Life lessons on 3×5 cards. Suitable for download, sharing or screen backdrops.
Life lessons on 3×5 cards. Suitable for download, sharing or screen backdrops.
Last week I began what will be one of the most exciting projects I have ever done.
And that is saying something. I’ve had amazing opportunities in my career so far. As a systems integrator, I’ve had the chance to help design and build some of the most technologically advanced systems in television, breaking new ground, with several “firsts” in my portfolio. As a businessman, I have started and grown two high-profile technology companies and a new division for another. I have had the chance to help multiple companies rethink and implement major marketing initiatives. But this tops anything I have ever done.
Not that it’s the biggest project, or the highest profile project I have ever done. It certainly won’t be anywhere near the highest paying project I have ever done. My client, while they don’t mind me talking about the project in general terms, don’t want me announcing who they are. So no publicity for me. I’ll likely get no press at all on this one. But in terms of doing something I deeply believe in, of using the whole of the experience I have, and in terms of challenge? This is the best.
I got the call late last week.
It was from a colleague I have worked for, and against, for over 20 years. He’s been both a competitor and a partner on dozens of projects and often, even when we were competitors, we’d have dinner together and talk.
Generally, that talk had less to do about the projects, than about business philosophy. Big, general, esoteric conversations. The kinds of conversations that are often fueled by bottles of wine, though neither of us drink very much. He’s a hard-core results guy, with a philosophical bent. And he has a new position in a company he worked for years ago that has called him in to revitalize themselves.
“Tom,” he said. “We’ve lost our soul and I want you to help us find it.”
How’s that for a project?
But I immediately knew what he meant. This happens to a lot of companies, particularly successful ones. Most companies begin with a binding philosophy, a great idea, a way of working that binds people together. They have a mission and a way of doing things that excited and motivates the people who work there. Yes, everyone wants to make money, but what really excites them is the idea, the team, the challenge, the thing that sets them apart.
But as a company grows, more often than not, they lose that thing that binds them together. There may be mission statements, bit they are more statement than mission. Diversity, a natural byproduct of growth, often dilutes the whole idea of what binds us together and gives us more than a job, but purpose.
As a company, you can grow big, at times very big, without that soul. But there is a cost:
What is soul? When I am talking to a company, it’s not the same as when I am talking to a coaching client, or a congregation. We’re not talking religion here. We are talking about a spirit that has purpose, and binds a company together. Something that creates vision and a reason for working so hard, and a reason to work together.
Companies can do just fine without a soul. But companies with a soul will generally out perform those that don’t have one. The people who work there have loyalty. They are excited to be part. You can sense it when are there. You feel it when you talk to people there. There is more than good work being done. There is drive.
And that’s what this company wants back. They don’t want to be just anther company in the field. They want to be THE company in the field, and they realize this comes only partially from strategy sessions and focus groups. It comes from something deeper than Big Data or the latest marketing trends and techniques.
It comes from recapturing their soul. The thing that makes them… them.
You want to be great? Know your soul. Want to a stand out? Know your soul. Want pople to follow you? Articulate and live your soul. Stand out, because companies and organizations with soul, do.
I won’t lie. This is not going to be easy. It will not be quick. But I think it will make a difference. And I think their leadership showed a rare wisdom in taking this tack. In future columns, I will talk more about the process, because it is a process that we can use as companies as well as individuals.
It’s going to be complex. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be challenging. It is going to matter.
I love my work.
Be well. Travel Wisely,
I can’t draw a straight line. Evidently I can’t live one either.
There was a time my life ran in straight lines. I set a goal. I got there. I set a goal. I got there. It was hard work, at times gratifying, at times frustrating.
That straight line mentality helped me develop 3 fledgeling technology startups into industry powerhouses. It helped me build two marketing firms. It was the path I used to help grow the churches I was in.
Set goals. Stay on the path till the goal is met. It’s tried and true. Every book on “getting there” talks about goals that way. You have to have them. You have to work them.
I’m still pretty good at doing the goal —> achieve thing. I help others do it too in my consulting and coaching work.
The problem was, and I really didn’t understand it then, is that while that straight line path was satisfying and rewarding (and it was both), it wasn’t nourishing.
Slowly, slowly, oh so slowly, I found myself being drained. I wasn’t even aware of it. It’s amazing how that happens, how your life, your real life, drains out of you one drop at a time and you hardly notice. You think you are doing the right things because the world around you, perhaps even the people around you are always telling you that you are.
You are too busy, too focused on the goal. to understand what’s happening, how your spirit is being drained, how the best you is being swallowed and replaced by the goal. Your eyes are so focused ahead, that you can’t see what is.
Been there. Done that. Own the T-shirt.
Some people do this their whole lives. Some are happy with it. It’s how they mark their self-worth, but the list of goals and accomplishments. God bless ’em. I am envious of their sense of satisfaction and their peace.
Many, and I mean MANY, are not so satisfied. They plow on, aware things are not as they should be deep down, but for many reasons – lack of knowing better, fear of change, fear of what they will find when they look too deep, fear of loss, fear of…. well, the list is very, very long.
Most of these who are not satisfied just live with it. Not quite joyful (which is different than happy), not quite miserable. Sometimes they chip around the edges of their dissatisfaction, take a course here or there, read a book or few. make a few changes, and change the equation a bit, but still never quite get the balance to a place where life is truly joy-filled and deeply satisfying.
Some of those who are not satisfied, a few, a very few, make the decision to change, and work hard at it. I call these the smart ones. They decide the need for a better life overrides the fear of change. Most of my coaching clients fall into this category. Successful people who what to change their success level, who understand that doing things the same way, or chipping at change won’t get them but so far. So they make big changes, they become more mindful and deliberate.
I was not one of the smart ones. I fell in the last category. One of the lucky ones.
Those for whom it all falls apart.
It did for me. I fell apart. I lost my sense of spirituality, my creativeness, my drive as my marriage and life came unglued about a decade ago. I functioned, sort of. I got work done. I met deadlines. I took the kids on mission trips and vacations. But I was a husk. I had been, I realize now, a husk for a long time. There was little of ME left. I lived in a dark place, a place of depression, and a place of living by inertia, not joy. Habit, not purpose.
I was one of the lucky ones. I got help. I did the work. Step by step, over years, I dug out. I lived in faith even when I did not feel the faith because at the start, I could not see a goal or a horizon or joy. I just knew I could not live in that empty place forever.
I call myself one of the lucky ones because I survive that painful place. Some do not. I see people broken by life all the time, nearly every day. Ones left broken on the roadside. Roadkill.
I call myself one of the lucky ones, because I found good people to guide me and love me through the darkness, and back to myself. To help me find the lessons of my own life without telling me what they were. They were wise and patient and persistent. And literally saved my life.
I was lucky because I found that if I get to my best self, the best opportunities for work and friends and love come to me. That I only need one goal – to understand myself and how to be as good as I can be. Not perfect, simply striving every day, EVERY DAY, to push beyond my own weaknesses and fear and be. If I do that, the rest of life seems to fall into place.
Frankly, I would have rather been one of the smart ones. I admire them tremendously. But being one of those whose life came unraveled taught me something that being smart could not have. It taught me appreciation.
When you lose everything important to you, and find your way back, everything takes on a new value. Every joy. Every conversation. Every meal. Every poem written. Every good book read. Every moment in the sunshine. Every everything. Even the detours and delays because precious.
That gratitude is at a level I never experienced in my straight line life. And it allows me to look at that dark time, and the loss and the pain and the anger and hurt of that time in a good light. It was hard, but it led me here, to a place of unimagined joy.
Even in the struggle.
Yep, there is still struggle. It’s not a life of roses and certainty. Some days I think I am living in a deep fog, not even able to see the path right in front of me. It’s scary some days.
But I am one of the lucky ones. I survived Hell, separation from God and self. and came back. When you survive that, you know the truth. You’re gonna be fine.
And you’re gonna have a heck of a tale to tell on the other side.
Be well. Travel wisely.
I haven’t written here in a month or so. For those of you who are used to regular posts, I apologize.
The past month has been rough. And I do not know that I have handled it well.
I lost my mother suddenly. My father’s mental health declined and we had to put him into a nursing home. There were some major trauma issues within other people in my family. And a relationship of six years came to an end.
Frankly, that was a little too much for my brain to handle. I have lived in a fog for a few weeks. I am not the greatest in handling strong emotions anyway, and this was just too many from too many directions in too short a time. I did what was needed. I did little else.
But it seems my habits got me through. I am a habitual hard worker. And each day I got up. I called my clients. I tracked down answers and information for them. I traveled and visited. My bills got paid on time. My house, while not spic and span, got cleaned to the point where the board of health won’t condemn it.
And I wrote. As is my habit, I write poetry most days. I wrote in my journal. I returned friends letters and e-mails. Most of it was probably not very good. But writing, for me, is as much about sanity as it is about the end product. I am a lay preacher at Rupert United Methodist Church and I preached each Sunday. I didn’t write everything I normally do (obviously this blog was neglected). But I wrote.
Most of my poetry was likely not so good. Ditto for the sermons. But the habit kept my mind in a place that was familiar, while in the background, the rest of my brain could deal with the things that were unfamiliar and overwhelming – loss, challenge, change, struggle.
I a not quite out of the fog yet, but I am slowly climbing out.
Part of me is surprised everything did not fall apart. Yes, the fog has been that thick in my head. But as I go back and double check myself, it seems that I did things OK. Not perfect, but OK. I helped people out. I got things done.
And that is the habits we develop are so important. Good ones carry us through when things get rough or live becomes overwhelming or things go weird on us. And it will, sooner or later.
Strong habits, deeply instilled, hold us together. Poor habits, poorly developed, will fall apart, get lost in the fog.
As I am pulling out the fog of overwhelmed emotion, I am looking at my habits. Where did they serve me well? Where, perhaps, did they fail me? I want to start thinking about what I can change and what I can do better to prepare myself for the next time. Because there is a next time.
Had I been a little wiser, I likely would have made a habit of reviewing my habits every so often. That is one of the things I’ll do better going forward. To be better prepared.
What are your life habits? What do you do each day to sustain your relationships? Your work? Your success? Your spiritual and creative life? These are good questions to ask ourselves now.
Before we need them.
Be well. Travel wisely,
I am not good at facts. Never have been. I can read and study for ages, and the facts and details elude my memory. I have always admired those who could rattle off reams of bible verses or scripture. Not for me. I can’t even remember half a dozen phone numbers. But I know that knowledge is important. I know there are lessons to be learned there.
So I dump more information in my mushy little brain than you can shake a stick at. I read. I study. But I don’t just read non‑fiction. I read fiction on the times and themes I am looking at. I read poetry centered on those same times and themes. I do it until my poor brain is bewildered and reeling. And then I stop.
The stopping is as important as the reading and learning. I stop. I let things settle. I start to see patterns develop. I develop what I call “a sense of things,” a set of principles that are largely, not perfectly, but largely true.
When I was working on my masters degree, I had to take a foreign language exam. I had to pass the exam to get my degree. And I did not prepare. Suddenly the exam was just weeks away and I had not looked at any French for, well… years. I knew I was doomed and that all the work I had done on my degree was about to be wasted.
Fortunately there were two french exchange students at Hollins who I had become friends with. And they decided I would not fail this exam. For two or three weeks, we spent large amounts of time together. We went out to eat. We shopped. We went for walks, and they only spoke french and only allowed me to speak french. At first I was hopelessly lost. Then it began to make sense, and when the exam time came, I did fine. That pattern has repeated itself again and again.
If I have a sense of things, of the spirit of a person and the facts of their life, or the trends in an industry, or the character of an organization, more times than not, I will be OK. Perfect? – No, but even armed with perfect knowledge we will make mistakes. But seeking the patterns in life, I will have, if not complete understanding, at least enough understanding that I can serve others well, serve myself well, and serve God well. I will have a sense of life.
And oddly, I seem to do as well, or better, than people armed with the facts. Maybe that is because, in the sifting, in the letting it all settle, I get a sense of what is important, and what is not. And that, my friend, has value, whether it’s in work, or business, or life, art and ministry.
Live well. Travel wisely,
Note: This is an excerpt from the original Wisdom Letters book.
One day last week I wrote this poem –
As you eat your eggs and bacon,
the cup of coffee steaming;
As you nibble on the toast,
smeared thick with orange marmalade;
As you contemplate the night before,
and the days, months, years behind you,
you are aware
of how badly you share
the things that matter the most.
Not from lack of trying.
No, not that.
Your words have filled the air,
filled page after page,
hour after hour, late into the night,
disappearing like fog in the morning,
under the bright sun of other’s imaginings and pasts.
You sip your coffee, strong,
slightly bitter, slightly sweet,
and wonder, as you have wondered so often,
What if those you loved felt that love?
What if they knew
the depth, the rawness, the fear……
those three words meant?
What if they knew the trueness, how
even with the flaws and mistakes,
the misstarts and madness,
you are crazy true,
unwavering, that your desire
despite the grey hair and rheumy eyes
No one would believe.
No one ever has.
You are too quiet perhaps,
your words lack the force.
You do not shout.
You simply say.
and that, it seems
is never enough,
The big surprise….
In terms of how many people dropped me notes, liked the thing, asked to make copies, or just told me, this is likely the most impactful poem I ever wrote. And I had no idea while I was writing that I was writing something that would touch people that much. . I was just trying to do what I often try to do when I write poems – get something out, or sort through something in my head.
The response and my total surprise at it, got me thinking. One of the things I have had the hardest time learning in life is that communication has at least, and probably as more to do with the mind of the listener than what we actually say.
That is a tough reality for someone like me, a wordsmith by nature, education and profession. I pride myself on being pretty good at crafting words to send a message.
The writing I do for clients is informational. I write articles, case studies, web sites, brochures, that kind of thing. People are reading what I write to learn something and it is my job to make it as clear and accurate, and at times, persuasive, as possible. That is a skill and I have had a lot of years and experience to help me hone that skill. People pay me to do it.
I’ve been trained for other kinds of communications too. I have an English degree with a minors in communications. I have a Masters in English Writing. When I went to seminary, I was schooled in preaching. I could not tell you the number of workshops and other programs I have attended learning to write this or that better.
But life has taught me the most important lesson about writing, or speaking, or sharing. And that lesson is that the moments the words leave our mouths, pens or keyboards, they are no longer ours. The people who listen or read our words will begin changing what we say the moment they read or hear them. And I will be constantly surprised at what they get from them.
Constantly surprised. It’s beyond the “selective hearing” that we often joke about concerning our spouses and children. No, our listeners and readers are, from the moment our words reach them, recreating what we write.
That can be disturbing to us who are talking or writing. After all, we want to share something important enough to talk about, to write about. We want to be understood. And to think it will become something very different the moment we put it out there? No matter the skill we apply to it? That’s frustrating!
But it’s not a bad thing.
I used to think it was a bad thing. But I’ve changed my view. I’ve learned that my job as a writer is not just to make what is in my head clear but to listen to those I am talking to, and adapt to them. And then after I am done writing, to listen again. It’s a constant process, and it’s relational, or it CAN be relational.
So, if I want to be understood, I have to think more about the listener, or the reader, than what I am saying. Because my words and thoughts mean much less than how the other person is feeling or thinking. That is not an easy lesson. But it’s important when I want to be understood. It’s almost like a lesson in translating, than in simply writing or saying what I need to say.
I have to realize that sometimes, no matter what, the things I am saying will be so changed in my readers/listener;s mind, that I can’t do a damn thing about it. And I just have to accept that. Not beat myself up for what I can’t seem to get across. That the listener has a responsibility too, to try and understand me.
That’s more work than most of us, tellers or listeners, want to deal with. So we settle for half communicating, half hearing, constant frustration at the constant disconnects, instead of making the effort.
But there are rewards. Paying more attention makes every communication, living communication, not just something to read or write, but a relationship between the reader and writer. And relationships give life meaning, richness and depth.
And isn’t that what we hope for when we open our mouths, when we write? More than words, but relationship?
Be well. Travel wisely.
It is sunny outside. The November sun is vivid and bright, but not very warm. With luck, it will reach the upper forties today and when I go outside in the afternoon, I will be able to stand and let the warmth soak into my blue corduroy shirt I am wearing.
I have been sick for a little more than a week. Bronchitis, the doctor told me. Actually, what he said was “That’s a pretty damned bad case of bronchitis you have there,”. And it was. I had a death rattle in my breathing, particularly at night when I laid down. In fact, laying down was the worst, because it all settled and I would go into crazy, lung splitting, coughs that left me sore, as well as sleepless.
I don’t rush to the doctor with every sneeze and sniffle. In fact, most of the people who love me have told me I wait a little too long. I give my body a few days to beat back whatever ails me. As long as I am holding my own, I don’t bother. I just plow through. But at a certain point it’s clear my body is losing the battle, and so it’s off to the doc’s I go.
And after four nights of decreasing sleep each night, it was time.
My regular doctor wasn’t in place that day. No matter. My body is not a temple of exotic illness. No, this was a run of the mill something that I just couldn’t beat back. Any old doc would do.
The Doctor I got was a delight. He looked like the re-incarnation of Vincent Price. Cavernous cheekbones. Angular face. A shock of dark gray hair, all unruly on his head. Deep set eyes. And the voice! Ah the voice, deep and precise, that odd mix of perfection and humor that was the realm of Vincent Price, The fact that he cussed a little when he told me what I had made it even better. If illnesses have a highlight, this was it, the turning point.
He proscribed an antibiotic careful to choose one that likes working in the lungs and plays well with the other medications I take. Large blue capsues, bright blue, as if the color could kill the germs inside, or bright blue, as if I might misplace them on the way from the bottle to my mouth. Twice a day.
Until they were gone.
That’s the key, evidently. Until they are gone. I started feeling better two or three days into the medication. Now, a week into it, I am feeling much better. Perhaps not quite well, but much better. At this point, the medication itself is more painful than the desease.
That is because antibiotics and I have a love hate relationship. They work remarkably well on me. Perhaps that is because I don’t take them that often and my germs are a sucker for their effect. Or perhaps it’s just chemistry. I don’t care. They work beautifully. A few days in and my symptoms are generally gone.
And in those last few days, I generally feel like crap. You see, antibiotics and my stomach don’t get along. Mix antibiotics and the chemistry set of my tummy and you get aliens, gorwling, roaring beasties that leave me feeling like I am on a sea cruise in the middle of a hurricane. They mess with my head too. I feel sluggish. Dull. Thick headed. Not at all myself. In it’s own way, it’s as bad as being sick.
But, I take them until they are gone.
I don’t want to. I feel better after a few days. I want to toss them aside and move on. But, no the doctors tell us. Do that, and you are leaving enough of the nasties inside alive that they may rally and make a comeback.
I recall a story in the bible, where God told Joshua to kill everyone in a particular town. And when Joshua didn’t, God was pretty mad at him. It wasn’t JUST that Joshua disobeyed. It was that God knew that to leave any alive in that particular place was to assure that Joshua would get to fight that particular battle again and again and again.
So I am on the last days of medicine. I feel bad. But I’ll feel better in the long run, and for the long run.
It’s the same with a lot of things. I remember, after my divorce, being in counseling. I was a year into it. I felt better. I was over the hump. I wanted to stop. But a long talk with my counselor convinced me to stay. Why? Because evidently only 10% of the people who go to counseling see it through. They get better, but not well. And better is good enough.
But better leaves things unresolved, not really dealt with. And so they rise again.
I see it in business too. Clients hire me to fix something. We make it better, and it’s “good enough”, but not complete, and they let me go, and never finish what needs to be done. And so many of them slowly fall back to the habits that caused the problem in the first place.
Finishing is hard. Our natural inclination is, when we’ve largely conquered something, is to look beyond, to the next challenge, rather than do that last 10% that makes all the difference in the long run. We think we’re making progress.
But in the long haul? Not finishing the medicine leaves us open for relapse. No matter where in life we are.
So I will finish the medicine. I don’t like going backwards.
Be well. Travel wisely,