Light from a Dark Night


Image from istockphoto

We met in the middle of the night in a nearly empty parking garage at O’Hare Airport in Chicago.  My boss and I were returning from a weeklong business trip to the West Coast, laden with materials and personal stuff.  Our flight landed at about 11:30 PM; it was approaching midnight when my boss offered to escort me to my car.

After picking up loads of stuff from the baggage claim, I rented a pushcart for the trip to my car.  You were standing in the deserted elevator vestibule of the parking garage.  I assumed that you were among those who scrape together the round trip train fare to O’Hare for your night job of collecting  $.25 for each baggage cart you returned, hustling for tips by assisting travelers, or just hustling.

You were a teenager at the time; I’d guess about 16. We didn’t acknowledge each other when we met.  I noticed that you wore the uniform of a Black urban youth when you waited for my boss and I to empty my cart so you could claim its bounty. I remembered to put my car keys in my pocket – handy for a quick retreat.

I first heard your voice when you yelled to us, “Hey!” I didn’t argue with my boss when he said, “ Just keep going.” We did, moving a little faster. You moved faster, too, then summoned us again,“Hey!” Once more, I ignored your call. I felt better about having my keys handy and remembered their potential as a self-defense tool from my street safety class. We moved fast, but you moved faster. Your call never changed, “Hey!”

I remember my relief when we reached the safe harbor of my car, followed by fear when I looked in my rear view mirror to see you directly behind my car. It was my boss who first noticed that you were pointing something towards us. I was the one to recognize this object as my briefcase. You were following us to return the briefcase I left in the luggage cart.

I can’t remember the words exchanged in our only conversation.  I muttered something like “ Thank you” as I pushed a few dollars into your hand in exchange for my fully intact briefcase. But I will never forget the way you looked at me the only time we made eye contact. It wasn’t with resentment or anger or hostility. These would have been easier to accept than the resignation I saw. Your eyes expressed what you expected. Of course, you’d ignore me. Of course, you’d run away. Of course, you’d be afraid of me. Of course.

I think of you sometimes. I thought of you this weekend.  I think of you every year when I listen to the Youth Award Winners from UCAN. Some of these remarkable young leaders look like you. They’ve been labeled. They’ve watched people cross the street when they come by. They’ve lived in danger.  They’ve suffered trauma. They’ve been written off before they’ve even started. And, they are determined to prove doubters like me wrong about them.

I hope you’ve had a good life. Like our future leaders from UCAN, I hope that you’ve opened your heart to forgive and give the world another chance. And, if necessary, to give yourself another chance.  Because we need you to live the meaningful life you deserve. We need your hope. We need your talent. We need your dreams. We need you to make a future where we do better.

Fighting Ghosts



Loved the column by  Shozan Jack Haubner, A Zen Zealot Comes Home, from the Sept. 2011 issue of The Sun. Here’s an excerpt to show why:

Finally my mind caught up with my mouth…My apoplexy ceased. My fury lost its redness. And, for the first time that trip, I really took them in: Dad’s once- chiseled face, collapsing with age. Mom’s hair, pinned up in a bun, one step closer to hoary and desolate white. How old they’d become. How many more visits would I even be blessed with? How many more chances to make things right?

These were not the same people who raised me. Those people existed only in my head, caged and rotted behind my tight, unhappy grin for decades while my actual parents got older, gentler, wiser; while their bodies fell apart and their souls grew deep.

Those darn Zen monks. They always write the stuff that hits closest to home.

Tired of Being a Quitter? Manage The Three P’s.


Photo courtesy of istock photo

Just 49 days ago, we charged optimistically into the New Year, determined to make necessary changes for good.  Armed with determination, advice and plans, we were confident that 2013 would be the year we’d reach the goals that would improve our lives.

Where are you today, six weeks down the road into the New Year? It’s estimated that over a third of people who made 2013 resolutions have given up by now. By June, over 60% of 2013 resolutions have been discarded. The reasons why we give up on the resolutions once so meaningful to us would be an interesting topic. But a more interesting topic is not why people give up on goals, but why others keep going.

The reasons why some persevere and others give up are as individual as the people making those choices. But research from Martin E. Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania suggests a common trait among those who persevere towards goals. The “keep going” crowd tends to be more optimistic than the “give up” crowd. Some are optimistic by nature, which gives them a useful advantage in many parts of life. But the really good news from Seligman’s research is that we can learn to be optimistic, or at least optimistic enough to achieve our goals.

The Mr. Rodgers Legacy

I blame Mr. Rodgers for the bad rap on optimists. (This may make me the first to blame Mr. Rodgers for anything.) He represents a caricature of those perceived to be ill prepared in the dog eat dog, grind it out world.  Mr. Rodgers represents those perceived to be not tough enough, not aggressive enough, not strong enough. We can’t imagine living to his standard of responding to every nasty remark or misguided plan with his neighborly smile and pointing toward the sunny sky.  Nor do we want to.

The truth is, I love Mr. Rodgers. But his style of optimism isn’t really what Seligman encourages us to emulate. Seligman was the pioneer in the concepts of learned helplessness and explanatory style. In his words:

Learned helplessness is the giving up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do does not matter. Explanatory style is the manner in which you habitually explain to yourself why things happen. It is the great modulator of learned helplessness.

Martin Seligman from Learned Optimism

In other words, those who give up too easily (i.e. pessimists) explain to themselves that nothing they can do will change their circumstances, so further effort is futile. If the effort is futile, the logical choice is to give up.

Seligman presents optimism as the opposite reaction to learned helplessness. In his view, it’s not that optimists spend their days in Mr. Rodgers neighborhood where the skies are always bright and sunny. It is that optimists have a different orientation when faced with failure. They think about it differently. They talk about it differently. This orientation makes optimists less likely to quit in the face of challenges.

The Three Keys to Learn Optimism

Of all the contributions Seligman has made to neuroscience and psychology, none may be more important than demonstrating the relationship between how we explain events to ourselves and our outcomes. What we tell ourselves about events matters far more than anyone else’s views, no matter their importance in our lives. We can truly be our own best friends or worst enemies.

If you would like more of a best friend relationship with yourself, start by monitoring the “three P’s” in your thoughts: Permanence, Pervasiveness and Personalization. A description of each, along with what the optimist and pessimist may say to themselves during a challenge, follows.

Permanence: Optimists see events as temporary or situational. Observations such as “sometimes” and “recently” show up when they process disruptive events. Explanations could be: My schedule was out of control this week, but I’ll get back to the gym on Monday or There’s a right time to approach my boss. Today wasn’t the right day. Pessimists explain events as permanent. Words like “always” and ‘never” show up in explanations about why they quit. Explanations might be: I never have any discipline about exercise or My boss always ignores my ideas.  After all, if it’s always going to be like this and circumstances are never going to change, why try?

Pervasiveness: Optimists view good events having universal causes and bad events as random occurrences.  They believe life is generally good with occasional obstacles. An optimist might explain: The family is doing well. Everyone is adjusting to the new town. Like my team. The new role has a big learning curve, but I’ll get through it. Pessimists view bad events as having universal causes and good events as random occurrences.  They tend to expect catastrophes to spread from one part of their lives to another. Explanations might sound like: They must have picked me for this job because they were short-handed. I’ll never fit in here with this team. The family is going to have a tough adjustment, too.  Why did I agree to this move?

Personalize: Optimists externalize blame.  When things go wrong, they look for what went wrong in the situation, not themselves.  You might hear“ It was the wrong time” or The competition won” when optimists explain bad outcomes. Pessimists internalize blame. When things go wrong, they often find some way to blame themselves. “ I should have….”or “ Why did I think I could do this…” may explain mistakes.  The continuous self-blame creates a downward spiral in confidence that exacerbates pessimism.

 It’s Not too Late for 2013 Resolutions

We still have 303 days left to achieve 2013 goals. There may be good reasons why you need to change a goal, or perhaps you just haven’t started. But if you’ve just quit at the first obstacles, think about why. Can the way you explain the situation to yourself make a difference? Are the obstacles permanent or temporary? Prevalent or situational? Is the barrier about you or other circumstances? The great news is that you only have to answer these questions for yourself. The way you answer may make the difference in giving up or going on.

What do you think? Can you learn optimism by managing your explanations?  Do you think this makes a difference in outcomes?


Seligman, M.E.P. (1990,1998, 2006) Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life.  New York: Random House.

If you are a Martin Seligman fan like I am, there is a treasure trove of his work here:

Can You Make Time?


It’s happened again.  I begin each year with an optimistic list of goals, “nice to do’s” and bucket list items to guide my time. Schedules are made, deadlines set. Run, run. Faster, faster.  Time becomes scarcer, something to be carefully allocated. The days, weeks, and months race through my life. December arrives again. I look again at my optimistic list. Some things checked off, but not enough. Another year where time wins again.

Help is on the way, just in time for 2013! New work from a trio of researchers from The University of Pennsylvania, Yale and Harvard suggests that I can change my perception to make me feel like I have more time. How? According to Cassie Mogilner, Zoe Chance and Michael Norton, the secret is to give time away instead of hoarding it.

The research categorizes people in two ways. Those in the “time famine” category feel like they never have enough time to do all they want to do, so they manage scarcity. Those in the “time affluent” category feel that they have more than enough time to do what they want to do for themselves and others.  The “time affluent,” who give away time to volunteering, mentoring, or spending more of it with those they love, develop a deeper sense of well-being, competence and efficiency. This sense of efficacy carries over into their perception of time; that they will have enough of it for the truly important.  The good news is that we can move from the “time famine” to the “time affluent” category simply by being more generous.

I get it.  The “time affluent” feel more in control of time. They spend it on people and causes important to them, which results in feeling better about accomplishments and optimistic about possibilities. Important stuff gets done and silly stuff doesn’t.  The time affluent feel more effective, which usually means they are more effective.

In 2013, I hope to have the same 12 months, 52 weeks, 365 days and 8,766 hours. But I’ll be giving more of it away. How about you?


Association for Psychological Science (2012, July 13). Giving time can give you time. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 26, 2012 from

Scare Yourself One More Time


This is a repeat of a pre Halloween post from last year.  I’m up to the challenge again. Hope that you are, too.

The Halloween push is on. Pop up stores dot shopping centers, candy displays crowd aisles, and domestic goddesses like Martha Stewart show us how to transform our homes into Halloween themed party centers. If you are around anyone in the ten years old and younger crowd, the decision about “what to be” for Halloween is among the most important of the year.

Permission to Transform
Halloween gives us permission to transform ourselves.  For one day at least, we set aside the neural connections that form our self-impression.  As David Brooks (2011) describes in his book The Social Animal, one reason why it’s easier for children to get into the spirit of transformation on Halloween is that they are particularly skilled at blending, or the task of taking two mental connections that do not belong together and create something entirely new. It’s the basis of imagination. It’s why a child puts clothes on a dog to create a canine fashionista, or invents their own words to a story. They haven’t formed the strong, rapid cognitive patterns that tell them dogs don’t wear clothes and the story can only have the words in the book. Maybe why children so love the imaginative liberty of Halloween is that for one day, the rest of us get in the act.

The Day After Halloween
For most of us, our adrenaline rush of reinvention ends early next Wednesday just after midnight. The mad scientists’ lab returns to a family room, the witch’s hat goes back in the basement, the dog is delighted to get out of the dress and candy goes on sale. We’ll return to “real” life and our “real” selves.

An Alternative
No, I won’t suggest you go to work masquerading as Lady Gaga. But, I will suggest that there is something about the spirit of transformation offered at Halloween that we can extend into our work lives. The neural connections that Brooks and others have described may help us swiftly navigate days but stymie our imaginations. We don’t lose our ability to blend ideas; it’s just becomes easier to come to the same conclusions.  It doesn’t have to be that way.

Our pattern of looking at the same things in the same ways hit me in a certification workshop with the Team Management System with TMS Americas. First, they challenged us to reexamine what work we do, especially as part of a team. Simple, right? Yet, I was struck by how often we (myself, included) make assumptions about what and how we’ll work together.  We do it the way we did it the last time, without making new connections about different possibilities or approaches.

A second challenge regarded our preferences.  For example, we label ourselves as “not creative” because somewhere along the way we formed that pattern. So, we don’t try to be creative. Often, we label someone else on the team as “creative” and give him or her this responsibility. The same is true of all the “not’s”: not organized, not good communicators, etc., etc., etc. How many times do we wear the mental costume of who we are and what we do and never stop to consider transformation? Even on Halloween?

Moments of greatness are possible when we imagine ourselves, and our work, differently.

  • It may be rusty, but the imagination you loved as a child is still there. Challenge assumptions about your preferences.  Try something you have not done in your job, or try something in a new way.
  • Reflect on your next task, either by yourself or with a team. Ask Is there a better way? There probably is.
  • In areas where you or your teams have a deficit, can you get a little better? As a colleague of mine used to ask: Can you get to The Realm of Okay? You can probably be better than you think you are.

Finally, scare yourself a little on Wednesday. Make it a day when you don’t just try to look different, but try to be different. Look at just one task in a different way, and try just one new skill.  To show that I’m up for the challenge, I’m going to scare myself  by taking my own advice. Check back to see how I do.

To find out more about thinking patterns and self-definition, check out The Social Animal by David Brooks.

To find out more about Team Management Systems, check out the TMS Americas website at

Tell New Stories: 5 Questions to Climb Off a Ladder of Inference


Our stories shape our experiences. This isn’t a bad thing. Our stories carry our history – reminding us of lessons we don’t have to painfully relearn and sharing accomplishments that inspire confidence. Personally, I like my stories. They are the mental cryptograms that help me to sort information, make decisions and just plain figure out life.

How we use our stories can get in our way, especially when we encounter experiences and information incompatible with our stories. In fact, marketers and campaign managers count on our stories acting as barricades to new information and perspectives that might change us. Yes, our stories remind us of who we are. And left unchecked, our stories keep us where we are.

Chris Argyris developed a classic model, the Ladder of Inference, which describes how our stories influence our interpretations of experience, and how our interpretations ultimately influence our actions. Argyris points out that we often act not on complete data and experience, but of data we select from an experience. We select data that supports our stories. From there, we proceed through a series of self-selected meanings, assumptions and beliefs that lead us to a self-justified action. An example of how we can climb the Ladder of Inference to the wrong place is below.

To avoid climbing the Ladder of Inference and tumbling over the top, keep your stories in check with these questions:

1. Am I working with all the relevant information I can get?

2. What other possible interpretations can I develop?

3. Who do I trust to help me challenge my assumptions?

4. What would happen if I didn’t believe this?

5.  Can I suspend judgment until I know more?

My stories are my treasures. So are yours. But we are both best served when we can look at new situations and understand that it’s not necessarily like the last situation, nor are we. Let’s open ourselves to new experiences – and new stories.

20 Minutes To Measure Your Life


Can you explain why your life is the way it is? Can you predict what it will be like if you continue to do what you do?

These are just two of the questions considered in Clayton Christensen’s TED Talk: How To Measure Your Life. Invest 20 minutes to figure out what to measure to live the life you want.

Are You Ready to Dance?


When I was in kindergarten, my mother registered me for a ballet class at a nearby studio.  Like many little girls, I loved getting dolled up in pink frilly stuff and going to the lessons. I twirled, leapt and tried to plie with great enthusiasm. The lessons built to the crescendo of a recital – one grand performance where our eager troupe would show off our moves.

One class, the ballet teacher announced the performance line up for the recital.  All the names for routines were called, except for mine and another budding Alessandra Ferri.  The teacher told us that we would be her “special helpers” or some other inglorious role. She might have said it in a simpler way to a five year old, but I understood clearly that I wasn’t good enough to dance in the grand finale.

After receipt of my behind the curtain role, I went home, sat in my closet and cried. I put my pink frilly stuff away.  I never danced again. (OK, if there is a rogue photo of me out there somewhere whooping it up at a wedding or other event, I’ll admit to dancing on rare occasions. Or, maybe you’d say it proves Mrs. Smith’s judgment. Either way, my dancing days pretty much ended in kindergarten.)

What Holds You Back?

I thought of this experience when I watched David Kelley’s Ted Talk on creativity. For those of you who don’t know, Kelley founded IDEO, the brilliant innovation firm. His opening point is that many of us don’t think we’re something (i.e. creative, smart, talented) because someone told us we weren’t and we believed it. We carry our “not” card and show it whenever the opportunity to challenge it presents itself. Watch Kelley explain how many of us are far more creative (smart, talented, etc.) than we believe and can show it by confronting our fears.


My hope is that you test old assumptions about what you are “not” and find out for yourself. The upside is that you find gifts that you didn’t know you had. The downside? You confirm that you are not good at something you didn’t think you were good at anyway. My hunch is that you’ll be better than you think.

As for me, I’m going to let the little girl dance.