Sometimes, fake it

There are times when I am so unlike myself that I might be taken for someone else of an entirely opposite character. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions, 1782

Recently, Mary and I hosted our neighborhood’s monthly dinner party. From 7:00 to 11:00 p.m. our home was filled to capacity with people.

I struggle at these events because I am the archetypal introvert. My idea of a good evening is to sequester myself in my study and read a book. I would rather chew on cut glass than have to be “on” for four hours at a social event.

But last night I played the part. I was a gregarious, talkative, engaging host.

Was I being disingenuous and hypocritical? I don’t think so, because sometimes we need to act like someone we’re not. Psychologists have a term for this: counter-dispositional behavior.

I learned this lesson from psychology professor Brian Little’s book titled Me, Myself, and Us: The Personality and the Art of Well-Being. Little teaches a large, popular psychology course at Harvard. Though he is an introvert, his teaching style is very animated and energetic, so much so that his students are always surprised to hear him admit that when he’s teaching, he’s also acting. Little explains and defends his behavior in chapter three of his book: Free Traits: On Acting Out of Character.

I’m a big proponent of authenticity; we all need to discover how we are unique, accept the distinctions, and live authentically. Be your true self because therein lies deep satisfaction. Long term, you cannot sustain inauthentic behavior. But in the short term you can, and sometimes should, fake it.

Dr. Little says there are two main reasons why counter-dispositional behavior is often necessary — for professional reasons and for love.

If certain aspects of your work require you to be someone you’re not, have the emotional fortitude to play the part. For instance, if you’re a salesperson you may need to be more animated than your real self would normally be. Likewise, if for the love of family and friends you need to put aside your true self and temporarily assume a new persona, do so.

Last night I was an extroverted host. I did it because I love my neighbors and wanted them to feel welcomed and affirmed during their brief stay in our home. I couldn’t maintain that image 24/7, but I did for 247 minutes. Granted, it was exhausting, and when the last guest left, I went to my study, pulled out a book, and resumed my normal identity.

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Leaders: maintain a “helicopter perspective” on your organization

A helicopter is able to hover over a specific geographical area and change altitude quickly. It can be at 200 ft. one minute and then quickly rise to 5,000 ft. A fixed-wing plane can’t do that.

Leaders, continually negotiate a “helicopter perspective” on your organization. Sometimes you must think granularly and get involved in micro aspects of the organization; at other times, you may need to shift to a “high-altitude” and consider macro concerns. See the forest and the trees.

Here are two examples

The Sewell family has been selling cars in the Dallas area for 100 years. Their 13 luxury-car dealerships are known for superior customer service.

Carl Sewell III is the current leader of the corporation. His assistant told me this story.

“One day I overheard Mr. Sewell talking on the phone with the CEO of General Motors. They were discussing global issues: the world economy, the Federal Reserve raising interest rates, and the price of steel on the commodities market. When the phone call ended, Mr. Sewell walked from his office to the parts department and asked, ‘Have we received the front bumper for Mrs. Johnson’s Escalade?’ He shifted from a 5,000 ft. perspective to a 200 ft. one in a matter of minutes. He was able to toggle between big-picture and granular issues.”

In their great book on the leadership skills of Winston Churchill, Sandys and Litman highlight the fact that Churchill had a mind for details: “Churchill was a man who mastered details without losing sight of the larger picture. He needed to know the progress of countless complicated operations. He wanted to know production figures, delivery dates, forecasts, and statistics.”

Churchill’s mind for detail is exemplified in a memo he sent to the First Lord of the Admiralty during WWII in which he suggested a way that seamen could communicate more efficiently: “Is it really necessary to describe the Tirpitz (a German Battleship) as the Admiral von Tirpitz in every signal? This must cause a considerable waste of time for signalmen, cipher staff, and typists. Surely Tirpitz is good enough for the beast.”

But Churchill also maintained a broad perspective, dealing effectively with huge, world-wide events and trends.

Leaders, don’t stay in the “clouds,” out-of-touch with the details of your organization, but don’t get so mired in details that you can’t see the forest for the trees. Maintain both perspectives.

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

Don’t be too discouraged by the low points in life or too emboldened by the high points  

An Eastern monarch asked his wise men to invent a phrase that would apply to all times and in all situations. After careful deliberation, they offered this statement: “And this too shall pass away.”

When Abraham Lincoln heard the story, he mused: “How much it expresses. How chastening in the hour of pride; how consoling in the depths of affliction.”

Yes, life is a series of ups and downs, but the severe peaks and valleys seldom last. Don’t be too discouraged by the low points in life or too emboldened by the high points in life. Remind yourself and others of the transitory nature of life. Try to maintain a balanced perspective.

In my early forties I had several career leaps that catapulted me up near the top of my profession. The rails were greased and the momentum strong. But the high times were soon tempered by the challenges of life. Good times don’t last forever.

In my late forties I became clinically depressed. I thought my life as I knew it was coming to an end. If you’ve never been depressed, it’s hard to understand the feelings of hopelessness and confusion that torment the mind. I told my wife that we needed to liquidate our assets and go live with her mother out in the country. But that season of my life passed. With the help of medications, I climbed out of the dark abyss and resumed normal life. Difficult times don’t last forever.

When you’re going through tough times, don’t be overly discouraged because “this too shall pass away.” And when you’re going through times of prosperity, don’t be smug and proud because “this too shall pass away.” Events are seldom as catastrophic or fortunate as we think. This truth, if embraced, will give us ballast and stabilize us emotionally.

Winston Churchill touched on this thought when he said, “Success is not final…failure is not fatal…it’s the courage to continue that counts.”

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

Silence: the key to a respectful, productive conversation

Also, information about a free video series on the true meaning of Christmas

Silence is one of the great arts of conversation. Marcus Tullius Cicero

Several years ago I heard the Juilliard String Quartet present a lecture/recital. Their playing was wonderful but my biggest take-away from the event had nothing to do with music but rather the quality of their conversation. Through their example I learned how people can have a meaningful, respectful, and profitable conversation. While I was intrigued by what they had to say, I was particularly fascinated by how they conversed.

Before the quartet played, they shared their thoughts about each piece they were about to play. It was a relaxed and thoughtful conversational atmosphere in which each player had the opportunity to speak.

One at a time, a player would share his thoughts, and when he was finished there would be silence— sometimes lasting 10-15 seconds—before another member of the quartet would begin to share his thoughts. The group had such high respect for what each colleague was sharing that they allowed time for each statement to “sink in” before another thought was introduced into the conversation. Also, while one person shared, the others seemed to truly listen; they were not just using that time to craft what they would say when it was their turn.

For instance, one member might say, “The thing I enjoy most about the second movement of the Beethoven is that it borrows the theme from the first movement but develops it in a different way.” Then there would be silence. And then another player might offer, “That’s an interesting observation. At first glance, the themes seem to compete with each other, but near the end of the movement one understands that they are actually complementary.” Then another pause…and so on.

The key element in this respectful and profitable conversation was the moments of silence.

When was the last time you conversed with a group of people and the conversation contained times of silence? It is a rare occurrence. Normally, we try to anticipate the end of someone’s sentence and then compete with others for who gets to speak next. Sometimes we don’t even allow a person to finish his thought; the beginning of a new sentence overlaps the end of his.

This concept is so foreign to most people that the only way I’ve been able to incorporate it is to discuss it with a particular group and then practice. I did this with my family. I distributed this essay, we talked about it, and then staged a trial conversation. At first, it was difficult and awkward—it’s hard to change deeply-ingrained patterns—but eventually the conversation became well-paced, courteous, and profitable.

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

Click here to read more about how to have a thoughtful, respectful conversation.

My friend, Wayne Stiles, has produced an incredible three-part video series titled, “The Promise that Changed the World.” The videos focus on: 1. The prophecies and preparation for the Incarnation 2. The birth of Jesus and the announcement to shepherds 3. The aftermath of His birth, including the Magi and Herod’s rage This free series will enhance your understanding of the true meaning of Christmas. Click here to view the videos.

Focus on things you can change; the power of Niebuhr’s prayer

Only six slots remaining for the Tale of Three Cities trip

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
                  Serenity Prayer – Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)

I think often of Niebuhr’s advice. It gives me solace and helps me order my thoughts and actions. It instructs me on when I can take initiative and be aggressive and when I must be calm, even passive. He connects three nouns with three verbs: serenity to accept, courage to change, and wisdom to know.

Most issues in life fall into one of two categories: things that I cannot change and things I can. Consider the following issues. Which ones can you control?

  • Your height
  • Your weight
  • Your parents
  • Your friends
  • The weather
  • Where you live
  • How much money you save
  • The past
  • Your attitude
  • How others treat you
  • How you respond to how people treat you

What category would you place virtues in? (A virtue is a behavior showing high moral standards.) Do you have control over whether or not you are honest, friendly, patient, teachable, or punctual? Or are these somehow genetically determined such that you may be exempt from accountability?

For instance, I once had a direct report who was often tardy. When I confronted him he replied, “Yeah, my grandfather was always late, my father was too, I guess I just inherited it.” I told him that he was wrong. There was no such thing as a “ tardy gene”; it was an aspect of life he had control over. I shared how, as a young adult, I, too, was often late to appointments and disrespectful of schedules but that through discipline and conscientious work, I had changed. Now I am fastidious about being punctual. As an employee, he would need to improve in that area.

There’s just no good excuse for being deficient in any of the virtues.

Living the virtues

Here’s an abridged list of 28 virtues. On a scale from 1 to 10 [1 being “I’m not very good at this”; 10 being “I excel at this.”], rate yourself in each area. Then take responsibility to ratchet up your score in each area. It will be a lifelong pursuit.

If you’re raising children, these virtues create a good curriculum to work on. Before a child leaves home, aspire that he or she understands each area and is striving to excel.

Virtues

Courteous ____ Humble ____ Generous ____ Loyal ____  Respectful ____ Devoted ____ Unselfish ____ Disciplined ___ Responsible ___ Honest ____ Patient ___ Teachable __ Faithful ____ Decisive ____ Attentive ____ Optimistic ____ Friendly ____ Fair ____   Discreet _____ Takes initiative ____ Cooperative ____ Courageous ____ Resourceful ____ Punctual ____ Consistent ____ Flexible ____ Deliberate ____ Careful ____

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

In October, 2018 I’m hosting a trip to the three great cities of the western world: London, Paris, Rome. (We’ll also visit Lisbon, Barcelona, and Florence.) The trip is limited to 44 guests. Only six slots remain. Click here for more information.

Do the hard thing

I’m not sure where this thought came from; it’s certainly not original, but it has thumped me on the nose a lot recently.

You earn a good reputation by volunteering to do hard things and by doing hard things well. Also, it’s usually the right and noble thing to do.

Sometimes it involves doing simple but unpleasant tasks.

  • When my two-year-old grandson went ballistic in a restaurant, I volunteered to skip my meal and babysit him.
  • Boxes—heavy and light—needed to be moved. I went for the heavy ones.
  • Someone must work holiday shifts.

Sometimes it means committing to complicated challenges.

  • Starting a graduate degree later in life.
  • Working a second job to get out of debt.
  • Becoming the caretaker for an invalid.

Some people only do easy things; they always flow in the path of least resistance. At work they do the minimum required to keep their jobs; they don’t want to be inconvenienced in life; they never volunteer for optional tasks. Don’t be like that.

Leap at the chance to do things that other people don’t want to do. When others hesitate, act. Volunteer to do things you’re not responsible for or required to do.

Potential benefits?

  • You’ll garner a reputation for being action-oriented.
  • You’ll be a source of momentum and positive direction.
  • Difficult tasks develop strong “muscles”; you’ll grow in wisdom and ability.
  • You’ll benefit from the fact that accomplishing hard things is usually more rewarding than doing simple things.

I work with a man, I’ll call him Jason (that’s his real name) who personifies this mentality. He’s eager to work, he’s low maintenance, he volunteers for extra assignments, doesn’t mind doing manual labor… Thanks, Jason.

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

Abandon the idea that there is only one soul mate for you; the ideal partner is the one you create

Plus - 12 best books I read last year - book 4 of 12

I grew up in a conservative, evangelical Christian environment. From childhood we were taught that “God has just one person He has selected for you to marry. To be happy in life you must find that one person.”

Even as a child I struggled with the mathematical probability of this suggestion. “Okay,” I reasoned, “out of the three billion women on the planet I’m supposed to find that one, and only one, that is right for me? What happens if I make a mistake? Or, what happens if the person I’m supposed to marry makes a mistake and marries the wrong person; am I then doomed to accept ‘Plan B’ and a second-class marriage?”

This is nonsense. Abandon the idea that there is only one soul mate for you; the ideal partner is the one you create.

I do believe that we should seek God’s guidance in all aspects of our lives. I do believe in following biblical parameters. But I also believe that we should use common sense when making decisions and that in any given situation there are probably multiple options that will work. (In this essay I’m using marriage as the primary example of my persuasion but the same thought applies to all aspects of life. There’s not just one job that will make me happy. There’s not just one house that I can live in or only one car I can drive and still be in God’s favor.)

Relative to marriage, I believe that a fulfilling marriage is more made than mystically conceived. It is forged through deliberate and steady hard work. I’ve done enough marriage counseling to know that all marriages struggle and that the good ones have been made so through discipline and steady commitment.

I concur with J.R.R. Tolkien’s statement, “Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might have found more suitable mates.” He went on to describe spouses as “companions in shipwreck, not guiding stars.”

As I observe couples who have long-lasting marriages, and as Mary and I celebrate our 40th anniversary, I am convinced that good marriages are formed, not born.

Tolkien said, “The real soul mate is the one you are actually married to.”

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

12 best books I read last year – book 4 of 12

The Net and the Butterfly – The Art and Practice of Breakthrough Thinking – Olivia Cabane and Judah Pollack, 2017. The authors combine recent scientific discoveries about the brain with anecdotal stories to weave a fascinating and informative narrative about how to capture great ideas. Click here for more information from Amazon

Avoid intellectual atrophy

Link to free e-book at end of post

I often meet people who have entered their personal intellectual ice age. Permafrost has gradually anesthetized their curiosity and their pursuit of knowledge has stalled.

Of course, some people have never gotten their mental engine up and running. But others have and not sustained it.

Here are some pitfalls to avoid.

Some people reach an intellectual pinnacle but then push the pause button.

I have a friend who is a physician—a good physician—who punched the pause button on his personal development about twenty years ago. I can only imagine how sharp-witted he was when he earned the post nominal “MD,” but having achieved that notable goal, he has since coasted through life. John Maxwell calls this “destination disease”—we reach a desired point in life (graduate from college, start a successful business) but then cease growing.

Some people know a lot about one particular area and they continue to grow in that one area, but they have not expanded to other areas.

I have a friend who is an accomplished accountant. He stays current in his field, but it’s the only field he plows. He has no other interests in life, no hobbies. His curiosity has atrophied. He needs to develop the first part of Thomas Huxley’s suggestion, “Try to learn something about everything and everything about something.”

The best antidote for intellectual atrophy is to read.

  • Warren Bennis said, “One of the marvelous things about life is that any gaps in your education can be filled, whatever your age or situation, by reading, and thinking about what you read.”
  • Mark Twain observed, “Those who do not read have no advantage over those who cannot read.” (I would add: but those who do read are better off than those who can read but do not.)
  • Twyla Tharp said, “Reading is your first line of defense against an empty head. I read for a lot of reasons, pleasure being the least of them.”
  • Sam Harris says, “We read for the pleasure and benefit of thinking another person’s thoughts.”

Click here to see an essay I wrote entitled How to Learn from Reading.

In addition to reading, there are many other ways to stay fresh and vital. I wrote a monograph titled Lifelong Learning—Why it’s more important and doable than you think – and would like to give you a free digital copy. Click here to download Lifelong Learning – Don McMinn.

A commitment to lifelong learning is essential for leaders. Bennis and Nanus studied ninety top leaders from a variety of fields and they discovered that, “It is the capacity to develop and improve their skills that distinguish leaders from their followers. Successful leaders are learners.”

You don’t want your tombstone to read: Died, age 45. Buried, age 75.

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