Three days of lightness 

When I first read about the exercise, I knew I wanted to try it.

All you do is to pick a word that embodies something you want more of in your life, like courage or confidence, joy or lightness. Then, for three days, you keep that word in your mind. (The exercise recommends writing it on your hand or attaching it to your clothing.)

I chose “lightness.” If there’s something I want more of, it’s to be more relaxed, to treat the little things as little things, and to surf uncertainty with a smile instead of intense determination.

I was going to an amusement park with three of my children, so that seemed liked a good time to practice. I wanted it to be fun, and yet I could sense I was tense just getting out the door. So, throughout each day, I just kept asking myself, “What would it mean to be light in this situation?”

When there was traffic that made a three-hour drive much longer, I thought of lightness, looked at the beautiful surroundings, and talked with the kids.

When my plans to be at a certain place at a certain time fell through, I reminded myself that such things happen all the time. Instead of getting upset, I just made new plans.

When my youngest was complaining about something that seemed trivial to me but important to him, we came up with ways to make things better.

On the second day, I put my phone in a locker, and didn’t think about checking it.

We rode all the rides, with the kids taking turns choosing the next one. When it was a water ride and I didn’t particularly want to get wet, or a roller coaster I wasn’t fond of, I thought What would it mean to be light in this situation? Then I smiled and got on the ride. It felt liberating.

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On the last night, we stayed until the park closed. My pedometer said we walked for 12 miles, which must have been forty thousand steps for my little boy. We got ice cream afterwards to celebrate.

Of course, there were times when I forgot about lightness, and my habits took over. When it happened, I shook my head and committed to doing better next time.

I first discovered the exercise in a lovely, helpful book titled Pathways to Possibility and learned how apt the title was. Just keeping a word in my mind changed my perspective. Lightness was a choice, and it was a choice I made much more often throughout the three days.

I hope I remember that word. I hope you try the exercise too.

A stranger in a strange land

The story, written in 1959, takes place in an Ibo village Nigeria. I read it while traveling in Germany, where I’m working with new clients. I finished it today on a train to Köln.

My experiences on my trip and the experiences in the book could not be more different. Yet I was surprised that some of my reactions were similar.

A portal to another time and place

Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, follows the life of Okonkwo and his clan. It’s a world completely foreign to me. Besides the words and names I couldn’t pronounce, everything was unfamiliar to me, from the food and customs to how they related to each other and their view of the world.

Each time I came across something new, I found my instinct was to judge it, to take comfort in labels. Their gods were “ridiculous.” Their food “disgusting.” Their ideas and customs “primitive.” It was a riveting story, and yet I felt the need to rationalize the differences.

Things Fall Apart

A modern business trip

My reactions were extreme because the differences were extreme. Yet on my trip I noticed the same need to label and value things. Good or bad. I like it or don’t like it.

Traveling in Western countries, the contrasts are more muted, and so are my reactions – to the language, the different foods, even to the prevalence of soccer and smoking. I had minor opinions on everything from the architecture to how people drive to how the trains and taxis work.

I have enjoyed meeting so many lovely people here, and had some wonderful experiences. But reading the book made me mindful that I still had a need to deal with the small differences somehow. Though I liked to think of myself as an open person, it was as if putting things in neatly labeled boxes was a strategy for making sense of the world.

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Something to practice

Towards the end of Things Fall Apart, a missionary arrives, trying to change what people believe and how they behave. He’s challenged by a group desperate to maintain the ways of the clan and fighting to keep their distance.

“He does not understand our customs, just as we do not understand his. We say he is foolish because he does not know our ways, and perhaps he says we are foolish because we do not know his. Let him go away.”

When I read that paragraph, I put the book down and thought about my own ways and habits. What if, instead of judging things that weren’t familiar, I just accepted things for what they are? Instead of labeling the differences and keeping a safe distance, what if I got closer and asked more questions?

Being more open and curious seems like a better way to live, and something I’m committed to practicing.

The Appreciation Test

I thought this one would be easy, but I was wrong. Try it for yourself.

Imagine someone just paid you a compliment on something you did, perhaps a presentation at work or something else that evoked a “Nice job!”

What would you do?

  1. Wonder if the person was being sarcastic.
  2. Reject it. “Oh it was nothing.”
  3. Smile awkwardly.
  4. Graciously accept the compliment.

You might think the answer is obvious. But it has taken me decades to get to a comfortable answer, and that’s only after working  through all of the possible responses.

The M&Ms Incident

I was about 5 years old when this happened, maybe younger. It was such a trivial incident and yet it stuck with me.

My mother, older siblings, and I visited a neighbor up the block. Her home seemed so neat and orderly. To my mind they were rich, though it was just a one-bedroom home in the Bronx. The woman had M&Ms in a glass bowl, something extraordinary for me because a) in my house the M&Ms would be devoured immediately, and b) we would inevitably break the glass bowl.

She held the bowl out to me. “Would you like some?” My mother gave me a look and shook her head. Afterwards, she explained (or this is how I remember it), that even if people offered something, I wasn’t supposed to take it. My young mind interpreted it as somehow impolite to accept what was offered. Perhaps the person didn’t really mean it, or I didn’t deserve it, or both.

Of course, it’s nice to receive compliments. And yet, for most of my life, each compliment is like that bowl of M&Ms being offered to me. I look at it awkwardly, wondering whether I’m allowed to accept it.

The Appreciation Test

“You look nice today!”

I much prefer to give compliments than to receive them. “You look nice today!” “What a great outfit!” I thought offering such genuine praise was an unambiguously nice thing to do. One day, though, a woman I knew responded with, “So I don’t look so nice on the other days?”

I never expected that. I guess she focused on the word “today” more than “nice” and interpreted it as a kind of insult. It taught me two lessons: to be more thoughtful of how I offer a compliment, and to realize that other people, like me, may not be comfortable when they get one.

I still offer positive feedback to people, but I try and practice empathy before I do it. How would I receive this if I were them? It makes me more mindful of what I say and how I say it.

How accepting a gift can be a contribution

Last week, I gave a talk at a conference and there were well over a thousand people in the audience. As I walked off stage, I wasn’t sure how it went. I had a sense of how well I did or didn’t do, but now how it was received. Then, some people came up and congratulated me, and over the course of the day different people would come up to me and say something nice about my presentation.

I thought about this appreciation test. My instinct was to respond with disbelief or some other form of rejection. “Really?” “Oh, it wasn’t my best effort.”

This time, though, I practiced just accepting it. Sometimes it was as simple as “Thank you. I really appreciate it.” Sometimes we would start a conversation and exchange contact information, or even get to know each other a bit.

If a person had gone through the trouble of walking up to me to say something nice, then the least I could do in return would be to graciously accept it. Now, instead of responding with my usual self-defenses, I practice reciprocating with my attention, appreciation, and vulnerability. As the write Stephen Donaldson has said, “In accepting the gift, you honor the giver.”

The worst comment I ever received taught me a lot

This comment appeared on the most popular thing I have ever written, and it came about a year after I originally posted it.

“I personally hold you responsible for the dumbing down of humanity via the willful spread of idiotic misinformation. Please die in a hole.”

Ouch.

Why?

The post was about “The Five Monkeys Experiment,” a story I had heard at a conference and went on to write about. I had done a quick search to see if such an experiment actually took place and found several references to a study in the 1960s. One of those was in a best-selling book. “It did happen,” I wrote, and then went on to talk about the lessons to be drawn from it.

But a few readers dug deeper, and pointed out that the study I cited was different from my story in key details and even in its conclusions. Thus the comment that I was willfully spreading idiotic information.

My immediate reaction was defensive. It’s only a story! That wasn’t even the important part! But I knew he had a point, even if I didn’t love the way he made it. I tried to ignore the comment, but it gnawed at me, and after quite a few months I added an update to the end of the post explaining my mistake and what I should have written instead.

I thought that was the end of it.

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Two years later

This week, I read about an interesting experiment in a best-selling book. A study by Prof. Gail Matthews showed that if you wrote down a goal and shared weekly updates with peers, you would be 76.7 percent more likely to achieve it. That supported a point I wanted to make, so I was about to write about it.

Then I thought about the comment. Did it really happen? Maybe I should dig deeper.

I searched and found a wide range of citations to the study including articles in Forbes and Huffington Post, but  the links didn’t work. There was a description on the university website, but it just linked to a summary of one experiment with 267 students. Since there was no evidence of a published, peer-reviewed paper, I didn’t write about it. 

Later this same week, I was writing a guide that included tips about time management and I was about to cite a finding I had come across in an article in BBC News. The article cited a study done by Dr. Glenn Wilson at the University of London.

“Those distracted by incoming email and phone calls saw a 10-point fall in their IQ – more than twice that found in studies of the impact of smoking marijuana, said researchers.”

Again, I thought of the comment. Instead of finding research, after a few clicks I found this letter from Dr. Wilson:

“This “infomania study” has been the bane of my life. I was hired by H-P for one day to advise on a PR project and had no anticipation of the extent to which it (and my responsibility for it) would get over-hyped in the media.

There were two parts to their “research” (1) a Gallup-type survey of around 1000 people who admitted mis-using their technology in various ways (e.g. answering e-mails and phone calls while in meetings with other people), and (2) a small in-house experiment with 8 subjects (within-S design) showing that their problem solving ability (on matrices type problems) was seriously impaired by incoming e-mails (flashing on their computer screen) and their own mobile phone ringing intermittently (both of which they were instructed to ignore) by comparison with a quiet control condition. This, as you say, is a temporary distraction effect – not a permanent loss of IQ. The equivalences with smoking pot and losing sleep were made by others, against my counsel, and 8 Ss somehow became “80 clinical trials”.

Since then, I’ve been asked these same questions about 20 times per day and it is driving me bonkers.”

A commitment and a favor

I learned an important lesson. When you’re writing, it’s easy to find something the supports your point of view and include it as evidence of your truth, whether or not it’s based on good science. I know I have been guilty of intellectual laziness at times.

I’m committed to doing better. If you see something I write that purports to be more than just my opinion but isn’t grounded in good research, please comment or send me email. I will greatly appreciate it (especially if you leave out the part about dying in a hole). Thank you.

How I’ll topple a domino that’s 21 feet tall

It’s only been three weeks since my last day working in a big company,  yet my to-do list is already overwhelming. No matter how busy I am, the list only seems to grow.

A simple change change in perspective helped turn stress and panic into focus and progress.

The ONE Thing

A friend recommended a book call The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results. Just 13 pages in, it grabbed my attention with a metaphor about dominoes, citing a physics journal article that described “how a single domino is capable of bringing down another domino that is actually 50 percent larger.”

A domino that’s 2 inches tall can topple one that’s 3 inches tall, which can topple one that’s 4 1/2 inches, and so on. The 13th domino would be over 21 feet tall, and the 23rd domino would be as tall as the Empire State Building.

“Getting extraordinary results is all about creating a domino effect in your life…Highly successful people know this. So every day, they line up their priorities anew, find the lead domino, and whack away at it till it falls.”

So I started to think, “What’s my next domino?”

What's your ONE thing?

The best staff meeting ever

That question was in my head when I was in last week’s staff meeting. I used to dread such meetings, but now I look forward to them. The “staff meeting” is just my wife and I talking over coffee every Sunday morning, reviewing clients and products, progress and challenges.

As I was going through the list of things I was working on and planned to do, she stopped me and said: “Don’t worry about all of that.” She explained how the work I was doing for one particular customer was the main priority that would lead to more clients and revenue. “Just get this one thing right.”

My wife didn’t need to read a book to see the benefits of extreme prioritization. We agreed on the ONE thing, and that simplified everything. It’s not that the other tasks disappeared, but that each day I know what I have to focus on above all else. That clarity enables me to realize a much higher return on my time and effort.

The next time you’re overwhelmed by your to-do list, whether it’s for your work, family, or health, think of how you’ll answer if someone asks you: “What’s your ONE thing?”

Then do all you can to topple that next domino.

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p.s. In looking into this different kind of domino effect, I came across this demonstration video by a physics professor. He started with a domino only 5 millimeters high.