The Illusion of Control

When 9/11 happened, I was living in New York City. I lived in a building in Gramercy Park that was owned and operated by the Salvation Army. It was for women between the ages of 18-35 who were pursuing a career in the arts. We had common areas for playing games and watching TV and we had a large cafeteria/dining room for our meals. Looking back, I don’t think I realized how lucky I was to experience the city from that point of view. I met women from all around the world there — Turkey, Greece, Iran, Saudi Arabia, even Minnesota. Ha!

I remember there was one woman I always observed with a sense of wonder. She was graceful, elegant and quiet and she wore a head scarf, a hijab. After 9/11 I didn’t see her and I remember thinking, “I wonder if something happened to her…” A couple days later, when I was in the dining room, I noticed a woman with long, flowing black hair. I didn’t recognize her. Then I did. My beautiful co-resident had removed her hijab. I remember thinking that she must not have felt safe to wear it in public. How sad that something she had nothing to do with caused her to go against a strong value or belief just so she felt safe. I wish I would have had the courage to walk up and ask, “Are you OK? Is your family OK?” I didn’t.

This story came rushing back to me yesterday in my Managers’ Leadership Program cohort when Fariborz Pakseresht (Oregon Department of Human Services, Director) was sharing his five leadership principles. Fariborz is a transformational leader and it was so inspiring to dive deep into what he views as his leadership principles. Number four is the Illusion of Control. There are very few things we can control or have control over in life. The one thing we can control is our reactions to events or situations. He shared his story of being Iranian living in the U.S. during the Iran hostage crisis in which 52 American diplomats and citizens were held hostage by a group of militarized Iranians for over a year. During that time of “Iranophobia” he had to go to a federal agency and be fingerprinted. He had nothing to do with the hostage crisis, but simply because he was Iranian he had to be “watched.” He related to the cohort that what changed his reaction to an otherwise humiliating experience was the officer who took his fingerprints; the officer looked at Fariborz with genuine care and said, “I’m sorry I have to do this.”

Why am I sharing this? One of my MLP assignments is to come up with a model to share with my cohort. The model that keeps playing in my head these days is this: Event – Interpretation – Reaction – Outcome. My interpretation and how I choose to react determine the outcome. The tools I’m learning (the tools I share with you on Friday), give me options for coming up with an interpretation that is fair, equitable, kind and true. My resulting reaction — to assume positive intent, to get curious, to seek to understand and to listen — hopefully creates an outcome that allows for growth and productivity. I feel I’m always both a student and a teacher in this.

If you have a story to share about illusion of control, I’d value the conversation. Many of you often reply to my blog with feedback and comments. I always appreciate them; they help me continue to learn and grow. Thank you in advance!

A Walk Unplugged

I’m in a leadership pod and we wrapped up our meeting this week with an exercise. We were to take a walk outside just ourselves and nature. No earbuds playing music or an audio book or podcast. No phone for texting or talking. Totally unplugged. It was a beautiful day and I was up for the challenge. Here’s what I experienced on my way to and around a nearby middle school track.

  • It didn’t take very long after leaving my neighborhood to hear birds chirping. The closer I got to the track, it sounded like a bird convention!
  • I observed two siblings riding their bikes. The girl wanted a snack that was in the backpack her older brother was carrying. He wasn’t stopping and she was thirsty!
  • A man who passed me had a beard that went down to his waist. I’ve never seen a beard like that. I wondered if he’d been growing it since COVID hit.
  • I heard the sound of silverware and then smelled hamburgers. I imagined they were from an outdoor grill. I couldn’t tell because of a high fence. It smelled so good I almost stopped and asked for a bite. I was hungry!
  • I kept passing what looked like a folded up note. Each lap around the track I imagined it was some kind of message. Like a message in a bottle without the bottle. On my last lap, I finally bent down to take a look. Turns out it was just a folded up napkin (which I didn’t touch!).

When you’re really listening, nature has a lot to say. Emma Seppälä, Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism, shows in her research that spending any amount of time in nature has a positive impact on our psychological and physiological health. It is profoundly healing for us humans to be in nature. And that doesn’t mean you have to travel to the mountains or a rain forest. Going to a local park, walking in your neighborhood and just getting outside helps. Even a picture of nature on the wall or a plant in your office makes a difference. Seppälä’s research showed that if people were able to be in nature for three days, their creativity improved 50%. That’s remarkable — and a great reason to get outside this weekend and enjoy nature! Or talk to your plants or contemplate a picture of the ocean.

Unplug this weekend and then share your experience with me!

As Within So Without

“As above, so below, as within, so without, as the universe, so the soul…” – Hermes Trismegistus

Many of you may be familiar with the saying, “10% of life is what happens to you, and 90% is how you respond to it.” This was never more clear to me than this week. I’m participating in Ascent’s Managers’ Leadership Program and one of its benefits is personal coaching sessions. (Even coaches need coaching!) I was almost ready to cancel my scheduled coaching this week because I thought I didn’t have anything to work on. Ha! Wrong. My very patient coach started out with a breathing and centering practice. I don’t remember everything she said, but she came to the word “purpose” and I felt tension in my body. When she checked in with me I mentioned it.

That word was a trigger that I hadn’t shown up to a Purpose Workshop on my calendar. I felt guilty for accepting the appointment and not showing up. Actually, I was really thinking, “I’m such a slacker!” My coach asked if this was a pattern with me. Through inquiry, I was able to see how accumulation of too many over-scheduled days leads to fatigue. When I reach that fatigue, it triggers rebellion in me. My rebellious behavior (skipping the workshop) leads to feelings of guilt or judgment. We then talked about agreements we make. Agreements with ourselves and others. Agreements can be kept, broken and renegotiated. I got clarity around what kind of “cleanup” I needed to do in this situation and how a new personal agreement I made with myself could be honored. It was a really powerful experience for me. And it happened within an hour!

The relationship we have with our thoughts and emotions will impact that 90% I referred to earlier, in a positive or negative way. The stories we tell ourselves about our circumstances and what we consciously or unconsciously know, affect how we cope with life, whether that is with healing and growth or with a belief in lack and fear. It’s interesting how things connect in life. I’m currently reading the book, Perfecting the Soul, by Dawn Ely. Her research has shown that when we change our relationship to our thoughts and emotions, we change our attitude. When we change our attitude, we change our perspective. When we change our perspective we change our experience. And when we change our experience we change our life.

What I’ve learned is you can’t just “drop your story” or “change your thoughts” without doing the work of inquiry and healing. Coaching is a powerful tool and process. If you are trying to work through something right now or trying to achieve a goal and would like a guide, a listening partner, I’m happy to help.

Here’s to making that 90% work better for you.

Memories to a Legacy

This week I began the first day of the last year of a very important decade in my life. Did you follow that?! For the sake of our friendship I won’t tell you which decade. *grin* I was dropping my daughter off for school and as I watched her climb the stairs, slipping her backpack over her shoulder, she looked up and waved at a friend and entered the school. The song Memories by Maroon 5 was playing on my car radio…

Here’s to the ones that we got (toast to the ones here today)

Cheers to the wish you were here, but you’re not (toast to the ones that we lost on the way)…

Tears flooded my eyes. First grade. Just beginning to find her place in the world. And I’m wrapping up a decade. It took only five minutes to drive home, but the memories playing in my mind seemed endless.

So how do we want to be remembered? (I’m not trying to be morbid!) It is easy to be mired in a to-do list and forget to align our daily tasks with our values and ultimate vision for our life. Are we moving in the direction we want to go? What are your values? How does that illuminate your vision? And what daily goals/deliverables do you need to do to honor your values and move towards your vision? I was working with a coaching client this week and we were doing some values work. When he’s experiencing peak performance he’s taking something that seems a mess and digging in to see what he can do to get it back on track. He spends time understanding the history and where it needs to be and works to implement the changes. According to the Clifton Strengthsfinder©, it’s the restorative strength. Out of our work together, my client got real clarity around his values of innovation, hard work, collaboration and change. Ultimately, he wants to have a legacy of wisdom and adventure. That legacy drives his day-to-day actions.

You don’t have to be in the “sunset” of your career to think about values and legacy. I encourage everyone to think about values. They aren’t static. They will change over time. What’s important is identifying them and knowing how they guide your vision for where you’d like to be in a year, five years or 20 years from now. When we are in alignment with our values, we are more focused, happier and energized. You can also have team values and team vision. If you’re interested in doing this work with yourself or your team, I’d love to be your guide!

How Are You Feeling?

We’re two weeks into March and it feels like spring is in the air. I’ve been feeling energized and rejuvenated. But I have a question for you. How are you feeling? How are you really feeling? We don’t ask this question nearly enough. And if we do, we don’t usually expect an honest response. I find myself waiting until someone is sick or not feeling well to ask, “How are you feeling?” Why is that? Why don’t we ask this question, and really mean it, and wait for an answer more often? I usually ask, “How’s it going?” And then hope the person replies, “Good”, and we move on to other things.

Feelings and emotions have been on my mind lately. My daughter, Aria, has a Big Life Journal—can you tell her mom is a positive psychology nerd?—that she fills out each day. One of the entries asks her to circle how she’s feeling. There are four pre-drawn faces ranging from happy to sad, with one left blank. Most days she circles the happy face. Every now and then she draws her own face which looks sort of angry. Feelings are like a news report from our psyche. We need to interpret those reports to see what are they telling us. As adults asking the question, “How are you feeling,” we need to make space for the person to respond. We need to listen with an intensity that shows we really care what the person will tell us.

Why is it so hard for us to really share our feelings? We often want to push them away. Bottling our emotions or brooding over them prevents real growth. It’s like putting your arms straight out and holding books. Eventually your arms start to shake and we drop the books. Brooding, conversely, is like hugging the books to our chest. Eventually our arms cramp up and become rigid and tight. We don’t drop the books, but we find it difficult to release and move on to doing something else more productive.” In Marc Brackett’s book, Permission to Feel, he teaches us to become an “emotion scientist.” An emotion scientist has the ability to pause and say, “What am I reacting to? Do I need a glass of water, or to take a break? Or is there something else going on?”

RULER is the name Marc Brackett gives to developing the key skills to emotional expression: Recognizing emotions in oneself and others. Understanding the causes and consequences of emotion. Labeling emotions with precise words. Expressing emotions, taking context and culture into consideration. Regulating emotions effectively to achieve goals and wellbeing.

To go back to feelings—they’re a news report from our psyche. Emotions fuel our behaviors and feelings drive our responses. If I better understand my emotions and feelings, I am in better control of my behaviors and responses—and that is worth taking time to study.

Who has their ruler ready?

A Willing Heart vs. A Wagging Finger

This past week I’ve been helping my mom move. We were up in her attic going through items. I went to lift a box and grunted, “Mom, what is in this box?” My mom replied, “Oh, that’s all the projects I wanted to do but never got started!” It was full of quilting magazines earmarked for ideas. Dang, can they get heavy! The attic of good intentions.

Plato said we are like a charioteer driving a chariot being pulled by two horses: one horse represents passion and the other represents intellect. Our brain is the chariot and it is at war with itself by the things we want to do and the things we know we should or shouldn’t do. When we tell ourselves we “have to” do something it actually ramps up temptation and makes us feel constricted or deprived. When we “want to” do something, our intrinsic motivation is ramped up and we are more likely to do it. Researchers conducted a study with commuters on street sign effectiveness using both “want to” language and “have to” language. One sign read, “Will you take the stairs?” The other sign read, “Take the stairs!” At the decision point, commuters’ reactions to the “want to” language, “Will you take the stairs?” caused them to more often take the stairs versus the “have to” language. The autonomy and internal desire created the more lasting behavior change. Connecting the want to motivations makes more effective change.

So how do we help our inner charioteer to get our whole self working in harmony to reach our goals? As Susan David states in her book, Emotional Agility, a willing heart is more powerful than a wagging finger. The power of want can bring our actions more in line with what really matters to us. Try changing your inner dialogue from, “I have to reduce the number of emails in my inbox” to “I want to reduce…” Instead of, “I have to have this conversation,” say “I want to have this conversation.” Notice how your body reacts to have and want. I feel a tension and a resistance with have. I feel something open up when I say want. It helps me to find desire within rather than feeling obligated. An important point to consider is not neglecting underlying concerns by trying to force a “want to.” If you can’t find a want to in some particular part of your life, that could be a strong indicator that a change needs to occur.

What’s in your “attic” of good intentions? Can you find some internal desire that will motivate you to take action? As always, I’m here to listen and help. Don’t hesitate to reach out.

P.S. For the record, I did get to take the magazines out of the box and chuck them down the attic stairs to the recycle bin below. THAT was fun!


Get Past Failure with Tiny Tweaks

Tell me how you failed today. Wait, what?! That’s not typically what you hear coming from me, is it? Sarah Blakely, founder of Spanx© and the youngest female billionaire, tells this story of growing up. Every night at the dinner table, her father would say, “Tell me how you failed today.” It wasn’t because he was a negative person. It was his view that it was important to keep a sense of challenge and growth alive throughout life. Susan David, author of Emotional Agility, calls this the tiny tweaks principle – making small changes to break habits. We have a choice in what we say and do. Looking at where we have failed can help us find the balance between challenge and competence and give us the agility to move forward through life’s peaks and valleys.

I failed yesterday. I was in a conversation with someone who was very angry and resentful of his work situation. While he was venting his story to me, I was thinking in my head, “What question can I ask him that will help him?” I wish I had actually asked that question. I didn’t and I failed to pause and listen. Instead, I made statements about what I saw was the issue. I allowed his anger and frustration to reflect in the tone I used with him in the conversation. Neither of us was listening to the other person. We were just trying to get our stories heard. It was helpful for me to reflect on that conversation because something I want to work on more is better, more present listening. Many of you may recall that the great TV interviewer Larry King died this past week. He was famous for asking few questions, following where his guest’s responses led. He didn’t make it about his agenda. He rarely said “I…” This came up in my reflection and reminded me again to slow down my thoughts, pause, and really listen to what is being said. This is a tiny tweak that can make a big difference in the outcome of a conversation.

So, tell me about a time you failed. What happened? What did you do that you would like to change? What tiny tweak can you try that will help you in your personal and professional growth? You’re welcome to share it with me. I will be a good listener. *smile*

Fun Friday Musings

Anyone interested in some light musings for this today’s blog post? Good! Me too!

Things I’ve noticed on week 6 of sheltering in place and working from home:

  • I run the dishwasher more than ever before, but laundry loads seems lighter. Hmm. Probably because sweats and jeans last longer than slacks and button downs.
  • Little things are devastating and major things fly right by. We’re out of mayo, seriously??!! Unemployment is at roughly 26.5 million? Huh.
  • Piano Man came on the radio and I almost burst into tears. What I wouldn’t give to be listening to live music in a pub, having a drink with friends.
  • COVID-19 is now COVID-20. As in pounds gained.
  • I have the attention span of a gnat. Some call it SOS – shiny object syndrome. (I got up 5 times to check out what was going on outside while I wrote this.)
  • I really don’t know clouds at all. (Bonus if you reply with the song this comes from.)

What have you noticed about yourself and your household? Feel free to share your fun musings with me.

Cultivating Optimism and Hope

There’s a thoughtful quote from the movie Saving Mr. Banks where Walt Disney says, “In imagination [because that’s what we storytellers do] we restore order with imagination; we instill hope again and again and again.”

I love thinking about imagination as giving us hope. Imagination is much like cultivating optimism, which is the Positivity Project focus this month. Imagine your best life a year from now, five years from now…can you do it? Here are some guidelines to help you get started.

Create a Best Possible Self Diary
Sit in a quiet place for 20-30 minutes. Write about where you’d like to be in one, five, and 10 years from now. Visualize a place where everything has turned out the way you’ve wanted. Write it down. Once it is visualized, your brain starts to think about how to make it so.

Hope Theory
Hope is defined as the perceived ability to produce pathways to achieve desired goals and to motivate oneself to use those pathways. Learn more about Hope Theory by clicking here.

Cultivate optimism this month and take time to imagine your hopes and dreams coming true!

What Do You Want on Your Tombstone?

How are you? I’m on vacation today, but you all are on my mind. I’ve received a number of very thoughtful messages expressing how much these messages help, so today I want to send out some love and care.

There used to be a silly commercial on TV that keeps playing in my mind these days. The scene is the Wild West, with a grisly cowboy figure asking a frightened citizen, “What do you want on your tombstone?” It was a commercial for Tombstone Pizza (I’ve never tried one). Surprisingly (not surprisingly?!) the line didn’t make me think of sausage and pepperoni. It always provoked me to think, “What do we want to be known for?” A deep thought for a pizza commercial!

This is a great question for self-reflection. What are you known for? What do you want to be known for? Are there gaps in those two questions? If so, what can you start working on to align them? I’ve been seeing articles on how you can tell about a company’s culture and values by how they’re treating their employees at a time like this. What are we known for as public servants? What is your team known for? What has challenged you and your team these past few weeks? What can you do?

I can’t be the best “I” for others or even help others if I don’t know myself and haven’t worked on developing myself. Something I’ve found helpful lately is asking myself the 6 Daily Quarantine Questions (from the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley). Here they are for your daily exercise, enjoyment and reflection:

  1. What are you grateful for today?
  2. Who are you checking in on or connecting with today?
  3. What expectations of “normal” are you letting go of today?
  4. How am I getting outside today?
  5. How am I moving my body today?
  6. What beauty am I either creating, cultivating or inviting in today?

If there is anything I can help you or your team with, please feel welcome to reach out. Stay well!