Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Jigsaw Lessons - The Unexpected Benefits of Analog

“Regardless what technology is, I like analog too.” Lou Graham
Seeing everyone with their nose stuck to a phone lately has made me want to go more analog. Way analog, like 1976 analog. So I got a jigsaw puzzle. It’s an image of New York City’s Times Square. I picked it because I love New York and it makes me think happy thoughts of all my friends who live there.
Work on the puzzle has been going well. As I make my way through it I suddenly realized I’m gaining some special life lessons along with the sense of completion.
The first is: have something meditative in your life. Most of the time, my brain is streaming constantly with thoughts. But when I do the jigsaw they grow quiet. It’s such a visual activity that the only thoughts that come up are, “Is it you?,” “Where are you hiding?,” and “There you are you little nuisance!” I’ve never been successful at meditation but other activities that require focus and quiet the mind offer similar benefits. Far from tiring me, I find my puzzle makes me feel refreshed, and as long as I continue to find ways to have my own version of a meditative practice, be it yoga, a dance class or some other hobby, I’ll continue to reap these benefits.
My next discovery is that the piece you’re looking for is already there. As I start to complete a section, often there is one pesky piece that seems to be missing. I have a kitty cat who is into everything so I thought maybe she got up on the table at night and batted a few pieces around. But so far, every time I’ve kind of given up on locating a specific piece, one day is just shows up in the mix, having been sitting there all along.
How many times have you been startled to discover a truth you’re seeking has been sitting inside you? Sometimes we forget we don’t need anything external to validate us because we are already whole and complete.
Lately instead of assuming I don’t know something or need to go look for it, I trust it’s already inside and will reveal itself in due time, even if it might not look the way I expected. I can’t tell you how stress-reducing this approach has been.
One final thing that’s been soothing about the puzzle has been a connection to the past. I work on it on my dining room table, which was originally my grandparents, who I dearly loved. They used it for fifty years before it passed to me and I have enjoyed countless meals, holidays and many a childhood jigsaw puzzle on this exact table. There’s even a picture of me eating my first birthday cake on it when I turned one year old.
I can so clearly connect to my childhood and teenage self as I work on my puzzle and it gives me a feeling of connection and continuity, of life progressing properly thought its chapters and seasons. It puts the troubles of the day into perspective. I’m not advocating we all life in the past of course, but having little touchstones of it can give the present more depth and meaning.
I didn’t know when I opened the jigsaw box that it would hold such unexpected treasure. Technology is great and makes life much easier, but there is still a role for the analog in a life well lived. Maybe I can encourage you to go a little analog with a pre-digital hobby and see what it offers you.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Stop Talking

"Emotional entrainment is the heart of influence." -Daniel Goleman

We live in a culture that is constantly pushing answers at us all day long.  No sooner do you share something troubling you with a friend when that friend is offering all sorts of advice, sometimes before you've even finished your story.  We're taught that to care about someone means to help solve their problems.  But what if that weren't true?  Did you ever think that your mere presence could be enough? 

Recently I've been studying a concept called entrainment.  The word "entrain" means to pull along after itself, like a series of box cars on a track.  In a nutshell, it's a naturally occurring phenomenon about how we pull each other in synch, given proximity.  It was discovered by a seventeenth century clockmaker named Christian Huygens who invented the pendulum clock.  He would leave his studio only to find all the pendulums swinging in unison, despite his purposefully not setting them that way. 

You might not realize your energy works like that, but it does.  If you have a friend who is upset or sick, you can comfort that person simply by sitting near them and maintaining a state of peace.  Can you imagine how much better that friend would feel, compared to a visit by someone who spoke ceaselessly and advised them on all the things they needed to do to solve their problems?

Sometimes talking is overrated.  As my grandfather progressed through his nineties, his hearing became quite poor.  It became frustrating for both of us to try and have conversations like we used to, so instead I would just sit with him, smile at him and make funny faces, which he would return.  One of my favorite dinners we had was one where it was just the two of us, slowly making our way through three courses without much talking, just smiling, laughing and enjoying each other's company.

A really cool thing about entrainment is that it works just as well on yourself as on others.  With practice, you can slow yourself down, open your heart and surround yourself with peace whenever you wish.  You can train your heart to lead your mind, instead of the other way around.

Gandhi understood the power of silence so much that he devoted every Monday to it.  He believed not speaking made him a better listener and brought him more inner peace. 

While that ideal may be out of the reach of most of us from a practical standpoint, we can each consciously scale back our typical commentary.  For example, the next time you're with a friend, instead of diving in with a similar example, just empathize.  Say, "Wow you must have been so surprised," or "Gee that sounds rough."  You may find there is a lot more your friend would like to say, given the space.  And you may find you're able to be more present by simply listening, instead of waiting to speak. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

In A Box

 “How did it get so late so soon?” 
--Dr. Seuss

I had some losses recently. My beloved grandfather came within six months of his 100th birthday, but stubborn as he was, he just couldn’t quite make it there.  Not too long after, the only pet of my adult life reached a similar end, at a very ancient (for a cat) age of 20 years.  You’d think that having both of these wonderful entities in my life for such a long time would have lessened the grief at their passing, but it was not so.  Greedily I still wanted more time with them and found it hard to let go.

On a cold, early winter day, we lowered shovelfuls of earth on my grandfather’s grave, while on a dark, lightning bug-lit summers’ night we gently lowered our cat’s pinewood coffin into its secret spot.  But this isn’t an article about sadness or death.  Rather it’s about the shift that happened following these two occurrences.  I started thinking about “the box.”

Poppy will always be in a beautiful, shiny brown metal box with gold handles, while Ernie’s simple pinewood box is one we built ourselves.  Perfectly sized for him, I used a Sharpie to decorate the outside with his name, dates of birth and death, messages of love and a drawing of him with us, his forever family.  I picture both of them in their boxes now, at peace and just resting.  Turning back into elements, grass and someday stardust again.

I think about how there is a box somewhere waiting for me. It might not have been built yet, but the idea of it, if not the reality, is now firmly planted.  And there is a box for you as well.  There is a box for everyone.  (And if you plan to be cremated or dropped in the ocean, there is a metaphorical box for you.) 

Every day, every moment, you are approaching closer to that box and a simple hole in the Earth.  We will each go in there, maybe soon, or maybe (hopefully) not for a long, long time. Death and taxes, this is where we all trails end.

Truly understanding the hard truth of the box has changed me.  It has made me less afraid.  In perhaps a strange way, it comforts and encourages me, reminding me to make the most of the minutes and hours left to me. It helps me keep failure in perspective, and gravitate toward what’s real and feels important.  If there is something I feel a pull to explore, I now do it faster and with more abandon.  If there is a letdown that sandbags me, I recover sooner.  I must.  I am driven now.  Life needs to be lived fully because the clock is ticking down.  Days are precious. The box is waiting.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Let's Talk About Role Models

If I were to ask you to name your biggest role models in life, could you rattle them right off?  Most people can't.  Most people have never consciously chosen role models, although of course, we all are influenced by others throughout our lives. 

When it comes to living an extraordinary life, role models are a requirement.  They're necessary because odds are, few people in your day-to-day life are inspiring you to greatness.  And even if you do have some powerful women or men you especially look up to and strive to be like, I've found we need lots of role models to embody a variety of different qualities we want to develop in ourselves.

Role models are delicious.  They widen your world from what you personally have experienced, inspire you, motivate you, fill your head with ideas and best of all, their influence is available to you any time at no charge thanks to libraries, bookstores, movies and the Internet.  How do you find them?  It's so easy.  Just look around at people, lives and experiences that speak to you.  As you read books, websites and magazines, notice what jumps out at you and find a way to delve deeper into that in your free time.

Throughout my adult life I've had dozens of role models who embodied qualities I wanted to develop.  My list includes:
  • Cary Grant for his enduring friendships, financial frugality and foresightedness
  • Audrey Hepburn for her grace and huge heart
  • Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for her fierce privacy and immovable personal boundaries
  • Princess Diana for her raw humanitarianism
  • Marilyn Monroe for her constant striving to perfect her craft
  • Cindy Crawford for her entrepreneurialism and willingness to take professional risks
  • Hubert Keller for his tireless enthusiasm and incredible work ethic
  • Helen Gurley Brown for her generous career teachings to her own and future generations
  • Jim Rohn for his humor and unique way of speaking that conveyed important ideas so simply and clearly
  • Diana Vreeland for her boldness and elegant eccentricity
  • George Balanchine for his extraordinary creativity
This list is just a small sampling of extraordinary lives I've studied in detail.  Each of these people has provided me with valuable instruction in how I want to live my life, even if I have never met them.  As they entered my world and engaged me, I made it a point to read books and articles about them, so I could get a detailed picture of their uniqueness and how they came to develop those special qualities.

Sometimes people make the mistake of thinking their role models have to be perfect.  To me, that's a big error in thinking because, for one thing, no one is perfect.  Secondly, just because someone has messed up in one area of their life doesn't mean they can't inspire and teach incredible things in another part of their life.  I don't require my inspirations to be perfect.  Even their flaws can teach me something important.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Fall In Love With The Process

Sometimes we set ourselves up for failure and don’t even know it.  For example, how many times have you changed your behavior to achieve a certain result like losing 10 pounds, only to backslide once you reached your goal and wind up back where you started?  Many of us seem to swing on a perpetual pendulum because our focus is on a short-term outcome rather than an ongoing change.

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately given my new interest in fitness competitions.  In this sport there’s a lot of concentration on upcoming competitions.  There’s kind of this outward pressure that you should always be gearing up for the next one. But once the competition is over you don’t want to end up burnt out, crabby and miserable because you can’t sustain the herculean efforts you put in temporarily.

I’ve come to see it’s better to have a long-term mindset where you purposefully fall in love, not with the end outcome, but with the actual things you need to do on a regular basis.  Fall in love with the process of improving.

In my case this means working out hard, watching my diet and developing my stage presence.  Rather than see these things as nasty chores or sacrifices I must make for a little while, I am now seeing them as exceptional skills that benefit me and that I am lucky to get to do every day.  I’ve given up seeing the end state as the trophy or even fixating on the end state at all. 

This philosophy applies to any goal, for example a person who wants to be a top sales person can decide to fall in love with making lots of exceptional sales calls, getting better at it all the time.  Someone who is seeking a long term love relationship can start to consciously enjoy the activity of dating, becoming a better and better person to date with each outing, all with the knowledge that that special person is coming.

When you develop a passion for the process of improvement you develop positive habits.  Success then becomes a natural byproduct of what you’re doing.  Instead of riding that pendulum of frustration, you hop on a rocket ship of inevitable victory.  Your success becomes a foregone conclusion.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

It's Not Me, It's Them

As a professional PR person, I’ve had a chance to dive into social media. Twitter in particular I really like, because it’s fun to challenge yourself to say something pithy in 140 characters or less. The exchange of ideas and information there can be fast and furious as well as laser targeted, which makes the format a useful resource for all sorts of things. There is this one thing I’ve learned from my use of Twitter that I did not expect – to become unattached to what people think of you.

Students of self-improvement may be familiar with the phrase “What others think of me is none of my business.” This is a great philosophy because even if we twist ourselves into pretzels to people-please, we never can truly control how someone might choose to view us. And we burn ourselves out in the process. I believe that focusing on what I am creating and contributing is a healthier and more productive way to live. I have found that it is also important to let go of the need for others to like what I am writing/thinking, or to look for praise or agreement.

Easier said than done though. There’s this annoying ego that jumps in ascribing meaning to what others say and do about us, and sometimes those thoughts can become really destructive, causing great work to be abandoned, like when Stephen King threw his manuscript of Carrie into the trash. (It was rescued by his wife and became his first big success.)

As an early adopter of Twitter, my policy is to follow back everyone who follows me. I know this is not how everyone uses Twitter and I’m not saying it’s the right way. Maybe I am just old fashioned, but I feel like it is only polite to return a courtesy. To keep my Twitter feed from becoming unmanageable, I just use the Lists feature to pull out the updates I want to be sure to read. It’s no big deal really. But as a company, Twitter doesn’t want its follow/follower ratios to get too unbalanced, so if you follow folks back like I do, you kind of have to go in and unfollow them if they unfollow you so that your account can continue to grow naturally.

I use a website called to accomplish this task. It is also very simple. I sign in with my Twitter account on the JustUnfollow website, it pulls up a list of everyone who has recently unfollowed me and I click unfollow by each one. (Twitter no longer allows bulk unfollows so you have to do it individually.) 

Now here’s the unexpected learning I’ve received: I have a lot of followers on Twitter so every week, oodles of people unfollow me. More new people follow me than old ones leave though, so my follower tribe has only ever moved in an upwards direction since I first tweeted back in 2009. And it’s not like the unfollowers are directly tied to what I am sharing either. I can have a day where I get the most retweets and favorites ever and still have plenty of folks say, “No thanks, your stuff is not for me.”

I find it kind of fascinating. It has forced me to adjust my previous belief that if I would just tweet amazing stuff all the time, everyone would always love it. And while it is true that the majority of people do seem to like it, I cannot control those who take offense, choose to weed down the number of people they follow, don’t appreciate my point of view or whatever. My personal Twitter policies have forced me to find a way to become comfortable with processing the steady unfollower stream without it impacting my desire and ability to continue to post what I believe is useful information. In essence, it has thickened my skin.

Thanks to Twitter and my ways of using it, I no longer see rejection as something that must be painful or unpleasant. For a variation on what Abraham Lincoln once said, “You can’t please all of the people all of the time.” That’s life. Accept it and move on. I am not suggesting to ignore all negative feedback or that I am absolute in my beliefs. Challenge and dialogue (brief that it may be) can be important. I am still interested in what others choose to share with me, and I am sure most others are too. But it feels very freeing to recognize that everyone has free will, your stuff is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea and that it’s totally okay. I appreciate people taking the time to check out my contributions and I am in agreement with whatever decisions they then make. Perhaps the next time I visit San Francisco, I will stop in the Twitter corporate headquarters to thank them for teaching me this valuable lesson.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

7 Secrets For Leaving Better Voicemail Messages

If you’re like most business people, you leave voicemail messages all day long but you’re rarely given much thought to how you’re doing it. Voicemail can be a great way to save time, but it can also create unintended negative results if you’re unaware of a few bad habits. Here are 7 secrets to leaving better voicemail messages.

1. Start with something personal – Telemarketer calls are such a problem these days, people might think you are a spammer if you don’t quickly say your name and why you are calling them. If you don’t know the person well, it’s best to say “Bob, this is Pam Smith, we met at the NAWBO luncheon last Tuesday and you asked me to follow up with you.” Now you can be sure your message will be fully heard.

2. Keep it brief – Everyone is time pressed these days. Voicemail is no place to get into a long story. Just leave the tip of the iceberg and save all the juicy details for when they call you back.

3. Slow down – If you’re at all nervous, there is a natural tendency to rush. It is better to speak slowly and clearly, even if it means you will have to distill your message down to its essence. When you talk too quickly, people often miss what you’re saying.

4. Repeat your callback number – People are often distracted when they’re listening to their voicemail playbacks. Even if you say your number slowly, they may miss some of it. That’s why it’s considerate to repeat it. That way the other person doesn’t have to replay the whole message a second time.

5. If you’re cranky, don’t make phone calls – A person’s energy comes through loud and clear over phone wires, so if you’re having a bad day, focus on other tasks, or watch funny YouTube videos until you shake off your blues.

6. Don’t call and hang up repeatedly – With some phone systems, it creates a voicemail for each call received, even if you don’t speak. If you’re in the habit of calling people repeatedly until they pick up, you may inadvertently create a situation where they have to sit and delete multiple blank messages from you before they can get to their actual voice messages. This does not build goodwill.

7. Script important messages – Certain messages are critical. For these types of messages, it’s a good idea to write down your main points so that you don’t lose your train of thought and ramble. As long as you can sound natural, it’s okay to have some written words to guide you as you leave your message.