Category: purpose

today is its own day

sunrise-173392_1280

Today is its own day.

Regardless of what yesterday looked like and what you are worried about for tomorrow, today is its own day.

You can only live in today.

To change tomorrow, you work on your plan today.

So make today the very best you can, so that when you go to bed tonight you know that you gave it your all.

Then wake up tomorrow and tell yourself again …

Today is its own day.

living 2015 like a BOSS

“… Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”
(Matthew 17:20 NIV Bible)

lion-roar

Every year I use the month of January as an opportunity to reflect on my upcoming year and how I would like to focus my attention. I find this more effective than setting arbitrary resolutions that I am not truly committed to follow through with. This year, a series of events and circumstances has crystallized for me what my key theme for 2015 should be.

The colloquial phrase ‘like a BOSS’ is the easiest way for me to summarize the theme because it captures the posture with which I am looking at this year.

The combination of two things in my current reality have made me realize that my only way to come out of this year where I want to will be by exercising a level of boldness that is usually outside of my comfort zone.

The first is that I am experiencing a very high level of constraints on my resources. Money is tight. Time is limited.

Despite these constraints, the second thing is that my vision is bigger than it has been since my mid-20s. I have a very clear picture of what I want spiritually, relationally, physically, professionally and financially.

It’s a big picture.

And the only way to bridge the gap between my resources and what needs to happen will be through a strategic use of leverage – squeeze a lot out of a little.

I will seek out and take advantage of opportunities that are as efficient as possible, while maintaining my integrity and commitment to serving others.

So what does ‘like a BOSS’ look like?

  • It’s being honest with someone even when it’s uncomfortable
  • It’s finding a way to get things done regardless of the obstacles
  • It’s dreaming big and taking massive action to make those dreams happen
  • It’s shrugging of negative comments from those who don’t get it while loving them just the same
  • It’s not being afraid to fail because I know I can get right back up again
  • It’s believing in others long enough for them to see the giant within

It’s helping regular people do great things.

I don’t listen to Katy Perry but 2015 will hear me roar.

breakfast with a little champion

breakfast-little-chapion

Mornings in my house are the ultimate display of multi-tasking chaos.  I think this is probably the case in most houses with multiple little kids that all have different reactions to the morning and whether or not they are happy to be awake.  This morning was a little different, not just because it was a Saturday morning,.

But because I took a moment to pause.

My three-year old son woke up complaining that I had left him in the bed by himself and was clinging to my leg as I ran my endless to-do list of the day in my head.  My internal monologue was simple: “I need to give him the tablet so he can get absorbed in his shows and I can get back to my long list.”

Sad, but true.

As I was finishing my rushed breakfast on the couch, he brought the tablet back in the living room, flipped to Netflix and selected his new favorite show: Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures. (Wasn’t that a video game when I was a kid?).

Internal monologue: “Great, that will keep him busy – now I can go back to my list.”

But my son was having none of that.

“I want you to sit with me when I watch my show.”

Plan B. “Do you want some breakfast?”

“Yes”

So I fixed him some cereal with the intention of leaving him with his grandmother at the kitchen table and going back to my ‘very important list’.

But then I paused and remembered an experience my pastor had with his mother that he credits for playing a big role in developing his self esteem: whenever his mother served him anything to eat, she would sit down with him (even if she was not eating) and spend time with him while he ate, giving him her full attention, until he was done.

I’m glad I made the right choice today and instead of Plan B, went to Plan C.  I tossed my mental list out of my head and focused on this little marvel of a three-year old while he explained to me that a T-Rex does not eat other dinosaurs, even though he clearly asserted that it is a carnivore and ‘eats meat’.

I learned that a falcon can sweep down into the water and get a fish.  That a Pteranodon is also a carnivore and it flies into the air so it can eat other Pteranodons.

I asked him if he knew what a herbivore was and with complete confidence he smiled and said: “Yes, it eats PLANTS’.

We made faces, giggled, talked about what kind of things would be fun to do on a rainy day – I don’t want to get wet and he thinks all you need is a coat and you can do anything on a rainy day – including playing in puddles.

All the time, he was shoving spoons of cereal into his mouth and grinning widely with pleasure each time he tasted it as if it was the best gourmet food in the world.  He savored every fruit loop and acknowledged the brief moment with complete absorption.

I’m sure his internal monologue was: “This is the life!”

Our little breakfast moment was not more than 20 minutes and of inconsequential impact to whether or not I get things done today.  But to him, it was an imprint that will last a lifetime – a moment that reconfirmed to him that …

I am not just here.

I am present.

The two are very different.

what unwritten rules are hindering you?

mountains-with-clouds

I recently decided to step down from a leadership role that I have held for several years outside of work. Its a decision that I mulled over for the better part of a year until it was clear that I needed to make the change.

I took so long to come to this conclusion because I had not identified a successor for the leadership role and felt it was irresponsible of me to step down without finding one. I have been reflecting on the mental and emotional process I went through and realized that one of the key issues I was struggling with was an unwritten rule that I was following without examining whether it was still valid in my situation.

My unwritten rule needed challenging.

The unwritten rule in this case was: you cannot voluntarily step down from a position of leadership if you have not identified and trained a successor.

I have always viewed doing so as ‘dropping the ball’ and doing a dishonor to the organization I was serving.

What I realized after extensive reflection was that this rule would have been true for me three years ago, but it was not relevant in this particular situation. Three years ago, I began working on duplicating myself in leadership by mentoring other members of the organization because I realized that I would eventually have to move on. Unfortunately, each time I indentified a successor and began working with them, circumstances arose that required them to move onto another role, or limit their involvement with the organization.

In parallel with these obstacles internally in the organization, I had some major events in my life that significantly limited my capacity to lead the organization. So for the past 18 months, I have led the organization on ‘auto-pilot’ with significantly less passion than I had a few years ago.

The turning point in how I was viewing the situation was when I realized that serving on auto-pilot is just as detrimental to the organization as stepping down without identifying a successor. In addition, holding onto the role might be hindering somebody else from stepping up and taking over the leadership when the ‘vacuum’ is created on my departure.

So, holding on to the ‘letter’ of my unwritten rule was actually violating the ‘spirit’ of the rule.

Your unwritten rules are an implementation of your internal values.

I would challenge you to periodically examine some of the major rules in your life that drive your decision-making and determine whether they need to be revisited. Often, these unwritten rules exist because of your deeply held internal values, but when your values change – or expand to include other perspectives, you don’t take the time to re-examine decisions you made based on those values.

A common consequence of this problem is holding onto commitments that should be challenged for their validity in your current context, and as you pick up new commitments without altering or dropping the old ones, you become increasingly overwhelmed. Your capacity to contribute has not changed, but the nature of your contributions needs to change.

You are the ultimate arbiter of your to-do list.

Be on the lookout for situations in which you constantly use one or both of the following phrases:

  • “I have to …”
  • “I can’t …”

There are very few things that are absolutely mandatory in your life. Things like breathing, eating, sleeping – are mandatory.

Everything else is a choice.

In my experience, I tend to confuse commitments with mandatory requirements. I commit to things based on my values, and that strong attachment to the commitment that makes it feel compulsory is a consequence of how deeply held the value is that the commitment is based on.

Something as simple as putting gas in your car is a choice you can make because it is a more convenient way to travel than your other choices.

On the other end of the scale, something as critically important as providing for your children is still something that you choose to do because you value being a good parent.  If it was mandatory, then all children would be provided for adequately because nobody would have the choice to ‘underprovide’ or abandon their children.  But sadly, this is a reality of the world we live in.

In both cases, the simple and the critically important, there is still choice involved.  You don’t have to do either one of those things.

There is a freedom that comes with this realization because you can then revisit all of the commitments you currently have and challenge yourself about why you are choosing to do each of the things on the list – instead of feeling like there is nothing that is negotiable because all the things seem important.

If you are feeling overwhelmed (or underwhelmed), test each of your major commitments with a critical eye and you might surprise yourself with what you find.

I am in no way suggesting that you should drop any particular commitments in your life – if you are a parent, please keep providing for your kids – just that you take the time to reflect and challenge yourself about what unwritten rules might be hindering you.

It might be time to bend, break or simply ignore some of your rules so that you can better align your actions with your values.

Madiba

I remember in my second year of high school in Botswana, we had a history teacher named Mr. Wilson who was determined to help us gain an appreciation for the importance of understanding the past and its impact on the present.  He didn’t want us to just memorize the information for the purpose of passing the tests – he wanted us to care about the content and make it our own.

One of the ways in which he achieved this goal with me was a series he took us through about three historical figures: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.  With each of the figures, he took us through their background, how they rose up in leadership of a movement, the sacrifices they had to make and ultimately, how they changed the world.

I remember reflecting on how interconnected these three historical figures experiences were with each other.  Martin Luther King Jr. was greatly influenced by Gandhi’s ‘non-violent’ approach to protest and the earlier part of Mandela’s leadership applied the same principles.  Prior to his civil rights work in India, Gandhi spent 21 years in South Africa where he developed many of his political views and methods fighting injustices in Mandela’s native land.

All three challenged a ‘status quo’ that at the time seemed insurmountable and ultimately triumphed, not because of their wealth or military power – but because of their strength of conviction which caused a movement of people to rise up that eventually could not be ignored.

Nelson Mandela PosterIn 1989, when we studied these figures, two of them were already dead and the one who was living was still serving an unjust lifetime imprisonment sentence. We did not even know what Nelson Mandela looked like because all the photos released of him at the time were pre-prison.

Our visual image of him was the young man in his 40s with a part in his hair that we saw on all the ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ posters.  So we studied him like a ‘past’ figure because we did not know if he would ever be released.

So I remember very vividly the following year when it was announced that he would be released.  Our school came to a standstill as everybody let it sink in – that day no class really studied – we just rejoiced.

And then on the day that he was released, we spent several hours watching a television shot of a gate as we waited for him to emerge.  There were several delays and it only built the anticipation of who he would be after all these years.

Was he a frail old man and a shadow of his former self?

Had he lost his regal stature and magnetic draw because of the unmentionable horrors of imprisonment?

Would he be bitter and seek revenge on his now vanquished tormentors?

Thankfully, the answer to those questions was no, no and absolutely not.  He emerged and lived an amazing ‘second chapter’ to his life that most people could not manage in a single life.  From uniting a country that was on the brink of civil war, to bringing Africa its first World Cup, his imprint has resonated throughout the world over the past two decades.

nelson-jacketEven within my family his impact has been tremendous.  I think this post by my sister this morning gives a very good summary of the breadth of his reach.  I love the picture that she used in her post because I am so thankful that our visual image of him today is that imprint that she used when she designed the jacket – rather than the ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ posters we grew up with.

 

 

how passion works in guiding your path

“Follow your passion”
“Your gifts will make room for you”
“Do what you love and the resources will follow”

A few days ago I had an interesting conversation with a junior in college who called me because she was distraught about how many rejections she was receiving for her applications to internships. She was baffled by what was going on and was seeking advice on how she could generate more success in the process.

On the surface, she was doing all the right things. She submitted her resume to all the right companies. She had an internship the prior summer that told a good story about how she was a good fit. And her academic major was in the right lane for the jobs she was seeking in Financial Services.

Something wasn’t quite adding up.

So I decided to ask her a few questions, starting with the easy ones like ‘what is your GPA?’ and ‘what do you do for extracurriculars?’. This helped me to identify some reasons why she may have not been seeing the success she expected.

But the question which really helped me to diagnose the problem was when I asked her:

“What are you passionate about?… what do you really want to do?”

She started off by answering about how passionate she was about ‘Sales and Trading’ and how she felt her skills and background really made her a good fit for this… but I wasn’t buying it.

So I rephrased the question:

“What do you geek out about?… what is the area in which you get consumed to a point that is almost weird to other people?”

“Well, I would say development.” Because of prior conversations I’ve had with her I knew she was talking about economic development – specifically in Africa.

“Tell me a little more about that.”

“I don’t believe microfinance is the answer…”

“Really, why?”

For the next few minutes we had an engaging back and forth dialog that culminated in me commenting:

“I bet I could get you into a heated argument about microfinance and you would enthusiastically take me on.”

This was nothing like the discussion we had about Sales and Trading. With this topic it was clear that she truly cared

… and I was buying it.

So I asked her another (somewhat leading) question:

“Do you think you are on the path you are on because its what you see everybody else doing and not necessarily what you are here to do?”

“Probably…”

“And, do you fear that if you followed the Development path, you wouldn’t make any money?”

“Yes”

I could now fully relate to her dilemma because of my own journey.

‘Inspirational’ phrases like the three quotes at the beginning of this post have been a source of continuous anxiety and stress for me for years. I have never been able to fit my skills, experiences and interests into a neat box. This is especially stressful coming from a traditional African family where only certain academic pursuits are considered acceptable to pay attention to, while other things that are more artistic or unconventional are seen as impractical and a waste of time.

My situation was compounded by my strong interest and aptitude in Math and Science because I was just as strong in the ‘hard subjects’ as I was artistically. So it was not a simple choice where I should focus. I was not like my older brother who knew from his early teens that he wanted to be a doctor.

In fact for several years I wished that I was horrible at every subject but Art or Drama so that it was more obvious what I should spend my life doing.

But there were no such easy answers because when you have interests and passions that don’t naturally line up to an existing ‘career box’ you always feel like you are fumbling around in a dark room trying to find an ever elusive light switch.

For years I searched for this light switch using different approaches:

  • pursuing architecture because I thought it would be a natural blend of my art and science skills until an internship after my freshman year where I realized it was the wrong path
  • diving head first into Film Animation as a major in college because I had never experienced the validation of an artistic pursuit being my main focus
  • applying to (and landing) a job as a management consultant because I wanted to ‘keep my options open’ in terms of career paths and a career in animation was not viable for somebody who needed a work visa to stay in the country
  • operating a freelance writing business when my management consulting career ended abruptly until I realized that I did not enjoy the stress of ‘cranking out’ writing projects on spec
  • a failed career as a mortgage broker at the height of the real estate boom in which I realized I was no good at commissioned sales

I could list several more examples of my journey, but the main point is that somewhere along the way I realized that I was trying to find a light switch that did not exist – I was trying to solve the wrong equation. I thought that I needed to figure out what career path my passions translated into and then I would catch my stride.

One of my current favorite bloggers, Sacha Chua, calls this “the myths of a sudden calling.”. In a recent article, she articulates my ‘light switch’ odyssey very well:

“When people wish for passion, I think what they’re really wishing for is certainty: the knowledge that this, here, is exactly what you are meant to do, that intersection of what you love, what you’re good at, and what the world values. The certainty that this is the best way to spend this moment in time, and the ease of not having to make yourself do something or fight distractions.”

“Passion doesn’t strike out of the blue.”

Reading this article was a confirmation of a change in my approach over the last few years that I have found to be much more successful. Rather than trying to predetermine what ‘box’ my passions are indicating, I have surrendered to the understanding that passions are more like a flash light than a light switch. They illuminate just enough of the path ahead for you to move forward without giving you the full picture. But as you move that flashlight around, you discover more about your purpose and it becomes easier to determine whether you are veering off course, or whether you are operating closer to your ‘sweet spot’.

Passions on their own are useless though if you don’t do the work of focusing, creating and shipping.

You have to deliberate less than you act.

You have to experiment more than you plan.

And you have to see failure as a source of educational data, rather than an embarrassment to be avoided.

My final piece of advice for my college junior friend was that she has to pause whatever path she has followed to this point and take a detailed inventory of where her passions really lie. And then taking those passions as a starting point, she has to face her fears and take actions that will give her useful feedback about her path. Over time, these series of steps will start to form a clearer picture of her purpose and she will be able to use each experience to inform the next successfully.

I find writing is an excellent way to do this kind of inventory – so I suggested she do a “stream of consciousness” piece of writing and see where it takes her.

I am sure she will surprise herself with what she finds out.

when you plot your path it is impossible to see the whole picture

There is a famous story about six blind men who had an argument about an elephant.  They were on a journey together when they came upon something in their way that they did not recognize.

The first man reached his hand out and touched the wide and rough side of the elephant, so he declared to his friends:

“It is a great wall, and we will have to climb over it.”

The next man reached out and touched the elephant’s tusk.  He yelled back to the first man:

“What are you talking about, this is a great spear – let us take it with us for protection on our journey.”

The third man reached out and rubbed his hand on the elephant’s trunk, then began to tremble:

“There is a great snake in our path and we must turn back!”

Yet another man reached out and this time he touched the elephant’s knee, so he said calmly to the other men:

“We have been walking for a great distance, have no fear, let us rest ourselves next to this great tree.”

The fifth man, reached out and touched the elephant’s ear:

“Ahh … this is a great fan which we can use to cool ourselves down in this scorching day.”

Not wanting to be left out, the last man touched the elephant’s tail and said:  “This is just a piece of rope … it is completely useless to us on our journey.”

Despite encountering exactly the same situation – the elephant – each man came to a completely different conclusion than the other men, both about what he was experiencing, and about what he should do about it.

What’s most striking to me about the story though, is how convinced each one of them was that they had the full story.  So convinced, in fact, that some of them ridiculed the other mens’ position because it differed from theirs.

How often have you been guilty of the very same ignorance when planning out a goal in your life?  A quick decision about a path you should take, based on limited information, and no outside guidance, and you are on your way.  But the wise words of the Bible sum this up very well:

“There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.”

— Proverbs 14:12

The only way to combat this bias towards ignorance is to understand upfront that getting the whole picture about the future and how your goals will progress is impossible, so never assume that you have it.  Instead, focus on getting a healthy set of perspectives – even some that contradict each other – and then take action with an open mind.

your purpose is to cross the swamp, not to fight the alligators

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
— Antoine De Saint-Exupery (Author of The Little Prince)

This quote speaks about the importance of vision and possibility to achieving a desired result and motivating others to do the same – simply assigning tasks and ‘cracking the whip’ does not get the desired result.  The book I just finished reading (‘The Art of Possibility’ by Rosemund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander) provides some very tangible ways to create a habit of ‘seeing’ possibility (professionally, personlly and otherwise) and using it to broaden your horizons.

The book is broken up into twelve ‘practices’ that we can use to continuously orient ourselves towards possibility; Roz and Ben do an excellent job of walking you through these practices and providing very rich examples. Ben provides examples in the context of music and the orchestra since he is a conductor, and Roz provides examples from working with counselling clients through her practice as a psychologist.

The opening practice that they speak about is the concept that ‘Its All Invented’. Each chapter is dedicated to a practice and they are each as profound and paradigm-shifting as this first one.

It’s All Invented

The idea with this practice is that we should constantly remind ourselves that everything in the world is ‘invented’; that we interpret situations based on a frame that has been ‘programmed’ into us, so if we occasionally question that programming, it opens up possibilities. The chapter opens with a short vignette that clearly illustrates this phenomenon”

A shoe factory sends two marketing scouts to a region of Africa to study the prospects for expanding business. One sends back a telegram saying: SITUATION HOPELESS STOP NO ONE WEARS SHOES
The other one writes back triumphantly: GLORIOUS BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY STOP THEY HAVE NO SHOES

Both scouts are operating on exactly the same information, but come out with completely different stories – they both invent a viewpoint.

The caution here is that we can miss out on possibility, if we do not challenge our assumptions about how we perceive the world to be.

The Quote that Got Me

Despite the richness of the content by the authors, the quote that stuck the most with me from the book was not produced by either Roz or Ben but rather a NASA employee in one of the stories Ben told about ‘Creating Frameworks for Possibility’. In this story, Ben asks a group of teenagers to write a set of letters to NASA employees that will illustrate to them that music and space exploration are not as different as you would initially believe. The teenagers come up with some fascinating insights that are so motivating to the NASA employees that they recipricate with their own letters to the young people. In one of those letters, a NASA employee writes:

… Thank you for reminding me what I am here for. I will have to remember ‘I am here today to cross the swamp, not to fight all the alligators’ [emphasis mine]

What a powerful way to reorient ourselves towards the purpose of our work – to its vision and possibility. How often do we get caught up fighting alligators (obstacles, personal conflicts, issues etc.) – and lose sight of the overall vision that we are working towards. We all need a way to get ourselves back to that vision so that our work can remain invigorating and meaningful – thus allowing us to perform at our highest levels. We all need to remember the swamp that we are trying to cross and minimize the impact of the alligators on that mission.

Bonus Treat!: Ben Zander is a powerful public speaker and if you have a few minutes, check out his TED talk