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.

01 July 2009

Old Tricks for New Dogs

At his May 18th commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania, Google's CEO Eric Schmidt had some very interesting things to say to the nearly 6000 graduating seniors.

He began by lauding the school and the quality of its graduates. He moved on to compare his generation to theirs, noting - among other things - that members of his generation spent all their time trying to hide their most embarrassing moments, while today's generation records and posts all those moments on YouTube.

In his wrap-up, he listed some of the things he thinks they should do right now.
"Don't have a plan. Instead, let's have some luck. Success is about being ready for the good opportunities that come before you. You can't plan innovation or inspiration, but you can be ready for it."
"For the last four years, you've been penalized for making mistakes. From now on, rewards will gravitate to those who make mistakes and learn from them."
"Think of something completely new, and go work on that. Take that as your challenge. Take that as your opportunity."
"Work in a group. None of us is as smart as all of us."
"Trust matters. Trust is the most important currency in a networked world."
"In a world where everything is remembered ... and kept forever ... you need to live for the future and the things you really, really care about. In order to know what those things are, you're going to have to turn off your computer and discover all that is human around us."
Unplug. Go analog. Leave the virtual world and make human connections. If you were born before 1977, there's a half-way decent chance you not only see the utility of doing this, but there's also a pretty good chance you've actually done it. If you were born between 1977 and 1995, you belong to a group the demographers call Generation Y, and according to Nadira Hira, a Gen Yer who writes for Fortune magazine and authored its 2007 cover story on Gen Yers and their impact on corporate America:
"Technology has made it harder for this generation to relate on an interpersonal level. People don't know anymore how to talk to each other in person."
A chink in their armor? Yes. Trust, you see, is born and bred in face-to-face relationships. It is the result of two people showing each other their eyes, and having authentic conversations in which they share stories and get to know one another from many different angles. Gen Yers, and the Millennials who are following along behind them, really, really need to get this.

A novel way for them to think about it is to take a step back in time and examine the lifestyle the Amish who truly live in an analog world. For example, author Richard Exley says:
"As you probably know the Amish believe in living a simple life - no electricity, no telephones, no motorized vehicles. Yet in many of their communities there is a pay phone. When asked about this apparent discrepancy one elder explained. 'If the telephone were in our home it would control us. As long as it is out here we control it.' He went on to say, 'Most people drop everything they are doing the instant the telephone rings and run to answer it. In their lives the telephone takes precedent over everything. (Of course cell phones have only made this addiction far worse.) The pay telephone, on the other hand, is our servant. It is there if we need it but we do not allow it to intrude into our lives.'"
They'll never go there, of course, but even taking a couple of small steps in that direction could pay big dividends.

On the other hand, Hira said she suspects that Gen Yers really do want to unplug and get personally involved with others. Here's what she said about supervising and retaining them:
"Ultimately, success with Gen Yers comes back to feedback and dialogue. They want to be engaged. They don't just want to have an evaluation once a year; they want to be mentored. Mentoring should be both formal and informal. Supervisors should take a holistic approach. They should constantly ask, 'What kind of dialogue do we need to have and how can we do it in an authentic and meaningful way?'"
She also noted that Gen Yers often prefer to turn to older leaders (from the World War II generation) for face-to-face conversation because:
"... they're looking for the person from the company who's got the most to teach them, the person who can really show them the institutional memory of the company. In the past, we've basically put those people out to pasture, but right now we're finding that they can basically be your best asset at a company."
I like to call this the "Old Tricks for New Dogs" phenomenon.

Will this new generation of ours get to the point where they are comfortable - and even enjoy - talking face-to-face with others? I think some will, but most won't.

Those who do will be the ones who simply take the time to enter into conversation after conversation, and discover how fascinating and satisfying they can be. This is an organic process. You learn to converse by having conversations. Your heart is in the lead. You speak your truth and listen genuinely to theirs. The conversations you have lead to deeper relationships and higher levels of trust. You are compelled to do this more and more often because the experience is so rich and rewarding. Relating this way to others becomes part of your essence. Donald Babcock expressed this notion of simply being in his poem The Duck:
"Now we're ready to look at something pretty special. It's a duck, riding the ocean a hundred feet beyond the surf.

No it isn't a gull. A gull always has a raucous touch about him. This is some sort of duck, and he cuddles in the swells.

"He isn't cold, and he is thinking things over. There is a big heaving in the Atlantic, and he is a part of it.

"He looks a bit like a mandarin, or the Lord Buddha meditating under the Bo tree.

"But he has hardly enough above the eyes to be a philosopher. He has poise, however, which is what philosophers must have.

"He can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic.

"Probably he doesn't know how large the ocean is. And neither do you. But he realizes it.

"And what does he do, I ask you? He sits down in it! He reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity - which it is. He has made himself a part of the boundless by easing himself into just where it touches him.

"I like the little duck. He doesn't know much, but he's got religion."
Those who don't will be the ones who decide that being a good conversationalist is a matter of developing the right skill set. This is a mechanical process. You learn to converse by honing your skills. Your head is in charge. You speak correctly and listen skillfully. The conversations you have are hollow and fail to enhance your relationships or build trust. You retreat from them more and more because they serve no purpose as far as you can see. Relating with others becomes a function of doing and not being. Henry David Thoreau described relationships based on doing better than anyone before or since:
"What men call good fellowship is commonly but the virtue of pigs in a litter which lie close together to keep each other warm."
Google takes trust building seriously. According to Larry Brilliant, head of the Google Foundation:
"Google’s a strange place. When I met Eric Schmidt, he said, 'If you are kind to everybody, then you will make good decisions because people will give you good information, and if you are truthful to everybody, they will be truthful to you.' That’s what’s different about Google. They screw up and make mistakes, but they genuinely mean the good stuff about 'don’t be evil.'"
This is an interesting combination, don't you think? A high-tech company with a high-touch culture is quite rare today, although it will be the norm in the very near future. Get yours today! They're going fast!

  • To what extent are you addicted to living in the digital world? What has accrued to your benefit as a result? What has been lost? How are you sure of your answers?
  • If you were forced to unplug from the digital world for a month, and if your work life and personal life went on as usual in all other ways, how would you compensate? What valuable lessons can you imagine learning?
  • How do you rate both your willingness and ability to engage authentic and meaningful conversations with others at work? At home? In your social circles? With strangers? How are you troubled - or not troubled - by your answers?
  • Is your life blessed by the presence of true friends? How are you sure? How would you describe any pattern you can see in the way your real friendships develop? Is there a story you can tell to illustrate?
"The future masters of technology will have to be light-hearted and intelligent. The machine easily masters the grim and the dumb." - Marshall McLuhan
"The goal of life is to take everything that made you weird as a kid and get people to pay you money for it when you're older." - David Freeman, screenwriter
"The price of self-destiny is never cheap, and in certain situations it is unthinkable. But to achieve the marvelous, it is precisely the unthinkable that must be thought." - Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume
"All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible." - Lawrence of Arabia
"No one person can answer the question of meaning in this world today. It is in thinking together, under strong conditions of serious search, that a new understanding can be approached. Group communication, group pondering, is the real art form of our time." - Jacob Needleman
"From moment to moment, from day to day, we search the eyes of others for that certain yes." - Martin Buber
"Real friendship or love is not manufactured or achieved by an act of will or intention. Friendship is always an act of recognition ... in the moment of friendship, two souls suddenly recognize each other. It could be a meeting on the street, or at a party or a lecture, or just a simple, banal introduction, then suddenly there is the flash of recognition and the embers of kinship grow. There is an awakening between you, a sense of ancient knowing." - John O'Donohue

Eric Schmidt commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania.

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