The tranquilizing drug of gradualism

In his “I have a dream” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged a slow and steady pathway to civil rights reform.

Those in favor of an incremental approach feared that making waves–that being too confrontational–would backfire. It was seen as too risky a strategy.

MLK argued that patiently working against the wrongs endured by millions created the illusion of progress. He worried that by merely chipping away at injustice, we were lulled into a sense of advancement when very little was actually being accomplished. Gradualism was not only misguided, it was actually more risky. Ultimately, our delusions prevented us from making substantive change; the change that was so desperately needed. And still is.

These challenges are hardly unique to the struggle for social justice.

Many organizations say all the right things but do very little. Companies invest piles of money and countless hours in largely meaningless tweaks to their offerings. Simple product line extensions count for “innovation” at many brands. New executive titles are created–and organizations re-shuffled–to suggest that something important is happening. Yet that something is typically more of the same under a different guise.

All too often we become intoxicated by our words at the expense of our actions.

Continuous improvement fighting fundamental disruption or intractable systemic malaise just doesn’t cut it.

A frenzy of activity (supported by cool PowerPoint decks and/or lots of impassioned speeches) may make us feel good, but until it ships it doesn’t count.

And unless we can rise above the clutter, the noise, the rhetoric–if our work doesn’t make waves–well, we might as well not bother in the first place.

A version of this post originally 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.

image2

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

First, get naked

Never let them see you sweat. Have all the answers at the ready. Don’t let those pesky emotions fog up your logic. Be impervious to the Sturm und Drang of every day existence. Know where you are going at all times.

Nonsense.

We can’t ignore the need to pick a lane at some point.

We shouldn’t get stuck and spin endlessly as we mull over a sea of options.

We ought not to totally collapse in the face of challenges or throw up our hands in despair.

And yet…

And yet we should fight the urge to pray at the altar of a culture that values perfectionism over our flawed humanity, materialism over essentialism, quick and convenient decisions over considered choices that emanate from a deep understanding of ourselves and how we derive our passion and purpose.

When we are doing the work that matters the place to start is not borne out of snap judgment, reactivity or trying to sort out and conform to what other people think. And it’s rarely continuing what we’ve always done or what feels the most comfortable.

The place to start is to get naked; to strip ourselves of our worn out and tired stories, to give up the need to be right or in control, to eschew the habits that no longer serve us.

On our path to a life of greater love, kindness, passion and purpose we need to get raw, to experience our feelings directly rather than stuff them or try to navigate around them. We need to expose ourselves to the light. To be vulnerable. Laid bare.

Whether we are trying to figure out our next career move, how we wish to show up in important relationships or simply trying to decide how to best prioritize our time, I’ve found it’s worth digging deeply into three core questions:

  • Who am I?
  • What do I really want from my life?
  • How can I serve?

The answers that will keep us on our path aren’t likely to come easily or quickly. And they won’t come at all if we aren’t willing to get naked first.

 

h/t to Deepak and Sheepak for inspiring this post.

 

What breaks your heart?

Everyday, if we allow ourselves, we are going to experience a full range of emotions; some intense, others minor and insignificant. And some of them are felt deeply and mindfully in true presence and awareness.

Others are reactions–habitual, triggered. And many them we experience in a flash. If we are not careful, we are dragged back into–and mired in–a regretful past; love lost, opportunities missed, silly mistakes, personal slights, envy and so on. On the other end of the spectrum we can easily be set adrift in worries of an impossible to know or control future. If you are anything like me, sometimes that means grasping the wheel that much tighter, radically overestimating our power.

At other times, when the feelings become too intense, we employ anger to mask them or turn inwards with deflection, self-loathing, avoidance and numbing. It often seems easier to occupy our worried, shame-driven minds by protecting our egos or distracting ourselves with mindless activities and pointless concerns.

If we’re feeling jealousy, the need to win, the urge to lash out, the desire to be right, there is a good chance we are in reaction, operating from a place of a wounded or needy ego.

If we find ourselves compulsively fascinated by reality TV, compelled to stay abreast of the latest comings and goings of celebrities, or merely repeating the same unworkable habits over and over, it’s likely we are avoiding the real work of the soul.

Once we go deeper, once we clearly see what breaks our heart, not in the romantic sense, but from a perspective rooted in understanding what substantively challenges our capacity to express our worldly unconditional love, extend compassion freely, act generously, live out our purpose joyfully and celebrate our shared humanity and connection.

When we comprehend what breaks out hearts we also get the keys to what lifts our spirits and drives how we truly wish to be in the world.

Whether we get upset by fighting things outside of our control (reality) or the random activities of people that have no bearing on anything substantive in our lives ( reality TV), the result is the same.

There is nothing wrong with accepting that this is just the human condition, the product of our past traumas, our monkey minds at work. Our hearts are not challenged, our egos are.

The key is to see it for what it is. Dance with it. Laugh at it and ourselves.

Then we get back to do the real work, the work of the heart and the soul, intentionally, with concentration, mindfulness and lovingkindness to ourselves and others.

open-heart

The magical mystery powers of gratitude

For a long time the power of gratitude eluded me.

Sure, there were times when the position of privilege I was born into, or had attained, was obvious. I could appreciate a trip I took, a fancy new thing I bought, a great meal. I’d say “thanks” for a gift or a job well done or some little bit of kindness extended to me.

I suppose I mostly saw gratitude as transactional.

But if I’m honest, much of the time I was focused on what was lacking. The sense that I wasn’t achieving my potential at work and in my life was a near constant. My internal monologue was consumed by thoughts that I should possess more and sexier stuff, dominate my to-do list, achieve greater status, be in better shape, have everyone like me and on and on. I was feeling more than a wee bit entitled. I was rarely, if ever, satisfied.

In 2009, when I was still in the throes of a personal crisis that had rocked me to my core, the therapist I was seeing patiently listened as I recited yet another tale of woe. As I got to one of my favorite (and by then oft-repeated) complaints, he stopped me.  In that somewhat condescending voice all psychologists seem to employ he said “Steve, I wonder if would you be willing to tell me 30 things that you are grateful for right now, at this moment?”

I pushed back. “3o things? I don’t think so.” He encouraged me to just start.

The first few came easily. I had a nice house in a safe neighborhood, a decent amount of money in the bank, a great family. A few more things trickled on to the list with a bit more reflection.

When I stalled at about 8 or 9, my therapist made a few suggestions. “What about the way Charlie (my dog) greets you when you come home? How about the knowing smile on your daughter’s face when you make one of your dumb Dad jokes? How about the fact that you don’t have to worry for even one second whether you’ll have safe water to drink?

He paused to let that sink in. My throat grew tight. “Keep going” he said.

And I did. Spoiler alert: I had no trouble getting to 30.

I left that session feeling better than I had in months. I came, albeit slowly, to see how gratitude is the antidote to my habituated negative thought patterns, the kryptonite to feelings of emptiness and loneliness. I adopted “I have enough, I do enough, I am enough” as a mantra.

My list of things that I’m thankful for is now much greater than 30. The list also includes a lot of actual human beings. It turns out gratitude is relational.

It also turns out gratitude has the power to heal. It turns out that extending gratitude to another person fosters connection–and we all need more of that. It turns out that just waking up today is reason enough to be grateful.

I wish someone had told me that earlier, but I got here as fast as I could.

 

On this day when many are celebrating Thanksgiving I’m grateful to my friend Seth who generously shares his Thanksgiving Reader. Check it out.

I’m also thankful that I have one friend in my life who will tell me the truth even when it hurts and who constantly challenges me to be a better person. And I’m grateful that I’ve been willing to (finally) tell her how much that means to me.

Monday-Mantra-i-have-enough-i-do-enough-i-am-enough.png

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.

db5005d7ab5d5a73916f32b6b60b7b1d

 

 

The crazy cult of never giving up

Over the years I’ve noticed that a fair number of people subscribe to the notion that one should never ever give up.

While I employ a proactive thinning of my social media herd, I still encounter various motivational messages with a hashtag that essentially suggests that bailing on a project is the mark of the weak. That deciding to quit makes one a loser.

In fact, there is a whole sub-culture of authors and motivational speakers that extol the virtues of sticking with anything and everything we start with the dogged determination of a Kardashian seeking the media limelight. Just Google “never give up” and see what I mean.

Now I’m all for working hard and with determination. Grit and perseverance are surely desirable traits. But there is no question that giving up is often the absolute smartest thing we can do. Quitting is underrated.

If we value change we MUST deliberately choose to start things that we understand might not work. And that, by definition, means we begin knowing that quitting at some point is not only a real possibility but in many respects a desirable outcome, as it frees us up to pursue more productive and impactful paths.

If we subscribe to a strategy rooted in innovation, failure must be an option. While being unwilling to start in the first place is the biggest barrier to successful innovation, reluctance to give up on something that isn’t working is a close second.

When we know that our goal is desirable and that our path is clearly the best one, by all means we should do the Rick Astley thing.

But if we are honest, we’ll discover that many times we are lying to ourselves and we are merely afraid to fold on a losing hand.

 

rick-astley