Please pay attention

“Cool neon sign,” I thought to myself as I walked by it in the hotel lobby. I was there all day for a conference, and it caught my eye each time I passed it.

First I wondered why they hadn’t turned it on. Then I wondered what it would look like if it was lit up, imagining the red glow in the hallway. I even pointed it out to someone else and we agreed that we liked it.

It was only at the end of the day that I discovered what the sign really was, and what it might mean.

The signs I pass every day

For most of my day, I’m not paying attention at all. I’ll stare at the bottle of vitamins and forget if I already took one. I’ll walk twenty minutes and not look at the sky once. Much worse, I’ll be in a room with people I love and won’t really see them at all, engrossed instead with my book or laptop.

I’m not special in this regard. In the book Strangers to Ourselves, Timothy Wilson writes that while our brains can take in eleven million pieces of information at any given moment, we’re only consciously aware of forty. It’s a dramatic statistic that shows just how precious little attention we have. “Paying attention” requires extra energy and, as the neurologist Daniel Kahneman writes, “Laziness is built deep into our nature.”

Looking at things differently

Heading out of the hotel, I passed the sign one last time. This time, I stopped and walked up to it. That’s when I noticed a small placard well beneath it to the right.

The “neon sign” wasn’t neon at all, but was made of painted wood. When I examined it closely I could see the small carving marks.

The irony wasn’t lost on me. I had passed a sign with clear instructions – “PLEASE PAY ATTENTION!” – and never took a moment to really see it. I had instantly created a truth, “Cool neon sign,” and was blind to other possibilities until I paused and examined my assumptions more closely.

Giving the gift of attention

It turns out you can train yourself to pay attention, and that the more you train, the more easily you can offer it.

You can practice offering it to yourself by paying attention to what you’re doing in any given moment. Notice the taste and texture of the food you’re eating, or the feel of the water in the shower, or your surroundings as you walk. Practice offering it to others by actively listening to them, and pausing to consider things from their point of view.

Sometimes offering attention is simply being with someone. Each time my son asks, “Want to play Sorry, Dad?” or my daughter tells me a story of what happened with her friends, I wish I had that neon sign reminding me of what I should do.

“Please pay attention.” You and all the people around you deserve it.

***

Note: My next post will be on January 7th, and I’ll be migrating this blog to workingoutloud.com, where I’ll publish an article every Wednesday and Saturday. Have a wonderful holiday.

“How do I make more of her?”

I was sitting in the hotel lobby, tired after having given a talk and two workshops, when she walked up to me.

“I’ve been looking for you,” she said. I recognized her from one of the tables at the front. She wanted to tell me about the women in one of her educational programs, and how ideas in my talk might help them.

The story she told me has stayed with me all week. I feel like it’s one of those times when the universe is nudging me to do something.

Helping mothers and their children

She works at a university, and has for a long time. She had been running a program to help mothers learn about nutrition for their children. They would talk about what’s in foods that people commonly feed their kids, and what to watch out for. They would introduce them to foods they might not be used to cooking with, like avocado and quinoa.

While many of the women found it helpful, some were particularly enthusiastic. They truly cared about the topic. So when she got funding for a related program and needed to hire people, one of her team members suggested they consider hiring women they were already helping.

apple-avocado-cranberry-walnut-salad

Working with (and around) the system

This wasn’t the normal recruiting process. But the woman running the program had been doing this kind of thing for decades, and she knew how to work with the system. She hired them.

She started reading some of the texts and emails from one of the women. In the program, they would cook meals so they could all try the food themselves and learn how it was prepared. A mother-turned-nutrition educator had been searching for recipes. She was exploring and creating (“What if we tried cranberries with that instead?”) and was excited to share her ideas. I could feel the administrator’s sense of wonder and hope as she read the exchanges. I could feel the mother’s empowerment as she tapped into new ways she could contribute. 

Then she put down her phone, somewhat downcast, and said, “Normally, the system rejects this kind of thing.” In addition to rules about hiring, there were rules about which recipes they were allowed to use, about which communications channels to use. But she said she had followed the rules for too long, and now she cared more about helping people, whatever it took. I could tell she was gratified to have helped one young woman, and also that she felt compelled to do more. That’s when she asked, “How do I make more of her?”

“What if?”

As I listened to what was being shared by email and text, I thought of Jane Bozarth’s book, “Show Your Work: The Payoffs and How-To’s of Working Out Loud,” in which she offered a wide and wonderful range of examples of everyday people making their work visible. I started to ask some “What if?” questions.

What if all of the recipes and other ideas were more visible? Instead of being hidden in emails and texts, the mothers, teachers, and others who cared about the topic could interact, share, and learn in an online community, or even a simple Facebook group.

What if the program administrator wasn’t the one responsible for “making more of her”? The women in the program could use their visible contributions to make their own connections and find people as passionate about the topic as they were. 

What if you didn’t need to ask permission or make it part of the program at all, but empowered the women to set things up for themselves?

This. This is at the core of what I hope to do, to spread this kind of empowerment, one that enables people to take a bit more control over their lives. To enable people of any background or circumstances to learn, connect, and access opportunities they might never have known existed otherwise.

We shook hands as she said goodbye. “I’ll definitely contact you,” she said. I hope she does.

The old man in seat 8A

I was on a flight heading to Florida to speak at a conference. The plane was full. As I approached my row, I noticed there was an old man already sitting in the seat next to mine. I noticed the newspaper in his hands was shaking slightly. I said hello.

When the stewardess told him she needed to store his cane for takeoff, I assured him I would get it if he needed it. When he dropped his newspaper, I picked it up. When he was struggling to open up his bag of pretzels, or figure out how the folding tray worked, I helped him. He seemed embarrassed, but I told him it was tricky and only looked easy when you knew how.

He was worried about forgetting his cane. He told me that his son had driven him to the airport, and it was only after they had traveled 20 miles that he remembered he left his cane back at the house. “Do you really need it, Dad?” his son asked. They drove back.

“I was just glad he wasn’t mad,” he said. “I felt bad but he didn’t get upset. That was really nice of him.”

I couldn’t help but think of my own parents. Of how I reacted to their infirmities with impatience, to their limited education with visible shame, even disgust. I had more empathy for a total stranger than for the people who made my life possible.

My father died in 1986. My mother in 2003. I wanted to reach back in time and tell them “I’m sorry!” I wanted my younger self to be the kind of son who says “It’s okay, Dad. I’ll help you.”

I sat quietly for a while, silently wishing I had done things differently. Silently committing to doing things differently in the future.

seat-8a

The elephant at the piano

As a child, I saw a Gary Larson cartoon that I still remember, because it captured a feeling I had even then. An elephant, on stage in a crowded concert hall, is sitting at a piano, his ridiculously large legs dangling by his side. He’s thinking to himself, “What am I doing here?”

The Far Side® and the Larson® signature are registered trademarks of FarWorks, Inc.

The Far Side® and the Larson® signature are registered trademarks of FarWorks, Inc.

This cartoon captures the feeling you may have when you’re faced with something new. You’re unprepared and anxious, and may literally feel like you’re in the wrong room, that you’re not supposed to be there.

I’ve had this feeling so many times that I now recognize it as familiar. I had it before my first attempts at public speaking, and publishing something I had written. I had it when I was supposed to “manage” other people, and when I had my first child.

In developing my latest habit, though, I’m learning a better way to approach new things.

The elephant on the yoga mat

I still remember my first yoga class. It was over a decade ago. Trying to impress my girlfriend (now my wife), I went with her to an intermediate class. It didn’t go well.

While she was effortlessly doing all the poses, I couldn’t even understand the words the teacher was saying. “Downward dog?” “Chataranga?” He kept telling me to breathe in and out in sync with my movement, but I gave up trying to follow him. I was happy to breathe at all! I kept looking at my watch. “How much longer?”

Although I knew the benefits of yoga were undeniable, I couldn’t help but feel like the elephant at the piano, that this new experience just “wasn’t me.” Every few years, prodded by my wife, I might try again. But the same feelings would crop up.

Lessons from an inflexible yogi

Now a decade later, with my own yoga mat and a regular habit, I’m learning how to deal with that “elephant at the piano” feeling. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned.

Start where you are. Instead of comparing myself to my wife, an accomplished expert, I should just compare myself to myself, and focus on my personal development.

It’s a practice that takes practice. The goal isn’t to “be good at yoga” so much as it is to practice yoga. The doing is the point. Any advance I might make in my mental or physical health will only come as a consequence of practicing. 

Pay attention! When my mind wanders, I miss the teacher’s instructions and stand there dumbly, looking around the room so I can see what I’m supposed to do. Or, worse, I simply fall down. Nothing teaches me to be present like trying to balance on one leg.

“Do what is accessible to you.” This is one of my favorite expressions that teachers use. While many personal development programs seem bent on suffering – “No pain, no gain!” – yoga teachers provide a safe environment for me to try new things, to literally and figuratively stretch myself.

The next time you’re the elephant at the piano

When I enter the yoga studio now, I know I’m in the right room. Not because I’m an expert, but because I’ve accepted that I’m a beginner, that I can make progress at my own pace. I’ve accepted that, with effort and attention, I will gradually improve and realize a range of benefits.

The next time you’re anxious at trying something new – “I can’t play this thing! I’m a flutist, for crying out loud.” – take a few deep breaths and allow yourself to start where you are.

With practice and dedication, your initial anxiety will be replaced with calm and self-compassion, and eventually lead to new feelings of confidence and clarity.

The golden ticket you’ve been holding all along

When Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory came out in 1971, I was seven years old. Even then, one scene struck me as particularly strange and uplifting.

Grandpa Joe has been bedridden for twenty years, along with his wife and another old couple. He wants the best for his grandson, Charlie, but doesn’t feel there’s much he can do. Still, he offers Charlie his tobacco money so the boy can buy some chocolate and have a chance to escape, to dream, if only for a moment.

Grandpa Joe’s outlook on life is clear in the song he sings.

“I never thought my life could be

Anything but catastrophe

I never had a chance to shine

Never a happy song to sing”

But when Charlie unwraps the chocolate and there’s a glimmer of gold inside, everything changes. Grandpa Joe undergoes a transformation, getting up and dancing around the room. “I haven’t done this for twenty years!”

“But suddenly I begin to see

A bit of good luck for me

‘Cause I’ve got a golden ticket

I’ve got a golden twinkle in my eye

‘Cause I’ve got a golden ticket

I’ve got a golden chance to make my way

And with a golden ticket, it’s a golden day”

your-golden-ticket

Here’s the thing. The ticket didn’t change his age or health or circumstances. What changed was his perspective, something he could have changed any time.

It’s hard to do. When upsetting things happen to me, my tendency is to react. I’ll curse my luck or myself, and my reactions color other areas of my life, including my relationships.

But I’m discovering I have more control than I thought. More and more, when something happens, I remember to take deep breaths, allow my initial feelings to take their course, and then reflect on what to do. I try to think about the many golden tickets I’m holding, the many reasons for joy. Sometimes I even think of Grandpa Joe and I sing the song (loudly). It takes practice, but when I remember to do these things, my perspective changes, and I feel happier.

Next time you think, “I never had a chance to shine, Never a happy song to sing,” try and reflect on the golden tickets you’re holding. Choose to dance around the bed.