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.

27 August 2010

What Do You Know of What You Speak?

In early 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson, a Unitarian minister at the time, was asked to address the graduating class of the Harvard Divinity School. The address was to be given on July 15th. Ironically, he got the invitation only a few days after he had decided to leave the ministry because he felt that organized religion could no longer command respect. Still, Emerson accepted the invitation, and on a beautiful July evening in Boston he spoke to the audience of seminarians about to enter the active Christian clergy. Most of what he said that night was the standard stuff of commencement addresses. One thing, though, stood out. He told a story about bad preaching.
“I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more. Men go, thought I, where they are wont to go, else no soul entered the temple in the afternoon. A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral, and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it. The capital secret of his profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned. Not one fact in all his experience, had he yet imported into his doctrine. This man had plowed, and planted, and talked, and bought, and sold; he had read books; he had eaten and drunken; his head aches; his heart throbs; he smiles and suffers; yet was there not a surmise, a hint, in all the discourse, that he had ever lived at all. Not a line did he draw out of real history. The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life - life passed through the fire of thought. But of the bad preacher, it could not be told from his sermon, what age of the world he fell in; whether he had a father or a child; whether he was a freeholder or a pauper; whether he was a citizen or a countryman; or any other fact of his biography. It seemed strange the people should come to church."
Emerson's preacher failed - at least in Emerson's eyes - because his discourse left Emerson asking himself: "What does he know of what he speaks?"

In today's world, we are bombarded by preaching - religious and otherwise. And, as the words rain down, a lot of us never think to ask "What does she know of what she speaks?" If we would, though, we could quickly separate the preachers who truly know from the legion who don't. One way to approach this issue is to simply ask anyone who's preaching to you "How do you know that?" Another is to use a simple tool - The Bullshit Detector - from author and economist Thomas Sowell:
"Much of the self-righteous nonsense that abounds on so many subjects cannot stand up to three questions: Compared to what? At what cost? What are the hard facts?"
There is a flip-side to this coin, of course, and it concerns our own preaching.

  • When you are teaching or preaching or selling or otherwise giving advice, do you routinely provide evidence that you know of what you speak? If so, how do you do it? Is what you provide sufficient? How do you know?
  • If not, what is a case you can make for doing so? If you are able to build a strong case in favor of doing this, how would you go about making it a habit?
"I am not ignorant that when we preach unworthily, it is not always quite in vain. There is a good ear, in some men, that draws supplies to virtue out of very indifferent nutriment. There is poetic truth concealed in all the common-places of prayer and of sermons, and though foolishly spoken, they may be wisely heard." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Some people do not listen to a speaker unless he speaks mathematically, others unless he gives instances, while others expect him to cite a poet as witness. And some want to have everything done accurately, while others are annoyed by accuracy. Hence one must be already trained to know how to take each sort of argument." - Aristotle
"After having propounded his famous theory of relativity, Albert Einstein would tour the various Universities in the United States, delivering lectures wherever he went. He was always accompanied by his faithful chauffeur, Harry, who would attend each of these lectures while seated in the back row! One fine day, after Einstein had finished a lecture and was coming out of the auditorium into his vehicle, Harry addresses him and says, 'Professor Einstein, I've heard your lecture on Relativity so many times, that if I were ever given the opportunity, I would be able to deliver it to perfection myself!' 'Very well,' replied Einstein, 'I'm going to Dartmouth next week. They don't know me there. You can deliver the lecture as Einstein, and I'll take your place as Harry!' And so it came to be ... Harry delivered the lecture to perfection, without a word out of place, while Einstein sat in the back row playing 'chauffeur', and enjoying a snooze for a change. Just as Harry was descending from the podium, however, one of the research assistants intercepted him, and began to ask him a question on the theory of relativity ... one that involved a lot of complex calculations and equations. Harry replied to the assistant 'The answer to this question is very simple! In fact, it's so simple, that I'm going to let my chauffeur answer it!'" - Source Unknown

20 August 2010

An Architect's Vision

Daniel Libeskind is a world renowned architect. He is most famous for being selected by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to oversee the rebuilding of the World Trade Center, which was destroyed in the September 11, 2001 attacks. He titled his concept for the site Memory Foundations. Some of his other projects include the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany, the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester, England, and the Wohl Centre at Bar-Ilan University, in Ramat-Gan, Israel.

Libeskind gave a presentation titled 17 Words of Architectural Inspiration last February at a TED event. The 17 words form the basis of his vision for the future of architecture. You can watch the presentation here. If you do, and if you happen to be an architect, you will most likely find yourself either nodding in agreement with what he says, or calling him a fool or worse. I say this because I didn't find many neutral opinions in the "Comments" section.

As I listened to him speak - with nary a shard of architectural savvy in my bones - I started to wonder how many of his 17 words can help form a vision for building a more satisfying and meaningful life. And, without doing much stretching, I can make a case for the relevance of all 17. What I want to do here, though, is to take just a few of the words and share the connections I made.

Optimism vs. Pessimism

Libeskind believes that architecture - more than almost any other profession - must be anchored in an optimistic view of the future. He said:
"You can be an general, a politician, an economist who is depressed, a musician in a minor key, a painter in dark colors. But architecture is that complete ecstasy that the future can be better."
There's not much to argue with here. Optimists fare better in nearly all aspects of life ... and studies have shown they live longer too. So, if you're a pessimist ... you have one more thing to be pessimistic about. On the other hand pessimism doesn't have to be a life sentence. Dr. Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association and recovering pessimist, has shown that we can cross the bridge from pessimist to optimist by developing three specific cognitive skills. You can read about them in his book, Learned Optimism, which he wrote because his daughter kept telling him how big a grouch he was.

Hand vs. Computer

While admitting that the whole practice of architecture today relies heavily on the computer, Libeskind is adamant that the hand should drive the computer, instead of the other way around. He says this because he full-out believes that his best ideas come from an unknown, unseen source deep inside him and have to be teased out into the light through hand drawings and sketches. That being done, he is only too happy to open his computer and begin the process of turning his sketches into blueprints. He closes with a question for his fellow architects:
"How can we make the computer respond to our hand rather than the hand responding to the computer?"
This comparison raises several interesting questions. On a practical level, you might ask whether the technology you are using in your work and your life is your servant or your master. Do you really have to jump to answer your cell every time it rings? Should you open PowerPoint the minute you start preparing a presentation or should you sketch it out on paper first? Should email or text messaging be the default option in your communication with the important people in your life? On a philosophical level, you might wonder if you are living a life of your own design or following a template designed for you by others or even by circumstance. On a spiritual level, you could ask whether the fundamental choices you make are informed by your conscience - the voice inside you that tells you what is moral and good - or that which is expedient and self serving. I could go on with my list, but I am sure you get the idea. You can read more about this notion in the book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford. You can also read more abut Matthew's ideas in his New York Times Magazine article The Case for Working With Your Hands.

Raw vs. Refined

In this instance, Libeskind said he thinks of raw as "naked experience, untouched by luxury, untouched by expensive materials, untouched by the kind of refinement that we associate with high culture." And he believes that the creation of sustainable environments in the future will depend on the use of raw space or "...
a space that isn't decorated, a space that isn't mannered in any source, but a space that might be cool in terms of its temperature, might be refractive to our desires. A space that doesn't always follow us like a dog that has been trained to follow us, but moves ahead into directions of demonstrating other possibilities, other experiences, that have never been part of the vocabulary of architecture."

Here I think relationships. I like mine raw or as open, juicy, and authentic as possible. I don't much like them refined or dry, stilted, and managed. All relationships? No, not all. Most, then? Yes. Including work relationships? Yes. Why? Because the more time I can spend with people I've come to truly know and care about, the better my life is for it.

  • How are you generally optimistic or pessimistic? Would the people who know you best agree? Why or why not?
  • How do you work with your hands? Does doing so bless your life? If so, how? If not, why not?
  • How is a relationship either raw or refined as you see it? What is the balance between the two in your life? If it needs to shift, how so. If not, why not?

"Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly." - Langston Hughes
“I have always been delighted at the prospect of a new day, a fresh try, one more start, with perhaps a bit of magic waiting somewhere behind the morning.” - J. B. Priestly
"I promise you the sloth approach is the most successful life-maintenance program. So many of us waste our time being angry at our bosses, our families, our president, or even our God. The Sloth Plan, on the other hand, helps us to accept that there is no real hope for change. Power is in the hands of an elite, entitled few, and there is no reason to waste our lives howling in the wilderness." - Wendy Wasserstein, Sloth
"Deep down in people there is love and craving for the beautiful. There are many who go through their whole lives without ever knowing when they have liked or what they have liked." - Robert Henri, The Art Spirit
"'Hunches,' his mother used to call them. The boy was beginning to understand that intuition is really just a sudden immersion of the soul into the universal current of life, where the histories of all people are connected, and we are able to know everything, because it's all written there." - Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
"Of all that is written, I love only what a person has written with his own blood." - Friedrich Nietzsche
"Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, 'What! You too? I thought I was the only one.'" - C.S. Lewis

13 August 2010

Lay These Words Upon Your Heart ...

Jacob Needleman is a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University and the author of many books, including: Why Can't We Be Good?, The Wisdom of Love, Time and the Soul, The Heart of Philosophy, Lost Christianity, and Money and the Meaning of Life.

More than a decade ago, we invited Jacob to do a special evening presentation for our Masters Forum members. His topic was Money and the Meaning of Life.

Since that time, I've made it a point to keep in touch with his work, and early this year bumped into a transcript of a speech he gave at Indian Springs School on January 22, 2004. The speech was about the great unanswerable questions of life; the questions that come from a deep place within us, such as:
  • Who am I?
  • Does God exist?
  • Is there a soul, and is it immortal?
  • What can we know?
  • What ought we do?
  • What is good and evil?
A great body of ideas and teachings has been built up over thousands of years to help people as they try to answer these questions. This wisdom is alive in every culture of the world, and forms the basis for all the great religious traditions and spiritual philosophies of the world. It was studied, practiced and passed on by mystics, saints, and great philosophers. It comes in many forms: words and stories; pictures and symbols; modes of behavior; and various forms of art. According to Needleman:
"The great stories and images of the world don’t usually reveal their meaning to us right away. These great stories, these fairy tales, these Biblical images, these myths, these great works of art - sometimes they’re not there to convince the brain, the head which is rational - but they’re there to make a kind of end run around the rational mind, which is sometimes connected to the superficial sense of ego; to do an end run, and go down in the direction of the heart. And later on, as the years pass, and suddenly life does something to you, some shock, some disappointment, some triumph, some extraordinary thing, and suddenly, 'Ah! That’s what the story meant, that’s what the story was telling me!' So try to let these stories come into you and slowly radiate their meaning."
Jacob told a story to drive his point home; it's an exchange between a pupil and a wise old rebbe:
"And so, the pupil asks the wise rebbe about a passage in the Bible, in the Book of Deuteronomy, which is part of the Torah, the heart of the Old Testament. There is a sentence there that says to 'Lay these words upon your heart.' The words, which sum up the fundamental belief of the Hebraic tradition, are these: 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.' (Deuteronomy 6: 4-6) And the pupil asks the rebbe, 'Why does it tell us to lay these words upon our heart? Why doesn’t it tell us to put them in our heart?' And the rebbe answers, 'It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and the words can’t get it in. So we just put them on top of the heart. And there they stay. There they stay until someday, when the heart breaks, they fall in.'"
He ended his time on the dais by saying:
"The great wisdom: study it in all its forms, and someday when your heart breaks, either in great sorrow or in uncontainable joy, it will fall in, and you’ll understand this other level of human values that every school worthy of the name is trying to lead you toward."
  • How is your life guided by the deep wisdom of the heart Needleman refers to?
  • What words are laying upon your heart?
"Where is the life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" - T.S. Eliot
"Australian Aborigines say that the big stories - the stories worth telling and retelling, the ones in which you may find the meaning of your life - are forever stalking the right teller, sniffing and tracking like predators hunting their prey in the bush." - Robert Moss, Dreamgates

06 August 2010

The Heart Aroused

When author and poet David Whyte appeared in our Masters Forum series some years ago, he began with a story of how he got started working with corporations. He said that not long after he became a professional poet, an American businessman cornered him following a speech and said he wanted to hire him to work with his company. When Whyte asked why, the man said:
"The language we have in the corporate world is too small for the territory of relationship we've entered."
Whyte accepted the invitation. He said he was intrigued with the possibility of helping business folks move past jargon and begin to communicate with each other using words of the heart. His first book - The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America - centers directly on that theme.

Whyte told us the poetry we should read, think about, and even write ourselves, is poetry that'll lead to self-discovery, or re-remembering. For example, one of the poems he read - Lost by David Waggoner - asked us to re-think what it means to be lost. Lost compared to what? We may not always know where we are - and that may be a blessing rather than a curse - but the world always knows where we are, and what our part in it is.
Stand still. The trees ahead and the bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must not treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be know.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made the place around you.
If you leave it you may not come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
Another - Love After Love by Derek Walcott - describes the life we bury underneath our everyday behavior and the deal we can strike to get it back.
The time will come
When, with elation,
You will greet yourself arriving
At your own door, in your mirror,
And each smile at the other's welcome,
And say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was yourself.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
To itself, to the stranger who has loved you
All your life, whom you ignored
For another who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
The photographs, the desperate notes,
Peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

In addition to poetry of the heart, Whyte talked about conversations of the heart. He called them courageous conversations. He said we shy away from them, but cautioned us not to do so. He said we need to involve ourselves in them from time to time to re-remember that which gives meaning to our lives. He gave us questions to help us think about some of conversations we might be ducking. He hoped turning the lights on for us in that way would prompt us to go forth and have the conversations.
  • What is the courageous conversation I am refusing to have with myself with regard to my work, and the present life threshold on which I find myself?
  • What is the courageous conversation I am not having with my partner or spouse, my children or loved ones?
  • What is the courageous conversation I am not having with my immediate work group, or with my immediate supervisors, associates and subordinates? What is the courageous conversation I can personally initiate to start things moving in this immediate circle?
"If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness." - Charles Darwin
"Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me." - Sigmund Freud
"One demands two things of a poem. Firstly, it must be a well-made verbal object that does honor to the language in which it is written. Secondly, it must say something significant about a reality common to us all, but perceived from a unique perspective. What the poet says has never been said before, but, once he has said it, his readers recognize its validity for themselves." - W. H. Auden
"One of the things you get when you say you're a poet is, 'Oh, you're a poet! Well that's interesting. Our daughter, Tiffany, she's eleven, she writes poetry.' And my revenge fantasy is that I ask this guy what he does and he says, "Well I'm an investment banker." And I say, 'Really! Because our son, Timmy, was playing with some change on the floor the other day. It's such an interesting connection...'" - Billy Collins, Poet Laureate of the United States, 2001