Category Archives: Choices

Before the Law

What can Franz Kafka’s parable, written in 1915, tell us?

Before the Law

Before the law sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who asks to gain entry into the law. But the gatekeeper says that he cannot grant him entry at the moment. The man thinks about it and then asks if he will be allowed to come in later on. “It is possible,” says the gatekeeper, “but not now.” At the moment the gate to the law stands open, as always, and the gatekeeper walks to the side, so the man bends over in order to see through the gate into the inside. When the gatekeeper notices that, he laughs and says: “If it tempts you so much, try it in spite of my prohibition. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the most lowly gatekeeper. But from room to room stand gatekeepers, each more powerful than the other. I can’t endure even one glimpse of the third.”

What exactly is “the law?”  I’m sure it’s something real, but it doesn’t matter.  Alfred Hitchcock once said that every movie is a search for the MacGuffin.  Every character in the story lives or dies in relation to quest for the MacGuffin.

How often have you confronted a gatekeeper?  That mysterious person with unknown power.  They appear to hold the key you need.  Their power emanates from the knowledge you need.  Knowledge they often don’t possess.  Their greatest power comes from your insecurity.  The gatekeeper represents your desire to stay safe, risk nothing, step back.  Thank God that gatekeeper’s there!  Otherwise, I’d have to actually step through that gate, without any obstacle to block me.

The man from the country has not expected such difficulties: the law should always be accessible for everyone, he thinks, but as he now looks more closely at the gatekeeper in his fur coat, at his large pointed nose and his long, thin, black Tartar’s beard, he decides that it would be better to wait until he gets permission to go inside.

The gatekeeper isn’t there to grant permission.  Access isn’t his to grant.  Our hero focuses so intently on every last detail of the gatekeeper that he gets to avoid thinking about what lies beyond the gate.  The biggest challenges in life aren’t delivered in the first step but in the thousandth.

The gatekeeper gives him a stool and allows him to sit down at the side in front of the gate. There he sits for days and years. He makes many attempts to be let in, and he wears the gatekeeper out with his requests. The gatekeeper often interrogates him briefly, questioning him about his homeland and many other things, but they are indifferent questions, the kind great men put, and at the end, he always tells him once more that he cannot let him inside yet.

Status quo is warm and comfy.  Pursuing the mundane is safe.  Busying ourselves with the day-to-day tasks gives us something to do, but doesn’t move us any closer to what lies beyond the next gate.

The man, who has equipped himself with many things for his journey, spends everything, no matter how valuable, to win over the gatekeeper. The latter takes it all but, as he does so, says, “I am taking this only so that you do not think you have failed to do anything.”

All the preparation in the world is meaningless without the desire to put that preparation to work.  To take what you’ve learned and test it in the real world.  To learn the real lessons that come from experience.  To make the mistakes that can cost you everything…and nothing.  To risk real failure, and real triumph is what makes life most interesting.

During the many years, the man observes the gatekeeper almost continuously. He forgets the other gatekeepers, and this one seems to him the only obstacle for entry into the law. He curses the unlucky circumstance, in the first years thoughtlessly and out loud, later, as he grows old, he still mumbles to himself. He becomes childish and, since in the long years studying the gatekeeper he has come to know the fleas in his fur collar, he even asks the fleas to help him persuade the gatekeeper.

How long have you waited for someone to pick you?  How long have you waited for your stars to align?  Stars are part of a perfectly ordered and yet totally chaotic system.  Their alignment is rare and temporary at best.

There are about 6 billion of us on this planet.  The law of averages (and large numbers) works against us being picked.  More likely, our small piece of the world is waiting for us to choose, and run in that direction.

The gatekeeper isn’t good or evil.  He has only one function.  To guard the gate, and warn us about the challenges that may lie ahead.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Finally, his eyesight grows weak, and he does not know whether things are really darker around him or whether his eyes are merely deceiving him. But he recognizes now in the darkness an illumination which breaks inextinguishably out of the gateway to the law. Now he no longer has much time to live. Before his death, he gathers in his head all his experiences of the entire time up into one question which he has not yet put to the gatekeeper. He waves to him since he can no longer lift up his stiffening body.

We don’t have to grow old for our vision to fail.  That can happen at any age.  It’s easy to lose focus.  It’s easy to find darkness in the midst of all the light.  We each have beacons of light to guide us if we choose to look in their direction.

The gatekeeper has to bend way down to him, for the great difference has changed things to the disadvantage of the man. “What do you still want to know, then?” asks the gatekeeper. “You are insatiable.” “Everyone strives after the law,” says the man, “so how is that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?” The gatekeeper sees that the man is already dying and, in order to reach his diminishing sense of hearing, he shouts at him, “Here no one else can gain entry since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it. 

Woe is me!  I’m the only person in pain.  I’m the only person with these challenges.  I’m the only person struggling.  The world is so unfair.  The deck is stacked against me.  Get over yourself!

Never assume you’re the only one struggling.  I saw a quote from That Gratitude Guy (look him up) recently that said, “Never compare your inside to their outside.”  Excellent advice.

Each of us has a path to follow.  Sometimes it’s smooth.  Sometimes not.  We will encounter obstacles on our journey and even more gatekeepers.

The most powerful gatekeeper of all is fear and the stories we tell to hide it.

No one else can overcome your fear.  That task is assigned only to you.

Photo Credit:  Unsplash, Joshua Earle.  Why this photo?  Why not a photo of a gate, a bureaucrat, darkness, or fear itself?  This photo reflects a beacon of light and an “impossible” next step.  Here’s hoping he finds his way past fear and towards the light.

 

Anyone But Me

  • unsplash-benjamin-child“Who wants to start?”
  • “Any volunteers?”
  • “We need to think outside the box.  Do you have any ideas we can pursue?”
  • “Who’s gonna drive innovation for our company?”
  • “Did you see what they just did?  Who’s heading up our response?”
  • “I’m sure glad he’s running with that project.  I wouldn’t get anywhere near that thing!”
  • “Who’s next?”
  • “You’re kidding me!  She’s leading our brainstorming session?”
  • “I sure hope they figure this thing out.  We need answers and we need them fast!”
  • “I can’t believe we’re doing this.  Who came up with this idea?”
  • “They’re idiots to think this will matter.”

It’s easy to hide.  Easy to complain.  Easy to snipe from a distance.

It’s easiest to let someone else.

The hard thing is stepping up.

Volunteering.

Risking failure.

Taking charge.

Risking embarrassment.

Choosing to lead.

Risking success.

Turning “anyone but me” into “why not me” is the first step…and the hardest one of all.

 

 

Photo Credit:  Unsplash–Benjamin Child

Are You Really Outside Your Comfort Zone?

ComfortZone

In the 80’s, the message was, “Dress for Success.”  Dress at least one level up, make a great impression, get promoted.  The concept focused on impressing the gatekeeper (your boss, or your boss’s boss), moving up, achieving success.  “Upwardly mobile” was a phrase people used to describe themselves.  Inherent in this approach was the thought that your success was dictated by how far up you climbed in one organization.

In the 90’s, the message was, “Be nimble, move fast, deliver quality.”  Tom Peters really came into focus in the 90’s with his thoughts on the “nanosecond” 90’s.  Big companies needed to find ways to “bob and weave,” to adjust to the ever-changing market dynamics.  We all searched for ways to shift paradigms, boost quality, and invent new ways of streamlining processes.

One by-product of this nimble and fast-moving behavior was rapid employee movement.  Corporate downsizing, upsizing, and reorganizations, along with an even faster corporate merger and acquisition pace, made remaining in one organization for a lifetime as remote as winning the lottery.

Dress for Success was out.  Upward mobility was out.  The era of the entrepreneur was upon us (even though it had been with us since the dawn of civilization).  The corporate version, the “intrapreneur,” became a big thing.  This was the person in the meeting who was slightly quirky, a bit edgy and imaginative, and didn’t mind “poking the bear” a bit.  He or she operated with a flair that the corporate mindset both embraced and slightly feared.  This was the person that would help the corporation remain relevant in the face of fast-moving competition, but might upset the apple cart along the way.

Somewhere in the late 90’s or early 2,000’s I started hearing that we should “think outside the box.”  “Think Different” became Apple’s calling card.  It was only that type of thinking that would yield meaningful results.  Anything else was just window dressing, or “lipstick on a pig.”  Look at the top 10 companies in terms of market value (both public and private) and it’s hard to argue with this sentiment.

But, even those “renegade” companies struggle to stay “different” over the long term.  What once seemed new, even revolutionary, becomes the new norm.  Soon, there’s a clamor for the next version, the new invention, the new product, the next “thing.”

What’s the answer to all of this?  Organizations and entrepreneurs try to operate “outside of their comfort zone.”  Yeah!  That’s the ticket.  If we can get everyone pushing outside their comfort zone, maybe that will result in something different, and cajole some new ideas into fruition.

But, the truth is that none of us like it outside our comfort zone.  Most companies and shareholders prefer their comfort zone as well.

We constantly seek our comfort zone, even as we talk about pushing ourselves outside of it.  If we happen to venture out and actually operate for a while in the hinterlands, our deep subconscious goal is to regain our footing, by seeking approval or acceptance of our crazy ideas back in the comfort zone.

We may get used to operating in a new zone and call that our new comfort zone…but, it’s still our (new) comfort zone.  This is one definition of progress.

People have varying perspectives on what’s comfortable.  The free climber is happiest and most “alive” when climbing a 3,000-foot rock face without ropes.  Another person’s comfort zone is speaking in front of a large audience.  Still another person’s idea of comfort is analyzing reams of financial data about the performance of their company.

What is your comfort zone?  When are you the most at ease?

What are you doing to operate outside that zone?

When you find yourself outside your comfort zone, what’s your goal?  To return to the safety of the comfort zone, or to extend your reach to an even more uncomfortable spot?

Look closely and be honest with yourself.  You’re probably spending most of your time inside your comfort zone or trying to find your way back there.

It’s up to you to determine whether this is okay, or not.

 

 

 

 

 

Later…

Later creates room for compromises.

Later lives for tomorrow.

Later keeps lists.

Later allows us to avoid.

Later tells us why we’re preparing.

Later delays forgiveness.

Later is born from hope.

Later connects without really connecting.

Later captures what we imagine.

We often try to create what happens later by our actions today.

Later provides direction.

Later reduces today’s expectations.

Later can hijack the present.

Later is the carrier of our dreams.

Later gains power when it remains vague.

Later simplifies execution.

Later is where many careers will find their stride.

Later is where the craziest ideas go to die.

Later tells us it’s okay to delay.

Later is where big ideas find their future.

Later makes it okay to add complexity.

Later drags us reluctantly forward.

Later makes today easier.

Later makes today harder.

Later isn’t guaranteed.  It can easily turn into never if we allow it.

Later only matters in the present. By the time we get to later, there’s a new later that will once again seem more important than our new present.

There’s more to say on this subject.  I’ll probably get to it later…

Are You Willing?

“I know this now.  Every man gives his life for what he believes.  Every woman gives her life for what she believes.  Sometimes people believe in little or nothing, and yet they give their lives to that little or nothing.  One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it and then it’s gone.  But to surrender what you are and to live without belief is more terrible than dying—even more terrible than dying young.”  –Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc lived less than twenty years.  Yet she fought for her beliefs and made a huge impact on history.  She died for her beliefs at an age when many are just beginning their life’s journey.

She knew what she believed in.  She knew what it meant to sacrifice for her beliefs.  Ask anyone who serves or served in the military, a first responder who runs into a burning building to save others, or a newly formed priest who has answered God’s call.  These are just a few examples.  Each of them know what it means to sacrifice for their beliefs.

Sometimes our beliefs emerge quietly without our knowledge.  We go through life, making seemingly inconsequential decisions about what we will and won’t do.  We decide who our friends are, and how much we will let them into our lives.  We decide when to listen.  We decide how honest we will be with the world around us.

We establish habits for living our life, and we go on our merry way.

Do you know what you believe in?  Really?  Do you know what you believe to be true?  Do you know what is important in your life?

Have you made the quiet time in your life that’s necessary to consider these questions?

What if it turns out that the things you believe in aren’t manifested in the way you live?  Are you willing to change your habits?  Are you willing to eliminate the things that don’t support your beliefs?  Will you support your beliefs in the way you live, and the way you work with others?  Are you willing to make your beliefs the centerpiece of your actions in everything you do?

Joan of Arc was right.  One life is all we have, and then it’s gone.

Where are you in that one life?  Is it too late to examine your beliefs and change the way you live?

The answer is clear  But, it won’t become obvious until we make quiet time in our lives to reflect.  When we do, we find it’s never too late to examine our beliefs and change our life.

Every day is a new beginning if we choose to make it so.  It doesn’t matter what happened in the past.  It doesn’t matter who wronged you.  It doesn’t matter if you had a terrible childhood.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve missed opportunities in the past.  It certainly doesn’t matter if you failed in the past.

All that matters is learning what you believe in.  Then, deciding what to do with that new knowledge, starting today.

The only question is:  Are you willing to find out?

 

Beliefs and Values

h/t:  Matthew Kelly

Real People. Not Actors.

There I was at the gym, climbing the StairMaster (it’s what competitive stair climbers do for fun), and I noticed a commercial on one of the TV’s.  I don’t know what the commercial was trying to sell.  I only know that the people who looked so excited were Real People. Not Actors. That’s what it said on the screen.

I wonder if actors like being thought of as not real people.

Are real people supposed to be more honest than actors?

Don’t we all act just a little bit everyday?  If that’s true, who’s the real person, and who’s the actor?

Real people choose to act in a certain way, everyday.  They may choose to act unhappy, irritated, belligerent, impatient, frustrated.  Or, they may choose to act happy, supportive, patient, welcoming.

We’re all actors…and real people.  We choose how we act.

When we choose, it’s real for everyone, including ourselves.

What’s it Gonna Take?

Questions that (should) open our thinking to new possibilities:

  • Why?
  • Why not?
  • How might we?
  • Why don’t we?

Questions that point us toward solutions:

  • Which strategy fits best?
  • What if we…?
  • How do we get started?
  • How can we make this work?

The real question to be answered before anything actually happens:

What’s it gonna take?

What’s it gonna take to:

  • Start?
  • Find the girl (or boy) of my dreams?
  • Buy this house?
  • Get the job I want?
  • Forgive?
  • Get this project moving?
  • Get this person hired?
  • Run a marathon?
  • Find the real meaning in life?
  • See the Eiffel Tower?  Iceland?  The Northern Lights?
  • Stop pretending we have it all figured out?

Each decision, each action, and each direction you choose carries a cost.

That cost will be in dollars, time, energy, commitment, pride, comfort, or a combination of these.  There’s also the opportunity cost associated with choosing one direction over another.

The biggest cost often isn’t in dollars.  It’s in our pride and comfort.

How much time will you give to an idea?  What if you’re wrong?  Are you willing to risk embarrassment?  Is it worth thousands of dollars to see the Eiffel Tower?  Are you willing to step outside your comfort zone to try something new?

There’s no such thing as a free decision.  And, the decision not to decide carries its own costs.

The challenge is understanding what it’s gonna take, and having the willingness to pay.

The Power of Excuses

“If you really want to do something, you will find a way.  If you don’t, you will find an excuse.”  -Jim Rohn

Excuses have the power to stop almost anything.

Excuses are what we say to ourselves long before we use them on anyone else.

Excuses offer protection from responsibility.

Excuses help us cling to the status quo.

Excuses eliminate the need to take a risk.

Excuses stop us from reaching out to others when they need us most.

Excuses rob us of our potential.

A well-crafted excuse can justify a lifetime of inaction, with only one sentence.

Excuses are easy to find, and even easier to use.

The sad irony about excuses is that their power only impacts the person giving the excuse.

Everyone else knows the truth about your excuse, even if they have their own excuse for ignoring it.

Ego and Leadership

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists.  When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” –Lao Tzu

Which is more important?

Being the leader everyone knows is in charge, or

Being the leader who helps others take charge?

The only way any leader can succeed is to multiply themselves with the help of others.  Only by helping others take charge does the engine of multiplication come to life.

How can you best create ownership within your organization?

Giving commands, or

Asking questions?

This is an easy question.  It’s also one of hardest for many to put into action.  Asking questions is the answer.

What matters most?

Planting your ideas with others, so those seeds of thought take on a life of their own, or

Receiving accolades for your brilliant ideas?

Accolades are nice, but there’s nothing like the quiet satisfaction of seeing your ideas surpass your wildest expectations in the hands of others.

What’s the secret to answering each of these questions correctly?

Realizing the difference between confidence and ego.  Ego is like a wall that separates each of us from truly limitless potential.  Ego is fueled by fear and envy.  Ego worries about embarrassment.

Confidence is what you get when you find a way to leave your ego at the door.  Confidence isn’t afraid, or envious. Confidence loves to explore.  Confidence is happy to let go of itself.  Confidence is willing to be wrong, or look foolish, without embarrassment…especially when pursuing the biggest truths in life

A leader driven by ego is powerless, without realizing it.

“As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.” –Bill Gates

 

The Mystery of the Dots

MysterySeashell

I recently participated in my first Church retreat.  It opened with an exercise where each participant drew a seashell out of a pile of seashells.  Written inside each shell was one word.  The facilitator then asked each of us to say how this one word connects with our lives.

My word was Mystery.

As I sat pondering the word, I couldn’t help thinking about all the dots in my life that have connected to bring me here.

Connect-the-dot puzzles are a great way to teach kids how to count, and see that there can be order in the apparent chaos of a bunch of dots on a page.

Our lives can seem like a collection of random experiences, decisions, non-decisions, near-misses, lucky chances, chance encounters, crazy ideas, mundane thoughts, risky ventures, explorations, challenges, victories, losses, successes, failures, limitations, beliefs, non-beliefs, triumphs, heartbreaks, new directions, people, places and things.

These are our dots.

We create some of the dots, but most of them are already there, waiting for us to connect.

Which dot comes next?  Do we choose, or is it chosen for us?  Is there a pattern, or at least some path, in all these dots?  I like to think we have something to do with deciding which dot comes next, but certainly not everything.

Nearly every major turning point in my life (good and bad, but mostly good) was unplanned.  Sure, I may have been prepared to capitalize, but the actual “dot” came out of nowhere, often by chance.

To paraphrase a quote from The Way (a movie I highly recommend, by the way), “You don’t choose a life, you live it.”  We all make plans, and try to map out where we’re headed.  The truth is, we don’t have as much control over things as we’d like to think.

Letting go of the illusion of control is a big step toward happiness.

The happiest people I know live their lives as a verb, rather than something to be controlled, or pondered in the past tense.  They are always seeking, always learning, always renewing.  They usually spend a lot of time serving others.  They don’t know which dot comes next, but they’re open to the possibilities.

I can see some big dots in my future, but I know there are a bunch I don’t see.  That’s the great mystery that makes life so awesome.