“Mother’s kiss made me an artist”  – The power of affirmation

Benjamin West was just trying to be a good babysitter for his little sister Sally. While his mother was out, Benjamin found some bottles of colored ink and proceeded to paint Sally’s portrait. But by the time Mrs. West returned, ink blots stained the table, chairs, and floor. Benjamin’s mother surveyed the mess without a word until she saw the picture. Picking it up, she exclaimed, “Why, it’s Sally!” And she bent down and kissed her young son.

In 1763, when he was 25 years old, Benjamin West was selected as history painter to England’s King George III. He became one of the most celebrated artists of his day, becoming president of the Royal Academy of Arts. Commenting on his start as an artist, he said, “My mother’s kiss made me a painter.” 

What if she had responded differently; what if she had rebuked young Benjamin for the mess he had made with his paints? What if she had scolded Benjamin and taken away his art supplies? Years later it might have been said, “His mother’s rebuke crushed his artistic gift.” 

Perhaps his gift would have emerged either way, but isn’t it grand that his mother’s kind and encouraging words affirmed and gave momentum to his talent.

Proverbs 25:11 says, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.” West’s mother’s words were fitly spoken and unleashed Benjamin’s prodigious talent in painting. 

We all possess a powerful asset that doesn’t cost us anything to dispense and it’s self-replenishing—words of affirmation. When spoken at critical moments, they are powerful enough to change a person’s life. 

I’m grateful for times when I was the recipient of life-giving words. 

  • When I was six, my grandfather saw me playing with random pieces of wood and nails and said, “Look what Don is doing; he knows how to figure things out.”
  • When I finished my year as president of my church youth choir, my minister of music wrote me a letter, commending me for strong leadership.
  • In my first job directing a church choir, a physician in the choir approached me and said, “You really get a lot accomplished in rehearsals.”

Of all the millions of statements I’ve heard in 67 years, why do I remember these three? Because they impacted me deeply and changed the trajectory of my life.

Your words are extremely powerful, especially when you’re in a position of authority: parents, grandparents, employers, persons in uniform, elected officials…use your position and the power of your words to encourage, stimulate, and inspire people.

Benjamin West painted his sister’s portrait on the furniture and floor. Because of his mother’s careful response, he would someday paint portraits of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and English royalty. 

At the top of this post is a picture of his famous painting: The Death of General Wolfe

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Join me on a cruise to Italy, Croatia, Turkey, and Greek Isles

October 12-27, 2020

For the past 11 years I’ve led groups of friends on annual, international trips. We’ve been to Paris, London, Europe, the Mediterranean, Baltic States, Russia, Israel, Peru, and North Africa. We’ve never had a malfunction or bad experience; just memorable, life-enhancing moments.

Please join me, October 2020, on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the cradle of Western civilization. We’ll visit Rome, the eternal city; Athens, the birthplace of democracy; Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympics, and also experience Croatia, Turkey, and the best of the Greek isles (there are 6,000 islands in Greece; we’ll visit two of the best). 

Mary and I have been to each of these destinations numerous times. We have always felt safe and energized by the incredible history and beauty. 

There are so many things to like about this trip:

  • We’ll visit four countries (Italy, Croatia, Greece, Turkey).
  • We’ll sail on one of the finest ships at sea – Holland America’s Nieuw Statendam (commissioned February, 2019).
  • October is the best time of year to travel; average temperature during the day will be 75 degrees.
  • It will be low season for travel in Europe, so crowds will be light.

It’s been said that one of the joys of traveling is not only where you go but who you go with and who you meet along the way. This tour will be limited to 40 ladies and gentlemen who travel well—friends of mine who enjoy exploring great places. 

Travel takes time and money, but it’s worth the investment. You’ll be stretched and challenged; you’ll learn more about the world in which you live and the life you live in the world. 

Please join me on this memorable trip to the Mediterranean.  

Here’s a brochure about the trip.Med-Cruise-2020-Brochure

Don McMinn

We all interpret reality differently

We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.  Anais Nin

UT Austin is playing Oklahoma at the annual Cotton Bowl game in Dallas. The stadium holds 92,100 rabid fans. With three minutes to play, the team that is ahead by two points fumbles the ball and the other team recovers. One half of the fans are elated: they’re jumping in the air, making loud sounds, and endorphins are taking over their brains. The other 46,050 people are deflated: they fall quiet; a mixture of anger, frustration, and hopelessness prevails.

How did this event elicit such diverse responses?

Here’s a more simple illustration of where I’m going with this post.

Several days ago I read two sentences that took my breath away. Literally, I had difficultly breathing for about 10 seconds. As I continued to read I choked up; several times I had to put the book down.

An hour later, at dinner, I told Mary and my daughter, Sarah, about the incident. They wanted to read what had impacted me so deeply so I handed Sarah the book and she read the phrases. Neither she nor Mary were in the least bit moved by the prose; it was as if they had just read the weather report. 

These two incidents (football game, passage from a book) remind me of the fact that each of us experiences the world from our own unique perspective. Our perspective is a blend of where we are emotionally (in general and in the moment), mentally, physically, historically, spiritually…in all the ways that make us human and unique. 

Nearly every stimuli in life is interpreted differently by each individual.

  • I once taught a lesson on the importance of having a good work ethic. One wife in the audience was hoping her husband would pay attention and take the message to heart—his work history was sporadic. Another wife was wishing they had stayed home that day—her husband was a workaholic and my words were giving fuel to his unbalanced life.   
  • An announcement is made at work that the boss has been fired. Every employee interprets it differently. Some are happy while others are angry; some are anxious (am I going to lose my job?), while others are relieved. 
  • A place—a city, hotel, church, park—can conjure up painful memories for one person while bringing joy to another. 

What are some lessons to learn from this obvious observation? I’m going to adjust my life in several areas:

  1. I need to be more aware of, and sensitive to, other people, because we are all interpreting reality based on our own perspectives. Other people’s response to the exact same stimulus will be different from mine, in subtle or significant ways, and I need to accept that and give margin to it. 
  2. When I am strongly affected by something that has happened, I should not inordinately project my thoughts and feelings on others. (The key word in that sentence is inordinately.) I should realize that my reactions are highly personal and may be inappropriate to share. 

By the way, here’s what I read in that book that took my breath away.

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

I’m bothered by drivers who are at the front of the line at a traffic light but don’t move when the light turns green—a lesson for leaders.

This is a commonly shared frustration. It’s been with us since the invention of the auto, but it’s gotten worse because of mobile access to social media. 

It frustrates me when people are unconscientious, unfocused, and unaware, particularly if they are positioned such that their lack of focus affects other people. For instance, if I’m beside you at a traffic light and you don’t move when the light turns green, no problem, I’ll drive on. But when you’re in the front of the line and don’t move when the light turns green, it adversely affects everyone behind you because we can’t move until you move. 

Let’s apply this “I can’t move until you move” dilemma to leaders of organizations. This problem occurs when a leader (the one out front) is passive or indecisive. Momentum stalls because the leader won’t take his foot off the brake. For a while, the organization may continue to survive—treading water based on previous initiatives and current operational systems—but there’s no forward movement so eventually the group will be stymied.  

Leaders, that’s why you must initiate. Move your foot from the brake to the accelerator. Your followers will not go around you and probably not even honk because they want to be compliant, loyal followers; so it’s up to you to begin. 

Equally damaging is for a leader to press the accelerator before he or she knows the right direction in which to go. This produces unfocused and wasted activity. The solution is for the leader to have clear and compelling vision, communicate well, and then get going. [Crafting vision is one of the 12 indispensable skills in the Lead Well curriculum.]

Remember, leaders: your followers won’t move until you move, so move.

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

A beaver ate one of my vines, then he ate four more

Two years ago I planted a vineyard in East Texas, about an hour’s drive from my house. Cultivating a vineyard is hard work (basic agriculture), but it’s cathartic. Next year I’ll harvest Blanc du Bois, Tempranillo, and Black Spanish grapes.

Grapevines are vulnerable to many things—insects, disease, mold, mildew, aphids, small animals, and birds—but I had not considered the havoc a beaver can wreak on a vineyard. Birds and small animals eat the grapes but ignore the plant. But in less than a minute, a beaver can chew through the trunk of the vine (about six inches from the ground) and everything above the chew-point dies. The plant lives (because the roots remain intact) but it’s back to ground zero relative to growth and grape production.

One weekend I went to the vineyard and noticed that one vine had been compromised by the local beaver. The first solution I considered involved lead, but then I’d be arrested by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. 

I came back two weeks later and Mr. Beaver had chewed through four more vines. Now he’s compromised five vines, about ten percent of the vineyard. That weekend I installed plastic grow-tubes on all the vines, which took care of the problem.

But what I’ve been thinking about is this: after I noticed the first beaver-eaten vine, why didn’t I realize he would inevitably eat more and why didn’t I take preventive measures that very day? Why did I wait two weeks before I took action? What character flaw in me caused the problem, how did it develop, what other areas of my life has it affected, and how can I change so that it doesn’t plague me the rest of my life?

So, this minor life-event has become a learning opportunity. 

It didn’t take me much thought to notice how this weakness has played out in other areas of my life. Several years ago my car was running rough but instead of taking it immediately to a mechanic, I put it off several months and, of course, the problem got worse. My house needs to be painted but I’ve put it off for so long that now some of the wood trim is rotting. 

The first thing I considered was, procrastination. But I don’t think that’s the prime issue because I’m basically a get-it-done person and pride myself on doing things sooner rather than later. I don’t think procrastination is the core problem.

I’ve thought about this for about two months, prior to writing this post. So far, here is my analysis.

The issue of not dealing with the car running rough and my house needing to be painted, I traced to a downside to being frugal. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I grew up in a very poor family and frugality was a necessary survival technique. Through the years it has served me well—I’m a good money-manager—but it also has its downsides—postponing needed repairs because I’m reluctant to spend the money. [Note to self: change that inclination.]

But that diagnosis doesn’t explain my slowness in protecting the vines from beavers. I already had the grow-tubes so money wasn’t an issue and it only took two hours to install them, so time wasn’t a factor.

I’m still searching for the core reason I allowed Mr. Beaver to get the best of me.

The purpose of this post is not to bore you with the details of my vineyard or the idiosyncrasies of my struggles. What I want to illuminate is this: becoming self-aware is a life-long quest. I’m 67 years old and I’m just now gaining clarity on this nuance of my life; I wish I had seen it sooner.

Know this: there are behaviors and patterns in your life that you are unaware of. Some of your idiosyncrasies are positive, others affect you negatively. The key is to identify them and give them their proper place. 

When you do something odd or unproductive in life or when someone else comments on an unattractive behavior in your life, take time to analyze the situation and try to resolve it. 

Constantly pursue self-awareness. 

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

Don’t talk excessively about your issues

We all have mental tapes that play over and over in our minds. If they are positive narratives, there’s no major downside other than they’re unnecessarily using up our brain-energy. (Here’s a post I wrote titled An untrained mind–don’t think the same thing twice.) If our mental tapes have a negative or painful storyline they will eventually adversely affect our mind, emotions, and behavior. 

In this post I want to focus on the downsides of verbalizing those redundant stories. It’s one thing to clutter our own minds with these anecdotes.  It’s another thing to clutter our conversations with them. 

Analyze your conversations and notice if you tend to tell the same thing over and again. If so, perhaps you should tidy up your speech; delete the old stories and identify some new ones. Here are some areas to explore.

Pain from the past

I have an acquaintance who continually tells the same story of her struggle to escape from an ultra-fundamentalist family of origin. The first time I heard the story, it was interesting (though it took too long to tell). The second time, not so much. I started overhearing her tell the story in other conversations. Even when she met someone for the first time she would find a way to work the story into the conversation. It seems to have defined her life, and with each telling, the story becomes more deeply engrained in her persona. For those who have heard the story before, the retelling is tedious.

Current challenges

One of the delights and benefits of close relationships is being able to share our joys and struggles with each other. I like the phrase “A sorrow shared with a friend is halved; a joy shared is doubled.” But sometimes we belabor our sharing. 

For instance, it’s not necessary to share the minute details of your medical issues; I certainly want to know what’s going on, but I don’t need to know the dosage of each medication. I truly enjoy hearing about your grandchildren (as I enjoy telling you about mine), but not too much. The trip you took years ago sounds fabulous; can we talk about something else?  

Truncate your stories

Reader’s Digest is an American general-interest family magazine, founded in 1922 and published ten times a year. Until 2009 it was the best-selling consumer magazine in America. It’s known for its concise writing style; all articles are short and to the point. We’ve even developed the phrase “give me the Readers’s Digest version” to indicate when we prefer a brief synopsis.  

In summary, let’s rethink which personal stories should be in our oft-recited repertoire, and when we do share them, let’s make the “Reader’s Digest version” our default setting.  Here’s a post I wrote on succinct communication.

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The 9-hour 4-hour flight – the value of constant communication

On a recent flight from Seattle to Dallas, the four-hour flight morphed into nine hours sitting on the plane. Thunderstorms in Dallas caused the problem. We circled the airport for hours, flew to Austin to refuel, and finally landed in DFW.

In all my years of flying (I’m a million-miler+ on American) I’ve never heard a pilot do so well at continually informing the passengers during a flight gone bad. About every 20 minutes he gave us a detailed update on what was happening and why. He was empathetic, calm, detailed, and courteous. 

I couldn’t help but compare this experience to another flight I was on years ago. We were stuck on the tarmac for three hours but never received an update from the pilot. Tempers flared, rightly so.

Leaders, keep your constituency informed. Not just during emergency situations but all the time. Maintain an informed organization. In her worth-the-read book titled Powerful, Patty McCord (former chief talent officer at Netflix) says:

    • If your people aren’t informed by you, there’s a good chance they’ll be misinformed by others. 
    • Ensure that communications flows both ways. 
    • The job of communication is never done. It’s not an annual or quarterly, or even monthly or weekly function. A steady stream of communication is the lifeblood of competitive advantage. 

In my organization, we send a weekly email to everyone involved. It briefly recounts what happened the previous week (with lots of praise for individual contributions), mentions upcoming events, and updates progress on projects. It’s a simple tool that helps maintain an informed organization.  

Good and thorough communication is so difficult that the chances of a leader over-communicating are slim—but try anyway.

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Avoid lopsided conversations 

I’m continually befuddled and frustrated by one-sided conversations. 

  • I recently sat next to a person on a three-hour flight. I asked him about his career and family and he responded in detail. He never asked about mine.
  • Mary and I had dinner with another couple. We initiated conversation about their world; they never asked about ours.

It seems to me that the focus of casual conversations should normally be evenly divided among participants. If there are four people present, each one should have about 25% of the focus. Granted, if I had dinner with a famous person whom I admire, I might want the conversation to revolve around her; but otherwise, conversations should be distributed.  

If you’re the victim of a lopsided conversation, take the initiative to direct the conversation. For instance, when in the midst of a one-sided-leaning conversation, sometimes I’ll pursue balance by answering the same questions I’ve asked. If I ask someone “tell me about your children,” I’ll then volunteer information about mine, even if it’s not requested. But it’s sad that I must do this.  

If you’re the perpetuator of lopsided conversations, think about what’s driving the inequality and address the fundamental problem; it’s probably one of the “self” words: self-centeredness, self-reverence, selfishness. The solution to this social and relational faux pas is found is Philippians 2: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” We should focus on others instead of ourselves.

We may be so self-absorbed that we truly aren’t interested in others, and that’s why we talk about ourselves exclusively. In which case we must discipline ourselves to behave right (ask about others) so that eventually our behavior will help us think right, that is, we’ll truly want to be interested in other people’s lives and want to prefer them. Every person has a story worth telling that we can benefit from hearing.

Let’s balance our conversations.

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