Look at your lens

Contact_Lenses_Care_tipsWe must look at the lens through which we see the world, as well as at the world we see, because the lens itself shapes how we interpret the world. —Stephen Covey

For better and for worse, we all have what psychologists call “personal constructs” —frames of mind through which we see ourselves and others. I’ll adopt Covey’s metaphor and call those constructs “lenses.” Our lenses act as both frames and cages: they add focus and definition to our view of the world but they can also be inordinately rigid and restrictive.

Early in life, our lenses were crafted by our family of origin and our local environment. In essence, we inherited our first set of glasses.

For instance, I was born into an Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, conservative family who lived in the southwestern United States. I have a friend who was born in Mumbai into a Muslim family. Our lenses are different.

Our lenses influence major and minor areas of our lives:

  • Most of us worship the god of our fathers.
  • Most of us adopted the political ideology espoused by our family or local culture.
  • Items as trivial as the clothes we wear and our food preferences are influenced by our lenses.

Have you ever analyzed and critiqued the lenses through which you see the world? It is a healthy exercise. Doing so may,

  • Cause you to change
  • Solidify your perspective
  • Help you understand others
  • Encourage you to embrace diversity
  • Be an antidote for intellectual apathy

It is not for the faint of heart.

One of the best ways to expose our myopic view of life is to travel extensively. When we experience foreign cultures, we learn that our modus vivendi is just one of many and may not be the best.


What? – We all view the world through constructs, lenses. Often, they are limiting.
So what? – It is advantageous to study our own lenses and to consider how they influence our worldview.
Now what? – Identify and analyze your lenses. It may take years to do this. Also study the lenses of your closest friends.

Leaders – Internally: consider the lenses of individual team members; consider how your organization as a whole is affected by restrictive perspectives. Externally, consider the lenses of your clients, customers and other stakeholders.

Include these three phrases in your conversations

mfln5989_hiWe are reluctant to say them, but when spoken honestly and appropriately, three simple phrases can help maintain our personal integrity and sustain peace in relationships.

“I don’t know.”

Often, when we don’t know something, we make stuff up. When we don’t know the answer to a question, we attempt to answer it anyway. Instead, we should just say, “I don’t know.”

In his must-read-book, In The Kingdom of Ice, Hampton Sides writes that in the late 1800s no one knew what the North Pole was like because no one had ever been there. The most famous cartographer of the day was a German professor named August Petermann. He was, supposedly, the world’s foremost authority on world geography. The world wanted to know what the Arctic was like, so Petermann wrote, “It is a well-known fact that there exists to the north of the Siberian coast, and, at a comparatively short distance from it, a sea open at all seasons.” He firmly believed that when a team of explorers finally reached the North Pole, they would find a tropical environment, complete with palm trees and perhaps a new race of humans.

Huh? Why didn’t he just say, “I don’t know”?

When was the last time you said, “I don’t know.”? I admire people who use the phrase; I have little regard for people who should but don’t. There’s no shame in admitting that you simply don’t know.

“I made a mistake.”

When I hear someone say, “I made a mistake,” my admiration for that person escalates. My regard is diminished when there is stubborn refusal to admit the obvious. Politicians and leaders, in particular, are reluctant to admit mistakes, but it’s nearly impossible not to make mistakes when you’re leading aggressively and making a lot of decisions. To err is human.

Even when we do admit that a mistake was made, we have a hard time using the personal pronoun “I.” When Richard Nixon commented on Watergate, when Ronald Reagan talked about the Iran-Contra affair, and when Hillary Clinton spoke about Whitewater, they used the phrase, “Mistakes were made.” That doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head, does it?

Compare these responses to the most famous unsent message in history. General Eisenhower penned the following memo before the Normandy Invasion. Fortunately, it was never posted because the invasion was successful.

“Our landings…have failed..and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

When was the last time you said, “I made a mistake”?

“I was wrong; please forgive me.”

Only an infallible person can avoid saying this phrase, and you and I don’t qualify. Speaking this phrase doesn’t make you a bad person; it simply means that you messed up and want to make it right.

I once counseled a couple struggling in their marriage. In one of the sessions I asked the husband, “How long has it been since you’ve spoken these words to your wife: ‘I was wrong; please forgive me.’” Awkward silence ensued. At least he was honest when he replied, “Never.” They had been married 22 years.

I appealed to his logic: “What is the probability that in 22 years of marriage, you have never hurt or offended your wife?” Again, he was honest in saying, “The chances are slim.” Their homework assignment was rather obvious: identify ways in which you have hurt your spouse; admit it; and ask forgiveness.

When was the last time you said, “I was wrong; please forgive me.”?


What? – We are reluctant to speak these three phrases, but we should.
So what? – We gain credibility with our family and friends when we speak these phrases, when appropriate.
Now what? – When was the last time you spoke each of these phrases? In the coming weeks, find an appropriate time to speak each one.

Leaders – Leaders are often reluctant to use these phrases, thinking that doing so will diminish their standing among their followers. But just the opposite is true. Leaders actually lose credence when they should speak the phrases but do not, and gain respect when they do.

Be optimistic

optimismEach of us carries a word in our heart. For some of us the word is ‘yes.’ Yes, we believe we can succeed. Yes, we can learn. Yes, we can make a difference. Others carry a ‘no,’ with all the negative baggage that accompanies it. —Martin Seligman

Which of these two words describes you best? Are you inclined toward “yes” or “no”? What is your default setting? What is your first response to life’s stimuli? Asked another way, are you an optimist or a pessimist?

Before you answer that last question, know that Dr. Seligman’s research indicates that 3/4 of Americans have a proclivity toward pessimism, so three out of four readers of this essay are in the “no” camp. Are you? Most of us have a hard time being honest with ourselves, so you might want to take a random survey among your friends and family.

Why would anyone choose to be a pessimist? (It is a choice one makes.)

  • Long term, people won’t enjoy being around you.
  • Your view of life will be sullied.
  • Your mental and physical health will suffer.

Choose to be an optimist:

  • People will be attracted to you.
  • Life will be more enjoyable.
  • You’ll enjoy better mental and physical health; optimists get sick less often and live longer.

Some people accuse optimists of being naive; after all, bad things do happen. Yes, we need to be realistic about the past and the present, but let’s be hopeful and optimistic about the future, and let’s not dwell on the negative.

I appreciate the balanced approach espoused by psychiatrist Leonard Zunin, who has identified four basic orientations:

  1. Those who see only the negative
  2. Those who see only the positive
  3. Those who see both and focus on the negative
  4. Those who see both and focus on the positive

It seems to me that number 4 is the preferred position.

When I think of an optimistic leader, former President Ronald Reagan comes to mind.

Immediately following an assassination attempt on him, while being wheeled into the operating room, he said to the physicians, “I hope you boys are Republicans.”

In 1982, at the depths of a depression, Richard Wirthlin, Reagan’s pollster for six years, came into the Oval Office with his semimonthly report. He told Reagan the bad news, “Thirty-two percent approval rating—the worst ever for any sitting president in the second year in office.” Reagan reportedly smiled and said, “Dick, Dick…stop worrying. I’ll just go out and try to get shot again.”

The following poem describes a young optimist; when this lad enters the workforce, I’d hire him.

I passed a sand lot yesterday,
Some kids were playing ball
I strolled along the third base line
Within the fielder’s call.
“Say, what’s the score?” I asked.
He yelled to beat the stuffing,
“There’s no one out, the bases full,
They’re winning forty-two to nothing!”
“You’re getting beat, aren’t you my friend?”
And then in no time flat
He answered, “No, sir, not as yet!
Our side hasn’t been up to bat!”


What? – Some people are optimist, some are pessimist.
So what? – It’s better to be an optimist.
Now what? – Honestly and accurately assess yourself: Which orientation do you favor? Fortunately, being optimistic is a choice.

Leaders – Be a realistic optimist; realism and optimism are not mutually exclusive. The leader’s first job is to define reality; this requires being a realist—identifying and declaring both the good and the bad. But even if reality stinks (sales are down, your stock price has dropped, and three members of your management team just resigned to work for your competitor), a good leader will adopt an optimistic attitude toward solving the problems. Be a realist about the past and present; be an optimist about the future.

Reduce large goals to doable units of work

Reduce goalsThe Guinness Book of World Records tells the true story of a man who ate a bicycle, tires and all. But he didn’t eat it all at once. Over a period of 15 days, from March 17 to April 2, 1977, Michel Lotito of Grenoble, France, dismantled his bike, melted the parts into small, swallowable units, and consumed every piece.

I can’t imagine why anyone would want to eat a bicycle, but the anecdote does suggest that a seemingly impossible goal can be accomplished if it’s broken down into small, manageable parts.

Often, goals (particularly, large and complicated ones) are never realized because we don’t know how to break down a seemingly impossible task into small units of work. If your goal is simple—get the oil changed in your car—this skill is not needed. But if your goal is large—earn a graduate degree; start your own business—you’d better master this approach.

Study the the diagram shown above. On the left hand side is a big goal that identifies what you want to do. If you ask, “How am I going to accomplish this goal?” you’ll get a set of plans. Then ask, “How am I going to accomplish each plan?” and you’ll create objectives. These can be further reduced to a set of tasks.

Keep asking “how” until you arrive at a set of tasks that can be done in one hour or in one setting. Depending on the size of the goal, sometimes you’ll need to ask “how” six or seven times. For each task you must also ask, “When will this be done?”

When a part is segmented into smaller units, it’s important that the sum of the smaller units equal the part. For instance, in this diagram, a+b+c = the goal.

A huge goal may need to be broken down into hundreds if not thousands of smaller tasks, each one contributing to the whole.

For instance, in 1962, President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to “put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.” This enormous goal was inevitably reduced to thousands of small tasks. A small machine shop in East Texas completed one of those tasks. They fabricated a small gear that was part of the Apollo 11 spacecraft’s hydraulic pump. One day, someone approached a janitor who was sweeping up the shop floor and asked him why he did what he did. The man replied, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”

This approach will not only help us accomplish large goals, but it will add meaning and perspective to our small tasks. A seemingly insignificant and mundane activity—like sweeping the floor—will have new meaning because it is connected to a larger, more noble goal.

What? – Major goals can only be accomplished if they are broken down into smaller, more manageable parts.
So what? – Make sure you understand this process.
Now what? – Commit yourself to a major goal; it will probably take a lot of resources to accomplish it, so choose carefully. Then, using the above diagram, break down the goal into smaller, more manageable units of work, and then start accomplishing each task.

Leaders – When was the last time your organization completed a large goal? Do you and your team members know how to accomplish major projects?