Why can’t we control our speech?

I wrote this post while on a transatlantic cruise heading to the Iberian Peninsula. It took seven days to cross the pond. I love the seven days at sea because they offer hours to read, think, write…and to observe people (2,100 passengers and 999 crew members).

One night after dinner, the entertainment staff led a group of about 30 passengers gathered in one of the lounges in a game they called “Yes and No.” The rules were straightforward: individuals could volunteer to have a conversation with a staff member in which the volunteer could not say the words “yes” or “no”; nor could the volunteer shake his head up or down (indicating “yes” or “no” non-verbally). Any communication of “yes” or “no” disqualifed the volunteer. If the conversation continued for three minutes the volunteer would win a prize.  

A typical conversation sounded like this:

Crew member: Hi, what’s your name?

Volunteer: Matthew 

Crew member: Where are you from Matthew?

Matthew: Chicago.

Crew member: Chicago; great city; were you born there?

Matthew: No 

end of game…

I watched 11 people try. They all failed.

Reflecting on the experience, I immediately thought of that bold statement made by the apostle James: “No man can tame the tongue” (James 3:8). In the “Yes and No” game, the only restriction was to avoid saying two words—that was all—but no one could comply. 

A few hours after Mary and I observed the “Yes and No” game, I failed at a similar version of the game. Ephesians 4:29 says “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths” so the rule of that version of the game would be: see how long you can go without speaking an unwholesome word.

Mary and I had a tiff, during which I said some hurtful things…to the person I love the most. I was saddened by my words, I asked Mary’s forgiveness, and I vowed to do a better job filtering my speech.

Why is it so difficult to control our speech? My guess is, our speech is simply a verbalization of our thoughts and often we don’t filter our thoughts before they become sound waves. In James 1:19 we’re instructed to be “slow to speak,” but most of us are fast to speak. One way to slow down our speech is to simply understand that we need not say everything we think, so before we speak, we should take a millisecond to analyze what we’re about to say and when necessary, keep our mouth shut. In other words, before you turn your thoughts into words, run them through some filters:    

    • Are these words appropriate? 
    • Will they express grace and truth? 
    • Is this the right time and place to say these words? 
    • Will I regret saying these words? 
    • Are these words necessary? 
    • Will they be an improvement on silence?

It’s true—no man can tame the tongue—but that shouldn’t discourage us from trying. We’ll never gain total control but we can continually improve. 

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

Sometimes it’s best to start without the end in mind

In Stephen Covey’s insightful book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, one of the habits is to “start with the end in mind.” Before you begin a project, have a clear picture in your mind as to what the final product will look like. That’s good advice. 

But sometimes it’s best to adopt the opposite strategy: start a project even though you don’t know how it’s going to turn out, in which case you’ll “build the bridge as you walk on it.” 

The former strategy (start with the end in mind) is preferred because you can move fast, not waste resources and momentum through trial and error, easily communicate the project to team members, stay on budget, and enjoy a predictable process and conclusion. It’s a very efficient model. For example, if you’re going to build a house, have detailed drawings about every major and minor aspect before work commences, and the project can progress more smoothly. 

But sometimes you might have a young, unformed idea that you want to pursue (perhaps an entrepreneurial pursuit) and you don’t have a clue as to what the end might look like, in which case, you just need to start. For example, my daughter, Lauren, recently started a new business dealing with environmental sustainability. Her business plan was novel. When she launched the business all she could see were the first few steps (trademark the name, start an LLC, open a checking account, build a basic website, etc.). After that, she just “walked through the fog” each day (for the first few years) until a clear and viable business formed. 

Sometimes you do know exactly what you want to accomplish but don’t know how it’s going to happen, in which case, you also just need to start. For example, when I finished my undergraduate degree, I knew I wanted to earn a Ph.D. so I promptly registered for graduate school. I had no idea how I was going to pay for it, how I would negotiate school with the demands of a young family and work, what was involved in completing the degree, and whether or not I had the moxie to finish. The “end in mind” wasn’t ambiguous, but how to get there was. I naively launched into the unknown and five years later had the post nominal.

Perhaps I’m describing the difference between an explorer (someone who starts without the end in mind) and a pioneer (someone starts with the end in mind). An explorer has a general goal (ex. discover the new world) but is not sure how to get there; he has a compass but no map. A pioneer follows the path forged by the explorer (he has an end in mind), and may even improve the process. An explorer has a high tolerance for risk—failure is an option; for a pioneer, less so.

I’m not advocating that you identify exclusively with one approach or the other. In the course of life you’ll probably engage in both. I have found it helpful to recognize which role I’m adopting because the demands are different.

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

It’s amazing how much an organization can accomplish if no one cares who gets the credit for progress

Many organizations are hampered by unhealthy attitudes among team members, including: territorialism (defending one’s turf), the silo effect (lack of communication and involvement among different divisions), posturing and manipulation, lack of shared knowledge (reluctance to share best practices), and competition among team members (competition between an organization and other similar organizations is healthy, but competition within an organization is undesirable).

Most of these roadblocks can be eliminated by one major concept: when all employees work together toward a common goal, and no one cares who gets credit for progress, the workplace-environment becomes more healthy.

There are many reasons why this attitude is so beneficial.

 Most progress is made by teams, not individuals.

In their must-read book, The Knowledge Illusion, Sloman and Fernbach discuss the fact that most major accomplishments are the work of teams of people, not individuals. They give the example of the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012. It was a monumental event; it helped physicists understand the most fundamental theory of how the physical world works. In 2013 Peter Higgs and Francois Englert won the Nobel Prize in physics for their contributions to the effort. But the truth is, the Higgs boson would never have been discovered without the efforts of thousands of physicists, engineers, and students from almost forty countries. Nearly 3,000 key physics papers contributed to the discovery, and the people who funded, built, and ran the $6.4 billion CERN supercollider in which the observations were made obviously played an indispensable part.

In an organization, major progress is made by teams of people so credit should be widely distributed.

Employees should be primarily focused on the success of the organization, not personal advancement or aggrandizement.

As an employee, my overriding goal should be to contribute to the success of the organization. I am a servant to the organization; I should not intentionally use my position for personal gain. If the organization succeeds, I should be happy, even if my contribution is not acknowledged. 

When you contribute to the success of a project, you gain invaluable experience that makes you a better person.

Throughout our lives and careers, we should continually develop personal core competencies that will accumulate and shape us into highly competent and productive people. These skills are best developed in real-life “boots on the ground” experiences, often provided by the organizations you serve. These training opportunities are invaluable. So even when your effort is not acknowledged, you’re gaining indispensable assets that make you a better person.

When you contribute to the success of a project, you will feel satisfied and contented with your good work. 

When you work hard and produce results, you can enjoy a sense of accomplishment and contentment. You’ll also enjoy quite peace and satisfaction that comes from doing a good job. The apostle Paul taught, “Do your work as unto the Lord.”

More will be accomplished if everyone has this attitude.

If I am inordinately focused on whether or not I will be properly acknowledged for my work, I may slow down my pace of work, withhold helpful input, or even quit working on a project. If this attitude is widespread among team members it will inhibit progress, but if it’s not a factor, the team can reach its full potential.

This attitude is an expression of a powerful truth: prefer others.

The apostle Paul taught, “Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead” (Philippians 2:4, The Message). This verse espouses one of the deepest principles of Christ-like living: we are to prefer others and help them get ahead. We should rejoice in another person’s success, even if it means the diminution of our own.  

In most cases, individuals who contribute to the success of an organization will eventually be recognized. 

In the long run, if you continually contribute to the well-being of your organization, you will probably be recognized. Not always, but usually. 

[Note to leaders. In this essay, I’m not suggesting that you ignore the accomplishments of individuals. You should acknowledge and reward individuals who excel. This essay is a message to team members who do not receive the accolades they deserve. Consider: Are there unsung heroes in your organization that you have failed to recognize?]

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

Which is more reliable, intuition or deliberation?

In his celebrated book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman distinguishes between two types of thinking; he calls them System 1 and System 2 thinking. System 1 thinking engages our intuition. System 2 thinking requires deliberation and reflection.

Our intuition gives a fast response to stimuli; deliberation and reflection take more time and effort. Intuition can save us time and effort—when ordering from the menu at a seafood restaurant, we may intuit that the restaurant’s seafood is better than its red meat—and is particularly helpful when a quick decision is needed and the stakes are not high (pun intended). At other times, deliberation is best.  

For instance, answer these two riddles:

  1. A bat and a ball costs $1.10. The bat costs one dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
  2. In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?

If we rely on our intuition, our answer to the first riddle will probably be: The ball cost 10 cents. And our answer to the second riddle will be: It will take 24 days for the patch to cover half of the lake. Both answers are wrong. Before responding with the seemingly apparent answers, a slower, more methodical approach would more likely yield the correct answers-5 cents and 47 days. 

Both systems are useful, so we need to discern when to use each one. If we analyzed every issue and decision we face in life (System 2 thinking), our lives would grind to a halt. But if we solely rely on System 1 thinking, we’ll often be misled. 

Consider the following scenarios. Which ones would benefit from each type of thinking?

  • You’re hiring a new team member. 
  • You’re considering a new job.
  • You’re choosing a paint color for your bathroom.
  • Your ordering dinner at a restaurant.

Sometimes, we may realize that an issue is very important (for instance, choosing a spouse) so we do slow down the decision-making process, but we still don’t engage in System 2 thinking—we just continue to marinate in our intuition, which tends to strengthen our confidence in it. Instead, we should intentionally seek a more deliberate understanding of the issue. 

One of the best ways to safeguard against being misled by our intuition is to have robust dialogue with other people regarding important issues, because intuition is an individualistic response and groups are uniquely qualified to engage in deliberate thinking (unless the group suffers from groupthink). 

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

Be kind, be honest, work hard

Five years ago my life changed with the birth of my first grand-baby—Benjamin. I now embrace the unassailable truth that grandchildren are God’s reward for not having killed your own. This picture was taken at my vineyard; Benjamin and I had just enjoyed a day together, playing and working and we were musing over the result.

 

Here’s a picture of a necklace that I had when I was a child. I wore it periodically during the first 18 years of my life. I can’t remember where it came from or if it had any special meaning. The necklace is made from three colored pieces of acrylic—green, orange, and white—cut in the shape of a scalene triangle. 

I have shown it to Benjamin and told him it will become his when he turns ten. Until then, I let him wear it occasionally and I’m going to use the necklace to teach him three important life lessons.

I have assigned each color a meaning: green represents be kind, orange means be honest, and white is a reminder to work hard. In the next five years he and I will talk a lot about these three virtues; hopefully they will become a permanent part of his life.

Be kind

Benjamin, be kind to everyone, all of the time. Don’t pick and choose who you will be kind to, or when. Be kind to everyone, especially those who may feel marginalized or out of place. And be kind all of the time, because it’s the right thing to do and everyone needs a kind word or deed. 

Being kind can take on many forms, most of them pleasant, but sometimes being kind means telling someone the truth, even though the truth may temporarily cause pain, or saying “no” to someone who wants to hear a “yes.”  

Be honest

B, always tell the truth. Always. It’s the right thing to do and honesty is a gift that we can give to others. Once people realize that you are always honest, they will have confidence in you. Honesty also involves being authentic; be who you are, not what other people want you to be. 

Work hard

Benjamin, this suggestion may seem odd and out of place, but it’s important to me and I hope it will be to you. Growing up, my father never worked and that created hardship and embarrassment for our family. So a good work ethic has always been a priority to me. Work hard and work smart. Some people work primarily with their hands, others work with their minds. Both are necessary and legitimate. I hope you’ll learn some type of manual labor because it will teach you good lessons. If you’re a knowledge worker, stay fresh; be a lifelong learner. Balance hard work with times of relaxation and reflection. 

There are many benefits derived from work: it provides a social network, helps organize your life, gives you purpose, keeps your talents and skills sharp and in use, and it will help sustain your confidence. 

Someday, give this necklace to your child or grandchild and compose your own meanings for the three colors.  

Question: What three virtues do you want to pass on to the next generation? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Your memories shape who you are

Plus - the best magazine article I read this week

In his extraordinary book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman teaches that we have two mental operating systems; there are two expressions of self: the experiencing self and the remembering self. 

He describes the experiencing self as an example of the fast, intuitive, unconscious mode of thinking that operates in the present moment, focusing on the quality of our experience in the present. The remembering self is the slow, rational, conscious mode of thinking that tells the story of our experience and how we think about our experience. The experiencing self is the “you” in the moment who lives through the event. The remembering self is the “you” who writes the history. Our short- and long-term sense of well-being is influenced by both.

Our experiencing self is shaped by what’s happening to us in the present (with a little influence from the most recent past and a projection into the near future). As I write this essay, I’m relaxed, sitting in a quiet library early in the morning, having slept well last night. I’m drinking a cup of coffee. In several hours I’ll visit Malaga, a delightful Spanish town on the Mediterranean. All bills are paid, family members are okay, May and I are fine. My experiencing self is happy. 

Our remembering self is composed of memories of the past that we have chosen to remember and have allowed them to shape and influence our lives. I’m 66 years old so I have tens of thousands of memories to select from. Which ones will I choose to focus on? Which ones will find purchase in my life and which ones will fade away? 

For instance, my family of origin had some problems. If I allowed myself to linger on those memories, they would negatively impact my present life. But also during those growing-up years, my church had a wonderful and consistent influence on me—it was everything a loving community should be and it provided wonderful opportunities. At church I felt affirmed, encouraged, accepted, welcomed, and loved. When I reflect on my first 17 years of life, I choose to reminisce on the positive experiences. 

Please listen to this TED Talk by Kahneman. 

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

This article, by Arthur Brooks, is a good read, particularly for those who are 50+ years old. Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think – Here’s how to make the most of it. [The Atlantic, July 2019]

Followers: leaders “see” things other people don’t see, so sometimes you must simply trust your leader and follow

Also...I highly recommend Malcolm Gladwell's podcast (see below)

A leader is one who sees more than others see, who sees farther than others see, and who sees before others do. —LeRoy Eims

When Disney World first opened, Mrs. Walt Disney was asked to speak at the grand opening because her husband, Walt, had recently died. She was introduced by a man who said, “Mrs. Disney, I just wish Walt could have seen this.” She stood up and said, “He did,” and sat down.

Leaders “see” the future. Just as Walt Disney “saw” Disney World in his mind, long before it was actually built, leaders have a picture in their minds about what their organization can look like in the future, and, as Warren Bennis says, they are willing to “disturb the present in the service of a better future.”

In this post I want to focus on how this affects followers.

Recently, my daughter, Lauren, started a recycling company called Turn. The catchphrase is farm to table to farm. Part of the business is recycling food scraps and turning them into compost. Families are given a 5-gallon bucket to put their scraps in and Turn picks up the buckets weekly. Then they must be cleaned, which is a yucky job. 

One day, while I was helping clean buckets, I had a vision for a large rack-system that would make cleaning the buckets more efficient. I bought the materials at Home Depot, recruited a helper, and started building. I had a clear picture in my mind of what the structure would look like so I didn’t take the time to draw a diagram. I had difficulty explaining to my helper what it would look like and how it would work. My helper was constantly pushing back on my directives because he couldn’t “see” what I saw. I finally said, “Just do what I ask you to do; I see something you don’t see.” When we finished the project my helper said, “Okay, now I see what you saw.”

It’s a simple, mundane example, but hopefully it illustrates my point: leaders often see things that other people don’t see. So followers often need to just follow.

Let me add balance to this thought. I am not suggesting 

  • that followers adopt mindless obedience to everything a leader dictates. It’s fine for followers to question the leader’s directions and at times, to push back. 
  • that a leader should intentionally keep followers uninformed. Indeed, part of a leader’s job is to thoroughly communicate vision to her constituency.
  • that a leader should craft vision unilaterally. It’s always best to craft vision collaboratively; all of us are smarter than one of us.

I’m simply saying…sometimes a leader sees things that others don’t see. 

Bill Gates saw a computer on every desk; Sam Walton saw a chain of discount retail stores; Steve Jobs saw a handheld device that would function as a phone and a link to the world; President Kennedy visualized an American going to the moon and returning; President Eisenhower saw an interstate highway system, much like the German autobahn that he saw during the war; the apostle Paul saw the church, a spiritual community of believers.  

All these leaders saw something that others did not. We’re glad they did.

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

Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers) offers a free podcast that is outstanding. Revisionist History is Gladwell’s journey through the overlooked and the misunderstood. Every episode re-examines something from the past—an event, a person, an idea, even a song—and asks whether we got it right the first time. Because sometimes the past deserves a second chance. One of my favorites (and a good example of what his podcasts are like) is season one, episode 8, titled Blame Game.

Join me on an unforgettable journey to the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu, and the Amazon Rainforest

Peru - May 6-15, 2020

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

I invite you to join me on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to one of the great historical and geographical countries in the Southern Hemisphere—Peru. We’ll start our trip in Lima, then travel to Cusco—the gateway to the Sacred Valley and home to the Inca civilization. We’ll visit Machu Picchu, one of the wonders of the ancient world. Then we’ll travel to the Amazon Rainforest and spend three days at the Inkaterra Reserva Amazonica lodge in the diverse Puerto Maldonado area. (In 2013, it was selected by National Geographic Traveler magazine was one of the world’s 25 best eco-lodges.) We’ll travel on airplanes, trains, buses, vans, boats, and shoes.

Mary and I took this trip in July, 2018. It was one of our favorite trips of all time (we’ve been to 47 countries). We always felt safe, the accommodations are elegant and authentic, the food is world-renowned, the geography is diverse (metropolitan Lima, the Andes mountains, Amazon Rainforest), and Peruvians are friendly—the trip was incredible.   

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 group will be limited to 50 interesting 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, and you’ll learn more about the world in which you live and the life you live in the world. 

I hope you’ll join me on this memorable trip to Peru. 

Here’s a brochure about the trip. PeruBrochure2

Don McMinn

Question: Questions about the trip? You can leave a comment by clicking here.