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

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!

3D Spherical Feedback


I recently read: Want Great Feedback? Ask These 4 Questions* by Brian Rumao, Chief of Staff to LinkedIn’s CEO, Jeff Weiner. It got me thinking about 360 Degree Feedback, and how to take it one step further.

Traditional corporate feedback systems flow downward — managers rate their reports on some regular fixed schedule (e.g., quarterly or annually). 360 Degree Feedback is intended to provide a broader view to the person receiving the feedback, soliciting input from the person’s manager(s), directs, peers, cross-functional partners, and even internal and external clients. You can view it as the collection of people in a person’s “work circle” — thus the name 360 Degrees. Getting 360 Degree Feedback is expensive and time-consuming, and as such, is typically done infrequently — on the order of only a few times during a person’s career, if that — and only for managers or executives.

As helpful as 360 Degree Feedback can be, though, it’s still very “two-dimensional.” It focuses almost exclusively on the interpersonal relationships that play a part in the person’s work life. But so much of our lives are spent outside of work, relating to people we don’t formally work with. And as we move more and more into a Knowledge Economy, and possibly even a Purpose Economy, work and personal lives are constantly being more intimately intertwined. We can, in fact we should, be asking anyone we have a relationship with how we are doing.

Clearly, asking everyone you know for in-depth feedback does not scale. But as I’ve thought about this, I began to realize that we may be able to trade off quality of feedback for quantity, and at the same time, be able to to expand the circle of feedback givers into a sphere by including friends, family, and non-work colleagues. The law of large numbers could help ensure that even though the feedback is low-resolution, it would still accurately reflect the truth. And more importantly, that truth would be truly 3-dimensional and “spherical” — coming from all perspectives.

So here’s the experiment I’m asking you to help me with. If you’re reading this, chances are good that you know me. I’ve taken the 4 Question Framework and put it into an online questionnaire. Before reading Rumao’s article, can you take 2 minutes, right now, to answer the 4 questions about me?

>> Take the Survey Here <<

I’d be more than happy to have a follow-up discussion with you in person, via video chat, or on the phone. And I promise to write a follow-up article describing, on a meta-level, how the experiment worked out.

Thanks!

* Here’s a link to the original article, if you want to read it in depth – I do recommend it!

 

Cultivating Equanimity

“I found the secret to life. I’m okay when everything is not okay.” – Tori Amos

What if you could have mental calmness, composure, and presence of mind, especially in difficult situations? That’s the definition of equanimity, a state of mind that exemplifies the polar opposite of what many of us experience in our daily lives – anxiety, stress, and distraction. It doesn’t take drugs to achieve this state of mind, just a simple mental exercise for 10 to 20 minutes a day, every day.

Life is constantly throwing new things at you. To deal with them, you could take one of three approaches. You could stand your ground, like a rocky crag in the ocean, resisting and striving to fight against the barrage. However, ultimately, resistance is futile. The ocean of life is stronger than you, and it will break you down if your only response is resistance. Alternatively, you could try floating on the surface, like a cork, just going with the flow. Although this approach seems safe, as a piece of flotsam you risk being dashed against the rocks or thrown upon the shore. The third approach is the middle way, a buoy that is tethered to the ocean flow, allowed to rise and fall with the waves, but not to get thrown around. The buoy exhibits a kind of equanimity, a centered resilience that allows it to survive in any kind of weather.

Or consider the entertainer who spins plates balanced on sticks. Life is like their trusty assistant, who is constantly throwing new plates into the mix. The entertainer also has three options. He could try to catch them all and keep them all spinning, but eventually there will be too many, and he will fail. He could try to dodge the plates, but he would be missing important opportunities, and there would be a lot of broken plates. Or he could develop a way to catch each plate and quickly decide whether to spin it or gently set it aside. Obviously, this way requires practice and focused attention, just as it does in real life. But practicing focused attention is not something most of us do, or even know how to do.

Much like exercising our bodies to keep them functioning optimally, we all need an exercise regimen for our minds. Humans have been wanting equanimity for thousands of years, and a very specific technique has been honed over that time to cultivate the presence of mind that results in calmness and composure: mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness meditation is not mystical or religious. Like working out in the gym, it is also not hard to learn, but does take some discipline. And it really works. The scientific evidence demonstrates that mindfulness meditation results in overwhelmingly positive effects. It has been shown to minimize rumination, emotional reactivity, distraction, anxiety and depressive symptoms, while simultaneously improving emotion regulation, cognitive flexibility, resiliency, relationship satisfaction, immune function, intuition, and information processing speed.

As humans, we all have shortcuts for handling the onslaught of events and information in our lives. Emotions and habits are two such shortcuts that serve as real, useful strategies, but which, like some drugs, we come to rely on too heavily. The primary shortcoming of both emotions and habits is that they take the conscious mind out of the decision making loop, and it’s not uncommon for the resulting behavior to be completely out of line with our goals. Mindfulness meditation teaches us to insert two important steps between an event and our response to it: noticing and reflecting.

Mindfulness meditation is a mental exercise that repeats a simple 4-step cycle: 1) focusing on your breath (this is the “action” or “response”), 2) inevitably getting distracted by a thought or emotion (this is the “event”), 3) stepping back and noticing that you’ve been distracted, 4) reflecting on the thought or emotion without judgment and letting it pass (this prevents you from perseverating on it), and then 1) returning the attention to the breath. During the course of a given meditation, this cycle is usually repeated dozens or hundreds of times. Each time it’s repeated, it’s kind of like doing “reps” at the gym – you learn to make noticing and reflecting default responses, instead of relying on other habits or emotions.

Mindfulness is so closely linked with equanimity because it directly teaches you to take the middle path – to not resist or cling to things, and to not just let things happen to you willy-nilly. You quite literally train yourself to notice and reflect before responding, and as a result, your behaviors become reasoned, conscious responses.

Personally, since adopting a daily mindfulness meditation practice of about 20-30 minutes per day, I’ve noticed a myriad of positive, equanimous effects. My relationships with my closest loved ones have improved significantly. I’ve relearned the importance of listening and noticing, and am experiencing a rebirth of my child-like sense of wonder and amazement. My resilience, persistence, and willpower have improved, making it easier for me to get things done. I feel centered, grounded, and able to weather any storm. My tolerance for “disagreeable” things has increased, and I’ve started to feel the beginnings of a true sense of compassion for others.

Convinced that you’d like to try to cultivate equanimity through mindful meditation? Try taking a class – they are becoming common as parts of well-being programs in corporations and through healthcare providers. Look for classes that teach MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction). You can also try using one of the many meditation apps – Headspace is a particularly good one for beginners. To make it stick, try joining a meditation group. Making it regular and consistent will have you on the middle-path to equanimity in no time.

This article was adapted from a talk entitled “Cultivating Equanimity” given at Convox 2014. Click through to see a video and slides.

Putting Yourself “On Notice” – A Fun Mindfulness Game

As a child, I used to notice all kinds of things. I was often fascinated by the patterns of rugs or tiled floors. I noticed when the screws in a piece of furniture were different styles — meaning someone had repaired it at some point. I remember focusing in on a tiny detail of the illustration on my mother’s cookie tin sewing kit, letting my imagination run wild about just why that little child whose face appeared so forlornly in the window of the stagecoach was being whisked away, alone.

Like most of us, as I grew up, I learned that these kinds of details didn’t “matter,” and so I learned to ignore them. They did not help me directly achieve whatever it is that modern society values, nor what (I thought) I wanted to achieve. It was better, I thought, to focus on my studies and my work, squeezing every ounce of “productivity” out of every day, hour, and minute. This approach helped me achieve some degree of “success,” but in the process, I lost most of my sense of wonder and amazement, and with it, some of my creativity and passion for life.

As I’ve started rediscovering my inner child, I’ve been looking for ways to focus on the here and now, to remain accepting of where I’m at, in the present moment, and notice what’s actually going on around me. In other words, ways to be mindful. Meditation is certainly one practice that helps immensely with this, but it’s not the only one. I’ve written before about tracking as a means to build awareness, about the importance of snatching spare moments to practice mindfulness instead of busying the mind with checking your phone, and even about using your left hand instead of your right to force you into the now. Here’s another practice I’ve recently started, inspired by remembering my inner child and what it was like to care about all those little details. The technique is in some ways similar to the childhood game of “I Spy,” in which each player in turn finds something they can see but others may not, and announces, “I spy, with my little eye, something that starts with the letter…”

My version of “I Spy” is a solo game that I simply call “On Notice,” and it works like this:

  • The game is played by simply trying to notice and count details of your environment that you haven’t noticed before. The color of paint, a chip in the wall, the pattern of roots around a tree, the number of hinges on a door — anything counts, so it’s “easy” to get a high score, especially when you first start playing. It becomes especially gratifying when you are in environments where you spend a lot of time — like walking down a familiar hallway at work, or in your bedroom. You’ll be amazed at your ability to still be able to find new details, even in these well known places.
  • If you want to drop in to the present moment habitually, it’s best to link playing “On Notice” with a trigger action that you do frequently during the day. I use walking as a trigger — any time I’m walking someplace alone, I remember to play the game. I walk a lot during the course of the day, so using it as a trigger works well for me. If you don’t do much walking, you can try other triggers, like the act of sitting down or standing up, stretching, going to the restroom, or anything else you do frequently.
  • Use all of your senses, not just sight. Hearing, smelling, feeling (temperature, pressure, wind, humidity) — they all contribute to the makeup of where you are right now.

Playing “On Notice” puts you back into a childlike mindset, increases your wonder, and gives you a renewed passion for life. It opens up your mind to discovering new things, and creates a space for creativity to play a role in whatever you are doing. It brings you into the here and now, and forces you to experience where you are at, instead of losing yourself in your thoughts.

More importantly, “On Notice” is lots of fun and often brings a smile to your face. Just this morning, I was approaching a snail attempting to cross the sidewalk, and as my shadow crossed over it, it recoiled back into its shell. For some reason, I got a good laugh out of that — maybe it was the way it looked liked a person when it recoiled, a lot like when someone touches a hot surface unknowingly. I also heard a bird calling that I’d never heard before (wish I could have pinpointed it visually), and smelled some spring flowers I most likely would have ignored if I wasn’t in noticing mode. My little game of “On Notice” during my morning walk set a positive tone, and I’ve carried a smile on my face for nearly the whole day.

Are you ready to put your inner child “On Notice”?

 

The Left Hand of Mindfulness

Tonight I ate my dinner with chopsticks, using only my left hand. As a right-hander, this was no small feat, and involved some laborious maneuvering (especially when trying to pick up tiny softened garlic slices!). It wasn’t the result of a dare or bet, but rather a playful technique I use to practice mindfulness in a fun way. Instead of whipping out my phone to entertain myself as I ate alone, I brought myself into the present moment, quite forcefully, by making it impossible to trundle down the well beaten path of shoveling in the food mindlessly.

This is a general technique I try to employ often to trick my brain into being “in the now” – using my non-dominant hand to perform everyday tasks. Brushing teeth, using a computer mouse, or even just putting the keys in the opposite pocket. By doing an end-run around the habitual motor pathways, you make your brain focus on what it’s actually doing, instead of wandering off on some unnecessary tangent.

Aside from noticing that broccoli that has had a chance to sit in the stir fry juices for several days gets quite soft and quite scrumptious, I also learned that all of the advice I give to beginner chopstickers is generally good advice, but I expect them to pick it up way too fast. This is a common bias that I see all too often in other settings – experts expecting novices to pick up subtle nuances of expertise faster than they themselves did. It also reminded me of the importance of distinguishing knowledge from skill via that age-old bit of wisdom: practice, practice, practice.

I also had that wonderful child-like experience of discovering something for the first time again, of turning a meal into a little game, and a gentle grounding of myself back in my body as I tried to ward off the hand cramps. All of which I think is infinitely more important than the latest tweet from some venture capitalist I’ve never met and likely never will. Besides, the tweet can wait, but the broccoli won’t.

Mindfulness isn’t just about sitting still and watching your breath*. It’s about being here, now. Experiencing life in the real world, and not in your head. What can you do with your “other” hand?

* For a laugh, watch Eckhart Tolle’s imitation of formal meditation, 34 seconds into this video:

Do You Want to Know A Secret? Listen…

What would you reply if someone asked you, “What’s the secret to a happy life? What’s the single most important life skill that I should develop?” Would you say it was discipline, persistence, conscientiousness? How about compassion, gratitude, or humility? Would you suggest they develop their empathy or instead focus on being as efficient as possible? I’m increasingly of the opinion that listening is the most critical core life skill. Listening acts as an enabler and foundational component for most of the other useful life skills.

Listening showed up at the top of the list of “best advice” when I analyzed CNN Money’s articles on the topic in Thrice Filtered Leadership Wisdom. Listening is also typically mentioned or lauded by anyone teaching leadership or communication skills. For example, in How To Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie encourages the reader to be a good listener, let the other person do a great deal of the talking, and try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view. Likewise, one of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is to “Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood.” Of course, how can you possibly understand someone else if you haven’t listened to them?

Few would argue the importance of listening, but what makes it critical and foundational? What is the power of listening? Aside from the many obvious benefits, like exposing you to a broad range of ideas, building trust and rapport, and establishing a common narrative, listening also sets you up to build and develop the other life skills that in turn make you happier, healthier, and more productive. Here’s how…

Awareness and Agility

On the surface, listening is just “paying attention to sound,” but of course there is much more to it than that. Auditory listening is just one manifestation of a more general type of listening, namely being aware, being conscious, and paying attention. As I mentioned in Living the SWEET Life, Daily, awareness lets you short-circuit your habitual thought processes. This in turn leads to agility: the ability to rapidly adjust based on the current state of affairs, with little effort. Thus, listening, and paying attention in general, lets you be dynamic, limber, and agile. Awareness fundamentally allows you to be in the moment, consider all options, and actively self-correct.

To understand its power, it’s helpful to think about what listening is not. If you are not listening, then what are you doing? Usually, you are absorbed in your own thoughts. You are distracted, your attention is elsewhere, and not on the person who is trying to communicate with you. If you are not aware of what’s going on and being said, and you only check in haphazardly or reactively, the input to your decision making apparatus (i.e., your brain) is limited and biased, making it more difficult to react in a timely and appropriate manner. Why would you starve your brain of potentially useful information at the outset, without even considering it? Are your own thoughts really that important and productive?

Other Ways of Listening

If listening leads to agility in communication, imagine what it could do for you when you apply it to more than just conversations. What does that mean? Communicating with others is just one possible modality of gathering information about your world, and other people are just one source of information. You can get so much more from using all of your senses, and focusing not just on others, but yourself and your environment. For example, what if you decided to “listen” to what your nose and tongue were telling you, as you ate or even just as you walked down the street or met with another person? What if you could really absorb and be aware of everything in your visual field of view, including the facial expressions and body language of people you were talking to, as well as knowing exactly what’s around you physically, how it’s moving, and what it’s likely to do next? What if you decided to listen to your somatic sensations, really listen to your body? Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could sense the smallest twinge of pain or really be able to notice when some part of your body was inflamed, or be aware when your body has dumped cortisol and adrenaline into your bloodstream? Most importantly, what if you listened, really listened, to your own thoughts and emotions? You might be surprised, or even enlightened, by what you hear. This kind of awareness is not the stuff of superheroes and science fiction. It is achievable and, remarkably, not that difficult to learn, although it takes lots and lots of practice.

Becoming an Active Listener

We spend most of our lives learning to habitualize and ritualize our thoughts, beliefs, and actions. But this approach of laying down default behaviors and then strengthening them with repetition over time is exactly the opposite of what makes us most effective at dealing with the dynamic, changing world we live in. Listening, paying attention, and being aware of our inner and outer world, in every way possible, is what fundamentally enables us to be good communicators, effective leaders, and agile, facile contributors to ourselves and others. It places the conscious mind back into the loop. Listening is one of the few habits we would all do well to ingrain deep in our psyche.

Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to lose the habit of being a great listener. How do you learn to listen? It turns out to be disarmingly simple – learn to listen by practicing listening! For example, here’s a simple exercise you can do to practice auditory listening: whenever you are conversing 1-to-1 with someone, and you are about to inject your opinion, experience, amusing anecdote or advice, simply stop and hold it back. Let the other person continue until they’ve completely spoken their piece. Then (and only then) return the favor, but before expounding on your own personal thoughts, try to let the other person know you’ve heard them by simply summarizing what they’ve just said (this is sometimes called active listening), and let them respond. You may end up never getting to make your point, and that, in itself, is the point.

Inward Listening

It’s been said that the greatest gift you can give someone is your undivided attention. Imagine, then, the enormity of the gift of learning to listen to yourself. If you could hear and understand all of the activity going on in both your body and mind, you could be agile about adjusting to it, developing it, and improving it. This is what I meant earlier when I alluded to listening helping to make you happier, healthier, and more productive. True listening also involves developing the ability to attend to all sources of information (one’s self, others, one’s environment) from all modalities (senses, emotions, thoughts). Again, to learn to do this, you must practice. Luckily, this is already something that’s been well understood for thousands of years, and the techniques for practice are meditation and yoga. Or, if those sound too intimidating, just simply practicing mindfulness (it really is quite easy).

Discipline, persistence, conscientiousness, compassion, gratitude, humility, empathy and efficiency – all of these are laudable traits. And all of them are amplified by the agility imparted by listening and awareness. When will you start your listening practice? It’s easy, and only takes a few seconds or minutes each day. Here’s a recent article to help you get started. And here’s a Beatles song to inspire you…