Tug On The Idea

631. Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

Sean drew a picture of a tug-of-war. The rope was taut. He said, “Any good process has two sides pulling on the idea. To stay out of the extremes and off the margins we need the tension from the other team. We need the other side to pull as hard as we do; that’s what makes it all work. That’s what keeps us playing in the center. ” And then he paused and thought about it, adding, “In a way, it’s this kind of tension that makes collaboration happen. Collaboration isn’t about absolute agreement – that’s not generative at all; collaboration is how we do conflict. Collaboration is healthy conflict.”

I laughed at the phrase and I think it is accurate. If we can pull on the idea rope without negating each other, if it’s not personal, then it is healthy. It’s all about focusing on the idea, pulling on the idea instead of diminishing the other; a great collaboration is subject centered, it is about a better idea and that requires some tugging. It is not about being right or winning; it is the game that is essential.

I once took a class from the great Kichom Hyashi. One day he divided the class into two teams from a mock organization: 1) the finance folk and 2) the creative team. He posed a challenge and asked the two teams to try and pull the other side into their point of view. We immediately began diminishing the ideas of the other side. Kichom stopped us. He asked us to begin again only this time he would facilitate our conversation. He did not allow us to diminish or negate the other team. We entered the heat, argued the idea instead of negating the people, and an extraordinary thing happened: the tension mounted until it was palpable, crackling, and then a 3rd channel broke open. A better idea, previously hidden, burst forth. It was not a solution but a better idea, an expanded vision. The tension transformed into excitement. The two teams were now one voice chattering about the possibilities.

Kichom sat back in his chair and smiled, saying, “It’s not a mystery. This is how it is supposed to happen.”

You First

630. Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

When she said, “It’s as if we shoot information at each other,” I did what I always do: I lapsed into a ridiculous fantasy: Two cowboys step off the boardwalk on the dusty streets of Tombstone. They face each other, each with fingers twitching to pull their pistols and shoot. The townspeople duck into stores or take cover behind water barrels. The pistols are not loaded with bullets, but with agendas and opinions. The town’s people cover their ears; agendas being fired are loud. There will be no listening even though the object of the gunfight is to be heard. Shout to convince. Scream to negate the others point of view. The clock strikes noon, the combatants pull their opinions and begin shooting information at each other.

I giggled when I emerged from my ridiculous fantasy because it was less ridiculous than some of the stuff I have watched lately on the news. Doesn’t it seem that the rule of the day is to stake claims, shoot information, bomb with data, feign outrage, make headlines, and secure our 15 minutes of fame. Tom used to say, “When I was a boy I had to pay a nickel to get into the circus tent we called a freak show – and it was more appealing than this.”

We in the United States just emerged from a dreadful political season, pistols loaded with red and blue bullets. All of the town’s people jumped behind the watering trough and shimmied under the stagecoach to stay clear of the melee; information bullets ricocheting everywhere and not a single truth to be found anywhere. Sometimes I think we vote to stop the shooting. After the gunfight we head to the bar to wet our whistle and shout at each other. I think it must be the cultural dark side of colonialist’s to need to be right all of the time; we defend our point of view before we listen, thus we have a diminished capacity to converse or entertain other points of view.

This morning I listened (I did, I really listened and offered not a single opinion) to a TED talk by Ernesto Sirolli entitled: if you want to help someone, shut up and listen. “Wow!” I thought, “Now that is a revolutionary statement if ever I heard one!” Subtle but in the age of opinion assault it is worthy of consideration. It might also be a hint for how we might initiate culture change. It is certainly something beginning actors learn to do as a first step toward power: stand still and listen. Imagine what might happen on that dusty street in Tombstone if our information slingers refused to draw their pistols, paused and said, “You first.” Less drama to be sure but wouldn’t we get more done?


629. Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

The Orca returned today. The crowds gathered at the bottom of the street, binoculars pointed to the Sound. The word gets around and soon there was a crowd whispering things like, “Amazing,” or “Look!” These simple words of reverence were usually followed by an “Ohhhh” or an Ahhhhhh!” I stood with Riley the Samoyed and Charlie the black Labrador. Dogs to pet and whales to watch, the sun was shining, the water was calm; it was pretty much a perfect day. Extra magical.

After the Orca pod passed, I walked a loop through the neighborhood and was transfixed by two small trees. They’d dropped their leaves and their bark was brilliant red! At first I thought they were painted but this brilliance was natural, shockingly bright, a color in nature usually reserved for autumn leaves or feathers. Dado (my postman) joined me in my revelry. He said, “Can you believe it!” Dado is a great lover of the small moment. I’m not sure how he ever gets the mail delivered because he is always talking to someone, sharing stories, laughing, good for a joke or a shoulder to lean on. Dado is bartender to the world. He is used to finding me transfixed and always joins me. “Wow,” we whispered in unison and then laughed.

Today in class, prior to my date with the Orca and my walk, we introduced the tool of dialogue and deep listening. As a group we listened as a member of our class talked without interruption for a set amount of time. Then, as a group, we responded. In our daily lives we rarely listen because we often have agendas and, therefore, do not listen; we look for opportunities to be heard. We miss what is being said. When we give space for pure sharing and pure listening a magic thing happens: the speaker will often, to their great surprise, wade waist-deep into gratitude. They sort to the positive. They tip toward wholeness. And then, the responders, overwhelmed by the generosity of the speaker, open their hearts and celebrate their lives, too. The wound is not ignored; it is honored as the catalyst for awakening. That is what happened today in class. Our speaker, thinking she was going to bring a challenge to the group, found herself expressing her love of life after a rocky road. And we the responders, quietly released into our personal revelry of this extraordinary life. Deep listening requires space. Reverence loves a listener.

I was so moved by the class that I decided I needed to take a walk before jumping back into work. I put on my coat, walked to the end of the block and found the Orca passing by and all of the humans were holding space, listening. The entire dialogue of life is magic and immediately available when we slow down enough to listen.

See The Story

628. Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

I haven’t a thought in my head. It’s late and I just finished teaching a class on story to entrepreneur’s preparing to make pitches to investors. They’ve created apps and need capital to fulfill their business vision. I helped them to stop thinking of their apps as “things” and to start thinking of them as “motion:” a pitch is a story of a yearning meeting an obstacle, just like any story they see on a screen. Yearning initiates motion. They were amazed when their focus shifted from selling a product – a focus that limits – to the recognition that telling a story always opens possibilities – a focus that expands. Motion.

It is funny where life takes you. Not so long ago I was a pariah to the business community; I am an artist and, therefore, non-essential. It occurs to me that I spent a long time being a pariah, going where I knew I would not be welcome, saying what I knew no one could hear. Apparently I am clearing some karma or I’m an odd sort of masochist! At this late hour I can’t even remember why I thought it was a good idea so long ago to go into businesses hocking my story wares. I knew I could see what they could not and what I saw was useful and beautiful (I’d never use the “b” word in business, it makes their ninnies twist and eyes bulge). I’d attempt to get them to look through the lens of story and they’d roll their eyes.

So you can imagine how delightful and existentially curious it was for me to live long enough to witness the swing of the pendulum: my business pals are now routinely asking me in to help them learn to thrive in ambiguity. Tonight a class full of MBA candidates listened to me like I held the key to obscene wealth (I do, by-the-way). The key to better business is story. Consider this: a world of absolutes needs stasis: black and white thinking is useful to folks that refuse to change. So is a hierarchy. In our world, where change is the only constant, it is useful to know how to shape shift, it is essential to learn to dance with what is there, not what we think should be there. Assumptions are routinely popped in this fast moving stream. Hierarchies need a bottom-up energy or they move to slow to be useful. Motion, shifting forms, ambiguity.

Prior to class I went to the Apple store to pick up a new printer and the man that helped me told me the most difficult (and rewarding) part of his job was staying on top of the changes. “Things are obsolete the moment they hit the shelves,” he said. “I’m constantly learning and adjusting to the next innovation.” I wish I’d recorded him so I might play this fundamental insight to the public schools so they might recognize the mismatch. This economy is not their grandfather’s Oldsmobile.

Tonight, a student in the class said, “Seeing our app as a story has made me realize, much to my surprise, how human our work is.” I smiled a crooked tooth smile. She hit the nail on the head: “product” is anonymous; story is personal. Business is not business anymore.

Leave Yourself Behind

627. Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

My grandfather is 103 years old. Last time I saw him he said, “Heaven don’t want me and hell won’t have me.” He feels as if he is ready to go yet remains in an earthly limbo. He eats. He sleeps. He waits. He has outlived two of his four children, his wife and all of his peers. He still flirts with the ladies in the lunchroom though it is more out of habit than from ambition.

In every story cycle there is a place where “what once was” no longer exists and “what will be” is not yet come. It is in this in-between place where the old identity dissipates: you are no longer a child though not yet an adult; it is the time of first pregnancy, you are no longer singular and not yet a parent. In a story, the in-between is usually told through the metaphor of a journey; you must leave behind everything that you know to find what has always been within you. Frodo leaves the Shire as one being; he returns to the Shire as another being, having discovered his darkness and his capacity to persevere. Journeys are bitter sweet.

Rumi said, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” It is ironic, isn’t it, to leave yourself behind so that you might find yourself? To think we will find love in another person only to discover that it is the love within ourselves that we seek.

I am not yet half of my grandfather’s age and yet I already know that heaven and hell are both here – not some other place – and we choose which we occupy. We are both the seeker and the gatekeeper. I am perfectly capable of dividing myself against myself and, therefore, occupying hell. I am also capable of knowing myself as whole, regardless of my circumstance, and that is the door to heaven. And, there is a third “place” that is neither heaven nor hell but the space of the journey; all life is movement after all. There are no arrivals; heaven and hell are rest stops, the occasional oasis along the way.

Know Your Oral From Your Aural

626. Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

Once I was hired as an artist in residence at a school. Prior to starting I had an interview with the principal to discuss his vision for my residency. He proudly told me that the school’s focus was “aural language.” When I asked him what that meant to him and how they were currently executing the theme he stared at me; he had no idea. For ease, I asked the first part of the question again, “What does aural language mean to you?” He stuttered and began to sweat. Finally, he said, “You know, the spoken word.” Ah. I was gob smacked on two counts: first, he was champion of a school wide theme and hadn’t yet sorted his oral from his aural. Second, it was late in the school year and I can only imagine given his response that I was the first person to ask if he knew what he was championing. That month during my residency every single teacher told me the school’s theme and none had the vaguest idea why it was the theme or what they were supposed to do with it. It became our joke. They’d ask, “What are we doing today?” and I’d look very serious and respond, “Why, aural language, of course.”

I think about this man and those teachers every time I walk into a school and see how invested and driven we’ve become by “the standards.” My-Favorite-Beth showed me a photo of a white board chocked full of numbers that looked like complex equations for string theory but were in fact the scrawls made by teachers trying to identify which standard they were going to teach (note-that-should-raise-your-red-flag: despite the best efforts of My-Favorite-Beth, they were not capable of discussing teaching children, they were only capable of discussing teaching standards. I imagine the standards will soon exit the school well informed but the children will certainly yawn and ask again, “So, why did we do that?”). As Sir Ken Robinson said, “No one wants standards to drop but we need to ask, ‘Standards of what?’” Is it oral or aural, rural or laurel, clap-clap-shimmy-shimmy-shake, if-it-was-good-enough-for-me-it-is-good-enough-for-you, why are we doing it? No body knows but at least we’re all on the same page.

This is what I’ve decided. I want to bag the word “school” entirely – and that includes all of the synonyms as well. Maybe if we called it something else we might jiggle loose our dreams and move beyond our current educational energy eddy. Melissa, my nominee for teacher of the year, said, “It should all be about engagement. Everything else follows from there.” Yes. Here’s my short hand: we’ll know we’re on the right track when we are more interested in problem creation than we are with problem solving. This thing formerly known as school should be more pursuit than regurgitation, more question than answer, more alive than dead. And, we’ll know how to distinguish between those things when we start asking ourselves the question the kids have been asking for years, “Why are we doing this?”

Take A Walk With Me

625. Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

It is late and I am in my studio. There is a train blowing its whistle somewhere in the distance. The building is quiet at this hour. Mark, the building caretaker, tells me there is a ghost and that he wouldn’t be caught dead in the building this late at night. I’ve been here deep into the night on several occasions and I have yet to encounter the ghost. I want to meet it – her, so Mark tells me. She usually hangs out in the attic but will wander the halls if she gets restless. I suppose a restless ghost is less appealing to meet than a non-restless ghost. In my mind, however, every ghost is restless; being a ghost implies that you are stuck in an “in-between” state, a limbo, like being perpetually in an airport and even the most even-tempered ghost must get tired of the long flight delay. When I am a ghost I will tap my foot and ask, “Where’s my plane?”

I have been in a limbo the past few years and, consequently, a kind of ghost. I think this evening I was compelled to come late to the studio to seek advice. Do you know you are wandering the halls or is there a world of illusion that we, the living, cannot see? Assuming that you see it, is there an obvious way out or do you simply step into the sun? And, if you step into the sun, do you disappear? Is that what keeps you in the attic, the fear of disappearing? Is limbo really better than commitment to action?

I am not a very good ghost. Restlessness is fun for a while but sooner or later every ghost must ask, “I wonder what is out there?” I’m not good at wandering halls though I seem to have lots of practice at it. I need the sun. The sun needs me.

As I sit here waiting for my ghost to appear I’ve decided that I no longer need her advice. If she came in the door, instead of saying, “I have a few questions for you,” I’d hold out my hand and say, “Take a walk with me. Don’t you think it is time?”

Move Toward It

624. Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

I laughed out loud and then, upon reflection, was overcome by sadness when Lora told me this story: she was listening to a travel show and the host was discussing with his guests how travel inherently opened your mind. Experiencing other ways of thinking, seeing and believing affords the opportunity to challenge and inform ones own thoughts and beliefs. The host used the word “liberal,” meaning broad minded. His first caller was a young woman who told the host and his guests that she’d been planning her first trip abroad but after listening to their conversation said she was going to cancel; if there were a danger of her becoming more liberal she’d rather stay at home.

When Wade Davis defines the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism (my apologies to my Buddhist friend for my general translation: we suffer, suffering is caused by ignorance, ignorance/suffering can be transcended, there is a way to transcend suffering), he is careful to define ignorance, not in terms of a negative, but as the notion or need to believe that anything in this universe is static or “fixed.” In other words, attach to the notion that your way is the right way and you will suffer because you are ignorant of the universe as it is: ever fluid, ever changing, ever in motion, completely interconnected, fundamentally and profoundly alive. Suffering is fixed mind; illumination is fluid mind. Suffering is blocked movement (engagement); illumination is movement (engagement) unhindered.

In a series on the brain produced by Charlie Rose, Daniel Wolpert from the University of Cambridge said that there is only one reason and one reason only that we have a brain (plenty of species on the planet do not have nor need brains) and that is to produce adaptable and complex movement. Cognition and sense processing are made meaningful only if they drive current action or future action. Movement (engagement) is the purpose of the brain.

Motion. Movement towards new forms, stepping toward questions not investing in answers, releasing any notion of an absolute; to flow, to move, to change, to process through the full arc of this long body, birth to death to birth. It is all motion and unknown, new and surprising. And, to step toward life, to move from narrow mind to broad mind is the only reason we have brains. And, oddly enough, it is the same path to illumination.

Build An Altar of Gratitude

623. Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

Each year on the day before Thanksgiving, I secretly build an altar of gratitude. Sometimes it is in a single location, a collection of cards and objects that remind me of the generosity of those who populate my life and the abundance I enjoy. Sometimes I scatter the altar across many locations. The day before this day of thanks giving, I leave tokens of appreciation and marks of gratitude all across the city. I think it is my attempt to create a sacred geography for myself; I want to see the world as a living, dynamic, holy place and since that was not my original orientation, I have to tend my vision. I cultivate a new relationship with this magic place because I want to; like working a muscle, I intend to grow strong in my reverence. I make offerings to something beyond my knowing but well recognized by my feelings. This earth is an old friend and my days here are nothing short of astonishing.

In my first systems class, the professor gave us an exercise useful for recognizing the immensity of our interdependence and, therefore, our opportunity for gratitude: imagine a goldfish in a goldfish bowl. Follow to the end the support system necessary to keep the goldfish healthy. I’ll give you a clue: you could spend days on this and never come to an end. Separations disappear. It has taken the entire planet and the history of human kind to sprinkle those few flakes of goldfish food into that bowl. Any end line you draw will be false, a construct.

And so it is with you and me. As you sit down to your traditional meal with your family and friends, take a moment and try to track the system of support necessary for you to enjoy your meal in your goldfish bowl. If you take it to heart what you find will astound you. Separations disappear and you might just find yourself in a sacred geography instead of living on the pile of rocks you thought you inhabited. Gratitude is potent thing when directed to a vibrant living relationship and not merely a world of consumables. The real question of this day is this: to what do we give our thanks?

Step Into The Dark Night

622. Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

Two quotes collided right in front of me and there resonance took my breath away. First, from a television series on culture, the amazing Wade Davis met with Gretel Ehrlich in Greenland. In the interview she said, “Despair is a sin against imagination.”

Saul Bellow wrote, “I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos – a stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.”

I am never so quiet as when I paint. I am never so present as when I create. And I am certain that my culture no longer understands the power and role of its arts. It has confused art with distraction; it has relegated its primary mechanism for transformation to the basement of entertainment. Only the artists still recognize the door to the quiet holy.

Despair is noisy. It is urban and abstract. It is the chaos of an untethered mind, the heart gone dry. It is what happens when electric light blinds us to the stars.

Imagination is stillness. It is our most natural state, cousin to curiosity. My friend Carol once told me that, when going to Alaska, you reenter the food chain. If you think you suffer from a lack of imagination, step into the dark night and walk into woods. You will learn that it is not imagination that you lack but contact with anything that is real.