Hold That Thought!

“Hold that thought,” said the office administrator with outstretched hand, signalling a friendly “stop.”  I was in the middle of making a routine request for her assistance.

Hold that thought, an idiomatic was of saying, often by way of interruption, “Wait a second, I’ve got to do something else,” or maybe, “Good idea…for later.”

Let’s try another, more literal, meaning: Hold that thought.

Go ahead, whatever you are thinking now, hold it in mind.  Don’t shift thoughts.  Keep it!  Hold it.  That’s right.  No other thought.  Hold it now…

Impossible.

Why?

The brain does not work that way.  A conscious thought, while correlating, most likely, with an enormously complex electrochemical web of neuronal firing, is not a “thing” that can be held.  Certainly not literally, and not even figuratively.

Thought is fleeting, evanescent, impermanent.  It’s phenomenology arises, crests, and dissipates in milliseconds like so many neurotransmitters in a synaptic dance.

Now, hold *that* thought!

At best, with focused attention and awareness, you might observe a thought’s path–it’s arising, cresting, and dissipating–but you will not be able to hold it.

Remarkably, the inability to hold a thought is natural.  Understanding and exploiting this reality is beneficial and, when applied, potentially powerful.

Understanding the nature of thought–and no more evidence is required than our recent hold-that-thought experiment, although the body of neuroscientific evidence is large and growing rapidly–we can free ourselves from attributing to it characteristics such as permanence, reality, certainty, and truth.

Setting aside these attributes does not diminish thought, but does tend to create greater mental “space,” to expand our ability to hold differing points of view simultaneously, and to soften our often vice-like grip on personal beliefs, points of view, and opinions.

Moreover, when, in nearly instantaneous response to stimuli our brain offers up a thought (and, often, a feeling), we can learn to recognize that the brain is just doing the best that it can, what it is designed to do, but we are not obligated to accept or to act on the first thing that the brain serves up.

There is space between thought and action, which we can first begin to realize then learn to lengthen.  And in that lengthened space, we can observe the thought (or feeling), recognize its insubstantial nature, and choose not to act or react thoughtlessly or from habit alone.

If we cannot hold that thought, perhaps we can learn to hold the space between them.  Acting from this still and quiet space can help us speak and act with mindful intention and greater authenticity.

The beginning, perhaps, of wisdom.

Hold that thought.

Learn. Do. Teach. Lead.

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Map Reading

Safely through a narrow channel, wind and waves at our back, the bows of our canoes pierced Little Batchewaung Bay in Quetico Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada.

A party of three in two canoes–I and my daughter in one, my son paddling his open 14-ft. boat solo–pressed on, the last of our 7-day wilderness paddle through the Canadian shield.  Our destination, the take-out on Nym Lake.

I glanced at the detailed topographic map snugly tucked, wrapped in plastic, between the stern thwart and the Hudson Bay pack in the belly of the boat.  Surveying the far side of the lake, I reckoned our course northeastward.  It was an easy paddle.

We found the Batchewaung Lake portage–800 meters–and made our way to the last lake of our journey.

On the other side of the portage, utter stillness.  Glass water merging infinitely with fog.  Calm quiet.  Undisturbed.  Nym Lake welcomed, embraced, ensconced us, but revealed little.

The sounds of our occasional strokes seemed content to hang in the air, invisible companions, like the lingering notes of a glass bell.

Little else in view but the map at my knees.

I took the moment to confirm our current location, and began scanning the near horizon.

In time, islands, a silent flotilla, arose from the water, like so many forested rafts.

Scanning the two-dimensional map, I attempted to match its lines to the ephemeral three-dimensional island ghosts, first in focus, then not.

Putting first an island on our port, then another, ahead–there it is!–on our starboard, we threaded our way.

We were never able to see much beyond the next little island, even as the ones we just passed threatened to disappear into the haze, but, by careful and frequent reckoning, we always knew where we were.

Such is the way of navigation.

As much as leaders, trainers, and coaches often, and rightly, focus on the goal ahead, real navigation rests in a thorough understanding of the present. The here.  The now.

We must know where we are; sometimes, as in my canoe trip, geographically.  More often, our path is less physical.  We wend our way through fears, skills, desires, needs, assets, time, demands, and opportunities.

Without clarity, however, without authentic self-awareness to anchor us as assuredly as latitude and longitude on a map, efforts to achieve our goals are feckless.

Of the two–knowing where I am and knowing where I’m going–I always take careful stock of the former.  This essential knowledge helps me to navigate, goal in mind.

And so, sun rising, fog lifting, islands parting, giving way to reveal the far shore, we set a course across the lake, paddling out.

Goal achieved, we packed out of Quetico a bit more skilled in, and appreciative of, the craft of map reading.

To get where you’re going, know where you are.

Learn. Do. Teach. Lead.

–Erik

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Chief Learner

A friend of several years has just stepped into a leadership position in his organization, and we chatted recently about his new role and its challenges.

We discussed his observations, goals, and near-term objectives.  He had good insights and ideas, and already has some awareness of potential obstacles to success and their resolution.

I listened mostly, asked a few questions, and interspersed a few comments.

What I heard impressed me.

His intended, primary methods of influencing his organization and the individuals within it are twofold: (1) energizing learning and (2) leading by example.

Energizing learning requires, if not an awakening, at least a heightened recognition by each individual within an organization that learning is a desired, primary, required, daily, and ongoing activity necessary for the growth of individuals and the organization as a whole.

Learning is not in addition to doing the job, it is part of doing the job.  Any job.  Every job.

Often, such perspectives do not exist within organizations, much less pervade it as part of the dominant culture.  While establishing the vision, setting the tone, and shaping the culture for a learning organization ideally start at the top, such initiatives can actually originate anywhere, including an individual workgroup member.

Whether or not an organization has a Chief Learning Officer, each workgroup member must be or become a Chief Learner: self-actuated and self-motivated.  Ideally, the organization supports, recognizes, and rewards learning behaviors, but no-one dare wait for suggestions, directions, conditions, or rewards to take up the mantel of continuous, self-directed learning.

As the conversation with my friend, the new leader, drew near its conclusion, I had but one suggestion: become for your group the Chief Learner.  In other words, Learn-Do-Teach-Lead, which encompasses his two stated goals: (1) energizing learning and (2) leading by example.

How have you become an independent learner in the workplace or fostered a learning environment in your organization?

–Erik

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Growth

Growth is fundamental to life.

(Before reading any more, please review the meaning of analogy.  I’ll wait…)

Practitioners of Organization Development seek to cultivate growth, typically, the growth of individuals that ultimately enhances overall organizational performance according to selected measures.

As an avid gardener, I have studied, practiced, and observed some of the keys to successful plant growth.  And I know that what the gardener does–with knowledge, skill, and care–greatly impacts the life of a plant and the success of a crop.

A gardener is part of a system that includes the soil, the environment, and, of course, the plants, and a successful gardener knows how to enhance growing conditions to improve plant growth for various outcomes.

The risk of my analogy, of course, is that some will all too quickly complain against comparing plant growth with human development.  “We are not vegetables! And you can’t think of your colleagues as vegetables!  We are people!”

Of course we are people.  No need to shout.

But the potential lessons, insights, and applications are simply too compelling and too powerful to ignore.  Read on only if you are willing to be compared to a broccoli plant.  Well, not just any broccoli.

This one:

This is one of the happiest plants I have ever known personally.  I would want all members of a work group to be this happy, healthy, and productive.

Why?

The plant is doing what it’s supposed to be doing, and doing it abundantly and with little guidance at this point from the gardener (me).

Here are some of the things I did to help foster the strong growth and abundant production of this plant:

  • Plant selection.  I knew what I wanted and selected the seed for the job.  The seed catalog included a strong resume.  But I would look for more than just strong credentials.
  • Germination.  I started the seeds with ideal conditions and great care, planting them at the recommended depth in an ideal potting mix.  A gentle press ensured good seed/soil contact.  A heat mat underneath the potting tray provided extra soil warmth, and frequent misting ensured that the soil mix did not dry out.
  • Light.  As soon as the seedling emerged, I provided strong light for up to 18 hours a day.  (Seeds in the ground do not need light, just moisture and warmth.)  The early days are important.  The care devoted to creating the right environment produced strong seedlings.
  • Selection.  Even with ideal starting conditions, not all seedlings exhibited identical growth, and I thinned the emergent seedlings, selecting for vigor.
  • Hardening off.  When the seedling had four true leaves and the weather outside was suitable (broccoli is a cool-weather crop, but small plants are still susceptible to heavy frost or freeze), I moved the plant outside for short, and then increasingly longer, periods of time under careful observation and controlled conditions.  A protected area, cold frame, or hot cap helped with the transition and acclimatization.
  • Site location.  Long before the seed was started I had selected and prepared the garden bed.  This included many aspects of site selection including determining available hours of sunlight, grade, drainage, and proximity of a water source.
  • Soil.  The maturing plant would only thrive in a nutrient-rich environment.  I tested the soil for key nutrients and pH, and amended the soil based on test results.  I was able to ensure the necessary nutrients in proper balance.  Tilling in well-composted humus and other soil amendments added nutrients and improved the tilth to enhance water percolation, nutrient transport, and root growth.  After preparing the soil, I did not step on it again lest I damage the soil structure.
  • Transplanting. Now hardened off, the seedling was ready to take its place in the well-prepared garden bed.  Carefully placed, tamped down, and watered in to ensure good initial root/soil contact, the plant was positioned for initial success.
  • Periodic care.  My job now was to check in periodically, which was a joy.  I looked for healthy growth, monitored soil moisture, mulched to preserve water and reduce weeds, and provided a bit of fertilizer from time to time.  If something came up (evidence pests, insufficient water, or disease), I was quickly aware and intervened as necessary.  Because the plant lived in a healthy environment, problems were rare and easily addressed.
  • Maturation.  The plant, well established in a healthy environment and properly supplied with nutrients, water, light, and warmth–the ingredients necessary for it to do its job–took off, and I marveled.  How truly happy it appeared, providing not only what was required but also that something extra, that magical discretionary effort which, when freely provided, takes performance to a new, higher level.

Well, that’s it.  Good gardening can be hard.  It takes work and some time.  Smart gardening reduces the labor and increases the yield.  But smart gardening in not learned in school nor conferred by degree.  It is a hands-on, knowledge-based craft which, when practiced with care, moves from the head to the heart.

Much like good coaching.

Learn. Do. Teach. Lead.

–Erik and the broccoli

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The More You Plant

The more you plant, the more you grow.

This seems like common sense: more seeds in the soil means more yield later.  (Quantity)

Or, the greater the variety–one of this, one of that, one of another–the more total plants. (Quality)

Or, the more time gardening–season after season–the greater the cumulative harvest.  (Duration)

Or, the more one “truly gardens” (think Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), the more one’s “self” truly grows.  (Subjective)

Or, “Yes” and “Each” and “All.”

The more you plant the
More you grow. The more you grow
The more you plant again.

This is Learn-Do-Teach-Lead.

–Erik

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Speak? Easy!

I don’t have time to prepare and practice my presentation!

Have you ever felt that way?  I have.

That is, I used to until I learned and practiced some tips on preparing a speech.

Here are five powerful practices that have helped me:

1. Use the “Power of Attraction.”  As soon as you settle on a topic or theme, you will begin to notice useful bits and snippets of information flowing to you.  It’s sort of like when you drive a new red car off the sales lot for the first time.  Suddenly, it seems that *everyone* has a red car!  Why?  Because a part of your brain, the amygdala, and other parts of your neuroanatomy are activated and you are particularly alert, even if such attention is subconscious.

Now, the key is to watch for this supportive material–memories, news stories, conversations, reading, the list is endless–that suddenly seems to be everywhere.  Spot it and capture it.

2. Simplify, simplify, simplify.  Really.  Get your speech down to three main points.  Then decide which *one* point you want your audience to remember after your speech.  You are after the point that audience members will Tweet about, post to Facebook, or mention to a friend, colleague, or family member.

Now, isn’t that easier already?  Add your beginning, to grab attention and promise value, and your conclusion, to drive home your message and–voila–a speech is born!

3. Matter is mostly empty space, and often, time is mostly empty thought.  Practice grabbing time to compose a line, develop a point, or imagine your presentation.  Do not write anything down.  Do this exercise in your head.  Why?  Because your head is with you at all times, even if your thoughts are somewhere else.  And time *never* leaves, so grab it while your walking out to your car in the parking lot, walking down the hallway at work, running on the treadmill, or doing any of the thousands of ordinary things you do every day.

You will suddenly discover an amazing amount of otherwise unused or under-used time!

4. Imagine.  Just as authors Erin Macy and Tiffany Wilding-White encourage their readers to “golf with your eyes closed,” I encourage you to practice your presentation in your imagination.  And when you do, make your imagination as vivid and detailed as possible!  Use every sense and strong emotion: see yourself and your audience, feel your voice and the poser of your points, hear the applause and the thump on the lectern as you make a point, smell and taste, and feel yourself commanding the stage.  Do this for short snippets, not the entire speech.  Then string them together.

5. Memorize.  Ok, maybe not “memorize,” but  I’d like you get *very familiar* with your opening and closing.  Why?  You want to start and end strong, with no hesitation or doubt.  Give a little extra attention to these parts of your speech, enough so that you don’t’ have to worry about them at all, and don’t worry about getting them word perfect.  In fact, don’t even try.  You do not need to say the beginning and ending *exactly* the same every time.  This just introduces an unnecessary trap.  Use steps 1-4, above, to help you get your opening and closing well ingrained into your very being.

I said that there were five key points, but here’s a bonus that is very powerful:  Deliver your speech in the moment.

What does that mean?  Trust your preparation, but no amount of preparation is sufficient because the moment of your speech will have unique and unanticipated characteristics.  That’s OK.  Simply adjust as necessary and bring your entire being to your performance.
Remind yourself that you are prepared and then fill the moment with your speech delivered by your whole, well-prepared self.

Learn-Do-Teach-Lead

–Erik

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And I Said, “Yes!”

Multi-talented actor William Shatner, 80, touring in a one-man show, “Shatner’s World: We Just Live in It,” stopped by the Palace Theater in Columbus, Ohio, Sunday, April 15, and, for almost two hours, his world and mine closely overlapped.

Knitting humor, reminiscence, and personal insights gained over a lifetime, Shatner spoke with love and appreciation for his life in the arts and beyond and the many people and events that have shaped his world.

Self-effacing and often tongue-in-cheek, Shatner, with great command of a voice long-trained in performance and with roots in Shakespearean theater, addressed important topics such as the origin of his–sometimes–halting way–of talking–and his coming to terms with being best known for, or at least frequently identified with, his role as James T. Kirk, captain of the USS Enterprise, in the television (then then movie) series, Star Trek.

As Shatner stitched together a series of life stories, a familiar refrain emerged like a drumbeat: “And I said, Yes!”

Early in his career, Shatner declined an opportunity to become part of the inaugural troupe of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival of Canada.   When invited again the second year, he said “Yes!” thus beginning his career as a Shakespearean actor and, for the man behind the characters, lifting a self-limiting psychological veil of “No” to open a world of possibilities.

It’s how those possibilities played out that made “Shatner’s World” (the life and the stage production).  And, while saying “yes” did not always yield equally favorable results, this orientation to the possible provided opportunity and, it seems, became the basis for the ever-expanding universe of “Shatner’s world.”

Saying yes is not a panacea, of course.  Yes does not eliminate risk, assure success, or guarantee outcomes, but it does open doors.  And, while not appropriate in every situation, I don’t know how to take an action without saying Yes.

Turning his thoughts to deeper topics of life, death, and the meaning of both, Shatner comically demanded answers from death.  No direct answers were forthcoming from “the undiscovered country/from whose bourn no traveler returns,” but, as a proxy, Shatner offered the power of love, life, and of saying Yes, authentically, to both.

What will you say Yes to today?

–Erik

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