. He saw a huge difference in how the pros sought to improve their game and how the amateurs did it: the pros sought advice and took lessons from highly qualified golf professionals - folks who make a career teaching the whys and wherefores of the game; almost all the amateurs got their advice from well-meaning friends and family members - folks who claimed to know the game, but didn't. And, when they finally decided to get some real help, they had developed so many bad habits that it was too late to hope for much of anything in the way of real improvement.

This was the first lesson I learned from Mike. If you're a golfer looking to improve your game, take lessons from a pro. I am always reminded of this when I see a man - it's almost always a man - out on the practice tee trying to give lessons to his wife, or kids, or girlfriend, or whatever. I watch and listen. He hits a shot to demonstrate the proper technique. Wrong. He hits another. Wrong again. It's obvious now that this guy has never broken 120, and he's acting like he's Tiger Woods - or maybe Tiger's teacher. He drones on. He gives one piece of bad advice after another. The person he's trying to teach is hitting one bad shot after another ... things are quickly getting worse instead of better. There are many times I have been tempted to walk over to one of these wannabe golf gurus and say, "You idiot. You hack. You have no idea what you're talking about. You are going to ruin this person for life. Just stop, already." I never have, though. I figure it's better to keep my mouth shut than to have a golf club wrapped around my neck.

This advice is good in other areas of life, too. If you have personal or family problems that need solving, don't go running to your mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, or your good friend who took Psychology 101 a hundred years ago and rushes home to watch Dr. Phil every day, find a good therapist. If you are in business and are looking for your very own executive coach to help you develop your strength in a certain area, don't just hire the first person who comes along with a piece of paper that says Certified Coach; find someone who's an expert in the area you want to develop and let that person help you chart your course.

Following our conversation in Mike's office, we headed back down to the range. The first thing he had me do was hit a few balls to warm up. I remember being nervous the whole time. Why? Because as I was whacking away at the first few balls, I remembered a story I heard about Joe Sodd, a teaching professional I knew from Minneapolis. I was hoping that what happened to one of Joe's students at his first lesson with Joe wouldn't happen to me during my first lesson with Mike. Here's the story.

The scene is the driving range at Interlachen Country Club in Edina, MN. A high-handicap - and rather wealthy - amateur is waiting for Joe, Interlachen's teaching pro at the time, to arrive to give him a lesson. Joe arrives at the appointed time. He asks the amateur to hit a few balls so he can figure out what he needs to work on. The amateur obliges. He puts his head down. He keeps his eye on the ball. He keeps his left arm straight. He whiffs the first ball. He tops the second. He slices the third. He does more of the same. In time, he looks up to ask Joe a question. Joe is not there. He looks around and spots Joe heading up the hill toward the clubhouse. He yells at Joe and asks him where he is going. Joe looks back at him and says, "Give it up. You should have come to me 30 years ago." He keeps on walking. Joe Sodd does not suffer fools gladly.

When I finished warming up, Mike was still there. Whew! He wanted me to hit some balls for real. Here's our conversation:

Me: "I'll start with my 8 iron."
Mike: "What are you aiming at?"
Me: "The big tree at the end of the range."
Mike: "No you're not."
Me: "Huh?"
Mike: "You're aiming 40 yards to the right of it."
Me: "Huh?"
Mike: "Let me show you."

At that point, he moved me aside and placed his feet exactly where mine had been.

Mike: "Stand behind me."
Me: "Okay."
Mike: "Where am I aiming?"
Me: "You're aiming 40 yards to the right of the big tree."
Mike: "And ...."
Me: "Hmmm."
He went on to explain that proper alignment is the key to good golf; that if you can consistently line your body up with your intended target, you can create a foundation from which you can craft a sound, consistent golf swing. He finished with these words:
"If you can't, you'll never be a player."
Ouch! I built my game around alignment after that, and became a pretty good player. Instead of shooting in the high 70s or low 80's, I got to the point where my average score was in the low to mid 70's.

There's an old saying:
"If you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there."
It means that unless you have a clearly defined target - like the tree at the end of the range - you're journey will take you somewhere, but exactly where is up for grabs.

But, while knowing where you want to end up is necessary, it is also insufficient. You must know how to square yourself with your target before you take the first step of any journey you plan to take. Why? Because in business or golf or life for that matter, a small misalignment at the beginning ends up as a huge miss at the end. There is a quote I like that summarizes this idea quite well. It's from chess grandmaster Alexander Kotov:
"It often happens that a player carries out a deep and complicated calculation, but fails to spot something elementary right at the first move."
I took a few lessons from Mike every year after that for at least a dozen years. And, every year we started the same way; he'd ask me where I was aimed. There's more to golf than aiming, of course, and he taught me all the ins and outs in due time.

One final point. Teachers are in great supply, but great teachers are rare. Advice is in great supply, but great advice is not. It's important to understand the difference.

  • Who are the gurus - the teachers or advisers - in your life? How did you come to pick them? Are they great? Are you sure?
  • Have you ever taken advice from someone you thought was able and honest only to be disappointed or defrauded? How did it happen? What faulty assumptions did you make? What steps have you taken to make sure it doesn't happen again?
"Go not to the elves for counsel, for they will say both yes and no." - J.R.R. Tolkien
"There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it's going to be a butterfly." - Buckminster Fuller
"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." - Hunter S. Thompson, A Generation of Swine
"Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion." - Jack Kerouac
"The first step in the acquisition of wisdom is silence, the second is listening, the third memory, the fourth practice, the fifth teaching others." - Solomon Ibn Gabirol

09 May 2014

Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine

Tom T. Hall has spent the better part of his life writing and singing country music. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame on February 12, 2008.

One of his most popular songs, Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine, is the story of an old janitor sweeping a barroom floor, and stopping to share his life philosophy with a patron who was still around at closing time. The lyrics:

"How old do you think I am?" he said.
I said, well, I didn't know.
He said, "I turned 65 about 11 months ago."

I was sittin' in Miami pourin' blended whiskey down
When this old gray Black gentleman was cleanin' up the lounge

There wasn't anyone around 'cept this old man and me
The guy who ran the bar was watchin' "Ironsides" on TV
Uninvited, he sat down and opened up his mind
On old dogs and children and watermelon wine

"Ever had a drink of watermelon wine?" he asked
He told me all about it, though I didn't answer back
"Ain't but three things in this world that's worth a solitary dime,
But old dogs and children and watermelon wine."

He said, "Women think about they-selves, when menfolk ain't around.
And friends are hard to find when they discover that you're down."
He said, "I tried it all when I was young and in my natural prime;
Now it's old dogs and children and watermelon wine."

"Old dogs care about you even when you make mistakes;
God bless little children while they're still too young to hate."
When he moved away I found my pen and copied down that line
'Bout old dogs and children and watermelon wine.

I had to catch a plane up to Atlanta that next day
As I left for my room I saw him pickin' up my change
That night I dreamed in peaceful sleep of shady summertime
Of old dogs and children and watermelon wine.

We all have different ideas about what's important and what's not in our lives. This song suggests another way of thinking about and articulating them.

  • What are the three things in this world that's worth a solitary dime as far as you are concerned?
  • How are you making sure these things are getting the time and attention they deserve?
  • What are the three things in this world that ain't worth a solitary dime?
  • How are you making sure these things aren't getting more of your time and attention than they deserve?
"If I should die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: the only proof he needed for the existence of God is music." - Kurt Vonnegut

"There is a general place in your brain, I think, reserved for 'melancholy of relationships past.' It grows and prospers as life progresses, forcing you finally, against your better judgment, to listen to country music." - Kary Mullis, Nobel Prize lecture, Dec. 8, 1993
"Country songs have always told the best stories and no one -- really, no one -- has ever done it better than Nashville. All my life I've admired guitarists like Chet Atkins and Roy Clark who touched me through their sound, but it was those Nashville songwriters who got to me through their words." - B.B. King, blues guitarist and singer-songwriter

02 May 2014

East of Eden

John Steinbeck's East of Eden was published in October, 1952. It became an instant best-seller. It was adapted for film in 1955 by director Elia Kazan. A TV miniseries was aired in 1981, and rumors have it that Universal Pictures will produce another adaption of the novel with a release date of 2009.

Steinbeck's inspiration for the novel came from the Hebrew Bible. Specifically, it came from Genesis 4: 1-16, which recounts the story of Cain and Abel. The title, East of Eden, was chosen by Steinbeck from verse 16:
"And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden."
The book explores themes of depravity, beneficence, love, and the struggle for acceptance, greatness, and the capacity for self-destruction. Steinbeck said of it:
"It has everything in it I've been able to learn about my craft in all these years. I think everything else I've written has been, in a sense, practice for this."
In Chapter 13, Steinbeck described the condition of the world. He said:
"There is great tension in the world, tension toward a breaking point, and men are unhappy and confused."
He went on to say these conditions prompted him to ask himself three important questions. These same questions are worth asking ourselves today.

  • What do I believe in?
  • What must I fight for?
  • What must I fight against?
"The hardest thing in life is to know which bridge to cross, which bridge to burn." - David Russell

"I think when people have illustrated the Bible, most of them have been devout Christians. Because they're devout Christians they can't separate themselves from the work. They get mired in piety, so they can't see the darkness. They only see the light of salvation. But if you don't have the darkness to contrast with the light, then what are you offering but cotton candy for Sunday school children? I think that some of the images in this Bible will be disturbing to a lot of people. The Bible is a very disturbing book." – Barry Moser, illustrator
"Lord, give to us clear vision that we may know where to stand and what to stand for - because unless we stand for something, we shall fall for anything." - Reverend Peter Marshall, a prayer offered at the opening session of the U.S. Senate on April 18, 1947

"Stop leaving and you will arrive. Stop searching and you will see. Stop running away and you will be found." - Lao Tzu
"Belief? What do I believe in? I believe in sun. In rock. In the dogma of the sun and the doctrine of the rock. I believe in blood, fire, woman, rivers, eagles, storm, drums, flutes, banjos, and broom-tailed horses…" - Edward Abbey, A Voice Crying in the Wilderness
"It is immensely moving when a mature man – no matter whether old or young in years – is aware of a responsibility for the consequences of his conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul. He then acts by following an ethic of responsibility and somewhere he reaches the point where he says: 'Here I stand; I can do no other.'" - Max Weber

25 April 2014

The Answer to How Is Yes

Peter Block, author and consultant, is well known for challenging conventional theories of individual and organizational development.

In his book The Answer to How Is Yes, Peter makes the case that we too often short-circuit ourselves by asking "How?" questions prematurely, instead of first pondering the deeper, more important question, "Why?" Many of us have been trained and rewarded all our lives for asking the penetrating questions about how such-and-such a thing might be accomplished. Asking how can make us feel smarter, Block says, but it won’t make us wiser. It just submerges our most important personal and organizational missions in a quagmire of misdirected analysis.

He proposes a moratorium:
"If we could agree that for six months we would not ask 'How?' something in our lives, our institutions, and our culture might shift for the better. It would force us to engage in conversations about why we do what we do, as individuals and as institutions. It would create the space for longer discussions about purpose, about what is worth doing. It would refocus our attention on deciding what is the right question, rather than what is the right answer."
He took on a challenging task in his book, advising us to pursue what matters most not only in our own lives, but also in our organizations and through our societal institutions. And, while he acknowledged that risk, uncertainty, and anxiety will accompany any decision to lift our heads up from the mundane and peer toward the ultimate, he said it’s an action worth taking nonetheless. By doing this successfully, he says:
"We can reclaim our idealism in a materialistic environment, reestablish an intimacy with what surrounds us, and find depth in a world that is happy with a quick makeover."
Peter's advice is more relevant today than ever. And, though it's hard to take up his challenge, it is most certainly worth the effort. For otherwise we’re left with a painful conundrum of the sort described by the novelist Thomas Pynchon:
"If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about the answers."
  • Can you tell a story about a "how" person you have worked for or with, or been married to? Can you do the same for a "why" person?
  • In your opinion, what are the strengths and weaknesses of a person whose default approach to life is asking "how" quickly and often? How about the person whose nature is asking "why" first?
  • Would others describe you as a "how" person or a "why" person? Is there a story you can tell to illustrate?
  • How do you respond to Peter's notion of not asking "how" for six months? Can you imagine what might change in your life or work if you did?
"Dear ones: Beware of the tiny gods frightened men create to bring an anesthetic relief to their sad days." - Hafiz

"'Goodbye,' said the fox. 'And now here is my secret, a very simple secret. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.'" - Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

"The theme of the Grail is the bringing of life into what is known as 'the wasteland.' The wasteland is the preliminary theme to which the Grail is the answer. . . It's the world of people living inauthentic lives - doing what they are supposed to do." - Joseph Campbell
"The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity - even under the most difficult circumstances - to add a deeper meaning to his life. He may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to fore go the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not." - Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
"One final paragraph of advice: Do not burn yourself out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast... a part time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it is still there. So get out there and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, encounter the grizzly, climb the mountains. Run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, that lovely, mysterious and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to your body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much: I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk bound people with their hearts in a safe deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: you will outlive the bastards." - Edward Abbey

18 April 2014

The One Who Stands Within

In December of 2004, John O'Donohue talked to our Masters Forum audience about leadership. And, while acknowledging that leaders need to possess certain skills, he focused on the seven personal qualities he thought underpinned all truly successful leaders.
"The first quality that I would like is that a leader would have an inner life - the person wouldn’t be just an outside, external functionary.

"Secondly, they would have a quality of vulnerability. I don’t mean vulnerability in the sense that they are assailable from every corner, but when you’d look in their eyes, you would know that they knew what it was like to be vulnerable.

"Third, I like a leader to have a bit of solitude, a very rare thing in our times. It’s hard to find it, and a lot of people are terrified of it, and they’ll run from it, but a person that can’t endure their own demons or know them, or have a secret place where they can meet them, can’t be trusted fully in the interaction of combat, where power is the question.

"A fourth thing I like in a leader is imagination and vision. Vision is vital. A vision is something that links together the gift of your own individuality with the need that is where you are, it links gift and hunger together in a way that links the best in you toward the best in them. Vision can only be developed if you are awake to the blessings and the potential of your own mind.

"Fifth, a leader has to have character. A person who has character is someone who is not a prisoner of their own ego and limitations.

"Sixth, a leader is someone who has the gift of compassion as well as the ministry of encouragement. It’s amazing when you think of some of the gifts and abilities that you have, if you hadn’t got that old praise or recognition or encouragement, you might never have crossed over into your own gift.

"The seventh thing I think a leader should have is the quality of listening. Heidegger said that true listening is worship, and it’s amazing, actually. It’s amazing to be listened to. When you’re truly listened to, a burden and all kinds of old false layering falls away from you completely."
He went on to say that we can't fully develop these inner qualities until we shed the notion that we are the sum total of where we've been and what we've accomplished, and somehow get in touch with who we really are, or the one who stands within.
"Identity is being reduced to biography, whereas in actual fact identity is a far more sublime, substantial, and sophisticated concept. . . . Meister Eckhart says, 'There is a place in your soul that neither time nor space nor no creator’s thing has ever touched.' There’s a place inside you where no one has ever got to you, where no one has ever damaged you, where you have a niche of tranquility and natural serenity, and a courage and a hope that can never be taken from you. And I think that the intention of prayer, creativity, and true leadership is to somehow bring you into that place within you."
  • Who is the one who stands within you? How is that person like the one you present to the world? Different?
  • How have you been vulnerable? How has it shaped you?
  • Is solitude something you avoid or cherish? Explain.
  • How are you impacting those around you with the ministry of encouragement? Or not?
  • How is true listening worship?
"Nothing resembles the language of God so much as does silence." - Meister Eckhart

"You must have a room or a certain hour of the day or something where you do not know what is in the morning paper. A place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. At first you may think nothing's happening. But if you have a sacred space and take advantage of it and use it everyday, something will happen." - Joseph Campbell

"There is a deep power in which we exist whose beatitude is accessible to us. Every moment the individual feels invaded by it is memorable. It comes to the simple and lowly, it comes in the form of serenity...when it breaks through the intellect it is genius; when it breathes through the will it is virtue, when it flows through the affections it is love." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

11 April 2014

Let's Talk About Me

Brazilian author Paulo Coelho has sold more that 100 million books. His most popular book, The Alchemist, has been translated into 65 languages. He posted the following story at his blog:

I was just leaving St Patrick’s Church in New York when a young Brazilian came over to me.

"It’s great to see you," he said, smiling. "There’s something I wanted to tell you."

I was equally pleased at this encounter with a stranger. I invited him for a coffee, told him about my awful trip to Denver, and suggested that he go to Harlem on Sunday to attend a religious service there. The young man, who was in his twenties, listened to me without saying a word. I talked on. I said that I had just read a novel about a terrorist group that launches an attack on St Patrick’s Church, and that the author had described the scene in such detail that I had noticed many things I had never seen on previous visits. That was why I had decided to go to the church that morning. We spent nearly an hour together, drank two coffees, and I dominated the entire conversation. Afterward, we said goodbye, and I wished him a good trip.

"Thanks," he said, moving off.

That was when I noticed the sad look in his eyes; something was wrong and I didn’t know what. Only after walking a few blocks did I realize what it was: the young man had come over to me saying that there was something he needed to talk to me about. During the whole time we spent together, I had been in control of the situation. At no point had I asked him what he wanted to tell me; in my desire to be friendly, I had filled up all the spaces, I hadn’t allowed one moment of silence when the young man could have transformed a monologue into a dialogue. He may have had something really important to share with me. Perhaps if I had been truly open to life at that moment, I too would have had something to give to him. Perhaps both my life and his would have changed radically after that encounter. I will never know and I am not going to torture myself with the fact that I failed to take advantage of a potentially magical moment: mistakes happen. But ever since then, I have tried to keep alive in my memory that farewell scene and the sad look in the boy’s eyes. I was incapable of receiving what was destined for me and so was equally incapable of giving what I wanted to give, however hard I tried.

  • Who convenes the meetings or conversations in your life?
  • Who decides what you will talk about?
  • Who decides what you will not talk about?
  • Who decides what the conversational rules are?
  • Who decides when the conversation or meeting is over?
"Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you would rather have talked." - Mark Twain

"I try to follow the advice that a university president once gave to a prospective commencement speaker. 'Think of yourself as the body at an Irish wake,' he said. 'They need you in order to have the party, but nobody expects you to say much.'" - Anthony Lake, former National Security Advisor

04 April 2014

Call Me Trim Tab

R. Buckminster Fuller - inventor, futurist, and humanitarian - is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery near Boston. His tombstone reads simply:


A trim tab is a small device on a ship’s main rudder that must be turned before turning the large rudder to change course. Fuller saw trim tabs as a symbol for the small but strategic acts that change the course of world events, and he devoted his life trying to determine what a single individual like him - or a small group of like-minded people - could do to better the human condition that large organizations, governments, or private enterprises could not.

There are many individuals who've changed the course of history. A case in point is Rosa Parks, whom the U.S. Congress named "Mother of the Modern-Day Civil Rights Movement." On December 1, 1955, she was seated on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. When the driver ordered her to give up her seat so a white passenger could take it, she refused. Her action ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was among the first dominoes to fall on the path that led to the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Most of us are not in a position to change the world, but we are all capable of improving things in our world. Sadly, many of us forget to do the small things that can make a big difference in the lives of those closest to us. Mother Teresa laments:
"It is easy to love the people far away. It is not always easy to love those close to us. It is easier to give a cup of rice to relieve hunger than to relieve the loneliness and pain of someone unloved in our own home. Bring love into your home for this is where our love for each other must start."
Several years ago Rabbi Joseph Telushkin closed his Masters Forum presentation by sharing five short phrases - trim tabs - we can use to heal broken relationships with those close to us, or deepen ones currently in fine repair. It's a great place to start if you want to go there.
  • Thank you. Gratitude is more than a virtue in Telushkin's view: it is the cornerstone virtue, the one on which all goodness is based. Say thank you often and sincerely.
  • I love you. Don't be like the man at his wife's funeral, who was overcome by the love he felt for her but never expressed to her. It's not enough to keep love in your heart - it must be continually handed over to the one you love, in words and in deeds.
  • How are you? This question shows that you care, that you are concerned. Say something to communicate that it matters to you whether the other person lives or dies.
  • What do you need? Ascertaining what a person needs allows you to give him or her what is most meaningful - and thus, the highest expression of your love. But if you don't ask, you won't know.
  • I'm sorry. Once a man came to Telushkin and confessed an inability to come out and say he was sorry for things he had done. Telushkin said, "Can you then say I'm sorry I am unable to say I'm sorry?"
  • What contributions do you dream of making to others?
  • Dag Hammarskjold, former United Nations Secretary General once said, "It is more noble to give yourself completely to one individual than to labor diligently for the salvation of the masses." Does his statement ring true with you? How does it intersect with your life today?
  • Of those closest to you, is there one in particular who needs more of your time, attention, and support than you are currently giving? Do you see how applying one or more of Rabbi Telushkin's trim tabs can help repair your relationship with that person? Will you do it?
  • Has anyone every done a small thing for you that ultimately had a profound impact on your life? What did this person do? What impact did it have?
  • What makes someone unforgettable?
"Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless." - Mother Teresa
"To live in love is to accept the other and the conditions of his existence as a source of richness and not as an opposition, restriction or limitation." - Maturana
"Beware how you take away hope from another human being." - Oliver Wendell Holmes
"Falling leaves that lie scattered on the ground,
The birds and flowers that were here cannot be found.
All the friends that he once knew are not around.
They're all scattered like the leaves upon the ground.
Some folks drift along through life and never thrill,
To the feeling that a good deed brings until,
It's too late and they are ready to lie down,
There beneath the leaves that's scattered on the ground.
Lord, let my eyes see every need of every man,
Make me stop and always lend a helping hand,
Then when I'm laid beneath that little grassy mound,
There'll be more friends around than leaves upon the ground.
To your grave there's no use taking any gold,
You cannot use it when it's time for hands to fold,
When you leave this earth for a better home someday,
The only thing you'll take is what you gave away."
- Grandpa Jones, Falling Leaves

28 March 2014

The Warp and Woof of Meaning

In more stable times, we educed meaning in our lives from well-established communities and traditional cultural norms. Today, we can't count on those things. We have to create meaning for ourselves. John W. Gardner, HEW Secretary in the Johnson administration, and founder of Common Cause, explained in a speech at McKinsey & Company, November 10, 1990:
"Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account."
The process of building meaning into our lives is dynamic. We live. We Learn. We make new meaning. We do it all again. To do this purposefully, Gardner suggests we consider the following questions on a regular basis. This is best done in conversation with others who understand the importance of doing so. One possibility is your life partner. Another is your family. Still another is your colleagues at work. In fact, you and your co-workers can use the questions to talk about the meaning you are deriving from your work.

  • What things are forgotten in the heat of battle?
  • What values get pushed aside in the rough-and-tumble of everyday living?
  • What are the goals we ought to be thinking about and never do?
  • What are the facts we don’t like to face?
  • What are the questions we lack the courage to ask?
"The sailor cannot see the North, but knows the needle can." - Emily Dickinson
"Life is tumultuous - an endless losing and regaining of balance, a continuous struggle, never an assured victory. We need to develop a resilient, indomitable morale that enables us to face those realities and still strive with every ounce of energy to prevail. You may wonder if such a struggle - endless and of uncertain outcome - isn't more than humans can bear. But all of history suggests that the human spirit is well fitted to cope with just that kind of world." - John W. Gardner
"First we must understand that there can be no life without risk - and when our center is strong, everything else is secondary, even the risks. Thus, we best prepare by building our inner strength by sound philosophy, by reaching out to others, by asking ourselves what matters most." - Elie Wiesel
"Work is about a search too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than stupor; in short for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying. Perhaps immortality, too, is part of the quest." - Studs Terkel

21 March 2014

We're Here to Fart Around

Author Kurt Vonnegut was a contrarian of the first order and a no-holds-barred commentator on the follies and foibles of humankind. And, while he could be sarcastic and dark, Vonnegut often used humor to communicate his views on the basic questions life. This is shown by a story he told David Brancaccio of PBS during an interview for NOW. The date was October 7, 2005.
"I told my wife I'm going out to buy an envelope. 'Oh,' she says. 'Well, you're not a poor man. You know, why don't you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet?' And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I'm going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying one envelope. I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babes. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And, I ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, I don't know. The moral of the story is we're here on Earth to fart around. And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, what the computer people don't realize, or they don't care, is we're dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we're not supposed to dance at all anymore."
This a fast-paced, dog-eat-dog, 24/7 world. There is little or no time to fart around. But, should we make the time? There at least two reasons for doing so. First, to reduce stress. Second, to clear our minds so that new thoughts and ideas can make their way in.

  • What is Vonnegut's story about for you?
  • How does it intersect with your life at this time?
  • When is the last time you farted around? What did you do? How was it worthwhile, or a waste of time?
  • If you think that farting around once in awhile is a good idea, how will you make the time do it?
  • If you think you do too much of it already, how will you stop?
"Remember the scene in Cat Ballou where a very drunk Lee Marvin goes from unconscious to ranting to triumphant to roaring to weeping defeat and then finally passes out? One of the men watching him says, with real awe, 'I never seen a man get through a day so fast.' Don't let this be you." - Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

14 March 2014

Perhaps You Have Things to Unsay?

Benjamin Zander is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, author of a wonderful book on living a full life titled The Art of Possibility, and one of the most inspiring speakers in the world today. In the photo above, he is shown in the process of delivering the final address at this year's World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He closed that presentation by relating a story he was told by a woman who had survived her stay in Auschwitz - the most notorious of the Nazi death camps:
"She said she was brought to Auschwitz when she was fifteen and her brother was eight. On the train that took them there, she saw that her brother had no shoes. She told her brother - 'Why are you so stupid. Can't you keep your things together - for goodness sake' - the way a sister would speak to a brother. Unfortunately, that was the last thing she said to him in her life. Her brother did not survive. Once she came out of Auschwitz, she made a vow and it was: 'I will never again say anything that can't stand as the last thing I will ever say.' "
In J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, there is an encounter between Gandalf and Saruman in which Gandalf says:
"What have you to say that you did not say at our last meeting? Or, perhaps you have things to unsay?"
  • What is something you need to say to someone important in your life, but haven't? Will you do it? When?
  • What is something you need to "unsay" to someone in your life, but haven't? Will you do it? When?

"The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone." - Harriet Beecher Stowe

"If you were going to die soon and had only one phone call you could make, who would you call and what would you say? And why are you waiting?" - Stephen Levine
"You can't do a kindness too soon, for you never know when soon will be too late." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
"If there's any good thing I can do or any kindness that I can show to any person, let me do it now, let me not defer or neglect it, for I may not pass this way again." - Traditional Benediction: