Tips & Tricks for the Beginning Meditator

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 If you’re new to meditation, you may find that along with calmness and peace of mind, starting to practice raises a host of questions. The practical insights below should be helpful as you begin your mindfulness and meditation journey.

On Meditation

  1. The primary goal of meditation is not about achieving any particular state of mind. If you go into it with that as the goal, you may quickly get frustrated. Rather, it is about training the mind to consciously control your attention so you can become more aware and mindful. One commonly cited definition of mindfulness is, “Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” (Jon Kabat-Zinn) This is exactly what you do during meditation when you focus on your breath, but the ultimate goal is to use seated meditation as a way to learn to be mindful in the rest of your life.
  2. You can’t just resort to meditation when you think you need to relax or deal with stress. Just like working out in a gym, meditation is something you need to do on a consistent basis. Being mindful and aware are not really natural states of mind for most people, so we need to constantly retrain this skill, aiming to learn how to drop into the present moment more frequently, and automatically, so when we really need calm and clarity, it just comes naturally.
  3. Being in the present moment is really what it’s all about. Our brains have evolved to be really great at re-running the past, or trying to predict the future. Unfortunately, the brain became too good at this and this is often our only way of being, creating a false sense of self, one that defines who we are by what we’ve done or what we think we’re going to do. Identifying yourself as who you were or who you might be is a kind of attachment, and ultimately self-defeating, simply because any kind of attachment leads to suffering (as Buddha so astutely observed thousands of years ago).

On Breath Focus

Breath focus is one of many ways to meditate (other objects of focus include visualizations, mantras, focusing on points in the body, and so on). Focusing on the breath, though, is not the goal. The goal is to learn to identify that moment in time when you have a thought or emotion that distracts you from your object of focus. You can then detach from the thought, not getting caught up in it. By returning attention to the breath, you achieve this. That said, there are a few tricks you can use when you’re having a hard time keeping focus on the breath.

  1. You can use a particular kind of counting. There are 5 general areas in the body where you can most easily sense the breath: the nostrils, the nasal passages, the throat, the chest, and the stomach. So with each breath, and each count, focus on a new area. Breath #1, focus on the nostrils, breath #2, the nasal passages, etc. Once you reach five, count backwards, and move back up the body. In this way, one full round is exactly ten breaths, which for most people takes about one minute to complete.
  2. If you are counting, when you discover you’ve been distracted, instead starting back at the number you left off on, you may want to try just restarting over at one. It becomes a little game: see how high you can count before you have to start over. More often than not, you may not get much past 1 or 2, but with practice you may make it up to 10 or higher.
  3. Another technique is to pay close attention to each breath and mentally note how the current breath differed from the previous. How did it physically feel different (or the same) – in terms of depth, smoothness, length, etc.

On Thoughts

One common way to detach from thoughts is to try to label them in some way. So, when you have a thought or emotion, you simply think to yourself, “Ah, that was a pleasant thought,” or “That was an unpleasant emotion.” It’s important to choose from the right sets of objective adjectives, though. Here are some that seem to work well:

  1. Pleasant or unpleasant (do not use “good” or “bad”, as these are judgments)
  2. About the past or about the future
  3. About myself or about others

You’ll notice these are in pairs. That makes the labeling process quick and easy. You can also combine them, as in “Ah, that was an unpleasant thought about my past,” or, “That was a pleasant feeling about my friend’s future.” By labeling, you are interjecting space between your thought and the next one (which helps you avoid getting carried away), and you’re also building awareness of the nature of your thoughts, so you can decide whether or not they are productive and healthy.

On Compassion

It may seem strange to include something about compassion when speaking about meditation. It turns out, though, that mindfulness and compassion are intricately intertwined. Compassion is simply a way to be less judgmental of others. So, as you learn to be less judgmental of yourself, you’re actually training yourself to be more self-compassionate, and this tends to cross over into your interactions with others as well. You can amp up your compassion for others using another very simple practice:

  • Every day, try to silently wish happiness to at least one random person you encounter. You could use a phrase like, “May you find happiness and live in peace,” (not said out loud, of course!) or find a phrase that resonates with you personally.

This practice is deceptively powerful, and incredibly rewarding. It’s important that the person you choose be random – don’t just wish happiness to friends and family, but even to that guy who cuts you off in traffic or mindlessly blows cigarette smoke at you. You’ll quickly realize that everyone has a story, and you have no idea what that story is. Regardless of what the story is, every single human on this planet deserves to find true happiness and peace. Including yourself! This practice literally changes your entire outlook, to the point that you may find yourself sending good wishes to every person you meet. Luckily, kindness is contagious, and “as you sow, so shall you reap.”

10 Mindfulness And Meditation Questions Answered

1. Mindfulness, what’s that?
It’s simply the idea of paying attention to what you’re paying attention to, and being aware of your thoughts and emotions.

2. Why should I care about paying attention?
Being mindful is seemingly universally beneficial. Mindfulness meditation has been scientifically shown to decrease depression, distraction, anxiety, rumination, and emotional reactivity, while at the same time improving information processing abilities, resilience, cognitive flexibility, immune function, intuition, emotion regulation, and relationship satisfaction. For these reasons and more, companies like Google, LinkedIn, Monsanto, Aetna, and many others offer mindfulness programs to their employees. Mindfulness is also key to becoming emotionally intelligent, a set of skills that has been shown to be important to becoming an exceptionally effective leader or manager.

3. Yeah right, how does it do all that?
The human brain is well adapted to reviewing the past, building models of the world, and predicting the future. Unfortunately, it is so well adapted to these tasks that it often goes overboard, letting these things take over, and then feeding back into itself. There are at least two problems with this. First, when you are thinking, you are not doing, or worse, you are doing things on auto-pilot. Second, this feedback loop can amplify the wrong things, for example, strengthening unwarranted negative emotions or unjustifiably reinforcing how you view yourself based on your past actions. Being mindful simply means that you observe this process in a detached way, and reserve the right to say, “Wait a second, let me decide whether this is the kind of thought or emotion that makes sense for me right now.”

4. So, mindfulness is about stopping thoughts?
Not exactly. It’s more about learning how to recognize when you are thinking or feeling, and then making a conscious decision around whether it makes sense to continue that line of thought or to express that emotion, or whether you’d be better served by letting it go.

5. Wait, are mindfulness and meditation the same thing?
No. Meditation is simply a technique used to train you to learn how to be mindful. It is like a targeted workout for your brain, one that trains you to learn a particular skill: being aware of where you are spending your attentional energy. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is a way of life. It can be practiced in every thing you do. You can walk mindfully, eat mindfully, listen mindfully, speak mindfully – drive, read, play, and love mindfully. Mindfulness is all about being present and aware of what’s currently happening in and around you, encapsulated in these three words: Be Here Now.

6. I’m not a spiritual person, how do you expect me to get on board with this “woo-woo” stuff?
While it is true that historically meditation has been closely associated with various spiritual traditions, there’s no reason you can’t be a complete atheist and still experience the benefits of calm, clarity, focus and productivity that meditation and mindfulness impart. The very fact that nearly all spiritual traditions include meditation in their repertoire speaks to its universality. There are many different types of meditation. Mindfulness meditation is deceptively simple, and completely secular. It simply involves paying attention to your breath, noticing when you get distracted by a thought or emotion, and then returning to focusing on your breath. That’s it. No mantras, invocations, chakras, or third-eyes are necessary if you are not so inclined.

7. Okay, you’ve piqued my interest. How do I go about becoming mindful? It is simple, but not easy. You just need to take some time every day to pay attention to what’s going on in your head and around you. This should be a designated time alone, with no screens or other distractions. Just watch your thoughts, without judgment. Here’s a simple 1-2-3 guide to meditation:

  1. Find a quiet, distraction-free place. Put your phone in airplane mode, but set a timer.
  2. Sit still, in a way that you are comfortable, but can remain alert and not be tempted to fall asleep.
  3. Spend a minute or two getting comfortable, relaxing, closing your eyes, and noticing the sensations in your body.
  4. Bring your attention to your breath, noticing what it feels like in your body. No need to control it, just breathe naturally. Possibly start counting your breath, if that helps you keep focused.
  5. You will naturally get distracted by wandering thoughts and feelings, or even by sounds or smells. When this happens, simply notice it, without judging it. Then, go back to the previous step. Do this for as long as you like, even if it’s just a minute or two.
  6. Do this at least once every day. Work your way up to 10 or more minutes.

8. My mind is too restless, I think I’d be no good at it.
Many people use the excuse that they are “no good” at meditation as the reason they don’t meditate. This makes about as much sense as saying you don’t work out because you are out of shape. The whole point of meditating is to learn how to focus your mind, and to practice that skill. That’s why it’s called a practice.

9. It sounds like meditation will turn me into a spineless accept-a-tron, that’s not what I want!
No, it won’t do that. What it will teach you is that in any challenging situation, if the world is not as you would like, you have more than one option. The first option is to work hard to change the state of the world. This is a valid and important option. The second option, often neglected, is to accept the state of the world and change your expectations, something which is often simpler to do and frequently in line with the natural order. Meditation gives you the space to step back, evaluate both options, and choose the one that aligns with your values.

10. Meditation sounds too boring, I think I’ll give it a pass.
The modern world tends to promote the idea that we must always be stimulated, aroused, and entertained. This “always on” way of living is clearly not a sustainable one, and yet we get into the habit of always wanting to do something, even if nothing needs to be done. It may seem like a bit of an indulgence to take a break, but you will only be meditating for a few minutes. Surely you can afford that, given all of the benefits that will ensue. As you gain more experience in meditation, and explore different styles, you’ll also find it less and less boring. Fundamentally, you’ll be exploring your own thought processes, gaining insights into the ways you think, and understanding how you may be the same or different from others. What could possibly be more fascinating than that?

What is Your Daily Practice?

Practice makes perfect, or so the saying goes. But have you ever stopped to think about what it is that you are practicing, possibly without even having decided to do so?

The dictionary definition of practice is: Repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it. We usually associate this with particular kinds of skills, like playing an instrument, learning a sport, or being a doctor or lawyer. As such, the common definition of practice has a decidedly aspirational quality — you practice something “so as to acquire or maintain” proficiency. But, there is a more subtle form of practice, one where you replace the above phrase with “which leads to.” You can think of this as unintentional practice. Any time you repeatedly perform an activity, this leads to you becoming more proficient in it, whether you intended to or not.

Why is this important? Because fundamentally, you are what you practice. You are your actions, words, thoughts and feelings — these are the fundamental ways you interact with the world, others, and yourself. When you do something repeatedly, it defines who you are. On the other hand, if you are not doing something repeatedly, then it could hardly be considered part of your core self. For example, one day you may give your spare change to a beggar. Does that make you a generous person? Hardly. But if you do it every time you have an opportunity, or if you volunteer regularly to help the homeless, then most people would agree that you are a giving person.

If you are what you practice, it makes sense to make sure that what you do repeatedly is directly connected to what you want to become. If it’s not, then you’re diligently becoming proficient at something that’s just not you. You’re practicing being someone else — a recipe for unhappiness.

To see how your daily practices profoundly affect who you are, I recommend adding a new practice to your repertoire, something I call the Daily Practice Challenge. Here’s how it works: every day, for 30 days, take 5 minutes at the end of your day to think about and answer the following questions about one particular activity you do daily. I recommend you do it in writing.

  • Every Day, I _____
  • I am practicing _____
  • It makes me feel _____ because _____
  • This is (good/bad) for me, and I (should/shouldn’t) continue to do it (this way).
  • Here are some ways I could improve on this: _____

One last rule: you can’t repeat the same activity on different days — every day, you must come up with something new that you do every day. You’ll spend the first week or so catching all of your obvious activities, and then you’ll need to go deeper to come up with new ones. This is where the real gold lies. As you get further along in the 30 days, you’ll have to start paying closer attention to what you do, as you are doing it during the day, so you’ll have something to write about that evening.

Some more guidelines:

  • You’ll find that there are some things you practice that you’ll want to continue, and some that you want to give up. Try not to focus too much on one kind or the other — sprinkle in some good habits with the bad.
  • Don’t just focus on outward actions, try to think about things you say on a regular basis, habitual thought patterns, and regular emotional responses.
  • Get detailed. Don’t just write, “Every day I brush my teeth.” Instead, say something like, “Every day, I brush my teeth twice: first thing in the morning, and last thing before going to bed. I use Colgate Fluoride toothpaste and an Oral-B Extra Soft plastic toothbrush, brush for 1 minute total, and brush before I floss.” Etc. The details will help you really evaluate this practice, understanding whether there is any part of it that is not in line with your beliefs. Maybe you’ll want to change toothpaste brands to a more natural one, or find a replacement to the plastic toothbrush. Whatever it is, unless you call out the details, they’ll likely go unnoticed, and unchanged.

I recently wrapped up 30 days of doing this nearly every day. Almost exactly half of my practices were “good” and half “bad.” They were pretty equally distributed across activities, thoughts and emotions. Here’s an example of one:

  • Every day, I check Facebook many times, esp. if I’ve posted something.
  • I am practicing feeding my ego, getting attention, allowing myself to be ruled by my compulsions.
  • It makes me feel either elated or let down depending if there is a “piece of candy” waiting for me. Regardless, I feel pretty empty afterwards.
  • This is bad for me, and I shouldn’t continue to do it.
  • Here are some ways I could improve on this: Maybe set a specific time window to check, and if I miss it, too bad!

As a result of this reflection, a few days later I gave up checking Facebook altogether. If I had not done this reflection, I would have happily (or, unhappily) continued to obsessively check Facebook, even though it was not good for me.

The Daily Practice Challenge works because it forces you to really look at what it is you do, day in and day out. By coming up with a new activity every day, you end up really examining your daily life, and going deep, to your thoughts and emotions. It also forces you to evaluate your practices, and re-make a “go / no go” decision about things that may have become habitual when they shouldn’t have.

At the end of your 30 days, flip back through your reflections. Find your improvement suggestions, and if you haven’t already, start to implement them, one by one. And, maybe, take the challenge again. After all, making self-reflection a daily practice is “good for you, you should continue to do it.” 🙂

Once you’ve gone through the process once, you can also try folding in these variations:

  • Instead of just focusing on things you do daily, try shifting the time scale, to either longer or shorter time periods (minutes, hours, weeks, months, years).
  • Instead of just focusing on things you already do, try changing the questions to shift the focus back to an aspirational one: Every day I should _____. I will be practicing _____. It will make me feel _____ because _____.

 

 

30 Saturdays … and Counting

Mighty CypressSome friends have inquired as to how my sabbatical is going. I’m at the halfway point, now, and I’m afraid, I’ve been doing very little that would be considered “interesting.” This is, to some extent, by design. I jokingly told some folks that my goal for this sabbatical was to be the “least interesting man in the world” (in reference to the Dos Equis ad campaign that features the most interesting man).

My wife and I are referring to this sabbatical as “58 Saturdays” and often greet each other in the morning with a “Happy Saturday!” Although I haven’t gotten to the point of forgetting what day of the week it is, I could see that easily happening, and soon. One of our biggest projects of the month has been wrapping up our move – that’s now (finally) 100% done. These things always take 3 times longer than you think they should.

This first month has been about turning inward, and stepping back, looking at my life and who I am. Next month, I hope to spend more time reaching out and reconnecting with all of you. So with that in mind, here are some of the things I’ve been doing (I’ve warned you, these are boring):

  • I’ve continued my daily yoga and meditation practices, and have found the time to lengthen and strengthen them both. Because it’s summer, I tend to do yoga outside first thing in the morning, accompanied by the awakening birds and bees. Meditation is typically just before bed. I find that on the rare days when I skip these practices, I’m always a bit off balance, so it’s relatively easy to maintain this habit.
  • Speaking of practices, for the first time since third grade, I’m writing a simple journal entry every day. It is both prospective (I set intentions in the morning) and retrospective (summarizing what I did and how I felt at the end of the day).
  • As part of my journal entry, I’m taking what I call a “Daily Practice Challenge.” This is something I’ve invented, and I described it in my Convox talk earlier this year. Every day, you identify some new thing that you do every day, and decide whether you want to continue to practice this activity. I’ll have a blog post about that a little later after I have done it for long enough. Needless to say, it has been very interesting, very enlightening, and very helpful.
  • I’ve been writing letters. Yes, some email letters, but also handwritten letters, that need stamps and all that. Don’t be surprised if one of these shows up in your virtual or real inboxes. I have this romantic vision of 19th century lords of the manor keeping up with their “correspondences.” Of course, I’m not a lord, at least, not any more so than every other person on this earth.
  • I’ve given up some things. We’ve never watched much TV, and despite being “on vacation,” that hasn’t really changed. But I’ve also given up using Facebook to any significant extent, except to post insights and observations. I’m not giving it up completely – I know many of my friends rely on it for communication. But, I’ve completely given up checking my newsfeed, and I don’t even check how my own posts are faring anymore. I find that the product Facebook has built is not something that promotes a strong, healthy psyche – at least, not for me. YMMV.
  • I’ve also given up on caffeine. I’m sure I’ll fall off the wagon at some point, but really, the negative effects on my physiology and mood are just too consistent and too damaging.
  • I’ve learned to love housework. Yes, Mom, you heard me right. I now look forward to a nice meditative time in the evening after dinner, doing the “washing up.”

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, I’ve found my purpose in life. Or, at least, I’ve stepped through a process that is supposed to help me find my purpose, and make positive steps towards fulfilling it. The process involved me sequestering myself at a seaside retreat on 8 of my 30 Saturdays, and systematically spending 1-3 hours each of those days stepping through the book: The Four Desires : Creating a Life of Purpose, Happiness, Prosperity, and Freedom by Rod Stryker. Stryker is my yoga teacher’s teacher, so you can imagine the book makes liberal reference to Yogic and Vedic concepts. But you don’t need to be a yogi to gain tremendous benefit from the book – I highly recommend it. If the yoga stuff turns you off, try pretending the Sanskrit words are Latin, and the sages that are quoted are from the philosophical school of thought you like best. 🙂

What is my purpose, you ask? Well here’s where I landed – I may still revise this further, but I feel this rings true for me:

  • I’m an independent, trusted, equanimous scout who seeks and shares the truth.

Now all I have to do is find out precisely how I manifest that vision. Stay tuned. After all, I’ve got another 28 Saturdays to make good on it – should be pretty easy! 😉

Cheers and Peace,

Chris

p.s. Here are a couple more photos from a beach walk I took. Wood is such a beautiful substance!

Driftwood, superior view Driftwood, lateral view

Why I Throw an Annual Mini-Conference for Friends

On May 2nd, I’ll be gathering a group of friends and colleagues at a coastal resort, where we’ll spend the day giving talks on whatever we are currently into. You are invited! Just come and listen, or come and share, your choice.

You may be thinking, “Wait, you do what? I’ve never heard of such a thing. Why?”

This is the third time I’ll be doing this, and every time I ask myself those same questions. It’s actually a fair amount of work for me to do this (despite what I tell myself when I start working on it in January). Convincing friends to pay money, give up a whole day on the weekend, leave their families, prepare and give a talk — that’s a tall order, and one that requires much goading, cajoling, and encouraging. Wouldn’t it be easier to just invite friends over for a party? Yes, it would be easier, but not the same.

One lesson I learned from my father was on the importance of milestones. As a child and young adult, I tended to eschew ceremonies and formal celebrations — they made me feel awkward and uncomfortable. But Dad was always a stickler for doing it right — whether it was a graduation, birthday, or even a straight-A report card, all were afforded an acknowledgment in some way. All of the holidays were also given the proper time and involved a variety of traditions. Over time, I’ve come to realize that we can often fail to realize when something important has happened that we really value. Relationships are possibly one of the most valuable gifts we give each other, but aside from a few “Hallmark” holidays, we rarely ever acknowledge their importance.

The goal of Convox (as my mini-conference is called) is to be a milestone event to celebrate and recognize the relationships I have with my friends and colleagues, and to give everyone a chance to shine and share what they’ve learned that they think may be valuable for others to know. While casual conversations over a meal, at work, or at a party are the foundation of a relationship, they don’t tend to get at these kinds of things, but instead they only touch on daily happenings. By gathering in one place, one day per year, everyone has a reason to reflect a little on what’s important to them, distill their message down to its core, and share it with others who want to hear it. In my reflections on the first iteration of the conference, What if You and Your Friends Held a Conference, I noted this as the most gratifying part of holding the conference: I learned a little more about everyone and connected with them at a deeper level than I had before.

One of my friends has called my conference a “TED for friends.” In some ways that’s true, in that we have “groundbreaking” talks that last about 20 minutes. The talks are not usually groundbreaking at a societal level, though, but rather groundbreaking at a personal level. And because many of the people who attend know each other, it makes the talks all the more powerful.

One concept I picked up from my yoga teacher training class is something called holding a space. It’s a very powerful concept that we all encounter every day, but few people really acknowledge it. On the surface, holding a space means arranging a time and place for people to meet and attempt to accomplish something together. But it goes deeper than that — it also means doing whatever it takes to facilitate frictionless progress towards that goal. It means making it safe and easy for everyone to contribute their best. Teachers of all kinds hold spaces in their classrooms, studios, and elsewhere. Meeting and conference organizers do as well. Parents hold a space for their children to grow and learn (commonly called a “home”). You can even hold a space for yourself, by taking the time to do your daily routine. Held spaces can be truly transformative, healing, and productive. It is that power that I’m trying tap into by holding a space where you can “share what you dig.”

I hope you can join us, or, hold a conference of your own — I’d be happy to share my experiences with you if you think it’s something you’d like to try.

For details, see: http://svbbc.luvogt.com/convox2015 or proceed directly to the Eventbrite page to purchase tickets by March 31. Here’s the current line-up (subject to change):

  • Nate Moser – “Generative Art: a Systemic Approach to Manufacturing Inspirado”
  • Aaron Weinstein – “Checking Out: Moving Forward During Times of Transition”
  • Maria Stone – Either “The Benefits and Pitfalls of Storytelling” or “What if Spain and Russia had Never Ceded California?”
  • Pravin Mahajan – “The Why of Busyness”
  • Olga Bergstrom – “The Importance of Love and Compassion in Moving the Human Race Forward”
  • Scott Banachowski – insights from the productivity literature
  • Kyle Jennings – topic TBD
  • Chris LuVogt – Either “How Striving Gives Life Meaning” or “Yoga: It’s Not (Just) for Posers”

Yoga: It’s Not (Just) for Posers

I recently wrapped up an incredible journey I started last Fall — an intensive course on yoga given by Jillian Glikbarg at Vibe Yoga in Redwood City. I went from thinking of yoga as simply a method to help maintain physical and mental health, to understanding yoga as a way of life and a system for helping you recognize your one, true, divine Self. Before you start thinking, “Uh oh, Chris has fallen in with those New Age hippies!” let me be clear about what I mean. (You’ll note that I said “a way of life” and “a system,” not “the way” or “the system.”) Yoga, as currently practiced and popularized in the West, is primarily a physical practice — stretches and poses and breathing. What I learned was that this is only the proverbial tip of the yoga iceberg, and that yogic philosophy goes much deeper than the physical practice. Like any system for living, it encompasses psychology, morality, spirituality, physical practices (that go beyond exercise), and much more.

The Class & How I Got There

The course I took was a Yoga Teacher Training — a class designed to certify (via the Yoga Alliance) yoga teachers through over 200 hours of lecture, practice, and homework (reading, book reports, class construction, practice), followed by written and teaching exams and an apprenticeship. All in all, the 15 students in the class gave up eight and a half entire weekends, including Friday night (plus countless hours in between). I was taking the course not to become a teacher, but just for my own enrichment, so don’t expect to see me teaching in a yoga studio or gym anytime soon. The class was probably equivalent in workload to at least a couple university courses, and pretty much all of the students were taking it on top of full-time jobs. The “professor” was Dr. Jill. Okay, as far as I know, Jill doesn’t hold a doctorate degree, but I’m sure that if any university offers a Ph.D. in Yoga, Jill could easily walk in and take the qualifying exam and defend a thesis without even trying — she’s that good. If you’re new to yoga, go to one of Jill’s classes (she teaches at Vibe and also at Yoga Source in Palo Alto). Just go.

Why would I decide to spend so much time on yoga? I first started practicing yoga about 15 years ago, when the start-up I was working for brought in an instructor every week, probably as a way to help us deal with stress. For most of that time, the class was taught by a seasoned yogi named Shastri, who had very strong opinions on the correct way to do the poses, and wasn’t afraid to let you know. Although he sometimes seemed more like a drill sergeant than a yogi, I learned a lot from Shastri, and had a lot of “Aha” moments, as I discovered something shocking: although I was over 30 years old and an active cyclist and climber, I knew remarkably little about my body, and couldn’t really say I was in touch with how I felt (in the physical sense). After a couple years, I moved, and my yoga practice began to consist mostly of DVDs from Rodney Yee. I used yoga, like most people in the West, as a simple way to get a good workout (for free, at home, and with virtually no equipment), one that included stretching, aerobic, and anaerobic elements. What a deal! But my practice was spotty at best.

A few years back, my wife and I joined the local climbing gym, Planet Granite, in an effort to reinvigorate our exercise regime. PG also offers yoga, and that’s where we happened across Jill. She was the one yoga teacher that both my wife and I really resonated with — a no bullshit teacher who seemed to have a deeper understanding of the underpinnings of yoga. She would sprinkle in dribs and drabs of that deeper understanding, tossing in a mantra here, a meditation there, and teaching techniques like bandhas (specific muscular contractions meant to control energy flow in the body). She clearly knew what she was doing. So last summer, after having become a semi-regular in her class for some time and also after having started a regular meditation practice, when she announced she was doing a teacher training, I was immediately intrigued. The time commitment almost scared me away, but in the end I applied my “Would you regret not doing it?” decision criterion, and took the plunge. I had no idea how deep the water was.

Re-discovering an Ancient Science

As the title of this post alludes, the primary thing I learned about yoga was that it is not just about posing. Whereas the physical practice of moving, stretching and holding certain body positions (called asana in Sanskrit), is a key component, it mostly forms a platform on which to build the rest of yogic practices. In the nearly 200 verses of the primary ancient text on yoga, The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, asana is mentioned only once. The rest of the text outlines a science for self-realization and enlightenment. I call it a science because it is based on hundreds (or possibly thousands) of years of experimentation and observation. Yoga also elaborates multiple models of description and explanation, like the Doshas, Gunas, Vayus, Koshas, and yes, the famous Chakras. This type of system of thought and practice exactly fits the dictionary definition of science:

  • science : The observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena.

In this case, the subject of the science is fundamentally what it means to be a human, and how we can be the best human possible. In other words, how we can realize our one, true, divine Self. Heady stuff, and certainly not what I was expecting going in.

At first I was very resistant to the use of Sanskrit, but as we delved into the history and philosophy of yoga, it became clear that its use is important for at least two reasons. First, it recognizes that the system has ancient origins, and second, it also recognizes that the concepts being described do not always have direct correlates in English. On the other hand, I think the use of Sanskrit terms has the unfortunate side effect of making the concepts seem foreign, mysterious, irrelevant, esoteric, or even backward — rendering the deeper wisdom in yoga inaccessible to many people, especially in the West. This is unfortunate because yoga is a full package when it comes to a system for living, and one that has been refined over a very long period of time. It includes a system of ethics, techniques for developing discipline of self, body and breath exercises, meditation and ways to improve concentration, to name just a few of its many elements.

If like me, you’re fond of acronyms and initialisms, here’s one I came up with that sums things up nicely — Yoga is “Your Optimal Guide to Alignment”. Let’s break that down:

  • Your — Yoga is ultimately a personal practice. Its goal is to help you realize that you are divine. It also has enough different techniques, styles, and branches that you will necessarily end up having to craft your own path towards that realization.
  • Optimal — Not only is yoga trying to help you be your best, optimal self, but yoga itself is the result of the work of all the yogis that came before, who experimented, theorized, and refined the practices.
  • Guide — As I mentioned above, yoga is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Your path will be different than anyone else’s. You don’t have to be alone on this journey, though, and in fact ideally you should have the guidance of a teacher who is further along his or her path than you. They can help you avoid pitfalls and point out opportunities that you’d otherwise be unaware of.
  • Alignment — Alignment of what? Many things — your spine, your intentions, your path to your Self. Yoga helps keep all of these aligned.

Yoga, The SWEET Life, & Jesus the Taoist Yogi

If you’ve read this blog, you may be familiar with a concept my wife and I call the SWEET life. The idea is to simply become aware of and track, on a daily basis, how well you Sleep, Work, Eat, Exercise the body and mind, and connecT with others. By doing this tracking, you are more likely to make decisions that align with your core values. Yoga is like the fully generalized version of the SWEET life framework. Within yoga, there is a concept called the niyamas (our attitudes towards ourselves). One of the five niyamas is discipline, which Desikachar describes in his commentary on the Yoga Sutra of Pantanjali as, “The removal of impurities in our physical and mental systems through the maintenance of such correct habits as sleep, exercise, nutrition, work and relaxation.” The resemblance of this to the SWEET life framework is a reflection that my wife and I had hit upon the same truth the yogis had documented thousands of years ago.

But this niyama is only one of the five (the others being cleanliness, contentment, self-study, and devotion). And the niyamas are only one of the eight components of yoga, each of which also goes very deep (for example, asana is one of the eight). Yoga is quite a comprehensive system.

One insight I had from studying all this was that it feels like all of this wisdom is discovered over and over throughout history. As I studied yoga, I found that a lot of the fundamental truths of yogic philosophy can also be found in other systems of living, like Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity and Judaism, and countless others. I also noticed that most of these philosophical or religious systems were developed from around 1500 BCE until maybe a few hundred years after Jesus. If I had the time, I think it would be interesting to understand why it was that time period that led to such a proliferation of systems for living. (If you know of a book that may discuss this topic, can you send me a pointer?)

My “Final” Sequence

All philosophy aside, the course also taught me the fundamentals of asana practice, how the different poses are classified by spinal orientation and energetic effects, the importance of counter-posing, and the concept of vinyasa krama, or intelligent sequencing of poses, along with the use of mind maps to help build a sequence in a principled way. There are many elements to a yoga sequence that, as a yoga student, you may not even be aware of. In addition to the poses, these include: a theme, narrative (the spoken words as the teacher moves through the class), a primary class of poses including a peak pose, breathing techniques, targeted energetic effect (calming, energizing, integration, etc.), style of savasana (resting at end), as well as possibly the use of mantras or meditation. I also learned some basics of anatomy and physiology, contraindications for poses, the use of alternate poses and hands-on adjustments, and generally just learned a lot more poses. I feel I now know enough to modify my daily practice to meet my needs. In other words, I’m at that “advanced beginner” stage where I know enough to be dangerous, or feel like I can teach my friends. 😉

I also drew a lot of stick figures. Some yoga teachers use sequences of stick figures to help them plan out the flow of a sequence, or communicate a sequence to others — a sort of blueprint for the sequence. Of course, teaching the class never ends up happening exactly as planned, but it’s a helpful guide to have, much like a lesson plan. For the last weekend of the class, we all got to teach a “final” hour-long sequence of our own design to a public class. The theme of my class was something I’ve talked about a lot recently — Cultivating Equanimity. Although I didn’t record my class, you can get a taste of what it was like by checking out my mind map and stick figures.

A Daily Practice

Perhaps most importantly, as a result of the class, I’ve begun a daily practice consisting of asana and meditation, which I’ve been able to maintain for the last 5 months. Maintaining a daily practice of any kind beyond showering and brushing and flossing my teeth has eluded me for most of my life, so I’m particularly gratified with this outcome. What’s so important about a daily practice? On the surface, moving the body and resting the mind are two things we all need to be healthy, and they need to happen on a daily basis. At a deeper level, though, I’ve come to realize: you are what you practice. If you run around in a frenzy all day, by definition, your life is a frenzy, and your natural response to any situation will be a frenetic one. Likewise, if you spend your time thinking about the future, you never live your life in the present. What you practice, every day, every hour, every minute — that’s who you are. By including regular interludes of calm, focus, and disciplined pursuit of physical and mental health, I can naturally and constantly embody those attributes in the rest of my life. I have a lot more to say about this concept, so look for another blog post on this topic soon.

Thanks

My thanks go first and foremost to my wife, who, despite the poor timing of the class with respect to what was going on in the rest of our lives, remained understanding and supportive throughout. My deep gratitude goes to my teacher, Jill, whose dedication to the training and the students was truly unbelievable, even after she sustained a very serious (non-yoga) injury. My sangha (community of classmates) was amazing — I love you guys, and have learned something from every one of you. You are some of the most genuine, caring, down-to-earth, and downright authentic (and divine!) people I’ve ever met. Finally, thanks to Vibe Yoga, and its owner, Rebecca Bara. Your generosity in holding the space for the class went above and beyond.

Namaste


What’s the Resolution on that?

When I was younger, I used to think making New Year’s resolutions was for suckers. My thought process went like this: 99% of the time resolutions are broken within days (or at best, weeks) of being made, so what was the point? Shouldn’t you just always be resolved to do the things you know you should? My approach has become a bit more nuanced these past few years, and now I embrace the New Year as a time for re-examination, re-direction, and yes, re-solution.

The word resolve is a fascinating one. If you look up the modern meaning, you’ll see it’s mostly about breaking things down so as to come to a decision that, when acted upon, improves on the current situation. For example, some interpretations revolve around moving from dissonance to consonance, others talk about elimination of a pathological state. Its sister word, resolution, is equally interesting, in that it adds the dimension of degree of detail (as in, the resolution of an image or scientific instrument). Back in the day, resolve meant to dissolve or melt. In other words, breaking down to such a degree of detail that all gross level form is eliminated. When you just look at the surface form of the word it means “to solve again,” implying that something has gone amiss, and moving forward, a course correction is necessary. All of these meanings include a subtle yet distinctly important concept: by breaking things down into their basic building blocks, we’re able to remove restrictions and obstructions that have built up over time, rebuilding things as they once were and should be. When applied to one’s Self, resolutions are all about removing the barnacles that have collected and are obscuring your ability to be the one true you.

In our household, it’s become a bit of a tradition to use this time of year to do a “hard reset.” As the character Roy in the old Britcom The IT Crowd used to say at any sign of technical trouble, “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” That’s what we do, we take this time to quite literally detach, reflect, redirect our attention, and yes, resolve to do a few things. The resolution (detail) of these resolutions (decisions to act) is deliberately coarse, but we only do this very high-level direction setting infrequently. The expectation is that these coarse goals will naturally lead to finer-grained ones as we progress through the year.

If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know that I’ve spent the last year or so focusing on awareness, listening, and mindfulness. In a way, all of these concepts are about continuously resolving, with high resolution, to be present. They are quite valuable for making sure you do not get too caught up in the distant past or far future, and also for training your brain to remain focused on a goal. However, occasionally, one must step outside the flow of life, lift one’s head and look to the horizon to make sure one is on course. That’s what New Year’s resolutions are about for me.

To make it concrete, you can think about it this way. Every moment, you resolve to be present in that moment. Every day, you resolve what you intend to accomplish for that day. Every year, you set goals for the year. You can add in weeks, months, decades, and any other time scale you wish — the same principle applies. Resolutions happen on a continuous and continual basis, at varying degrees of detail and granularity.

My resolutions for this year are private to me, but I will share one glimpse into them as it relates to this blog. My guiding principles for 2015 include: Simplicity, Discipline, Gratitude, Generosity, Compassion, Honesty, Truth. Initially, I had set some goals around blogging for the year, but as I applied these principles and was honest with myself, I was going to have a hard time meeting those goals while also meeting some other, more important goals, and keeping my life simple. I’m not saying I’ll stop blogging, just that I won’t be blogging nearly as much as I had originally hoped. With any luck, my occasional posts will be more packed full of goodness. 🙂

Cheers, Peace, and Happy New Year!

Chris

Up Next: Your Day in Review

There’s nothing like formal seated meditation for training the mind in the art of equanimity, but seated meditation can often seem intimidating or time-consuming. I’ve recently been experimenting with a lightweight form of meditation that is not hard and won’t take a single minute out of your day. It may even give you a few minutes back by helping you fall asleep more quickly. I call it the Day in Review, and here’s how it works.

Unlike most meditation, you do this one by laying down in bed, with the lights out, at the end of the day. The technique is deceptively simple — you simply visualize everything you did today, starting from the moment you woke up, right up to the moment you started to review your day, in as much detail as you can remember. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Every detail matters. It’s not enough to just think, “And then I brushed my teeth.” Instead, try to visualize exactly where and how you were standing, what the toothpaste tasted like, what you were thinking about as you did it, where you were looking, what sounds you may have heard, etc. Bring in all five senses, and try to relive the experience. You might be amazed at what you end up remembering — like the model and color of a car you were following, or the pattern on a colleague’s shirt, or even the exact wording of an email you wrote.

  • You don’t have to relive every second, but if something changed (e.g., you finished brushing and started spitting and rinsing), then you should review the new activity.

  • Don’t worry about skipping something if you can’t remember anything about it.

  • Most importantly, keep yourself on track. In other words, when your mind starts to wander off onto future events or things you did some other day, gently remind yourself that you can think about those things some other time, right now is your review time.

  • Also, don’t cheat and jump ahead to the “juicy” or “important” events. The really juicy stuff is actually all of the other things you did. Try to remain a detached observer of your life, without looping back on the same “good” or “bad” experiences.

  • Try to keep it a little challenging. Some of us are much better than others at visualizing and remembering. If that’s the case for you, just reach for the next level of detail, the one that makes it a little bit hard to recall.

  • There’s one basic rule: You must review everything you did today, in the order you did it. It’s okay to get sidetracked, and you’ll probably want to replay some scenes, but you should always come back to your timeline review wherever you left off as soon as you realize that’s happened.

By the way, I rarely make it much past my memories of this morning’s breakfast before I fall asleep. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s a happy side effect!

You may be thinking, “That’s not meditation! There’s no paying attention to the breath, there’s no sitting upright, there’s no focus on the third eye or visualizing of lights or mantras!” Indeed, there aren’t any of those things, except for the use of visualization. But the core activity of any meditative practice is control of your attention and maintaining your focus on something. That something doesn’t have to be your breath – it can be just about anything, and in this practice it’s the story of your day and how you moved through the world in the last 16 or so hours. The practice of always returning to the true story of your day, as an external observer, will help you learn how to view your life with both detachment and acceptance. It may also motivate you to have more awareness during the course of the day, so that your nightly review can be that much more detailed.

I really like this practice for a number of reasons, and not just because it’s easy and helps me fall asleep. First of all, it’s different every time I do it, so there’s no resistance on my part from being worried it may be boring. Second, like some other forms of meditation, it’s the re-telling of a story, but this one doesn’t involve any memorization and is super personal and relevant. Third, it’s a nice way to put “bookends” on the day, closing today’s chapter and letting you file away the good, the bad, and the ugly — resetting your mind to start the next day anew.

 

The 8-Fold Path to Enlightened Leadership

Like any skill, becoming a great leader is simple in theory, but not an easy path. It’s a matter of identifying the key behaviors of great leaders, and practicing them intelligently and diligently until they have been mastered. So what is it that great leaders do that makes them so great at leading? In this article, I will weave together the various observations I’ve made on leadership into a unified prescription for developing yourself as a great leader called the 8-Fold Path to Enlightened Leadership.

Similar to the 8-Fold Path of Buddhism, the Enlightened Leadership Path is comprised of three logical stages derived from the definition of leader. I’ve previously defined a leader as “someone who discovers, develops, or imagines something new, and then influences people to make changes that make the new thing real.” The three stages of the 8-Fold Path correspond to the three main activities in this definition: Imagine, Inspire, and Innovate. The three stages and eight individual steps are illustrated in the following diagram and described in detail below.

Imagine

The Imagine stage is all about coming up with the “big idea” – the something new that will positively affect people after you, as a leader, provide the spark to make it a reality. The three steps of this stage are to: 1) Listen, 2) Challenge Assumptions, and 3) Ideate.

“Almost everyone knows something or has some insight – listen before you speak.” – Father of David Boies, “Superlawyer”

1. Listen. Learning to listen is the most common advice given by seasoned leaders, and rightly so. As I noted in Do You Want to Know a Secret? Listen, “listening…lets you be dynamic, limber, and agile. [It] fundamentally allows you to be in the moment, consider all options, and actively self-correct.” Listening also has “many obvious benefits, like exposing you to a broad range of ideas, building trust and rapport, and establishing a common narrative.” In the Imagine stage, it’s critical that your imagination be able to draw upon a vast array of ideas and concepts, things you can only have access to if you’ve “kept your ears open.” Of course, listening goes much deeper than just paying attention to others when they speak, true listeners express an openness and awareness that informs them at many levels. See the above article for more details and suggestions on how to develop your listening skills.

“When everybody knows that something is so, it means that nobody knows nothin’.” – Prof. Alois Xavier Schmidt, City College of New York

2. Challenge Assumptions. Challenging assumptions should be done of both your own ideas as well as others’. A simple way to do this is to get in the habit of repeating any statements of fact or opinion, adding the phrase “assuming ______,” and then filling in the blank. For example, “We can only build 1000 units, assuming our supplier can only ship one container of supplies.” Or, “Our competitor will only sell 10% of our sales volume this year, assuming they don’t lower their price point.” Once you get these assumptions out in the open like this, you should then challenge them. Why can’t you ask for more than one container, or switch suppliers? What’s stopping your competitor from lowering their prices? Challenging assumptions like this opens up possibilities and prepares you for full-bore brainstorming.

“Ideas are a dime-a-dozen, which leads to the intriguing implication that most ideas are worthless, and a precious few represent the nuggets we all search for.” – Chris LuVogt

3. Ideate. As I’ve noted previously, some people have a natural talent for immediately seeing the larger potential of great ideas, but this kind of ‘right-brained’ thinking does not come easily to everyone. Luckily, there are many ideation techniques that anyone can practice to formalize the process of developing and vetting ideas. I present one such framework in my two-part post on Thinking Big, namely the “Summarize, Generalize, Hypothesize, Synthesize, Prioritize, Evangelize” methodology. There are many other frameworks one can use to brainstorm, but the end goal of this step is to generate a realistic, substantial “game-changing” idea that you can then move forward with in the next two stages.

Inspire

If you have a truly great idea, chances are you’ll need some help to make it real. The Inspire stage of the 8-Fold Path is all about developing the character you need to be able to convince others to jump on your bandwagon. According the model of great leadership I developed in Earning the Leadership Merit Badge, character is the distinguishing feature between an effective leader and a great one. The three steps of this stage revolve around developing the following three key skills and character traits: 4) Mastery, 5) Respect, and 6) Passion. Taken together, these give you the authenticity and integrity to be truly compelling, so you don’t have to rely solely on others seeing the merits of your big idea in isolation.

“If you’re going to be significant at something, you’ve got to learn it from the ground up.” – Father of Ron Johnson, CEO JC Penney

4. Mastery. Mastery provides the legitimacy you need in order to establish a fundamental bond with the people on your team. Let’s face it, if you’re trying to lead a group of people, but you have nothing in common with them, then you have nothing on which to build trust and commitment. Mastery, most critically of the core competency that gives your team its competitive advantage (engineering for engineers, selling for sales, etc.), goes an incredibly long way towards giving you both the “street cred” to lead, as well as the necessary fundamental skills to execute during Stage 3 (Innovate). It allows you to dive deep when problems arise, applying that attention to detail that your followers expect and deserve. As I said in The 4 Principles of Great Leader-Chefs, true masters do not just practice what they know and hold themselves to high standards of excellence, but they also challenge the prevailing assumptions and try to improve both their practice of the craft as well as the definition of the craft itself. In this way, they always maintain legitimacy and relevance, and the ability to lead others.

“People should be respected and trusted as people, not because of their position or title. Frequently, position or title do not reflect the true merits of a person.” – Mother of Herb Kelleher, CEO Southwest Airlines

5. Respect. Whereas mastery engenders respect from followers, it is critically important for a leader to return the favor. This kind of respect for others should be the default behavior of anyone who desires to lead, towards everyone they work with. It reflects a deep-seated attitude that assumes everyone deserves an opportunity to discover how their strengths can best contribute to the overall success of the team. It doesn’t mean that non-contributors get a free ride. Rather, it means everyone gets a fair chance to shine. Respect and compassion go hand-in-hand, and one of the easiest ways to learn them is a simple mental practice I mentioned in The Waiting is the Mindful Part – simply randomly (and silently) wishing happiness for the people you meet or even just see. You can start doing this just once or twice a day, but because it is so addicting, eventually it will become such a habit, you’ll do it for everyone.

“You should do what you’re good at, and do what you love.” – Danny Meenan, Reporter

6. Passion. Passion is a simple thing – if you’re not doing or thinking about something in your “down time,” you’re not passionate about it. Passion is not something that can be faked, and without it, you will lack the integrity necessary to keep followers for very long. You’ll also lack the driving force necessary to keep you striving for your goal. Ask yourself, “If there was no external force keeping me engaged, would I still be doing this?” If the answer is “No,” you might as well stop now and save yourself and your follower’s time – you’re not being authentic and true to your inner self.

Innovate

So you’ve discovered something great and inspired a team to help you create it – how do you move forward and actually innovate? What techniques can you use to execute and make your idea a reality? The last two steps of the 8-fold Path are there to help you make things happen: 7) Leverage Strengths while Understanding Limitations, and 8 ) Challenge Yourself and Others.

“Develop your ability to leave your own ego at the door and to recognize the skills and traits you don’t possess and that you need to build a world-class organization.” – Warren Bennis, Scholar

7. Leverage Strengths while Understanding Limitations. Strengths and limitations apply to both yourself and those you are leading. As Jim Collins classically put it in Good to Great, you not only have to get the right people on the bus, but you have to make sure they’re sitting in the right seats. Great leaders are always evaluating their followers and determining whether skills and strengths match roles and responsibilities. As I said in Synthesize, Prioritize, Evangelize, “Not everyone on the idea-backing team should also be on the implementation team. Make sure that any backer you carry over has the requisite skills, knowledge, passion, and/or position of authority to be able to contribute.” This represents another situation where awareness and listening, without judgment, play key roles. Great leaders develop a habit of constantly measuring the performance of both themselves and their teams, understanding how roles need to change over time, and not hesitating to rebalance what people (including themselves) work on, in order to play to their strengths and not expose them to situations that expose their limitations.

“You can’t always control what happens to you…but you can control how you respond – you should never quit.” – Mother of John Hickenlooper, Gov. of Colorado

8. Challenge Yourself and Others. Great leaders have three characteristics that keep them and their teams moving towards their goal: Decisiveness, Impatience, and Persistence. Decisiveness sets the direction of movement, impatience sets the pace of movement, and persistence sets the expectation of the achievement of the goal. The leader sets all three of these for themselves and their team, dynamically and in such a way as to ensure forward progress. The best leaders are ones who have practiced decision making to the point where they are comfortable making decisions nearly instantly, who have a bias for action developed by always assuming that positive steps can and should be taken, and who have practiced failing or hitting roadblocks but continuing anyway. As I’ve mentioned before, meditation is one particularly effective way to train this last characteristic, persistence. Leaders who exhibit these traits are the ones that push their own limits and the limits of their team, challenging all involved to be their best, without overtaxing anyone.

Taking the Path

Although the three stages and their individual steps roughly follow each other sequentially, it should be clear that some or all of the activities in each stage or step will overlap with those in other stages and steps. In the above diagram, this sequencing is implied by the arrows leading from the top to the bottom of the diagram.

I’ve tried to give practical suggestions for most of the steps, but I consider this just the beginning of the development of this model. In future articles, I hope to flesh out each of the steps in more detail. Any suggestions or pointers are more than welcome. And for pointers on how to practice (in general), I highly recommend Jesse Bridgewater’s Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect.

3D Spherical Feedback – Redux

SphereLast month, I wrote a short blog post outlining a new technique for getting personal improvement feedback that I called 3D Spherical Feedback. I directly solicited several hundred of my friends, family, and professional colleagues from across the years to answer four short questions about me. The results have been enlightening, insightful, and yes, quite funny at times. More importantly, the process helped me reconnect with a lot of people that I had lost touch with. In this post, I will analyze both the process itself as well as the results for me personally. If you are more interested in knowing what I learned about myself, skip ahead to the section entitled Personal Results.

Design and Method

I used Google Forms to create a six page survey. On the first page, the respondent was asked for their name (optional), as well as primed to remember the most salient experiences they shared with the subject (me). The next four pages corresponded to the four questions from Want Great Feedback? Ask These 4 Questions, also shown below. The last page asked whether the respondent would like to have a follow-up conversation, as well as whether they had any further questions, comments, concerns. In a handful of cases, the questions were asked in person instead of online.

The Four Questions

  1. What do you think is Chris’s greatest strength?
  2. What do/did you appreciate most in your interactions with Chris?
  3. What do/did you wish Chris did more or less of?
  4. What gift would you like to give Chris?

Respondents were solicited in three ways, in the following order: first via posts to social media sites (LinkedIn, Facebook, G+), then via bulk emails to a list selected by the subject, and finally, via direct emails to a shorter list culled from the bulk list by the subject. As would be expected, response rates improved as solicitations became more personal and directed. All in all, somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 participants were solicited, well over 200 viewed the survey, and 123 responded. Each respondent received a personal note of thanks from me.

The online survey was designed as a step-by-step survey to better mimic an in-person interaction, where a question is asked and answered before the next question is presented. Likewise, the question about identity was front-loaded to mimic an in-person interaction. A small number of respondents expressed dissatisfaction with this design, wanting instead to see all of the questions and being able to make the anonymity decision after answering.

A number of solicited participants also expressed dissatisfaction with either the specific questions used, the impersonal nature of the survey, their lack of sufficient knowledge of the subject to provide an informed opinion, or the implication that they should not remain anonymous. These reasons (and presumably others) account for the drop-off between the number of people viewing the survey and the number who completed it.

Results & Discussion

Nearly all respondents answered all four questions. 15 of the 123 decided to remain anonymous. Only 5 specifically wanted a follow-up conversation, 16 specifically did not want it (this corresponded strongly with anonymity), and the rest left it up to the subject.

Half of the answers were ten words or less, with only 6 of the 492 (=123 x 4) answers exceeding 100 words, and the median answer length was 10 words. This is likely partially a result of the questionnaire, which specifically instructed the respondent to answer quickly, although a large text box was provided for answers of any length (the longest received was over 600 words).

Roughly 40% of the respondents were friends or family of the subject, 48% were colleagues, and 12% were both.

As a rule, the responses were overwhelmingly positive in tone. There are at least four large sources of bias that help explain this. First, the questions themselves are phrased in such a way as to elicit a positive response. Second, there was a selection bias introduced by having the subject choose which participants to poll and follow up with. Third, a self-selection bias was also likely in play, in which only respondents who had something positive to say bothered to respond at all. Finally, because the respondents were a mix of friends, family, and colleagues, yet the questions were more geared towards a work environment, it was not uncommon for friends and family to elect to not give a substantive response. This happened particularly with question #3, “What do/did you wish Chris did more or less of?”, which was often answered “Not sure” or “Don’t know” by personal acquaintances.

Respondents were also coded by relative strength of relationship to the subject: a function of how many years they had spent together, how long it had been since they had been in close contact, and how close their relationship had been. This relationship strength was later used in the textual analysis of the answers (below) to weight how much to count the text of the response.

In terms of design, I see a few opportunities for improvement. Moving the “Name:” question to the end of the survey would likely assuage respondent’s discomfort and may improve response rate. Choosing a different set of questions, more geared towards personal relationships, would also likely improve responses from that segment of respondents. Most importantly, however, a more personalized plea for participation, along with a deadline, would likely go the furthest to improving the quantity and quality of responses.

Personal Results

My goals for this exercise were twofold: one was to experiment with a new technique for gaining feedback. Fundamentally, I was trying to see if short responses from a large number of people from many relationship categories and phases of life could provide a more textured, nuanced picture than the typical low-quantity, detailed feedback from current co-workers only. The second goal was to get feedback so that I could get a more clear picture of who others thought I was, and to use that feedback to help guide my personal development, and even my career path going forward.

I received over 10,000 words of feedback from people who have known me since I was born through people I’ve only first met in the last year. From people whom I’ve worked closely with for years to people who only knew me briefly and in passing. I’m still going through them and will likely be doing so for months or years to come. As mentioned above, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, to the point of making me feel almost narcissistic in having undertaken the exercise. If I were to do it again, I’d definitely change the questions to try to elicit more constructive feedback.

To try to get a gist of the most important points, I’ve run the feedback through some textual analysis and produced some “word clouds” (below, thanks to Word Cloud Generator – Jason Davies). Two of these are summaries of colleagues’ comments, and two are from friends and family. They also come in two flavors: single words or sentence fragments (these are cut off in the middle of words). I was amazed at what some people said, and that some of what I considered my more hidden strengths were the first things to come to mind for some.

Word Cloud - Colleagues
Phrase Cloud - Colleagues
Word Cloud - Friends
Phrase Cloud - Friends

Reading through the responses, there is no doubt in my mind that this exercise has been eye-opening and immensely useful for me. In terms of the methodology, I don’t think this would replace the typical 360 feedback used in corporate settings, as it does not address the particulars that was designed to address. Nevertheless, it is a powerful way to expand the feedback net to gain insights that are more about the whole person, and not just the professional persona we put on at work.

Thanks to all who took the time to respond — I will be forever grateful for both your thoughtful responses and for the “gifts” you gave. I was overwhelmed by by your kindness. By far the most common gifts were some combination of health, happiness, love, peace, and friendship. I also received at least a dozen books, plenty of wine, several job offers, and a bunch of vacations. Not to mention the child(!), 3 puppies, grain of Tibetan sand, Japanese vase, and book of Persian poems. But the gifts that made me pause and think the most were the numerous offers of time, the wishes that I find a suitable challenge, and the hopes that I could find my voice and a become the leader some of you seem to think I am. It is these gifts that I will be focusing on making a reality in the coming days.

And thanks for the one box of chocolates — of all my vices, this is one I hope to never give up!