Friday, June 19, 2009

A Responsibility Question

Is there a gap between being grateful and owning your life? If you recognize that people, circumstances, and forces beyond your control have contributed to your experience of life, are you by definition denying that you are the author of your own story?

There's tension in this question. Very little seems to agitate people more than someone who is always the victim of circumstance. When we blame outside forces for our situation, invariably people are turned off. I know this because I have turned a lot of people off.

The tension arises here: in being grateful we recognize that our achievements, attainments, and ambitions are possible thanks to the work (and often, the suffering) of others. For some there's no question that blind luck, providence, or even - gasp - divine intervention play a role in who we are and what we have. I was born into comfortable circumstances and grew up in one of the most fantastically beautiful places on the planet. My parents gave me a powerful education. These things weren't my doing; I couldn't help where I was born or who my parents were. I was luckier than billions.

Then I spent more than a decade on a drive toward self-destruction and somehow survived it, turned myself around, lived shakily for a long time and eventually went to graduate school, paving the way for a reasonably successful effort to cling to a middle-class life. These things were my doing, and I have the student loan balance to prove it. Even there, I have been touched by incredibly good fortune at every turn. I'll spare the details but suffice it to say that just about every time I have fallen, I've landed on a higher spot and there is nothing I can think of to explain it.

There is no question that we stand on the shoulders of giants. Nothing I have "achieved" would be possible without my parents, theirs, or their ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War or who passed through Ellis Island. This is true for everyone, I say. Yet I still sense the tension, and the opportunity to balance pride and ambition against gratitude and humility.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Just the other day

We moved about two weeks ago. The last couple of months while I have been letting my embarrassment about not updating this blog build up, we've been house-hunting, managing family life, packing, moving, unpacking, and managing through a job that is - quite thankfully indeed - busy. I've also finished a manuscript for a book in that time and we're nearly ready to go to press with it. About that, more later.

During 2007 I led our family through two cross-country relocations, partly through ambition, partly through circumstance, partly through negligence, and largely through great luck. I do not recommend this to anyone. The fact that our marriage survived is more a tribute to my wife and daughter's patience than to anything I did; mostly I screwed a lot of stuff up.

In any event when we moved to Texas we rented a house and put lots of boxes into a spare bedroom where they remained unopened, since we expected to move to a more permanent home soon. A year and 10 months later, here we are.

I work from home (the most civilized way to work if you're asking me) and as I unpacked my office things I came across a little paperweight with a small question in very small type. "What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?"

All manner of grandiose thoughts filled my head. "I would run for Senate," I thought for a moment, or become a professional golfer, or create the world's most exquisite fly fishing guide service. I would research cures for mystifying diseases, end poverty, clean up the world's water, restore the rainforests and thus the lungs of the earth.

Then it struck me. At the core of each of these thoughts was an indisputable edge of self-aggrandizement. I don't really want to do any of these things; I like the idea of the accolades that would surely flow my way.

Last night my wife and I lingered at the table with a glass of wine. Most of the boxes from our move are unpacked and gone, things put away. I listened to our daughter joyfully rambling with anticipation of the tooth fairy's first visit here, and I saw it in a flash. What would I attempt to do if I knew I could not fail?" This. I've given these two precious angels a comfortable, secure place to live, and our daughter the chance to grow and make her own way someday with confidence, intelligence, and poise (okay, we're working on poise. It'll come). How could I be more fortunate?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

It ain't about platitudes

One version of the story goes that twin boys awoke on their birthday to entirely different gifts: one was led outside and handed the reins to a beautiful horse, and the other to a stall in the barn where he was given a shovel. The first boy looked at his father and said, "how am I supposed to care for this animal? I don't have the time or the skills to ride him and the feeding and grooming and cleanup will be such a pain. Some gift, dad." The other boy opened the stall to discover an enormous pile of manure, and cheerily started digging away. An hour later, his father came by and asked him how he was doing. "Great, Dad," the boy said, "with a pile of manure this big, there HAS to be a pony in here somewhere."

And that, they say, is the difference between an optimist and a pessimist.

Perhaps like me you would like it to be that simple. Perhaps you are one of those blessed people for whom it just IS that simple. I have a friend, sort of an erstwhile colleague, who is such a person - even with the kind of painfully challenging circumstances that would put some people face-down in a bucket of prozac, she is cheerful, positive, and unswervingly convinced that today is brilliantly beautiful and tomorrow's gonna be even better. I stay in touch with her because being near her even through e-mail charges my battery. She seems not to mind this.

There is so much to be grateful for. And of course, the news out in the world looks a lot more like the pile of manure than it does like the newly-arrived, beautiful horse just waiting to be saddled up and ridden off into the hills.

A lot of the news makes me angry - stories of obviously corrupt money managers, government responses to economic crises that in my view will make things worse, people focused relentlessly on winning partisan arguments or with tearing others down rather than doing their part to build a better future, and onward. It is clear that I'm not alone in these reactions.

I also notice that since beginning this year of gratitude project I am unquestionably happier. I live in greater harmony with my wife and daughter (not that it was discordant before... it's just that much sweeter now). My resistance to fear and challenge is stronger, my mental flexibility is greater, and my self-confidence is rising. These are good things; more importantly, if I can do this then there is no question that anyone else can, too.

Of course, though, there's a real tension between being focused on gratitude and denying oneself the natural reaction to stories about the discovery of yet another multi-billion-dollar fraud that will be paid off with tax money. Some suggest that the resolution to that tension is just to smile and say the equivalent of "there's gotta be a pony in here somewhere." This doesn't fit with me though. So how do we do it? I'm convinced more and more that a grateful orientation is a source of positive action for individuals, for groups, for organizations, and probably even for society. If that's the case, then how do we deal with the problems that really are getting in our way? How do we engage with the current news, the current challenges constructively? What do we do to create a feedback loop in which a grateful bearing begets acts of service and creation, thus expanding gratitude?

Platitudes aren't going to get it done. So tell me... what is?

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Sleeping Angels

The upside of insomnia is that if you play it right you get some nice, quiet time to think and relax. So I reminded myself when I snapped awake at 2:50 this morning. I listened for a while to the roaring wind and to the softer, more peaceful rhythm of my wife's breathing. At one point she began to twitch and move, her breathing coming faster: she was dreaming. The dream passed, she rolled to face me and her arm brushed across my chest and shoulder. I felt her gentle squeeze, and lay still as she settled in deeper.

Sleep was coming no closer to me so finally at 4:15 I got up, dressed, made myself a cup of coffee and went upstairs to peek in on our daughter. She is learning to read now and it captures her focus like nothing I've seen. Her bed, therefore, is covered not just with stuffed animals but also with books. I found her on her side, snuggled up with a treasured puppy and a copy of "The Cat in the Hat."

Last night my wife and I talked about how nearly all the people we know have been impacted in some way by the current economic storm. We've been incredibly fortunate; I am still employed though the axe has swung awfully close more times than I'd like to count. As the sole breadwinner for our family, these sleeping angels are my responsibility. It is an awesome gift. They'll sleep a couple hours more, and then it will be our Saturday, full of the here and there of any normal weekend.

This morning I am grateful to the deepest part of my soul for the gift of their peaceful sleep. I'll sleep too some night. Until then, I can peek in on the Doodlebug, safe with her books and her stuffed friends, and I can feel Linda's familiar arm pulling me closer as she settles from a dream.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

This just very quickly

I have been away from here. In the wilderness. That would be the wilderness between my ears, of course. The year of gratitude is on.

Have you ever noticed that when you really commit to something, at first you must wade through all your reasons why staying committed is a really, really bad idea? Thank you, that's February. I have been an ungrateful, agitated mess.

Last year the company I've been with for four-plus years was acquired by a behemoth that's in the news a lot these days. In October, I was asked to join a workgroup of five people. This beats the heck out of being laid off, mind you. Join I did. In February, three of the five were let go as the group was reorganized. Last week, another of my teammates was axed, leaving me the last man standing.

For which I'm grateful. Of course.

And shaken to the core. I am the paycheck, I am the breadwinner, coo-coo-ca-choo.

Many of my former colleagues have been laid off through this period of transition, and many more will be. Some are bitter, others have discovered their passions and are pursuing those profitably. Some have discovered that the chase for more things (what Galbraith called "positional goods,") has left them empty, and what they really value is the time and freedom to do what they love with the people they love.

There it is, then: the realization that the only things of value are time and relationships. Sometimes as I contemplate what I'm grateful for, I can't help but see that I am mighty hungry in these areas. And mighty happy, too.

It's a paradox. For those of you who've asked me to come back to this blog more often, I thank you, and I promise I will. I appreciate you more than you know.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Gratitude for its own sake

"I complained that I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet."

When I was a boy my father would share that nugget with me as a gentle reminder to appreciate what I had. It's good wisdom.

This aphorism has colored my experience of gratitude, and I sense that I'm not alone. When people speak about gratitude, it seems they most often start either with a list of things that they have - a good job, loving family, some comforts and conveniences - or with a comparison to people who have less.

As this year of gratitude project rolls on I find that even though it's only February I am flat out of stuff for comparison. It's empty, anyway: I am what I am, I have what I have, I'm one insanely lucky guy (no, really: billions of people on this planet live on less than $2 a day. Think about that. Seriously - think about it for five solid minutes with a generous heart), and that's that.

One reason I haven't updated this blog in a week is that I've been wrestling with this notion of gratitude for its own sake. When I compare myself to others, I might feel lucky for a moment or two but it's equally easy just to feel guilty or helpless. What could I possibly do to make a difference for people scraping out a living in destitution in Bolivia, or Benin? Leaving aside that I know there are things I could do, there's no lasting gratitude available in the "there but for the grace of god go I" game.

Better still I think just to be grateful, because. Because why? That's right: just because. This morning I woke up early and sat in the quiet house with a strong cup of coffee and my laptop open. I stumbled across a Facebook note from someone I haven't seen in some years; in the mid-90s she touched my life briefly but deeply. Her note was simple - a short message of love to family and friends. I knew in that moment that I will go to my grave with thanks in my heart for her.

So here is my suggestion to you: remember someone this week for whom you are grateful. It's a bonus if you've been out of touch, I think. Find them - yes, you can - and call them, just to let them know they hold a place in your mind and your heart. That's all. Perhaps later that day you'll still be wide awake with that feeling of thankfulness, only now it will be for no reason at all, and that's the best reason ever.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Courage Wanted: Inquire Within

I'm just like you: I know lots of people, some very close to me, who are struggling and even suffering through the economic turbulence right now. Thus far I have been exceptionally lucky - I've lived through an acquisition and survived 7 rounds of layoffs at my company. The only thing that I am certain of now is that there will be an 8th, 9th, 10th, and probably a 25th round. If you think for a second that this is not frightening, you're nuts.

It is entirely clear to me that what is happening today is the birth of opportunity. This morning I stumbled across the 2006 Edelman Trust Barometer, a survey that measures influential people's trust in business, government, media, and NGOs. In that year, trust had largely recovered from the scandals of the early 2000s. Then I found this report of the 2009 study, which shows that trust in all these institutions has fallen to all-time lows. Only 17% of people now believe the statements made by large-company CEOs. Richard Edelman, the study's author, states that economic recovery will be slowed because "no institution has captured the trust that business has lost."

It seems to me that opportunity often knocks so softly that it's more easily ignored, but to me this sounds like it's trying to kick the door right off its hinges. The only question is, how?

The answer is amazingly simple, and it starts with gratitude. Imagine the CEO of one of the few remaining, large, national banks taking a moment to ground himself in gratitude for the opportunity to serve millions of people. Imagine, moreover, that CEO spending an hour or two with all his direct reports to talk about what they truly provide their customers: security, opportunity, growth, protection, support. "If we deliver these things, and deliver them well," that CEO might say, "then the market will reward us with some profit. The fact that we have this opportunity to serve - and potentially to prosper by serving others well - is a sacred gift. Let's be grateful we have it, and do what's right."

The next step is to summon the courage to be transparent. If 50% or more business leaders fail the first test of gratitude for the opportunity to serve - and I have no basis for that number so please weigh in with your thoughts - then at least 90% of the remaining half will fail this test of transparency. Especially in financial services, transparency has been anathema for years. Transparency, in my view, is the only thing that will speed our economic recovery and the only thing that will help us to build a sustainable recovery.

Being transparent will require courage because the news at the outset will be far worse than anyone has yet admitted. Everyone in America - and perhaps every adult worldwide - knows this already, and that is why the Edelman Trust Barometer shows that trust in major institutions has fallen to all-time lows. There is a tremendous paradox in front of us: the first financial institutions that truly come clean about what's on their books may very well fail. Yet these very same institutions - and more importantly, the people in them - will also be the first to succeed in establishing trust, which is the entire foundation of economic growth.

Trust and trustworthy behavior may not depend on gratitude, though I believe they do. They certainly depend on courage, and I believe that for leaders of our large institutions, the quantum leaps in courage that are now required to restore transparency and trust can find their source in gratitude for the opportunity to serve.

Opportunity is hammering at our door right now. The people and institutions that create trusted connections with others through transparency and integrity with their true purpose will profit most from that opportunity. First these institutions must sort through the paradox that transparency appears to present. Those who navigate with gratitude, courage, and service as their pole stars will win.

What do YOU think?