Monday, July 30, 2007

A Post-Vacation Risk

My weeklong vacation on the Gulf Coast of Florida is over...but the investments of thought and idea incubation are paying dividends even as I am scurrying to catch up on things at the office.

Unplugged from email and phones, I took an early walk/run along the shore each morning, the rising sun and gentle tides my awesome companions. An idea for a new creative project began as a tiny seed dropped into an ocean on Monday morning, and each day blossomed more and more toward potential fruit for Microsoft Word.

For just a week I caught a glimpse of what a fully reflective life could be...while keeping in mind that the best of ideas birthed in solitude must be brought into the wild midst of community in order to serve their greatest potential.

Hopefully, sometime this week I will sketch an outline, daring again to cross that mysterious boundary between riveting, untamed ideas and their typed/written counterparts. So often something gets lost in translation--isn't that true to so much of life? But it is a risk that must be taken, both under the sun and under the fluorescent lights of a little office in corporate America...

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

My Coffee With Eric

In the early 1980s there was a theatrical run of a low-budget film called My Dinner With Andre. The entire movie was, literally, two friends named Andre and Wally having a great conversation across dinner and sorting out life issues. The relationship, the ideas, the brainstorming and the give-and-take--that was the action. Dialogue was character.

It certainly was not a film for everyone at that point in time, and would probably have even less commercial appeal more than 25 years since its release. But last night at a downtown coffeeshop with my good friend Eric Needle, I experienced again the deep joy of a heartfelt, multi-faceted conversation and celebrated how intellectual and emotional intimacy with an authentic human being is one of the great natural highs of life.

Eric is a very talented, creative, strategic marketing kind of guy who is the principle partner of a group of affiliated companies known collectively as Giant3. There are a few friends whom we come across in our travels that we can truly say changed the direction of our lives, and for me Eric is one of them. When I first moved to this community to build a new career, I met Eric early on and he was a tremendous asset in helping me think out of the box and learn how to more effectively market what I do. He built and maintains my personal Web site,; co-created the e-zines GreenBrevard and GreenOrlando with me; and, most importantly, has been a great friend with whom I discuss business, marketing, art, creativity, family and faith.

If our conversation over coffee, sandwiches and scones were a film, one of the highlights would center on our discussion of the humanities. Eric shares my fascination with how the great, timeless myths have impacted and influenced countless writers, poets, artists, religious thinkers, movement leaders and politicians across the centuries. I marveled out loud at the wonders of creativity that persons can possess, and how when they allow their creativity to be unleashed almost anything is possible.

A talented visual artist himself, Eric was making the distinction between looking at a book of reproduced paintings and viewing the painting itself. "It breaks you down," he said. "You weep."

"You've got to get to a museum," he added, as the coffeehouse crooner sang Ray Charles' classic tune "Georgia."

I thought of how true that statement was for myself and everyone. There are numerous distractions to keep us from the supposedly impractical act of "getting to a museum"--and the greatest expressions of art often line the galleries of our hearts, but we seldom get to this inner museum because it is easier to go someplace else. Otis Redding's "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay" was now filling the coffeehouse with sound. Is something happening, something tangible, when we just sit still or wander through the museum?

Eric and I also had some invigorating brainstorming concerning the institutionalized church. We are both passionate about our faith, and very involved in our respective church communities. Our discussion touched upon the expectations, assumptions and limitations we can bring into a worship service, and how the structure itself of how we "do" church often creates and reinforces those dynamics.

For example, a church service is designed to begin and end at a designated time; an aspect without precedent in any collection of holy scriptures from any of the world's main religions. And yet, at least in the Christian church, we hope for the "Spirit to move" while essentially failing to create a hospitable space for such movement. We design worship around what is pragmatic--clearly a mirror of our culture--rather than allowing worship to design us as we remain open to what transcendent surprises might occur week by week. How many other worthy pursuits do we hamstring with our expectations or demands, hindering potential we do not even realize is just below the surface?

Eric and I touched upon many other subjects--such as the enduring influence of Bono and the rock group U2--that I'll leave on the cutting room floor of the film editing suite. But I want to leave you with an encouragement to make the most out of opportunities to have quality conversations with deep thinkers. You're never the same when the conversation is over, and you've done something likely more productive and pragmatic than a number of things the culture deems to be relevant. Eric and I look forward to another Saturday night at the coffeehouse before long.

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Sunday, July 08, 2007

Things That Matter

Yesterday I enjoyed some quality writing, studying at thinking time at our public library. Near the end of this gift, I had the spontaneous brainstorm of jotting down a list of the things that "give lasting pleasure," the true drivers of sustainable contentment and satisfaction.

I narrowed the list down to three key umbrella items:
1. Intimacy
2. Creativity
3. Learning

I did not begin with any particular end in mind. In an almost-free-association mode, I first jotted down all of the pursuits that ostensibly give satisfaction--at least for the moment. Eating a great meal. Physical pleasure. A new car or house. Getting married. Having children. Getting some cushion in your family budget. Going on an awesome vacation. Making others laugh. Gaining the admiration of another.

I also wrote down items such as vital relationships; powerful conversations; great stuff to read; being interesting to others; helping others in ways that make a difference. Of all the items on my list of what gives satisfaction, these last several were the ones I identified as providing that sense of lasting pleasure. And from here I synthesized them into those three categories of intimacy, creativity and learning.

If you think about intimacy, it is all about vital relationships. Knowing and being known--whether in relation to God, a spouse or significant other, a child, a sibling, a friend--or even a stranger. Some of my most meaningful conversations have been with so-called strangers, moments in time when you realize there truly are no strangers. We have many connections with others in our high-tech culture, but little real intimacy.

Creativity is indigenous to each of us, not just the skilled artists, writers, singers, Web designers, etc. It is about tapping into part of our wiring that enables us to feel most alive, offering contributions that are unique. Too much of our cultural habits rob us of the gift of our own creativity. We sacrifice it on the altar of adulthood, maybe even at the threshold of adolescence, for the sake of being "practical."

Finally, learning. Once we stop learning we start dying emotionally. When we take permission to learn deeply in the areas that most interest us, the daily drudgeries become far more tolerable. We as a society celebrate passivity far more than active learning, and I think this holds us back from meaningful living.

So when I pinpoint anything that gives me lasting pleasure, it tends to fall into one of these three categories. Looking at it from this perspective lessens the intensity or stress I devote to all of these other items of need than in the moment seem so essential.

I wonder how organizations could transform if they were composed of individuals--and they are--who personally were living an inspired life hinging on a few key essentials that have sustainable relevance.

What kind of a different impact would that enable each of us to have on our families, our communities, our companies, our non-profit organizations? So much activity is constantly abuzz everywhere; everybody is so allegedly "busy." But only a precious few may be spending the bulk of their energy on the things that truly matter.

What truly matters to you?

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Friday, July 06, 2007

Scheme Interrupted

This morning I spent several others immersed in house and yard-related tasks, and thought of the man vs. nature themes of two classic books.

I have just completed re-readings of Hemingway's great little text The Old Man and the Sea, and Steinbeck's equally gripping Of Mice and Men. The former concerns a fisherman wrestling with the fury of the wild, and the latter a migrant worker coming to terms with his close friend's wild brute strength (filtered through a childish mind). Both protagonists, in the end, see their simple dreams--and, in a sense, their fragile sense of purpose--demolished by a nature beyond their control. Santiago the fisherman loses all but the skeleton of his massive marlin to the instinctive, unreasonable hunger of the sharks, and George sees his chances of buying his own land grow dimmer with Lennie's act of manslaughter.

"The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft a-gley,” wrote Robert Burns in the poem that inspired Steinbeck's title. I felt such frustration this morning as I reflected on the two novels and completed the mundane tasks that were my priority. My best laid schemes were far different for this day; the nature of home ownership had sent them "a-gley." I was taking a day off from the office to do some writing, some marketing and some strategy work. My surroundings were to be a coffeeshop or a bookstore. It was a block of precious time I had cultivated in my mind for days, the gift of acquired solitude in the midst of java-ites.

Of course, Joseph Campbell reminds us that the ultimate nobility of the mythical hero is his or her return to serve society after the rush of the great adventure--even if it is only an adventure of the mind. So perhaps there is something creative, something sacred, in prioritizing the simplicity of a well-kept home--perhaps in the spirit of another Hemingway standard, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. After all, I have more luxuries than Santiago, George or Lennie ever tasted, and tonight in suburban shelter I will sleep. Perchance to dream and scheme anew the interplay of words and coffee.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Power of Questions

I continue to be more and more enthralled with the power of meaningful questions to elicit and enact positive change, through the dialogue and relationships they unleash. My recent study of the Appreciative Inquiry change model has only served to solidify my lifelong hunch that authentic conversations are the primary means for any sustainable transformation—whether the subject at hand is a person, a family, a community, a movement, a nation, or simply an ideology.

The AI model—more and more a key tool for those who practice in the field of organizational development—is built upon the premise of focusing upon what is working well; the confluence of talents and motivations. The questions that are posed give others permission to think and dream big, and then to execute the fertile ideas in the context of strategic partnerships.

The model was created by professors David L. Cooperrider and Diana Whitney, and has been utilized by organizations of all shapes and sizes in all industries. It dovetails very well with the emerging strengths revolution (see books such as Marcus Buckingham’s Go Put Your Strengths to Work) that is teaching people to focus on leveraging their talents rather than spinning their wheels trying to fix their weaknesses and become the proverbial “well-rounded” individual.

Like the strengths focus, positive-oriented questions also cut against the grain of society’s default instincts to major in what is wrong and celebrate failure. Opportunities for mediocrity abound in a culture of growing distractions, and the right question at the right time can cut through the clutter and lift the mind to new heights of critical thinking and excellent work.

I value a significant conversation, peppered with humor and vulnerability, over almost any other experience. To be present in the moment with another or a group of others is to risk and gain everything.

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