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?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Into the Learning Curve

"Education is not the piling on of learning, information, data, facts, skills, or abilities - that's training or instruction - but is rather making visible what is hidden as a seed" --Thomas Moore

Here's a confession: I'm not finding this "Year of Gratitude" project to be a cakewalk thus far. To be fair it is a learning experience. I'm feeling my way toward it, even while I don't quite know exactly what "it" is. Part of the learning is creating the discipline to write blog updates. As someone who loves the sound of my own voice I feel I should find this easy... but I am full of self-criticism. I have dozens of little snippets in draft, hiding out back there behind the curtain, and I am quite convinced that mostly they suck. That, as you can plainly see, is not the voice of gratitude.

Perhaps more to the point, I've begun to notice a few things. To begin I notice that I am not by nature an especially grateful or immediately positive person. The saying goes that a cynic is a romantic whose heart has been broken, and that's enough about that. Yet I notice that my single, simple practice of asking myself throughout the day, "what is there to be grateful for in this moment or situation," is lifting that veil of cynicism.

This is discomfiting to be sure - and it's a good kind of discomfiture. I've been mighty comfortable in my cynicism for as long as I can remember. By nature I am highly idealistic and desperate to help good to triumph over evil. Those familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator will recognize me immediately in the profile of the INFP type. Those less familiar will certainly recognize me when I say that INFP also stands for "I never follow the plan," but that's a terrible digression and an even worse joke.

"Making visible what is hidden as a seed" struck me the moment I read it. A few dozen times a day I ask myself that question about what there is to be grateful for right here and right now. In finding an answer - and there is always an answer (and thus far it has not ever been "nothing") - I sense that I'm increasing my capacity for gratitude, harmony, and flow. Yet as I said, this isn't easy for me, and the self-critical, cynical pull is still there.

Perhaps others of you wrestle from time to time with self-doubt and self-criticism despite that you are highly attuned and well-schooled in the flow and harmony of gratitude. So let's talk about that - how do you reconcile these seemingly conflicting lines of thought? How has being grateful (or not) changed your sense of self or your sense of self-doubt? Has your practice of gratitude become stronger? What has changed?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

E Pluribus Unum

"Out of many, one."
My wife took this picture this morning on her way to witness, with hundreds of thousands of people, Barack Obama's inauguration.
If ever there were a day to be grateful, today is it. E pluribus unum: out of many, one.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Kelly's Boat - A Tribute to Community

Near the top of my list of uncountable blessings is the time and freedom to pursue a couple hobbies. Lately, I've spent a lot of my leisure time fly fishing. There's a peaceful, meditative rhythm to it, an enormous and engaging body of knowledge to tackle, and of course, the excitement of catching (and for me, anyway, releasing) fish. In the thick middle of the Texas summer I can think of few things better than getting up before dawn to cast to the bass in a local pond.

When I started fishing in earnest here in Texas, I expected to learn a lot, have some fun, and maybe even make some friends. What I did not expect was the opportunity to participate in a powerful community, and to touch someone else's life, even in a small way.

Kelly is a single mom in East Texas with a passion for the outdoors, and like other participants in the Texas Fishing Forum, she loves to fly fish. When I turned up at that forum to ask questions about fishing in my new home waters, she was among the first to chime in with friendly, helpful advice. Though all of the regular members of the freshwater fly fishing group are generous with advice, it was clear from the beginning that Kelly was one of the key members of the community. It was also clear why: she's positive, helpful, bright, funny, and supportive. To everybody.

One morning I checked the board and saw a new discussion: "Let's get Kelly a boat." Owning a boat would give Kelly the oppotunity not only to fish more water, but to take her teenaged son out fishing more often and to give him more chances to have fun in and learn about the outdoors. Good stuff.

People on the forum started looking around their areas for serviceable, used boats available for little money. Within a few days, someone found a motivated seller willing to take just a few hundred dollars to get a boat out of his Southeast Texas backyard. The boat would need some work to be "lakeworthy," but it seemed to have a sound hull and a transom and motormount suitable for a small outboard or trolling motor. The project seemed to be moving right along - everyone was excited. Plans for collecting money and making the transaction came together in days. Then hurricane Ike ripped through the Gulf Coast. When the scramble to find friends & relatives subsided, the seller reported that the boat was gone. Kelly thanked everyone for their efforts and that seemed to be that.

Perhaps a month later someone posted a message: "Let's restart the 'let's get Kelly a boat' thread." Within hours the thread grew to multiple pages as people chimed in wanting to help. Someone found another boat, this one in need of paint, a new seat, some floor work, and a motormount. The seller wanted just a couple hundred dollars. The fellow who posted the new thread sent messages to everyone who offered to help. I sent a check for a small amount of money and waited to hear more about the project. What happened next blew me away.

I had expected that Kelly would accumulate enough money to buy the boat and that she would get it and be happy and there wouldn't be much more talk about it on the forum except perhaps a thread here and there about her joy in fishing from it. This would've been great, of course. Instead, people from all around the forum stepped up to help Kelly in ways that surprised me. One fellow picked the boat up for her and drove it to East Texas. Someone else donated a trolling motor and made arrangements for shipping. Another few people gave life-vests and other safety equipment. Yet more people came through with other parts or even labor to help her get the boat ready.

Kelly put up a message saying that she was installing a new seat, and that she was painting in the names of everyone who donated or participated in the boat project. Her gratitude throughout the project has been so visible and so touching, and I have no doubt that it has fueled the project in a warm and happy, self-reinforcing "virtuous circle." Although I played only the very tiniest part in this project - after all, the total of all the work I put into it was addressing an envelope and walking to the mailbox - I got more joy and satisfaction from it than from catching all the fish I've caught over the last year.

Given the dramatic tone of world news today it is tempting either to throw ourselves at the biggest, most terrifying problems, or to check out, be cynical, and resign ourselves to dullness or darkness. Helping someone get a boat doesn't cure cancer, stop genocide in Darfur, end hunger, or overthrow cruel despots, right?

What if it does, though? What if the solution to every problem, no matter how big or how small, had its seed in a community of even just a few people whose common interests pull them to act kindly on behalf of just one member? What if?

Try an experiment: find a community and find an opportunity to serve it. Pick one small kindness to do on behalf of a member, and see what support you can generate. If by chance some wonderful thing blossoms from your effort, you will have touched another person's life forever, and I promise you will be grateful that you did.

A couple other neat fly fishing-related community actions:
Project Healing Waters
Casting for Recovery

Sunday, January 11, 2009

How to make a fan

Years ago I worked as a reader for Creative Artists Agency, a well-known talent and literary agency. My job was to read scripts, books, or other material, and write "coverage," which consists of a synopsis of the story and a short commentary on its suitability for market. It is not glamorous work, but it is great training in more disciplines than first meet the eye.

I had a reputation for being fast, and so in something like the second month of working there my boss handed me a massive manuscript - some 1400 pages of "galleys," essentially a near press-ready book - and said, "Michael Ovitz (the head of the agency and at the time, "the most powerful man in Hollywood" according to the magazines that create those lists) wants this covered by Thursday. He wants a detailed synopsis, even if it's 75 pages, and he doesn't want any comments. Get it done."

My reputation as a fast reader had caught up with me. My better-deserved reputation as an opinionated, somewhat mouthy guy, hadn't quite. I was pretty disappointed to learn that my work would be in front of Hollywood's most powerful man and he'd see nothing of my ability to think (yes, I really did take myself this seriously. I was 27 at the time, please cut me a wee bit of slack).

So I read this monstrous novel as quickly as I could and wrote a detailed synopsis. And I gave in to my urge to write comments despite instructions to the contrary. Thursday morning I brought the completed work to my boss' office. She said, "let's take this to Michael together." We climbed the stairs and walked left along what was informally known as "the power curve" in the agency's sleek headquarters. Cathy, my boss, introduced me to Michael and handed him the material. He looked at me and asked, "you really read all this since Monday morning?" "Yes," I replied, and he simply thanked me and turned away, dismissing us from the office.

I finished the week without giving the assignment much more thought. The next Monday I sat in my office, reading in my usual routine, when my phone rang. This was unusual enough, but what happened in the next 90 seconds changed my life forever.

"This is Jonathan," I answered. "Please hold for Michael Ovitz," said the assistant. My stomach dropped to my knees; I was convinced I shouldn't have written those comments. A few seconds ticked by as I started to sweat.

"Hi, Jonathan, it's Michael. Listen, I just wanted to call and thank you for the work you did on that book. I know it was huge and I appreciate your speed. Also, I know I asked for no comments on this, but I wanted you to know that I read the comments you wrote, and they were great. In fact, your comments actually helped us sell this project. So I just wanted to call to say thanks. You did great work on this."

I think I probably had the chance to say "you're welcome, and thank you for the call" before he hung up. Even at the time I knew that my comments didn't help anybody sell anything, but at the same time, it was clear that his appreciation was authentic and his phone call was a genuine and generous act.

In the twenty seconds it took Michael to make that phone call, he turned me into a fan for life. Since that time he went on to new and different challenges and had some powerfully negative press. It'll come as no surprise to you that I've never said a negative thing about him, nor would I ever.

Of course there's a lesson for leaders in this: reach out broadly and personally with thanks and appreciation and you will create fans for life. These people will stand by you during the inevitable times when circumstances may not be so positive.

Moreover there's a lesson for us personally in this story. When you surprise someone with an authentic thank you, you create a memorable and lasting bond. It may not be so memorable to you to give authentic thanks to someone, but the receiver of these thanks is forever touched. I know Michael doesn't remember me, let alone remember that very brief phone call. As I said, though, it took him only seconds to turn me into a lifetime fan, and to create a lasting and happy memory.

Go out today and make a lifelong fan. Find someone to appreciate, and surprise them with your gratitude. Then find another someone tomorrow. We could all use some more fans, couldn't we?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Don't Blink

Tonight the sunset over the North Dallas, TX area was so achingly beautiful that I could hardly remember why I was standing outside in my slippers with a piece of salmon about to slide through my fingers.

Blink, and you missed it.

Last night I was out of bed at 3:40 to help our daughter find a treasured stuffed flamingo and settle back to sleep. We don't normally indulge these requests but sometimes daddy has to be a hero. When I went to tuck her in, she looked at me with a half shrug and left the question unasked. I curled up next to her and rocked her back to sleep.

Blink, and you missed it.

Twenty years ago I met my Great Uncle Harry, the subject of much family lore and a man utterly unknown to me; I was a hurry-up college kid in California and he an octogenarian retired lawyer in Chicago. I spent exactly two hours in his presence, loved him instantly like a grandfather, and never exchanged another word with him.

One afternoon I pulled from my mailbox a plain white envelope and knew instantly it was Uncle Harry's obituary. I sat on my bed with this strip of the Tribune and wept. What I wept for of course was the letters I never wrote, the calls I never made, the flights I never took to sit with Uncle Harry in the small courtyard of his northside apartment building.

Who or what can you connect with today, right now, with a grateful heart? Do it. The opportunity is here.

Blink, and you'll miss it.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Gratitude and Marriage

My wife is a good writer and though it has never been her profession, she does occaisionally submit pieces to magazines and has been published at times.

Tonight she shared a new piece with me. In brief, it's the story of her transit through a turbulent, emotionally-charged time, and how by the end of that time she came to see our marriage as our shared strength and the source of our individual happiness and security.

She was nervous to share this with me. Not long ago we had an argument over a blog post she wrote; when I read it I felt slighted and frankly, humiliated although I know that was far from her intent. This was fresh in her mind when she handed me the pages and explained that I might find in them some challenges of my own.

It is the best thing she's ever written. Seriously. Mechanically speaking it's her best work by far, with deft phrasing and a structure that builds palpable tension as she contemplates one choice after the next and as she reflects on herself, her past, the present of her marriage, and her future.

Moreover I think it's great because it's a reminder that a marriage is a living thing, and like other things it needs care and feeding. The care and feeding it needs most, I think, is choice and generosity. Successfully married people choose their partners every day. Perhaps more importantly they give their spouses the room to do the same, or not.

At the end of this story my wife makes a conscious and deep choice, not just to be with me, but to be the vital whole of our marriage. It is not an easy choice - I have many flaws and no small number of vastly annoying idiosyncracies (and a real propensity for being sanctimonious as this post will assure you) - and yet it is her choice, and my choice too, and ours together.

If you are married or in a longstanding relationship you have doubtless run across these choice points too. Some are emotionally charged, sort of "long waves" that roll out over weeks or months, and others are just the daily stuff of sharing a house with someone who has a different way of doing the dishes. Do you ever stop to think about them? Do you talk about them? We don't have a regular, structured practice of stopping to talk about the nature of our relationship. Do you? What is it?

As for me, at this moment I am powerfully moved by how much I love my wife. The source of that love is my gratitude, not just for her, but also for the voyage of discovery we're on together. No doubt on this voyage there are hard miles to cover in the wilderness. No doubt there will be opportunities for both of us to check out and take a different journey.

By trusting me tonight to read her piece, by making herself vulnerable and trusting that my reaction to her story would be honest and authentic, she led us to a new and high point on our voyage together. She chose me in the story, and she chose me when she handed me the pages despite the tremble in her voice and fingers. I am blessed.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Beginnings: an Appreciative Inquiry

In graduate school I had a classmate who wrote her thesis on the uses of an organization development technique known as Appreciative Inquiry (AI on Wikipedia). When I first heard this term my initial response was something like an eye roll followed by a grimace and a muttered, "here we go again with the hippy nonsense..." I pictured a whole lot of managers sitting uncomfortably in a circle, holding hands and saying, "what I like about Bob is his haircut. I'm sorry, but I just couldn't come up with anything else to say."

Thankfully it took me all of about three minutes of reading her proposal to see that all my preconceived notions about Appreciative Inquiry were totally wrong. In fact, it's a powerful technique for getting organizations to unlock creativity, spark innovation, move quickly through powerful change, and advance productivity.

Perhaps the simplest description of AI is that it helps organizations create their future by focusing on what works well, rather than trying to fix what's broken. I've had a few opportunities to participate in AI-based efforts and here's what I've noticed about them: they're freaking brilliant.

It is genuinely amazing what happens when a bunch of people get together to talk about what has gone well, and what will go well in the future. Where have we been great? Where do we want to be great tomorrow? How will we do that?

Tonight I'm going to sit down with my wife after our daughter's bedtime and ask her these questions. Where have we been great? Where can we be great this year? What practices do we need to put in place to realize that vision? How will we sustain those?

And so I ask you: where have you been great? What three things stand out in your mind as great achievements or great endeavors or great contributions recently? Share them with me as we start this year of gratitude. Where else will you be great this year?

What is the nature of your dream?

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Welcome to the Year of Gratitude

Thanks for coming to visit this new blog. It's an experiment in "public gratitude." I've written a few posts that I hope provide some context and perhaps start some thinking and some conversation.

Here's something I've noticed: when I am tuned in to what I'm thankful for, I am happier. There's a body of psychological research that suggests I'm not alone. This book by Robert Emmons lays out the case and I'll revisit it soon.

I notice that when I start to "count my blessings," I invariably start with things I have. There are lots of these blessings: I have a wonderful family, a beautiful and healthy daughter, a good job that pays well, many comforts, my own health, time to pursue some hobbies (notably fly fishing right now, for which I am enormously grateful!), and a lot of stuff to make my life convenient. I am fortunate to have these things and truly grateful for them.

What's beyond the frontier of "having," though? Obviously it's reasonably and wise (I think, anyway) to be grateful for what we have. But what about being grateful for who we are? Or simply grateful for what is? How do we get there? Is there any there, there?

For me the opportunity of this blog is the opportunity to be out of my comfort zone a bit, especially in terms of being public. I have been by nature a very private person. Throughout my life I have shared little of myself with acquaintances, colleagues, and even family members at times. While I don't know what moved me to say, "this year I will create more intimacy with the people close to me, and draw others into my circle," somehow I'm clear that I've made that connection. This blog is one piece of that effort.

I hope you'll join me. What are you thankful for in your life? How do you manifest that gratitude? What are your hopes for the new year?