A hypothesis of generosity

None of us suffer from a deficit of experience. In fact, “stuff’ happens virtually non-stop.

The daily rhythm of life is that we have ups and downs. Problems manifest, big and small. Complications arise, both profound and mundane. We encounter joys, concerns and everywhere in between. Items get checked off our to-do list. Or not.

Amidst the backdrop of our existence come the many challenges to our equanimity. Often these arise as times when we feel confronted, slighted, or disrespected, Other times we may feel shunned or even attacked.

Maybe we get get cut off in traffic or treated rudely by a stranger. A friend doesn’t call us back. A co-worker doesn’t include us in an important meeting. Perhaps we don’t feel truly heard by our partner. Maybe we even sense that we are being judged or harshly criticized by someone who loves us.

If you are anything like me, you might find yourself drawn to apply a strong filter of negativity, propelled by self-righteousness, defensiveness and anger. If you are anything like me, you might start to make up quite a lot about what’s actually going on and what it all means.

So what if instead we started with a hypothesis of generosity? What if our filter was set to kindness and curiosity instead of assuming the worst possible interpretation? What if we followed Brene Brown‘s advice in her book Rising Strong and we asked ourselves “what is the most generous assumption about this person’s intentions or what this person said?”

In choosing this path we have to challenge our ego. We have to let go of the need to be right. We have to stop getting our needs met through propping ourselves up by putting others down. We have to move toward connection, rather than run from it. It’s not always easy. And it means telling ourselves a fundamentally different story.

But as Brene goes on to remind us:  “What do we call a story that’s based on limited real data and imagined data and blended into a coherent, emotionally satisfying version of reality? A conspiracy theory.”

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This post also appeared on my business blog at http://www.stevenpdennis.com

Wabi-sabi

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese aesthetic concept that finds beauty in imperfection and the universe’s natural cycle of growth, decay, and death.

Embracing wabi-sabi means eschewing the unnecessary, getting rid of the clutter and valuing authenticity above all else.

Wabi-sabi requires us to accept the reality that nothing lasts, nothing is ever truly finished, and nothing is perfect. It requires us to not only believe that this is okay, but to see that there is great power and serenity in the practice. It points us to the notion that imperfection is an incredible gift.

For me, it is precisely my wrong-headed attachment to the concept of perfection that keeps me spinning and stuck and caught in my fear of shipping.

For me, I can easily get distracted, adding needless complexity to a project or adorning an idea with superficiality, when it’s more than good enough just as it is.

For me, it’s so easy to see the risk in being wrong, without seeing the greater risk inherent in my inaction and the uselessness of endless worry.

When I inject wabi-sabi into my creative process, I produce more and stress less.

When I embrace wabi-sabi I am unleashed from the shackles of thinking for thinking’s sake.

When I practice wabi-sabi I am able to fail better.

And that’s perfect enough for me.

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A version of this post originally appeared on my business blog.

Misteaks were made

Our culture tends to reward perfectionism. Never say die, never fail, never let them see you sweat, be all you can be. And so on.

I’ve worked with–and for–a lot of perfectionists. Some of my best friends are perfectionists. I might have even fallen in love with a perfectionist or two. And, in the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve had my own bouts with setting impossibly high standards for myself and then falling short time and time again. Let the self flagellation begin!

It’s a trap.

In fact, more and more research suggests that perfectionism actually hampers success, while being a major contributor to depression, anxiety and even suicide.

Unfortunately, the growth of social media only exacerbates the situation and sets us up for a ridiculous game of comparison as our “friends” share all the fabulous things they are doing, all the great relationships they are in (“best boyfriend ever!”) and all the wonderful food they are enjoying (“nom”).

All these crazy comparisons only make us crazy. When we stop worrying about what others will think we are truly free to embrace being ourselves, warts and all.

Our fear of looking stupid or vulnerable hinders the possibility for intimacy. Letting go of our desire for control and certainty paves the way for real connection.

And it’s precisely our unwillingness to fail that is the biggest barrier to innovation (of all kinds) and personal growth. As Seth reminds us, “if failure is not option, neither is success.” Fear of failure, of making a mistake, keeps us stuck in so many ways.

Perfectionism is a curse.

Imperfection yields many gifts.

What do you say? Let’s go make some mistakes.

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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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Tell a better story

You sell a product that is losing out to Amazon on price and convenience? Stop chasing your tail in the pursuit of ever lower prices or fanciful plans to get into the same-day delivery business. Tell a better story; one rooted in deep customer relevance and remarkability.

You run a non-profit that has trouble getting the attention of large donors? Stop trotting out endless statistics and convoluted theories of change. Tell a better story, one that connects emotionally, paints a clear picture of a brighter future and inspires hope in a new and different way.

You see yourself as someone who has to do something to prove their worthiness? Stop repeating the false narrative of victimhood or original sin. Tell a better story, one that rejects the abusive programming from your childhood and one that embraces the gifts of imperfection.

I get it. Facts can’t diverge from an experienced reality forever. But far fewer things are actually facts than we tend to think. And besides, data without a soul, an inspiration or an ultimate hero, is often meaningless.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s a lousy strategy for just about everything.

You may feel like you have facts on your side, but hearts and minds (and wallets) rarely open up to the overwhelming force of logic.

The best way to claim our worthiness–to believe we are enough, we have enough and that we do enough-is to buy into the story until it rings true. Until it becomes habit.

People buy the story before they buy the product.

If nobody’s buying the product (even when that product is you) maybe the time you spend trying to be like everyone else0 or burnishing your PowerPoint would be better spent crafting a better story, believing in it and watching it spread.

Welcome to the failure conference

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change”  – Brene Brown

I hope you are familiar with the work of Brene Brown. Brene is a shame researcher and the author of several great books on the power of vulnerability and the gifts of imperfection. She’s delivered two of the most popular TED talks of all time. She’s been on Oprah. She’s helped me change my life. Yeah, she’s kind of a big deal.

In her most recent TED talk, one of the many powerful things Brene said was this:

“You know what the big secret about TED is? I can’t wait to tell people this. I guess I’m doing it right now. (Laughter) This is like the failure conference. No, it is. (Applause) You know why this place is amazing? Because very few people here are afraid to fail. And no one who gets on the stage, so far that I’ve seen, has not failed. I’ve failed miserably, many times. I don’t think the world understands that because of shame.”

When I headed up strategy & innovation at a large retailer several years ago, I had a one-on-one session with the CEO to discuss a new venture my team was just starting work on. Maybe two minutes into our meeting he paused dramatically, looked at me very seriously and said “Steve, here’s the thing. We can’t fail. We can’t afford another (and here he mentioned a failed store concept from years ago which, as an aside, was doomed from the start by a number of bone-headed decisions). I don’t want to take any risk. None. Do you understand?”

Yeah, I understood. I was screwed. We were screwed. Needless to say, innovation, creativity and change were hardly the hallmarks of our culture during that time and any progress we made was, shall we say, not so easily won.

If you are committed to innovation, you are signing up for failure. It’s not being reckless, but it is accepting that failure comes with the territory. The key is not to never fail, the key is to fail better.

If you are committed to creativity, you are vulnerable to criticism. Any time you put something really new out into the world and say “here I made this” judgment (and perhaps outright hatred) is bound to follow. It can’t stop you.

If you are committed to meaningful change, you are almost certain to be walking straight into gale force headwinds. Vested interests and defenders of the status quo will fight you at every turn. Stay the course. In fact, perhaps it’s time to step on the gas.

It’s taken me a long time to learn this lesson–and frankly I still fight the battle every single day–but I know I do my best work when I push through my fear, when I allow myself to be vulnerable, when I accept that failure is inherent to any growth process.

I hope to see you at the next failure conference. Let’s sit right down front where everyone can see us.

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