As I write this I am eating a bowl of lentil soup, which reminds me of a story. Let me set the stage….
It’s winter of 1991, and I’m in Kuwait City. As you recall, this is when coalition forces entered Kuwait City as part of a multinational effort to evict Saddam Hussein’s forces from the city – aka “Desert Storm”. Although few US forces actually entered into the city itself, there were some unique US troops running around the city during/after the short ground war. I was in Civil Affairs – the part of the Army that is a liaison between local civilians and governments. Our much cooler colleagues from Special Forces served as liaisons between our military and the local military elements on the ground.
I was part of “Task Force Freedom“, a small task force set up to work through the complex – and impossible to anticipate – challenges that arose during the operation. As the ground war quickly came to an end, our mission turned to getting Kuwait City on the road to recovery.
Our immediate concerns related to basics like security, sanitation and food distribution. The previous months of Iraqi occupation of Kuwait City had been hard on some city residents, so in the early days, along with our other missions, we were in the city making sure large trucks filled with food were distributed to neighborhoods as requested by the Kuwaiti government.
I’m in a Mastermind group. You might think that a Mastermind group is comprised of villains who are hatching fiendish plans of world domination, or even superheroes planning to thwart them, but you would be wrong. In fact, it’s much cooler than that.
Mastermind groups have been around for a long time, and are small groups of peers who come together to hold each other accountable toward their respective objectives and help members solve problems.
Recently, our group has been discussing and (imperfectly) practicing the concepts found in the book The 12 Week Year – a concept where annual objectives are tossed out the window in favor of 12 week objectives. I’ll be writing more about this concept in a later blog post.
There’s more to the 12 week year than compressed time horizons. I won’t cover it all here, but obviously recommend you check it out. However let’s focus on just one aspect from the book, and what I like and don’t like about this powerful quote:
If you read my About Me page, you will see that it ends with this: “Finally, I am an optimist. It’s an exciting time to be alive”.
I thought that now would be the perfect time to revisit optimism – not just as a way of viewing external events and avoiding despair, but as a way to impact events. Let’s start with three well-known characters: Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffet.
Last week, the Gates Foundation released their annual letter. Since Warren Buffet gave the bulk of his wealth – $30B or so – to the Gates Foundation in 2006, Bill and Melinda addressed this year’s letter directly to Warren. I recommend you read through the letter in its entirety.
In one part of the letter they touch upon why they remain optimistic about many of the major health challenges facing the world. This optimism runs contrary to rampant pessimism. For instance the statistic below:
Bill puts it well here:
“One of my favorite books is Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. It shows how violence has dropped dramatically over time. That’s startling news to people, because they tend to think things are not improving as much as they are. Actually, in significant ways, the world is a better place to live than it has ever been. Global poverty is going down, childhood deaths are dropping, literacy is rising, the status of women and minorities around the world is improving.”
Optimism (and pessimism) perpetuates itself. While the political world has become practiced in leveraging fear, that approach doesn’t work as well in the private sector, where leaders create outcomes based upon the shared belief and passion of their teams.
Which leads me to a related point: the importance of active optimism, or “applied hope”. Before I get into the provenance of this phrase, let me drop one last (telling) quote from the Gates letter, this line specifically from Melinda:
If you’re reading this, then you successfully made it through Thanksgiving without being killed by a family member during an emotional discussion about the recent presidential election. Congratulations! For those of you who attended a big Thanksgiving banquet where everyone voted the same way, then you either enjoyed a triumphant dinner with a generous helping of vindication to go along with your pie, or you participated in an emotionally draining group rage where fury and angst edged out “thankfulness”.
This election, more than any I can remember, has created deep emotional divisions. But as George Costanza brilliantly pointed out in a Seinfeld episode, “we’re living in a SOCIETY!” And as members of a society, we need to work together.
But that’s easier said than done when you’re annoyed (ok – really annoyed) about people who proudly wear the political colors of the opposing team. In fact, a related issue comes up in business quite a lot, where partners can bad-mouth the other party so much that the partnership exists only as a business contract, but not as an actual partnership.
And so you find yourself at a dinner table or in a conference room with people who you’re annoyed with before they speak. What are you to do?
The key is to establish the “human moment” apart from the subject that creates the divisions (work/politics/religion/whatever).
Let me share a current event example, and then provide an approach I learned a while ago that has come in handy for me a number of times.
First of all, what formal group of people have demonstrated themselves to be in such a state of permanent conflict that they can’t seem to get anything done? If you guessed “Congress”, then you’re on the right track. One of the troubling facts of American political life is the increasing numbers of Democrats and Republicans who view the other party as a “threat to the nation’s well-being”.
So it was with great interest that I read in a recent version of Fortune’s daily Power Sheet, written by Geoff Colvin, this story:
One of the more common held beliefs that has become widely held in the past few decades is the power of visualization. There is much to be said for this. Professional athletes spend princely sums on sports psychologists who help them prepare for peak performance through visualization. One of the things that separates us from the animals is our ability to imagine an outcome. Creation is a two part act: all great creative results are preceded by imagination and the visualization of the outcome.
But like so many things in life, the best path forward lies in moderation. There was a time when the concept of visualization would have been met with derision. I doubt any of the captains of industry who played roles in Charles Dickens’ novels would have been the sorts to engage in visualization (“Bah! Humbug”).
On the other hand, visualization without execution is simply daydreaming – something all of us are guilty of from time to time. But I recently read something that struck a nerve on this topic, and I wanted to share it with you. It talks about how too much visualization can sap our focus by tricking us into thinking we’ve accomplished something.
I recently finished the outstanding book Ego Is The Enemy by Ryan Holiday. Ryan is a young man who has traveled to higher heights and sunk to some lower lows than many of us ever will experience. Like the brilliant The Road to Character by David Brooks, a book I’ve written about earlier, Holiday’s book is about us confronting our insufferable weaknesses and learning how to recognize the pernicious effects our ego can play in our lapses and failures.
Here is the relevant passage as it relates to the downside of over-visualization (bold font is my emphasis):
I was driving recently and happened to catch a rebroadcast of an episode of A Prairie Home Companion – Garrison Keillor’s incomparable radio program that somehow always stayed both respectful of the past yet – while a radio show – also relevant for today’s listener. During this episode, he recited a poem that was running through the mind of one of his characters during his “The News from Lake Wobegon” segment:
Somebody said that it couldn’t be done, but he with a smile replied
That maybe he couldn’t, but he would be one who wouldn’t say so ‘til he tried
So he buckled right in, with a bit of a grin, ‘til his screwdriver touched a live wire
And he let out a cry, and rose to the sky, and joined the Lord’s heavenly choir
The people who spoke for the eulogy, spoke of duty and ambition
They spoke well of the dead and nobody said
“Why didn’t he call an electrician?”
Garrison went on to capture something I believe in: each of us do a couple things really well, and “for everything else we should hire”. But he points out that this is a city person’s view of work – the theory of specialization.
A farmer’s view of work, on the other hand, is very different. Farmers are generalists – they can handle anything that comes their way. Work is redemptive for them. “You might be really messed up, and do weird things, but you could redeem yourself” through work and the ability to handle crops, equipment and challenges of all sorts.
We live in the economic times of specialization. We are told – and I believe this – that it is better to do a few things really well than several things in mediocre fashion.
And yet, this doesn’t mean we cannot be well-rounded.
So deepen your appreciation of something from the arts. Read history. In your non-work world, develop something that reflects this fact: we are human beings, not human doings.
The exclamation in the title – Reee-jected! – was what my friends and I would yell at each other when one of us, while defending a shot on the basketball court, got “all ball” and denied the shot. When you’re a mediocre basketball player of modest height, the feeling of rejecting a shot borders on euphoria. But real rejection – the kind that all of us have experienced – is no fun at all. But if we get our mind right, we can overcome and prosper in the face of rejection.
Everyone gets rejected. It’s amazing to read rejection letters like the one above. It reminds you that rejection is part of the journey. My favorite line from the rejection letter to U2? “We wish you luck with your future career”. Thanks!
I have written about Cal Newport’s important book Deep Work. I’m a subscriber to Cal’s blog, where he writes about ways to cultivate the habits necessary to ditch the electronic distractions of our age and focus on sustained concentration. One of Cal’s chief recommendations is to dump social media for a period of time (optimally, forever).
In a recent blog post, Cal shared some great (and comic) insights from Aziz Ansari from his interview on the Freakonomics podcast (something I also subscribe and listen to). Here is an interesting thought experiment from Aziz – who is definitely a deep work kind of guy – about why he doesn’t have social media apps on his phone:
“Like, here’s a test, OK. Take, like, your nightly or morning browse of the Internet, right? Your Facebook feed, Instagram feed, Twitter, whatever. OK if someone every morning was like, I’m gonna print this and give you a bound copy of all this stuff you read so you don’t have to use the Internet. You can just get a bound copy of it. Would you read that book? No! You’d be like, this book sucks. There’s a link to some article about a horse that found its owner somehow. It’s not that interesting.”
The middle school my daughters attended had a simple motto for the students: “Be Kind”. It was a mantra within the school and served to emphasize the importance of kindness as a virtue to the young students who were in a critical time of transition in their lives. But I have also noticed how kind people tend to succeed in all walks of life, and I believe kindness is becoming more of a defining virtue because so much power today is wielded via influence rather than formal control.
Yes, there are many powerful people who got to their position by being surly, aggressive, and cutting corners (and people) whenever they could gain some advantage. But the reason why I believe that kindness builds influence more than ever is that it helps people be better listeners and enables them to empathize with co-workers and customers alike, which in turn fosters loyalty and effectiveness.
However being kind becomes more difficult as the tension ratchets up. The pressure to drive big results with few resources in a short time period causes us to become focused on ourselves and our problems rather than others. Suddenly, the people we interact with might appear to us to be tools to be used in pursuit of our objectives.
When we do this we become less kind, which means we listen less, learn less, and make emotional withdrawals from relationships.
Here is a quote that I ran across a number of years ago that haunted me. It comes from Nadezhda Mandelstam, in one of her memoirs about the Russian Revolution, and noted the dearth of kindness in the Russia of the 1930s
“Once there were kind people. Kindness was considered a virtue, a social grace, so that even people who were not kind felt they should pretend to be. This pretense, this hypocrisy, was noted by clever writers, who exposed and mocked it. The result of all that mockery is that now there are no more kind people.…”
If you want to increase your influence, start with a little kindness.