The 2nd worst thing to ever happen to a politician in a theatre?

This past Friday, after a day of business in Manhattan, I found myself in the enviable position of having scored a ticket to the smash musical Hamilton. Once I settled into my seat, the collective excitement grew as the clock inched closer and closer to the 8pm showtime.

Then, from a portal to the right of the stage, Vice President Elect Mike Pence and his phalanx of Secret Service agents strolled in.

And the audience lost its mind.

To be sure, there was a solid minority that stood and applauded, but for the most part, Governor Pence was greeted with sustained boos, several “you sucks”, as well as other far less polite suggestions which, as far as I know, are anatomically impossible. Just as Pence and his entourage hit their seats it was lights out and on with the show.

During the performance the audience leaned in hard with raucous applause when Hamilton and Lafayette sang “immigrants we get the job done!” And King George seemed to throw major shade Pence’s way during “What comes next?”, looking towards him as he sang “when your people say they hate you, don’t come crawling back to me.” The show momentarily ground to a halt as the crowd’s hoops and hollers drowned out the action on the stage.

Good times.

By now, you have probably heard that during the curtain call Brandon Dixon Victor (the actor who plays Aaron Burr) directed a short admonition toward Pence as he tried to quickly make his way out of the theatre.

And then the internet lost its mind.

Being a very minor part of this weird little slice of history was both exciting and profoundly depressing. It WAS interesting and fun to have a front row (and rather expensive) seat to this unfolding drama. But the reaction of the crowd–and the wider world outside the theatre–only served to underscore how divided we are as a people and provided a harsh reminder that a radical shift in perspective and behavior is required if we are to avoid endless duels, many of which are certain to end badly.

So with apologies to Lin-Manuel Miranda, here is my version of the Ten Duel Commandments:

  1. If your skin is thin, stay out of the arena. There is such a thing as free speech. Don’t take everything personally. Learn the difference between hearing another’s truth and persecution or harassment. When in doubt, don’t post it on Twitter.
  2. Talk less, listen more. Our ego needs to be heard, to be right, to win. But projecting or amplifying our ego is the surest way to break connection. To build connection we must let the our “opponents” feel truly heard.
  3. Respect the other’s point of view. We don’t listen just to check it off our list. We listen to understand, to show respect, to challenge our own biases. But mostly to connect on a human level.
  4. There are few true enemies. Our perceived separation is not real. We truly are all in this together. I take no comfort from the hole being on your side of the boat. Most times it is our ego’s insecurity and isolation that causes us to create barriers and divisions that are not the least bit helpful. If there is a demon to be conquered it is most often our self-righteousness.
  5. Watch out for the belief test. When I find myself starting to decide whether I like or respect someone based upon whether they score well on my “good person” checklist all I know is I’m creating an us vs. them; I’m right, you’re wrong; I’m good, you’re bad, dynamic. That gives my ego a little hit, but it accomplishes nothing if I care about peace and progress.
  6. It’s okay to call bullshit. Just because we seek connection doesn’t mean facts aren’t a thing or that our strongly held beliefs don’t deserve being shared. Climate change is real, Obama was born in the United States, we really did land on the moon. Share THE truth and share your truth. Respectfully.
  7. Fear is a terrible engine and an even worse compass. There are times when fear keeps us from getting hurt or killed. However, most of the time our unconscious or irrational fear keeps us stuck in false beliefs that lead to self-flagellation, angry projection or both. If you are going to be dueling, best to understand your fear and not let it turn you into a bully or a heat-seeking missile. And if you can’t reasonably deal with your fear, best to take your finger off the trigger.
  8. Hyperbole is not the greatest thing ever. It’s hard enough to build connection when our fear is ruling the roost and when our differences are so pronounced and amplified. Stay grounded. Avoid catastrophizing and black & white thinking. When we go to extremes it tends to put others on the defensive. And the gap we need to close only widens.
  9. Put the hammer down. Lately it seems as if the only tool society has is a hammer and the nail we choose to hit over and over is the one that cuts the other side down. I’m hard pressed to find a time when that has worked. If you are are all about your ego and all about tearing down others, by all means keep swinging that hammer and keep pounding those nails. If you care about peace and progress, however, you might want to get some new tools.
  10. Rise up as necessary. On many issues, we must take sides. As Elie Wiesel reminds us “neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Seeking connection and following the other suggestions above does not mean rolling over in the face of intolerance, racism, homophobia or other forms of injustice or unacceptable behavior.

I’ll see you in the arena.

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h/t to Deepak Chopra

The minor fall, the major lift

“It is not the weight you carry but how you carry it.”  – Mary Oliver

Somewhere along our path things aren’t going to go our way. And when the inevitable happens the effect can be anywhere from mere annoyance to outright devastation.

As we encounter a loss of any consequence–death, loss of physical or mental capacities, a job, our home, even a highly anticipated and hoped for future–grieving comes into play. And while we all experience grief differently, there is no going around it. We must go through it.

When we are early in a setback, big or small, if often seems like there is no way out. That all hope is lost.That no light can make it through the cracks.

If you are anything like I am it’s easy to minimize the pain and suffering that so many of us have endured or had thrust upon us. Often avoidance and denial can seem like the smartest way forward. That is, of course, until we turn to drinking or drugs or sex or shopping, or other forms of numbing, to escape from our harsh reality. It turns out that only makes things worse.

If I’ve learned anything from my sometimes torturous journey it’s that things are never as bad as they seem. Most falls, taken in the long view, are in fact minor. And it’s how we respond to them, carry them, how we lift ourselves and allow ourselves to be lifted by others, that ultimately makes the difference.

If you are reading this, the fact is you’ve survived everyone of your worst days and your worst moments.

This, too, shall pass.

We all have a lot of work to do.

Let’s get started.

 

 

The votes we cast

Without question–in the United States at least–tomorrow is a huge day. The votes that are cast will set the tone for the level of discourse that will predominate for the next several years. The fundamental direction on key policies, and important things like the selection of Supreme Court Justices, will be solidified.

Many have argued that Presidents don’t really matter that much anyway. And that may well be true. Regardless, it’s almost certainly the case that even if the electorate does something truly idiotic most of us are likely to remain largely unaffected.

Nevertheless we work ourselves into a frenzy about the candidate we despise.

We vilify friends and colleagues who extol the virtues of the other guy (or gal).

We mock those who are “throwing away” their vote on a third party candidates.

And, in the greatest exercise of futility, we use social media as a weapon of persuasion.

Sidebar newsflash: More people have gone from being dog people to cat people because of something they have seen on Facebook than have been convinced to change their opinion on Trump or Clinton by anything you or I have shared.

What’s most interesting–and ultimately disturbing and disappointing–is that many of us will spend far more time, energy and social capital ruminating on an election that will likely not matter and on arguments that will make not a whit of difference than we will on the moment-to-moment decisions that clearly count and that we have a direct ability to influence.

We vote every day on being generous or stingy, kind or cruel, compassionate or indifferent.

We can embrace a world of possibilities or wall ourselves off in fear.

We can opt for acceptance or battle endlessly with reality.

We can choose a cycle of forgiveness or go down the path of revenge.

We have many opportunities everyday to decide which wolf to feed.

And here, without a doubt, our vote matters.

 

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h/t to the Rev. Dr. Daniel Kanter for his sermon that inspired this post.

Get curious. Get proximate. 

If we’ve learned anything from this election cycle it’s that lots of people are long on opinions and short on facts.

We’ve also unearthed some curious theories.

That mere intelligence trumps actual experience. That promises to get tough are better than an actual plan. That most of success in life is about cutting “great deals, tremendous deals”. And that, when in doubt, let’s just let fear rule the roost.

Buy into these hypotheses and there are quite a few interesting things one is led to believe:

That those that have only flown over the battlefield know how to win the war.

That folks who have never suffered from institutional racism know exactly how to lift marginalized communities out of discrimination, poverty and violence.

That people who have won the ovarian lottery–and have likely never spent a minute walking in the shoes of those much less fortunate–can confidently say that “those people” just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Moreover, there is no need for further study, or to be even mildly inquisitive, because our minds are already made up.

It’s always easier to wage an air war, to be the critic, to shout encouragement from the stands. But then there’s that pesky little problem that it doesn’t really accomplish anything.

Much of the time, what we need–what I need–is to first get curious. Once we think we have all the answers there is a pretty good chance we’re wrong. A passionate curiosity releases us from ego and creates the potential for something far more spacious, real and connected. Most importantly, it gives us the information we need for good decision-making. It turns out facts matter.

The second step is to get proximate, to get out of our comfort zone and immerse ourselves not only in the facts, figures and issues, but the people, the emotion and, yes, our hearts.

As Bryan Stevenson reminds us “when people get proximate to the problems and the things they care most deeply about, not only does it help them do better work, be better problem solvers, I think it changes them.”

Yup.

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h/t to Dr. Heather Hackmann for helping inspire this post.

 

The hardest to learn is the least complicated

Gentle reader, congratulations on your wise choice. It is indeed your good fortune to have chosen to read my blog today for I am about to reveal a short-list of virtually guaranteed ways for you to be successful in both your professional career and your personal life.

Intrigued? I bet.

Ready? Let’s do this.

Steve’s virtually sure-fire ways to be successful in your professional life:

  1. Focus relentlessly on the customer/client.
  2. Never engage in a price war you can’t win.
  3. Defy the sea of sameness and find your purple cow.
  4. Treat different customers differently.
  5. Reject the cult of busy.
  6. Don’t be afraid to fail: Fail better.

My virtually sure-fire ways to be successful in your personal life:

  1. Accept the things you cannot change.
  2. Live in the now; be present and mindful in all you do.
  3. Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.
  4. Don’t take things personally.
  5. Remember the things for which you are grateful.
  6. Live open-heartedly and with compassion.
  7. Embrace vulnerability.

As a reader of this blog you have already revealed yourself to be a person of great intelligence and discernment, so you have likely already concluded that these ideas– collectively and individually–are both true and useful. More importantly, you probably noticed that they are all conceptually rather simple to comprehend.

So why do we struggle to put them into practice?

The first reason is our habits. If you are anything like me, you’ve been been conditioned to strive for perfection, to associate your self-worth with your job, your busyness and your possessions. Perhaps you’ve also been taught that vulnerability is weakness or that you’re not okay unless the people around you are okay or that it is your job to figure things out without the help of others. These are all rather obvious and destructive lies, yet our negative practice has created deep grooves in our psyche. The only antidote is to develop different habits and practice them until new grooves are formed.

The understanding is not the hard part. It’s the un-doing.

The second reason is our choices. I’ve watched myself (and more than a few friends, colleagues and loved ones) decide to stay stuck in the past, fight things I couldn’t change, drink the poison of resentment, bask in the misguided attention of victimhood and generally engage in far too much ego grasping and not enough letting go.

Again the understanding is not the hard part. It’s the acceptance that every day we start clean slated and I (and you my dear friend) get the chance to make a new set of choices. Our task is to choose wisely and to rinse and repeat.

The wolf we feed is the one that wins.

 

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Just because you killed Jesse James . . .

“Just because you killed Jesse James, don’t make you Jesse James.”

– Mike Ehrmantraut to Walter White, Episode 3, Season 5 of Breaking Bad.

Just because you’ve attacked my idea doesn’t mean yours is better. Defending the status quo can be necessary, but mostly it’s an excuse to stay trapped in our fear.

Just because you sit in judgment of all the “idiot” drivers and “slothful” welfare recipients and “feckless” politicians, doesn’t actually do anything. Though your fragile ego may get a hit for a few seconds, putting others down isn’t a solution. And it certainly adds nothing to the level of discourse.

Shooting down something else isn’t remotely equivalent to creating something worthy or interesting. So instead of merely pontificating, let’s see your plan.

Being the critic is mostly a place to hide from the hard work of leading us to something new and meaningful. So instead of judging, let’s hear your ideas.

As Van Jones reminds us, Dr. King isn’t famous for saying “I have a complaint.”

It’s time to stop tearing down and to start building.

The universe is listening. And waiting.

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A version of this post originally appeared at http://www.stevenpdennis.com

Books about heaven

Perhaps you’ve seen the legendary New Yorker magazine cartoon that depicts a man standing before two doors, seemingly perplexed. One door is labeled “Heaven” and the other is labeled “Books About Heaven.”

Pick just about any cause we claim to be passionate about. Happiness. Innovation. Social justice. Immigration reform. Climate change. Being a better parent. Eating more healthfully. Whatever floats your boat.

If you are anything like me, it’s often easier to be getting ready to go do something meaningful rather than wholeheartedly embrace that thing I claim to desperately want.

If I think things through thoroughly, I tell myself, the outcome I want will be assured. If I research just a little bit more, I will be perfectly prepared when the time is right.

But there is no perfect time.

We always have to start before we are ready.

We have to do the work, rather than just study the work.

If we want to swim, we need to get wet.

Our own version of heaven is here right now, in this present moment, if we are willing to just see it, accept it and embrace it fully.

We can always be in pursuit of happiness or–and here’s a crazy idea–we can actually try being happy.

Jump in. The water is fine.

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This post is adapted from one that originally appeared at http://www.stevenpdennis.com

You say you want a revolution?

There are a lot of things I say that I want to see changed. About the world. About myself. And probably about you, if I’m honest.

I haven’t exactly been shy about sharing my exhortations about innovation, leadership, new ways to market, my desire for a more compassionate universe, the urgent need for creative solutions to societal problems and on and on. I do this in small group conversations, from a stage, on my blogs and through various social media.

I’m often that annoying guy who posts motivational sayings on Facebook or Twitter. I regularly share inspiring stories of transformation or enlightenment–particularly if they involve me. I’ve rarely met a Buddha or Maya Angelou quotation that I didn’t like.

Yes, I say quite a bit. I’ve intellectualized all manner of approaches, frameworks and models that hold the potential for personal, organizational and societal transformation.

Unfortunately, I’m rarely that good at the doing part.

If you are anything like me, it’s easy to take the moral high ground from the cocoon of social media or by hiding behind the mutually reinforcing beliefs of our various tribes. It’s simple enough to nod self-righteously in the warm bath of confirmation bias and pontificate endlessly about what everyone else needs to do.

We say we want a revolution.

And yeah, we’d all love to see the plan.

But at long last I’m awakening to the reality that beliefs are cheap currency. That knowing something is just the warming up part for the practice of doing. That planning is helpful, but extremely over-rated.

The world doesn’t have a shortage of well-intentioned people. Awareness of our problems is rarely the scarce commodity.

What we need is a lot more action. We need to get proximate and take the plunge.

I hope you’ll join me.  What better time than now?

Passionate bystanders

Social media has done a lot of things–some of it positive and profound.

As social media has accelerated the dissemination of information, connected people across the globe in previously unimagined ways and literally fomented revolutions, it’s also provided a dramatically amplified megaphone for the critic, the judge, the troll and those long on opinion and short on facts. In some cases, it’s given a platform to those who frankly don’t deserve it.

If you have a reasonable number of “friends” on Facebook–or follow even a moderately curated set of folks on Twitter–you regularly encounter people who are outraged at some situation in the world, take to bashing a hapless politician’s most recent gaffe, flog absurd conspiracy theories or merely engage in non-sensical rants.

Conversely, if you are anything like me, you frequently “like” numerous do-gooder causes and retweet items that coincide with strongly held beliefs and values. After all, there is so much the world needs to know and it reinforces the idea that I’m a worthy person by promoting what I see as my good works and holier-than-thou virtues.

It’s not hard to sense the strength of our convictions. Our enthusiasm is evident. Often, our world is clearly drawn in good or evil, black or white. And it’s obvious which side we’re on.

But so what? Who cares?

Just as we’d never directly confront that “idiot” driver who cut us off–but have absolutely no problem cursing them from the safety our car’s interior–we find it so very easy to be the voice of moral authority and the king or queen of self-righteousness from the protective cocoon of our social media account.

Teddy Roosevelt famously reminds us that “it is not the critic who counts”, that the credit belongs to those that actually do something. Passion is nice, but it’s the willingness to take action that ultimately makes the difference.

Having tools like social media to express our displeasure to more and more people and to relentlessly hone the image of who we hope to be in the world ultimately means very little.

Without putting ourselves out there, doing the work, getting proximate, we’re all just a bunch of passionate bystanders.

Let’s connect in the arena, rather than on the screen or from the stands.

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A version of this post originally appeared at http://www.stevenpdennis.com

Waging an air war

Politicians like to talk about avoiding “boots on the ground”–and for good reason. A so-called air war has the promise of victory with little muss or fuss. No uncomfortable and sad videos of bodies returning home in flag-draped caskets. No awkward Presidential calls to family members. No VA hospitals filled with the maimed. At least not on our side.

Air wars allow us to fly above the fray. To accomplish our objectives indirectly. To do away with actual confrontation. Death comes from above instead of face-to-face.

I’m hardly a military strategist. I’ve never served in the Armed Forces. Maybe an air war is the best choice in today’s world of combat, under our present set of circumstances.

Back in our every day world, I see plenty of people waging their own versions of an air war. They pontificate on ways to fix the world’s problems from the sidelines instead of being in the arena. They think all the answers will be found at a conference or in a book. They write checks to assuage their guilt. They seem to believe a Facebook post can change the world. They lob in the occasional emotional grenade from afar, rather than sit in actual vulnerability.

And yeah, I’ve been that guy. And yeah, that is still my default mechanism far too often (can we let that be our little secret?).

It’s far easier to sit on one side of town and opine on what everyone else needs to do about the other side of town. And I suspect we all know that passive aggressiveness may be good for our short-term dopamine levels, but rarely actually accomplishes anything positive.

Let’s face it, critics don’t win the awards and cheerleaders don’t win the game.

The fact is, plain and simple, the hard, uncomfortable work–the work that matters– requires us to get proximate, to put our figurative and literal boots on the ground, to get dirty, to fall and get back up again. Rinse and repeat.

We can extend a lesson from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous and acknowledge that despite our hopes there is no easier and softer way.

And we can be reminded by Brene Brown that “if you aren’t in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I am not interested in your feedback.”

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