Do You Hear That?

'The Wind' by David Robinson

‘The Wind’ by David Robinson

This morning we drove the side roads on the way back from Lake Geneva. We passed through some small burgs that sported gas stations, antique stores, small diners and maybe a bar or two. These are the sweet forgotten places, once on the main road to Lake Geneva, but left behind when the highway was built. They sit amidst the fields waiting for spring thaw and the plow. Barns populate the horizon. People drive slowly, turn slowly, stop slowly. They have a different rhythm than we urban dwellers.

During the drive I thought a lot about the last day I spent with Tom. He passed away in August. I didn’t see him in the last few years of his life so the reality of his passing has yet to hit me. He slipped into dementia and Marcia, his wife, asked me not to come. “Better to remember him as he was,” she said.

It was autumn when I last saw him. Tom was already deep into his dementia and he wanted to show me the small rural graveyard where his ancestor, Frankie, another lost boy, was buried. He’d shown me the site a few times but he didn’t remember and it was important to him that I saw it. I buckled him into my rental car and drove him down the road that cut between the fields, passed the tiny schoolhouse where he went to school as a boy, and stopped at the clump of valley oaks that marked the location of the little graveyard.

We wandered through the graves looking for Frankie’s stone; Tom couldn’t remember where it was.  I led him to it and said, “This one has Frankie written on it; is this it?” He looked hard at the stone before responding, “No. No. I don’t think so.” He stared at the ground, confused. The wind rustled the autumn oak leaves, though the trees were not quite ready to let them drop.

Tom and me a long time ago.

Tom and me a long time ago.

We stood still for several minutes. A man drove up, parked, and came into the graveyard. He carried a small bunch of flowers picked from a home garden and walked directly to a new grave. As we passed him I said, “Hello,” but he didn’t respond. Tom and I moved toward the arch that marked the exit. The man began to sob, deep guttural wails of loss. Tom stopped as if listening to the wind and asked me, “Do you hear that?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Poor Frankie,” he said, “I wish I remembered where he is? We always meant to move him so he’d be closer to the rest of the family.” He sighed and looked up at the leaves chattering in the breeze. “I love that sound!” he said, “Don’t you just love it?”

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Stalk The Story

title_pageLast year I wrote a book and only recently got around to publishing it. One of the many benefits of waiting several months to publish is that I forgot what I wrote so, in preparing to publish, I got to read my book as if someone else wrote it. I got to discover my own book!

Now that the book is out in the world I’m receiving lots of requests to talk about it or coach to it. The requests are driving me to read it again and again – only through a different set of eyes each time. The question I’m asking myself is this: What is teachable beyond the obvious? I end each chapter with exercises and ideas but the real teachable moments happen within the story (just like life!). Here’s a “for instance” tidbit from the book:

When a story stalks you through your lifetime you inevitably learn some things about stories; you unwittingly stalk them, too. One of the first things I learned was that the word “beginning” is arbitrary. An end is always a beginning. A beginning is always an end. What we call a beginning or the middle or an end is really a simple matter of our point of view. It depends on what we see.

We rarely recognize the teachable moments in our lives. They seem so distant or have become so wrapped in justification that we don’t recognize them as opportunities for learning. A teachable moment is often embedded in the story that stalks you. In the book I weave the story of Parcival through the main narrative because Parcival gives his voice away. The main character of my book gives his voice away. He invests in the idea of what he should be and, so, loses sight of who he really is. He betrays himself. I’ve yet to meet a person who hasn’t given their voice away or lived from an image (a “should-do”) instead of honoring their “I-want-to-do.”  A moment of self-betrayal is a story that will stalk you all of your life. It will follow you until you reclaim your voice. And, the capacity to reclaim voice comes from a lifetime spent stalking the moment of self-betrayal. It’s a life story loop.

What are the stories that stalk you? The answer to this might not seem immediately apparent but if you take a moment and reflect you’ll likely come up with a moment (or several) that has shaped or continues to shape your life.

A moment of betrayal and a moment of reclamation might make a tight little beginning-middle-end story or might represent two beginnings or two ends, depending on how you decide to see it. Wounds are often opportunities for growth. Triumphs are often the beginning of a new chapter. We grow. We learn. We story and re-story ourselves. We give pieces away and reclaim them later. What’s important is that we learn to see our dance, capture the moment, and grow.

Go here to get my latest book, The Seer: The Mind of the Entrepreneur, Artist, Visionary, title_pageSeeker, Learner, Leader, Creator…You.

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Update Your Model

InfinityI laughed when I read this phrase on Skip’s Power Point presentation:

“All models are false. However, some are useful.” Alan Kay

I spent years of my life reading books built upon the thought models of thinkers, consultants, physicists, mathematicians, artists, business people and spiritual thinkers. None of the models was true. Many contradicted other models. Models are only useful if they help us make sense of our days on this planet.

Culture is a thought model. Travel to another culture and you’ll spend some time being disoriented because you will have entered a different model for sense making. For instance, some cultures/models place the accent on the individual and others place it on the group. I come from a culture that celebrates the individual and my world was rocked in a culture that celebrates the group; the model was so different that I could not sense make anything and fell head long into “not knowing.” While stumbling about unable to make sense of the world, I saw my own cultural model for what it is: a useful model – not truth.

Art, in most of Western culture, is considered important if it breaks or disturbs the model. In most Eastern cultures art is considered important if it supports the model.  Neither is truth. Neither is right. Both are useful for sense making if you understand the model.

Language is a model. It is very useful model, wouldn’t you agree? Wade Davis is sounding an important alarm that is going mostly unnoticed: we are losing languages faster than species are going extinct. Each language lost is more than a lost collection of words; a language lost is an entire world lost. It is a mythology lost. A language lost is a way of seeing and engaging with the mystery that is lost. What is useful and unknowable (un-see-able) to other languages/models is lost forever.

Religion is a model. Science creates and constantly revises its models. Religion could learn a thing or two from science (and vice versa). Maps are models. For a terrific book on mind models, get Charles Hampden-Turner’s, Maps Of The Mind.

A study of history is a study of models that served as sense makers for a time but collapsed under the weight of updates. For instance, no explorer ever sailed off the edge of the world despite the unassailable model of the day. It turns out that the sun does not rotate around the earth though many people were hushed and crushed for going against the model of their day. Newton showed us that space and time were fixed and Einstein showed us that space and time are not only fluid but connected.

We get into trouble when we confuse our models with truth. No model is true. No model is right. This applies especially to the models that we carry within us: the mind models that lead us to believe that, “I can’t do it…” are false. My favorite model that is mistaken for truth shows up like this: “I’m not creative.” That is a model that is both false and not very useful. What might you need to do to reconsider your model and accept an update?

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Exit The Circle

Mind Chatter

Mind Chatter

Jen came over today. She is taking a photography class and her assignment this week is to take pictures of people. She is working on mastering depth of field and introduced me to my favorite new term: circle of confusion (note: depth of field is also a great term but is less ominous!). I spent several minutes reading definitions for circle of confusion. This is the kind of stuff I encountered:

A lens cannot resolve a point exactly. Instead it creates a small circle of light called the ‘Circle of Confusion’ (from

What does that mean? In my search for definitions of ‘circle of confusion’ I entered a circle of confusion! I kept digging and I learned that the term predates photography and originated in the study of optics. So, this is my stab at defining a circle of confusion for myself: my eye (or a camera lens) breaks an image into dots and the dots can never be completely focused. So, each dot is rimmed with a circle of light. In an image that appears to be completely focused, the light circle is very, very small so the dots are closer together and make a sharp image. In an image that appears unfocused, the light circle is large so the dots are farther apart, making a fuzzy image. This circle of light is called a circle of confusion, a blur circle, or a blur spot.

The greater the circle of light around the dot, the greater the potential for confusion. What a fantastic metaphor! The same concept applies to the imagination. I have friends who’ve always known what they wanted to become when they grew up. They had a sharp, clear picture of what they wanted to do with their lives. They imagined a clear, focused target-life. For instance, when I was in college, my best friend Roger knew that he wanted to direct plays and, more specifically, he wanted to direct plays at The Pacific Conservatory for the Performing Arts. Thirty years later, Roger has spent his career at PCPA directing plays. His actions were distinctly aimed at a very clear image-target. He did not spend much time wondering what he wanted to do with his life. Roger has lived with a smaller circle of confusion than most of us.

The metaphor could also be applied this way: If people were dots, the circle of light surrounding them would be their mind chatter. The greater the mind-chatter the greater the circle of light, the greater is the potential for confusion. Buck Busfield used to say of people with loud mind-chatter, “That guy has a big dog barking in his head.” The Buddhists call mind-chatter, “monkey mind.” A person with monkey mind is a person with a large circle of confusion; their dots can’t focus through the noise. Victim stories come with lots of mind chatter. So do blame stories or a fix-it mentality.

When we see and own our choices, we reduce the size of our circle of confusion. That’s how choice works. When we invest in stories like, “I have to…,” or “I should…,” stories that lead us to believe that we have no choice, we amplify our circle of confusion. Embracing our choices makes intentions clear. Embracing our choices clarifies our life-target. The noise in our minds quiets. It’s an equation: own your choices and your mind quiets. There’s less division in a mind that says, “I choose,” so there is less need for inner debate. If you want to exit your circle of confusion, start by seeing how vast is your capacity for choice.

Go here to get my latest book, The Seer: The Mind of the Entrepreneur, Artist, Visionary, title_pageSeeker, Learner, Leader, Creator…You.

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Get Out Of Your Head

from my comic, FLUB. Don't ask why I think it belongs with this post...

from my comic, FLUB. Don’t ask why I think it belongs with this post…

When I was in school I was constantly amused and disconcerted by the disjoint between the arts and the academic interpretation of the arts. For instance, pick up any literary critique on the play HAMLET and you will read a lot of well-meaning but clueless intellectualizing on the inaction of the character Hamlet. And then, go to a rehearsal. Plays are about action. Hamlet is one of the most active characters in the canon. The play is essentially a detective story with the main character, Hamlet, trying to determine whether the ghost of his father is from heaven or from hell. He needs proof. Every action that he takes is to uncover the truth of his father’s death.

Yesterday I was witness to the arts/academic disjoint in person. A fantastic Christopher Wool retrospective is opening at the Chicago Art Institute. Kerri and I took the train in to the city to see the exhibit and attend a lecture by the curator of the exhibit. In a surprise appearance, Christopher Wool, the artist, took the stage with the curator. The curator was unprepared. She didn’t want him to talk. Over and over again she told him what his work was about and then asked him to confirm it. He was gentle with her and kind and contradicted her analysis. Five times she told us that his work was about self-annihilation (he makes gestural lines on canvas and then wipes them off) and he would counter by saying something like, “Well, actually, I didn’t like the line so I wiped the canvas but then I liked what was happening with the wipe so I left it.”[a long silence would follow]

She needed his work to have deeper, darker meaning. He is an artist in a relationship with his material and works intuitively. There was no intellectual meeting ground between her need and his work. Had she asked him about the greater meaning of his paintings (she didn’t) he might have said, “Well, what do you see?” As Joseph Campbell once said, “If an artist doesn’t like you, he’ll tell you what his work means. If he likes you, he’ll let you have your own experience.”

The curator needed the body of work to be sourced in the artists suffering. The artist did not suffer and, in fact, told us that his art was a form of play. In play, we assemble meaning (and the curator missed this fine point).

It finally came to this simple statement: Christopher Wool, the artist, stopped the curator in the middle of a lengthy pedagogical rant and said, “All this talk of process and technique! No one needs to know any of it.” He looked at the audience and continued, “I hope that when you see the work, that it engages you. I hope you have a relationship with the work.”

Artists know that the audience recreates the work. A work of art is never complete without the other, the viewer, who is not passive but becomes an artist in the moment of engaging. The viewer recreates the work anew, unique, and special to their eyes.

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Where’s Your Safety?

from my Yoga series

from my Yoga series

Bill said, “People must make time to smell the roses.”

We were talking about the stories, specifically the stories we tell that become self-made prisons. “It’s never made any sense to me!” he laughed, “I’ve never been able to work for anyone because the whole mindset seems like madness. For instance, I just talked to a man who believes he must work at his job for three more years so he might have a better retirement. He hates his job!”  He added, “I have a dear friend that sat down after a game of tennis and died of a brain aneurism. We never know, do we?” His question was actually a statement and I nodded my head in agreement. It’s never made any sense to me to give away this day of life for an idea of life in the future.

“Why do you think people do that?” he asked. Social norms. Expectations. Fear. Stability. There are many reasons. There are many good reasons. We have to feel safe. I used to tell groups that a child can’t play unless he or she feels safe. To the man holding on for retirement, trading today for a possible tomorrow makes him feel safe and a safety story is a necessity in a culture that has forgotten community. Without a tribe, people must fen for themselves and the sacrifice they make is their autonomy. It’s a paradox. It’s a story.

Bill and I tell a different story. I’m a terrible employee. I have too many ideas. I like to change things. I do my best work late at night or very early in the morning. The middle of the day, the normal working hours, are down time. Fog time. I feel safe by breaking patterns and changing rhythms. I feel safe when I don’t know what is coming. I value presence and feeling alive much more than retirement. I do not know what retirement means because my job has never been a thing that I do. To retire means to die. I’ll certainly do that someday but I see no reason to save up for it.

My story, my path is no better or worse than the man who gives up his today for tomorrow. We both create our idea of security and live from a set of assumptions that define a good life. We both make sense – we make it. Sense is not found like happiness is not found. Both ensue.

Bill looked at me and said, “Maybe asking why people give away today for tomorrow is not the right question. Maybe the right question is, ‘Do they know that they are making a choice?”

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Make Sense

'John's Secret' by David Robinson

‘John’s Secret’ by David Robinson

Several years ago, decades in fact, G was driving his car. A young boy sprinted into the street in front of his car and was killed. To this day, G holds himself responsible. Even though it was an accident, he cannot forgive himself for the death of the young boy. He blames himself. Forgiveness is beyond his reach.

This terrible accident has become the defining moment of his life. Rather, his search for understanding why it happened and his refusal of forgiveness has shaped his existence.

He is a kind man. He is generous. He is devout. He is very old, walks with a cane, moves slowly, cares for his ailing wife, always smiles, He is generous with his time and his resources even though his resources are very, very limited. He sings. He prays. He listens. He asks, “Why?”

“What if I had left the house a minute later? What if I had left minute sooner? What if I’d decided to stay home? How could I have been the instrument of that young boy’s death? What could I have done…?” He suffers because, for him, there can be no absolution.

What do you do when there is no answer to the question, “Why?” What do you understand about your life and the forces of the universe when there is no sense to be made? What do we do when the experiences of our lives betray the sense that we’ve already made?

We do what we always do. We do what is most human: we make sense. We create order so we might not have to experience the chaos. We make statements in the form of questions: “What kind of God would let this happen?” or, “Why me?” There are so many things that we cannot control so somewhere there must be a bigger picture, a greater intention, a man behind the curtain, a reason why. We say to ourselves, “There must be a right path, a rule, a law, a design that we must follow.” It is something to ponder: why is our greatest horror to be out-of-control? What if we danced with the mystery rather than tried to contain it?

“To understand” is a form of the control illusion. Do you believe you need to know how to do something before you do it? You don’t but without the control-illusion of “how” you’d come face to face with the reality that process is chaos. Chaos is uncomfortable. Things happen. Order is something that is made after the fact. “There must be a way!” “There must be a reason!” There is always a way but you won’t know it until you walk the path and turn around to see it. There is always a reason, but you create it. It is not given. Order feels good.

And, it is necessary. Giving order to our chaos, telling a story, is what makes us human. If you could boil my work in the world down to a single phrase, it would be this: we have experiences first and then we make meaning, not the other way around.

We make meaning, we contain to infinite, through the stories we tell. The choreography of the human dance happens between the poles of “no sense to be made of the mystery,” and “the need to understand why.” G is making sense of his life. I am making sense of my life. As are you and everyone you meet today.

[to be continued]

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Take The One Action

a work in progress. I'll call it "Salutation"

a work in progress. I’ll call it “Salutation”

It is true that, at the end of the day, we are our own best obstacle. Nothing is better at blocking meaningful action toward a dream than our personal story of doubt and fear. It comes in many forms, like, “Who am I to think that…,” or “If I only had some time I’d…,” or “If I only knew how to start, I’d….”

Lately, I’m fascinated with a specific form of the best-personal-obstacle canon: why do we take any action EXCEPT the one action that matters. For instance, I hear often statements like this: “I want to be a writer, but….” Anything following the statement of desire is a self-generated obstacle. There’s not enough time. No one will like what I write. Fill in the blank. The single action that matters is to write. Sit down and write. That is how one becomes a writer. And, if the writing happens everyday, one will become a better and better writer. Anything else is a well-placed, self-generated obstacle.

The question is, “Why do we need our obstacles?” What does placing a boulder in the road do for us? There is an obvious answer: it keeps us from the scary prospect of fulfilling our dreams. Fulfilling a dream requires showing up and expressing a personal truth. Personal truth is, well, personal, and will always meet resistance because there are billions of personal truths walking around out there.

The refusal to take the single-action-that-matters applies to the everyday. How many times have you swam in a pool of overwhelm rather than pick up the phone and make the call that you know you need to make? Once, when I ran a theatre company, I knew I needed to fire an employee but I didn’t want to do it. She was a nice person. She wasn’t doing her job. We had countless meetings discussing why she wasn’t taking the one single action that mattered (doing her job). And, so, I didn’t take the one single action that mattered (letting her go). When I finally mustered the courage to fire her, she thanked me. She wanted to do something else with her life but didn’t have the courage. When I fired her, I pushed her out of the nest. I became the circumstance that pushed her into the one action that mattered.

I think that’s the point of not taking the one action that will actually matter. We allow circumstance to decide for us. We delay until the bill collector comes or until the boss fires us or until we are sitting in a rocking chair telling the story of why we never had time to write. If only….

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What’s The Question

Sand SpiralThese were my questions from the day:

What is the difference between a very strong snowstorm and a blizzard?

What is the difference between a purpose driven life and a passion driven life?

What does it mean to the quality of a lifetime if you begin with the end in mind?

Isn’t the end we have in mind nothing more than something that plagues a mind – isn’t it a story? And can I really ever know the end?

Who cares?

Why is “not knowing” so scary for people?

Why is caring so scary for people?

Why is speaking truth so difficult to do?

Whose truth?

Have I always been on a pilgrimage? If so, why did I only now just realize it?

What does it mean to release the past? Why would I assume that today was going to be like any other day? Why would I assume that I know what is going to happen today just because I have things jotted on my calendar? How many miracles have I missed because of my assumptions?

Gary the waiter told me that during the Olympics, everyone becomes an expert at things that they really know nothing about. Isn’t this same principle always true?

Ann is in the final stages of cancer. I wonder what her questions were today?

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Know Your Why

Mark Seely's gift to me: A Wordle of my blog

Mark Seely’s gift to me: A Wordle of my blog

This morning I had another world-class call with Skip and Barney. I could populate a year’s worth of posts from our conversations. I treasure these two men. They feed me and keep me connected to a deep, rich river of curiosity and questioning. They challenge my thinking and shake my perceptions.

We meet weekly on a conference line to discuss Skip’s upcoming book, Emails To A Young Entrepreneur. It is a remarkable book and since Skip is the consummate student of life, our calls, although on the surface are about the book, in truth dive into matters of essence and heart and meaning-making.

Skip told a story of working with student-entrepreneurs. He provided them with an experiential process that helped them see, if only for a moment, that their business is different than their product. This might seem like an easy concept to grasp; a Big Mac is not the business of McDonalds, however entrepreneurs and small business owners consistently confuse their idea, their product, with the business. It’s a confusion that leads down the path to ruin (in the world of education, the parallel is to confuse test scores with learning).

In our business-product conversation, Barney offered this phrase that I love: the energy of “why” is different than the energy of “how.” How I make art is a remarkably different question than why I make art. How I do business is a remarkably different question than why I do business. How I walk this earth is a remarkably different question than why I walk this earth. Peter Block, in his book, The Answer To How Is Yes, reflects that in a lifetime spent helping businesses grow and fulfill their potential, that not once did the organization start with the question “Why?” They were invested in “how” and, therefore, blind to the actions that might help. They were frozen with the notion that “how” was something they needed to know before they took action. In fact, what they  needed to know prior to action was “why?”

The north star of action is always found in the question, “Why?” How is a matter of taking steps without knowing the end (just like life). Know your why. Take a step. Live in the life-giving energy of why, take a step and call it “how.”

Go here to get my latest book, The Seer: The Mind of the Entrepreneur, Artist, Visionary, title_pageSeeker, Learner, Leader, Creator…You.

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