Expand your learning environment; get into a “larger tank”

There is a species of fish – the Japanese carp, known as the Koi – that will grow in size only in proportion to the size of the body of water it is in. When placed in a small aquarium the fish will only grow to be two or three inches long. If placed in a larger body of water, it will grow to six to ten inches. When placed in a large lake, it can reach its full size of two or three feet in length.

In like manner, your environment can inhibit and limit your personal growth and development. It may be the job you’re in—although you feel secure and the work is tolerable, you’re stuck in a mind-numbing environment and your head is hitting the proverbial glass ceiling. It may be the town you live in—the provincial mentality is stifling. The friends you associate with may be stymying—you may need a more intellectually invigorating group.

But the right environment can stimulate your growth and help you reach your potential. Fortunately, you do have control over this dimension of life; you can choose where you work, you can move to a city that inspires you, and you can choose friends that will stretch you.

To illustrate this idea, I’ll use two of my family members.

After graduating from college, my daughter, Lauren, made some bold moves that placed her in a “large pond.” First, she moved from a small college town in Texas to New York City. She got a nice and adequate job, but after working there for a few years she realized she needed a greater challenge so she went to work at American Express. Soon, AMEX moved her to Singapore for a year, then back to NYC. In the meantime, she completed a master’s degree from Columbia. Can you sense the mix of challenges, thrills, fear, insecurities and joys involved in making these moves?

My son-in-law, Jonathan, is a board certified emergency room physician. He has served two tours-of-duty in the Navy. For one of his assignments he was stationed at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan. It was one of the busiest trauma centers in the world. He saw more and learned more in nine months than some physicians would see and learn in a lifetime here in the states. It was a large pond.

Don’t underestimate the courage it takes to change environments and the effort it takes to adjust to and flourish in a new one. It can be intimidating and challenging. You may even fail. But it’s worth the risk and effort. Life is too short to waste; it’s not a dress rehearsal, and it’s the only one you get.

You don’t want this written on your tombstone: Died, 55 years old; buried, 70 years old.

Question: Share your thoughts about this essay. You can leave a comment by clicking here.


What? – Our personal growth and development can be enhanced or stymied by our environment.
So what? – Beware of the times in life when you are too comfortable and unchallenged. You may need to “get into a larger tank.”
Now what? – Analyze where you are in life. Does your environment provide the room and stimulus for personal growth? If not, what will you do?

Leaders – Do you create environments and opportunities in your organization in which people can grow and develop? Consider each member of your team and customize a plan that will optimize their personal development.

Pay attention to leemurs

Several years ago Mary and I toured Morocco. We started in Marrakesh, then went to Fez and ended up in Casablanca, which is a really rough, dirty city. (The movie Casablanca was filmed in Hollywood, so it’s not an accurate depiction of what the city really looks and feels like).

One of the must-see sites is the Hassan II Mosque; it is the largest mosque in Morocco and the 13th largest in the world. I took a taxi from my hotel to the mosque, but when the tour ended, I decided to walk back to the hotel. About a quarter mile into the two-mile route I found myself in a rough neighborhood, the slums. I’m not easily frightened but I suddenly had the overwhelming feeling that I was in the wrong place and in danger. I reversed my course, got back to a main street, and took a taxi back to the hotel.

I yielded to my unsubstantiated uneasiness and possibly avoided a bad situation.

Pilots are taught to pay careful attention to what they call “leemurs”—the vague feeling that something isn’t right, even if it’s not clear why.

At times, we should do the same.

Don’t be extreme with this suggestion. Ninety percent of the time, there is a logical explanation for  feelings of uneasiness – your understanding + experience is sounding the alarm – but sometimes there’s not. That’s when we need to heed that quiet, subtle voice that’s saying, “Be careful.”

My son-in-law, who is a flight surgeon for an F16 squad and a pilot himself, tells me that in the cockpit of a military plane a lower-ranking officer can “pull rank” at any time he or she feels that the mission is going in the wrong direction. They have the authority to act on leemurs.

Leaders: Wouldn’t it be beneficial if you gave your team members permission to vocalize the leemurs they may experience in the context of the organization?

Question: When have you experienced leemurs? How did you respond? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Don’t be constrained by artificial limits and barriers

Join me in testing the view that most individuals and companies are functioning at only 40, 50, or 60 percent of their capacity, and that the much higher levels of performance reached in emergencies are actually more closer to true, sustainable potentials than are the “normal” levels of performance. Robert Schaffer

On May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile in recorded history. The 25-year-old native of Harrow on the Hill, England, completed the distance in 3:59.4.

For hundreds of years, a sub-four-minute mile was thought to be humanly impossible. Many predicted that it would never happen. But then Bannister broke the record by 6/10th of a second.

Interestingly, within one year of Bannister breaking the record, 37 other runners ran the mile in less than four minutes. The next year, 300 runners did the same. Today, high school athletes do it regularly.

The current world record for the mile is held by Hicham El Guerrouj. His time? 3:43.13—an incredible 16 seconds off the “impossible mark.” Here’s a video of that race.

We often limit ourselves by yielding to artificial boundaries. Sometimes the boundaries are set by others, often by ourselves.

Before completing this post, I experimented on myself.

Part of my exercise routine is doing pushups. I don’t remember how or why I set my maximum at 25, but for years I have thought that was my best. When I get to 22, 23 I start feeling feeble, but I push on to 25. Yesterday, when I worked out, I told myself that doing 40 pushups was my maximum. I whizzed past 25 and when I got to 38, 39 I thought I was reaching my maximum but I kept going. I did 42. I was reminded of Roger Bannister’s statement, “It is the brain, not the heart or lungs, that is the critical organ.”

I have a friend who manages a sales team for American Express. Every year her boss raises her sales goal 15-20% over the previous year. When challenged by the new goal, my friend is incredulous—how is that possible? But every year she meets or exceeds the new target.

Conventional wisdom may seem safe, prudent, and trustworthy, but it can also blind the eye to possibilities and make us apathetic and complacent.

Personally—are you coasting through life or do you push the limits of what you can achieve? Have you been inhibited by your upbringing, environment, and expectations?

Professionally—are you in a tight box with a low ceiling? Years ago my daughter was in a dead-end job here in Dallas. In a bold and audacious move, she moved to New York City, enrolled in a master’s program at Columbia University, got a job at Juilliard and, later, American Express. None of that would have happened if she had not stepped out from under the glass ceiling.

Organizationally—does your group ever challenge the status quo?

I double-dog-dare you: identify three areas of your life in which you might suffer under the perceived restraints of a false barrier. Identify the faux constraint and ignore it; push past the previous status quo and do more.

I’ll conclude with one more example I read about in the must-read book Think Like a Freak by Levitt and Dubner.

Believe it or not, there exists an annual, televised eating competition that pays $5,000 to the person who eats the most hot dogs and buns. For years the record was 25.1 HDB in 12 minutes; a formidable performance. But in 2000, Kobi Kobayashi, who was studying economics at Yokkaichi University and behind on his rent, decided to enter and win the contest.

To make a long story short, in his first competition he ate 50 HDB. Today, the record is 69 HDB in 10 minutes. (In 2008 the contest was shortened by two minutes.)

Do not be constrained by artificial limits.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Benefit from organized abandonment

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Peter Drucker coined the phrase “organized abandonment” to describe the process whereby we can free up resources that are committed to maintaining things that no longer contribute to performance and no longer produce results.

According to Drucker, the change-leader puts every product, every service, every process, every customer, and every end use on trial for its life. The question to ask is, “If we did not do this already, would we, knowing what we now know, go into it?” If the answer is no, abandon it. The change-leader must also ask, “If we were to go into this now, knowing what we now know, would we go into it in the same way we are doing it now?’” [Drucker, Management Challenges for the 21st Century, pg.74]

The term organized means doing this regularly and on a systematic basis.

Over time, organizations and individuals become burdened by unproductive and unnecessary actions. On a regular basis we must ruthlessly evaluate all functions and jettison those that no longer contribute.

In your personal life, organized abandonment might probe these areas:

  • Do I still benefit from reading a physical daily newspaper or should I get my news digitally?
  • Should my typical breakfast menu of bacon and eggs be abandoned for a healthier alternative?
  • If I was not currently living in my particular neighborhood, would I choose to move here?
  • Have some of my relationships grown stale; would I benefit from new, more invigorating relationships?

In your organization, this exercise might probe these areas:

  • As I consider every position in my organization, is each one still needed?
  • Do I have the right people in key positions?
  • If I had the opportunity to fill a position, would I hire the same person who is presently working in that position?
  • As I analyze every line item of the budget, are all expenditures still justified?
  • Are our products still viable?
  • Are there any customers we should “fire”?

Another approach to this topic is to regularly adjust your life using the Keep—Stop—Start formula:

I want to keep doing, or do more of _______.
I want to stop doing, or do less of _______.
I want to start doing _______.

“We’ve always done it that way” is an unwise justification for any activity.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Click here for more information about the June 21-22 Lead Well workshop.

Avoid the Semmelweis reflex

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In the 1840s, a young obstetrician in Vienna named Semmelweis noticed that doctors who performed autopsies and then delivered babies had a high rate of disease among the children they delivered (known as childbed fever). So he made the audacious and until then, unheard of, suggestion that doctors wash their hands between doing an autopsy and delivering a baby. He recommended that they wash in a solution of chlorinated lime, which apparently solved the problem; there were fewer cases of childbed fever.

Sadly and incredulously, instead of being praised for his life-saving solution, he was ostracized from the medical community because at that point in history, there was no germ theory; scientists had not made the connection between microscopic germs and illness; science doubted that the unseen could be a cause of death.

Psychologists have coined a term to describe the tendency to ignore information simply because it does not fit within one’s worldview: the Semmelweiss reflex, or Semmelweis effect. Daniel Kahneman calls it theory-induced blindness—an adherence to a belief about how the world works that prevents you from seeing how the world really works.

It’s an interesting anecdote from history but let’s try to apply the lesson to our lives so we can avoid the tendency to reject new evidence or new knowledge simply because it contradicts established norms, beliefs, or paradigms.

In our society:

  • Many are reluctant to accept global warming even though 97% of scientists agree that global temperatures have increased during the past 100 years; 84% say they personally believe human-induced warming is occurring; and 74% agree that “currently available scientific evidence” substantiates its occurrence.
  • Managers have been slow to accept the fact that the “carrot and stick” approach to motivation (rewards and punishment) doesn’t work in the modern workplace; employees are motivated by autonomy, purpose, and mastery. [Not convinced? See Daniel Pink’s terrific book, Drive]
  • People spend billions of dollars on the latest weight-loss craze, sadly ignoring the factual approach to weight-loss: calories in/calories out.
  • Despite the fact that there is absolutely no scientific evidence that biorhythm works, millions of dollars are still spent on this movement every year.
  • Neurolinguistic programming for education still has its adherents despite the scientific evidence declaring it a ruse.

We suffer from the Semmelweis reflex every time we refuse to accept facts and instead rely on our prejudice or unfounded convictions. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” but sometimes we think our opinions are tantamount to facts.

They are not.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Click here to learn more about the June 21-22 Lead Well workshop.

Pursue individuality and community

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A major part of the human experience is the search for both individuality and community.

These two aspirations may seem to be polar opposites, but they are complementary, even interdependent. Until I know who I am and accept myself for who I am, I will have difficulty knowing how I fit into community.

Pursue individuality

You are unique. Nuanced. There is no one on earth like you.

I’ve coined a term to describe this distinction—your Signature Soulprint.

The term is a slight variation of a familiar word—fingerprint. Our fingerprints are used to determine and affirm our unique identity. There are 14 billion+ index fingers in the world, but yours is distinct; one square inch of flesh distinguishes you from all other humans.

If you are that unique physically, imagine the complexity of your soul. Hence the term Signature Soulprint.

It’s difficult to live authentically if you don’t know who you are. That sounds almost too obvious but, sadly, many people never develop a clear, accurate understanding of themselves, so authenticity eludes them. Knowing who you are and accepting who you are brings peace and contentment and will help you live a fulfilling and effective life.

“Know thyself” was the inscription over the Oracle at Delphi. It was, and is, good advice.

I’ve just published a book that will help you discover who you are and the unique way that you have been created. Click here for information about the book, Signature Soulprint.

Pursue community

We were created to relate intimately with other people. A “Lone Ranger” mentality might have worked for the masked man but it doesn’t work in real life. Simon and Garfunkel had it all wrong when they sang: “I am a rock. I am an island. And a rock feels no pain and an island never cries.”

Take the initiative to develop a social environment in which you are relating intimately to others. Develop a group of friends who care for one another and meet each other’s needs. Establish relationships that are mutually beneficial.

The nuclear family is our first experience of community in life: our mother, father, siblings, and extended family should create a safe and fulfilling social environment. But sometimes families are dysfunctional and cause more pain than comfort. So develop friendships that meet your need for intimacy. You had no choice as to who your family members are, but you can choose your friends.

Becoming aware of self

When a word begins with the prefix “self”, you usually want to avoid exhibiting the behavior it describes. Don’t be self-fish, self-centered, self-reverential, self-absorbed, or self-serving. But there is one “self-word” that you must vigorously and continually pursue—be self-aware.

First, you need to discover who you are and how you are unique among all the humans who have ever lived. Then you need to be mindful of how your self relates to other people. How should you act in any given context? How should the real you interact with others?

Discovering your Signature Soulprint will be a continuous, lifelong process. You are so complex and there are so many subtle nuances to consider, it will take the rest of your life for you to gain clarity.

Establish your individuality and live in community with others. Sadly, many people never achieve either of these aspirations and fewer still master both.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Click here for more information about the June 21-22 Lead Well workshop.

Think carefully about how you frame issues; consider how to take advantage of default settings

In his must-read book, What Intelligence Tests Miss, Keith Stanovich shares this insightful information.

“Researchers Johnson and Goldstein found that 85.9 percent of individuals in Sweden had agreed to be organ donors. However, the rate in the United Kingdom was only 17.2 percent. What is the difference between the Swedes and the British that accounts for such a large gap in their attitudes about organ donation?

“The difference had nothing to do with internal psychological opinions. The difference is in the form of a particular public policy. In Sweden (and others countries like Belgium, France, and Poland) the default policy is that everyone will be an organ donor – one must take action to opt out. In the United Kingdom (and other countries like the United States, German, and Denmark) the default policy is that no one will be a donor – one must take action to opt in.

“In both scenarios, people have a choice as to whether or not they will donate; free will is not being denied. The difference is simply in how the original proposition is structured.

“Interestingly, Johnson and Goldstein discovered that roughly 80 percent of all people prefer to be organ donors. The actual number of donors is determined simply by how they are approached.” (page 203)

Here are some examples of how carefully framed options could benefit individuals and society.

  • Believe it or not, some people turn down their employer’s offer to match contributions to their 401k retirement account. Organizations could make employee contributions the default setting, requiring individuals to opt out if they don’t want to participate. (Social Security is a similar plan, except for the fact that individuals cannot opt out.)
  • Some states have a vaccine immunization requirement for children. Parents must opt out if they do not want their children to be vaccinated. (Why would any parent resist medical care for their children?)
  • Most software updates are automatically sent to users, who then have the choice to download or not download.
  • Some makeup companies are adding sunblock to their products. If consumers don’t want that added benefit, they can choose not to buy the product.

Use this powerful tool: frame carefully and take advantage of default settings.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Have good manners

Friends and good manners will carry you where money won’t go. Margaret Walker

“Manners are the lubricating oil of an organization. It is a law of nature that two moving bodies in contact with each other create friction. This is as true for human beings as it is for inanimate objects. Manners—simple things like saying “please” and “thank you” and knowing a person’s name or asking after her family—enable two people to work together whether they like each other or not. Bright people, especially bright young people, often do not understand this.” Peter Drucker

You don’t need a certificate from the Emily Post Institute to know what good manners look like.

  • Say “please” and “thank you.”
  • Don’t talk with food in your mouth.
  • Open the door for other people.
  • Don’t interrupt people when they are speaking.
  • Don’t text at the dinner table.
  • Write thank-you notes.
  • Don’t eat before everyone is served.
  • Only use your phone in appropriate settings.
  • Be gracious in entering and exiting a conversation.

Mannerly conduct can preserve the integrity of relationships at home and at work. Good manners make people feel appreciated and respected and show others that you care about them. Manners take the rough edges off social interactions and make it easier for everyone to feel comfortable.

Pier Forni, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, says that manners are like traffic lights for life. “The rules of good manners are the traffic lights of human interaction. They make it so that we don’t crash into one another in everyday behavior.”

When we are unmannerly we appear crude, awkward, self-centered, and entitled.

Your mood should not dictate your manners. Be mannerly regardless of how you feel emotionally. J.D. Salinger wrote, “I am always saying ‘Glad to’ve met you’ to somebody I’m not at all glad I met. If you want to stay alive, you have to say that stuff, though.”

Demonstrate manners; it’s the right thing to do, and you’ll be more successful in life.

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