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.

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:

07 March 2014

Crazy Is As Crazy Does

Robert Fulghum, best known for writing a short essay titled All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, is one of the very best storytellers in the world.

One of his finest tales involves his distaste of using business cards to introduce ourselves to one another. He thinks they have some utility - title, company, email address, phone number - but don't convey anything important about who we are. Further, he thinks they limit us to talking with each other about our occupations - as if they matter. For example, he doesn't like saying he's a writer. Writing - to him - is merely the product of what he does. What he does is something broader, and it doesn't fit on a 3x2 card.

Robert has butted his head against the wall of this conundrum on more than one occasion. Once on a plane, he decided to keep his business card in his pocket and lie; he told a man in a turban - whom he was certain he didn't want to talk to - that he was a neurosurgeon. Imagine his surprise when he discovered that the man in the turban really was a neurosurgeon. But, the man understood Robert's plight. He, too, was chagrined when - upon introducing himself - people began spouting off about their various neural malfunctions, as if that were all he was.

Another time - on another plane - Fulghum sought out a fellow liar, and without properly introducing themselves to each other, they agreed to lie to one another for the entire flight. The other player introduced himself as a spy. Fulghum said he was a nun. Robert said it was one of the damnedest conversations he ever had: imaginative, informative, and never true for an instant. And, to top it off, an elderly man stood behind Fulghum as they were deplaning, and said, "Have a nice day, sister."

It's easy to see how role-playing ala Sister Robert and Secret Agent Man is an interesting way to pass time in a pressurized cabin at 35,000 feet, but you only have to move a couple of clicks away from center to also see it as a way to ramp up the energy level and get the creative juices flowing in small groups looking to add variety to their meetings.

If your group likes this idea and wants to play with it, here are some things to think about.
  • Be specific about what you want to accomplish. Ask: What result do we want to create? This gets you centered on where you want to end up, and not on the particulars of how to get there. A useful analogy is sailing. Good sailors lock into their destination, and then set their course. And, if they get blown off course, they don't try to get back on the original course; they keep their eye on their destination and chart a new course from where they currently are instead.
  • Make sure a wide variety of roles are selected. For example, you don't want to end up with two nuns, a priest, three spies, and an FBI agent. Also, avoid typical business roles like accountant, sales rep, etc.
  • Stay in character. For example, if a person from marketing is playing a trauma surgeon, she shouldn't simply take her knowledge of marketing and spit it out using doctor-speak. She should assume the knowledge base of a trauma surgeon and deploy it as best she can.
  • Assess the results. You can talk about what happened and decide if and when you want to do it again by holding the following conversation at the end of the meeting.
  • What was supposed to happen?
  • What actually happened?
  • What went well, and why?
  • What can be improved, and how?
"I've always been crazy, but it's kept me from going insane." - Waylon Jennings, from the song I've Always Been Crazy
"You should never hesitate to trade your cow for a handful of magic beans." - Tom Robbins
"Behavioral traits such as curiosity about the world, flexibility of response, and playfulness are common to practically all young mammals but are usually rapidly lost with the onset of maturity in all but humans. Humanity has advanced, when it has advanced, not because it has been sober, responsible, and cautious, but because it has been playful, rebellious, and immature." - Tom Robbins, Still Life With Woodpecker
"Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can praise them, disagree with them, quote them, disbelieve them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward. Maybe they have to be crazy. How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art? Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written? Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels? We make tools for these kinds of people. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do." - Apple Computer, advertisement