Category Archives: Ideas

Looking for Permission

We’re taught at an early age to seek permission.  At the most basic level, permission is a great defense against chaos.  Imagine if every kid did whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted.  For that matter, imagine if every adult did whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted.  Chaos would result.

We seek direct, indirect, and implied permission.  We operate within the bounds of what our cultural traditions permit.  We stay within what the law permits, at least most of the time.

The permission of others surrounds us.  It shelters us from responsibility.

The big challenge comes when we start asking ourselves for permission.  We look for a direction that fits within our comfort zone.  We seek our own okay to try something new.  We can imagine doing the impossible, but the easiest path is to deny ourselves permission to try.

When we can’t get permission from ourselves, we look for it elsewhere.  We ask our friends and family.  We read articles, blog posts, and books.  We listen to podcasts and speeches (TED talks come to mind).  All is an effort to find someone who approves.

We wonder if anyone else is thinking the same things.  What would they do?  How would they handle this?

Permission’s power is immense.  Without permission, our next indicated step is a mystery.  The un-permitted transforms into the impossible before our eyes.  “Hey, nobody else is doing this thing, so it must be a bad idea.  Let’s bail.”

I’ve read many times that each of us is the product of the five or ten people we interact with the most.  If this is true, we’re really the product of what those five or ten closest people permit from us.  We grant each of them the power of their permission, often without realizing it.

What if those five or ten people, out of concern for our safety, or possibly their own comfort, don’t grant us the permission we seek?  What if their collective box of permission is too small for our life’s goals to fit?  Should we find another five or ten people?  Maybe.  But, that’s not the real answer.

The answer lies in realizing that the permission we seek comes from within.

Our ability to visualize the future, and see ourselves within that new reality is the change that’s needed.  Once we find the courage to consider and see that future, permission for growth and new challenges comes naturally.

Will this be easy?  No way!  This requires a commitment to personal responsibility.  You won’t have anyone else to blame, or forgive, when things go wrong.

You’ll be living a life without the foundation of outside permission.  Your internal permission will become that foundation.

The permission we seek from others must build upon our own internal permission, not the other way around.

“It is often easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.” —Grace Hopper

 

Photo Credit:  Unsplash.com, Aziz Acharki

Mistakes Were Made

Uncle Lou, our March Madness Bracket Master and Chief Referee, sent an email to our group with “Mistakes Were Made” in his subject line.

What a great subject line, especially from our referee!

It let us all know right up front that things aren’t perfect, and it revealed the one thing many of us avoid admitting at all costs:  mistakes.

Mistakes can be the first step toward that other really bad thing in life:  FAILURE!

Mistakes and failures.  Even more powerful in our lives is the fear of making mistakes, and experiencing failures.

Fear is a good thing.  It keeps us alive.  But, it can also stop us from taking action, changing course, making corrections, or dumping one idea in exchange for another (possibly better, but maybe worse) idea.

Imagine if you wrote an email every day, or maybe just once a week with the subject:  Mistakes Were Made.  In this magical email, you’d describe the areas where you made mistakes, describe the failures that had happened that day or that week, and spell out what you learned.

As challenging as writing this email might be, once it’s written, send it to your boss.  And then send it to the people who report to you.

Does this little challenge strike fear in your heart?  That’s natural.  You should do it anyway.  By admitting your mistakes, you’re letting your boss and those who report to you know that you are human.  You are vulnerable.  You don’t have all the answers.

None of us likes to admit to our mistakes or our failures.  But, the act of admission frees us from the fear and other emotional baggage that we often carry when we make mistakes.

Acknowledging our mistakes and failures is the first step toward forgiving ourselves.  Forgiveness lies on the opposite side of our fear.  Its power against fear cannot be underestimated.  A forgiving mindset, especially toward ourselves, opens us up to real learning and improvement.

I remember learning to water ski.  After a while, my brother and I were pretty good skiers.  We could go for miles and miles slaloming, jumping across the wake, and throwing up huge rooster tails without falling.  That was nice, but our dad had a different view.  He used to say that if we weren’t falling, at least occasionally, we weren’t trying to get better.

The trying was always as important (maybe more important) than the result.  Dad wanted us to always be improving, so in his way, he was asking us to welcome the mistakes that led to better performance.

It’s clear that mistakes will happen.  They come with the territory if we’re pushing our limits and getting better.

Embracing our mistakes is much better than fearing them.

 

Photo Credit:  Unsplash, Nathan Shively

Solving Interesting Problems and Finding Failure Along the Way

Failure_Target

There I was, listening to a Tim Ferris podcast, featuring Seth Godin (a great combination, by the way).

Seth said a lot.  When it came to our education system, he said it’s geared toward making compliant workers to serve the industrial complex.  I can’t help but agree with that assessment.

He said our education system should instead focus on two things:

  1. Teaching our children how to solve interesting problems (where the answers can’t be Googled),

and,

  1. Teaching our children how to lead.

As I listened, I completely agreed.

And then, only one day later, I was presented with an interesting problem.

Kip was telling me about a problem he likes to ask his programming candidates.  He gave me the problem with a look that said, “Surely you’ll be interested in this problem, and you’ll be able to figure it out.”

Wrongo!

As he explained the problem, my mind wasn’t looking for a solution.  Instead, I started wondering why I’d spend time on this problem, could I Google it (you can), how long would I have to struggle with it before he’d give me the answer, and what would an HR person say about asking this particular question (ever focused on compliance).

Meanwhile, he stood there expecting me to attack the problem, to ask follow-up questions, to start searching for a solution.  I gave him nothing.

Disappointed, he realized I wasn’t working the problem.  He gave me a hint, trying to get me to engage.  No dice.  I wasn’t tackling the problem.  I wasn’t even curious.  I waited for the answer.  In fact, I noticed I was thinking about something else (probably having to do with where we’d be eating lunch).  I hadn’t even tried.

Here’s the problem (it’s called the three light bulb question):

A windowless room has 3 light bulbs. You are outside the room with 3 switches, each controlling one of the lightbulbs. If you can only enter the room one time, how can you determine which switch controls which light bulb?

An interesting problem.  One I had chosen to not solve.

A problem that a younger version of myself would have loved.  It requires logic, imagination, a willingness to fail, and enough confidence to know, really know, that I can find the solution.

Here’s a small hint.  You’ll need to use all of your senses to find the answer.

For me, the question that’s more interesting than the light bulb problem is why I chose (almost automatically) to give up before trying to solve it.

I can tell myself it’s because I’m not a programming candidate, or that I don’t have to prove myself by solving the puzzle.  But, these aren’t the reasons.

Could be a lack of confidence.  Somewhere, deep in my subconscious (or maybe right on the surface), I didn’t know that I could solve the problem.  Queue the white flag.

That’s not the root cause.  In that same subconscious place, my mind saw an opportunity to fail.

Failure is not an option.

Failure is embarrassing.

Failure exposes our weaknesses.

How could it be that the younger version of myself would have tackled this problem with gusto, but the more experienced version sees an opportunity for failure and runs the other way?

I’ve purposely faced failure countless times in my life.  I remember being the guy who “poked the bear.”  I loved the unsolvable problem.  My job often involved turning around “unsolvable” situations.  Failure lurked around every corner, but it seemed normal to me.

There must be something else happening.

The narrative.  That’s the message we tell ourselves (and others) about our core beliefs.  It describes what makes us tick, our mission, why we do all the crazy things we choose to do.  It doesn’t matter if the narrative is always true.  It’s our narrative, and it drives the way we perceive our place in the world.

Years of status meetings, monthly reports, strategy reviews, and all the rest taught me to avoid failure.  Don’t miss the goal.  Give yourself some wiggle room.  Make sure you have buy-in from everyone before launching that new idea.  Don’t take any unnecessary risks.  Don’t go out on a limb…you might fall.  We have shareholders who expect a return.

Without realizing it, I allowed my narrative to morph.  Failure avoidance found its way in.

What’s the easiest way to avoid failure?

Don’t take up the challenge.  Avoid the risks.  Don’t poke that bear.  Let someone else try.  Say “No.”

But, failures teach us the most valuable lessons in life.  The quickest way to stop learning is to avoid failures.

The truth is, avoiding failure is the biggest failure of all.

Something I’ll remember the next time I’m faced with an interesting problem, or an opportunity to fail (which are often the same things).

Want the answer to the three light bulb question?

Here’s one more hint.  Your sense of touch will come into play.

By now, I’m sure you’ve figured it out.  If not, here it is:

Turn on two switches (call them A and B) on and leave them on for a few minutes.  Then turn one of them off (switch B) and enter the room.

I’ll let you figure out the rest.

Self-Talk

It’s not what you say out of your mouth that determines your life.  It’s what you whisper to yourself that has the most power. –Robert T. Kiyosaki

The first person to give you feedback is yourself…in the form of self-talk.  You have 24/7 access to your internal talk track.  Your messaging is unfiltered and brutally honest.

Does unfiltered and honest mean accurate?  Does it mean valuable?  Not necessarily.

The truth is that no matter how incorrect your self-talk is, or how much you try to ignore it, you are your most trusted advisor.  You have the most power over yourself (for better or worse).

Negative self-talk is easy.  Bad news travels fast, especially when it doesn’t have to travel.

Positive self-talk is harder, and sometimes difficult to believe.  Our positive self-talk can sound a bit crazy, which makes it easier to discount.

Status quo is powered by doubt in our positive self-talk.

The most successful people I know face challenges with self-talk.  They happen to believe their positive self-talk just a little more than the negative.

The negative is right there, trying to hold them back.  Somehow they’ve found a way to focus on the positive, finding ways to push past their wave of doubt.

They’ve usually found kindred spirits who can help strengthen their positive self-talk.  A support network that reinforces their crazy ideas.  The best support network doesn’t fully buy-in to the crazy.  They merely create an environment where it’s okay to explore the crazy.  To bring it out in the open and let it breathe a little.

And, that’s the real secret of self-talk.  We all have negative and positive self-talk rolling around in our heads.  But, if we can allow the positive to get a little breathing room, that’s usually all it takes to win the internal battle against the negative.

Here’s the challenge:  The war between negative and positive is never over.  You have to win it one battle at a time.

The Puzzles We Build

 

jigsaw-puzzle_pieces

When was the last time you assembled a puzzle?

Did you do it yourself, or did you have help?

How long did it take to assemble?  Minutes?  Hours?  Days?

In our house, whenever we started a puzzle, it was an “all-hands-on-deck” affair.  We’d all start working it.  Some of us would focus on organizing the pieces to make them visible.  Others would dive right in and start putting pieces together.

I worked the edges.  It’s the only thing that helped me get my bearings on the puzzle.  Start with the flat sides and establish a border…then work into the middle.  Working from the middle, out, was way too random for me.

“Hey, does anyone want some hot chocolate?” always seemed like a good question for me to ask after about a half-hour of diligent work.  With marshmallows.  Without looking up, I’d get some slow yesses and a few grunts.  By the time I came back with the hot chocolate, I was always amazed at the progress.

I’d get back to working the edges.

Each of us had our specialty and our own pace.  Some of us were easily distracted (me).  My wife would stay focused for hours…one piece at a time.

“Hey, who’s up for a break from the puzzle?  Maybe we can hit it again in a couple of hours with fresh eyes.”  I was always a proponent of fresh eyes.

But, then we’d get most of the edges completed.  I’d get my own personal rhythm, and I could start to see the patterns.  The puzzle started to take shape.  First, in my mind and then on the table.  My perspective on the puzzle and my ability to add value to it changed as the image emerged from all the pieces.

I don’t know if my wife and daughters (or anyone else who’d stop by and get sucked into the assembly project) went through the same evolution in their perspective as I did.

Our latest puzzle is a new business (actually, an existing business that we recently purchased).  Once again, our family is building a puzzle together.  This time, it’s not at the dining room table with a clear picture of the final product.  In fact, new pieces are being added to this puzzle all the time.

Once again, we’re each approaching the puzzle in our own way.  Center-out.  Edges-in.

Distractions?  Definitely.

Is an image beginning to emerge?  Yes.

The best (and most challenging) aspect of this puzzle is that it’s never finished.  It grows and evolves.  It occasionally leaves us feeling a bit perplexed.  But, it also takes beautiful shape before our eyes as we continue to build, one piece at a time.

Anyone up for some hot chocolate?  We’re gonna be here a while!

 

 

Discuss or Defend?

Discussing involves active listening.  Curiosity.  Openness.  It requires genuine interest in ideas, even if they contradict your own.

Defending involves taking and holding a position.  Looking for openings to argue against another idea.  Preparing your response, while you should be listening.

Discussing takes time.  Discussing requires courtesy, respect, and patience.  Defending, not so much.

Most discussions we see on TV, or hear on the radio, aren’t discussions at all.  They’re exercises in defending.  Questions and answers are metered out in an attempt to defend one position or another.

It’s often the same in a business setting.

The search for alignment, a conclusion, a decision, or an all-out victory often trumps everything else, including a meaningful exchange of ideas.

How often do you defend, instead of discuss?  Be honest.  We’re just discussing here…no need to get all defensive.

What if you went through an entire day without defending?  Think you could do it?

 

Ideas from TEDx ChapmanU–June, 2014

TED started in 1984 as a conference to bring together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, and Design. TED talks are limited to no more than eighteen minutes in length, and cover a wide array of topics, all focused on “ideas worth spreading.” More than 1,400 talks are available for viewing on-line.

Last year’s event was great, and this year’s was even better. Here’s a quick synopsis of what we learned this week from the sixteen speakers (fourteen “live,” and two on video):

Lee Cheng, Chief Legal Officer at NewEgg, Incorporated, told us a little bit about his work fighting patent trolls. He referred to himself as Chief Patent Troll Hunter, taking on those who would stifle innovation and business growth by claiming obscure patent ownership of such common functions as drop-down boxes, search boxes, and shopping cart functions on websites. This wasn’t the main focus of his talk. He focused on Fred Cheng, the founder and CEO of NewEgg (a $2.6 billion, privately held ecommerce site, and number two in the ecommerce space behind Amazon). Fred Cheng works in near anonymity, shunning personal attention, adulation, or PR. Fred focuses on NewEgg’s success, which he believes is the result of the team, and not his own personal work. It reminded me of a seminal quote, “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.”

Stephanie Decker is the quintessential survivor. In March, 2012, a tornado ripped through her home in Henryville, Indiana. She shielded her two young children with her body. The house collapsed and disintegrated around them, crushing Stephanie’s legs. Her kids survived without a scratch. She told us that mental toughness is the key differentiator in life. Each of us will face storms or struggles in our lives. We choose how we handle the storms. Staying positive is a choice. Although she lost her legs in the storm, she found her purpose. Her purpose wasn’t just learning how to walk again. That was just a first step (no pun intended). She and her husband formed the Stephanie Decker Foundation to help children with prosthetics get the best technology available to live the fullest lives possible.

Brian Kessler, founder and president of Maui Toys, talked about curiosity and the spirit of innovation. His father, Milton Kessler, invented the hula hoop. Brian has designed and developed more than 2,600 toys, sporting goods, and consumer products. He defined innovation as a process that has three main parts: creation, application, and execution. Creation is seeing what someone needs or wants, application is defining who will actually want this innovation, and execution is setting about to make it happen. Easy? Hardly. He described the series of small steps and adjustments he made to toy ideas before having the product that people would actually want to buy. He also showed some examples of “new” toys that are merely extensions of other toys. Innovation can be evolutionary, as well as revolutionary.

Laura Glynn, associate professor of Psychology at Chapman University, talked about the maternal brain. Professor Glynn said that 90% of all women worldwide will give birth to at least one child in their lifetime (amazing statistic). She told us about the fundamental physiological changes a woman’s brain goes through during pregnancy. Mother’s brains grow and change during pregnancy, and the effects are cumulative as they have additional children. Mother’s brains have an enhanced ability to identify threats and deal with stressful situations (ideal for new parents!). The old saying about not coming between a mother bear and her cubs seems to be the result of physiological changes in the maternal brain. Scientific research in this area is relatively new. People like Professor Glynn are uncovering new and amazing insights into the miracle of life, and how mom’s brains uniquely adapt to take on the challenges of parenting.                      

Trent Schlom, a twenty-one year old sports reporter and broadcaster for ESPN talked about how he turned his love of sports into a career. He always dreamed of talking about sports, and starting at fifteen, he took steps to make that dream a reality. His secrets? He creates his own opportunities, is always prepared, and keeps showing up. He focuses on learning and views himself as the eternal student. His concluding advice: Don’t just dream. Take the next step to actually get closer to your dream, and keep taking those steps. Trent’s energy and positive attitude are infectious, and may be the biggest secret of all.

Sarah Kaye’s 2011 TED presentation (if I should have a daughter…) streamed into the auditorium. Sarah is a spoken word poet, who started presenting her work when she was fourteen. She describes spoken word poetry as poetry that doesn’t want to sit on paper. It must be performed. She said there are three steps to writing poetry (or just about anything else in life):

  • I can…do this
  • I will…continue to do this
  • I will infuse this with myself and my “backpack full of everywhere else I’ve been in life.”

As a way to get started, she asks her students to write lists:

  • Ten Things I Know to Be True
  • Ten Things I Should Have Learned by Now.

She writes poetry to work things out, and in the process, challenges each of us to do the same thing as we listen.

Iryna Krechkovsky, a prize-winning violinist, played a selection written by Bach on her Stradivarius. In her introduction to the song, she talked about how technology has given us so many ways to communicate with each other, and yet, we are emotionally removed from each other. Classical music is relevant in today’s society, because music is human. It expresses human emotion in ways we can’t explain, and in ways our technology can’t replicate.

Michael Laskin, a professional actor for over 35 years, described his view of the acting profession. While I didn’t learn much about acting, I did take a couple of key points from his talk:

Your talent is a given. Your resume and skills are what get you to the audition (or interview, meeting, or speech). What happens next is all about YOU. Your authenticity will trump your skill set and have more to do with your success than anything else.

Jillian Lauren, a New York Times bestselling author, talked about the experience she and her husband are living after adopting their son from Ethiopia. She, too, was adopted. What lessons does she take from her own adoption, and her son’s? Love is a decision, and a gift. When her son first arrived, he was suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. He had uncontrollable temper tantrums, night terrors, and a number of other symptoms that took years to work through. Jillian told her son stories as they walked around the city when he first arrived. As he grew, he came to embrace his journey here as a great adventure. He is subconsciously creating an identity for himself that is part Ethiopian, part Jewish, part Scottish, part American. We all form ourselves, based on our imagination, and the stories we tell about ourselves, regardless of where we came from.

Frank Smith, COO of Anschutz Film Group and Walden Media, discussed change. Change is continuous, no matter what industry (his happens to be film production). He related the history of the studio system in Hollywood, and how the near-monopoly of the five large studios began to break apart after World War II with the advent of television, and other changes. Companies that reacted quickly to the new reality thrived, while those who refused to embrace the changes went in the opposite direction. Change is hard, and sometimes difficult to see at first. Change should be seen as a constant, and can’t be ignored. The ash heap of history is littered with organizations that failed to respond to disruptions and changes in their industry (ironically, some of these got their start by disrupting someone else’s business): Border’s Books, Blockbuster Video, Tower Records, Circuit City, A&P, Washington Mutual Bank, MySpace, and Sears (well, not quite).

Stacey Schuerman, a yoga instructor, took the entire audience through a five-minute exercise to slow down, and focus on our breathing. She called it a chance to reset, renew, and rejuvenate our energy levels. An opportunity to feel the peace and calmness of the present. She recommended that we take at least five minutes every day to recharge. I plan to replay her presentation video at least once a day for my own on-demand recharge session.

Adam Spencer, mathematician and Australian radio host, discussed his passion for finding massive prime numbers. Numbers and math are the musical notes of the universe. His excitement for the pursuit of these elusive numbers is overwhelming. He marvels at how lucky we are to live in an age when mind and machines can work together to expand the frontiers of our knowledge. How amazing is it that a scientist can theorize about something as fundamental and “unprovable” as the Higgs boson in 1964, and then have a machine demonstrate its existence only fifty years later?

Robin Follman is an internationally acclaimed opera singer. She is also the head of strategic planning at her family’s manufacturing company. Even though she didn’t get the lead in her high school play, she did get the lead in a professional opera company while she was still in high school. She credits her success to preparation, perseverance, resiliency, and some luck. Also, rejecting her choir teacher’s advice to “blend.” She wanted her voice to be heard, and she was always ready when a new opportunity presented itself.

Eyal Aronoff is a co-founder of Quest Software, which was sold to Dell for $2.4 billion in 2012. Eyal’s passion now is breaking our addiction to oil as an energy source. He says that while wind and solar are nice, they aren’t a workable large-scale alternative to liquid gasoline for the cars we drive. Public transportation is only viable in certain urban centers. He showed that taxation and other financial incentives or punishments aren’t effective in changing our energy habits. He wants to show how alcohol-based liquid fuels are the best replacement fuel for liquid gasoline. Alcohol-based fuels can be derived from corn, sugar, biomass, and natural gas, to name just a few. Will it work? Are we capable of making this type of switch? Only time will tell. Clearly this idea of breaking our addiction to oil is one worth spreading.

Alison Noel is a New York Times bestselling author of 21 novels, with over seven-million copies in print. She talked about labels…those that others place on us and those we place on ourselves. We all have a yearning to be seen, heard, and understood. The question is how will we be seen, how will we be heard, and will we be understood for what we really are? Our labels often get in the way of understanding. She told us how her childhood was impacted by labels, some accurate, but most inaccurate. Labels don’t always fit, but they usually stick…if we allow them.

Dileep Rao is an actor who asked the question, “Do Movies Matter Anymore?” Some could easily argue that in a world of multitasking, and fragmented attention spans, movies are becoming a relic of the past. Rao argues the exact opposite. He sees the movie theater as the metaphoric dark cave where images and shadows from the campfire mesmerize us. Movie theaters are an almost sacred place where we are immersed in a story (if we allow it), with a bunch of strangers. For that short period of time, we are single-tasking, singularly-focused, and in the present (sounds a little bit like yoga).

Why spend five hours at a TEDx event? It’s all about ideas, and stories. Ideas worth spreading, and the way these ideas impact the stories we tell ourselves.