Have the Fries


I was new to the neighborhood. The first time I stopped into the cozy Greek diner a few blocks away from my new apartment, a man in a Hawaiian Shirt greeted me enthusiastically. We chatted over my “to go” order. Yes, I was new to the area. No, I have never been in his restaurant before. As he considered my order, he instructed me that I must have the fries. Considering the caloric indulgence, I declined. “Ah, you’ll change your mind when you taste them!,” he said confidently as he handed me a sample. They were decadent. Plump, golden potato slices, perfectly brown, treated with a splash of vinegar and sprinkled with oregano and salt. My mouth still waters when I think of them. I declared them to be delicious yet still declined. “Next time,” he ordered. “Get the fries the next time.”

I became a regular at Cross Rhodes, the little neighborhood diner. Soon I learned that the happy man in the Hawaiian shirt that greeted me (and every customer) as a long lost friend was named Jeffery. He was the owner. We regularly repeated our little ritual.  He’d ask, “Going to have the fries today, Susan?” I’d decline, passing up the luxury every time.

One harried Christmas season almost twenty years ago, I rushed into Cross Rhodes in a blur of after work, after shopping, after shipping frenzy but before rushing home to pack for my holiday trip. Cranky and distracted, I delivered my regular “to go” order. In no mood for our usual back and forth banter; I just took my order and left. I wonder if I missed the twinkle in his eye.

I entered my apartment preoccupied and overwhelmed. There was no Christmas season this year. In the middle of a reorganization at work, I had just a few days off with family, and a few work related tasks during that visit.  Big decisions awaited my return; the anxiety and pressure weighed on me.  I was lost in my gloom until I lifted the lid on my food. Next to my regular order, there they were.  A mound of hot, crisp, Greek fries. A handwritten note on my receipt read “Merry Christmas!”  As I savored every last bite, I thought about the gestures of kindness that made it feel like Christmas.  I missed so many in my frenzy.

This year, my traditional Christmas Eve “to go” order from Cross Rhodes of a Greek veggie sandwich with fries will be especially poignant.  Jeffrey Russell died this year, suddenly and too young as a result of a terrible fall. Even though he won’t greet me in his Hawaiian shirt, the lessons he left me are present.  We touch so many people, ever so briefly.  Every encounter is an opportunity to spread joy. You never know who carries a secret burden that might be lifted even a tiny bit by a small, sincere gesture. And, our problems are often difficult but not impossible to resolve.  Step back, get perspective and give yourself a break. Have the fries.

Merry Christmas.

It’s Alive! Organizational Change In Real Time


My former colleague and current friend, Nadine Pearce, forwarded a remarkable find. Autodesk mapped the impact of three types of change on their organization over a four year period: 1) when an employee joined 2) when an employee left and 3) when an employee changed managers. Watch this!


This amazing depiction prompts three questions:

For individuals: How can you refresh your organizational network to develop relevant relationships?

For team leaders:  How can you refresh or recreate a team structure to reflect the current organization?

For organizations: How do your talent management and incentive systems enable success, given the pace of change?

Once again, you’ve given me much to think about, Nadine. Thank you!

Clarence Was Right: A Little Mystery Makes Us Happier

English: Screenshot of Jimmy Stewart and Donna...

English: Screenshot of Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in the American film It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). The film lapsed into the public domain in the United States due to the failure of National Telefilm Associates, the last copyright owner, to renew. See film article for details. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I know how the movie ends, yet I watch it every year. At the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, I light up when Clarence Odbody earns his angel’s wings by saving George Bailey. My heart opens when Clarence saves George; not by imagining live events, but by re-imagining what might have happened if George wasn’t there.  Now I know the secret to the happy ending.  Clarence was right: a little mystery makes me happier. It can make you happier, too.

The George Bailey Effect

Timothy D. Wilson explains The George Bailey Effect in Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change.  Wilson explains that clarity helps us adapt to life events by providing the closure necessary to move on.  My post How Happy People Deal With Bad Stuff describes how this works in dealing with negative events.  Clarity reduces the impact of an event; mystery gives it power.  This has the same effect with positive events in our lives. We come to understand them, accept them, and incorporate them into our lives. The same process that helps us move on from bad events encourages us to take the good ones for granted.

Wilson suggests that The George Bailey Effect adds to our happiness through the “pleasures of uncertainty.” His research suggests how it works. Strangers were handed cards with dollar bills attached.  One group received cards that simply said  “The Smile Society -Promote Random Acts of Kindness.”  A second group received cards with detailed explanations about why the group was handing out dollars. Even though it was the same gift handed out in the same random order, group members who received the “mystery” cards reported being happier with the gift.  Their happiness was boosted by the time spent working on the puzzle: Who is the Smile Society? Why was I selected? Does this happen to everyone? These questions caused members to invest more energy on the positive event, which made it bigger. The second group had the fleeting moment of being surprised, but nothing else forced them to savor it.  With nothing left to wonder about, the event got smaller.

The “pleasure of uncertainty” explains why practices like keeping gratitude journals have mixed long-term results on happiness levels. The paradox is that the more we think about the good things in our lives, the more clarity we have about them. The more clarity we have, the less power these events have to impact our happiness.

Power Up Gratitude

Wilson suggests a method to power up our gratitude. Instead of writing what we are grateful about, write about what our life would be without this blessing. For example, write about the day as if you didn’t have your health. Write about the consequences if you didn’t have a job. Write about your life if you didn’t have your beloved partner, friend or child. Put The George Bailey Effect to work in your gratitude practice and see if it makes a difference.

Be your own Clarence this season. Make your blessings special again by imaging your existence without them. Use a little mystery to deepen appreciation of your wonderful life.


Wilson, T.D. (2011). Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. New York: Little, Brown & Company.

How Happy People Deal With Bad Stuff


In this season of list making, what’s on your list of what you really want? Happiness is likely to be at or near the top. We all want to be happy. Sometimes, happiness is a current state. Often, it’s a future state, as in “I’ll be happy when…”. If we’re perfectly honest (O.K., if I’m perfectly honest), sometimes setbacks are cited as the cause of our unhappiness. This shows up as “I’d be happy if it wasn’t for…”. Regardless of where we are on the happiness scale, the great news is that most of us can be happy, even if we’ve been dealt some bad breaks. Psychologists and social scientists have produced findings about happiness that we can all use to get there, despite our starting point.

Timothy Wilson, University of Virginia, is one of the researchers who explain how we create happiness. His book, Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, describes how to influence our happiness by editing the stories we tell ourselves. It offers several compelling examples, but one really stood out to me. What do we tell ourselves when things go badly?


Editing Our Stories About Setbacks

Wilson offers an example of the impact of our narratives using the greatest setback of all: early death. Suppose you were among a population that may carry a genetic marker for a disease that would kill you in middle age, but its symptoms would not appear until your thirties or forties. Do you want to know? How will this knowledge affect your happiness?

Wilson’s research followed a group of young adults who faced these questions. These young adults previously made a choice that placed in them into one of three groups:
A. took a genetic screen and learned that they carried the gene.
B. took a genetic screen and learned that they did not carry the gene.
C. refused to take the genetic screen; don’t know if they carry the gene.

Wilson studied each group to evaluate their happiness at three points: immediately after their decision, six months later, and one year later. Which group do you think reported being happiest? Which group was most unhappy?

The results surprised me. Group A – the group that got the bad news – was understandably the unhappiest immediately after the results. But, at six months and one year later, this group self reported happiness levels similar to those of Group B – the group who knew they did not have the gene. Even though members of one group got really good news and the other really bad news, after time, their self reported happiness levels were indistinguishable.

Perhaps the most surprising result is that the group members who were most unhappy over time were members of Group C- the group that chose not to know. Even though they reported happiness levels similar to Group B immediately after the decision, feelings of well-being deteriorated. Wilson reports that a year after the decision, group members who were uncertain about a bad outcome reported being more depressed and anxious than those who were certain of one.

This study offers conclusions for any of us who face setbacks far less ominous than early death. The secret to editing our stories is to find meaning and purpose in what happens to us. As Wilson states, “making sense of negative outcomes is the first step to recovering from them.” Those who knew for certain that they carried the marker had the certainty to come to terms with it. They created narratives about what their life could mean and a sense of urgency to make the most of it. They dedicated themselves to a purpose for their lives. Those who were uncertain didn’t have this framework for sense making; they lacked a basis to adapt and move on. Their narratives likely represented the anxieties of “What If’s” instead of “What Could Be’s.”


How To Be Happy After the Bad Stuff

Wilson suggests an approach to help us make the setbacks in our lives more understandable and predictable: the Pennebaker Writing technique or the “Step Back and Ask Why” approach. It’s simple, anyone has the tools to do it, and if you are like others in Wilson’s research, you’ll find that it works.

This writing exercise requires two conditions. First, enough time has passed between the bad experience and the present that you can think about it without being overwhelmed with negative emotions. Next, you can analyze why the event occurred instead of ruminating over the fact that it did occur.

Once you can get to this place, write about this experience for at least fifteen minutes on three to four consecutive days. Importantly, write about the experience as a dispassionate observer reporting on the experience, rather than rationalizing the case for your feelings. As Wilson states, “Don’t recount the event, take a step back, reconstruct and explain it.”

The Pay Off

If you get the same results as the research, you’ll find the basis of sense making: clarity and understanding. Wilson offers examples. College students who previously ruminated about a bad grade got the clarity that they didn’t prepare well, so had a better understanding of how to change study habits. Employees scarred by an ugly confrontation with a boss understood that difficulties in the boss’ life that produced the outsized response. This clarity and understanding changed perceptions about a negative event and created new narratives. Participants reported that they had fewer negative emotions, ruminated less and experienced less stress.

Happiness is the gift to give yourself this season. I hope you recount many blessings in what you tell yourself. (If you don’t talk to yourself, start now. Just be careful about what you say and don’t do it out loud in public.) But, the real opportunity is to change the way you talk about the bad stuff. Give it time, report it rather than ruminate, and write down what caused it to happen. Then move on. There’s too much good stuff ahead to be happy about.

Wilson, T.D. (2011). Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

I Have a Secret


Last night, waiting for a table for dinner at a crowded new hot spot, I decided to pass the time by checking my mailbox.  It’s when I got the message that David Kanigan at Lead, Learn, Live  nominated The Development Sherpa for Blog of The Year 2012.  My husband, Peter, told me that my face lit up like our two-year old grandson’s when he shouts “Hurray!”

I don’t know that this humble little blog could win blog of the day in a contest, never the less blog of the year. Truth be told, compared to so many other well-developed and popular sites, I have only a small following.  If blogging was a contest like Survivor, The Development Sherpa and I would have been voted off the island long ago.

My Secret

So, I am not only honored by David’s nomination, but also surprised. But here’s my secret. I’ve already won the prize I want. Blogging makes me better, and that’s all it needs to do. It forces me to become a more incisive thinker, a better writer, and brave enough to “go half baked” by putting my thoughts out into the big, bold world instead of the comfort zone in the corner of my mind. It connects me to brilliant, funny, interesting people – several of whom I would probably never have the privilege to know.

My List of Blogs of the Year

A list of just five of those brilliant, funny, interesting people who you might want to get to know follows.  I nominate them for 2012 Blog of the Year.

Thinking Is Hard Work http://colleensharen.wordpress.com. Thinking is hard work, but Colleen makes it look easy. I like way she makes research approachable and relevant.

Life Revelation http://liferevelation.wordpress.com. Not everyone can put himself or herself out there the way Stephen Edwards does. But I am better because of it.

Things I Like + Things I Write http://jeannemarieolson.posterous.com. This blog is all Jeanne: Smart, interesting, compelling.

Leadership Freak  http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com. Dan Rockwell helps me be a better leader in 300 words or less.

Waiting for the Karma Truck Waiting for the Karma Truck. When the karma truck comes around,  see why Mimi’s going to get the good stuff.

Blog of the Year Award 1 star jpeg

The Fine Print

This is the link for the Blog of the Year Rules: http://thethoughtpalette.co.uk/our-awards/blog-of-the-year-2012-award.

Here are the rules:

1 Select the blog(s) you think deserve the ‘Blog of the Year 2012’ Award

2 Write a blog post and tell us about the blog(s) you have chosen – there’s no minimum or maximum number of blogs required – and ‘present’ them with their award.

3 Please include a link back to this page ‘Blog of the Year 2012’ Award – http://thethoughtpalette.co.uk/our-awards/blog-of-the-year-2012-award/   and include these ‘rules’ in your post (please don’t alter the rules or the badges!)

4 Let the blog(s) you have chosen know that you have given them this award and share the ‘rules’ with them

5 You can now also join our Facebook group – click ‘like’ on this page ‘Blog of the Year 2012’ Award Facebook group and then you can share your blog with an even wider audience

6 As a winner of the award – please add a link back to the blog that presented you with the award – and then proudly display the award on your blog and sidebar … and start collecting stars…

Twelve Questions for 2012


iStock_000021472307SmallIf January is about resolutions, how about using December for reflection? Next month, we’ll invest energy looking ahead in anticipation, making resolutions for the best use of 2013.  I suggest we use December to look back on who we were and what we accomplished in the eleven months since our last resolutions.

The following are twelve questions I’ll use to close out 2012. If you are game, answer them all or just a few. The answers will prepare you for 2013.

1.  When were you at your absolute best?

2.  What skills showed up when you were at your best?

3.   What did you learn in those moments of excellence?

4.   Who deserves an overdue “thank you” before the year closes?

5.   Who deserves an overdue apology before the year closes?

6.   Who is better off because you were in their life?

7.   What was your most challenging experience?

8.   What did you learn?

9.   When did you think about what you really wanted?

10.  What did you do to move toward it?

11.  What left you in awe because of its beauty, grace and power?

12.  What do you think is possible that you didn’t at the beginning of 2011?