Tao of the Zentropist

January 1, 2015

Perspective: When in Doubt, Get Some!

It is natural for many at this time of year to engage in introspection and take stock of things. That can be admirable, especially when it leads to further evolution and development. To that end, I offer the following thoughts…

Photographer: Tom Hall

“Mountain” Photographer: Tom Hall Image courtesy of Flickr

When a mountain comes into view…

Do you see it as an insurmountable obstacle? Or do you wonder what the view is like from the summit, or what lies on the other side?

The very things which may challenge us may also reveal great rewards. We can embrace the challenge and advance forward, or we can remain rooted to the spot or return to the comfort of what we think we know, only to invariably discover, that place is not quite the same as when we left it.

Scarcity and abundance…

Are always intertwined. One never exists without the other.

Mindset reveals our most closely held beliefs. Sometimes what we most desire is indeed scarce. But if we take stock of what is in abundance, how can we use this to obtain or acquire what we really want?

Perception is reality…

Pierce the veil. 

What we perceive to be true inevitably becomes our truth. Objective fact can be inconvenient under this circumstance. Remember that what another perceives will define his or her truth as well. If you cannot find mutually satisfactory definition, given the binary nature of “true or false?” conflict will result.

Use what you know today…

With rare exception, we all know more today than we did yesterday.

Experience may be gained through action or inaction. We learn from the outcomes of both. When outcomes are deemed not desirable, examine what led to them without rancor, bitterness or excessive regret. And avoid repeating the mistakes of yesterday today.

Do more…

Talk less.

Action ultimately trumps flowery talk and academic theory. Far too many pontificate and bloviate. Strategy requires execution. Execution emerges from tactics. Without the right tactics, applied at the right time, even a well considered strategy will fail.

Now is always available…

Use it wisely.

What has happened previously is over and done with. What may happen in the future is subject to change. Unless you believe in predestination. In which case, you will do what you will and the future will happen accordingly.

Trim your sails, adjust your course…

We cannot change the wind and the tide.

But we can harness them, and by keeping a weather eye, adjust as necessary to get where we want to go.

Acknowledge the Monkey Mind…

The Monkey Mind is rarely quiet and is ruled by emotion.

Emotion all too often clouds our judgment. Pause. Inhale. Exhale. Orient and find your center. Decisions made when ruled by emotion may in hindsight prove less than optimal, and sometimes quite poor. Seek to buy enough time to let the most unguarded moment pass. And then act decisively.

Remember…

The past should always inform us. But never define us.

What happened yesterday and all the days before was the result of things both within and outside of our control. The past is only prologue if we fail to exercise what we can currently control. Wiser decisions are always possible. Our fate, driven by unfolding possibilities, is fluid and always in motion.

Celebrate, mourn, move on…

Retain the lesson and those memories you cherish, but do not cling to what has passed.

There is a time and a season to every purpose under Heaven and Earth.

Regrets…

We’ve all got them. But seek to make them, “Too few to mention.”

Sometimes things don’t work out as we planned. Or if we are truthful with ourselves, as we desired, even if we failed to properly plan. Some opportunities, once lost, are not regained. But this is not always so. Do not punish yourself a second time. The moment of lost opportunity is punishment enough.

Impermanence…

This too shall pass.

It is our attachment to things which are the source of pleasure and pain. Life will contain such highs and lows. Things happen in their time.

Beware those who claim to have all the answers…

Those who possess true wisdom understand that which they do not know.

We live in an era where self-proclaimed experts abound. Always consider the source. Good intentions with ill-conceived counsel or inappropriate action can be as detrimental to our welfare as those who act with indifference or outright malice.

Decide what matters…

This is your touchstone.

Over the course of your life, your answer may change. That’s not necessarily good or bad. But you must always be clear on what matters to you if you wish to make decisions aligned with your values.

Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse on 30 December 2014.

September 12, 2013

Rivers, Lakes and What Lies Between

A fundamental rule is that life as we know it cannot exist where there is no water. Particularly human life. Perhaps as a result of having origins which lie in some primordial soup, as conventional science would have it, or the undeniable fact that the majority of our body is composed of water, there appears to be a natural craving for water which somehow transcends mere biological necessity and speaks to some impulse embedded in the human subconscious.

As important as fresh, potable water is to survival, even the presence of seas, oceans and other saline bodies of water invariably draw human settlement and exploration. We understand instinctively that water is a life-giving force, yet also has the potential to unleash terrible destruction, to inflict suffering, and to transform geography and topography given sufficient time and/or force.

And still we are drawn to water, and the very things at once concealed and revealed where it flows in abundance.

THE NATURE OF WATER

Incoming Tide, Scarboro, Maine by Winslow Homer

“Incoming Tide, Scarboro, Maine” by Winslow Homer. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

Water is famously comprised of two hydrogen molecules bonded to an oxygen molecule. At a chemical composition level, a deceptively simple concept. Of course, water may contain far more particulate matter; depending on locale, various minerals, salt and sad to say, contamination in the form of man-made pollutants are all possible. When water is heated sufficiently, it transforms from a liquid to a gas, vaporizing as steam which can produce electrical power, be used for cleaning and sterilization, or even to remove wrinkles from clothing. If captured and cooled, the gas condenses once again and returns to the liquid state.

When chilled to the point of freezing, water transmutes to a solid that we know as ice, useful for refrigeration, or to reduce swelling, or to chill drinks on a hot day. The very versatility and adaptability of water is spoken of by sages, as is the flowing nature evidenced in its liquid and even gaseous form.

There’s much to be admired about water, and at times, some to be feared. Such is the nature of water.

RIVERINE DREAMS

Rivers often provide means of navigation and transit for animals of all kinds, humans included. They often provide sources of irrigation for agriculture, allowing not only human habitation but the development of cultures and civilization. The biblical Garden of Eden, whether a fanciful story, amalgamation of ancient memories, or very real place was said to lie at the confluence of four rivers. Many great civilizations and cultures have been able to materialize, at least in part, due to the presence of a significant river, particularly those of freshwater nature.

I often view rivers as being in partnership with the mountains, since so many carry rainfall and even snow melt from these lofty elevations which reach towards the infinite vault above us, and even connect these timeless titans of the land form to the mysterious seas and oceans. To travel a river is to be enmeshed in a rhythm which exists of its own accord, even if shaped or altered by deliberate or inadvertent human intercession. Ask any who have heard the siren’s call of a river, much less its cousin the sea, and you will come to better understand. Over time, rivers invariably alter the landscape, particularly the terrain upon which they flow, carving away features and smoothing and polishing the rock and banks which contain it. There’s a magic to rivers, if one is only willing to accept this, perhaps not in some metaphysical sense but at the very least in the sense of the wonder and even awe which may be invoked in those sensitive to such things.

Rivers provide a sense of direction, and even a sense of purpose to everyday life. A river has purpose, and that purpose is to flow, whether using brute force to overcome obstacles and obstructions through sheer volume, or more often than not, finding another path offering less resistance to bypass that which stands in the way. This naturally does not suggest sentience in a manner in which the word is used with living things; the river simply is. And in being so, that is enough.

THE HIDDEN LIFE OF LAKES

"Breezing Up (A Fair Wind)" by Winslow Homer. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

“Breezing Up (A Fair Wind)” by Winslow Homer. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

If rivers are to be viewed as dynamic forces, lakes might be described as repositories of potential, as many feed mighty rivers, are fed by them, or provide the necessary resources to enable life in many forms to make its living above, around, on the surface of, or submerged beneath the captive waters. There are lakes so large and mysterious as to provide the same kinds of challenges to mariners as the largest and most treacherous of oceans. Some exist at high elevation, lending beauty as well as life nurturing sustenance to alpine redoubts. Others may be found far closer to sea level or more modest elevation, collecting and dispensing waters which may have traveled significant distances before arrival. Lakes have many facets, not all of which are immediately obvious, and this warrants active exploration and quiet contemplation for those so inclined.

In the stillness of waters, there is something quite profound.

In the gentle flow of waters, there are many voices which speak, not in any tongue spoken by man, yet in a voice which the human heart and soul can interpret if given the opportunity.

In the raging torrent of waters, energy is most clearly manifested, indifferent to that which seeks to impede its progress, yet neither deterred nor readily swayed. It acts as it must, not with malicious or malevolent intent, but because this is the order of things and that order is ultimately inviolate.

COMING FULL CIRCLE

True understanding may only come upon acknowledgement that there is much that we do not know, and our acceptance of this reality. As surely as we are shaped by past actions, we are influenced by environment and our response to outside agencies. What we cannot control, we may seek to redirect and even release. The currents upon which we travel, seen and unseen, give shape to our journey and our understanding thereof. Rivers provide passage both inward and outward, and the very pulse of life in the world around us is mirrored in the ebb and flow of life within us, vis-à-vis our circulatory system.

What one finds is often predicated upon what one is looking for. Nothing is perhaps as blind as the person entranced by what is being sought and consequently unable to see that which otherwise may be revealed in stark relief when viewed through a different prism or unclouded eyes.

Rivers and lakes are worthy in their own right of our time and attention, but it is what lies between in the hidden confluence which ought to demand one’s focus and consideration.

June 4, 2013

The Business Case for Uncertainty

For many people, and many business entities, the notion of uncertainty is one fraught with anxiety, if not outright fear, and is the cause for many sleepless nights and oftentimes ill-conceived attempts to “manage” the uncertainty.  While this is understandable, it is also a mistake, because fundamentally, we often have limited control and influence over the environment in which we operate, and there are lessons to be gleaned and improvements to be made at a personal and often organizational level in dealing with the very chaos and unexpected outcomes which unfold in the act of living our lives and running a business.

WHY UNCERTAINTY IS NOT NECESSARILY THE ENEMY

It would seem axiomatic that if we knew with absolute certainty what the outcome of any process or sequence of events would be, we would be assured of success each and every time we repeated the same actions in the same order. Arguably, one of the primary reasons to develop process or to codify certain actions in a planned sequence is an effort to ensure a repeatable and consistent result which is viewed as desirable. And when it comes to manufacturing a product or implementing a service, this is a worthwhile and necessary goal. But we also know from life experience that defects and deficiencies will arise despite best efforts, and the outcomes will not always be exactly as intended or expected. Call it Chaos theory or the Butterfly Effect, but what we find is that nature rarely presents us with absolutes, and predictability can be highly elusive.

We should acknowledge that uncertainty often drives innovation, because it tends to enforces discipline and a rational (or at least focused) analysis of a situation in order to try and influence outcomes in a predictable fashion. This can lead to new breakthroughs and new efficiencies arising from the willingness to adapt and acknowledgement via robust contingency planning that not all variables may be within our control.

Uncertainty leads to adaptability and refinement of process because of the innate desire to shape outcomes. Determining what actions to take, along with when and in what order in order to arrive at a particular result is the raison d’être for process to exist. And when a process does not reliably produce intended results, it is natural to make changes to see if the fault lies in the approach itself rather than some outlying factor(s).

If we accept that systems are in a state of dynamic flux, we are more apt to be open to continuous evolution and improvement, because we understand that maintaining stasis is not an option; if we attempt to do so, we will be superseded or eventually rendered obsolescent.

EMBRACING UNCERTAINTY

So if we cannot eliminate uncertainty completely, and at best can only seek to mitigate it, how can we best embrace it? In part, we must at times be willing to divorce ourselves from the purely emotional reactions to dealing with situations which do not turn out as expected or desired in order to understand whether partial or full fault lies in the process or actions undertaken up to that point. We must be willing to experiment and try new approaches to see if this leads to solutions which in turn produce more consistent results. Furthermore, we are reminded that if we are willing to ask “What if…?” we may discover previously overlooked opportunities and find competitive advantages that can serve us well.

We can have our preferences, but we cannot always be assured of them materializing exactly as envisioned. Only by coming to terms with uncertainty can we truly reach a state where we are prepared and sufficiently motivated to deal with it in an effective manner.

February 10, 2013

Reflections on the Year of the Snake

According to the Chinese calendar, we are now entering the Year of the Snake. A time of rejuvenation and transformation.  An opportunity for growth, as we “shed the skin we have outgrown” and re-emerge into the world with new vigor and purpose.

So why is it that for so many of us change leaves us paralyzed with fear, doubt and insecurity?

PERCEPTION MAKES COWARDS OF US ALL

Perhaps as sentient creatures, it is natural to seek patterns and order to the world. To believe that amid the seeming chaos, randomness and uncertainty, there is something greater at work and a plan unfolding, even if we are not fully privy to its contents. For some this is an article of faith. For others, it is a chimera which masks our unease with the concept of entropy.

We do well to remember that what we perceive as “reality” is not necessarily in fact, “reality.” It is a construct based on our closely held beliefs, experiences and even our desires. This is why the notion of change and dynamic flux can hold such terror and dread, for it challenges our fundamental assumptions about the universe and our place in it. And it takes a wise person to be willing to make such a leap.

Why is it that in times which we perceive as “good,” which are advantageous to our hopes, dreams and aspirations, that we wish for things to remain the same forever? Is it our fear of losing what we have? Or what we do desperately believe that we have, in part to define who we are? Conversely, and perhaps perversely, in times of struggle and challenge, is it not easy to fall into despair and doubt, and to secretly fear that “luck” has abandoned us, that success and happiness are elusive because we are undeserving?

We must free ourselves of such thinking. For ultimately it is both limiting and erroneous to allow ourselves to be held captive to our perceptions. To see things not as they are, but as we wish or fear them to be.

EMBRACE THE UNKNOWABLE

It is easy and even tempting to grow stagnant on our journey through life. Whether we realize it or not, we are socialized to find our comfort zones and to operate safely within these confines. Fortunately, it is the nature of Life, and the Tao which comprises it, to present many obstacles to such laziness and inertia. For if we do nothing at all we are carried along by the prevailing winds and currents, and wind up where we are. If we blindly expend energy and stubbornly act in a manner which is based solely on our perceptions, we wind up where we are. It is only by charting a course with sensitivity and consideration of the current which we are part of do we wind up where we need to be.

We must remain open to possibilities, for this is the gateway to change which leads to growth and greater awareness and understanding. We can seek to avoid change, but no matter our efforts, it will come. We can seek to effect specific change, and to be sure, our efforts will have consequences, but whether intended or not, we will invariably discover circumstances, challenges and opportunities once undreamt of. For such is the nature of the world. It is at once unknowable and mysterious, yet also less complicated than we make it out to be. It is all a matter of perspective and this is brought about by perception.

THE SAME AS IT EVER WAS

When a snake discards its old skin, this signals its metamorphosis as it grows and begins anew. Yet fundamentally, the snake is still the same creature that it was before shedding its outer wrapping. Transformation of character is not so easily accomplished, and requires far more discomfort and commitment. How we perceive ourselves, and those around us, in instructive to understanding both where we are and where we need to be to align ourselves with the balance and harmony which underlie this world.

Our story should not be understood as one of successes and failures, as victories and defeats, triumph and struggle, or tragedy and comedy. Rather it should be seen as a feat of navigation, or maintaining equanimity and equilibrium from one moment to the next. Instead of dwelling on what we think we can control, we are better served on seeing things not how we wish or fear them to be, but for what they are. Moments to be savored or to be endured, but not to cling to, for their transitory nature cannot be denied. And in embracing this approach we liberate ourselves from angst and turmoil and can truly discover not only the constancy of change, but the necessity of letting go that which no longer serves us or defines us. We are all “works in progress” and none of us are so far along that we cannot be refined, or so hopeless as to be beyond repair.

And with these thoughts, our journey continues now

September 12, 2012

KAYAKING AND THE NATURE OF LIFE

“I am haunted by waters.

Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories

There is something that is truly sublime about paddling a traditional style kayak, in which the paddler sits inside of a cockpit (typically enclosed by a spray skirt to prevent water from entering) and practically “wears” the craft, attuned to every nuance of movement and the thrumming of water passing mere inches beneath one’s backside. Not to denigrate the sit-on-top designs, which have made kayaking more accessible and user-friendly to the masses, but the experience is simply not the same. And for those who have known the challenges and simple joy and freedom of paddling, whether at sea, running whitewater, or even navigating placid lakes and inlets, there are lessons, both overt and more subtle, to be applied to one’s life.

THE FIRST LESSON: BALANCE REQUIRES FOCUS

Kayaks, by design, are not particularly stable craft. Like a canoe, they can tip and roll very easily if the paddler misses a stroke, or fails to paddle brace, or is hit by unexpected wave action and does not react in time. This lack of inherent stability, however, allows kayaks to be highly responsive to the paddler’s input, and can allow course corrections and adjustments with reasonable efficiency.

In order to remain upright, particularly when running a fast-moving river or operating in a surf zone or in heavy wave action in the open sea, the paddler must maintain balance and this requires focus. It is easy in our modern world to lose focus; with so many obligations as well as distractions competing for our attention, following a path can be difficult. More so if that path is not clearly marked or is filled with obstacles which challenge easy passage. Without balance, we lose our center, and without command of our center, we are prone to loss of control.

We cannot control everything that happens, but if we maintain balance, we can quickly recover and avoid the worst outcomes.

THE SECOND LESSON: UNDERSTAND THE RHYTHM

The more time that one spends immersed in nature, the more one understands that everything has a natural rhythm. Things are as they are, and all things interact with each other in fairly predictable ways if you understand the dynamics of the relationship and the context of the environment. There are predators and prey. There are symbiotic and parasitic relationships. For sailors, no wind can be a curse, but too much wind can be a nightmare. Water is the essence of life, yet it can sculpt landscapes and kill with no compunction if present in sufficient volume, force or even based on its temperature.

Piloting a kayak forces the paddler to fall into a rhythm, and this rhythm will naturally mirror the given environment. The double bladed paddle requires some degree of ambidexterity, alternating strokes on either side of the boat or requiring the paddler to perform a brace by placing the flat of the blade on the water’s surface and leaning into it (which may feel counter-intuitive at first) to avoid rolling over.

The nature of the kayak is to become unified with the particular rhythm of the water upon which one is traveling.

THE THIRD LESSON: LEARN TO READ THE CURRENTS & EDDIES

Both whitewater kayaking and sea kayaking require knowledge of water’s behavior, and an appreciation and respect for what nature can unleash with little or no warning. Whitewater, while exhilarating and majestic, can also be terrifying and deadly, as the power of a tremendous volume of water, coupled with obstructions which can snag, pin and trap the boat and paddler in deadly circumstances, is not to be trifled with. Paddlers running rapids must quickly learn how to gauge safer routes of passage, and must respond to the feedback of the river instantaneously if not to be overturned.

At sea, even close to shore, the paddler can experience both wave action and currents which may thwart forward progress, force the paddler severely off course, or threaten the stability of the boat. Being able to track on a particular course requires skill and constant effort, and understanding when and how to expend energy efficiently.

Navigation is essential to a successful journey. Even if the destination changes en route.

THE FOURTH LESSON: BE PREPARED FOR SELF-RESCUE

Arguably, what many people find most intimidating about traditional style kayaks is the experience of being confined in a fairly tight cockpit, which can present challenges should the boat overturn. The traditional response to overturning in such a craft is to perform an “Eskimo roll” in which one snaps the hips and twists the body, using the paddle for leverage, in order to return to the water’s surface from a fully submerged position.

This maneuver can be tricky and requires patience and practice to learn. Sometimes it is simply easier, or perhaps more expedient, to “eject” from the kayak by pulling the spray skirt and swimming free, although there is danger in being separated from the boat for an extended period of time. And it is not necessarily an easy matter to climb back into a kayak once one has “gone for a swim,” particularly if kayaking solo. For this reason, having at least one other party that can be relied upon is always preferable to “going it alone.” There are times when this is not possible, but companionship on a journey can make all the difference.

Life invariably throws surprises at us. Our ability to “self rescue” and adapt to changing circumstances, or to come to the assistance of another, is vital to our ability to persevere.

THE FIFTH LESSON: RESPECT WHAT’S BELOW THE SURFACE

Unlike most other watercraft, kayaks sit low in the water, with very little separating the paddler from the water itself. In some manner, this forges a “connection” with the very medium in which one travels which is arguably unrivaled, and incredibly intimate. It is an easy thing to stretch out one’s fingers and touch the surface of the water, or to plunge one’s hand or arm into the depths as one contemplates the hidden mysteries below.

In life, much is hidden and perhaps even unknowable to us. We must operate with the faith that our efforts are not in vain, and our expenditure of time and energy is bringing us closer to a destination that will resonate with the very core of our being. That which is unseen does not by definition, not exist. It is merely our perception, or lack thereof, that informs our observations and beliefs.

Water is as elemental as the mountains, and it is water which can often alter the shape and character of those topographical monuments. Something to ponder from the seat of a kayak…

July 24, 2012

Inauthentic Authenticity

Image courtesy of StockFreeImages.com

There seems to be quite a bit of chatter and advice on the topic of “authenticity” as it applies to social media. For all the talk that people, as well as brands (and many like to emphasize that individuals are now “brands” too) need to be authentic to connect with their intended audience, there’s something rather disingenuous about all of the attention focused on this subject. Perhaps like “non-scripted television,” a.k.a. “Reality TV,” what is presented to us in social media behaviors is more often than not artifice, until proven otherwise. And it’s the “until proven otherwise” part that is of greatest interest…

WHAT IS AUTHENTICITY ANYWAY?

No one likes to be played for a sucker. Surely this is not a controversial or debatable point. And while social media presents the opportunity to reveal a lot about an individual’s personality, passions and beliefs, it is also not immune from manipulation. For example, some celebrities have massive Twitter followings in part because those connecting to them believe on some level that they are now part of this person’s “inner circle.”  I guess the allure of 140-character tidbits leads some to believe they now have a “relationship” with the other party, but if that’s what passes for meaningful connection, it’s a rather shallow and contrived arrangement. Being authentic is not necessarily about “being on message” and “building a brand” but rather, remaining true and constant to the core values and beliefs that one holds. The moment that a conscious decision is made to “spin” a message or behave in a proscribed manner is the moment in which “authenticity” is lost and play-acting begins.

KEEPING IT REAL

For those who want to present the world with a “window into their life,” social media can certainly be a useful tool, but there’s a fine line between genuine behavior, whether learned or instinctual, and performance. We may strive to uphold a certain ideal, and present to the world a certain image, but if we truly don’t embody the phantasm which we’re selling, inconsistencies start to quickly emerge.

Trying to cover up mistakes, errors in judgment, or past shortcomings is about rewriting history and does not preserve authenticity. It actually undermines it. Arguably, it’s easier to respect someone who is striving to evolve and attain certain far-reaching and ambitious accomplishments, and who may encounter failures and setbacks along the way, than those who claim flawless results each time they go to bat or squabble over the lowest hanging fruit.

One is reminded of the wise and perceptive words of Marcus Aurelius who stated, “The measure of a man is the worth of the things he cares about.” One can learn a great deal about someone by the subjects, triggers and stimuli which provoke a response while they are busy engaging with others on the Internet. It’s not difficult to be brave and combative when sitting behind a computer or tapping into a smartphone or tablet when one is not facing another party; consequently, social filters often come off and reveal what someone really thinks and their true nature.

HOW TO TELL A GENUINE FAKE

Image courtesy of StockFreeImages.com

So how do we avoid the frauds and schemers and delusional self-promoters? Can it be done? Should it be done? Ultimately, one has to look for consistency, because over time, it’s hard to maintain a false face without cracks appearing in the veneer. I find people’s off the cuff remarks, comments and answers to often be far more revealing than what might be posted in a blog, or a profile, or even a discussion thread which are more subject to editing and even ghostwriting. Emotional responses to another party’s question or posting or tweet which are triggered without much forethought may give greater clues to a person’s character and psychological makeup than more measured and considered responses delivered after a longer delay.

Most people struggle to reconcile the person who they wish to be, and want to portray themselves to be to others, with who they actually are in the moment. I don’t believe that people can remain static indefinitely; they need to evolve and change or they will find themselves relegated to a category of either caricature or irrelevance. I personally subscribe to the notion that, “Action reveals character,” and all pontification aside, it is how people behave, particularly in times of stress, when quick response is demanded, or when they think that they are unobserved, which truly reveals who they actually are. All the rest is measured commentary.

You cannot manufacture authenticity, and slapping a label on something doesn’t make it so. We simply are who we are until we change; whether that change is conscious and deliberate, or forced upon us by circumstance, is simply the mechanism and should not be mistaken for the result…

February 16, 2012

The Cult of “Me”

The Digital Age has brought us many benefits, including a near ubiquitous mode of communication, and with those benefits, it has also unleashed the floodgates. Never before in the recorded history of humanity have so many had so much to say, yet amid the ensuing cacophony and din, one can’t help but observe that many, and perhaps most, have nothing original to say, opinions (informed or otherwise) masquerade as fact, and few take the time and effort to listen.

Ours perhaps is not the First Age of Shameless Self-Promotion, but it may very well be the most far reaching, and the narcissists among us cannot help but bend their knee or even throw themselves prostrate as they worship for all to see before the Cult of Me.

IN A WORLD OF EXPERTS…

Modern life in industrialized societies moves at a blistering pace, and few of us have to be told that competition among even the well skilled and qualified for desirable jobs and clients can be quite fierce. Social media outlets such as LinkedIn have created new channels of connection and networking, and even a cursory review of user profiles will also reveal a proliferation of individuals who boast of impressive accomplishments and skills, yet if you start to scratch beneath the surface, the substance and even veracity starts to come into question.

Photo courtesy of iStock

The Internet seems to encourage and foster the notion that we live in a world of experts, yet somehow conveniently overlooked is that many of these experts are self-proclaimed, and therefore suspect. Malcolm Gladwell has famously commented upon the “10,000 Hour Rule” which suggests that one becomes an expert at a task by practicing it for 10,000 hours. There’s likely some element of truth to this, although a corollary which should not be overlooked is that one must practice well and thoroughly for those “10,000 hours” and ideally is receiving real-world feedback, particularly from those more adept at the given task. For example, as Chief Instructor Eyal Yanilov of Krav Maga Global once remarked to me when we were discussing the process of mastery in the martial arts, there’s a big difference between the practitioner who trains hard, consistently and constantly for 20 years, and the one who has flitted from one thing to the next for 20 years. They both may have been “at it” for 20 years, but one is arguably an expert while the other is generally at best partially trained and at worst a dilettante.

LEADERS BEWARE

Those in leadership positions, particularly when the individuals are in actuality far more “managerial” in nature  and capability (i.e. those who delegate and more often than not cannot execute) than “visionary” and “inspiring” can be especially susceptible to self-aggrandizement and over-confidence, particularly when it is not warranted. The ranks of Corporate America and even start-up environments are filled with people convinced of their own brilliance and aptitude, or doing their best to convey this image to others. Sometimes those in positions of responsibility mistake success and/or competency in one particular endeavor to convey upon them universal wisdom and knowledge and therefore fail to actually listen to or learn from others, particularly if they feel somehow challenged or threatened by colleagues, particularly subordinates.

We’ve all seen people try to “fake it” and be something, or someone, they simply are not. It’s instructional to witness, for example, an individual with an inflated title, and an unjustifiably high opinion of his own capabilities and worth, pose questions (which reveal striking ignorance and lack of resourcefulness) to colleagues which readily could have been answered with a Google search on the computer within comfortable reach. The fact that this individual wasn’t embarrassed to be doing so was remarkable.

IF I AM NOT FOR MYSELF…

Perhaps the observations above brook the question, “If self-promotion is wrong, am I to remain modest and potentially invisible?” I would counter that this is a false dichotomy, and the answer comes back to the hoary old (yet demonstrably true) axiom, “Action reveals character.”

We are defined in life but what we do (or fail to do) and there is no escaping this at times inconvenient truth. And eventually the illusion spun through misdirection, refusal of accountability and unwillingness to take the occasional bruising for mistakes and omissions catches up to the posers. With focused effort one can change who one is to address deficiencies and weaknesses, but ultimately, one can never hide from who one is.

Many people may be familiar with the Jewish philosopher Hillel’s rhetorical quote, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Yet, interestingly, some of these very same people seem blissfully unaware that this statement is part of a couplet, and the oft-omitted second part of this adage is quite revealing: “And if I am only for myself, what am I?”

What makes this particularly interesting is that in the second phrase, the question posed is not “Who am I?” but rather, “What am I?” This choice of wording is unquestionably deliberate and suggests that those who are selfishly only invested in their own ego and satisfaction of their wants at the expense of everything and everyone else sacrifice the essence of their own humanity, and are therefore no longer considered a person, but a thing.

So remember, as wise and accomplished as you may perceive yourself to be, do not blind yourself to the realities of your own limitations, and most certainly, don’t fall for the mistake of believing the hype created by sycophants, especially if the chief among them dwells within your own being…

June 1, 2011

Storytelling and Commerce: When Art Meets Business

Fundamentally, humans seem hard-wired to appreciate and crave stories, and smart entrepreneurs and businesses instinctively understand this predisposition and will market themselves accordingly. In an age of 24/7 news cycles, the proliferation of media channels which didn’t exist a generation ago, and economic cycles which for many require constant reinvention and self-promotion to stand out from the competition, those who incorporate storytelling practices and techniques into their business are more apt to command the attention of both internal and external stakeholders, as well as customers.

THE ELEMENTS OF A SUCCESSFUL BUSINESS STORY

Well-told stories will always have certain traits in common, regardless of larger elements which are layered and woven in such as mythic structure, use of archetypal characters, genre conventions, cultural predispositions and the like. These traits ultimately come together to create a narrative that is:

  • Credible
  • Compelling
  • Consistent
  • Coherent
  • Character-Driven

So let’s dive deeper and define the above and provide some concrete, business-related examples to stir up some entrepreneurial juices.

CREDIBLE AND COMPELLING

Telling a story which is credible may on the surface seem odd from the point-of-view of the world of fiction, but actually, even fantasy and science-fiction must conform to rules established by the author through the conventions of the narrative. Unlike ancient Greek tragedy playwriting, the presence of deus ex machina plot devices is viewed by most as sloppy and/or lazy writing and is long out of fashion.

On the business front, maintaining credibility with customers, as well as employees and outside vendors, is critical for the fiscal health of the enterprise, and is vital whenever outside capital is being solicited. This credibility can not only pertain to the manner in which the business is presented and positioned in external facing collateral, but may extend to the behavior of key employees as well, including senior management. Once credibility is lost, whether due to incompetence, malfeasance, or simply failure to act in an appropriate and timely manner to a perceived problem, it can be extremely difficult to regain trust.

Determining what make a narrative compelling might seem like a tall order, but if one analyzes stories across various cultures and genres, it becomes very clear that at its heart, the answer is quite straightforward – the audience must be emotionally invested in the outcome of the story. If you fail to engage and hook the audience, you’ve lost them, their attention will wander, and your chance of regaining their interest will likely be compromised since they have already pre-judged your storytelling ability.

For a business to have a compelling story, it is essential that prospective customers understand the product and/or service offerings, and furthermore, that a Unique Selling Proposition (USP) exist. USP is fancy marketing speak for a succinct description of what differentiates your business from the competition, and potentially what benefits customers will derive from purchasing from you and not your competitors. It is essential that a business owner, as well as any staff who interacts with prospective customers (which if you get down to it, is actually everyone) clearly understand and be able to articulate your company’s USP.

CONSISTENT, COHERENT AND CHARACTER-DRIVEN

Consistency is another hallmark of a well-told story, and this is true in both the fiction and non-fiction realms. Most often, this is a reflection of the tone and style of the story, which in written form are conveyed in the use of language and point-of-view. In the fictional world, different genres over time have developed certain conventions, and while it is certainly possible to “break the rules” and even mix genres at times, the storyteller must be very careful in doing so, because when expectations are defied, a certain amount of risk is entailed. A similar restriction applies to non-fiction writing, such as reporting, memoirs, text books and the like. For example, fictional elements and personal opinion are never supposed to co-mingle with what is reported as “news” or represented as a “true life account.” To do so violates fundamental precepts of the form and undermines, if not outright destroys, credibility.

In business, it is just as important to remain consistent. This is true not only in the positioning of the company from a marketing and sales perspective, but also from an operational one as well. In order to develop efficient processes and economies of scale, companies need to create consistent means of performing tasks, with means to ensure quality, report results and address issues which arise during appropriate lifecycles. Successful national businesses with retail outlets, for example, spend considerable effort and capital ensuring that the customer experience at one location is replicated identically at another. If you’re a fan of the fast food burgers at a nationally known chain, you can rest assured that the meal you order at one location will more or less taste the same at another.  In the service world, it is important that methodologies and approaches which produce the best results are implemented consistently so that quality of the services delivered does not differ substantially depending on the resource(s) rendering the service.

Our final elements for inclusion are coherence and the importance of having memorable characters populate a story. Coherence might seem to some as a “no-brainer,” but poorly conceived, written and delivered stories can be found all around us without expending much effort to look. Sometimes coherence is sacrificed due to having too many people influencing the story, and in doing so, providing inconsistent guidance which creates a disjointed narrative. From the perspective of business, this is typically communicated through branding efforts and the development of vision, mission and positioning statements which communicate the company’s raison d’être. Businesses start to run into trouble when they cannot clearly define what it is they offer, what audience they serve, or why they are even in existence in the first place.

My final point regarding the creation (or featuring) of memorable characters highlights the fact that people tend to identify with or react emotionally to people (fictional or otherwise) who they aspire to be like, or someone they would like to befriend, or who represent a natural foe or adversary, or whose own story provides them with inspiration and meaning. As a business, talking about a corporate identity can seem rather cold and impersonal, and effective marketing often seeks to humanize the business by focusing on the personalities and achievements of management and staff, or at the very least, attractive spokespeople who will resonate with the target market. Some business leaders are naturally larger than life “characters” that the media quickly respond to, since writing stories about them is far easier than more bland or retiring personalities, while others will often invent or otherwise exaggerate certain qualities in order to draw attention and create publicity. There are certainly lessons to be learned from the colorful characters found throughout history as well as the present day, even if embellishments have invariably been added to those who really once existed, or walk the world today.

WHY STORIES MATTER

Stories, whether written down, acted out by performers, or delivered orally, form the backbone of any society. Stories communicate cultural values, important myths, and often convey history from the point of view of the story’s creator or communicator. They engage our interest on a visceral level and help us to make sense of not only what our senses tell us on an individual level, but to process the messages conveyed by our environment on a larger macro level as well.

Obviously, this article cannot possibly delve into the complexities of applying time-proven storytelling techniques within a business environment, but it hopefully does make the case that creative license, if not misapplied with the intent to deceive, should be part of every business toolbox.

Author’s Note: This posting originally ran on the blog Serial Startups on May 26, 2011…

April 27, 2011

Why You Must Avoid Becoming “Middle Seat Guy”

Authors Note: This posting was inspired by a prior blog posting written by Curtis Franklin, Jr. on the Enterprise Efficiency IT blog earlier this month…

Anyone who has ever experienced airline travel, especially in the post 9/11 world and traveling in steerage (oops, I mean “economy”) class, intuitively understands that nobody, and I mean nobody, voluntarily chooses a middle seat. It’s simply not done. And part and parcel to this is understanding that the metaphor of occupying the “middle seat” when it comes to employment or marketability for independent, self-employed types in our Brave New World is avoiding finding ourselves in the Middle Seat, because it’s a miserable position to be placed in and ultimately, is not viable for one’s long-term viability, health or sanity.

In order to solve a problem, one first has to understand it, so let’s dive in…

CHARACTERISTICS OF “MIDDLE SEAT GUY”

If we accept the premise that one rarely volunteers to be the “Middle Seat Guy” (or Gal), absent extenuating circumstances, it is reasonable to conclude that a lack of sufficient planning and/or preparation often leads to this unfortunate categorization. And the truth is if you find yourself in the “Middle Seat” in business especially, you’re running a very real risk of being viewed as being expendable or at best, a mere commodity which is easily replaced by management on a whim.

Photo courtesy Sodahead.com

One of the major disruptions to the psyche of many white collar, or “professional” workers if you prefer, has been the realization that regardless of educational or work history pedigree, the system no longer protects those who may think of themselves (consciously or not) as being among the “elite” or most privileged. Much has been written about lately of the phenomenon of BWM’s (Beached White Males), typically displaced men in their 40’s to 60’s that were previously high-earners, some in what is supposed to be the prime earning years of their lives, who have discovered following their voluntary or involuntary termination that the world is no longer beating down a path to their door and the six-figure salaries that many were accustomed to are no longer sacrosanct.

As many corporations race to create, deliberately or not, a neo-feudal system in which the wealth and power is overwhelming concentrated at the very top with various levels of “serfdom” fulfilled by a mix of workers (including a cohort who can salve their wounded egos, if not their wallets, with various permutations of managerial or lower ranking executive titles), those who thought they had played by the rules have been disabused of the notion. Formerly convinced that they had dealt themselves a strong hand, these disillusioned and disenfranchised players have found they were mere patsies who were used and discarded, and pleas for understanding or “another shot at the big time” tend to fall on deaf ears both up and down the hierarchical ladder. After all, those who still have their jobs, especially if their positions are reasonably well paying and prestigious, don’t want to be tainted by association with perceived “failure” or the “fallen,” and those lower down in the pecking order may have little sympathy for people who once fed at the corporate executive trough and disdained or dismissed the very work which these refugees are either too prideful to accept even if offered, or completely unqualified to perform.

PROACTIVE AVOIDANCE OF THE “MIDDLE SEAT GUY” SYNDROME

So if one realizes the dangers in being passive, or even worse, complacent, regarding one’s career and economic future, what mitigating steps can be taken?

Clearly, both on a professional and personal level of self-development, it is vital that we adhere to the following core traits:

  • Remain adaptable and avoid stagnation by constantly evolving.
  • Do not wait for rewards and recognition, but create opportunities for these to arise.
  • Accept that change is inevitable, and that we are best served if we see it coming or do not waste energy fighting a reactionary battle that we cannot win.
  • Make ourselves indispensable through a “can do” attitude and willingness to learn new skills.
  • Avoid defining ourselves, or letting others define us, through simple sets of labels and preconceptions.
  • Understand that market value and “worth” are two different things; sell your value and thereby increase your perceived worth.
  • Never compromise our core values and ethical framework, but remain fluid in how we achieve our most compelling life goals, which should drive our sense of a personal mission.

Many of these concepts have recently been encapsulated in the notion of teaching individuals how to forge a “Protean Career,” and for employers, a “Protean Workplace,” which author and career coach Jay Block has been advocating for and spearheading via the Protean Careers Group on LinkedIn. Over the past several weeks, a small group of participants (the author of this blog included) have codified the notion of 12 Protean Principles which are meant to serve as a guide for people who understand the importance of continual improvement and development to avoid becoming stagnant, easily commoditized, or de facto, a “Middle Seat Guy/Gal.”

Further discussion of the 12 Protean Principles and their genesis will be forthcoming in future postings, so look for these soon!

Jonathan S. Ross is the founder and principal of Black Rock Consulting, a boutique management and communications consultancy based in Los Angeles offering strategic planning, project management, marketing and writing services. Feel free to send an email to schedule a confidential discussion of your needs. Initial consultations are FREE OF CHARGE and WITHOUT FURTHER OBLIGATION

February 3, 2011

Drawing the Line Between Respect and Reverence

Early on in our development, most of us are taught the notion and meaning of “respect,” usually within the context of the culture surrounding us. For some, respect is something granted automatically based on occupational titles, personal or professional achievements, chronological age, family or clan relationships, etc. Others emphasize that respect is something that must be earned, and is not conferred automatically.

No matter one’s upbringing or cultural values, there are times when the distinction between Respect and Reverence is blurred, and this can be problematic. We live in a world filled with both Light and Darkness, and consequently, there are many shadows. As the eloquent Oglala Lakota Medicine Man Black Elk said, “It is hard to follow one great vision in this world of darkness and of many changing shadows. Among these shadows, men get lost.”

The line between respect and reverence is oftentimes a thin one, but worth heeding with caution; we must temper our idealism with a measure of objectivity to safeguard ourselves from being led astray.

WHO OR WHAT IS WORTHY OF RESPECT?

Respect is defined by Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary in two very relevant ways:

“An act of giving particular attention” (consideration) as well as “High or special regard” (esteem).

Depending on one’s religious/spiritual beliefs, we all are granted, or get to enjoy, a decidedly finite amount of time in this world. For many years, our wants and needs are quite simple, and in most cases provided for by others until we reach a stage of development to start providing for ourselves. However, during these early formative years, we are to some degree or another socialized to pass judgment on people, institutions and things, in part to determine what is worthy of focusing our most precious commodity (time) on, and in part allowing us to interact within the societal mores and accepted standards of the larger culture.

Consequently, sometimes we are taught to respect certain things reflexively, without much further thought or analysis. Depending on perspective, this may or may not be appropriate, or even ultimately healthy for our own future development.

Personally, deciding on who or what is worthy of your respect is largely a personal choice, guided hopefully by one’s conscience and some objective analysis of the reasons why the target of the respect is worthy of purposeful consideration and emphasis. Those who deliberately choose to go “against the grain” may be viewed as mavericks and even malcontents; sometimes these people change the world for the better (as it might be commonly and universally defined), others lead themselves and others down twisting paths filled with deceit, strife and more often than not, hatred.

Whenever you are unsure, I would suggest to respect those people and things that are worthy of such admiration and emulation by virtue of the good which they return to the world around them through their actions or by the very fact of their existence; those that shine a beacon of light when the darkness closes in and step forward to be counted without thought of personal reward , much less risk; and those that facilitate and recognize the universal interconnectedness which binds all living things.

This is as good a starting point as any.

WHEN IS REVERENCE TRULY WARRANTED?

Invariably at some point, perhaps out of idealism or a willful and deliberate blindness to the faults and imperfections that mar all things, respect is transformed into reverence. Under certain circumstances, this thinking can become exceedingly dangerous, and cause us to adore and perhaps “worship” false idols.

In traditional Eastern martial arts, for example, students are often taught unquestioned obedience to a Master, and even more senior disciples of that master, because it is presumed that they are further along the path than the more inexperienced student. In one context this may be true – knowledge and command of a particular “art” or fighting style – yet this does not necessarily suggest that the Master or senior disciples are any wiser. Bruce Lee famously rebelled in part against such thinking, and faced enormous resistance and opposition from those who felt that he was disrespecting traditions because he lacked the discipline and appropriate mindset to demonstrate the proper obsequiousness to “his betters.”

In my own personal pursuit of the path of martial arts mastery, I have been fortunate to train under and with some individuals who are considered to be “masters,” and while I greatly respect the skills and understanding which they may have within their particular expertise, I do not automatically revere them as paragons of spiritual, ethical or philosophical wisdom. Some perhaps do have components of such knowledge, and if so, are given greater weight outside of a more narrowly defined context. Certainly none of them have demanded any unreasonable demonstration of respect based solely on their rank or experience; those that do, in my opinion, are the ones to be most leery of. Those who would coerce reverence, or falsely manipulate others to create such a feeling, are dangerous indeed.

To be reverent of someone or something is to imbue it with great power. We would do well to only cautiously extend such favored treatment and create such vulnerability to ourselves after very deliberate and careful consideration.

While respect is a gift which should be freely given, reverence is a sacrifice of some piece of ourselves upon a higher altar, and therefore must be reserved for only the most worthy recipients…

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