What I learned about Business from a Fish

I once worked for a government agency as an intern running errands, delivering mail and typing letters and reports.

I was given projects by many and faced each assignment with energy and a “can-do” attitude. This approach ended up getting me into trouble because I was told it intimated some of the introverted old-timers who didn’t appreciate my spunk.  My supervisor told me to “stop being so happy” and work more slowly.

Stunned, I told one of the women I had befriended about my situation and she promised to show me the ropes.  She kept an interesting fish she had named Gerald in a fish bowl on her desk. She asked me to be in charge of feeding Gerald and keeping his little tank clean.

After classes, I headed to work and straight to my coworkers office to check on Gerald. I dropped fish treats into the bowl and would sometimes stick my pinky finger in to see if I could trick him into thinking it was a treat.  He would eat the treats and then suck on my finger. It became our ritual.

After several weeks, Gerald began to recognize me and would swim quickly back and forth in his tank when I entered my coworker’s cubicle.  Once when my coworker was out of the office, I taught Gerald to play hide and go seek.

I crouched down on my hands and knees and sneaked into my co-worker’s office to reach Gerald’s tank before he noticed.  I popped up in front of his bowl and surprised him. When he saw me, his swim pace quickened. I gave him treats and then stuck my pinky finger in the tank as a kind of human-to-fish acknowledgment of his keen observations.

Leaving her cubicle, I would peak around the corner to see if he was still swimming fast. He wasn’t. Sometimes he’d catch me looking back and as a sort of fish-to-human acknowledgment, make a quick lap to let me know he got it.

I entertained myself for hours by keeping company with the fish and cracked myself up at the absurdity of working slowly to cater to others insecurities.

Several weeks later, one particular commander who had been uncomfortable with my earlier energy asked me to assist with a “special” project perfect for somebody with spunk.

He had been saving newspapers that mentioned certain military projects and he wanted me to copy articles onto standard sized paper.  He was adamant each article contained the headline, reporter’s name, and name and date of the newspaper. He wanted each story to fit on one page so it was easier for him to read.

I attacked this project as if it were critical to national security. I stood at the copy machine for hours and manipulated the newspapers to fit the panel.  I experimented with the “shrink-to-reduce-size” options and fiddled with the paper input and hoped-like-heck the orientation would come out correct. It took me weeks and hundreds of dead trees to get everything perfect, but I became the master of media manipulation, all in name of becoming student-aid extraordinaire.  I had a vision of turning this commander into one of my biggest fans.

When I completed the project, I gave it to the Commander’s secretary with a handwritten note thanking him for the opportunity to make his life easier. I went back to my regular assignments and back to taking great care of Gerald.

The Commander never acknowledged the project and didn’t become my biggest fan, but he later gave me another “great” opportunity that surprisingly shifted the course of my career.  Gerald, on the other hand, let me know daily that my actions made a difference in his world.

I left that job with an important reminder to acknowledge and appreciate people who approach their jobs with spunk. Through my experience with that agency, I learned that people’s issues with spunk have nothing to do with spunk, or with me.  Their issues are about them. I learned that the words “thank you” are the two most powerful words in business and I learned that every contribution, regardless of how large or small, is a gift to the organization.

Later I learned that appreciation and acceptance are Powerful Perspectives – those qualities that begin with awareness and move upward toward love.

 

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The Kitchen Table Club

Contrary to what Disney or the storybook fairytales would have you believe, I’ve come to realize that most human relationships are not destined for forever.  I am not a pessimist and I don’t like to think of anyone as a lost cause, but sometimes taking a stand and walking away from a relationship that no longer empowers you is as difficult as choosing the familiar, yet uninspiring routine.

I was reminded of this kind of courage as I sat around a kitchen table drinking wine with women who were finding their way through life’s challenges; some of which they had chosen; some of which had chosen them.

Their stories were unique, but the principles of learning to trust another were commonplace. One of the women shared stories of betrayal and mixed messages of hope for reconciliation.  Another struggled with the exhilaration and exhaustion of entering the dating world; and the third wrestled with the guilt of her decision and the impact it had on her family.

My heart ached from missing important time with my son. He was with his father when I called to say goodnight. I learned another woman was reading him a goodnight story.  The thought she had the honor and privilege of holding my son and tucking him into bed nearly ripped my heart in two. I had prepared myself for this woman’s existence in my ex’s life, but hadn’t considered her role in my son’s; a reality I would be forced to reconcile from that moment forward.

Over the course of many months, this group gathered at various kitchen tables when the weight of the burden was too heavy to carry alone.  The kitchen table became the place where we shared our sorrows and encouraged each other to continue moving forward.  I don’t mean to make it sound like a man bashing pity party, because believe me when I say it was not. We challenged each other when the wallowing became more evident than the strength and we cried together when the loneliness and responsibilities overwhelmed. We discussed what it meant to maintain our power and debated when it became clear we were selling ourselves short.

At the time, those friendships were the most important people in my life. But like the marriages that ended to bring us together in that place, the relationships that formed around the kitchen table were never meant to be forever. Our informal meetings were intended to reveal the mystery of who we were becoming while we safely shed the skin of who we had been.

One by one, we found our new normal and the kitchen table club was no longer. My mind wanders back to those days and the lessons I learned and think that when we allow something to end as effortlessly as it began, we give it wings and set it free. Life and relationships are continually changing, and as long as we trust ourselves to recognize an ending as simply a new beginning, we live in a state of power instead of fear. We relinquish control and expectation and therefore dwell in the moment of now. We begin to see things as they are, instead of how we want them to be and we learn that we have access to everything we need. These gifts may be wrapped in unusual packages, but the ways of Divine are not ours to know.

The gifts of acceptance and awareness are Powerful Perspectives I learned from the kitchen table club, with gratitude and love.

Ten Throws

When I was eight years old, my parents signed me up for city league softball.  We practiced twice a week and played Tuesday night games.  My dad was the assistant coach and it turned out I had inherited his athletic genes.  I had a strong right arm, great hand-eye coordination and quickly took to the bat.

The faster the pitch, the further the ball would sail. My base running, however, was painfully slow.   Many of my “home run” hits turned into singles or doubles because of my lack-of-speed.  My mother tried to focus on the strength of my bat, but I would overhear her talking to other parents about my slow motion run.

My teammates compared me to a cartoon character attempting to run through Acme glue. During one game, I was on second base when cleanup Lori hit a home run and literally walked the bases to touch home plate inches behind me. Deep down, I was embarrassed by my slow speed and compensated with my defensive performance on the field.

I was competitive and hated to lose. I wanted to be where the action was. In this league, it was infield. I played third because I was one of the few who could make the throw to first. I eventually moved to short to cover more ground. I did this by diving, not by running.

When I was ten, my dad moved me to a more competitive league. We would scrimmage local teams during the week, and traveled to tournaments in St. Louis, Chicago, Memphis and Des Moines to play teams from all over the country.

My dad was one of the coaches and generally headed up practices. We always arrived early to set out gear, run bases and get my arm warmed up.  When my teammates arrived, he drilled us on the fundamentals and pushed us to run until we nearly puked.  He was like an Army sergeant and goofing around was banned from the field. This was serious business and he would scream and hit line drives at our heads to keep us on our toes.

For fear I wouldn’t have enough energy to excel, my dad wouldn’t allow me to swim or bike the days I had a game.  Softball became my life.  My summers were no longer about having fun and hanging out with my friends. I missed slumber parties and swimming parties because I was busy traveling with my team. I didn’t take gymnastics during the summer because my time was spent at the ball diamonds.

At tournaments, my father would argue with the umpires on pitches and yell at us from his third base post to “look alive.”  If we were on-deck and didn’t have a practice bat in-hand before the batter in front got to the plate, we would run bases after the game as punishment.

I could see parent’s reactions and after a while, could sense my teammates aggravation with my father’s intensity. I wasn’t invited to ride with other kids to tournaments and we didn’t go out for pizza with the team. No longer was the game about the team camaraderie or the spirit of the sport, it was about winning and advancing to the regional and national tournaments.

Each year, my dad took me to get a new glove and spent weeks breaking it in.  My dad would massage oil into it to soften it up and he made me sleep with it wrapped up tight under my mattress to get it to fit like a glove. My dad’s intensity increased with every season and I was becoming bitter by the imbalance in my life. I resented the stupid, strict schedule and was ashamed of my dad’s temper. I began to lose focus and care less and less about playing. I wasn’t giving my best and it showed up on offense.

We were facing faster pitchers and I was striking out more than I was hitting. I was playing outfield and hating every minute of every game.

Sensing this, my father did what every good father would do – drill me with more softball practice.  One evening in the ally behind our house, my dad made me play catch. The drill was to throw ten consecutive throws into his glove, without making him move an inch to catch it.  If I got nine perfect throws and number ten was too high or low, we began again at one.  My shoulder was on fire from exhaustion and my head and heart were on fire from spite.  I could taste the bile coming up from my stomach and my veins popped with hatred. The more he made me throw, the more pissed off I became.  When the streetlights turned on, I realized the only way out was to get ten in a row, without error.

In my mind, I pictured each ball aimed perfectly for his head, fantasizing he would miss and be knocked unconscious. Even with my arm throbbing, the speed of my throws increased as I attempted to sting his hand.  Unfortunately, that never happened and I eventually threw ten perfect throws. Instead of feeling a sense of satisfaction, I felt defeated and powerless.  In bed that evening, I prayed for lightening to strike our house and kill my dad.

The next summer, I refused to play softball.  I wouldn’t play catch with my dad and spent my time swimming and biking with friends.  In the evening, though, I was forced to go to the ball diamonds and watch my younger sister’s team play.  As much as I enjoyed my freedom, I realized I missed the sport.

I went back to the city league and played for my friend’s father’s team. I shined on the field and at the end of the season, won MVP, but still wasn’t invited to the team pizza party. I later found out it was because the coach didn’t want more sideline advice from my father. Regardless of my potential and desire to play, I chose never to play competitive softball again.

Years later painful memories emerged as I watched my son play baseball for a maniacal parent who volunteered to coach.  I watched with anger as he stripped the fun from the game by drilling the boys with practice and discipline. I verbalized my discontent and nearly pulled Cameron from the team. Instead, I made it an opportunity to demonstrate to my son what it means to commit to a team and respect authority, even when it wasn’t pleasant.  As the season progressed, I had several conversations with the coach about his technique and strategy and learned what fired him up. As it turned out, he sincerely thought he was doing the right thing, regardless of the obvious misdirection.  My son had a terrific season and eventually earned the team’s sportsmanship award for his kind-hearted ways, but that’s another story.

I realized my reaction to the coach’s intensity was triggered by the unexpressed anger and frustration of my youth. I began to examine the experiences of my youth from a detached emotional state and with some help, re-shaped my stories and moved from discontent to acceptance for the coach’s involvement in my life, albeit unbalanced.

Most importantly, I forgave my father and found I appreciated his intensity and perfectionism; attributes he has clearly passed to his children. I realized I am no different than my dad, and for this I am learning to be grateful.  The same intensity that drove him to coach, was the same intensity that drove me to quit.

We’ve both mellowed some and approach life with sensitivity, but I’ve come to appreciate our passionate ways. We are never halfway about anything and that has served us well.  Some will never understand or relate to it, but others connect to the stories in a deep and meaningful way.  Love or hate it, we are driven to push beyond where we’ve been, whatever that looks like for us. My dad did the best he knew; and I’ve done the best I know, and through those experiences, my life has taken shape. By accepting, forgiving and loving him, I accept, forgive and love me.

Forgiveness, Acceptance and Love are Powerful Perspectives — qualities that begin with awareness and move toward love.

Everybody Who Didn’t Run

The year my friend Faye turned 50, she wanted to run a 10K. She asked if we could run the race together and I was happy to oblige. Her goal was to run the distance without walking and finish in a respectable time.  She made this announcement in February and chose a race a couple months away to give her adequate time to train and slowly build up to the 6.2-mile distance. The race was Get-In-Gear, a 10K in Minneapolis, Minnesota, chosen as a mid-way point between us and for it’s proximity to her 50th birthday.

Faye followed a running program and often pulled herself out of bed early to run because it was the only time of day she could fit it in.  She became more aware of her diet and fueled her body with the nutrition it needed to recover and get stronger.  We kept each other informed of our training challenges and victories.

On the eve of race day, we picked up our race packets and made a plan to meet early the next morning. At the starting line, we lined up in the middle of the pack and made a pact to finish together.

The gun fired and off we went, starting strong and steady.  We chatted through the first mile, preparing ourselves for the hill toward mile two. We meandered through beautiful, tree-lined neighborhoods making miles three and four pass quickly.

Near mile five, Faye became quiet and slightly picked up the pace. I could tell she was anxious to finish. As we rounded the corner at mile six, we heard cheers and announcements and saw the finish line chutes.  The final two blocks were emotional as I watched my friend dig dip, determined to reach her goal.  As we high-fived at the finish line, tears of pride rolled down my cheeks.  The finish time didn’t matter – only that she had accomplished her goal.

A few months later, Faye and I ran another 10K, a small-scale race in my hometown of River Falls, Wisconsin.  We again made a pact to finish together. The Mid-July day was hot and humid and the sun beat down on the notorious, shade-free course. We paced ourselves as we chatted, knowing the heat would take its toll. Among the 400 runners were my neighbors, friends and colleagues. As each of them passed us, they politely wished us a good race. We nodded and reciprocated the sentiments, but inside I was hoping we would see them later – as we caught and passed them. One-by-one the runners moved around us, leaving only the EMT biker behind us.

With the distance widening between the running pack and us, the biking medic hesitantly pulled to the side and told us he needed to check the status of the other runners.  He biked ahead, leaving us to fend for ourselves.

Being competitive, my internal alarm began to sound. My pride was screaming to ditch Faye and run my own race.  Attempting to hide my humiliation, I made small talk about the course.  I truly wanted to be ok finishing last, but the competitive beast in me rose up and made it difficult to reconcile that the guy being paid to finish last would beat us across the finish line. I tried to speed up the pace, but Faye pulled back and said she needed to take it slow.  Sensing my slight irritation, she told me I could go on ahead.

Picturing the cartoons with the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other, I debated with myself over my options. The devil side urged me to push ahead and save my pride. The angel side reminded me that my ego was inflated and unaware.  Either way, I decided I would lose something – my pride or the trust of my friend. I determined her friendship was more important.

As we ran in silence, Faye’s speed increased.  I don’t know if it was her compassion for my pride, or her strong competitive spirit that prompted her to push, but between breaths, she said, “ya know, Samantha, we are beating every single person who didn’t get out of bed this morning to run.”

That comment jolted me and made me laugh. I realized I had been operating from a place of ego. My attitude was coming from the fear of being judged.  I was also swelling with an entitlement mentality – as in, “just because I could run faster, didn’t mean I was.“  We often do this to ourselves – we get filled with anger, agitation, or anxiety because what we expect to happen doesn’t match what is occurring.  When we begin to accept the moment from a place of awareness, we can appreciate what is, instead of what our ego tells us it should be. Inside of that awareness is a sense of calm and sometimes comedy.

In the case of the River Falls Days run, I had a choice – I could be disappointed, or focus on the fun friendship and emerging story of change.  I chose the laughter over the pride and was grateful for the beautiful morning. We didn’t finish last, but in the end realized Faye had completed the 6.2-mile distance 20 minutes faster than her first 10K race – an accomplishment to be respected and admired.  We celebrated our victory and still laugh about beating everybody who didn’t run.

An experience I would have considered ordinary became extraordinary through the power of perspective.

To learn more about the Powerful Perspectives System of Change, attend one of the following programs hosted by The River Falls School District Community Education:

~Super Saturday, February 26, 2011, 9 – noon at the River Falls High School (sessions begin at 9 am, 10 am, or 11 am).

~Become the Most Powerful You, Thursdays Feb 24 and March 3 from 5 pm – 6:30 pm.

To register, click on “RFSD Community Education” under “WORKSHOPS” on the sidebar of this story.

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Coal Becomes Diamonds; Sand Becomes Pearls

I believe in the strength of the human spirit.  Perhaps it is required to survive, but have found we are strong enough to endure the worst of humanity.  It is not a challenge to find media reporting senseless acts of violence and cruelty to fellow humans.  We have become de-sensitized by the madness of our chaos and the gluttony of our culture.

As much as I enjoy the liberties and luxuries this great country provides, I am ashamed to be American when, following a day filled with family and thanks, we battle and trample one another to get a great bargain.  I say with certain sincerity there is nothing commercial I need so much it is worth fighting another.

And fight we do. We fight for justice only to learn loopholes in the law allow for white collar criminals to walk free. We fight against beliefs that do not mirror our own, and we fight to save our jobs in an economy that is making the rich richer. We fight because we do not understand.

Many of our leaders and elected officials focus on fast fixes, rather than taking an honest and critical look at the source of our issues and inventing creative solutions. There doesn’t seem to be personal or corporate accountability, let alone awareness of the harm being inflicted on our planet’s precious resources. We squander and scheme for the sake of a profit.

I wonder when we became so passionate about televisions and video games and so lackadaisical about solving world hunger and ending disease and strife.  Where is that balance?

Sometimes I become so overwhelmed that I seek sanctuary in the comfort of quiet, wherever I might find it.

In that silence, I seek the light that makes the shadow dark.

As I sit, I am reminded that for every violent crime and act of cruelty, there is an alternate opportunity for learning to forgive.  I see that gluttony is a result of abundance and I give thanks for the prosperity of our planet.

While I may never understand the energy of black Friday, I choose to believe a child’s wish will be granted when they wake to the magic of gifts under the tree on Christmas morning because of a 4 a.m. bargain.

Where our criminal justice system is concerned, I believe the two hardest things to contemplate are faith and fear, and they are one in the same.

Balance is the natural consequence of time and nature, and if we wait long enough, anything can realize its potential. Coal becomes diamonds; sand becomes pearls; and apes become man. But it may not be given to us in one lifetime to see those consummations. So our faith becomes a reminder of our fears.

But injustice is a special kind of fear. It is a reminder that no matter how devoutly wished for or believed in, some consummations may never come. Some injustices may not be balanced in this lifetime, and some apes will never be men; not in all the world’s time.

That realization doesn’t make the growing gap between the rich and poor any easier to swallow, nor does it justify meanness and ruthlessness, but it strengthens my faith to believe that perhaps some things simply need more time.

In my solitude, I commune with my soul and remember I am not in charge of the universal plan; nor am I going to change the world.  At least not alone.  I choose to change my perspectives and see the darkness that surrounds for the beauty that it brings. That view takes courage, but it shifts the ordinary to the extraordinary and all is well in my world again.

The human spirit triumphant.

Decide What to Be and Go Be It

I recently met up with a dear friend in a quaint gathering spot near the St. Croix River.  He’s a Minneapolis-based musician who has experienced great success in his 20-plus year entertainment career.  Regionally he’s recognized most everywhere he wanders, so it was nice we could chat without interruption.

He spoke of  intuition, his next greatest thing, and shared what was heavy on his heart.   He’s a gentle spirit and a kind soul whose mission in life is to serve.  His music is his gift and he has shared it with millions, with ambition to touch millions more.

What fascinates me most is not his extraordinary talent nor his claim to fame; rather his motives for doing what he does.  He feels deeply the plight of others and embraces their pain in his creative expression.  He sings from his soul and makes other spirits soar.  His music brings hope and they forget their grief for a moment.

I asked him once when he knew he was a singer and he shared his story as a painter.  He approached paint with the same passion as song, but it never colored the canvas in the same way.  He painted houses by day, sang blues by night, struggling to provide for his family.  He watched other painters make tedious work easy and realized deep down he lacked the necessary skills for professional painting.  Later he was fired by his foreman.

Afraid and alone, he sat in his car and pondered the direction of his life.  In the darkness of that moment, his epiphany came. He knew he would never paint like professionals, but he realized they could never sing like James Brown. It was then he decided to be what he has become.

From a distant view, some see his success and say he was lucky and blessed.  I’ve been privileged and honored to know the inside truth.  Luck is where preparation meets with opportunity and blessed is a belief in magic and miracles.  He has had a hand in both.  He is always prepared and his faith is his guiding star.

I look to him for inspiration each time I fall short of my life goals and the words put to melody remind me to:

decide what to be and go be it.

Orangutan Leadership

In the wild, and particularly in captivity, orangutans pursue the coveted power position of “alpha” by asserting their dominance and demonstrating their power by doing three things.

First, they fist their hands and pound their chests for extended periods of time.  It’s been said this causes them great harm, but their desire to be alpha overrides their sensory for pain. Next they screech and grunt until the oxygen to their brain is restricted and they become delusional.  Finally, they excrete enormous amounts of poop and toss it at the other apes.

This is how the alpha male is decided – irrational injury to self; delusion grunting; and loads of dung throwing…

In the world of apes, the alpha is the position of power and strength, but is not to be mistaken as leader.  He is not designed to lead. The alpha’s job is to protect territory and fight or frighten off invaders.

With the alpha in place, the apes co-exist in a state of harmony; and that balance is found in the natural order of things.  The apes seem to live in the law of abundance because the troop works together to find and harvest food.  They instinctively know where to find it and never take more than they need. Nor do they hoard more territory than their troop can harvest.

They live like families. They pick off each other’s irritants (bugs); play and laugh; tackle each other; and communicate dislike of certain behaviors.  They treat “extended family” with a sense of courtesy, too.  The apes in the troop create pathways to the food source knowing these pathways will be used by other apes dwelling in the territory of another alpha.

Orangutans are the first non-human species documented to use ‘calculated reciprocity’ which involves weighing the costs and benefits of gift exchanges and keeping track of these over time.

It’s not a stretch to recognize their similarities to man. In fact, the word “orangutan” comes from the Malay words “orang” (man) and “(h)utan” (forest); hence, “man of the forest”.

Perhaps important lessons of life (and business) can be learned from our counterparts in the jungle:

  • harvest only what your troop needs
  • don’t claim territories that aren’t yours
  • treat others with courtesy and help them remove their bugs
  • create shared pathways
  • don’t confuse delusional, dung-slinging alpha behavior as leadership; power is not leadership
  • learn to live in harmony with other apes

Yankee Spirit

Like the game itself where there is a winner and a loser, there is no gray area when it comes to how people feel about the New York Yankees.  You either love them, or you hate them.  Typically, there is no in between. As a NYY fan, I find the passion perplexing.

To love the 27 time world champions makes sense. They are the pinnacle of baseball magic, the team to beat and the team most aspire to be.   They are extraordinary athletes who capitalize on every opponent mistake and relentlessly pursue every play and run.   They are professionals who are expected to win; and win they do. For this, they are loathed.

I’ve heard every reason why people hate the Yankees, most of which are regurgitated from some media source or fabricated by losing opponents attempting to justify their continual defeat.

Even fair weather baseball fans will spout nonsense about the NYY payroll and how they buy their championships.  This is absurd and unoriginal.   Winners are made, not bought.  If we looked, we’d find athletes (including Yankee 3rd baseman Alex Rodriquez) who are paid fortunes, but don’t behave or often perform like winners.

As I see it, the Yankees raise the bar for the entire league.  Every stadium they visit charges a premium fee, and most games against them sell out. The so-called Yankee greed is inaccurate, too.  Tickets to watch the Twins in the 2009 inaugural season at Yankee stadium were less expensive than the same game at Target Field in 2010.   Beer at Yankee stadium costs less than the same draft at Target Field (not that I was necessarily enjoying an adult beverage).

Make no mistake, I love watching the Twins, too.  They play and behave like professionals.  They are classy sportsmen who have a ton of talent.  Beating the Yankees would make a fantastic story, but will only be compelling IF THEY WIN.

There will always be those who hate the Yanks.  Despise them for original reasons, not because they win.  Winning is why they play. This is the attitude of the Yankee organization and what makes them great.