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November 2010


Though it’s not yet Christmas, here in the United State many of us have been diving into a Thanksgiving repast, replete with family, indulgence and an extended kick start towards the Christmas season.

Here are some ideas, that I would have loved someone to have put into my Christmas stockings years ago, and I offer them to you in that spirit.

  1. Practice Resourceful Responsiveness

    There are things worth being “down” over. When you let others down knowingly, when you don’t do your best, when you’ve been lax or negligent. And you can be constructively depressed long enough to commit to a better alternative — and come through on it. Anything more, is just self-indulgent chagrin. It’s perpetuating the problem, as eventually you’ll want to withdraw from the discomfort — and often the lesson nestled in it.

    There are many things NOT worth being down over. Someone’s self-assumed right to tell you how to live, think, behave or be.

    There is that wonderful Buddhist story. Someone approaches the Buddha and tries to shake his fabled calm by hurling abuse at him.

    The Buddha’s smile becomes even more pronounced. Exasperated, the person asks, “What are you smiling about?”

    The Buddha asks, “If someone gives me a gift, and I do not accept it, to whom does it still belong?”

    Confused, his would be rattler says, “To you of course.”

    The Buddha gently then follows up by asking, “And so if you give me abuse, and I don’t accept it — to whom does it still belong?”

    Bravo! Easier said than done you say. People push our buttons you say. Well, where are these “buttons”? If external, get them surgically removed! If not, and they are “inside”, no one can push them without our consent.

    Pick your battles, pick your peeves, and learn to laugh at yourself. It’s the most powerful emotionally liberating competency you’ll ever develop!

  2. Interaction 101

    Somewhere in the mists of time, people forgot how to behave in “high touch” settings, even while building up their “high tech” aptitudes.

    People stab their meat using dinner cutlery like Stone Age implements, yawn with mouths gaping wide open as if seeking to trap rare butterflies via the effort, chomp instead of chewing (audibly and visibly), constantly twitch at every electronic “spasm” from their “Crackberry” (an addiction if ever there was one) and scan it anxiously as if the secrets of the universe were streaming through at that precise moment, have their eyes glaze over if your thought needs more than a bumper sticker slogan to express itself by, and often have opinions about everything and knowledge about very little.

    Couples during allegedly special evenings often gaze off into space past each other, in private worlds with no public drop ladder to offer anyone else who seeks to join them. Language has become diminished and debased (parochial euphemisms allow people to agree vociferously with each other as they trot out puerile prejudices) and socializing is at times characterized by increasingly loud and frantic banter with people chortling like hyenas in heat as if the wit of Oscar Wilde had been coupled with Charlie Chaplain’s slapstick (often in response to nothing more interesting than a burp!).

    It seems at times we’ve forgotten how to create real fun. This requires a judicious mix of “holding on” and “letting go”. Holding on to some manners, some behavioral give and take, civility, empathy for others, the ability to co-create an occasion (rather than abdicating OR dominating), and yet letting go our fixations as to how things have to be, and generating a joy in being together in a mode of bonhomie and/or celebration. We can indeed have riotous fun, but it wears on us when it’s almost reflexively hyped, and when more mellow enjoyment leaves us at loose ends and beside ourselves wondering how to cope.

    The need for some mores of situational behavior is every bit as applicable in business dealings too. Reply promptly. Follow up when you say you will. Speak passionately but listen openly. Put your attention where it belongs — with the person you’ve chosen to spend time with. Be a source of reliability and confidence in other people’s lives. If people enjoy time spent with you, as well as trust and value your expertise, you’ve found a powerful and rare combination.

Integrate Thinking, Feeling and Action

Imagine someone who thinks deeply and speaks incessantly about their thoughts. Someone emotionally stirred up and frequently “overflowing” with passionate responses. And yet, after all that, after the sound and fury, as well as the analytical swordplay, nothing happens. Well, almost nothing. If you see them again, they’ll again launch into their intellectual and emotional forays — and you can be just as sure that inertia will win the day. Such people gain reputations as spokespeople, but rarely as change agents. Politicians are potent examples here.

Now imagine someone who leaps into action on the basis of an intellectual analysis, but is emotionally unaware of the impact of their action and cannot enroll others by appeal to common human emotions. These people in their intellectual certitude and zeal, often leave untold carnage (feelings, relationships, disengaged people) in their wake. Many leaders who lead with pure analysis, alienating those who would follow them, showcase the dangers here.

Finally take the person who acts, but rashly, on whatever they currently feel, riding their emotional currents, with nary a thought as to the efficacy, effectiveness or efficiency of their action These are intemperate folks and they can damage whatever they are seeking to advance, as often the “cause” gets discredited by the hot-headed ardor and misguided actions that often produce the opposite of what someone is after. Social crusaders who never learn how to build real coalitions or to understand which actions will actually be needed to create progress, become bloviators and agitators rather than architects of meaningful change.

There are no recipes or formulas, but it is good to interrogate the intellectual possibilities of things we face, to also tap into our intuitions and be passionate about our values, and then to take decisive action knowing that taking action will teach us things we could never have imagined — learnings that again deserve our best thinking and calibration and our authentic emotional responses and personal flexibility.

The Self-Esteem Issue

We live in a culture that could be described as “self esteem at all costs”. We are told to “believe in ourselves”. But most people aren’t outright hypocrites and fools and so they know if they’re being told to put lipstick on a pig.

Let’s be clear here. Downward spiral thinking produces nothing but itself…a downward spiral. So caring about yourself, believing that you are more potential than actuality, that you are valuable and worth working on, is important. The success of parenting and growing up can, to some extent, be summed up by the this foundation being laid, by this emotional bedrock being present.

But people who value themselves can also challenge themselves, confront themselves, work on and with themselves (and others). They don’t have to “esteem” themselves at every moment. They can realize you win some, you lose some, you grow some, you blow some. But you keep moving, and as ever, it’s “progress” not “perfection” we’re after.

But such people can also have high standards, and they know the stench of horse-shit, even when they’re the ones producing it. They don’t make excuses, and they raise the bar. However, self-caring, self-value, means hanging in with yourself through the belly flops and cheering from the rafters when we clear the bar.

But a fear of feeling or looking “bad”, of not being able to take a dip in self-esteem, means we won’t try anything that could possibly rattle our esteem or make us feel bad. We won’t stretch in our abilities, our relationships, our aptitudes, our experiences, our emotional range. After all, anything new demands we first be willing to be “bad” at it before we can possibly become “good”. It’s the people most scared of falling and slipping who never learn to ski. It’s those terrified of being vulnerable, who can’t ever become intimate.

Hanging on for dear life to our precarious self-image, we will never learn, or trust enough to learn to float, much less to kick free enough to swim. If our aim is for a future larger than our past, this is something to unmask for the chloroform and false security it is.

So to hell with self-esteem for it’s own sake…it’s like the wake of a boat, it follows us as we progress. What we need in real-time is self-value, self-caring and supporting our growth and that of others.

Hang out with those that support you yes, but also those who are faster and better than you are, who make you “flex” your sense of normal. Otherwise even friendship becomes little more than a preservative for our ego.

And beware the “talent” mavens who tell you to only play on your “strengths”. More than a grain of truth there for sure, but also a few dessert spoons of narcissism. Certainly work on your primary abilities…but talents are not “natural strengths“. They are “natural potential“.

And potential is only realized through deliberate practice, and there are elements to any achievement, that may require competence outside your natural potential. Regardless, the open sesame is deliberate practice.

Mozart may have picked up by age 5 what most couldn’t have by age 20, but he still played the piano in very specific, targeted ways, devotedly, emphatically and passionately. Nor could he refuse to practice elements that weren’t as “natural”.

Had he dawdled on the piano as it suited him for a half hour in between rugby practice and reading the comic books of the day and chasing pals in tights, the Moonlight Sonata is unlikely to have been the result. He was manic in his focus. It’s almost the precondition of being a prodigy.

And less prodigious talents have scaled the peaks of excellence, whether in sport, or music, or business, or the arts, through investing themselves and giving themselves wholeheartedly to their craft. They didn’t always “feel good”. Often they were despondent, as they knew the ideal they were aiming for.

We can learn from that experience, though do better with the human equation. Our aim should be to value the person and enable the performance, rather than valuing the performance and burning out the human being behind it.

The One Thing That Will Most Allow Your Business to Succeed

And that is to de-commoditize yourself — somehow.

Even if you sell commodities, literally, like a Wal-Mart, you have to create say a special price equation, provide advancement opportunities for employees drawn from the community, position yourself as part of people’s lives in terms of their accessing what they need.

If you are an online bookseller, like Amazon, you create proprietary simplicity (1 click checkout), track preferences, give recommendations, come out with Kindle, provide reward points, and eventually parlay that trust to items beyond books.

If you’re an airline at one end of the spectrum, think Southwest, provide unmatchable price, convenience, reliability, with zany employees committed to the customer because the company is committed to them. If you’re an airline at the other end of the spectrum, think Singapore Airlines, make the experience in the air so special, so cosseting, so warm, that people actually look forward to flying — 5 choices of gourmet coffee and the only really decent caviar in the sky as examples, a choice of menus you can pre-order on First Class, and the panache and dazzling charm of the Singapore Airlines cabin crew team that make you almost want to adopt them.

If you run a hot dog stand, think Papaya King or Gray’s Papaya in New York, get premium frankfurters, get the endorsement of a credible celebrity or two who compares it favorably to a good steak, and then offer the “off-ramp” of Papaya juice and other fruit juices, and create a quirky but beloved phenomenon that people will line up for around the block at lunch-time on a drizzly day in one of the greatest food cities in the world. And this was true in the 1970’s when I was growing up in New York as it is today.

If you’re a tailor, like the anti Seville-row establishment Neopolitan master Rubinacci in London, or like Perry’s in Toronto, wield your charm, help people relax, have them look forward to catching up with you, ply them with one of the best espressos in town (Rubinacci) and help them feel like an extra on the set of Dolce Vita, or build up a relationship of excellence, warmth and trust (Perry’s) that is transferred from father to son seamlessly (pun intended). And then provide clothing that may seem expensive at the moment, but amortized over the years of wonderful wear, is an exceptional investment.

So you can differentiate your product (Apple, Pappy Van Winkle’s 15 year Bourbon — released in limited quantities and almost fetishistically sought by afficionados), your service (Singapore Airlines, Four Seasons Hotels), your mode of delivery (Amazon, Southwest), your relationship to the customer (the bespoke tailor, the neighborhood restaurant). In short, create a niche out of the overall experience of doing business with you. Then you “invent” and “own” a space, and there you have no competition.

Businesses have to switch from customer satisfaction to customer success. How can you help your customers to actually succeed more expansively, enduringly, sustainably relative to what you offer, in that created niche? Are you sure you are defining “success” from their vantage point? What about their emergent needs? How do you know? Once you’ve defined the arena, become both student and teacher in it.

Start with the answer. Commit to customer success, have your business become a prodigy in that regard and everything else will flow and follow.


So this grab bag of insights, this assortment of distinctions will make for happier holidays, a more satisfying and prosperous year ahead and offer you both food for thought as well as seeds for action. Just remember to meditate, integrate, and then activate!

Thomas Henry Huxley once said, “The true end of life is not knowledge but action.”

Thomas Edison said, “If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astonish ourselves.” No more would be needed…what more could be asked?

And Buckminster Fuller intoned, “I look for what needs to be done. After all that’s how the universe designs itself.”

Let’s have “designs” on living that philosophy!