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

Thursday, August 28, 2014

So Good They Can't Ignore You (Book Review)

I’ve been posting reviews of the books I read on Goodreads.com. I’ve decide to start posting some of these on my blog. 

I just finished a thought provoking book: So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport. I give it 4 stars. Here’s why...

The title comes from a Steve Martin (comedian) on how to succeed in show business. “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” Every waiter in Hollywood is working on a script. The few who get to do awesome work got their through exceptional skill development, not merely because they had the courage to follow their dream.

He begins by saying that society has it all wrong. The pervasive advice to follow your passion and you’ll be happy and successful doesn’t work. Courage, he says, is not what’s keeping your from living your dream. The courage to leave it all behind for your dream could ruin you. He cites stories of people who left regular careers to pursue grand but vague dreams and end up, in one case, living on food stamps.

I think he creates unnecessary conflict with his opening (more on that later), but when he dives into what he would recommend the book gets really good. He shares ideas like: 

1) Rare and special careers require you to acquire rare and special skills. Having a grand vision to live an awesome life doesn’t count as a rare and special skill. What are you doing that’s valuable to other people?

2) The difference between mundane and meaningful work might simply be the amount of control you have. This can be earned through proving your skillfulness, but also depends on the culture of the place you’re working. The same job in a big, established company has much less control that it does in a start-up. Also, he extols the contractor role for it’s control of schedule. (He notes you need special skills to be able to make a living as a contractor—see first point.)

3) Finding a mission for your work can make your work more meaningful to you and the world. He says that rather than leave your work to find a mission, find a way to use your current expertise to make the world a better place. 

In the end, I think he sets up a false dichotomy between pursuing your passion and develop valuable skills. Some identify their passion through trial and error, as he suggests. But I think you can also first identify your passion and use that to target the skills you need to learn. In fact, that's how I have lived. But after getting past that lopsided opening, I think this is a great book for those trying to so something meaningful with their life.

Whatever your life sequence, dreams then skills or vice versa, he’s right about this: No one is going to hand you a great life. You’re going to have to do the hard work and earn it. You’re going to have to be so good they can’t ignore you.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Danger of Running After A Goal (AKA How I Hurt My Ankle)

I was out of town (in Chicago for the Leadership Summit, actually) and decided to go for a run in the morning. Leadership conferences inspire me to do all sorts of crazy, idealistic things like change the world and run in the morning. They’re dangerous like that.

So I put on my running shoes and run into a field next to the hotel. Leaders love running off into the unknown, right? The first ten minutes were glorious. It was a cool morning and I was being so very responsible, running like that. Then I planted my left foot in a deep hole. My foot twisted back toward me while the rest of my body kept going forward. 

In my defense, it looked like solid ground when I put my foot down. Grass had grown up in the hole and then someone had cut the grass level with the rest of the field.

It immediately hurt. I stopped and carefully tested my ankle. My first thought was that I couldn’t afford to be seriously hurt. I had been looking forward to the Leadership Summit for months and months. Besides, I had been running away from my hotel for about ten minutes. I still had to run back.

It hurt, but I wasn’t crying. So I decided that it must not be a real injury. I would just run it off. Confident I’d solved the problem, I ran back to the hotel, got ready, and went to the conference.

But by the end of the first session, not only was standing painful, my ankle hurt while sitting still. It wasn’t excruciating, but it wasn’t going away either. Like any other tough man, I texted my wife to tell her about my injury. She replied with the sympathy and compliments for going running that I had hoped for. And then she added a challenge to have it taken care of. Get it wrapped, get ice, take some ibuprofen—she had lots of ideas.

My first response was to say it wasn’t that bad and I didn’t need to do all that. I was thinking about how all this work might cause me to miss some of the conference. I didn’t have time to be injured.

Then my wife, being a wise woman, said: The longer you wait the worse it will get.

Let’s be honest. I had injured my ankle and no amount of wishing was going to make it go away. The only choice left to me was how bad it would get before I did something. If I kept pushing it off, kept trying to pretend it would get better on its own, I risked serious problems. Or I could face the unpleasant truth and start recovering faster.

And this is true for all of us as leaders. We get inspired with a grand vision and run off into smooth-looking fields. Then we step into hidden holes. We get hurt, or more often, we hurt others. But we don’t have time for people to be hurt. We’ve got grand visions to make happen. And we face the same decision I did. Pretend it isn’t a big deal, that it will take care of itself. Or spend precious time to take care of it.

Remember my wife’s wisdom: The longer you wait the worse it will get.

Be honest with yourself. You are going to have to spend time on it at some point. You don’t get to change the fact that you stepped in a hole. But you do get to decide how long to let it fester. And the longer you wait, the worse it will get. And the worse it gets, the more time you’ll have to spend fixing it.

Wise leaders don’t let problems fester. Wise leaders take quick action once they realize any damage has been done.

At the next break I approached the emergency medical team and they wrapped my ankle, gave me ice packs, and I took some ibuprofen I had in my briefcase. Three days later I managed to exercise with no pain at all.

What have you been trying to avoid dealing with? If you were to deal with it, would would be the first step you could take? What are you waiting for?

Remember, the longer you wait the worse it will get.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Personal Leadership: Striving for Excellence (Guest Post)

This is a guest post from Josh Cole, the Founder/President of I.S.I. Leadership Consulting, LLC and is the author of The Heart of a Shepherd.  Josh is a friend of mine and a great leader. Enjoy!

Excellence is a term that often describes the best of the best; it is a term that describes those who are more than average and those who accomplish great things. Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit”; and Vince Lombardi said, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence”.  Both men tell us that excellence is an ongoing pursuit; something that we are constantly striving for.  It is not a “one and done” deal. 

While these quotes are inspirational, encouraging, and motivational, it can be a challenge to figure out how to apply them.  That said, I would like to share with you some characteristics that you can demonstrate that will help you in your pursuit for excellence, along with some verses that talk about them. 

1.     Be distinguished (Daniel 6:3)-Daniel set himself apart from the people that surrounded him.  The result of that was, “the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom.”  That thing to note, however, is that Daniel did not distinguish himself in order to gain favor with the king; Daniel did it because that is who he was.  The same needs to be true for us so that in everything we do we would strive to distinguish ourselves with our exceptional qualities. 
2.     Have knowledge and discernment (Philippians 1:9-10)- Our knowledge will allow us to discern between what is true and what is not, and to “approve the things that are excellent”.  Whether we are washing dishes, mopping floors, assisting customers, counting inventory, making product, or leading an organization, we need to know everything there is to know.  We all need to view ourselves as students, understanding that there is always something to learn.  The minute we stop believing we have more to learn is when we eliminate any possibility of growth. 
3.     Give it your all (Colossians 3:23)- Our efforts do not go unnoticed.  Likewise, our lack of effort does not go unnoticed either.  I get it, we all have bad days and our motivation seems to be completely absent.  It is difficult to find purpose sometimes; we think that our tasks are unimportant.  God honors everything that we do as long as we are doing it for Him.  So, “whatever you do work at it with all your heart...”
4.     Be a model of good works (Titus 2:7)- Whether we realize it or not, someone is looking up to us.  Our influence reaches further than we think, and we are called to be good stewards of that influence.  Our attitude, performance, and words have a big impact on the people around us.  Unfortunately, we often choose not to think about that, and we become a model of mediocrity or even worse. 
5.     Be committed (Proverbs 16:3)- We make a lot of commitments: employee-employer relationships, lunch plans, marriages, and the list goes on.  Let me ask you, what percentage of your commitments last?  The Lord takes His commitments very seriously and so should we; and whatever commitments we make, we should commit those to Him.  If I make a commitment based on my own ability, it is likely to fail.  But if I make a commitment to the Lord, He will establish my plans.  I like that option better. 
6.     Be confident (2 Corinthians 3:5, Isaiah 41:10)- Confidence covered in humility.  That is a tough balance to maintain.  Normally, we slide from one side of the spectrum to the other.  First, we must understand that without the Lord, we are nothing.  Once we acknowledge that, we must remember that He made us for a purpose and equipped us with the skills, talents, and strengths to accomplish great things. 
7.     Build up others (Romans 15:1-3)- We were not given our abilities for our own selfish purposes; rather, we are called to use them for the good and encouragement of others.  Often we think of ways to use our abilities for the betterment of ourselves, and not for the betterment of others.  We need to change that mindset. 
8.     Time management (Colossians 4:5, Psalm 90:12)- Most of us, if we were honest, would like to be better at managing our time.  Often it is the contrary that happens, our time manages us.  We need to “make the most of every opportunity”, yet, are incapable of doing so if we are living under the burden and stress of poor time management.  The psalmist says that when we learn to number our days, we can then gain a heart of wisdom.  The problem is we view our time as a limitless resource, which causes us to devalue it.  Tasks and to-do lists pile up and we begin to run around but accomplish nothing.  Value each minute and learn how to say no. 

These are not all the things that we must consider as we strive to be excellent, but can be a great foundation to build upon.  Before you can ever expect to lead others, you first must lead yourself and that personal leadership starts here, with the pursuit of excellence.  So today I encourage you to do everything you do with excellence. 

For more of Joshua Cole check out I.S.I. Leadership Consulting, LLC and his book, The Heart of a Shepherd.   

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Insights From A Nazi Concentration Camp - Man's Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Last year I read Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl. It’s short, but truly profound.

Viktor Frankl was a neurologist and psychiatrist in Germany in the 1930’s. He was also a Jew, so at 37 he was taken to a concentration camp. His sister escaped capture, fled the country and lived. But every other member of his family, his parents and siblings, even his wife, died in those camps. He fought to survive for years, narrowly escaping death several times. Those stories alone make this a gripping book. Mixed in between the stories, he shares what those experiences taught him about humanity.

You might want to put on a snorkel—this is deep stuff.

Our environment puts real pressure on us to act a certain way. But ultimately, nothing can force us to choose our attitude or approach to life.

Scraps of food while on harsh work assignments made staying alive a competition between the captives. Generosity could get a prisoner killed. But some chose to be generous. In conditions that pushed men to act like animals, that even one could choose nobility and service proved environment doesn't rule us. He humbly admitted that he wasn’t always one of those who gave generously. But saw many other men live that way every day. 

No group of people is all evil or all good.

There were Jewish prisoners who became junior wardens--many of these were more brutal than the worst German guards. And there were a few of the guards who snuck extra food to prisoners and helped save their lives. 

The key to surviving is living with purpose.

He said that the difference between those who endured and lived and those who gave up and died came down to one thing: whether or not they felt there was any meaning or value in their future. Did they have some to live for after camp life? Those whose purpose was short-term died once it passed. The most common example: I will hold on until Christmas, when we’ll be rescued. The survivors had something bigger to sustain them, like returning to family or serving God.

Suffering can be noble and purposeful. 

The American value to "always be happy" can make those who suffer from things like disease or tragic accidents feel ashamed to feel bad. (Frankl settled in America after the war and had concerns about this aspect of American cultural.) But there can be great meaning in suffering nobly. We don't enjoy the suffering--by definition that's not possible. But rising above your pain to choose generosity and wisdom while suffering can be a life to be proud of.

It's about having purpose and meaning to your life, not merely pleasure.

What purpose are you chasing? What matters so much to you that you would endure suffering to achieve it?

I’ll finish with some quotes to give you a taste of how rich the rest of the book is:

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” 

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” 

“But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.” 

“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” 

“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” 

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”   

Friday, August 8, 2014

Trim Good Things From Your Life - A Lesson From Bern's Steakhouse

We’re all equally busy. We’re all alive the same 24 hours doing something. But some people get more done at the end of the day than others. This truth was driven home for me at what might be the best steak restaurant in the United States of America: Bern’s Steakhouse in Tampa, Florida.

I know. That’s a bold statement. And I’ve actually eaten at several amazing steakhouses around the country. (Visiting great restaurants is one of my favorite perks of working for a restaurant company.) But Bern’s is truly special. One example: Every dining party at Bern's is offered a tour of their kitchens and wine cellar. When my group took the tour we saw their meat storage and I learned an astounding fact.

For every 4 pounds of meat purchased they sell 1 pound.

Keep in mind, they buy only the very best meat—the top 1%. (Start saving your money now, Bern’s isn’t cheap.) Some weight is lost to evaporation during their dry aging process. But most of the reduction happens when the chefs trim the meat. (They repurpose every bit they trim, from making gravy to going back to fertilize their organic farm.) They’re so passionate about great steak that they cut off meat other steakhouses would consider good.

Greatness requires trimming good things in order to spend more time on the best.

What good things are getting in the way of you doing more great things? Jim Collins (brilliant business/leadership author) says, “Good is the enemy of great.”

All of 2013, I missed writing this blog. A few months ago, after much thought and prayer, I made a hard choice. I decided to: 1) go to bed earlier so I could get up earlier; and 2) to stop playing strategy games on my computer and smart phone. Some of you know how much I love being a night owl and playing strategy games. It wasn’t for a moral reason—I still like the strategy games on my phone. But I was willing to trim games and even living like a night owl (good things) to make room in my life for writing (great thing).

What good things could you prune from your life? What great thing do you value so much you’d be willing to pay that price?

And if you need some inspiration (and have money to spend), maybe you and I should travel to Tampa and discuss what you should trim over dinner at Bern’s. :)