[Warning: If you are interested in a calm, comfortable life, this blog will be counterproductive for you.]

Monday, August 27, 2012

Teddy Roosevelt On The Glory Of Failing At Greatness

Define yourself by the great causes you charge at. Focus on your efforts--what you can control--and not primarily on the outcome--what you can't control.

"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."

Theodore Roosevelt
"Citizenship in a Republic," Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910

How are you trying to make the world a better place? What arena(s) are you in?

Whatever the external results, whatever else others think, let me honor you today for your striving. Keep going. Get up one more time. Because in the end, the only thing you can truly control--the ultimate measure of who you are--is the choices of your soul. And failing while aiming for great causes makes you a better person than succeeding at a self-protecting, safe life.

Friday, August 24, 2012

False Questions (Grammatically Correct & Relationally Wrong)

Uninvited advice comes across like judgment. When people are sharing problems with their loved ones, they may ask for advice. But many times they just want to share. And instead of just listening, we jump in with our advice. Instead, ask good questions. (See my earlier post on this for more on advice & questions.)

But not all questions are real questions. Beware of using false questions and thinking you're doing well in the conversation. I'm not talking about rules grammar--I'm talking about how they function in a conversation. Some questions meet the grammatical requirements, but behave like giving advice. The person asking the false question is clever enough to phrase their advice in the form of a question--but they're still giving advice.

 For the purposes of helping people think better, these questions don't count. They still feel like judgment.

False Question: Have you thought about talking to your boss?
Translation: You should talk to your boss.
Changed to open question (advice removed): What options have you considered?

False Question: What if you just chalked this one up to experience and started over?
Translation: You should just start over.
Changed to open question (advice removed): What can you learn from this situation?

Even when it is time to offer advice, using insightful, open questions to get them to create the solution themselves helps far better than you just telling them. (See my previous post for more on asking open questions.)  Let's say you do have the right solution in mind (which is not a guarantee). If they actually do what you say (also not guaranteed), they won't really own those choices. They'll always see them as the advice of someone else and not their own ideas. Further, they'll become more dependent on you to solve their problems, instead of learning to solve their own. Use (real) questions in place of advice and watch your influence and impact grow exponentially. (I've tried both methods for years--there's no comparison.)

Monday, August 20, 2012

You Can Change Your Brain Dramatically

We've been seriously misinformed. We thought that kids brains could learn very fast, but adult brains don't change very much. We thought that your personality shaped young, but didn't change when you were older. We thought that talent was something that emerged in a child and adults could only work with the fixed set of talents they were born with.

It is true that kids learn fast and personality develops very early and that kids display differing levels of talent. But it's not true that adults can experience the same brain changes--if they were willing to do the work.

It's possible to rewire your brain in dramatic ways.

Some neuroscience breakthroughs in the last decade have allowed us to see the brain in detailed action for the first time. And scientists have discovered the brain doing things we always thought were impossible.

A couple of awesome examples:

There are programs right now that use devices to help people were born blind to see--without fixing their eyes. They help them re-purpose sections of their skin as visual receptors by attaching a black & white camera to their head, then putting a plate with pins on the same spot of skin for a few weeks in a row. The pins act like pixels (i.e. pins press down for dark spots of the image, lightly touch for gray, stay up for white). As long as you use the same section of skin, the brain rewires that section to become a visual center. When they're fully integrated, if you throw a ball at them, they'll instantly flinch. They're literally seeing the world, just in black & white.

(This isn't a theory, this is happening today.)

Also, there was a group of senior citizens who were experiencing some decline in brain function. Age was blamed by most, but they wanted to test is brain exercise could help. So they split them into a test group and a control group. The test group got a bunch of brain activities (word puzzles, art, math problems, etc)--control group just hung out and did normal life. They were hoping for less brain decline--or maybe even to see some more activity in certain sections. Not only did they get both of those results, they also found that the size of their brain--the mass of cells--increased. They literally grew new brain cells.

Remember when you were told that if you get drunk or high you kill a brain cell you'll never get back? Yeah, they were wrong. Not about the drunk or high killing brain cells, just the growing cells back part. I'm not advocating abusing substances--it's still smarter to never have killed any cells--but society way underestimated what the brain is capable of.

I could go story after story, but the bottom line is this: our brains are the most flexible, adjustable brains in all of creation. It's our great gift and comes with a price. We're born lacking the innate ability of just about every other species on the planet, but we can learn just about anything we choose.

Adults brains--until the aging-to-death phase begins--have basically the same ability to learn and reshape themselves as kids. The forty year old man's brain has the same growth potential as a four year boy.

So why do we observe something so very different? Why are four year olds learning and changing so much and forty years old generally getting set in their ways?

Answer: They brain doesn't automatically grow and change. You have to put it in a certain environment, with particular kinds of activities. Leave us alone and we'll just do what we've always done. Even worse, our learning ability will atrophy--literally the same way a muscle in a cast withers when you don't use it.

[I'll do another post on those learning conditions later.]

But just like your muscle that atrophied, with proper use it can regain it's strength. No matter your age, your brain can reengage as a learning marvel and you can change anything about your life that's brain-related.

Seriously, from music to coordination to analytical details to your personality traits--if you want to do the hard work you can change your brain. There are validated reports of change in personality, IQ, learning disabilities, artistic ability, and coordination. It's still a small percentage of people so far, but it's increasing exponentially every year.

Be warned though. Most of the world is caught in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Adults can't change (they believe) so they don't try to change, resulting in no change, "proving" to themselves that they can't change.

The first step in making major breakthrough is believing it's possible and trying.

What would you change about your brain (either learn or unlearn) if you could? Are you ready to change it?

Friday, August 17, 2012

5 Nuggets of Wisdom from The Legendary John Wooden

I read a book on mentoring/influencing by the legendary coach, John Wooden (his ten NCAA national championships in a 12-year period while at UCLA are unmatched by any other college basketball coach). He was known for more than basketball skill, but living a truly exceptional life. In fact, he repeatedly said that his primary job was making great men of his players--that their great lifestyles were the key to their success.

Here are five of his many, many powerful quotes--statements he lived day after day and repeated over and over:

Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.

Don’t mistake activity with achievement.

Nothing will work unless you do.

The worst things you can do for the ones you love are the things they could and should do for themselves.

If you don't have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?

By the way, the book--which I highly recommend--is A Game Plan for Life: The Power of Mentoring http://www.amazon.com/Game-Plan-Life-Power-Mentoring/dp/1596917016/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1345201291&sr=8-1&keywords=john+wooden+mentor

Monday, August 13, 2012

How A Switchfoot Song Changed My Life (And Could Yours)

What would you like more of in your life? Take a moment and think of a few things right now.

What would you like less of in your life? Take another handful of seconds and think of a few of these.

What is one step could you take--this week--to live out one thing on your "more" list? Seriously--what's a specific action you could take? Don't allow yourself to be vague.

Also, what's one step could you take--this week--to address one of the items on your "less" list? Again--what is the specific action you could take? Thinking of a tangible action makes a huge difference, so think through your list until you can identify a real possibility.

Now think about your calendar for this week. When could you do one of those steps? If not this week, could you make it happen next week? When--exactly when--could you take at least one of those steps?

Almost everyone I've talked about this in person can answer those questions in a few minutes. We all know what we want more of and less of and with a little thought can figure out how to take a step in that direction.

But the bigger question is: Why aren't you doing it?

Why are you hesitating? You can quickly come up with a change or two you want in your life. So what's keeping you from taking these steps? In this next week, why not do more than think about your ideal life? Why not live it--or at least one step closer to it?

Switchfoot has a song about this that changed my life. "This Is Your Life" has these lines:

Today is all you've got now. Today is all you'll ever have.
Don't close your eyes. Don't close your eyes.
This is your life. Are you who you want to be?

When I first heard their song, I dreamed about being an author--someday. I dreamed about mentoring others--someday. I dreamed about being in shape again--someday. I dreamed about playing more strategy board games--someday. I dreamed about being more spiritually wise--someday.

And (I'll never forget, driving in my car) this song pierced right to my soul and made me realize that "someday" would never come. That if I wanted to write--or be fit or pursue God--I needed to do it today. I realized that who I was came out of today, not what I hoped I'd do someday.

Don't wait for "someday" to start living your exceptional life. Do something now to move a little closer. Because today is all you'll every have--a series of todays.

If you want to listen to the song, here it is. Warning: it could change your life, too.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Your Great Advice Ignored (How To Avoid This)

Unsolicited advice is received as judgment.

I know, you're just trying to help. And you probably have really good advice.

But if they haven't asked for your advice, then your attempt to share it--even when it's helpful--makes the other person feel judged. There may be moments in someone's life that requires a forceful intervention experience--where you don't wait for them to ask. But think about the times you've offered advice before they've asked. Are they thanking you? Are they even doing what you recommended?

Think about your own experiences. When someone surprises you with advice, how do you feel? Sure, if you've asked for it, it doesn't bother you at all. Or if you've set up a friendship that has a standing request for advice to be shared, then it's no big deal. But if you're not looking for it, your advice giving can make them feel as if they're supposed to live their life the way you want--that you have the answers and they don't. The likelihood of them following the advice is very low.

Advice rejected not only wastes time, but costs your relationship.

So are we just supposed to sit back and watch our friends make mistakes, saying nothing? Doesn't being a good friend mean pointing out errors? Does choosing silence mean condoning their actions?

I'm not saying no giving advice ever. I'm saying only offer advice where advice is wanted.

God doesn't overload us with all that we're doing wrong. How he approaches the problems in my life--and everyone I've ever asked about this--reveals His tremendous restraint. Though there are probably 10,000 areas I need to improve, He's usually only pressing on 1-3 at a time. And when I deal with those, we move on to the next. Year after year, as I grow, I discover more areas that I had no idea were problems.

If God, who has more than earned the right to speak in my life, does not point out everything I'm doing wrong when I do it, then I can learn the same restraint and speak only when invited to--by the other person or by the Holy Spirit.

There may be time when you do need to speak up anyway, though. The bigger the consequences, the greater the chance you should propose your advice without invitation. If their entire life (or someone else's life) is on the line, you should offer your input no matter what. But as you reduce the impact, you stop needed to offer the advice.

I don't have a hard rule on where the cutoff point is--when you sit back vs. speak up. It depends on the kind of relationship you have, the maturity of the person, the size of the consequences, what God may be telling you, and the emotional state that you and the other person is in. But when in doubt, be a little more restrained than aggressive. The respect you show through restraint will earn you the invitations to offer your advice much more than jumping at every chance to show that you know what they should do.

And then your advice will be received and actually make a difference.

Monday, August 6, 2012

How to Open Your Questions and Improve Your Relationships (The 3 Min Challenge)

Great relationships are built on great conversations (see my other post on this). Among the elements of a great conversation are great questions (I posted on that, too). So just ask more questions and you 'll have better relationships, right? Maybe. See, not all questions are equal.

Questions come in many forms. I can (and will eventually) do many, many posts on the art and science of asking great questions. At the most basic level, there are two types of questions: open and closed. Open questions cannot be logically answered with a “yes” or “no” response. Closed questions call for a “yes” or “no” response.

What was significant to you about this experience?
Who do you know that could help you with that?
How does that make you feel?

Have you run this decision by your spouse?
Changed to an open question: What does your spouse say about this decision?
Did you do that because you were afraid?
Changed to open version: What led you to make that decision?

Why does this technical question stuff matter? Think about the impact of the different forms of questions. Your brain instinctively tries to answer questions. You don't choose that first response; it's automatic. Open questions stimulate creativity. Closed questions stimulate critical analysis. Open questions stimulate conversation. Close questions stimulate ones-sided sharing.

There are still moments when a closed question is appropriate. It's good for targeted information gathering--like a survey or court case. ("Did you do this? Do you agree with that?") But if you're trying to build a great relationship, it's far less effective than open questions.

Think about it. Instead of asking your son, "Did you have a good day at school today?" (closed), you could ask "What did you do at school today?" While he may be in the habit of giving one word answers (helped along by years of being asked closed questions ), the open question has a far better chance of sparking a real conversation. And while questions alone don't create great relationships, they're one of the most biggest levers you can pull. Of all the skills to develop, you'll get the most bang for your buck, so to speak, from becoming a better question-asker. Improve your questions and you'll improve your relationships.

Start a conversation and for three minutes, only ask open questions or offer simple, encouraging responses (like, "Sure, I understand." or "Yeah, that's tough.") For three minutes, avoid any closed questions. In fact, don't even offer any advice--just ask open questions and encourage them. Seriously, you might be surprised at the experience. I've had hundred and hundreds of people try this and tell me how impactful it was. So give it a try and them come tell the rest of us what it was like for you and for the person you were talking with.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Conversation Volleyball--The 5 Parts Of Great Conversations

Great conversations are at the heart of great relationships (see my last post on that). Improve your conversations and improve your relationships.

And great conversations are a lot like playing friendly volleyball. I've been watching the 2012 Summer Olympics and I just saw indoor and beach volleyball. Those competitive teams are trying to stump the other team--spike the ball so it can't be returned--that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking more about a game of trying to keep the ball up in the air as long as possible. I'm talking about the ball going back and forth in a smooth creative volleys, maybe for hours.

With that metaphor in mind, here are the 5 elements of a great conversation:

  1. Ask
  2. Listen
  3. Encourage
  4. Ask Back
  1. Share
  1. Ask...

This first step is probably the most crucial--and probably the most overlooked. The single most powerful thing most people could do to improve their conversations is to ask more and better questions.

It's not about you. Stephen Covey said (in his amazing book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People), "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." You earn the right to share your thoughts by first asking for the thoughts of the other person.

Remember our friendly volleyball metaphor? If you want them to stay on the court with you (stay in the conversation) you have to hit the ball to them. If you're just going to hit it up and down yourself, they're probably not going to stay any longer to watch your solo show than they have to.

Want to talk about something--don't just share your thoughts. Begin by asking them about it. And then…

I don't just mean allow them to say words, while waiting for your chance to say what you want. I don't mean think about what you're going to say, or look for an opening. I mean really listen. Care about what they're saying.

Curiosity is the key to being able to really listen. You have to actually want to know. You have to care enough about the other person to really listen. That probably means you'll end up asking more questions as they start talking--you'll be curious to hear more about what they're saying. And then…

Don't just collect their information. Make the other person feel safe and appreciated. Let them know you still think well of them. Even in the most stable of relationships, like marriage or lifelong best friends, people still want regular reminders that they are valued and understood.

To refer to Covey again, the goal is not merely to understand, but to make them feel understood. You want them to share more? Then encourage them for what they have already shared.

You can disagree with them--this doesn't mean you have to be fake. That will ruin the relationship in the long term. You can disagree with their content while enjoying them as a person and encouraging their honesty. Then, it's their turn to…

There are many people who don't get this part of the conversation. Are you one of them?

If someone's asked you something, after answering you should ask them back. Every time. Maybe the question needs to be rephrased, if it was specifically about your life (i.e. they ask about your kids and they don't have any kids). But you can find a way to ask something similar back (i.e. ask them about their dating life or their weekend activities). Always ask something back.

It's like volleyball again--you've got to hit the ball back over if you want to keep the game going.

And when it's your turn, you need to…

This might sounds obvious to say, but I know more than one highly intelligent, highly trained conversationalist who does such a great job asking other people great questions--listening and encouraging all the while--and who rarely reveals much about themselves.

You could take the first part of this post to heart and become the best question-asker in the world. You could listen and encourage so that others feel so understood and valued. But if you don't share about your life you will stunt all your relationships.

It would be like blocking every attempt to pass the ball over the net, in our volleyball metaphor, keeping the ball on their side of the net every time. Keeping the ball (the focus of the conversation) on either side of the net makes for a poor conversation (and a weak relationship).

Besides, the most powerful thing you could to make someone feel safe opening up to you is to take the risk first and reveal your thoughts and feelings. You need to be brave (and secure) enough to truly share what's going on in your mind and heart and life if you want a great relationship.

And then, after sharing, you start the cycle again and ask them something else. Keep the ball going back and forth--with a few hits on each side and then sending to the other side for a few hits. Back and forth, mixing up the hits, but never keeping the ball on one side or the other.

Rate yourself 1-5 (with 5 as habitually awesome) on each area (Ask, Listen, Encourage, Ask Back, Share).
What's your best area?
What's your weakest area?
What one thing will you try differently in your next conversation?