Growing Up: Millennials In The Workplace



Taken as a group, I am a fan of the Millennials. Make that a BIG fan.  Their combination of optimism, high expectations, and eager participation is a breath of fresh air among the prevailing curmudgeons and worry warts.  I love it when millennials raise their hands with the tough question everyone in the group was thinking but few had the guts to express. I love the skeptical attitude toward arcane practices that really don’t work for anyone anymore.  Fearless; we need a few more of the fearless. If you don’t think you can change the world in your twenties, you’re in trouble. We’re all in trouble. So, put me down as “ Go Get ‘Em” for the Millennials.

My enthusiasm for our newest workplace generation is tempered by the size of my groan when I read Anita Hofschneider’s column “Hiring Millennials? Meet The Parents” in the September 11 edition of the Wall Street Journal.  Ms. Hofschneider describes emerging practices to involve the parents of millennials in the workplace. Here is where I draw the line. The workplace is the last chance to finally grow up and be your own person. Don’t give away this golden opportunity to be your grown up self.

I’m glad many millennials have great relationships with their parents. But every great relationship needs boundaries, and the workplace is one of them. You might ask what’s the harm in Bring Your Parents to Work Day.  Here’s the harm. Some parents get confused about whose job it is and whose workplace it is. Some employees believe the workplace has hired “Team Kelly” instead of just “Susan.” And, what about the new employee whose parents say, “It’s your career, honey. We’re here to support you, but it’s your job.” How does she explain that she’s the solo venture in an environment of career partnerships? What about the new employee whose parents are deceased or live a long distance away.  Or, consider the employee whose parents make minimum wage and can’t afford the day off to see Johnny’s cubicle? How included do they feel on “Parent’s Day” at work? It’s fine to have Mom and Dad pop in to see where their precious little one works and meet the professional significant others in their life. But a day set-aside just for Mom and Dad has unintended consequences that last far beyond a day.

Don’t even get me started on the emerging employer practices to invite parents to interviews, send home copies of job offers and performance reviews, write notes to Mom about meeting goals or (GASP!) ask the boss do home visits. No. No, Never, Don’t Even Think About It.  But don’t just listen to me. Ms. Hofschneider quotes Lauren Bailey, a millennial new to the workplace who said if she were given a letter from her employer to bring home to her parents, “I’d almost feel like I was back in high school.”  Or, if her parents participated in an interview or recruiting event: “I’d be worried that they are speaking for me.” My advice is to hire millennials like Lauren.

I’ll end where I began. As a group, I love the millennials. I welcome your enthusiasm, “sky is the limit” confidence and willingness to challenge the status quo. But you can keep all of these attributes and enter the workplace as an independent, prepared professional. And, you must be to affect the change you expect.  Others of your age have done this. The Freedom Riders were college age adults who got on buses alone to fight for Civil Rights in the American South. Martin Luther King was 26 years old when he championed the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  Michelangelo created The Pieta at age 24 and painted the Sistine Chapel at age 29.  The list of lasting, adult achievements at a young age is very long.

Be our next hero. Make Mom and Dad be proud of your success – what you achieved by your own grown up self.


Three Simple Ways To Write To A Better You



Working through a rough patch? Tangled in a tough problem? Stuck? One of the most powerful strategies to sort things out is literally at your fingertips.

Numerous social scientists, including Tim Wilson of the University of Virginia, James Pennebaker of the University of Texas and Robert Quinn of the University of Michigan, suggest that our narratives shape our outlook then our outlook shapes our behavior. Our behavior shapes just about everything under our control. These three social scientists, among others, believe that to change our outcomes, we start by changing our stories.

The first step is to get the narrative out of the running dialogue in our heads and into the light by writing it down. If you would like to try, the three exercises included below are a good place to start. There are simple ground rules:

1)   Find 20 to 30 minutes in a place where you will not be distracted or interrupted.
2)   Do the same exercise for a minimum of four consecutive days.
3)   Be honest.

That’s it! You don’t need to show your writing to anyone, don’t need to proof read, don’t need to buy anything. It doesn’t matter if you write or type. The only thing that matters is that you do the exercise consistently for four days. Ready? Read more.

Pennebaker Writing Exercise

James Pennebaker is a psychology professor at the University of Texas and a pioneer in  “Writing to Heal.” His research suggests that short-term focused writing provides benefits for those suffering trauma. His results include improved immune systems, better grades and clearer goals. Read more here. His basic instructions for working through nagging “stuff” follow.

Write about your problem in an uninterrupted fashion for at least 15 minutes a day for a minimum of four days.  Pennebaker suggests writing at the end of the day. Write in first person about something emotional or important, but deal with topics that you are able to handle right now. Write for yourself: no editing or sanitizing.

Wilson Best Possible Selves Exercise

Timothy Wilson is a psychology professor at the University of Virginia. He’s used the Best Possible Selves exercise with a set of students to determine its effect on outlook and optimism. Compared to a control group, the students who completed this exercise reported higher levels of satisfaction and optimism that lasted for weeks, and had significantly fewer visits to the University Health Center. Seem good to you?

Follow these instructions for four consecutive days. (Wilson also suggests evenings).

“Think about your life at a certain point in the future. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Write what you imagine and what you did to make it happen.”

Quinn Lift Exercise

Robert Quinn is an Organizational Behavior professor at the University of Michigan. He is a cogent thinker and prolific writer about creating positive organizations. In his book Lift, he defines “lift” as a psychological state in which we are 1) purpose centered 2) internally directed 3) other focused and 4) open to ways in which we can improve. Quinn makes the case that when we experience these states; we feel uplifted and lift others. In other words, lift begins with us.  Start by responding to the four questions below.

  1. What result do I want to create?
  2. What would my story be if I were living the values I expect of others?
  3. How do others feel about this situation? (Emphasis is on feelings of others.)
  4. What are three (or more) strategies I could use to accomplish my purpose for this situation?

personal development
I am reminded of the Buddhist proverb: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.  My intuition tells me there is a reason why I was drawn to writing about writing today. I’m on the second day of the “Best Self” exercise; think it will help me sort out some near term uncertainty.

Have you tried writing to change your stories and your outcomes? What happened?



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

Quinn, R.W and Quinn, R.E. (2009). Lift: Becoming a Positive Force in Any Situation.

San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler

Change Up Routines: Four Ideas to Try on This Fall



The transition from summer to fall shows up more than on calendars.  Maybe it starts with how we remember this transition from childhood. Lazy mornings replaced with out the door blitzes, meandering road trips replaced with weekly/monthly planners, beach reads replaced by term papers.

Even though it seems that lazy summers are more of a fixture of memory instead of current reality, the calendar change to September 1 still sends a message: Routine Returns. This fact in itself isn’t the problem. The problem is that I put on the same old routines every fall like old sweaters, even the ones that don’t fit anymore.

I was jolted into this awareness as a result of a terrific little book: Manage Your Day to Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus & Sharpen Your Creative Mind by 99u. It’s full brief but valuable ideas from creative thinkers I admire: Seth Godin, Leo Babauta, Tony Schwatrz among many others.  Started to read it on the bike at the gym and got so excited that I thought Hop off and go do this stuff…RIGHT NOW!

My “ah-ha” was not that routines don’t support creativity – to the contrary, routines are critical – but I become stuck in them. I have to find the routines that work for me now, not get back to the old ones that no longer work. It’s like the old pair of jeans I finally gave away last weekend. Stop trying to imagine someday they’ll fit again and move on to something that does.

Four Ideas to Try On

Next week, when September 1 hits, I am ready with new shoes and new routines. Like these:

1.     Great Work Before Anything Else. Do my most important work early in the day when I am fresh and save responsive work for lower energy times. No more starting the day with Gmail then finding two hours of my best energy slip by. My satisfaction comes from a sense of accomplishment, not an empty inbox.

2.     Show Up, Inspired Or Not.  Stop waiting for the right time, right mood, and right place. No more self talks of run this errand, read this blog, check out Amazon and then I’ll be ready. See Gmail lesson above. Promise myself 15  good, focused minutes on a task before I quit (and I probably won’t.)

 3.     Work On My Biggest Priorities Every Day. Calendar time every workday for the projects most important to me. Stop putting my most important goals last, when I have “time” to work on them. Even as little as 30 good minutes on a key goal every day gives me the psychological prize of progress.

 4.     Work With Intention. For me, working intention is the easiest to understand and the hardest to do. Repurpose the hope of wandering into something to focus on my purpose. This means when I research, stick to what I need, not what’s interesting. In a conversation about someone else, stick to the “someone else.” Every activity starts with a purpose or doesn’t start at all.

What About You?

This fall, these are the new or recycled routines that will help me to be more focused, productive and satisfied with my effort.  But what works for me may not work for you. So what about you? What routines will you need to put away with the shorts and flip-flops? What can you try on in their place?


99u by behance (2013). Manage Your Day to Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus & Sharpen Your Creative Mind.

Check out the website for really cool ideas on creativity and productivity:



Help Wanted: Four Ideas to Get What You Need


Help: It’s the four-letter word that seems so simple. We’ve been encouraged to give help when it’s needed and/or to ask for help when we need it from our earliest years. This encouragement for a happy life is right up there in popularity with Be Nice and Eat More Vegetables. Yet, the simplest things are often among the hardest to do. As I wrote in my last post May I Help You?  the difficulty in accepting the help we need proves that point. For some of us, asking for and accepting help is much harder than starting with “Please.”

Edgar Schein, an organizational and cultural guru from M.I.T., has thought so much about giving and receiving help that he’s written a book about it: Helping. Like his other work, Helping is dense with observations and insights.  Four of his ideas about asking for and accepting help that lead to productive and healthy outcomes are summarized below.

1.  Reciprocate

Helping disrupts the balance of power in a relationship, even if this imbalance is temporary.  Asking for help costs something. It costs status, self-esteem and a loss of control, not to mention the risk of becoming dependent on the helper. This was the first “ah ha” for me among Schein’s observations. Encouraging others to be “vulnerable” and ask for help seems easy. But for many, the cost is high. If one person is always the “helper” and the other always “helped,” the balance of power gets way out of whack.

One way to restore a balance of power in a relationship is to reciprocate. If I’ve asked you for help and can later reciprocate, even in an unequal way, the balance of power starts to equalize. Through reciprocation, I can regain some of my status (I’m a “go-to” person for something), esteem (I’m good at something), and control  (I can do something independently). To get more help, swallow hard and ask. Then, find a way to reciprocate, for your own benefit. If you’ve been the helper, suggest a way the other person can reciprocate.

 2. Avoid Trial Balloons

Because asking for help comes at a high price, it’s understandable that we’re cautious about who we approach with the request. Who will help us save face? Who has the experience we need? The temptation to test the prospective helper can be strong. I’ve seen the trial balloons for help work like this: Someone needs help in how to influence key stakeholders on a decision. Instead of asking for help on the best conditions and approach to take, the request is tested in a low risk way. It sounds something like: Will you review my presentation?”

The trap is the person asking for help gets the help she asks for, but that’s not what she needs. The real problem isn’t addressed, and she’s given up power and status for support of little value.

A better approach is to not approach the helper with a specific request at all. How many times do we really know what we need, anyway? In our example, state the problem: I’m not sure how to influence X on this decision and ask for help probing and brainstorming approaches.

 3. Don’t Ask for Help When You Need Something Else

Some people ask for help as a substitute for attention, validation or reassurance. You might someone like this. He or she acts like a virtual arsonist: setting organizational “fires” to muster the attention as they put them out. “Help” looks like validation that he or she the smartest person in the room. Or, perhaps an associate sends updates on every step she takes on a project seeking your assurance that’s she’s on the right path.

There are days when we all need attention, validation or assurance. Just don’t confuse these needs with help. Help works when we don’t know the answer (heck, we may not even understand the problem), and are sincerely open to perspectives and information from others. Like the little boy who cried wolf too often, we may suffer the consequences of too many false cries for help.

 4.    Be Open Minded

One of the fastest ways to discourage others from helping is to make the helpers feel inept. This effort sounds like: That won’t work here. I’ve already thought of that. You don’t understand.  Schein suggests this strategy may be intended to restore balance in the relationship by showing the helpers aren’t so smart after all. Instead, it suggests that the person doesn’t really want help.

The reality is that we may have already thought of a suggestion our helper offers or don’t think the helper understands. A better way to encourage help is through questions. How could it work this time? What else can I share about this situation? What can I learn from you?


Something as simple as asking for help can be complex. But that doesn’t let us off the hook. Asking for help has a price: it can cost esteem, status and control. It’s a good thing that the value of the right help can be far more than its cost. If you want to do a better job of asking for help, or to be a better helper, pick up a copy of Helping.  And, start with “Please.”

Schein, Edgar (2009). Helping. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

May I Help You?


The scene was from a must watch TV series for anyone interested in workplace effectiveness:
Undercover Boss. For those unfamiliar with the show, each episode features a CEO or other C Suite executive who works in disguise as a new employee. The objective is for the senior leader to experience the organization from a much different perspective.

The episode that stays with me features the CEO of a heavy equipment manufacturer who went to work on the assembly line in one of his organization’s lean, high tech manufacturing facilities. The trainer assigned to the CEO was a knowledgeable and skilled veteran working in the precision engine station. The associate was also patient, as the CEO found it difficult to keep up with the pace and standards of the job.

The CEO noticed that his co-worker kept photos of his grandchildren at his station. The associate explained that these children were the bright lights of his life. Sadly, both suffered from a rare medical condition that would shorten their lives. In the meantime, the children’s care took a heavy toll from the family’s emotional and financial resources. The associate explained that providing strength and stability to his family and being the “go to guy” at work was overwhelming. Then this rock of a man teared up. “Sometimes,” he said, ” I just want to wear a Help Me! button.”

How many of us can relate to his plea? How many of us carry burdens silently that overwhelm our energy and talent? How often could we perform much better with a little training, advice or support, yet are afraid to ask? Who among us doesn’t long for a “Help Me!” button once in a while?

Why is it so difficult to ask for the help we need? If you doubt this, think of how often someone has tripped, then loudly proclaim“I’m O.K.” before anyone asks? Or, have you watched someone with both arms and hands full deny an offer of assistance with a door? If we can’t allow ourselves the vulnerability of accepting help in these obvious and low risk situations, how can we open our fortress to accept help when we really need it?

I’d argue we have our view of accepting help upside down. Accepting help is a sign of strength. Necessary and appropriate help eases our burden, lightens our load, and allows us to contribute to our fullest potential. Denial of necessary and appropriate help is a sign of weakness. It sends false signs that we can handle more than we can or know more than we do; both puts us and our colleagues at risk.

What about you? Are you able to ask for help at work? What advice to you have for those who struggle with asking? Let’s help each other. In my next post, I’ll recap your advice with ideas from others.

In the meantime, does anyone know where I can get one of those “Help Me!” buttons?

Commencement Season Musings



Commencement season is one of my favorite times of the year. I love its spirit of celebration, sense of optimism and the energy of possibility. Who doesn’t get inspired by a well-crafted commencement speech? The vivid descriptions of opportunities and passionate exhortations motivate new graduates and old listeners alike to do just a little better.

My single beef about commencement season and its messages is that the events often fail to connect “the future” with “today.” Too frequently, commencement messages emphasize future achievement at the expense of current reality. As T.S. Elliot reminds us, “There are no endings, only additions.”  That’s how greatness is developed; it’s an accumulation of experiences day after day after day.

Once again this year, no one has invited me to be a commencement speaker. Good thing I have a blog to share The Development Sherpa’s advice to new graduates.

Make the Most of Your First Job

The good news is that as a college graduate, you are more likely to get a job. According to The New York Times, college graduates are the only group that has more members employed today than before the recession began. The bad news is that it may not be the job you expected.  The job market is still very tight and employers are still quite picky. Your first post college job may involve more grunt work than glamour.

You may be tempted to blow off your low skilled job as you wait for your “real one.” Don’t.  As discouraged as you may be to be behind a receptionist desk, filing papers or renting cars, you can learn a lot from any job that requires you to deal directly with customers, work with others and work for someone. You can develop the interpersonal skills necessary for that next, better job when it comes along. According to research by Drs. Joyce Hogan and Kimberly Brinkmeyer, strong interpersonal skills are a requirement for 84% of management jobs, the kind you seek. If your job requires effective client contact and collaboration with associates, you are building skills important in future roles. Practice what you’ve studied about working in groups, conflict resolution and communication. If you want to ditch your low wage, low skill “starter” job, do your best and learn from it.

Use Social Media Skills as a Learning Advantage

You are among the most digitally connected generation so far. Make your exceptional social media skills an advantage to your success. My colleagues Keeley Sorotki and Jeff Merrell might encourage you to build a PLN – Personal Learning Network – using your social media skills. Never before has a generation of workers had access to so many world-class thinkers and every day practitioners in their field. Use this access to build your own network to challenge and inspire you, starting now. Don’t wait until you need a network of experts to build one.

Engage With the Broader World

The world is becoming smaller and faster. You’ve probably had splendid opportunities to travel, learn a second (or third) language and study with people from many cultures.  Remain curious about the world. The May, 2013 edition of the Harvard Business Review describes the advantages of the “global elite” and offers suggestions you (yes, you) can use to become one. Keep up your language skills; a adopted language is a “use it or lose it” proposition. Understand current events from around the world, and understand them from different perspectives. Read world history; the way things “were” explains the way things “are.” If you can, travel.  Your dream job will probably never be isolated and insulated from social and political events. Be ready.

Skin Your Knees

When do you skin your knees? When you’re going somewhere. When you run and trip. When you carry the ball and get tackled. When you fall off a bike. You may focus on the fall. Focus instead on the fact you were trying to get somewhere.

When you do the things necessary to build your layers of greatness, you will skin your knees. You will take a risk and slip. You will try something new and fall. You will make a mistake and feel some pain. Of course, you could avoid all this by staying in the same place. But then you won’t achieve the unique greatness that you are meant to achieve. One of my favorite quotes is from Steve Maraboli: “Life doesn’t get easier or more forgiving. We get stronger and more resilient.”

Final Words

So, my dear graduates, your greatness doesn’t start “someday.” It starts today. It starts from wherever you are with every day decisions and actions. Don’t waste today dreaming about your opportunities for tomorrow. Be the person you are meant to be. Today.

Be Here Now


waterdrop.Last Friday, I was rushing to a yoga class in a studio a few blocks away. (If “rushing to a yoga class” raises a yellow flag, you get a gold star.) My mind raced during the walk. Would I arrive on time? What time would the class be over? What were the most important things to do with what was left of Friday afternoon? Should I respond to a few messages? Advance a work project? Complete a marketing campaign? When would I get to the grocery store? Did I get enough done this week? Should I even go to yoga at all?

My mental chatter was interrupted at an intersection. I walked up, in full yoga uniform with a bag slung over my back, next to middle-aged woman in a wheelchair and her companion. The wait for a walk light gave me the opportunity to overhear their conversation. The woman in the chair commented on the day. “ Isn’t it a beautiful day!” she observed. “ The sun feels great on my face! Look at that perfectly blue sky. It’s so nice to hear the birds again.”

Her observations stopped me. They were expressed in the present. No resentment that the able bodied stranger next to her had opportunities not available to her. No chatter about where she would rather be on an early spring day. No remorse about what got her dependent state. She expressed full appreciation of the current moment. Through this stranger, I witnessed the peace offered from mindfulness; taking full advantage of what was available to her in that moment.

Mindfulness Moves Into the Mainstream

The concept of mindfulness has been with us at least since the birth of Buddhism in the 5th century BC. My interpretation of mindfulness is the ability to bring one’s full attention to the present moment, with acknowledgement and non-judgmental acceptance. Mindfulness has long been associated with the New Age set, dismissed as hokey faux religion practiced by the crystal wearing, granola crunching set. This dismissal may be short sighted, because mindfulness shows up time and time again as a practice to improve lives.

A recently published research in the Journal of Applied Psychology (JAP) suggests the practice of mindfulness is helpful to employees who wish to reduce their levels of emotional exhaustion experienced at work and improve their job satisfaction. The fact a study on mindfulness at work was published by a serious, peer reviewed scientific journal is evidence alone that it’s moved beyond the woo-woo category. Hülsheger, Alberts, Alina and Lang conducted two studies with over 500 employees in customer facing roles. Participants had jobs in customer service, teaching, public service retail sales or in hospitals; jobs that brought them into frequent contact with people who were not having their best days. As a result of intense interactions, participants reported frequently feeling emotionally exhausted and dissatisfied with their jobs.

The study results suggest the value of mindfulness practices to anyone who wants to reduce job related stress and emotional exhaustion. Here is a sample of some of the research outcomes:

  • Mindfulness practices may mediate the stress produced by surface acting. Surface acting is what we do when we’re feeling one way but must respond in another. It may be what you do when you think She’s acting like an idiot but job requirements suggest that you ask Tell me the problem. Mindfulness trains us to recognize what’s happening in the moment in a non-judgmental way that reduces the need to surface act. It might be something like:  She’s very upset and I’ll try to help.
  • Self-awareness meditation, or trait meditation, may help people in high stress situations regulate emotional responses.  Recognizing biofeedback of tenseness and irritability helped participants recognize triggers that predicted an emotional response and allowed them to address, and thereby regulate, their emotions.
  • The positive effects of mindfulness practices varied by individual disposition and even varied by time of day. Not all participants were emotionally predisposed for mindfulness practices, and thus had to work harder at them. (Like those who rush to yoga class, for example). In other occasions, personal energy states or circumstances affected the ability to stop and be mindful. (It’s hard not to be judgmental about the person yelling at you). If you are like me and find being mindful more of a challenge, my advice is to just keep trying. Even a little bit will make a difference. The non-judgmental principle relates to you, too

Everyday Mindfulness

The beauty of the mindfulness practice shows up every day. It shows up when people end their workdays with energy instead of exhaustion. It shows up when you see the joy you’ve created for someone simply because you’ve paid attention. It shows up when you hear someone choose to overlook the past or forgo anxiety about the future through a simple appreciation that the sun is warm and the sky is blue. She knew this moment was perfect. And, it was.


Interested in building your mindfulness practice? Many resources are available. These are two of my favorites:

Eckhart Tolle (1999). The Power of Now.

Thich Nhat Hanh (1991). Peace is Every Step.


U. R. Hülsheger, H. J. E. M. Alberts, A. Feinholdt, J. W. B. Lang (2012). Benefits of mindfulness at work: The role of mindfulness in emotional regulation, emotional exhaustion and job satisfaction. Journal of Applied Psychology (2013), vol. 98, No. 2, 310-325.

Change Habits, Keep Resolutions


I‘m not going to make new resolutions for 2013. There are enough old ones still relevant to dust off and try again.  In fact, if anyone is looking for a resolution, I have enough lying around that I could give you a few.  Lose weight? Got that one. Get a better job?  Several options to chose from. Be Better Organized?  I can set you up. These are just a few of my many past resolutions available to be recycled.

It’s not that I fail to see the value in resolutions. In fact, setting goals (aka resolutions) is a critical part of the change process.  They provide a picture of success, set the boundaries for choices, and allow us to measure success.  Resolutions are so important that I’ll change my focus from making them to keeping them. This year, I’ll keep the same resolutions but change my habits

The Invisible Force

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way. The older fish nods at them and says, ‘Morning boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit. Eventually, one of them looks over at the other and asks ‘What the hell is water?’ ”

David Foster Wallace as quoted in The Power of Habit 

The passage above is one of the best descriptions of the power of habits I’ve read.  Our habits, the automatic, subconscious decisions we make routinely, are our water. Frequently unexamined and often invisible to us, habits set the agenda for our behavior and ultimately our results. So, if we want change, start with habits.

How Habits Happen

The first step in changing habits is to understand how we create them in the first place. Charles Duhigg (2012) in The Power of Habit provides an excellent description in a book that makes very interesting reading.

Habits are created because our brain looks for ways to save effort. When we do things routinely, our brain stores the steps into “chunks.” Try to remember learning something for the first time, like your commute to work. The first few times, you paid great attention to the directions, the traffic patterns or the train schedule. It required attention and energy you didn’t have later for other things. Reflect on how quickly your commute became routine. The next time you go to work, you won’t even think about it. You’ll know the time to leave, the route to take, or where you sit on the train with little conscious thought. Your commute has become your water.

Your brain has turned your commute routine into a habit, without you making a conscious decision about whether you wanted this habit or not. This is a good thing.  Mental energy every day is finite. Once it’s depleted, it’s gone until restored.  Do you want to use it figuring out what roads you take to work or on new challenges once you get there? Probably the latter. So, our brains are wired to help us out by being efficient.  This efficiency becomes a habit.

The paradox about habits is that they are easy to create but hard to change. Old habits won’t get me, or you, to new places, no matter how staunch the resolutions. My 2013 resolution is to start new habits to help me reach old goals. Intrigued? Follow me to see how I do.


Duhigg, Charles (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House.

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.

A Little Bit Better


For Halloween, I planned to scare myself out of my comfort zone. Development, I claimed,  is all about getting out on the skinny branches reaching for the fruit just beyond our reach. This works because we have to try out new skills; we’ve already gathered everything within our grasp.  It works because the warm glow of doing something we didn’t think we could do encourages us to reach for more. I’ve repeated this argument countless times through my career. On Halloween, I found out that I was partly wrong.

On October 31, I did what I challenged readers of my post to do. Stretch. Try something new. Get better at something. I looked for an opportunity better than my agenda could provide. You see, it was an “easy” day. Phone calls, appointments, project work. Interesting but routine work. No skinny branches to tempt me.

At about mid day, I was like a boxer in the corner of the ring dukes up with no takers.  While growing increasingly irritated at the pace of a service appointment, I wondered what I could do to find a development challenge. What can I do right now that would stretch me? What I could do was not snap at the person doing her best to help me, which would have resulted in her fluster slowing down the pace even more. I could choose to be patient. ( If you don’t think this is enough of a challenge, ask my husband.) I could be pleasant toward someone working hard and doing her best. So, I did. The service was completed. I was happy. She was happy. Hmmm..I can react differently and get a better result. Check.

This challenge wasn’t enough. It was too easy. I wanted the rush of the old marathon running days when I broke through the wall. Driving home, I asked again: What can I do right now that would stretch me? Considering my radio station choices, I selected the opinion oriented news channel that I assiduously avoided. Maybe I could listen to opinions that differed from mine.  For the next hour, I did. Much to my surprise, it wasn’t so bad. Clearly, the views differed than mine but the interviewers seemed prepared and the guests knowledgeable. They weren’t idiots after all -they just had different views. It wasn’t so bad.

The rest of the day was filled with similarly small choices. I completed the tasks, but felt so unsatisfied. Where was the suspense? Where was the sweat? Where was the rush of accomplishment? The next day, it hit me through Drew Dudley’s words. To paraphrase Dudley, he observes we don’t act like leaders because we think leadership must be heroic. It must be hard. So, we overlook the little things leaders do while we are looking for the big things.  We miss all the “little” opportunities for “big” impact.

The same can be said about development. My view of development coming through new experiences is still right. My view that it must be hard is wrong. Getting better by making the right little choices prepares us to make the big, hard ones. That’s what I learned on my not so scary day. What about you?