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.

24 September 2010

Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor & Me

Garrison Keillor is creator and host of A Prairie Home Companion which was first broadcast from the Janet Wallace auditorium at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, on July 6, 1974.

Today, almost 40 years later, his tales from the fictional Lake Wobegon, which he calls "the little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve," are heard by over 4 million listeners each week on almost 600 public radio stations here and abroad.

Speaking about the show's long run on APHC's website, Keillor says:

"When the show started, it was something funny to do with my friends, and then it became an achievement that I hoped would be successful, and now it's a good way of life."

I get Garrison Keillor. I grew up in a small, out-of-the-way Minnesota town - not unlike his Lake Wobegon - and can relate to the yarns he spins about the folks who live there and the warp and weft of their lives.

I also get Garrison because he and I are pretty close to the same age and grew up with the same stuff spinning around, over, under and through us: the dawn of the nuclear age; the dark shadow cast 'round the world by an evil Soviet Union; The Shadow and The Lone Ranger on the radio; Ozzie & Harriet, Father Knows Best and Bonanza on TV; the birth of rock & roll; the tragic deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P Richardson aka The Big Bopper; the civil rights movement; the murders of Jack and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King; Timothy Leary and trips on LSD; Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and The Kingston Trio; San Francisco, flower children, Volkswagen buses and free love; Vietnam, draft dodgers, war protesters; the Beatles, Helter Skelter & Charlie Manson; Richard Nixon, Watergate, and on ... and on ... and on. Ahh! Yes! "Those were the days, my friend" ... sing along now ... "I thought they'd never end, we'd sing and dance forever and a day." Hmmm.

Times have changed, of course, just like Bob Dylan said they would, and when I get to looking back on those days of yesteryear, I usually get to thinking about how smart I thought I was; how I had all the answers. Maybe Garrison does too. But, once you get to be our age - Garrison's and mine - and if you still have your wits about you, it slowly dawns on you that you may not have been so smart after all. Or, as Garrison has simply and profoundly stated:
"You get old and you realize there are no answers, just stories."
Stories ... they are the principle driver of learning that sticks in the human brain:
"If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten." - Rudyard Kipling
Stories ... they keep us from losing our way:
"If you don't know the trees you may be lost in the forest, but if you don't know the stories you may be lost in life." -  A Siberian Elder
Stories ... they help us connect with others in a deep, meaningful way:
"We are lonesome animals. We spend all our life trying to be less lonesome.  One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say — and to feel — 'Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.' " - John Steinbeck
  • In Dreamgates, Robert Moss wrote: "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." What is the big story you are meant to tell? How will it find you?
  • Hannah Arendt has said: "Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it." How do you understand what she is saying?
  • When he is talking to leaders, Peter Block often says: "Our ability to facilitate the learning of others is absolutely dependent on our own consciousness and on our willingness to make our own actions a legitimate subject of inquiry. Allowing the personal to become public is the act of responsibility that initiates cultural change and reforms organizations. Our need for privacy and our fear of the personal are primary reasons why organizational change is more rhetoric than reality. Real change comes from our willingness to own our vulnerability, confess our failures, and acknowledge that many of our stories do not have a happy ending." Do you typically share these kinds of stories? Why or why not?
"The eye of understanding is like the eye of the sense; for as you may see great objects through small crannies or levels, so you may see great axioms of nature through small and contemptible instances." - Francis Bacon, Sylva Sylvarum
"Proverbs are always platitudes until you have personally experienced the truth of them." - Aldous Huxley
"The leader who says ‘I don’t know’ essentially says that the group is facing a new ballgame where the old tools of logic may be its undoing rather than its salvation. To drop these tools is not to give up on finding a workable answer. It is only to give up on one means of answering that is ill-suited to the unstable, the unknowable, the unpredictable. To drop the heavy tools of rationality is to gain access to lightness in the form of intuitions, feelings, stories, experience, active listening, shared humanity, awareness in the moment, capability for fascination, awe, novel words and empathy." - Karl Weick
"Self-disclosure is the act of revealing yourself to others – your thoughts, feelings, intentions– telling your story. Another word for self-disclosure is 'intimacy'. This word is commonly associated with sexuality. But it really refers to familiarity and closeness. Intimacy can be understood better by pronouncing it as 'in-to-me-see' – a clear reference to self-disclosure. Why is intimacy so important? It builds understanding, trust, compassion, and commonality – all of which are essential to effective relationships. When you begin to understand other people’s stories, your heart softens. You find that their sorrows and joys are similar to yours, and that you have more in common than you ever thought. You draw closer and become more tolerant, more supportive, and more understanding." - Mark D. Youngblood, Life at the Edge of Chaos
"'I would ask you to remember only this one thing,' said Badger. 'The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other's memory. This is how people care for themselves. One day you will be good story-tellers. Never forget these obligations.'" - Barry Lopez, Crow and Weasel
"A minister has to be able to read a clock. At noon, it's time to go home and turn up the pot roast and get the peas out of the freezer." - Garrison Keillor
"They say such nice things about people at their funerals that it makes me sad that I'm going to miss mine by just a few days." - Garrison Keillor
"Even in a time of elephantine vanity and greed, one never has to look far to see the campfires of gentle people." - Garrison Keillor

17 September 2010

For Beowulf, Nothing Failed Like Success

In my freshman year of college, I enrolled in English Literature 101. On the first day of class, the teacher stood behind the podium and began reading the epic tale of Beowulf. I listened, but in vain; I couldn't grasp a thing she was saying. And, as soon as the two hours of that initial class period had passed, I headed to the office and dropped the class. I tried not to even think of Beowulf after that.

That all changed on a sunny St. Patrick's Day a few years ago when real-life wizard Brian Bates appeared at The Masters Forum, and told the story of Beowulf in words that even I could understand.

A little about Brian. He teaches psychology at the University of Brighton, directs the Shaman Research Program at the University of Sussex, and is an adviser to the Ford Foundation's project on worldwide indigenous wisdom. He is the author of several books including: The Way of Wyrd and The Real Middle Earth.

Back to Beowulf. Here's the story as I now understand it:
A monster named Grendel was attacking the castle of King Hrothgar of Denmark each night, killing and devouring his soldiers and guests. No one could stop him.

A great warrior from afar, Beowulf, hears of the king's plight and comes to the rescue. He succeeds in slaying the monster.

It turns out, though, that the monster has a nasty ol' mother who rears up out of her swamp and takes over where Grendel left off. Beowulf takes out the mother as well. Hrothgar is forever grateful.

Beowulf returns to his own people, the Geats. He serves them well; becomes their king.

Fifty winters pass. Beowulf has grown old.

One day, an evil dragon shows up and begins to beat on the Geats. Beowulf decides that he - and he alone - will slay the dragon.

Beowulf preps for battle. As he heads out to meet the dragon, he asks 12 of his warriors to join him. He gives them a direct order to stay out of the battle.

The battle rages. Beowulf is getting his ass handed to him. His warriors can see he needs help, but they have no idea what to do; besides they are scared witless. They head for the hills. Well, at least 11 of them do. The 12th, Wiglaf, decides to help the old man out. He does it by rushing in and distracting the dragon just long enough for Beowulf to strike a killing blow. The dragon goes down for the count. Minutes later, it's lights out for Beowulf as well.
There are several lessons to be learned here for accomplished leaders and high achievers of all stripes.

  • Why do you think Beowulf decided to face the dragon by himself? Have you ever done the same in some instance in your work or life? Is it typical of you?
  • Do you think he considered the possibility he would die? Why or why not? Do you consider the possibility of failing when you decide to go it alone?
  • The story says Beowulf invited a few of his warriors to come along for the ride, but only to observe. Why? Have you ever done the same?
  • The warriors didn't rush to rescue Beowulf when he got into trouble. In fact, 11 of 12 turned tail and ran. The story says they fled because they didn't know what to do to help. This suggests that Beowulf had not mentally or physically prepared his warriors to fight such a battle. Why do you suppose he failed to do so? How about you? Are you truly developing your subordinates, or merely entertaining them with your brilliance? Explain.
  • Nothing fails like success is an old saying. How do you interpret it in light of this story? How do you interpret it in terms of your own life and work?
"Often when one man follows his own will many are hurt." - Wiglaf
"The art of life lies in a constant readjustment to our surroundings." - Okakura Kakuzo, author
"It seldom happens that a man changes his life through his habitual reasoning. No matter how fully he may sense the new plans and aims revealed to him by reason, he continues to plod along in old paths until his life becomes frustrating and unbearable. He finally makes the change only when his usual life can no longer be tolerated." - Leo Tolstoy
"People hear what they want to hear and disregard the rest." - Simon & Garfunkel, The Boxer
"Firefighters are most likely to get killed or injured in their 10th year on the job, when they think they've seen pretty much everything there is to see on the fires. They become less open to new information that would allow them to update their models." - Karl Weick, Wired, April, 2004

10 September 2010

Schindler's List

As the 1993 film Schindler's List opens, Polish Jews are being relocated from the countryside to a crowded ghetto in Krakow. The year is 1939. World War II has just begun. Shortly thereafter, Oskar Schindler - played by Liam Neeson - a successful businessman and member of the Nazi Party, arrives from Czechoslovakia hoping to manufacture field kitchenware and mess kits for the German army. He acquires a factory by bribing SS officials and brings in accountant and financier Itzhak Stern - played by Ben Kingsley - to help him run it. Among the first things Stern does is advise Schindler to staff the plant with Jews from the ghetto; he said this would give him a dependable, low-paid work force. Schindler sees the financial benefits and quickly agrees. For Stern a job in a war-related plant means survival - at least in the short term - for himself and other Jews working for Schindler.

Schindler initially treats the Jewish workers with indifference, seeing them as a nameless, faceless mass instead of individuals with rights and equal worth to gentiles such as himself. He changes on this score as the film moves on, though, and eventually spends his entire fortune and risks his life on many occasions to keep Stern and more than 1200 other Jews out of the Nazi death camps.

Why did he do it? What made this man do what no other German had the courage to do? This is the question people - including the Jews saved by Schindler - are still asking today.

Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler's Arc - later renamed Schindler's List - hints at why he thinks Schindler did it when he says in the book:
"Schindler grew up in a strong Roman Catholic household with deeply religious parents. Their nearest neighbors were a Jewish Rabbi and his family, and the Rabbi's two sons were Oskar's best friends for years."
Steven Spielberg, who turned the novel to film, said in an interview in Der Spiegel:
"Oskar Schindler was simply ein guter Mensch whose sheer humanity forced him to take great personal risk to save his Jews."
A decade before Spielberg's Schindler's List won seven Academy Awards, a British producer and director, Jon Blair, made Schindler, an 80 minute documentary on the life of Oskar Schindler for British Thames Television. The film won a British Academy Award for best documentary in 1983, but left few clues as to why Schindler did what he did. Blair was quoted later as saying:
"Oskar, this big man with a big heart and big connections, loved to be loved and needed. But I always thought that it was a weakness in my film that I couldn't explain Schindler's motivation, and Spielberg told me the same about his - it seems impossible to crack that enigma."
Perhaps Schindler himself didn't know for sure. In a 1964 interview he said:
"The persecution of Jews in occupied Poland meant that we could see horror emerging gradually in many ways. In 1939, they were forced to wear Jewish stars, and people were herded and shut up into ghettos. Then in the years '41 and '42, there was plenty of public evidence of pure sadism. With people behaving like pigs, I felt the Jews were being destroyed. I had to help them. There was no choice."
The most plausible explanation may have been revealed in a 1965 conversation between Schindler and Moshe Bejski - a Schindler Jew and later an Israeli Supreme Court justice. When Bejski asked him why he did it, Schindler answered:
"I knew the people who worked for me. When you know people, you have to behave towards them like human beings."
The story of Oskar Schindler is not merely one about an altruistic and morally decent man - though Schindler was that. It is, in the main, the story of a man who gets to know his workers through personal encounters, and comes to see them as individual human beings with hopes, dreams, fears, and passions just like his own. And, once he grants them humanity, he feels a strong pull to assist them. I think this idea is best expressed near the end of the film when Schindler introduces Stern to his wife. He says:
"Stern is my accountant and my friend."
  • How does this last explanation for Schindler's behavior make more or less sense to you than the others considered?
  • Why might it be important for leaders to build personal relationships with their followers?
  • Why might they want to keep from getting too personally involved?
  • What is your philosophy in this regard? How is it working for you? Have you ever thought there might be a better way? Have you experimented with it? What happened?
  • What is your reaction to the statement: Your people are not human resources, they are human beings?
"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." - Edmund Burke
"We ask ourselves, 'How could the German people not have known what was going on, long before the Panzer divisions moved into Poland in September of 1939? How could they not have known about Bergen-Belsen?' Well, a system to administer evil without interference is usually firmly entrenched before anyone notices - you don’t get the opportunity to see it coming. As Mussolini intuited, if you just make the trains run on time, people will be happy. So, if you’re simply getting on with life - paying taxes, changing diapers, wondering how you’re going to make the car payment next month- you’re not really paying attention to what having the trains run on time might mean." - Barry Lopez, in an interview with Christian Martin, Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall 2005
"They came for the communists, and I did not speak up because I wasn't a communist.  They came for the socialists, and I did not speak up because I was not a socialist.  They came for the union leaders, and I did not speak up because I wasn't a union leader.  They came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.  Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak up for me." - Martin Niemoller
"We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken away from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way." - Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
"After the war we reassured ourselves that it would be enough to relate a single night in Treblinka, to tell of the cruelty, the senselessness of murder, and the outrage born of indifference: it would be enough to find the right word and the propitious moment to say it, to shake humanity out of its indifference and keep the torturer from torturing ever again. We thought it would be enough to read the world a poem written by a child in the Theresienstadt ghetto to ensure that no child anywhere would ever again have to endure hunger or fear. It would be enough to describe a death-camp 'Selection,' to prevent the human right to dignity from ever being violated again. We thought it would be enough to tell of the tidal wave of hatred which broke over the Jewish people for men everywhere to decide once and for all to put an end to hatred of anyone who is 'different' - whether black or white, Jew or Arab, Christian or Moslem - anyone whose orientation differs politically, philosophically, sexually. A naive undertaking? Of course...." - Elie Wiesel, speaking of his book Night in his 1986 Nobel address
"Honor never grows old, and honor rejoices the heart of age. It does so because honor is, finally, about defending those noble and worthy things that deserve defending, even if it comes at a high cost. In our time, that may mean social disapproval, public scorn, hardship, persecution, or as always, even death itself. The question remains: What is worth defending? What is worth dying for? What is worth living for?" - William J. Bennett - in a lecture to the United States Naval Academy November 24, 1997
"We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm." - George Orwell

This scene takes place near the end of the movie. The Germans have surrendered. Schindler, who will now be seen as a war criminal by the occupying Soviet army, is taking his leave. It is a powerful expression of the deep affection that Schindler has for those he saved, and of theirs for him.

03 September 2010

I've Got a Secret. You've Got a Secret.

I don't know Penelope Trunk, but I'm sure I'd like her if I ever got the chance to sit down and talk with her a bit. I discovered her when I listened to a presentation she gave a couple of years ago at The Executive Forum, a business lecture series based in Denver, Colorado, and run by my friend Margie Mauldin. What I liked best about Penelope was her candor; it was a real breath of fresh air to hear someone talk in such a plain way about things that really matter, but are rarely - if ever - discussed around the water coolers or in the rest of the nooks and crannies of corporate America.

Ms. Trunk is even more candid in her blog Brazen Careerist, which has nearly 35,000 subscribers. I'm a semi-regular reader, and happened on a post a short while ago I really liked: I Hate David Dellifield. The One from Ada, Ohio. Here's the crux of it. The help she normally has to watch her kids while she works was not available during Spring Break, so she spent most of that time being a stay-at-home mom. She had figured out earlier in her life that this wasn't something she seemed to be genetically coded to do, so toward the end of her time at home with the kids - and in what she says was a moment of innocent desperation - she Twittered:
"No school today and the nanny's on vacation. A whole day with the kids gets so boring: all intergalactic battles and no intellectual banter."
In seconds, men from all over cyberspace started firing shot across her bow; they were telling her she was a bad mom. One of those shots - in particular - really ticked her off. It was fired by - you guessed it - David Dellifield of Ada, Ohio:
"@penelopetrunk sorry your kids are a burden, send them to OH, we'll enjoy them for who they are"
You can read the rest of her post for yourself. And, you should; the tap dance she does on his head is really well choreographed. What I want to pick up on here, though, is something she said about a third of the way through her riff:
"Parents need to be able to say that parenting is not fun."
She's right, of course. Parenting is not all grins and giggles. Kids are cute - but not 24/7 cute - when they're young; largely a pain-in-the-butt when they're teenagers; and who knows what after that. And, we parents should be able to say so without having some self-appointed referee toss a penalty flag.

An even larger point is there are way too many things we don't get to say these days without being derided, shunned, or cast out of our tribes. This is especially true in the workplace; it's true in most of the other places we habituate as well.

Secrets. Paul Tournier says:
"Nothing makes us so lonely as our secrets."
And sick. I think much of the fear and sadness we experience in our lives is rooted in keeping things we really need to talk about hidden behind a facade of good cheer. How sick can we get trying to suck it up? Watch this YouTube video; it answers that question very directly. It was produced and uploaded by a young girl who wanted to share her story of self-immolation, self-injury, and redemption in hopes it might be of help to others who find themselves in the same boat.

If you watched all the way to the end, you were surely struck in some way, shape, or form. Perhaps you wondered why she didn't cry out for help sooner; it's the logical thing to do, after all. Maybe you thought she was weak or lacking willpower, that all she needed to do was "Just say no!" And, why not? Lots of people have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. Another possibility is that you breathed a sigh of relief when you found she entered a treatment program, because you know they work. Don't they? Most likely, though, your heart went out to her, and you wish you had been there to help. But, how? She tells us at the end:
"Don't judge me by the scars on my arms, instead help me to throw away the blade."
It shouldn't have to get that far. If we - individuals, families, communities, the world at large - could develop a less judgmental and more understanding ethos, people in trouble would be willing to step forward and ask for our help much sooner. And, if that were to happen, fewer people would put their hands on the blade in the first place. This is an extreme case, of course, but not uncommon. We all most certainly have family members, friends, co-workers, close acquaintances, and others we know suffering in a private hell we don't have a clue about. And, most of us are living in one of our own as well.

Secrets. Accept them as gifts when they are offered. Give them as gifts when you can.

  • What are some things that just aren't discussed at work? Which of the things you named do you think should be open for discussion? Why? Which do you think are better left unsaid? Why? How about at home?
  • What is your personal experience with secrets? How readily to disclose them to others? Have you found confiding in others to be helpful or hurtful? Is there a story you can tell to illustrate? How are you receptive or not receptive to having others confide in you? How do respond when someone really opens up to you? Is there a story you can tell about helping someone who took the risk of being vulnerable with you?
  • Have you ever been stunned to learn something about another person that you could never have guessed? How could you have known sooner?
  • Do you have a deep, dark secret? If you were willing to share it at all, who would you share it with and why?
"A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know." - Diane Arbus
"All secrets are deep. All secrets become dark. That’s in the nature of secrets." - Cory Doctorow, Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town, 2005
"The shadow is the long bag that we drag behind us in which we've stuffed all the dark parts of ourselves that we would like to keep secret." - Robert Bly
"The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them - words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they're brought out. But it's more than than, isn't it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you've said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried when you were saying it. That's the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for the want of a teller but for the want of an understanding ear." - Stephen King
"Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don't want it. What appears conceit, cynicism or bad manners is always a sign of things no ears have heard no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone." - Miller Williams, The Ways We Touch
"The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, we shall have discovered fire." - Teilhard de Chardin